Dan might be the enemy of my enemy, but I’m not sure that makes him my friend. He’s definitely not my ‘step brother’, no matter what everyone at school says. Honestly, I don’t know what he’s supposed to be to me. Or what he’s becoming…
Fact: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
In the yearbook, I’ll be Sophia Ramos: Valedictorian. Years of honor roll certificates, AP classes, and lugging around an obnoxiously large cello case are about to finally pay off. If everything goes according to plan, I’ll escape these decaying suburbs for a top-tier university across the country.
The problem? A few years ago, my mom met someone just as broke, just as drunk, and just as impulsive as she is. Approximately five seconds into their relationship, they decided it would be a great idea if he–and his son, Dan–moved in with us. (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t).
Now I share a house with none other than Daniel Cole. Even though Dan dropped out two years ago, he’s still the tattooed, bad boy, heartthrob, legend of St. Anthony’s Academy. He and I aren’t supposed to have anything in common.
Living together means war. First, Dan and I were at war with each other. Now, our rivalry is giving way to an unlikely alliance–two opposing sides teaming up against a common enemy: our respective parents.
Which is to say, we’ve been hanging out.
Question: What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?
Here’s the thing: My brain is a complex organ. One hundred billion neurons, each with an average of seven thousand synaptic connections to other neurons. My brain is my ticket out of here.
My heart, by contrast, is a pump. It moves blood around.
So I know Dan is off-limits. I know I shouldn’t do something I’ll regret. And I know how much is at stake.
So why can’t I stop thinking about him? Those inscrutable jade eyes. The smile that can say a thousand different things at once. That tattoo curving across his abs…
Even though I know better, I feel that pounding in my chest. And it’s getting harder to ignore.
But if I follow my heart, I can never go back.
Answer: There is no such thing as an immovable object.
“V.K. uses pretty words to write about ugly things, and the result is smart, sophisticated, and sexy as hell.”
-BB Easton, bestselling author of 44 Chapters About 4 Men
“The writing is heartbreakingly gorgeous, the observations keenly edged… loving, goofy, real, emotional, and intensely sexy.”
-Miranda Silver, author of The Boys Next Door
“The journey of self-discovery both these characters take will break your heart one minute and have you smiling the next… two solid thumbs up.”
-Between the Bookends
“A brilliant concept that turns the step-brother trope on its head… lush with original turns of phrase.”
-Alpha Book Club
“Seriously perfect, a very rare time where I am speechless.”
-PNR Book Lover
They heard me singing and they told me to stop,
Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock,
These days, my life, I feel it has no purpose,
But late at night the feelings swim to the surface.
‘Cause on the suburbs the city lights shine,
They’re calling at me, ‘come and find your kind.’
We shield our eyes from the police lights,
We run away, but we don’t know why,
And like a mirror these city lights shine,
They’re screaming at us, ‘we don’t need your kind’
Then we can never get away from the sprawl,
Living in the sprawl,
Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains,
And there’s no end in sight,
I need the darkness someone please cut the lights.
–Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains), The Arcade Fire
Hometown: Not too far from where 8 Mile was set.
Favorite Things: Girls, weed, tattoos, his Chevy, his Chevy, and his Chevy.
Least Favorite Things: Authority, confinement, his dad, the suburbs.
Greatest Aspiration: To save enough money to buy his own place.
Biggest Worries: Two way tie between ‘Make a mistake he can’t take back’ and ‘Turn into his father.’
How old were you when you moved in with Sophia? What was your first impression of her?
I was seventeen when we moved. We were already behind on our rent when Frank (my dad) met Audrey (Sophie’s mom). The eviction notice pretty much made the decision for them. I found out on a Friday that we needed to be packed and out by Sunday.
I was in my Sophomore year at the time and Sophie was a freshman, so I sort of knew her from school but we’d never talked before. She was all about orchestra and honor roll and whatever, while I spent most of my time getting high in ‘Smoker’s Alley’ behind the science building. When we first started living together, I guess I thought she was uptight. At least, that’s what I told people when they asked. She was just so serious. Focused. I screwed around a lot, and so did pretty much everyone else I knew. Ambition isn’t very common where we’re from.
