BITTER EXES (The Social Experiment 2)
**this is a standalone romance novel**
Violet's POV (on her way to the first social experiment “date” with her ex!)
Wednesday, I can’t even focus on my classes. In fact, I leave the last class of the day early, just walk out in the middle of it and head straight to my dorm. Em and Sophie do their best to try to shove food down my throat, but I’m not having it. The last thing I want to happen is for my digestive system to regurgitate its offerings in front of the faculty, the student body, and the potential millions of viewers who will be eagerly watching on the edge of their seats. The first broadcast will be live. LIVE! A horrible situation in and of itself.
Six o’clock comes fast like a member of the chess club visiting a hooker for the very first time. Dexter instructed those participating in tonight’s massacre to be at Finley Hall no later than six. Girls were told to assemble at the east, so that’s where I meander. Ember wishes me luck as I stare at the peachy glow coming from Finley that will inevitably lead to my doom. I give Em a brief hug and watch sullen as she sashays her cute self to the front with the rest of tonight’s audience.
“Don’t worry”—Sophie maneuvers me toward the entry—“they’ll have to demand I leave.”
We follow the sign that reads Welcome Group B! and find a room swarming with bodies.
“Seth!” Sophie jumps and waves at an older looking bald guy with a warm smile, dressed in a black sweatshirt that reads STAFF in bright orange letters. Come to think of it, half the people here have donned the self-ascribing accoutrement.
“Sophie Meyer.” He pulls her into a brief hug. “Glad to see you here tonight. You’re not a part of group B, are you?” he chides playfully. Great. Sophie and Seth are busy cooing away while my armpits are busy staining my tight little black dress with copious amounts of sweat. Crap. How in the hell did I get myself into this mess again? Oh, that’s right. My lust for scarves at the bookstore led me to a fifty percent off coupon if I signed on the dotted line. Note to self: find out what apartment Lane is holed up in and flush said scarf down his toilet. I wouldn’t dare injure the delicate sewer system of Canterbury Hall. You flush a tampon, and you’d better say a prayer.
“Isn’t that great news?” Sophie bleats while shaking me silly.
“What?” I come to, only to realize I’m still actually embedded firmly in my worst nightmare. I would trade this nails on a chalkboard experience for any other nightmare of mine, say the one where I’m walking around campus sans any pants? Or the one in which I can’t find any of my classes and thus don’t graduate on time? Hell, if my heart rate skyrockets any more than it already has, I won’t have to worry about graduating at all. I’ll be attending Casket University from here until eternity.
Sophie giggles like a schoolgirl as she looks to Seth, who has the power to squash this nonsense like a cockroach, and God, I wish he would. “She’s been zoning out all day. You could say she’s just a tad bit nervous.”
“You could say I’m just a tad bit homicidal.” And that’s only because I promised I’d stop with all the morbid thoughts of self-harm. And I’m improving leaps and bounds. Case in point, I did not fashion my scarf into a noose—I utilized it as a weapon of toilet-based destruction.
Seth nods knowingly as if he just read my every thought. “I’ve double-checked, and you’ve signed all the appropriate paperwork. Congratulations, Violet. I’ll be your sensory guide for the next six weeks.” His perma-smile melts right off his face. “I’ll be honest with you. Once I heard group B’s focus was bitter exes, I had my misgivings.”
“Oh cool!” Sophie trills as if Seth just pulled a bunny from his ear. “Each group gets a focus. What was mine?”
A dull laugh dies in my chest as I take a stab at it. “Fantasy football?” It’s true—almost the entire team was featured. “And why aren’t I getting my own quarterback to make out with in the dark?” At this point, I’d take a male yell leader.
Seth’s shoulders sag as he looks to me, despondent. “You get a basketball star. You do realize your ex is the team captain.”
“And the very reason I haven’t been to a basketball game yet.” True as God. I haven’t even gone near the Cougar Dome.
“Good to note.” He jots something down on his phone, and I can’t help but roll my eyes. I know for a fact they pick our brains to dictate where our dates and outings should be directed. If it weren’t for Sophie telling them she had a fear of heights—although she strongly denies it—I’m betting she would never have had to rappel off the side of Windy Peak. “You might want to jot down that my biggest fear is being locked in a shopping mall and having to scrounge all of the luxury items I can within a twenty-four period, and for the record, I’m deathly afraid of Chinese food, too.” There. I’ve already outsmarted the system.
He looks to Sophie. “She’s funny.” That warm smile bounces back on his lips. “All right, Violet, we’ve got you and Lane lined up first. We’ve got two hours to kill and eight couples to kill it with, so about fifteen minutes each. We’ve got two spare in the wings in the event a few of you run short. There is a moderator. He will be offstage. You won’t see him, but you will hear his voice. He’s only there to move things along. I can’t stress enough that I need you to participate. Whatever he asks you, we want the long answer. Look directly to Lane and respond to him as if he asked the question. The less you say, the more aloof you’ll come across, and you don’t want anyone to think you’re aloof, do you?”
