4Ever Girl Stratford High Series #2 By Marian Cheatham Genre: YA Contemporary
WHEN IS THE PRICE TOO HIGH, EVEN FOR TRUE LOVE?4Ever Girl, Book Two in the Stratford High Series. Inspired by Shakespeare’s controversial comedy, The Merchant of Venice. Benji Merchant, has only one desire – to take the beautiful and spirited, Portia Belmont, to their senior prom. But first, Benji must win her heart. He enlists the help of his twin sister, Toni Merchant, in a wild scheme to impress Portia. Toni has reservations, especially when she learns that her brother’s plan involves the elusive tattoo artist, Shiloh Lender. Shiloh agrees to help Benji, but only if Toni concedes to Shiloh’s unbelievable terms. Will Toni accept the challenge and support her brother in his quest for Portia’s love? Or will Toni refuse Shiloh’s conditions and let her brother down?
Benji had found a prime parking spot right in front of the Venetian D’Lights Tattoo Emporium. No big surprise, though, considering that it was four o’clock on a Thursday. Who got inked on a mid-week afternoon? I stood on the sidewalk and studied the mural painted on the front glass window of our town’s only tattoo parlor. An almost life-size gondolier was poised on the rear of a gondola, his mouth open as though he were singing. In the background, the painted lights of Venice seemed to be flickering with life. The artistic details were surreal, from the intricate arches on the canal bridge to the tiniest wrinkles on the gondolier’s hands. And the colors! The vivid red of his shirt, the murky blue-green of the water, the pearly white of the marble columns on the buildings. On a block full of auto part stores and used car lots, this mural sparkled with energy. It drew me into the scene like a kind of Italian siren song. “Oh, now it makes sense.” Benji’s voice broke the enchantment. I was once again on the sidewalk, watching him point to some lettering stenciled on the glass in the lower right-hand corner of the window. Owner, Dominique Lender. Benji nodded. “Shiloh’s mom is the D in the D’Lights.” “So glad you figured that out.” I grabbed him by the hood of his hoodie. “Let’s get this over with. You first.” I opened the front door and pushed him inside. A guitar strummed and then a deep tenor’s voice belted out, “O Sole Mio.” Shiloh sat at a rectangular folding table near a pair of red leather couches, penciling something in a well-worn sketchbook. He looked up. “Benj—” Shiloh froze when his eyes fell on me. I stepped inside, letting the door close behind me. As soon as the latch caught, the singing stopped. “What was that?” “Has to be the doorbell,” Benji said. Beats a foghorn.” He and Shiloh both grinned. “Inside joke?” I asked. They nodded. “Don’t bother to explain.” I stood for a moment, trying to take in this eclectic shop. The emporium resembled a beauty salon with three stations, each with a black leather swivel chair that had extension arms, probably used by patrons to rest their limbs during the tattoo process. Each station had a three-tiered steel cart on wheels, the cart shelves covered with small bottles of ink, some in bright neon colors. There were boxes of disposable gloves, disposable face masks, needles, cotton pads, spray bottles, assorted tubes of lotions. Inking machines, the size and shape of sci-fi ray guns, were scattered about the counters in front of the swivel chairs. A medicinal smell hung in the air like the faint odor of rubbing alcohol. Airbrushed artwork of mythological beasts and fanciful flying creatures decorated the canaryyellow walls. The floor was tiled in a retro black-and-white-checkered pattern that resembled a 50’s diner. “Nice.” I glanced back at Shiloh. “Very chic.” And absolutely nothing like I’d expected. Shiloh came around the table and pulled out a chair for me. “Thank you,” he whispered in my ear, his feathery voice so close to the nape of my neck, it sent shivers down my spine. I sat, scooting my chair closer to the table to put a little distance between us. “Sal never does that for you.” Benji nodded toward my chair. “He does too make me shiv—” I froze, realizing