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Authors: Ali Dean

Tags: #Romance, #Young Adult

Pepped Up (9 page)

BOOK: Pepped Up
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“To me? Yeah. I look at you a lot. I can’t help it.” He laughs. “I probably look at you the same way you look at Jace.”

 

              “I’m sorry, Ryan. I really like you. I just… I’ve always had a crush on Jace. I mean, he’s
Jace
. I think every girl has a little bit of a crush on him.”

 

“Maybe.” He gets back on his tube. Before pushing off he turns his head around to look at me. “Jace is a hard guy to read, but -- I think he looks at you that way too.”

 

Jace
is
hard to read, and Ryan doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Ryan adds, “For now, let’s keep hanging out, being friends, but maybe wait to decide if we should take it further?”

 

I consider for a moment before replying.  “Yeah, that sounds good. If you won’t be my boyfriend, then I want you to at least be my friend.”

 

“That’s exactly what I thought. Which is why I didn’t want to try anything else and end up not being friends at all if it didn’t work out.”

 

“Come on, let’s catch up to the group.” I push off from a rock and drag his tube with mine.

 

“They’re probably way ahead of us by now,” Ryan says.

 

“I don’t know. We’re all serious lightweights. I’m pretty sure it’s the first time drinking for most of them. I bet they’re all stuck on the bank somewhere and haven’t even realized it yet.” Ryan grabs my foot and swings my tube around so I’m going down backwards. “Hey!” I call out.  He laughs and shrugs.

 

We don’t catch up to the group on the river and they’re waiting for us when we get to the exit spot. Zoe teases us, implying that we’ve been up to no good, but I shush her.

 

Jace’s group is nowhere to be seen, and I’m relieved. But when we get up to the parking lot and pile into Zoe’s mom’s minivan, I see Jace watching me. He’s sitting on the bumper of a pick-up truck. The college girl he was with is nowhere to be seen. It’s just Jace and the four other guys he went down the river with, standing around. Jace isn’t smoking a cigarette, but the rest of them are. I ignore his gaze and hop into the back of the van.

 

Claire takes the driver’s seat. I peek out the window one more time but Jace is no longer looking our way. He turns to get into the passenger seat of the pickup, and the other guys follow. Even amongst his college buddies, he seems to be the leader.

 

“That’s the look I’m talking about,” Ryan whispers into my ear. His warm breath on my neck feels comforting, but I know he’s right. I was so focused on Jace that I hardly noticed him slide in next to me. It’s probably only fair to Ryan to stay just friends for now. But will I ever shake my feeling for Jace Wilder? And what happens if I can’t?

Chapter 9

 

The next Saturday is our only home meet, and the hardest one to sit out. I won this meet last year, and it was the first time I’d ever won a race. I don’t know what I’d do if Ryan weren’t jogging along the course with me during the race. It’s a lot easier to trust Coach’s plans with Ryan at my side.

 

The team looks strong, and I’m happy to see Zoe take first place. It’s a hot day, and I’m not great at racing in the heat. Zoe, on the other hand, always has her best races on warm days.

 

I’m warming down with Zoe on the sidewalk after the race when a BMW pulls up next to us.

 

“Hey, Pepper!”
someone yells from the window. 

 

Zoe and I stop jogging and peer in the car. It’s Forbes, the guy from Lincoln Academy that I played beer pong against at Remy’s party. I see that Pierce is in the driver’s seat, and another guy is in the back.

 

“Oh, hey guys, how’s it going?”

 

“We’re on our way to a game. Did you race already?” Forbes asks.

 

“I didn’t. But Zoe did. She won.” I point my thumb in her direction. “Zoe, this is Forbes and Pierce,” I introduce them.

 

“Hi!” Zoe waves and smiles eagerly. She’s boy-crazy.

 

“Cool. Do you girls want to come to a pool party after our scrimmage?” Pierce asks.

 

Normally I would say no, but I can practically feel the excitement vibrating off of Zoe. I can’t let her down. And, since I know they only just met her, I figure I’m the one who is supposed to respond.

 

“I guess. What time?”

 

Forbes turns to check with Pierce. “Come on over to Wes’s place around three. Or we can pick you up if you need a ride?”

 

“I can drive!” Zoe volunteers.

 

Pierce hands Forbes a piece of paper and a pen and Forbes writes something down. “Here’s my and Pierce’s numbers, so we can give you directions or whatever.”

 

I take it. “Thanks. I think I know where Wes’s house is. He still lives in Meadow Ridge, right?” It’s one of the fancy gated neighborhoods with killer views, and even though it’s been three years, I’m pretty sure I can find it.

