Authors: Ali Dean
Tags: #Romance, #Young Adult
Look, I know I’m no Madeline Brescoll, but I’m not ugly. My boobs are fairly unimpressive but I’ve got great legs. Despite Jace’s efforts, some guys
shown an interest in me. Given Jace’s reputation with the ladies, it seems like he would have made a move… if he didn’t think of me like his sister, that is. So there you have it.
Sure, I think of Jace like family in some ways too. We love each other unconditionally. We’ve got each other’s backs. He’s got his own crowd at school, and I’ve got mine. But we know we’ll hang out together on our own time. I don’t have any siblings, but maybe that’s what it’s like.
Unfortunately, my stupid libido doesn’t get that she’s not supposed to want Jace.
The next morning I hop in to the passenger side of Jace’s black Jeep for the first day of school. The sound of Green Day is pulsing through the car.
I hand Jace the cinnamon raisin bagel with cream cheese that Gran made for him. “What’s up?” I ask before taking a bite of my own bagel.
“You and your short-ass shorts.” Jace shakes his head in disapproval.
Ignoring him, I roll down the window. Why should I hide my legs, my best feature? With my arm out the window, my
hand slices through the warm breeze.
When I feel Jace staring at me at a stoplight, I ask, “What?”
He reaches out and swipes cream cheese from the corner of my mouth with his index finger before putting it in his own mouth to lick it.
My mouth goes dry. Ugh. Does he have any idea what he does to me with a simple gesture like that? I sigh and look back out the window, trying to take my mind off his green eyes that scream sex and mischief.
As we pull into the senior parking lot at Brockton Public, the groups mingling around outside turn their heads. Everyone recognizes Jace’s car.
Kayla Chambers, Andrea Hill, and Lisa Delany greet Jace on the sidewalk. They’re all seniors this year and, as usual, look gorgeous wearing summer dresses that show off tan arms, legs, and cleavage. I finger my own long brown hair that hangs well past my shoulders. They smile indulgently at me. Not as fake as Madeline, but it’s no secret they’d ignore me completely if I didn’t know Jace.
I walk towards the school and feel a familiar arm settle around my shoulder. “Morning, Pepper.”
“Hey, Charlie.” He opens the door and gestures for me to go inside before him. Charlie Owens is the captain of the boys’ cross team and is one of my closest friends.
“So, did you get to meet your hero yesterday?” I ask him.
Charlie laughs. “Yeah, yeah.”
Zoe pops up next to us. “You mean his man-crush? It’s totally justified, Charles. Ryan Harding is, like, really hot. And he’s actually super cool. For a cross country runner, that is. I bet you he gets scooped up by the Barbies though.”
“The Barbies?” I ask. I stop at my locker and start turning the combination.
“Oh, don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean. The hot popular girls. You know.” Zoe nods her head enthusiastically. “I mean, you could be one too if you wanted, Pepper.”
“A Barbie? Is that supposed to be an insult or a compliment? I’m not even blonde.” I pull a couple of books from my backpack to store in my locker.
“Whatever, I was just calling them Barbies anyway. That’s not like, what everyone else calls them, you know. I made it up. You like?” Without pausing for a breath, Zoe turns her attention to Charlie. “So Charlie, I didn’t get to talk to you after the cookout. What did you think? Ryan’s cool right?” I don’t know how the girl has so much energy this early in the morning, but she is always buzzing. It’s contagious. I suppose that’s why I like her so much.
Charlie scratches his head, and a lock of curly blonde hair falls over his forehead. “Sure, yeah, he’s a nice guy. He won’t have anyone to train with, though. I feel kind of bad. Even his easy pace on the team run yesterday was kind of quick, and I’m pretty sure he was making an effort to go slow.”
Zoe tugs on one of her pigtail braids. She has the most beautiful strawberry blonde hair, but she rarely wears it down. “Yeah, well, that’s what Pepper has to do when she runs with the team.”
Zoe Burton is the reason I started running freshman year. We sat next to each other in freshman English on the first day of school and she talked me into showing up at the first cross practice.
“Yeah, but she can at least do speed workouts with the guys’ team. Ryan’s going to be doing all the workouts by himself,” Charlie points out.
“He’s probably used to it,” I tell them.
“Workouts” for runners doesn’t mean exactly what most people think. A “run” is just that – a regular old run. We run every day, but we have “workouts” about twice a week. Workouts require faster running, intervals, hills, or something more specific that is harder than a regular run. We also do a long run or a race once a week.
Zoe twirls her braided pigtail around her finger and changes the subject. “I’m sorry you had to miss the cookout at Coach’s yesterday. How was Bunny’s birthday party?”
“Well, we had like twenty people over to her friend Lulu’s house. I think Gran’s got half of them convinced they need a medical marijuana prescription and the other half already have one. The women got Gran a bong for her birthday. And then they christened it.” I glance up at Zoe and Charlie.
Zoe’s mouth is slightly ajar and Charlie is slowly shaking his head back and forth. They’ve met Gran before, so this can’t be a huge shock, but still. “So yeah, I’m pretty sure I was high from secondhand smoke by the time I had to drive Gran home after the party.”
Zoe’s eyes widen as she zeroes in on someone behind me. “Oh, hi Jace,” she squeaks.
“Hi, Zoe.” Jace leans against the locker next to mine and nods at Charlie. “Charlie.” Charlie raises his hand in a half wave. The Barbies linger behind Jace.