Why did you drop out of high school?
Partly because St. A’s is private. When I lost my scholarship (see: screwing around/cutting class), I couldn’t afford it anymore. Our local public school is basically just Prison Jr, so I figured I’d learn more by myself at the library than I would from an overworked, underpaid teacher in an overcrowded class.
Also, Frank and Audrey couldn’t keep up with the rent, and I didn’t like the idea of finding yet another eviction notice. Working more hours at the pizza place kept us all from becoming homeless.
And as you probably guessed by now, I’d already been held back a grade. I guess I felt like I’d just outgrown high school, so I couldn’t stand being there anymore. I’ve never liked being told what to do, where to be, or what to think.
What was the hardest part about living with Sophie?
Definitely our parents. They were each bad enough on their own, but together, they fed each other’s worst impulses. Audrey could match him drink for drink, shout for shout, smashed plate for smashed plate. They drank hard and fought harder, egging each other on all the way.
But I guess that doesn’t really have very much to do with Sophie. She stayed out of the way, cleaned up after herself, all that Good Housemate stuff. But our crappy little house didn’t offer the sort of privacy two unrelated kids probably needed. Lacy pairs of underwear mixed into my laundry, birth control pills on the bathroom sink, threadbare pajama shirts without a bra at night… It was impossible not to see all the things I wasn’t supposed to see.
So how many tattoos do you have?
Oh man, lemme think. For professional pieces, eleven. Then I have a bunch of stick n’ pokes I did myself–maybe about twenty of those. I started when I was fourteen with a safety pin and a broken ball-point pen. When I was sixteen I got a fake ID just so I could start getting more intricate stuff at tattoo parlors (I’m not a big drinker), but I still inked myself whenever I was bored or wanted a distraction.
When did your relationship with Sophie switch from enemies to allies?
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment where the change happened. We used to mess with each other a lot, do things to piss each other off, but there was never anything I actually disliked about her (even though I tried really hard to find something). Eventually, all that messing around–it was hard to be anything but All In Good Fun.
But while there wasn’t any real resentment between us, the same can’t be said for our respective parents. We could tell they didn’t like us being friendly, so we weaponized that friendship any way we could.
When you started actually hanging out with Sophie, did you discover anything about her that surprised you?
Yes. She’s more myself than I am.
Hometown: A decrepit suburb just outside Detroit.
Favorite Things: Reading, playing cello, peppermints, The Arcade Fire, and beating Dan at Soul Calibur.
Least Favorite Things: Meat, being at home, lemonade, “Worst WTs” (an anonymous gossip blog about the kids at her school), and Dan.
Greatest Aspiration: To get into Stanford and escape her chaotic home life.
Biggest Worries: Not connecting with her best friend, Hannah anymore. Her mom’s constant drinking. What the hell Dan is supposed to be to her (enemy? ally? friend? something else?)
How’s your studying going?
Right now, I’m huddled in a veritable nest of hundreds of pages of reading. But I did develop a killer recipe for iced coffee: Step 1) make coffee, Step 2) think of something you want to add to your essay and rush back to your laptop to furiously type, Step 3) remember you made coffee ages ago, Step 4) call it “iced coffee”. Voila!
Tell us something about yourself, something that’ll prepare us for your story.
Back in my freshman year of High School, my mom met someone equally drunk, equally broke, and equally a single parent. Approximately five seconds into their relationship, they decided it would be a great idea if he and his son, Dan moved in with us. (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t).
That’s pretty much how I found myself living with St. Anthony’s resident Bad Boy, Daniel Cole.
Tell us about Dan.
Everyone at St. A’s knew he had a criminal record, a vintage Chevy, and more notches in his bedpost than anyone else at school. Some people knew he’d spent time in a kind of ‘reform school’, dealt drugs occasionally, and lost his mom to cancer. No one else knew that he read at least four books a week (mostly nonfiction), had off-the-charts test scores, and spent more time playing Soul Calibur with me than raising hell in the city.
