Authors: Ali Dean
Tags: #Romance, #Young Adult
I pull away from him, embarrassed. Not because my biceps are small, but because his touch on my bare arm feels really nice. And people are watching. “I do push-ups, Jace. And I’ll ask Gran to make you some ants on a log for lunch tomorrow if you want.”
He smiles at me. “Thanks.” He pushes away from the chair and stands up. Then he leans down and kisses me on the top of the head before walking back to the popular table. I roll my eyes and bite into my peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Ryan, Charlie, Claire, and the three other runners at the table are all staring at me. “What?”
Claire whispers. “Uh, Jace Wilder just kissed you.”
Rollie, who is sitting across from me, says, “Yeah, and in front of everyone. Like,
was watching. He
comes over here.” Rollie’s real name is Roland Fowler. His nickname has nothing to do with his body type because he’s incredibly lanky. He’s a junior like me and we have a lot of classes together this term.
“It’s nothing, guys. He’s just comfortable with me because we’ve known each other forever. My Gran used to babysit him and he lives down the street.” They all know this already, except for Ryan, so I don’t quite understand their reactions.
They are still staring at me when I poke my straw into my chocolate milk. “It was on the top of my head, you guys, jeez!”
I’m thankful when Charlie changes the subject. “So, wouldn’t it be badass if both the guys’ and girls’ teams made state this year?”
“You have to get first or second as a team at Districts, right?” Ryan asks.
“Yup,” Rollie answers. “Both guys and girls got third at Districts the past two years.”
“And Claire and Charlie just barely missed qualifying individually last year,” I add.
Only ten teams in Colorado qualify for State as a team; everyone else has to qualify individually.
“We don’t want poor Pepper to have to go to State
all alone again this year,” Charlie teases. “Although I’m sure Ryan will be going.”
There’s not much of a question that I’ll make it to the State meet. I made it the past two years, and won last year. The real question is whether I will qualify for Regionals at State, and then if I’ll go on to Nationals.
“We’re all going to State, both teams,” I say with confidence. “I just know this is going to be an epic season.”
Fifteen minutes into our warm-up jog, and it’s just me, Claire, Zoe, and a freshman girl I just met named Jenny Mendoza. Another group of girls jogs behind us and then it thins out. This is what usually happens at the first official practice of the season, Since most people don’t run much over the summer and struggle through the warm-up run. We’re not going very fast. I tried to keep it at an easy conversational pace, but it looks like we’ll really only have one more top scorer on varsity this year. Claire and Zoe are fast, and Jenny could be fast. She looks comfortable jogging with us.
“Holy hell,” Zoe exclaims. “Check out the football field. Jace is taking his shirt off. And his butt looks so freaking good in those tight little whatever pants-shorts things they wear. Oh wow. Six pack. Wow. Just wow. I would pay to touch him. I would. I swear.”
Claire has gone scarlet, as usual when Zoe starts gushing. I glance at Jenny. She’s grinning.
“Yeah. I think I’m going to like high school. Can we make a point of running by the football field during every practice?”
I laugh. “Sure, Jenny.”
“Jace kissed Pepper in the cafeteria today,” Claire blurts out.
“What?!” Zoe screeches. A couple of guys on the football field look our way.
“Zoe, chill. It was a peck on my head after I told him I’d ask Gran to make him ants on a log for lunch. You know how it is with him.”
“Whatever. I’m jealous. He’s totally got a soft spot for you and everyone knows it.” Zoe is so dramatic.
I ignore her. We reconvene by the baseball field after the warm-up. It’s hot out, and the boys have taken off their shirts. I can’t help but check out Ryan, whose sandy brown hair ruffles in the breeze. He’s lean and muscular, and far from scrawny like some of the cross guys are. Zoe and Claire strip off their tee shirts, and I follow suit. Jenny watches us.
“Hmmm. . . I’ll have to remember not to wear a white sports bra next time it’s a hot day out,” she observes. Yes. Hot days and the shirts go flying --along with the teenage hormones.