“Aloof.” Sophie slyly looks it up on her phone, and I’m glad because for one my brain feels rather aloof at the moment.
She wrinkles her nose my way. “Oh, hon, they’re going to think you’re a bitch.”
“Shit. I am aloof,” I’m quick to inform Seth. “I’m practically her best friend at this point, and her sarcasm and nervous energy have been absorbed into my cellular structure by way of osmosis. You can’t expect to put me on a stage with my ex and have me act rational, let alone cute and bubbly. In the event you haven’t noticed, I don’t really give a rip about Facebook likes. I’m not even on Facebook!” Only a partial lie. I have an account, and yet I make it a practice not to visit it.
Seth tips his face up a notch. “You’re on in twenty minutes. We need you in hair and makeup and miked up. Don’t worry”—he offers an irritatingly friendly grin—“something tells me you’re going to be the star of the night. Studies show that people in general are likely to sympathize with women when it comes to a heterosexual breakup. You and your ovaries have got this in the bag.” He gives a sly wink and takes off.
“Did he just say that?” I marvel with my jaw rooted to the floor.
“I believe he did.”
Sophie helps me navigate my way to hair and makeup just before a couple of beefy dudes from stage crew get ahold of me and shove a wire down my cleavage. Hey? Maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea after all. I get to tell off Lane, and I get felt up by a couple of cute frat boys working as crew? I haven’t had this much action in months.
And before I know it, Sophie is replaced with Seth, and he’s marching me through the dark bowels behind Finley Hall until we come upon a pinhole of light. He marches me straight to the edge of the stage, and I glance down at my peep toe heels as my heart thunders inside me like a rushing stampede. My God, what have I done? Who the hell has taken over my body? The real me would never have let things get this far. The real me would have left Colorado by now.
The emcee strums along with his monologue, and I can’t keep up with the words. The world in general seems to be spinning a bit too fast.
“And you’re on. Take a seat at the table.” Seth gives me a shove onto the stage, and the wash of a powerfully bright light pours over me with its warmth igniting my body to bathe itself in sweat. I glance to the crowd, and a sea of darkness takes over, causing me to squint.
“Let’s give Violet Hathaway a warm welcome as she takes a seat,” the invisible emcee bleats it out, deep and knowing, as if it were the very voice of God. “Thank you for joining us this evening, Violet.” The room erupts into polite applause as I force my feet to wobble their way to the tiny table sitting at the front of the stage. There are seats situated on either side of it. Lane and I will face one another and not the crowd. I don’t know which I would prefer at this point—staring at the white haze of blurred faces or the crisp, sharp, unfairly handsome face of my ex. I take a seat on the cold metal chair and give a nervous glance to the audience, wincing as I struggle to see past the blinding lights pointed in my direction. That old seventies song, “I Got You Babe,” cues up over the speakers, and my mouth falls open as I’m caught momentarily off guard.
That’s right. They asked if we had a song.
My stomach churns with anger. I feel so dirty and used I could flip a table—this one would be nice. The song was a joke, sort of. We said we couldn’t be official without a song and, sure enough, this came on over the radio. It was sarcastic, but it was our song and I’ve cried a million tears while listening to it ever since. I sniff back unexpected tears and gird myself for the oncoming onslaught of emotions. I will thoroughly punish myself for this misadventure by running up every credit card my father gave me once we’re through. A little retail therapy is the only thing I can think of to ward off the real kind that I’ll need sooner than later administered by a team of psychiatric professionals.
“And let’s welcome Lane Cooper to the stage as well.” An equally dull round of applause goes off. Only this time it’s punctuated by the woo-hoo of an enthused group of girls. I can’t blame them. He is a looker.
Lane shocks me with his presence. He’s donned a suit, along with that somber, brooding look on his face he’s famous for as he strides this way. He takes a seat across from me, and his knee bumps against mine a moment, sending a powerful electrical jolt straight to my heart. His dark hair is neatly slicked back, those pale eyes are set on mine, while his mouth is set in a scowl. Lane looks positively, vexingly gorgeous, and that silly part of me that still reacts viscerally at the sight of him melts like candle wax. It’s only then I notice the box of tissues sitting on the edge of the table, insinuating there will be tears, or bloodshed—both if I have my way.
“Hello, Vi.” His warm voice transcends our spatial boundary and floats through this enormous hall like a ghost from yesteryear, and my heart tries its best to riot from my chest. I can’t help it. Lane has always made my heart go pitter-patter.
“Hello, Lane.” I come off as anything but warm as our eyes lock onto one another, unmovable as a boulder.
Seth was right. I’m going to make sure everyone in this audience knows just what a bitch I can really be.
Lane and I are about to dig up the grave of our past and shake out our skeletons for everyone to see.
Let the good times rattle and roll.