too late that Benji meant Sal had never pulled out a chair for me. “What?” My brother looked confused. I shot a glance at Shiloh. He was grinning like he knew exactly what I’d meant. There came a whoosh from somewhere in the back of the shop. I snapped away from Shiloh, grateful for the interruption, just as a purple velvet curtain parted. The lights were off back there, but I could make out the shadowy figure of a woman stepping forward. She held something in her arms. The “something” barked and squirmed and then jumped to the floor. “Jessie!” Shiloh called as a black, brown, and white beagle raced straight for him, her long ears flopping up and down like two furry flags. She resembled a hound dog, but more petite, with short legs and thick nails that clacked against the tile floor. Shiloh scooped her up, and she licked his face with enthusiastic affection. I looked back toward the curtain. The mysterious shadow walked toward us, the lighting in the shop brightening as she approached. Benji let out a gasp. “Yeah,” Shiloh said. “Mom has that effect on people.” Dominique Lender looked like an exotic beauty from a James Bond movie. Tall and lean but in a healthy, athletic way, she had a more-than-generous rack, the kind that any female at Stratford—teachers included—would have shaved their heads to possess. And although I knew she had to be about the same age as our mom, Shiloh’s mother looked years younger. An overabundance of wavy, ink-black hair cascaded down around her apple-round cheeks. She had plump lips like Angelina Jolie’s and eyes that were almost as dark as her inky hair. Mrs. Lender would have been nearly perfect, except for the tattoos on the bronze skin of her slender arms. “These are your friends?” Her sultry voice was laced with an Italian accent. She placed a hand on Shiloh’s shoulder, displaying her long nails, painted a matte black that complemented her hair. Normally, I hated that Goth look, but on Mrs. Lender, it worked. Well. Shiloh motioned toward my brother. “This is Benji Merchant, and this …” He turned to me, and a rush of connection surged down my limbs as though we’d been unexpectedly plugged into each other. I could almost feel the current radiating from his huge, sable-brown eyes. Shiloh wasn’t that homely guy he’d painted himself to be the first time we’d met. He was unusual and exotic like his exquisite mother. Benji cleared his throat. Shiloh jerked. “Ah, yes. This is Benji’s twin sister, Toni. With an ‘I,’” he added, smiling. I had rehearsed my own smile for today. The plan was to give Shiloh a sweet little grin that would persuade him to help Benji with his car. But the smile I returned now wasn’t the one I’d practiced in our bathroom mirror. This smile felt deeper, wider. And far more real. I inhaled and looked away. What was happening here? I had come today only because I’d made a promise to my brother. Nothing else. Nothing more. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Lender.” Benji’s greeting came out as a squeak. He was drooling over her, no doubt about it. The whole situation was weird, but at least it reassured me of one thing. My brother had good taste in women. “I like your shop,” I said to her. At the sound of my voice, Jessie hopped off of Shiloh, slipped under the table, and scampered onto my lap. She stood on me, her small paws resting on my shoulders, and licked my face with her cold, wet tongue. I couldn’t help but giggle. Our squat-legged bulldog could never pull off a stunt like that. “Ah,” said Mrs. Lender. “Our Jessie has a new friend.” “I. I don’t know about that,” I stammered as Jessie’s kisses turned to sniffs up and down my neck. “She must smell Enzo.” Benji sat next to me and petted Jessie’s furry white head. “Enzo?” Mrs. Lender’s face lit up. “You have an Italian friend?” “No. Well, yes. Sort of. Enzo’s our English bulldog. But he’s named after our ItalianAmerican grandfather, Lorenzo.” Mrs. Lender nodded. “Now I see. Toni is short for Antoinette, no?” “My grandmother,” I said. “How’d you know?” “Tony is a man’s name. Not for you.” She gently pushed a wayward strand