Coach Tom is wearing his favorite Rockies baseball hat as he gives the same welcoming speech I’ve heard for the past two years. “All right, guys!” he calls to get our attention. “Yesterday was the social welcoming, and today is the training welcome. Some of you are brand new to cross country. Here’s what you need to know. We don’t cut anyone. If you make it to the practices you can race in the meets. However, only seven girls and seven boys are on varsity.” He holds up seven fingers to emphasize the point. “Varsity-only races are marked with a star on the team calendar. Only varsity goes to Districts and State, and that’s if they qualify. Looks like we have about thirty girls here today, and forty boys. Everyone who was on varsity last year, or who wants to try for it this year, will come with me. Everyone else will go with our assistant coach, Janet. We’ll start dividing you up into groups based on your pace, but for today you’ll have to make your own decision about where you think you’ll fit in.”
When I look around, I see a lot of panicked expressions. It’s like this every year, too. I’d shown up to my first practice freshman year wearing high top Converse sneakers and jean shorts, and got more than a few funny looks. It didn’t seem like a hard decision which group to run with the first day -- I’d either keep up or I wouldn’t. It’s not like anyone would be tackling me. There was no doubt in my mind that first day that I belonged in Janet’s group, but after rocking the hill sprints in my high tops, I’d been moved to Coach Tom’s group. I’ve been working out with him ever since.
Coach explains that our group is doing mile repeats, which he has measured off with orange cones around the baseball field and up a hill towards the parking lot. “It’s a hilly mile loop. Zoe and Claire will lead the girls’ group. Three by one mile repeats with three minutes rest in between each mile. Try for about a 6:15 pace. I don’t expect everyone to keep up. Just do your best. Charlie and Pepper, I’d like you to lead the guys out at 5:45 pace. You’ll be doing four miles total. Ryan, you’re starting thirty seconds behind the guys’ group, and you’ll try to catch them by the end of the mile, so about a 5:15 pace.”
I tighten my ponytail and head over to the first cone with Charlie. “Ready, guys?” he calls to the fifteen guys behind us. We start our watches and set off.
The rest of the guys settle in behind us. They know not to question our pace. The last interval will be fair game, but Coach instructed me and Charlie to set the pace, and that means everyone has to stay behind us for the first three miles. I’m usually in the lead at races, so Coach knows it’s important for me to get familiar with pacing, even if it does piss off some of the guys who don’t like following a girl.
Ryan runs past us at the end of each mile, before we take the three-minute break between each one. He looks so strong and relaxed running a five-minute pace, it’s hard not to admire him. Charlie and Rollie outkick me on the last one, but I’m not far behind. My legs are tired, my chest burns a little, and I love it.
After showering in the locker room and changing back into my school clothes, I wait on the hood of Jace’s Jeep. I pull out
The Catcher in the Rye
from my backpack, the book assigned for English, and start reading the first chapter.
“Hey Pepper, good workout today.” I look up to find Ryan standing in front of me, his hair still damp from a shower.
“Thanks,” I say, putting a finger in the book to mark my place. “What do you think? Training with a new team, I mean.”
“Oh, it seems cool. I didn’t really have any guys to do workouts with last year anyway, so I like the way Coach Tom did it today. Plus you guys have a ton of people on the team.” He smiles at that. “Seems like people are really into cross around here.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty popular. I mean, UC’s here, and they’ve got one of the best teams in the NCAA, so people are into the running scene. But it’s not exactly the cool team to be on. I’m sure that’s not news to you.”
Ryan laughs. “Yeah, it’s only cool if it involves tackling each other, right?”
“Something like that,” I say, nodding toward the football team.
“When I talked to Coach on the phone before moving out here, he told me that you would be shooting for Nationals too. That’s awesome. How come you didn’t go last year?”
I shrug. “The State meet was my goal last year. I hadn’t really thought beyond that.”
“I’m excited someone on my team has the same goals as me,” Ryan says, as though it’s a forgone conclusion that I’ll qualify for Nationals.
I raise an eyebrow at him. “I’m thinking your goal is to win again. And mine is just to qualify.”
“Oh, you’ll make it.” I wish I were as sure of that as he seems to be. “Anyway, is this your Jeep?”
“It’s Jace’s. I’m waiting for him to give me a ride home.”
“I can give you a ride; where do you live?”
“Near campus. But really, he’s on my street, so it’s easy.”
