Authors: Ali Dean
Tags: #Romance, #Young Adult
We wander over to the table, where a couple stands on each end. They look familiar, but I don’t think they go to our school. “You guys want winner?” one of the guys in a white polo shirt asks us.
“Sure, if no one else has called it,” Ryan tells him.
“It’s all you, man. We nearly got these guys finished off.” He shoots the ping pong ball and sinks it in the last cup.
The other guy, who’s also wearing a polo shirt, nods at Ryan. “Hey man, I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Pierce.”
“Ryan. And this is Pepper.” Ryan puts an arm around me.
“Yeah, I know. Pepper Jones,” Pierce says. The girl next to him darts her eyes in my direction. She runs her eyes up and down my body, like she’s checking me out.
“Sorry. I, um, don’t know if we’ve met?” I ask Pierce, feeling bad already in case I don’t remember him and I should.
“No, but you know, you were in the newspaper a couple times for running,” Pierce explains quickly.
The girl puts out her hand to me. “I’m Emma.” We shake hands.
“Are we going to play or what?” white polo shirt guy calls.
Ryan guides me over to our side of the table. He sets up the cups in a triangle and pours a sip of beer in each one. I notice that white polo shirt guy is pouring half a can in each of the cups on his end of the table.
The girl on the other side has long, straight blonde hair and huge glossy lips. She’s wearing a pink frilly blouse and white jean shorts. This girl could be the inspiration for Zoe’s label. She practically has a sign on her forehead saying “Barbie.” The couple introduces themselves as Forbes and Serena.
Pierce and Emma stay to watch. The four of them are seniors at Lincoln Academy. Forbes and Pierce are on the football team. I’m surprised they’re at this party. I always thought the rivalry between the schools kept the social circles from overlapping. I guess I’m really out of the loop.
Ryan and I are a good team, probably because we’re sober and Forbes and Serena are not. We take them out pretty quickly, and I barely have to drink any beer. I cringe when I hear Jace call next game.
He watches me while he arranges the cups in a triangle, and I try to ignore him. Madeline saunters up next to him; her long wavy brown hair is moving in the slight breeze. She squeezes his bicep and places her cleavage in Jace’s line of sight. “Need a partner?” Her voice is husky and seductive and it makes me want to puke.
“Hi, Madeline,” Jace says smoothly. He tucks her under his shoulder for a hug. Madeline’s the queen bee (or, as Zoe likes to say, B for bitch) at Lincoln Academy.
Madeline turns to face me with a satisfied smirk. I notice her hand around Jace’s waist ventures down around to the waistband of his swim trunks, and she skims her fingers back and forth. “Nice to see you out, Pepper,” she says sweetly.
“You too,” I say dully. “This is Ryan,” I add as I lean next to his shoulder, taking comfort in his presence while being forced to witness the display in front of us.
I don’t play as well this round. I’m far too distracted by Madeline’s hands all over Jace, and his acceptance of her touches. I notice him staring at her ass and cleavage more than once, and I’m ready to leave. I’ve probably had about two beers in addition to the shot with Gran at this point. I’m feeling more emotional than I should.
I’ve seen girls all over Jace before, so it must be the drinks that are getting me fired up. Plus Madeline is simply gorgeous. In purple shorts that hug her hips, and a silky white tank top that makes her boobs look humongous, she somehow pulls off a glamorous look while playing beer pong around a camp fire. After we lose the game, I tell Ryan I’m ready to head home.
I don’t say goodbye to Jace and I don’t look at him as we leave. On our way up the path, I nearly trip when I recognize Wesley walking towards me. He and Jace had some sort of falling out when they started high school, and Wes stopped hanging out with me, too. I’ve only seen him a few times around town over the past three years.
Like Jace, Wes is wearing swim trunks, and when he approaches, I smell chlorine. He’s as good-looking as I remember, with his ruffled blonde hair and blue eyes. “Pepper?” He squints at me. “Is that you?”
“Yeah, hey Wesley.” I give him a brief hug. “This is Ryan, he’s new at Brockton, and on the cross team with me.”