“Cooper!” a deep voice shouts from somewhere in the nebulous audience, shrouded in a fog of darkness, probably one of my teammates, but I can’t seem to tear my eyes from the goddess before me. Violet Hathaway has had this mesmerizing effect on me ever since I laid eyes on her years ago. She’s the only girl who’s been able to snag my attention and genuinely hold onto it for longer than five seconds. Vi could hold it for five millennia easy. But one thing that wasn’t easy was us—thus our current locale, seated across from one another, ready to spar, ready to lance open that wound for the sake of what exactly—well, I still haven’t figured that part out. Yes, the coach encouraged the guys and me to sign on for this exposé on the heart. But when I did so, I did it in the spirit of maybe just this once exploring the idea of getting over Vi. But I think that both the universe and I know that’s impossible, and that’s exactly why I’m here, seated across from the most beautiful girl in the world.
Her deep red hair glows like an amber flame as the white-hot spotlight bears down over us both. Her Irish green eyes spear right into my soul, bearing their hatred for me as if it were still fresh, and it might be. Her skin looks ghostly pale, and it does on most days from what I remember. But tonight, she glows altogether like an ethereal being, and it makes this experience all that much more of a mindfuck.
A set of cameras is set up at the front of the stage with two cameramen covering us from either end of the stage. I’m sure they’ll be using their telescopic lens on us every chance they get. I’m sure Dexter Houston, the ringleader of this carnal circus, has warned them not to miss a single shot.
“Lane, Violet, thank you for joining us this evening,” a disembodied voice booms from somewhere behind the curtain like Oz, the infamous fake wizard. Everything about this so-called social experiment feels contrived—everything but the emotions already bubbling up inside of me. I knew this would be difficult. I knew it would bring the past right into my face like a fireball, but as soon as I heard Vi was in, I knew I couldn’t back down. A box of tissues sits at the end of the table like an omen, but I won’t use them. I would rather ignore every falling tear than sop my face up with one of those like some pussy. Hell, I’ll cry it out later. I was planning to anyway.
“I’d like to remind you of the rules,” he rolls the R in rules. “Be sure to answer all questions while looking directly at one another. No foul language, no name calling, and please resist the urge to throttle one another should the need arise.”
The audience breaks out with short-lived laughter, a few whoops and hollers in the mix because I am positive they are hoping the need will arise. Face it. Every soul crammed into this place is looking forward to a bloodbath. But that’s not what I came for. Vi and I have already done that part.
“Each question will be answered by Violet first, then Lane without prompting,” he continues. Her eyes widen slightly, still bound to my own. “First question, what was your impression of one another when you first met? And how did you meet?”
Violet’s mouth opens and closes as she struggles for a moment. Violet and I have known one another for the better part of our lives. We’ve had a handful of introductions over the years, and I’m curious which one she’ll choose.
She clears her throat. “I don’t know.” She blinks my way. “How did we meet? Was it when we were in elementary school and you yanked my braid so hard I thought you snapped my spine? Or the summer I was going into ninth grade and you saw that I was melting at the beach and bought me a Popsicle?”
A tiny laugh pumps from me as the tension in me loosens. “You told me to shove it.” The audience breaks into a chuckle. Vi is speaking to me, looking at me, and neither of us is red-faced and yelling. All good signs.
Her mouth rounds out. “Only because you told me to suck it.” She tilts her head as if to silently tell me off, and I secretly love it. “But perhaps our most memorable meeting was that night at Anne Christianson’s birthday party.” Her voice grows small, and she nods my way as if passing the baton. Her lips twitch as if she’s about to lose it, but those lime green eyes are still pinned to mine, our stare unbreakable.
“Yes. That’s the one.” I tick my head, trying to escape the feeling of strangulation that this suit is invoking. In all honesty, I wanted to wear a flannel and jeans, but in the end, I wanted to look anything but myself. I wanted to look cold and impersonal, as if this were nothing more than a business transaction, with me on the losing end of it all. It felt as if I were coming to my own funeral, so I dressed for the occasion. “Anne was having a kissing contest.” A series of oohs comes from the audience. I flick a smile at Vi that lasts about three seconds, my heart drumming against my chest. Not a single part of me can believe that I’m having a conversation with Violet Hathaway, not after that last night we spent together as a couple. “I asked if you wanted to buddy up.”
A soft laugh bubbles from her. “And I said why? Do you need me to help you cross the street?” A light round of titters circles the room, followed by one explosive whoop.
I can’t hide my blooming grin. “And I said I thought that sounded like a much better idea. So we left the party.” My voice grows steadily hoarse. “Took off for the park across the street and had our own kissing contest.”
Vi shrugs, her eyes widen as if she were still amused by our horny antics. “I guess you could say it lasted for about a year and a half.”
The silence grows between us, but the magnetic pull of our gaze holds strong. If anything, this night has proven that there might still be a spark lingering between us. Then just as quick as that glimmer of hope erupted, reality crashes around me and I remember what happened.
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Bitter Exes (The Social Experiment 2)