 

“Yup. All right, we gotta get going. See you later!” Pierce says before pulling away from the curb.

 

I glance at Zoe. When the car is out of sight, she does her trademark happy dance. I laugh, pleased to have a distraction from my fidgety legs that are anxious to race, and the increasing pressure to make Nationals. We continue jogging --well, Zoe is skipping, but I’ve got a little extra kick too. 

 

When I tell Gran about the party at Wesley’s house, she is less enthusiastic than I expected. “I don’t know, Pepper. Will Jace be there?”

 

“Probably not. I mean, they seem to be friends again, but I think it’s a Lincoln party. I could be wrong, but still, it’s at Wes’s house. You know him.”

 

“I
used
to know him. But he could be bad news now for all I know. You haven’t had that boy around for years. What about that nice Ryan fella? Will he be there?”

 

“No, Gran. I told you, it’s a Lincoln party. I don’t really know who else is coming.”

 

Gran harrumphs and crosses her arms over her chest. “All right. You can go. But you call me if there’s any funny business.”

 

“What kind of funny business?” Since when was she concerned about beer or pot?  “I mean, I’m guessing there will be drinking. Is that what you mean?”

 

“I don’t know exactly. I don’t mean drinking. I expect that. But if you feel at all uncomfortable, you call me and I’ll come get ya. I’m drivin’ you. I don’t want any drinking and driving.”

 

“Gran, you hate driving. Zoe said she’ll drive.”

 

“I’m driving,” Gran insists.

 

I let it drop and change the subject.  “Oh, Gran? Um. . . I think it might be polite to bring something to drink. Do you have anything I can bring?” I know she knows I mean alcohol, but I can’t bring myself to say that specifically.

 

Gran smiles mischievously at me, her good humor restored after I let her have her way. “I have the perfect thing.” Gran puts together a bag with margarita mix, tequila, chips and salsa. “Someone there will know how to mix margaritas, I would think. But the instructions are on the back of the mix if you need it.” 

 

I change into a coral bikini with beaded strings and a simple white cotton dress with cap sleeves. I used to wear the dress to church, but it’s too short now. Perfect for a pool party. I knew I’d find another use for it someday.

 

As we pull into Zoe’s driveway, Gran says, “Now, if you don’t want to call me, call Jace. Okay?”

 

Gran loves Jace and trusts him unconditionally. But I have no intention of calling him to pick me up for any reason.

 

On our way up to Wes’s house, Zoe squeals, actually squeals, with delight when I show her what’s in the bag Gran packed. I hear Foster the People playing from the back of the house. Good music is always a good sign. I ring the doorbell even though the front door is open. When no one answers, I figure everyone is in the back.  We wander through the house, following the sound of the music and voices outside. I’d forgotten how huge the Jamisons’ house is. 

 

I take a look around when we step onto the porch. There aren’t as many people as there were at Remy’s party. I immediately recognize Madeline, Emma, and Serena standing by the bar. Wes is behind it mixing drinks. He stops what he’s doing when he sees me and jogs over to us.

 

“Pep! Hey! I’m glad you could make it.” He gives me a hug and turns to shake Zoe’s hand. “I’m Wesley.”

 

“Hi! I’m Zoe.” She is beaming.

 

I’m relieved that Wesley is okay with us being here. “Yeah, we, um, saw Pierce and Forbes earlier and they invited us. We brought stuff.” I raise the brown paper grocery bag.

 

Wes raises his eyebrows when he looks inside. “Let me guess. Bunny?”

 

I laugh. “Yup. She said someone would know how to make margaritas.”

 

“I think I can handle it. How is Bunny?” Wes asks. He takes the bag and guides us towards the bar. He places his hand on the small of my back and I notice Madeline glaring at me. Forbes and Pierce wave from the pool where they are playing pool basketball with two other guys. There are half a dozen people on the beach chairs. Apparently it’s a fairly exclusive party.

 

“Pep, Zoe, have you met Madeline, Serena, or Emma? They were at the party I saw you at the other night, Pepper.” The girls look us over without saying anything. I gulp nervously.

 

“Yes, we met. We played beer pong. It’s nice to see you guys again.” I smile. I really hope they approve of us. We won’t make it through this party if they don’t like us. 

 

Serena and Emma seem to defer to Madeline. They look at her and wait for her response. Madeline smiles tightly. “Yes, Pepper Jones, I remember. It’s nice to see you too. Zoe, hi. What would you like to drink? Wes has a full bar.”