The guys shake hands. “Wes used to go to school with us until high school. He’s at Lincoln Academy now.” I hear Wes is kind of like the Jace of his school, except his “big fish” status is in a much smaller pond.
“So, is Jace here? He took off without saying anything from the party we were at earlier.”
“Huh? I thought you guys hated each other. I didn’t know you were hanging out again.” One more thing I didn’t know. Last I heard they were rivals, not friends. “Jace never tells me anything. What’s his problem?”
“Don’t worry about it, Pep. It’s not like we’re good friends again. We just sort of have an understanding. We can hang at the same parties without shit going down. It’s a mutually beneficial alliance,” Wes explains.
“You make it sound like a business deal,” I say sassily and put my hands on my hips for added effect. Okay, so I’m feeling the alcohol a little bit, and I have an attitude right now.
Wes opens his mouth to respond, but we’re interrupted by Jace, who not-so-subtly puts his arm around me and pulls me away from Ryan and Wes. I shove him away and take Ryan’s hand. I’m pissed. I feel like I know nothing of Jace’s life anymore. “I’ll see you later, Wes. Come on Ryan, let’s get out of here.”
“Hang on,” Jace says calmly. He puts his hand on Ryan’s shoulder and nods at Wes, who pulls me towards him. Jace starts talking to Ryan in a low voice, and I can’t hear what he’s saying.
I start to ask Wes what the heck is going on, but the conversation between Jace and Ryan is over before it started. Ryan takes my hand again and we walk back up the path. “You want to tell me what that was about?” I ask.
“Jace just checked to make sure I was sober to drive, and to make sure you got home safe,” Ryan says casually. He probably said something else, but Ryan doesn’t seem intent on sharing.
When we pull up outside my apartment, I turn to Ryan. “Hey,” I say softly. “I had a really good time tonight with you.” I feel like I should apologize for Jace’s behavior, but I already apologized once. There’s no point in bringing it up again. Besides, it’s not my fault Jace was acting like jerk.
Ryan takes my hand and rubs his thumb against mine. “I had a really good time tonight too, Pepper.” He swallows, and I wonder if he’s going to kiss me. “Come on, I’ll walk you to your door.”
Music is playing from one of the other apartments in our building, and a couple of drunken girls stumble out. “A lot of college kids live here,” I explain. “Gran has been known to crash a party or two.”
“And by crash, I assume you mean she joins the fun, and doesn’t tell them to quiet down?” he asks as we reach the door.
I turn to face him. “Exactly.” I pause, giving him an opportunity to kiss me before I go inside. I
him to kiss me. But he hesitates, and I’m not sure what to do. “Thanks for taking me tonight,” I say lamely.
“Thanks for coming.” Ryan places his hands on my hips before I can open my door. He leans down and brushes his lips tentatively against mine. I move closer, encouraging him to deepen the kiss. He understands what I’m communicating and his lips part just enough to slip his tongue into my mouth. Ryan’s hands hold my hips firmly, but he doesn’t pull me into his body. My hands rest on his chest as his lips slowly caress mine. The warmth of his hands and lips spread to my core, and I gasp a little at the unfamiliar sensation. I start to tug his tee shirt, wanting to feel his body pressed to mine. Instead, Ryan pulls back, breathing heavily.
We watch each other, regaining our composure. I’m alarmed by my reaction. “Whoa,” I breathe out.
“Yeah.” He nods slowly in response, taking calming breaths. “I should drive home now.”
“Okay.” I nod in agreement, dazed.
He takes my hand and squeezes it. “Goodnight, Pepper.”
“Did you see this month’s
Running Fast Magazine
?” Claire asks me and Zoe on Sunday morning.
The three of us are standing in warrior pose in my living room. The furniture is pushed to the side to make room for our yoga session.
“Yeah, but I’ve never heard of any of those girls that they picked as top contenders,” I respond. “Have you?”
“I have!” Zoe pipes up. “You can totally kick those girls’ butts.”
“How would you know?” I ask her. “They’re all from different states. I’ve never raced any of them.”
“Oh, I check out the results and stuff online, and the discussion forums,” Zoe explains.
