Authors: Ali Dean
Tags: #Romance, #Young Adult
“Pepper!” Zoe whines. “I’m quite comfortable lying here nice and dry. You better not get me wet!”
“Aw, come on Zoe. You can be on my team, and we’ll get Pepper a partner,” Pierce says. I grab Zoe’s drink and flick her with water. I take a sip and swim over to the edge to put it aside.
“Come on, Zoe! It’ll be fun!” I call. She huffs, but slowly slides off her float.
“Hey Wes!” Pierce yells. Wes looks up from mixing a drink at the bar.
“Yo!” he calls back.
“Come play basketball. You’re on Pepper’s team.”
Wes finishes making a drink and passes it to a girl standing nearby. Before he can join us, I hear Jace volunteer, “I’ll play.” He kicks off his flip-flops and walks straight to the edge of the pool to dive in. Madeline is left standing alone and she doesn’t look pleased.
I feel hands grab my ankles and I can’t help but squeal. His hands slide up my legs to my hips and before I know it I’m soaring through the air. I splash backwards in the deep end, my arms and legs flailing.
“Jace Vernon Wilder!” I scream as soon as I surface. He hates his middle name. I hear Wesley sputter and choke before erupting into laughter behind me.
I can see Jace’s green eyes blaze from ten feet away. “You’re in big trouble now,” he threatens.
He starts towards me and I duck underwater, trying to swim away from him. I don’t make it far before I feel strong hands wrap around my hips and launch me into the air again. There’s not much I can do to retaliate, besides call him by his middle name. When we were younger, I used to pants him down to his underwear when he annoyed me, but I’m not sure how well that would work as a humiliation tactic these days. I’d probably end up more embarrassed than he would. Not to mention, we’re in a pool, and he’s not wearing underwear.
Jace grins at me and, as usual, I melt a little. “Truce?” he asks.
I cross my arms defiantly. “It’s not like I have a choice. I can’t exactly toss you in the air.”
He swims back over to me. “Yeah, but you can call me by my middle name and you know how much that pisses me off,” he tells me as he adjusts my bathing suit strap. “As soon as I turn eighteen I’m changing it.”
“What are you going to change it to?”
“I haven’t decided yet. Got any ideas?” My eyes can’t help but rest on his chest, where his muscles flex each time he moves in the water. The sun glistens off his wet skin and I follow a drop of water from his shoulder down past his nipple and over the defined ridges of his six-pack.
“I’m all wet now!” Zoe interrupts after dunking her head under water. “Let’s play!”
The game goes on for a while, and everyone else at the party wants to get in on it once they see how much fun we’re having. We rotate teams, letting the winner stay on. Of course, with Jace as my teammate, we never lose.
“Damn, Pepper. I knew you were a good runner, but maybe you should pick up basketball too,” Forbes tells me after we beat him and Serena for the second time.
“It’s all Jace,” I insist.
“No it’s not.” Jace throws his arm around me. “I’m pretty sure you’ve been sinking just as many hoops. Let’s call it though, I’m hungry.” Before I know it, Jace has dropped under the water and lifted me onto his shoulders.
With his head between my legs, I can’t help but feel like maybe, just maybe, this was a flirtatious move. But I flash back to the big brother talk we had just weeks ago, and the conversation I heard in the locker room, and give myself a mental head slap. I want to run my hands through his hair, but I place them on his strong shoulders instead.
I see Wesley making his way over to the porch, where two tough-looking guys are walking towards the pool area. Wesley glances nervously at Jace, who lowers himself down in the water and gently moves my legs off his shoulders. He turns to look at me and puts his hands on my own shoulders.
“Bunny expecting you for dinner?” he asks.
“No, I told her I didn’t know when we’d be home. She told me to call whenever we’re ready.”
“We’re grilling burgers here. If you want to stay, I can give you and Zoe a ride home later.” His hands are rubbing up and down my arms and it feels so nice. I just want to take one step closer and lean into his chest. But I don’t.
“Yeah. That’d be great.” I try to sound casual but my heart is beating rapidly. Jace is not only touching me and standing shirtless in front of me, but he actually invited me to stay and hang out with his friends. I smile at him.
“You’re getting goosebumps. Do you have dry clothes to change into?”
I shake my head. “I just brought a dress to go over my suit, but I can’t wear it without any underwear. And I didn’t bring any.”
Jace just stares at me.
“Underwear, that is,” I clarify. “I have a big beach towel I’ll use until I dry off. Poor planning on my part,” I add with a shrug.
“It’s gonna get cold when the sun goes down. I’ll get a sweatshirt from my car.”
“You don’t have to,” I tell him, knowing he will anyway. He ignores me and takes my hand.
“Where’s your towel?” I point to a patio chair and he guides me to it. He takes out the towel and quickly wraps it around me. I notice the tough guys on the patio are watching him. I recognize one of them from the day I saw Jace tubing on the river.
“Who are those guys?” I ask Jace.
“Just some UC guys I hang out with sometimes. But they aren’t good news, Pep, so don’t go making new friends.”
“If they’re bad news, why do you hang out with them?” I turn and look at him. His green eyes are even sexier when his eyelashes are wet.
Jace sighs. “It’s complicated.”