The Defiant Attraction tagline says, “A (Not Quite) Stepbrother Romance”. Logistics aside, (i.e. your mom and his dad aren’t married) would you agree? Why?
Ours was no Brady Bunch situation, and whatever alchemy turns unrelated people into family never happened for us. It’s hard now to remember a time when my mom and his dad were ever happy. The new-relationship-honeymoon-phase skipped ahead to the screaming-at-each-other-constantly phase, and it wasn’t very long before Frank took up permanent residence on the couch.
Early on in our forced co-habitation, Dan and I waged an all out war (it may come as a surprise, but the Honors Student and the Probable Criminal were none too keen to be crammed under the same roof). He found the anonymous blog I used to keep and read it aloud to all his friends. I “accidentally” slipped details of his myriad liaisons to one of the girls he’d been sleeping with. At home, we tampered with shampoos, dyed loads of laundry pink, and ate each other’s food on purpose. Maybe we thought, if we hated each other enough, our parents would break up.
They didn’t. Not because they didn’t love each other (they didn’t), and not that the romance was gone (it was)—they just didn’t have the money or the energy to take back their rash decision. They lived together because it was cheaper; they went to the bar together because it was easy. Convenience and inertia was all that kept them (and by extension, Dan and I) under the same roof.
Then again, perception matters. Everyone else called us ‘step siblings’, so even though we never felt that way, that’s what we were in the eyes of the world. And I’d be lying if I said that the relationship between us wasn’t tangled up in rebellion against, and resentment for, our respective parents. They might not have cared when we pretended to hate each other, but getting along and hanging out? That got under their skin.
What do you hope readers take away when they reach “The End”?
Our culture doesn’t have the best track-record when it comes to girls and sex. From 20th century “Magdalene Laundries“, to “Revenge Porn“, to “sluts die first” Slasher Flicks, we see an impulse to shame and punish female sexuality.
At the same time, issues like abuse and exploitation are soul-crushingly common, and younger women are especially vulnerable. While Defiant Attraction doesn’t address the issue of sexual violence directly, it does point out one infuriating consequence of these twin phenomena. Basically, it’s easy to justify sex-shaming as “all for her own good.”
Whether they’re media pundits or school administrators or fashion designers, they can claim “concern” as their primary motivation. They criticize because they care. They really have her best interests at heart.
But it should be pretty obvious why all of that is crap. Abuse isn’t the fault of the victim, but the abuser. Policing the sexual expression of young women isn’t going to stop violence. Policing the perpetrators will. Schools don’t impose stringent prom dress and behavior codes to protect their female students, they do it to protect the teachers and chaperones who freak out around teen cleavage or students dancing a little too close. But if the normal, healthy, consensual expression of young people makes them so uncomfortable, maybe they shouldn’t be looking so closely.
The Language of Flowers
Cultures around the world have long used plants, particularly flowers, to symbolize different feelings or ideas. This “language of flowers”, also called “floriography” dates back millennia, but its popularity in the English-speaking world exploded during the 19th century. Simply put, Victorians used flowers like emojis. Each flower had its own specific meaning, some of which traced back to Shakespeare’s floral symbolism in plays like Hamlet. Carefully crafted arrangements known as “talking bouquets” carried secret, coded messages between lovers.
If that all sounds very lovely and romantic, know that not all flowers had pleasant meanings, and not all bouquets carried nice messages. Depending on which flowers the sender chose, an arrangement could say anything from “Run away with me, I love you” (spider flower and red rose), to “You’re adorable, and I had a very nice time, but let’s just be friends” (white camellia, sweetpea, striped carnation, and iris), to “You’re stupid and I hate you” (geranium and orange lily). For the Victorian equivalent of a rambling Drunk Dial to an ex, simply pair red and yellow carnations, gladiolus, yellow chrysanthemum, purple hyacinth, and jonquil.
Below is a list of my favorite Victorian flower meanings, some of which appear in Defiant Attraction.