“I like your confidence in me, Zoe, but cross isn’t like track. You can’t just look up our times and compare them because the course is different every time, even if the distance is the same.” Pretty much all high school cross country courses are five kilometers, or three point one miles, but the terrain varies from flat and sandy to hills with rocks.
We move into sun worship pose, pause for a breath, and then lower into downward dog pose. I relish the feeling of a full body stretch as I arch my back.
“Yeah, but you won State last year. They should have picked you,” Claire says, sounding offended on my behalf.
“Claire, there are fifty states. They can’t pick all the State winners,” I point out. The blood starts to drain to my head – probably from the pose, but possibly from the conversation as well.
“The discussion forums think you’re a top contender, Pepper,” Zoe says, her voice muffled as she moves into child’s pose.
I copy her, letting my body rest. I really wanted to run this morning with Dave, but Coach insists I take one day off a week for injury prevention.
“I just want to qualify, guys. I think I should focus on that for now, and not what place I’m going to get.”
We rest quietly for a few minutes, lost in our thoughts as we listen to the soothing yoga music.
I like being an unknown on the national scene. It’s hard enough having expectations at the state level. My teammates, Coach, people at school, folks around town, and even Jace, are all aware of my potential now that I’ve had some success.
I’m pretty sure that we’ll make it to State this year as a team. Last year, we just barely missed making it by one place, and Zoe was sick, Dorothy was hungover, and we really didn’t have any other strong runners. Claire and Zoe raced great at our first meet, and Jenny is an awesome addition to the team. Dorothy fills out the top five, and isn’t as reliable, but with four strong girls we can count on, the odds are in our favor.
But if we do make it to State, that’s when the heat will really turn up. Though none of us have said it yet, there’s a chance Brockton Public could win the State championship for the first time in fifteen years. And they
have a chance if I get injured or have a bad race. I don’t want to let anyone down.
The yoga CD ends and switches to a familiar dance mix. Gran pops her head in the living room. “I love this song!” she exclaims as she dances her way towards us, swinging her hips to Mariah Carrey.
Zoe and I glance at each other and grin. Claire shakes her head and announces she has to get home to study. She knows what’s about to go down.
Zoe, Gran and I choreographed some rocking moves to every song on this dance mix. We immediately move into position and belt the lyrics as we shake our booties, roll our hips, and twirl around in a synchronized effort. Gran hikes up her sweat pants and pushes her wiry hair back with a head band. Zoe and I lose our tee shirts as we work up a sweat.
Several songs later, after a dramatic rendition of
by Ace of Base, I turn towards the kitchen to get something to drink. Jace is leaning against the door frame with his arms crossed and a huge smile on his face. His green eyes are dancing with amusement.
My heart jumps into my throat. I spent the last thirty minutes prancing around, and I just wrapped up a shameless Beyoncé wannabe performance. Yeah, that “dance like there’s no one watching” proverb? I can totally rock that. Except this time, I had an unknown audience. If there was any hope Jace might start looking at me like a mature, attractive young woman, I’ve blown it.
“How long have you been standing there?” I blow a loose lock of hair from my forehead.
He shrugs and grins wider. He’s wearing a tee shirt with the sleeves cut off and my eyes are drawn to his biceps. They look impossibly large with his arms folded like that.
I shake my head and push past him towards the kitchen. Someone turns the music down, and I hear Zoe squeak an embarrassed “hello” to Jace.
I chug a cold glass of lemonade. It helps to cool down my body temperature, but my heart is still racing. Zoe mumbles something about needing to pick up her little brothers, and waves good bye. It cracks me up how flustered she gets around Jace. But she’s just like any girl, after all.
“Boy, this old lady needs a shower after that energizing workout!” Gran huffs. She shuffles off to her bedroom.
I glance at Jace, who is still leaning against the doorframe, watching me. I swear, his jet black hair is always perfectly messed up in a wavy, tousled fauxhawk that begs for girls to run their fingers through it. And why do his cheekbones have to be chiseled like a sculpture? It’s so irritating.
