I. All That's Best of Dark and Bright

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Ten years before Set Me Free starts....



When we get to the beach, the girls scuff off their shoes and wade into the dark rippling ocean, clutching the hems of their clothes and giggling. Suzanna is in front, as always, as radiant as a star that fell to earth—all long fair limbs and floating iridescent hair against the deep black night. The rest of the girls are stardust. They laugh when she does, talk when she is quiet.

Andy and Rusty and I hang back, idly building a fire, watching them. I'm never nervous when I'm on the football field, playing a concert, or called on in class—I'm never afraid. I refuse to be afraid tonight.

Some of the girls—Kaye and Alice, I think—dip into the water, their bobbing heads just visible in the darkness. Andy is distracted, looking out for them. Rusty stubs a cigarette out in the sand.

"You still got it bad for her, huh?" he says softly.

"It's only ever been her." The very first time I saw her, I asked her out. It was the first thing I ever said to her. She had touched my shoulder and laughed and her light eyes had glittered and I had fallen even more in love with her than I already was.

That was two years ago. I've changed since then. Become a man.

"Owen," Rusty says, "she's not what you want her to be, buddy."

I don't look away from her laughing with Violet. I know her; in my soul and my heart, I know her.

I get up, brushing sand off my shorts, and walk across the sand before I can second-guess myself.

"Suzanna," I say, as the waves lap my sneakers.

She glances at me. Her pouting mouth curls into a smile. "Owen. Coming in for a swim?"

"No."

She and Violet exchange a look—a smirk.

That urge to possess her burns hot and raw inside of me. "I need to talk to you."

She broke things off with Jonas Whittaker a couple weeks ago, after that party last month, and I know it was at least a little bit because of me—because she and Kaye and Andy and I had drank too much and snuck onto the elementary school playground at three a.m. and spent hours cracking up as we tried to fit down the slides. I couldn't stop looking at her, then, either—but that night, for the first time ever, she was looking back. This is it: my last chance, before she leaves for Pratt School of Art in New York City and I leave for college in California and we never see each other again.

I fold my arms across my chest. "It needs to be now."

Her smile widens—not in a smirk this time, but with pleasure. "All right." She gestures to Violet like a queen. "Give us a minute, Vi."

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