“So you got high yesterday, huh?” he asks me.
“Shut up.” I punch his arm. Hard as a rock.
The bell rings for first period. I shut my locker. “Anyone got Ramirez for History?”
Zoe raises her hand and we head down the hallway.
“Drive you home after practice, Pepper,” Jace calls out.
I raise my hand in a wave.
“How do you sit in the car with him every day without jumping him? I mean, I get turned on just looking at the guy,” Zoe whispers loudly.
“It’s not easy, Zoe. It’s not easy.”
When I walk into the lunch room, I recognize Ryan Harding immediately. He’s sitting on a windowsill by the popular table, with Lisa and her long blonde hair leaning up very close to him, batting her big blue eyes. She really does look like a Barbie.
I know what Ryan Harding looks like because he was featured in
Running Fast Magazine
last month. He won high school Nationals as a junior, and is shooting for a second win this year. The article focused on his decision to move to Brockton for his senior year, instead of staying in California. His dad, Mark Harding, was the new head coach at the University of Colorado last year. Ryan was planning to stay with his uncle and finish up high school in California, even though his parents and little brother moved here. I read the whole article, because I was curious about the guy. Plus, I want to go to UC, so Mark might be my coach someday.
I realize that I’m staring, and Ryan has caught me. The corners of his mouth lift and he pushes away from the window sill. Lisa stumbles backward, and I can’t stop my smile. She really irritates me.
When Ryan walks my way, I look behind me to see if there’s someone else he’s approaching. But when I turn back around, Ryan is standing right in front of me. “Hi, Pepper,” he says warmly. “I’m Ryan.”
“I know. I mean, you were on a magazine cover so I know what you look like. But, um, we’ve never met. I would remember.” I shake my head, and can’t help but chuckle at how dumb I sound. Star-struck. I’m as bad as Charlie. “Um. Yeah. So, anyway, how do you know who I am? I’m not on any magazine covers, as far as I know.”
Ryan laughs and shrugs. “Someone pointed you out earlier today. Sorry, I don’t mean to be creepy. I thought I’d meet you yesterday. At the cookout thing.”
“Oh yeah, I was bummed to miss it. It was my Grandma’s birthday party. But I’ll be at practice today.” I become aware that we are standing in the middle of the cafeteria, and that Lisa is shooting daggers in my direction. I feel others’ eyes on me as I start walking towards Charlie’s table.
He’s sitting with Claire Padilla, my co-captain, and the rest of our crew. “You’ve met Charlie, right?” I nod towards Charlie, who waves tentatively. “He was the guys’ number one runner last year. He’s a senior with you.”
“Oh yeah, we met yesterday. Hey, Charlie.” He puts up his fist and the two do the pound thing.
I plop down next to Charlie and notice Ryan watching me uncertainly. “Wanna join us?” I ask.
“Oh, my lunch is back there.” He points behind him with his thumb. “Let me just go grab it.” He hurries over to the popular table and I catch Jace staring in my direction, along with everyone else at his table.
“Wow, he came right up to you. I guess he knew who you were,” Charlie says excitedly.
“I guess. He said someone pointed me out to him, whatever that means.”
“Probably did his research on Coach Tom and the team before deciding whether to train with us. You know, as the reigning state champ, you’re kind of famous, too.” He bites into his sandwich.
I shrug and turn to my other side. “Hey Claire, what’s up? We didn’t see you much this summer.” She and Zoe are the number two and three runners on the team, depending on the day.
“I was studying for the SAT,” she explains. Claire’s a senior, and has been obsessed with college admissions since I met her my freshman year.
“All summer, every day?”
“Well, when I wasn’t studying, I was running or working at the pool.”
Ryan sits down between me and Claire. “Are you a lifeguard?” he asks.
Claire blushes and swallows. “Yes,” she whispers.
“What about you, Pepper? What did you do this summer?” Ryan turns his attention to me.
“Oh, I bus tables at Old House Tavern.”
I feel a hand squeeze my shoulder and I know immediately who it is. “Hi, Jace.”
He pulls over an empty chair and manages to squeeze it between Ryan and me. “Pepper,” he says in greeting.
I have no idea what he’s doing here. He never sits with me at lunch.
“Um, have you met Ryan? He’s a senior on the cross team.”
Jace laughs darkly. “Yeah, Pepper. We met.”
“You did? When?”
Ryan answers, “At a party last night. Lisa Delany lives on my street, saw me moving in, and introduced me to a bunch of people.”
“Oh.” I don’t go to parties. It must have been after the cookout.
“What’d Bunny pack you for lunch?” Jace asks while poking through my red polka-dotted lunch box. I really like polka dots.
“Why? Are you going to steal it?”
“Depends what it is. Hmmm. . . banana. Nope. Sandwich. Looks like. . . peanut butter and jelly? String cheese. Wait.” He pauses dramatically. “No way.” He pulls out a Tupperware container. “Are these ants on a log?”
“Maybe,” I tell him sheepishly.
“What are ants on a log?” Ryan asks over Jace’s shoulder.
I open the Tupperware and hold one up. “See? Celery, peanut butter, and raisins on top. My Gran’s been making these for me since I was five.”
Jace pats my cheek. “I won’t steal them. Don’t worry. You need to fuel up. You’ve gotta get strong to kick some ass again this year.” He wraps his big hand around my puny arm. “Hmmm. . .. kinda scrawny, Pep, maybe you should incorporate push-ups into your routine.”