Dating Trouble (GBT 4)

 GroverBeach4Englisch E-Book

Chapter 1

 

 

I BANGED MY head against Ryan Hunter’s shoulder. “Kill me now!”

“Aw, why so tragic, booklover?” Hunter wrapped an arm around me and dragged me through the gate to the soccer field behind our high school. “It’s only for ten weeks. Grab a nice tearjerker, drool over Edward Twilight, and time will fly by.”

“Cullen.”

“What?”

“His name is Edward Cullen, not Edward Twilight.” I rolled my eyes. “And I read that one years ago.”

“Right. Whatever.” My team captain, with the teddy bear-brown eyes and roguish half-smile that made girls faint in droves when he walked past, patted my back. “I’m sure you’ll find another great book to keep yourself busy until you can play soccer with us again.”

I cast him a sharp sideways look. “Do you honestly want to know how many books I’ll have to read in that time to keep me sane?”

Ryan grimaced, running a hand through his chaotic, black hair. “Um, no.”

“Five hundred and seven—and then some.” Gah! “I hate Doctor Trooper. How could he do this to me?”

A laugh escaped Ryan. It was typical for him to sound so chilled out. Nothing fazed him, no matter how huge the problem. “Come on, Miller. It’s really not the end of the world.”

“You only say that because you don’t have to sit over there!” I pointed a thumb over my shoulder at the bench on the sidelines. But at the sight of Ryan’s helpless look and shrug, I forced down my frustration. It wasn’t his fault my leg was out of order for the winter season. That was courtesy of a girl player from the Riverfalls Rabid Wolves. She’d nearly kicked my kneecap into outer space during a recent match. Boy, that had hurt. I’d wanted to bawl like a baby. Except, there’d been too many guys around to really do that.

Ryan released me, stooped down, and pulled his left sock higher to cover his shin guard. While he retied the laces of his cleats, he angled his head to look up at me and squinted against the sun of this late November afternoon. “Will you stay and watch practice? Lisa’s supposed to show up later.”

I grinned. “That was my plan.” His girlfriend, Lisa Matthews, was one of my best friends, and we’d talked on the phone before I came down here.

“Good.” Ryan jogged over to Tony Mitchell, Alex Winter, and Nick Frederickson—all members of the Grover Beach Bay Sharks. I wiggled my fingers at them when they glanced my way, before I headed for the single bench in front of the bleachers on the sideline. I did bring a book today, and it was not Twilight, but I also wanted to watch my friends practice.

The coming ten weeks were bound to be pure torture. Since last summer, soccer had become a solid part of my life. Not that I was any good at it, but I loved the team sport. It was also nice how I had transformed from a lazy bookworm into an athlete who could actually run three miles without dying of breathlessness during Hunter’s excessive training schedule.

Speaking of physique, there was one effect better than all the rest, even if it had nothing to do with soccer training at all. Straightening my light blue shirt, which was a tight fit, I looked down at my front and smiled, because I’d finally grown the curves nature had denied me when puberty struck. Phew. No girl should get her driver’s license before her boobs. That’s just cruel.

As I reached the bench, I looked up again and—what the hell—I stopped dead.

A guy was sprawled out along the seat, his head pillowed by his folded arms, gazing at the sky. Or maybe he was asleep. I couldn’t tell, because he’d pulled the rim of his ball cap low on his forehead. Headphones were plugged in his ears. The sound of Volbeat drifted to me, even from five feet away. Hmm, he had good taste in music. In clothes…not so much. Dark brown sneakers, brown shorts, and a yellow tee gave him a crazy Peanuts look.

I didn’t know who he was, or why he was occupying my seat, but since I was still part of this soccer team and he was not, it was only fair to shoo him away. There were enough empty seats on the bleachers where he could continue his Monday afternoon nap.

I walked up to his side, slapped his knee with the back of my hand, and waited until he pulled the earphones out; well, one of them at least. “Hey, Charlie Brown, this is my seat.” The sharpness in my voice left no room for discussion, or so I hoped. I wasn’t your typical commanding person. That was my friend Simone’s job. She had it down to the last bat of her eyelashes. Today, however, I thought I’d pulled off a pretty good imitation.

The guy angled his head toward me, took off his cap, and raked a relaxed hand through his short hair, which was the color of sunlight hitting glass. He blinked his cornflower-blue eyes a couple of times. A slow smile crawled across his face. “Sorry, I didn’t know the bench had your name on it.”

Hah! “Well, if you look again, you’ll find it carved into one of the boards somewhere.” Simone Simpkins and I had eternalized ourselves here sometime last summer. We’d tried to talk Lisa into it, too, but she’d only rolled her eyes. She’d always been the most reasonable of us.

