Authors: Ali Dean
Tags: #Romance, #Young Adult
“What do you mean? Why wouldn’t it be okay?” I clutch Ryan’s hand. Maybe Remy will make me leave. Oh no. I shouldn’t have come.
“Jace isn’t here. He doesn’t come around our parties as much these days,” Ben explains, standing next to me now and staring at my hand locked with Ryan’s.
“Oh. Okay. Um. . . why not?” I feel like that’s what I’m supposed to ask.
“College parties are more his thing,” Remy says, as if that should explain it. I feel like I should know this. Jace is my friend. But he never talks about parties with me.
“That’s okay. I’m not here to see Jace. I came with Ryan. Is that okay?” I feel like they are blocking our entrance and that I need to ask permission to enter.
Remy looks at Ben, who shrugs. Remy glances at Ryan and hesitates before relenting. “Sure, yeah, head on in. Keg’s out back. I’m trying to keep people outside so the house doesn’t get trashed.”
As we make our way around the back of the house, Ryan asks me, “What was that all about? Is there something going on with you and Jace? I don’t want to piss anyone off bringing you here.”
I shake my head. “Honestly, I have no idea why they were being so weird. They’re Jace’s friends. I don’t know them too well.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it, then,” Ryan says reassuringly. It’s your first party so I bet they were just surprised to see you. Everyone will be happy you came.”
I recognize the Barbies, a few guys from the football and soccer teams, and a handful of other faces. But there are a lot of people I don’t know. Where did they come from?
“Hey, I’m going to grab a water or a soda or something. Do you want anything to drink?” Ryan looks at me. “It doesn’t have to be alcohol.”
“I don’t know. I guess I should have a beer?” I wonder out loud.
“Sure. I’ll get you one from the keg. If you don’t like it, you can just pass it to someone else.”
I look around the crowded yard while Ryan gets our drinks. A few people stumble about drunk, and a couple makes out on a hammock on the back porch. There’s a campfire a ways off in the woods, and it looks like a big crowd is gathered around it.
I am both disappointed and relieved that Jace isn’t here. It’s upsetting that he has a whole life - going to college parties, and doing who-knows-what – that he’s never mentioned to me. But I’m relieved that I don’t have to face his reaction. He might have made me go home, which would have been totally humiliating. If he ignored me, it’d be even worse. I’ve always suspected he’s too embarrassed of me to bring me around his friends, and it would kill me to have my suspicion confirmed.
I gulp when I see Kayla and Andrea approaching me. Kayla saunters up next to me, a smug expression on her face. “Hey, look who finally decided to join the fun.” She bops her hip next to mine like we’re old friends, which we’re definitely not
“Did you bring Jace with you, Pepper?” Andrea asks as she takes a sip from a wine cooler.
“Um, no. I came with Ryan.” I nod in his direction. He looks up and smiles at us, raising a cup of something.
“That’s too bad,” Kayla coos. “Jace didn’t come around much this summer. Always at some UC party, and only graced us with his presence now and then. Maybe he’ll show up more now that you’re coming out.”
“Er. . . doubt it.”
Andrea giggles. “You really are clueless, Pepper Jones. I kind of like it.”
Ryan saves me when he joins us and hands me a beer. “Do you want to head over to the fire?” he asks.
“Yes!” I exclaim, a little too eager to get away from the Barbies.
Ryan wraps his arm around my waist and I grin into my cup. I don’t care what we’re calling this, but it’s definitely a date. He guides me into the woods, where at least thirty people are gathered. A few couples are cuddled up, and a group of rowdy boys are standing by a table, watching people throw ping pong balls into cups.
I see Dana Foster and Tina Anderson talking with a group of people I can only categorize as the junior class Barbies. They tried to get me to go to parties with them freshman year, when I was still (sort of) friends with them. I knew they only wanted to hang out with me because they thought I’d help them get closer to Jace and his crowd. I was relieved when Zoe befriended me and I became friends with people on the running team instead.
Ryan gestures to a log. “Want to sit?”
I sit on the ground and lean my back against the log. “Here, do you want to lean on me?” Ryan sits with his legs slightly parted and his knees up. I hesitate before leaning back against his shins.
We sit and watch the fire for a few minutes and I try a couple sips of beer. It doesn’t taste very good.
Lisa Delany is talking with Connor Locke, Jace’s co-captain on the football team, and Dorothy and some of her friends are trying to join the conversation. I try to ignore the glances Lisa and Dorothy keep throwing in my direction.
Ryan runs his fingers up and down my arm. He leans forward to my ear and asks quietly, “Is this okay?” I lean my head back and smile at him.
“Yes. Thank you for bringing me.”
The quiet moment is broken when I hear Jace in the woods. “Where is she?” he asks, seemingly to no one in particular.
I stiffen, and Ryan stops moving his finger along my arm. Jace Wilder frightens people. I’ve never really understood it. Maybe it’s because I’ve known him since he was four years old and I can remember when he carried his stuffed giraffe, Jerry, everywhere with him, but he’s never frightened me.
When Jace bursts into the clearing across the campfire, green eyes blazing, I think I can actually see what frightens people. He looks volatile.
“Jace?” I sit up and I hate that my voice quivers.