of my hair from my face. “But Antoinette! That is an imperial name. Perfect for a beauty such as you.” “Yeah, sis. You remember what happened to Marie Antoinette.” Benji made a cutting sign across his throat. “Oh no!” cried Mrs. Lender. “Nothing so terrible for our Antoinette. She will have a long, wonderful life.” Her face tensed. She looked almost frightened. “Your Enzo? He is not dangerous? This bull dog?” Benji whipped out his cell, called up a photo of Enzo, and showed her the picture. Mrs. Lender laughed in relief. “What a little barrel! He is darling.” She looked up at me. “You must bring this Enzo for a visit. Our Jessie would like him very much.” “That’s a great idea! Isn’t it, sis?” Benji elbowed me so hard, I smacked forward into the table. Jessie barked in retaliation. “Toni would be happy to bring Enzo over for a play date. Any time.” “Che magnifico!” Mrs. Lender clapped. “My son will be glad.” “Mom!” Shiloh exclaimed. “You will not love their visit?” she asked him. “Well, sure.” A tell-tale flush crawled up Shiloh’s pasty-pale neck. “See. I always know what is best for my boy. You children have fun. I will go check on my husband.” Mrs. Lender started for the front door. “I really like the mural.” I motioned toward the outside window. “It is bellissimo. He did such beautiful work.” “Who did?” I asked. “My baby.” She blew a kiss to her son. “You?” I gasped at Shiloh. “Painted that?” “Told ya, sis,” Benji said. “Shiloh’s the best.” “You weren’t kidding.” I ’d said it under my breath, but Shiloh must have heard because he broke into a smug little grin. Mrs. Lender opened the front door. A guitar strummed and then a deep voice boomed, “O Sole Mio.” She gave us a backward wave. “Ciao.” She slipped outside. “So.” Shiloh closed his sketchbook with a crisp smack. “What brings you guys here today? Not that I’m unhappy to see you. Just curious.” “We. Well, um …” Benji nodded to me. “You tell him, sis.” Jessie settled down onto my lap and closed her eyes. I stroked her neck and back, and she let out a whimper of contentment. “We were hoping you could help us, Shiloh. I hear you’ve been giving Benj here some lessons on how to impress Portia Belmont.” “Just a few pointers.” Shiloh’s cheeks flushed again, turning his face from a pale pink to robust crimson. “I’m not an expert or anything.” I bit back a smirk. Expert. Ha! I bet he’s never even kissed a girl. I snuck a peek at his lips. They weren’t as plush as his mother’s, but they were nice. Kissable, even. If a girl had that inclination. I shifted Jessie on my lap. “Apparently, Portia has a thing for cars with airbrushed artwork. We were wondering if you could maybe, possibly—” “Could you detail the Charger for me?” Benji cut in. “I’ll pay you. A little every week. I’m taking extra shifts at the Striker Pin. You can have all my overtime.” I glared at him. Thought I was here to do the asking? If you wanted to do this, then why drag me along? “It has to be something totally original,” Benji went on, ignoring me. “No skulls or Kingdom of Power crap. Oh, and you can’t tell Portia. I want it to be a surprise.” Shiloh stood and took Jessie from me. He cradled the beagle in his arms, stroking her ears as he spoke. “Portia comes by the shop a lot. Does she know your car?” “I don’t think so. No.” Benji shook his head. “Good. Then I’ll work on the project alone, but if she sees me and wants to help—” “Then let her!” my brother interrupted. “It’ll give me an excuse to see her if I maybe come by the body shop to say, hang out with you. And my car. But still, don’t tell her—” “Yeah, yeah, I get it. Big secret. And don’t worry about the design. I’m gonna create something that’ll blow you and her away.” “Awesome!” Benji was breathing hard now. I walked over to the first swivel chair and hopped onto the black leather seat to watch the show. “I’ll do everything we discussed …” Shiloh sounded hesitant. “But, not for you.” He sauntered over to me. “For her.” “Toni?” my brother croaked. “She doesn’t need her stupid Kia detailed.” “Hey!” I said. “My baby’s not stupid.” “She’s no Charger!” Benji returned. “Whoa! No