The guy’s smile morphed into an intrigued expression, as one of his eyebrows wandered upward. “Is that so?” he drawled.

I dumped my backpack next to my gray vintage boots and crossed my arms over my chest. Charlie Brown finally worked up the decency to sit up. The longer I looked at his face, the more familiar it seemed. I might have seen this guy at one of Hunter’s parties but, for the love of Christ, I couldn’t fish his name from my mind.

However, he didn’t leave, which grated on my nerves. He pulled out the second earpiece, scooted down to one end of the bench and, without words, offered me a spot beside him. With a snort, I accepted the offer.

Nine days after the accident, I didn’t need crutches any longer, was able to drive a car, and could climb stairs again without awkwardly dragging my injured leg behind me. But sitting down on something as low as this bench caused me trouble. My knee still hurt a little when I bent it more than a full right angle. So, as usual, I kept my right leg as straight as possible and slumped in slow motion down onto my butt.

The Peanuts copy had put his cap back on and the cable of his headphones around his neck. Right now he was ogling me in a peculiar way—I could see that from the corner of my eye.

“You’re Susan Miller, aren’t you?” he said over the noise still coming from his headphones.

My gaze got stuck on the red shark grinning from the ten-by-ten-foot poster on the other side of the soccer field, and I nearly choked on air. Slowly, I turned to him. “And just which little bird told you that?”

“Not a bird. Your knee did.” He rubbed his neck and lowered his glance in a way that made me think of how guilty I’d felt when Mom told me I’d fried my ant farm at age six, because I’d let them take a sun bath on my windowsill on a dramatically hot August day. “And unless I’m totally mistaken,” he continued, managing to look sweet even as he grimaced, “I’m your replacement.”

“You. Are. What?” I jumped up in horror—not very gracefully—and planted my fists on my hips. “Hunter!” I yelled across the field and turned back to Charlie Brown, blowing air out of my nose like a bull in an arena. “Listen, just because I’m temporarily out of order doesn’t mean you can come and take my place. Hunter!”

The guy rose to his feet, placating me with his palms up, but I didn’t give him a chance to speak. “I’ll be back to my awesome normal in just a few weeks and able to play soccer again! No need for anyone to jump in for me. HUNTER! Get your sorry ass over here, now!”

Charlie Brown bit his bottom lip. “Ryan said the news probably wouldn’t go down well with you. I’m surprised he hasn’t told you yet.”

Oh no, he hadn’t told me. What the hell? I was unable to play for a while, not forever. No need to run off and find the next best guy to replace me—no matter how cute that guy looked, by the way. “What’s going on here?” I huffed as my team captain finally drew up beside me.

Hunter sucked in a breath between his teeth, his expression sheepish. “Er…did I forget to tell you that I found someone to play with us for the time that you can’t?”

“Obviously so!” At my murderous gaze, Hunter took a step back. Wow, I didn’t know I was that good. I could have let a sly grin slip right now, but I didn’t.

“Calm down, Susie,” the guy in brown shorts said in a soothing sort of way and reached out to touch my arm. He cast Ryan a look befitting a Boy Scout and a subtle nod. Gah, did he really think I hadn’t seen that? The next second, Ryan took off, back to the others.

“No one calls me Susie,” I growled at Charlie Brown, pulling my arm away.

“Okay. It won’t happen again. Just don’t bite my head off.” He winked at me. To my total surprise, it cut me silent.

With my head slightly cocked, I gazed up those few inches he had on my five-foot-eight frame. He smiled all the way to his ears. Because of how sweet he looked when he did so, I was willing to give him ten seconds to say whatever was on his mind.

“I’m not going to take your place. I used to play soccer a few years ago. When Ryan asked me to play for a while, I said yes to do him a favor.” Carefully, as if not to be too forward, he placed his hands on my shoulders, moved me back to the bench, and helped me sit down. He squatted in front of me, elbows resting on his thighs, so we were eye to eye. “I promise to be gone the day your leg is fine and you can take over again. How’s that?”

He smelled like lemongrass and Coke popsicles. Awesome.

I drew in another deep breath and finally let my frustration sail off on the ship of sighs. With my index finger, I shoved my glasses farther up my nose. I normally didn’t bring them to soccer practice, but since I wasn’t going to play only read today, I’d had no choice. “I guess that’s okay.”

“Great.” He clapped his hands once, stood up, and placed his white iPod on the bench next to me. “Take care of this for me?”

I nodded and noticed that he hadn’t turned the music off.