Through winter, the forsythia shrub doesn’t look like much more than a tangle of rugged, woody stems. Early in the spring, before most other plants (even its own leaves) have emerged, hundreds of little blossoms explode. This eruption of vibrant yellow anticipating lively spring endowed forsythia with its Victorian meaning. The first chapter of Defiant Attraction opens in the early spring, a few weeks before various literal and metaphoric blossomings, and ends with a scene dense with anticipation.
Ophelia’s famous mad scene in Hamlet includes a coded use of rue. Bitter and toxic, rue has long been associated with regret. As a verb, it even means “to bitterly regret” (eg, “You’ll rue the day…”). First century naturalists, Pliny the Elder and Soranus also listed rue as an abortifacient. Shakespeare was probably aware of the connection between rue and unwanted pregnancy, suggesting that Ophelia’s invocation of rue may have specifically represented regretted sex.
Beautiful and delicate, yet among the most poisonous flowers in any garden, oleanders demand caution. Legends about oleander toxicity have circulated for millennia. Our old friend, Pliny the Elder famously recorded a (mythical) account of honey being poisoned with oleander pollon. Other apocryphal legends have suggested that leaders like Napoleon and Alexander the Great lost soldiers to poisoning after they roasted meat over a fire of oleander twigs.
My fellow Harry Potter nerds might recognize Petunia as an apt name for so resentful and angry a character, and J.K. Rowling has confirmed that she drew both Lily and Petunia’s names from Victorian floriography. Indeed, several key revelations in the seventh Harry Potter book were foreshadowed using the coded Language of Flowers in the first book!
While “Secret Love” is one of the most common Victorian interpretations, the symbolism for gardenias is quite nuanced. 19th century Europeans associated its whiteness with purity, as well as related concepts like trustworthiness and innocence. The fragrant blossoms also have natural insect-repelling properties. So while gardenias represent a secret love, they also signify a love that is pure, even a source of protection.
How cool is that? “Snapdragon” just sounds cool. And the blossoms look cool. And it means “Deception”. My favorite chapter of Defiant Attraction is definitely “Snapdragon”, probably because it just sounds so badass. Snapdragon.
“Give Me a Break”
This is definitely the most wryly funny of the bunch. Gladiolus is named for “Gladiators,” and many cultures have noted how the plant resembles a sword (sometimes translating it to “sword flower”). The gladiolus suggests an honorable, upstanding person. But more than that, they mean “infatuation”. Even pleading infatuation. The giver of the gladiolus is basically begging for a date, insisting he’s a decent dude, and that his affection is sincere. But desperation is implied. Basically, self-proclaimed “nice guys” complaining about the “friend zone” existed in Victorian times too!
“There’s Sunshine in Your Smile”
Lol. Yellow “two lips”. Very clever, Victorians. Very clever.
When I decided to set Defiant Attraction in the Detroit Metro Area, aka “Motor City”, I knew that every car would have to be loaded with meaning. Both Sophie’s mom and Dan’s dad work in manufacturing and factories dot the horizon of their suburb. Theirs is a community deeply entwined with the auto industry. In this context, cars became important imagery, and offered an opportunity to relay character nuance.
This 1959 Chevrolet Panel Truck harkens to the heydey of American manufacturing. The very concept of “teenagers” and “youth culture” was emerging at this time, and automobiles represented boundless freedom. As an added bonus, the expansive, seatless back is basically a mobile makeout room. But vintage models like this require both strength (they rarely have power steering), as well as finesse and committed upkeep.
From the catastrophe of the Pinto to the needlessly muscular Comets, the mid-Seventies wasn’t a good era for Ford. Style championed over substance and flashy, aggressively masculine models dominated assembly lines. But the designs were reckless and the results proved unreliable (even dangerous). A ’74 Ford like Frank’s would be considered a foolish investment.
Hannah’s Mom’s Pontiac
Among car enthusiasts, the Pontiac Aztek is something of a joke; a well-intentioned concept that never really came together. And while Pontiac is a brand of Michigan titan, GM, the Aztek models were manufactured outside the U.S. But a pre-owned model like Hannah’s mom’s would likely be affordable, and defenders insist upon its reliability.