“I live near campus, too. I can give you rides home after practice whenever you want.”
That would be convenient. We end practice at the same time, and football usually goes longer. But for some reason, I don’t want to sacrifice that time with Jace. It’s
time. Without the Barbies or his friends hanging around.
I give Ryan an evasive answer, “Yeah, maybe, but Jace usually eats dinner at my house anyway, so I’d have to wait on him here or there before eating either way. I’ll let you know, though.”
“Looks like football’s out.” He nods towards the other end of the parking lot, where a group of muddy shirtless guys are walking our way. “See you tomorrow, Pepper.”
“See you.” I smile at him and hop down from the hood.
I can’t help but stare at Jace while he walks toward me with his teammates. He’s changed into shorts that hang low on his hips, and his tan chest is glistening with sweat. He didn’t take the time to shower, and Gran’s going to give him shit if he sits down at the dinner table like that.
My eyes make their way to his face and he breaks into a grin when our eyes lock. I look down and busy myself putting my book back in my backpack. It’s not like the boy doesn’t know he’s hot. And I am female. But still. It’s not like that between us. And I’m ashamed he caught me checking him out. What is with me today and checking out boys?
I hear the Jeep beep unlocked and I open the passenger side door and jump in. When we pull up outside my apartment building ten minutes later, Jace leaves the car running.
“You’re not coming in for dinner?” I try to keep the disappointment out of my voice.
“Can’t. I have an errand to run,” he says.
I open the door and wait for further explanation. I want to ask him what the errand is, but I know that if he wanted me to know, he would have told me.
“So, no Hendrix puzzle later?”
“Sorry, Pep. I got this thing I can’t get out of,” Jace tells me, being vague as usual. As usual, he’s keeping me out of his social life. I only know a little about it from the school gossip.
“Yeah, okay,” I say, resigned. My guess is he’s going to hook up with a girl. I know he does this with lots of girls, but it still makes me queasy. And I know why they call it heartbreak. It’s weird; my heart does actually hurt a little every time I think of him with another girl.
“I can get a ride home with someone on the team now, who lives near us. So, you don’t have to give me a ride home anymore,” I tell him as I get out of the Jeep.
It’s petty, I know. But I don’t want him to think I’m some obligation. And I want to know if he actually likes coming over for dinner and sitting in the car with me. Maybe it’s just a habit for him, and it’s easier to stick with than quit. After all, it’s his senior year. He might have better things to do.
“Who?” Jace turns the full force of his green eyes on me, narrowing them slightly.
“The new kid. Ryan,” I tell him.
Jace looks ahead out the windshield and clenches his jaw. I don’t think he likes Ryan and I’m not sure why. It feels like five minutes pass before Jace turns back to me. “Do you want to ride with him?”
I shrug. “It just seems easier, you know, since our practices end at the same time. And then if you have stuff to do after practice, you don’t have to worry about it.”
“Whatever. If that’s what you wanna do.” He turns up the radio, indicating that the conversation is over.
I take the not-so-subtle hint and head inside.
Gran’s made coconut cream pie for dessert and it’s Jace’s favorite. “I’ll wrap up a piece for you to bring him tomorrow,” she says.
My mood lifts when I flip through my running journal after dinner. I’ve been writing down my workouts for over a year now. I know that we did the exact same workout from today at some point last season. And it was the same mile loop on the baseball field, too.
I find the page from last September with my mile splits and I compare them to my splits from this year. I’m already a little faster, and it’s only August. Coach mostly just had me doing easy base mileage all summer. Today was my first real speed workout of the season and I’m in great shape.
I pull out my calendar and count thirty-six days until my first meet. I’m skipping all of the September races and my first race is the Aspen Leaf Invitational in October. After that is Districts, the first weekend in November. State is the weekend before Thanksgiving, and I need to place in the top seven to qualify for Regionals. While I don’t think I should have much trouble placing in the top seven at State, I want to win it a second year in a row.
The last Saturday in November is Regionals, and that’s when I really have to throw down the hammer. If all goes well, I’ll be racing at Nationals in December. Until then, I need to focus on staying healthy, not getting injured, and sticking to the training plan. And the plan does not include Jace Wilder.