He headed away, but after only a few steps, he twisted to me again, walking backward. “I’m Ethan, by the way.” He shrugged and grinned. “Just in case you wanted to know.” Ethan grabbed his cap, turned it backwards, and ran off toward the rest of my team.

I sat rigid with my gaze transfixed on his back. My hands, which were usually cold as ice bags, were now sweaty. Why the heck were they sweaty? I wiped them on my white jeans and ground my molars together. Replacement player, my ass. Hunter would have to answer a few questions for me after practice.

More aggressively than I’d actually intended to, I pulled the zipper of my backpack open and fished for the book I’d brought today. It was The Fiery Cross, an Outlander novel. Over the past couple of weeks I’d become addicted to that series, but this was already book five of eight, and the series would hardly keep me busy much longer than a few more days. Yeah, that’s the problem when you devour books like your friends munch popcorn—you run out of good stuff pretty quickly.

In the distance, I heard Hunter introduce Ethan as their temporary teammate. Most of the guys and girls seemed to know him already, which wasn’t a big surprise. Everyone who knew Hunter also knew his friends. Well, apart from me, obviously.

I didn’t pay attention and buried my nose in the book, but with the music still coming from Ethan’s iPod, I just couldn’t concentrate. Maybe he’d left it on for a purpose? Most likely to continue getting on my nerves. For a moment, I considered switching the music off or at least turning the volume down, but when I reached for it, my hand developed a will of its own and plugged one of the headphones into my ear. Fine, I was curious. Before, there’d been a song from one of my favorite bands playing, so maybe there were more of my favorites.

Right now, Aerosmith was playing, which actually wasn’t bad. I picked up the white iPod and skipped a few songs forward, then searched through the library. Apart from that one song, there was no more Volbeat, which was a shame, but the other music was good enough to keep listening. Some metal, some rock, and even Ed Sheeran—that was totally my thing.

Turning down the volume, I put the second headphone into my ear and continued reading where I’d stopped before. Twenty pages flew by to the voices of Kings of Leon. Only once or twice did I sneak a peek at the soccer field to see how Charlie Brown was shaping up—and holy moly, he was good!

He’d just headed the ball past Frederickson—who’d gotten an award for best junior goalkeeper in North California—for an amazing goal. He cut a fine figure when he ran, too. Not like Kyle Foster, who thundered across the lawn like an engine on steroids, or like Alex Winter, who seemed too lazy today to even tie his shoelaces. In fact, Ethan was some serious competition for Hunter. He looked like he owned that field in a very natural, very comfortable way.

Sasha Torres high-fived him on his goal, and that was when Ethan looked my way.

Have you ever been caught gaping at someone, like really ogling in awe? You know how it makes your cheeks heat with embarrassment, right? Unfortunately, it wasn’t only my cheeks. Heat crawled all over my face, right up to my hairline, as Ethan called me out on my staring with a tight-lipped smirk.

I wanted to hide behind my book and whine, and yeah, maybe that’s what I actually did, but only after he’d turned away and engaged in the game again. I was listening to his music, I was ogling him, and I certainly was glowing red as a stop sign. Could it get any worse? If only time machines were real. I would go back thirty minutes exactly and never walk up to this bench.

As something touched my shoulder, I jumped right out of my skin, jerking my head around and screeching. The iPod, connected to the headphones in my ears, slid off the seat and landed on the ground before I could grab it.

Shoot! With my heart drumming like I was leading a battalion of soldiers, I tossed my book aside and picked up the iPod, quickly checking whether Ethan had seen what I’d done to his stuff. His back was turned to me. I breathed again and pulled the headphones out of my ears, dropping them in my lap together with the iPod. Finally, I faced Lisa, who’d lowered down next to me on the bench.

“Hey,” she said and laughed. “A little skittish today, are we?”

Still fumbling to turn off the music, I made a wry face and got right to the point. “Did you know your boyfriend replaced me?”

For the length of a drawn-out breath, Lisa frowned at me. She shoved a hand through her long brown hair. “Susan, you’re not speaking my language right now.”

Good, she had no idea. Knowing and not telling me would have been a major breach of trust. It didn’t stop me from wailing, though. “He brought in Charlie Brown to play soccer instead of me!”

Pushing up the sleeves of her pink blouse, Lisa laughed again. “He did what?”

“Yellow shirt,” I whined and nodded toward the soccer field. When Lisa spotted Ethan in the middle of a sea of blue jerseys and the truth dawned on her, an Oh was all she gave me.

“Yeah, exactly. Oh. Ryan told him he could take my place because, obviously”—I lifted my eyebrows to a duh-expression—“I’m not good enough to play for the team anymore.”