I can see Jace’s chest rising and falling as he breathes deeply. His hands clench and unclench. It feels like minutes, although I know it’s only seconds, before he slowly makes his way around the campfire and crouches in front of me. “Jace, are you on drugs? You’re scaring me.”
His muscles around his shoulders tense and then relax. “No, Pepper, I don’t do drugs.”
“I wouldn’t know. There’s a lot about you I don’t know.” I don’t mean to sound accusing, but I can’t help my anger. He doesn’t even party with the high school kids anymore? I should have known this. He should have told me. I have no idea who his new college friends are.
Jace sighs. He takes the beer from my hand and places it on the ground. “Does Bunny know you’re here?”
“Of course. We did shots together before we left. Ryan came for dinner. She’s thrilled I’m going to a party.” I feel Ryan’s legs stiffen behind me. He hasn’t said anything.
“Are you drunk?” Jace asks. He still hasn’t looked at Ryan.
“Of course not,” I scoff. “Not that it’s your business.”
Jace’s jaw clenches. “Do you want me to take you home?” His green eyes are so intent, I feel like he could break glass with that gaze. But I won’t give in.
“Do you want me to leave that badly? Get over it, Jace. I’m not doing anything to embarrass you. I’m just sitting here. Ryan will take me home when I’m ready. You can go back to your college party, or wherever you were. You smell like chlorine.” I lean back against Ryan’s shins, pick up my drink, and look at the fire, avoiding Jace’s penetrating gaze. I take a sip of beer, defiantly. I know I’m acting like a child, and I hate that he’s making me feel this way. But seriously, what’s the big deal?
Jace runs his hand through his messy fauxhawk. He stands up and watches the fire, but doesn’t move. After a moment, he stalks off towards the table where people are playing beer pong. I turn back to Ryan. “Sorry about that.”
Ryan frowns. “There’s nothing to apologize for, Pepper. Although I can’t say I understand what just happened.”
“That makes two of us. Jace is just… intense. He likes things a certain way. I think he likes to keep his friendship with me separate from the rest of his social life.” I squirm slightly. “It’s kind of hurtful, to be honest. He doesn’t like me being here.”
“I caught that. It looks like he’s staying,” Ryan says, nodding toward where Jace is leaning against a tree.
People quickly start gathering around him. He’s wearing swim trunks and a sleeveless shirt that shows off his chest and arms. His presence dominates the clearing, and it’s not just his six foot three inch height. People are drawn to him. Connor pats him on the shoulder, says something in his ear, and steps back, punching him lightly on the arm. Andrea and Kayla approach him and hand him a drink. Kayla brushes her hand along his chest and giggles at something Connor says.
“Yeah. Hopefully he’ll ignore me.” I turn myself around and sit cross-legged facing toward Ryan and away from Jace. “So, tell me about California. I know you stayed there last year even though your family moved here. We all heard about your dad as the coach at UC, and I read that article about you in
He laughs. “Yeah, that was weird. Seeing myself on the cover of magazines in grocery stores was really unnerving.” He places a hand loosely on my knee and moves his thumb in small circles. “At first, I was going to finish up high school in California. I liked my coach, my teammates. I didn’t want to leave the friends I’ve had my whole life. My uncle and his family live in the same town and they were happy to have me. Actually, I had a girlfriend and that probably had something to do with it too.” He smiles sheepishly at me.
“But you didn’t end up staying for your senior year. You’re here instead.”
Ryan shrugs. “Yeah. Most of my friends were seniors last year, and they graduated. Plus my parents and my little brother were pushing for me to come out here. They said I’d really like it. Now, I can see if I do. I can go to UC if I want, and if I don’t like it here, I can always go to college somewhere else.”
“And the girlfriend?” I look down at my drink and take a quick sip.
“It’s okay,” he reassures me. “We are on a kind of, not really, date. You can ask. She was my girlfriend for almost three years. Started going out when I was a freshman. She was a year ahead of me, which is partly why most of my friends were a grade ahead, too. I was really into it at first. I thought it was so cool an older girl liked me. But eventually I started to lose interest.” He shrugs. “I didn’t want to break it off, since it would make everything weird with our group of friends. It was easier to just stay together. But we ended it at the beginning of the summer, when she graduated.”
I don’t really know what to say. I’m sorry? Do you miss her? Are you looking for a replacement? So I just take another sip of my beer.
“She wasn’t a runner,” Ryan adds. “And running is such a huge part of my life, of who I am. I think that was part of why I wasn’t really into it anymore. She didn’t really get it. It wasn’t her fault, but she didn’t understand competitive sports. She liked to watch and cheer, but the training, the excitement of racing, all that, I couldn’t share it with her.” Ryan looks right at me when he says this.
I swallow. I understand what he means. That’s one of the reasons I became friends with Zoe and Charlie instead of Tina and Dana. “Yeah, I get that.” Before I can say anything else, Ryan looks behind me and his face stiffens.
“Jace?” I ask, without turning to look.
“Yeah. He’s glaring.” Ryan sighs. “Let’s get up. Do you want to play beer pong?”
“I don’t know. Will I have to drink a lot?”
Ryan laughs as he grabs my hands to help me up. “Probably. It depends on if you’re good or not. If you’re winning, you’ll drink less. But we can put a tiny bit of beer in the cups, just in case.”