fighting, you two. I’m not talking about Toni’s car. I’ll do the work on the Charger. For. A. Price.” Shiloh pronounced those last three words in a flat, deliberate cadence that made me shudder. “Name it!” Benji seemed completely oblivious to the mood change in the room. “Whatever it is, I’ll pay.” Shiloh shook his head. “Not you.” He stared right at me with a strange, unreadable expression on his face. “Her.” “Me?” I grasped the leather-covered handles of my chair. “Why do you want my money?” “Oh, no.” Shiloh stroked Jessie so calmly, the dog fell asleep in his arms. “Not money.” That shudder chilled to a frightening shiver. I gripped the handles even harder. “C’mon. Just name your price,” Benji said again. “Toni will pay it.” Shiloh set Jessie onto one of the red couches and then hopped onto the swivel chair beside me. He spun around a few times and then stopped abruptly, facing me. “Is this true, Toni? You’ll pay my price?” “I. I—” I looked back at Benji. You promised, his eyes pleaded. You swore you’d help me. “I’ll tell you what I want for my work on the Charger.” I stiffened and slowly turned back to face Shiloh. “I want Toni to go to our senior prom. With me.” “What?” Benji and I both cried. “What about Sal?” I asked. “Yeah,” said Benji. “You know they’re dating. Toni’s gonna go with—” “Me,” Shiloh finished. “We can double date with you and Portia.” He smiled, and I knew that he had passed mischievous and gone straight to hell. “She’ll fall all over you when she sees what I’ve done with your car.” “You aren’t considering his terms?” But the lovesick expression on my brother’s face told me that the mere mention of Portia had driven him out of my corner and into Shiloh’s. “Maybe Sal would understand.” Benji shrugged. “Hey, he doesn’t even like dances.” I jumped down and headed for the door. “I’m done here.” “Wait!” Benji yelled. He turned to Shiloh. “Can’t you consider something else? Maybe Toni can help you clean—” “The prom. With me. I’ll even spring for the tickets to the dinner-dance at Avon Banquets. Agree to my very generous terms and you’ll have your car, Benji.” Shiloh stood and walked toward my brother. “You won’t be disappointed in my work. I promise you that. So, do we have a deal?” He stuck out his hand. Benji stared at his outstretched arm. “This is just a friendly little agreement amongst friends.” “Friendly?” I nearly spat. “Listen, Toni,” Shiloh said, in a nauseatingly cheery voice. “I want to dance with you at the prom. Is that so horrible?” My fists clenched in response. I glared at my brother. You’re going to change your mind? Please, Benji begged of me. Please. I sighed. “We double to prom. Shiloh gets his one dance, and I’ve fulfilled my part of this bargain.” “Agreed,” said Shiloh. “Unless you want to dance some more.” “Fat chance,” I said, not even trying to disguise my disgust. My brother, still unaware or unconcerned about the tension in the room, let out a whoop. “You’re the best sister in the world.” He seized Shiloh’s hand and shook it furiously. “Okay, buddy. You have a deal.” I grabbed the doorknob, anxious to leave Shiloh and his damn emporium behind. “There’s an addendum to this contract,” Shiloh said. “A forfeiture clause.” “Oh, yeah?” I smirked at him. “Go on. I dare you. What could be worse than breaking my boyfriend’s heart on the biggest night of our lives?” “Maybe this will be worse.” Shiloh returned my smirk. “If you fail me on prom night, I …
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Marian Cheatham is a full-time writer of YA novels and screenplays, part-time everything else - spouse, homemaker, volunteer, and animal guardian of five pets. In her free time, she loves to read, walk, garden, and travel. Not necessarily in that order. She and her husband work hard (and have fun) ticking off items on their Bucket List. Her YA series, Stratford High, revolves around modern retellings of Shakespeare’s plays. Ruined, Book One, is inspired by the Bard’s classic romance, Much Ado About Nothing. 4Ever Girl, Book Two, is inspired by Shakespeare’s controversial comedy, The Merchant of Venice.