Safe, practical, fuel efficient, the Toyota Camry is the kind of car parents buy for their kids (if they’re the kind of kid whose parents buy them new cars). This model is unassuming and normal to the point of invisibility. But if you see an Oakland or Wayne County kid driving a Toyota, odds would be that he doesn’t have a factory family.
Twisting the tray from side to side breaks the ice with a satisfying crack. I’ve almost gone so far as to pour water into my glass before I stop. Memories from last night surface and I recall sitting up in bed picking popcorn out of my bra.
Dan is wearing elastic-waist pajamas. I can see the edge of his boxer-briefs peeking out of the top but their waistline is much the same scenario. Everything has been so relaxed today. He’s perfectly content—humming to himself!—while he finishes scrubbing the sink. He would never see it coming.
I pad softly across the linoleum, careful not to make a sound. The glass of ice waits poised in my hand. Dan finishes rinsing the sponge. In one fell swoop I wrench back a handful of pajama-and-boxer and let loose a frozen torrent.
Dan jumps, surprised, but he’s still reacting more to the grabbing than anything. While he knows something has happened, he doesn’t yet know what.
I can’t contain my devious grin while he searches my face. Then—there it is. A yelp, a jump, a shake. Cube after freezing cube tumbles from his pant legs. More yet are trapped inside his underwear. He hops from foot to foot and tries to push them out. Then he changes strategy.
“No!” I squeal, giggling wildly, and tear out of the kitchen.
I circle the table and he pauses just across its diameter. I try to feint left. He jerks then corrects his course and lunges. I backtrack.
We’re stuck in a dead heat. A draw. One of us will have to make a break for it.
Throwing caution into the wind, I take off away from the table and leap over the couch. He struggles to follow my maneuver. Probably something to do with the glassful of ice melting in his underwear. I can’t stop shrieking like a child and waving my hands like an idiot. If I don’t make it to my room, he’s going to tickle the fuck out of me.
My heart leaps as I crash through my door and tug it closed behind me. It stops short of snapping shut. One tattooed arm pries it open.
I jump back and seize a pillow from my bed like a shield. “No!”
Then the tickle-fingers. Just the sight of them breaks something inside me and I start laughing so hard I can’t breathe. Once, twice, three times I whack him with my pillow. He yanks it away and I trip backward onto my bed.
We land hard and he quickly takes both the figurative and literal upper hand. One knee wedges between my legs to keep me from kicking. His hands snatch my wrists in turn, pinning them above my head.
Dead heat. Stalemate. My armpits are terribly exposed but he can’t tickle me as long as he’s holding me down. My chest rises and falls as fast as my heartbeat. Desperate laughs push through my tight-pressed lips.
This close, his face a spare few inches from mine, I notice a field of freckles for the very first time. Light, almost invisible, they dust his nose and cheeks. Freckles don’t seem like something Dan should have.
The lunatic laughter dies in my throat but my chest still rises and falls. A muscle in his jaw works. Green eyes dart rapidly between mine, thinking. About what, I’m not sure.
When we landed, his chest pressed down against mine. Now I feel his thin, worn sleeping t-shirt against my thin, worn sleeping t-shirt. No bra in between. On either side, only skin.
His hands, coiled around my wrists. My breasts, curving against his chest. Our lips, inches apart. This is starting to look like…something.
Our eyes stay locked. The longer we remain like this, the more the next movement matters. The stakes are shooting up. Maybe, if I could move, I could just tickle him back…
His knee shifts a fraction, hardly anything at all. Or maybe I imagined it. A rush of heat flows between my legs—so strong and so sudden I’m sure he could feel it. The fabric is so thin it might as well be bare skin. Goosebumps erupt down my arms. My nipples pull to points against him. He must feel them too.
I’ve been staring into his eyes so long…however long this has been—an infinity— and I mark their swift change. Something has happened there. Some choice, some determination…
Some noise rises from my throat. I’m not even sure if it was a sound or just a feeling, but I sense how it changed me. The space between us starts to close.