 

Zoe pipes up. “Oh, we brought some stuff for margaritas. Do you want to whip those up, Wes, while I put out the chips and dip?” I widen my eyes. Wow. Zoe is smoother than I gave her credit for.

 

              When I’m halfway through a margarita, I feel comfortable enough to take off my dress. Everyone else is in a bathing suit anyway. I sit on the edge of the pool and keep an eye on Zoe.  She’s lying on a recliner that floats in the water while Pierce stands beside her in the shallow end. Zoe has already finished one margarita and is on her second. I decide that this will be my only drink; I need to be the responsible one. 

 

Wes sits down beside me. “How come you didn’t race today?”

 

“I’m trying to make Nationals this year, which will make my season a lot longer than usual,” I explain. “So I’m not going to start racing until later. You remember Ryan? You met him a couple of weeks ago.”

 

Wes nods. “Yeah, he was with you at that party.”

 

“He sat out the race too. He actually
won
Nationals last year.”

 

“That’s right, I heard about him. So, how do you qualify for Nationals?”

 

I splash some water in front of us with my feet and lean back on my hands. “At Regionals. There are four regions. The Midwest regionals are in Denver this year. Nationals are in San Diego. It’ll be my first time on a plane if I make it.”

 

Wes’s phone beeps next to us and he takes a look at it. “I’ve got to go deal with something. I’ll be back in a few minutes. You okay?” Wes puts his hand on mine gently before he gets up.

 

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just help me keep an eye on Zoe, will you? She doesn’t drink much.”

 

“No problem.” Wes heads over to the shallow end of the pool and nods towards Pierce. Pierce hops out of the pool and talks to Wesley for a minute. They look at Zoe, who has her eyes closed on the raft. I notice her second margarita glass is empty.

 

After Wes tells Pierce not to take advantage of Zoe (at least, that’s what I hope the conversation was about), he heads inside. 

 

I can feel Madeline’s eyes on me from the bar, where she sits on a stool surrounded by three guys. I try to avoid looking their way, but when I look in the other direction, I see Emma and Serena sitting on beach recliners watching me.

 

Pierce rejoins Zoe, though hopefully he won’t refill her margarita or try to take her inside with him. Nobody is talking to me, and I’m no longer feeling comfortable sitting by myself on the poolside. I get up and wrap a towel around my waist before heading inside to the bathroom.

 

I hear Wes’s voice in the study across from the bathroom, and I figure he must have taken a private phone call. Maybe it’s his parents, who are out of town this weekend, and he doesn’t want them to hear the party in the background.

 

              I spend a moment looking in the mirror after I wash my hands. My long brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail. It’s always wavier on a hot day like today, and a few wisps have escaped around my forehead.  My big brown eyes stare back at me and I glance down at my body in my coral bikini. My olive skin tans nicely but I have a pretty brutal shorts tan line from all the running I did this summer. I look young and childish compared to the Lincoln Academy girls outside. I feel drab and boring, where they are girly and glamorous. I sigh. I should embrace the athletic running body I was given instead of wishing I had a different one. The grass is always greener. I’m mumbling this to myself when I open the bathroom door and nearly collide with a hard chest leaving the study. 

 

              I look up into green eyes. Jace’s arms go around my waist to steady me. “Wesley, why is Pepper here?” Jace asks, his eyes locked on mine.

 

              Wesley is leaving the study behind Jace. He scratches the back of his head. “Don’t worry about it, man. My buddies saw her and her friend Zoe earlier today and invited them. There are only a few people over.”

 

Jace’s green eyes darken when he takes in my bikini. I haven’t yet wrapped my towel back around my waist and I feel very exposed. Jace’s hands stay on my waist, even though I no longer need them there to steady me. I wonder, is this what an older brother would do? Is that look in his eyes something more? Maybe Ryan was right.

 

 

             
Jace breaks eye contact and lets me go so abruptly that I stumble backward before bracing myself on the bathroom door. He looks over his shoulder at Wesley. “You got a bathing suit I can borrow?”

 

              When Jace joins the party, Madeline immediately ditches the three boys at the bar and saunters over to him. I watch from my spot by the edge of the pool for a moment.

 

Jace blatantly admires her bikini-clad body, and his gaze rests for a moment on the little blue triangles that barely cover her boobs. She places a hand on his chest in greeting. I’ve seen enough. I take one more gulp of my margarita and dive into the pool. 

             

              I swim underwater all the way to the shallow end and pop up by Zoe’s float. Pierce grins as I push my soaking wet hair out of my face. “You guys want to play water basketball?” I ask.

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