I stomp off to my room. I grab a clean tee shirt from my dresser and pull it on over my sports bra. Jace follows me inside and shuts the door. He sits on the edge of my bed, and I know he wants to talk to me about something.
I sit down on the bed facing him, but as far away as possible. Still not enough distance. It seems like the more emotional I am – even if it’s embarrassment I’m feeling – the crazier my hormones get. I don’t trust myself with Jace in my bedroom right now.
“So what’s up?” I ask.
He runs his hand through his hair. “Do you really like this Ryan guy?” he asks.
“That’s not what I expected. I thought you were going to be doing some explaining, not asking me questions.” I fold my arms across my chest.
“What do you want me to explain?” Jace leans back against my pillow and rests his hands behind his head. He must be completely oblivious about how his position makes me feel. I’m having difficulty concentrating.
“For starters, why were you angry that I was at that party last night?”
He brings his hands around to his lap and straightens his shoulders. “I was angry. You’re right. It’s just, that party was pretty low key, but parties can get out of hand. Cops show up. People fight. Drugs. Guys. We live in a college town, Pep, and high school parties can quickly turn into college parties, and I just worry about you in those situations.” He glances at my confused expression. “I know you’re a smart girl, Pep, and I know you won’t do anything stupid. But I don’t trust other people. Even girls can be pretty vicious, and I don’t want you to get pulled into that scene. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“So it’s not because you’re embarrassed of me?” I mutter stupidly.
Jace sits up and rubs my back. “Pep, of course not. That’s probably one of the stupidest things I’ve heard you say. Why would you even think that?” He pulls me in for a hug.
I mumble into his chest, “I don’t know.”
Jace pulls away before I can get too comfortable, but leaves his hands on my shoulders. “Let me get this right,” I say. “You don’t like me hanging out with your friends or going to parties because you’re worried something might happen to me?”
“Yes, Pepper. I care about you. So much,” Jace tells me. “You know this.”
I do. I care about him too. Just in a different way.
“So, you’re protective?” I ask. He nods once. I force myself to ask the next question. “Like a big brother?”
He hesitates, and my heart squeezes in my chest. Please don’t say yes. Please
let what I heard in the locker room be a misunderstanding.
“Yeah, I guess you could say that,” he says quietly.
I can’t breathe for a second, and I realize I was holding my breath.
“I don’t really know what it’s like to be a big brother, but I know I don’t think of you like other girls.”
Knowing how Jace thinks about other girls, this is not good news for me. I suddenly feel like I might throw up the coffee cake I ate for breakfast.
“How do you feel about Ryan? You didn’t tell me you were going out with him.” His green eyes darken in disapproval.
“I like him, Jace. We had a nice time last night. Why, do you not like him? It seems like you don’t.”
Jace sighs. “It’s not that. He seems like a good guy, really. Not good enough for you, but no one is, in my opinion.”
I roll my eyes. “Will you stop being angry if I go out with him again?” I need to move on. Date other people. Let go of any hidden hopes I harbored for me and Jace. I didn’t know I was still holding onto them until now. Until he told me to my face he feels like a big brother towards me.
Jace puts his hands on his thighs and rubs them back and forth. I want to reach out and put my hands on his. But I can’t think like that anymore. Besides, how can I be thinking like that when we’re talking about me dating someone else? I mentally slap myself.
“So, you want to keep going out with this guy?” Jace turns to me again, searching my eyes.
“Yes,” I tell him.
“Okay. Just, be careful.” He grins sheepishly at me. “I know you will be. But, you know. I don’t know. I’m going to shut up.” Jace stands and stretches.
The conversation is too heavy. I don’t have the energy to ask about his college friends, or his friendship with Wesley Jamison. I just want to curl up in a ball on my bed and feel sorry for myself for being head over heels about a guy like Jace Wilder.
“You okay, Pep?”
I smile weakly. “Yeah. I’m good.”
“You know you can call me any time about Ryan, if you’re with him and need me to pick you up, or you’re upset. Anything.” He takes my hands and pulls me up from the bed.
“I know.” We make our way to the kitchen. “I gotta get back to homework. Want some coffee cake for the road?”