I raise my eyebrows, awaiting further explanation.
He shakes his head a little. “Don’t push it, Pep. I’m going to my car to get you some clothes.” He tosses me my cell phone from my bag. “Give Buns a call and tell her I’ll get you home tonight.”
I make a quick call to Gran, who tells me I sound far too sober. “Jace’ll keep an eye on you. Tell him I told him to make you another margarita. They’re good, don’t you think?”
“Zoe certainly thinks so.” I watch her stumble a little as she climbs out of the pool, with Pierce still tagging along beside her.
After my phone call, I lie back on the patio chair and pull the beach towel tighter around me. The sun is fading, and the sky is turning a light shade of pink. I look up into the clouds, and a shadow hovers over me. I blink. It’s one of the UC guys. He has a black tee shirt on that stretches tightly across defined muscles. His dark hair is buzzed short, and the smile on his face does nothing to soften his hard features.
He sits on the chair next to mine. “I’m Wolfe.” I smirk. What an appropriate name.
I remember Jace’s warning, but there’s not much I can do short of ignore the guy. “I’m Pepper.” I sit up, deciding I should make my way over to the bar and grill, where Wesley is with the other UC guy, and there are others around.
He holds my elbow as I stand up and I can’t help but flinch. “So, you and Jace, huh?”
“What do you mean?” I ask warily.
He shrugs. “I’ve seen Jace with a lot of girls. Never had him stare me down like he just did when I checked
out.” Wolfe winks. I narrow my eyes.
“Yeah, well, we’ve been friends a long time. He keeps an eye out for me.” Hopefully he catches the implication that I’m not interested.
“In that case, no one has a claim on you, huh? I can check you out all I want?” I wrap my towel more tightly around me, and see Jace coming out from the house with a bundle of clothes.
“I’m changing, so you lost your opportunity.”
I walk towards Jace, who clenches his jaw and glares at Wolfe over my shoulder. His eyes dart to me and soften slightly. But he still looks angry. “I guess you didn’t listen?”
“I did. I tried not to encourage friendship.” I try to look back without being obvious. “Is he sticking around? He kind of creeps me out.”
Jace hands me a pile of clothes. “I think that’s the plan. Rex is manning the grill over there and they came together. I should ask them to leave.” Jace looks at me, awaiting my opinion.
“It’s not worth it. I’m going to change,” I decide.
I put on a pair of baggy basketball shorts that fall to my calves and tie the string as tight I can around my waist. I pull Jace’s hoodie over my head and don’t bother looking in the mirror. I’m sure I look ridiculous. Although I certainly don’t look sexy, strangely enough, I feel all kinds of sexy with my naked skin underneath Jace’s clothes, knowing his skin has been on it too. I roll my eyes at my wayward thoughts as I walk down the hallway and join the others on the patio.
Jace is sitting on a patio chair drinking a beer. He smiles and asks me to sit with him.
“On your lap, Jace?” I ask doubtfully.
“Yes. You look adorable right now.” He pulls me towards him. I am so utterly confused. I know exactly what I want this gesture to mean, but I have no idea if he is on the same page. Adorable, huh?
“Don’t get too comfortable. Gran ordered you to make me a margarita. Apparently I’m too sober, and you will watch out for me if I get drunk.” I turn and look at him. “She trusts you.”
“She should,” Jace says. “With you, at least.”
“I trust you too.” We are inches apart and I lean forward just enough to touch my forehead to his. I want to communicate so much more than that. I stare at him, hoping he’ll recognize what I feel but can’t say. He squeezes his arms around my back. For a moment, I see something in those green eyes that looks familiar, because I’m sure it’s what’s reflected in my own eyes.
“You guys want cheese on your burgers?” the guy at the grill asks, interrupting the moment. I had completely forgotten the world around us for those few seconds.
“Yeah, thanks Rex,” Jace says.
“Hey Wes, can you make Pep a margarita?” Jace calls to Wes at the bar.
“You liked that last one I made, huh?” He grins.
I nudge Jace. “You lazy-ass.”
“Nah, I’m just comfortable.” He squeezes me again. “How many have you had?”
“Just the one when we got here hours ago.” I tap his beer bottle. “Don’t drink too many. You’re the driver.”
“Thanks, Pepper. You know I can take care of myself though, right?” he says playfully.
“If you start coming around with me, is this what it’s gonna be like? You scoldin’ me?”
“I wasn’t scolding!” I grin, delighted that he is considering that this might become a regular occurrence. “Besides, you’re the one who gets all big brother bear on me.”
Jace swallows a sip of beer and frowns. The silence that passes is awkward. After all, I’m sitting on his lap, and I just brought up his brotherly feelings towards me.
I don’t know what to think or feel anymore. I thought I’d finally figured it out, but now I’m questioning everything. I get up and walk to the bar to get my drink from Wes. I sit on a stool with my back to Jace. I need a moment.
“Thanks, Wes.” I take a huge gulp of the drink.
“Easy there, Killer.” Wes pats my hand.
I hang at the bar with Wes, and keep an eye on Zoe. Pierce seems genuinely interested in her, and isn’t being a creeper. Wolfe doesn’t approach me again. When Wes heads into the house for something, Madeline takes the stool next to mine.