The Sweetheart Sham

By: Danielle Ellison

For Billy, who was the first person to show me love is greater than gender and friendship is stronger than distance.

And for all the LGBTQ+ teens out there who feel like you don’t have a voice in this world: you do—and I can’t wait to hear what you say.

Chapter One


Only three people in Culler, South Carolina, know that Will Montgomery is gay: Will Montgomery, God Almighty, and me. In a town as small as this one, that number could increase at any second and spread faster than the pox; bless his heart, but I don’t think Will Montgomery—or anyone in the Montgomery family tree—would survive that news. The whole town would go to hell in a hand basket if anyone found out the golden boy was something other than expected.

If he keeps looking at Hayden Griggs like the piece of meat that every girl in town also thinks he is, then hell may come sooner rather than later. I know Will is not ready for that, so for his sake, I do what any proper Southern girl would do for her best friend: I clunk him in the head.

“Ow, Georgie,” Will whines, rubbing the spot on the back of his head so his short blond hair ruffles slightly. “What was that for?”

“I did you a favor. You were fixing to ruin everything with your drooling.”

“I’m not drooling.” But he wipes his mouth anyway and yup, drool. I smirk to make a point. Straight or gay, staring at hot boys often leads to drool. They should come with warning labels. “I was only looking. Can’t a guy look?”

I give him the side-eye. “Don’t look at me that. You know I don’t have a crow who you look at, but this is your secret.”

He crosses his arms. I’ve been telling Will to come out for months.

We walk side by side through the others who have already gathered on the Newmans’ farm for the End of the Year Party. Every year on the last day of school it’s the same thing. We all hang out on Spencer Newman’s farm and by the river that runs through it. The students from Haymont and Lane—the next two towns over that make Culler look like a big city—come, and everyone gets drunk on wine coolers and Budweiser. It’s tradition to bring in summer, and it’s the one time each year when the adults turn their heads to underage drinking.

I point toward a group of girls who notice Will as we walk by and wave. “If you want to keep it secret, you should look at one of them.”

Will gives me the pouty stink eye. No one has perfected a better look in all of Holden County, and it’s enough to make anyone in town stop in their tracks. But I’m immune to it. I’ve known Will Montgomery since before we were born, and he may have the stink eye down, but I’ve got plenty of my own charming tricks.

“Or, you know, you can tell them all right now,” I say. It’s my duty as his best friend to remind him of the possibility of freedom over and over and over.

He gives me the evil side eye. I already know what he’s fixing to say. “Dale Westin.”

Yup. If I had a dollar every time I was right, I’d be rich by now.

“You are not Dale Westin.”

Will shakes his head and forces his eyes ahead. “No, I’m a Montgomery.”

The Montgomery family is one of the founding families of Culler. They broke away with a few other families—the Lexingtons, Howells, and my family, the Monroes—and came here to this little stretch of land eighty miles from Charleston in 1809. It’s not much to talk about, but it’s home. In Culler, everyone knows everything about everyone, and you learn to embrace it or you let it eat you alive. That’s what happened to Dale Westin, or so we think.

I’m an embracer, but Will? Not so much. If anyone here found out he was gay, he swears they’d run him out of town—like they did the Westins—not to mention the family disgrace that would follow. I think he’s overreacting. Sure, they’d probably stare at him during town functions for a while and ask inappropriate questions, but he’s a Montgomery. And even if he wasn’t, everyone loves Will. I know it’s more than that: he’s not ready to tell them. Until he is, their reaction will never matter.

My phone buzzes, so I glance at it. A text from Momma. What do you think about gerberas?

Overdone, I text back.

“You made it,” Shelby Kramer calls out.

I know it’s her before we see her because the sound of desperation is unmistakable. She wraps her long arms around Will’s neck, and her shorts ride up higher on her thigh. Any shorter and we’d be getting a butt-cheek show. She sees me then, as she pulls away from Will, her body falling back into her own space but her arms still totally lingering like she’s staking claim. She doesn’t say a word to me, and Will must notice it because his eyes do this crinkle thing when he’s uncomfortable. Which is always around Shelby.

“Shelby, howdy there,” he says. Will turns on the Montgomery charm like it’s a switch. Maybe others can’t tell—they spend so much time only seeing what they want—but I can. Smile lit up, eyes wider, focused in on one thing, tilt to his head. The Montgomery way. Granny used to say that family could charm their way out of a hornet’s nest. Will, with his big baby blues, makes it look easy.

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