“Come on, that’s not true and you know it. Ryan loves having you on the team. I’m sure he and the guys can’t wait till your knee is better and you can play again. And until then, why not bring in a temp?” As she glanced at the guys again, a grin that said girls’ business only spread across her face. “Also, he’s cute.”

Who cared? It didn’t give him the right to take my place.

“Who is?” Simone’s voice startled us. We both turned around to find her and Allie Silverman behind us, scanning the soccer field with spiked interest. Both of them had hair that reached to the end of their backs, only Simone was a natural Scandinavian blonde with big curls, while Allie’s hair was as black and straight as a raven’s coat. Like Lisa, they were both on the cheerleading team—the team that usually cheered for us soccer players. Only now, they’d cheer for Ethan instead of me.

“The guy who’s dressed like a rotting banana,” I muttered in answer to Simone. “But I guess cute is a term that can be argued. I don’t like him. He’s playing my position on Hunter’s team.”

Allie gasped. “Permanently?”

“Temporarily,” Lisa corrected quickly. “Until Susan is fit to play again.”

“Oh, that’s not too bad.” Simone shoved her beautiful curls over one shoulder and snickered. “He’s quite the eye candy. What’s his name?”

Simone was the girlfriend of one of the guys on my team, and the two of them usually stuck together like glue, so her remark made us all chuckle. She’d never—not in a million years—dump Alex Winter for another guy.

“Ethan,” I told her.

“Did you talk to him already?” Allie wanted to know.

“A little. Before practice started. Why?”

“Because he’s looking at you right now,” Allie and Simone said at once with grins in their voices.

“What?” Oh man, shoot me, because I did exactly what you shouldn’t do at such a moment. I whirled around to check. And of course, I met Ethan’s gaze, which was indeed focused on me. While my expression was dull, if not a little surprised, the corners of Charlie Brown’s mouth tilted up before his attention returned to the other players and the ongoing match.

I slapped both hands to my face, groaning with my eyes squeezed shut. “I hate you guys! Now he must think I’m checking him out.”

“Are you?” Lisa giggled.

“No.” Granted, I’d done it before, but this time it was a total accident. I wanted to dig a hole all the way to China to hide in.

When I opened my eyes, thank God, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Samantha Summers—the girl that inhaled cherry lollipops like others inhaled air and who had become my closest friend since she’d moved to Grover Beach only three weeks ago—marched through the gate and strolled over to us. She was tiny and funny and I loved her like a sister. She would back me up against the gossiping hens surrounding me.

Sam sat down Indian-style in the grass in front of us and made a face. “Susan, you look miserable. What did I miss?”

“Ethan,” the other three told her at once.

“Who is Ethan?”

“I’ll tell you if you promise not to turn around and look,” I said before anyone else could point out my replacement to her.

Sam’s face scrunched, and it made her look absurdly intrigued. “Promise.” After I gave her the same story I’d given the others, her face split with a grin. “Okay, now you got me all curious. I have to turn around, Susan, I just have to!” She got all fidgety on the ground.

“No! You can’t. He already noticed us watching him,” I hissed, keeping my gaze determinedly away from the players. If she turned around, I’d pull her back by a fistful of her short, black, messy hair—that was a promise on my end.

“You’re crazy, Susan,” Lisa teased and added, “But there’s no need to turn around, Sam. You’re lucky—he’s coming over here.”

What? I froze at her words…gulped…and saw the soccer ball rolling toward us. It stopped right by Sam’s leg. She picked it up and sure enough, Charlie Brown was jogging our way.

“Hiii, Eeethan,” the girls sang out in unison as he took the ball from Sam.

Appalled, I stared into his wicked eyes. When he started to grin, I wanted to shout at him: I told them your name, so what? Only, I couldn’t make my mouth form coherent words because embarrassment had wired my jaw shut.

“Hey, girls,” he greeted the others like a perfect charmer. His gaze landed on my lap. On his iPod still in my lap, to be exact. “You like my music?” He chuckled but didn’t give me a chance to answer as he turned around and headed back into the game.

“Thanks a lot!” I spat through gritted teeth at my supposed friends. A moment later, however, I was snickering along with them, because aside from all the embarrassment, the situation was funny. If I were one of them, I’d have acted equally as stupid for sure. I’d just never been at the receiving end before.

Sam leaned back to prop herself on her elbows and stretched her legs out in front of her. She was the smallest of us, all right, but always wearing camo pants and black Doc Martens, she was also the most dangerous-looking of us five—even if her appearance was deceiving. Samantha was the nicest girl I’d ever met. Right now, she let go of a long sigh. “Take it easy, Susan. So he’s playing your position.” She shrugged it off. “It’s only for a while, and he’s cute. It’s really not a drama.”

Yeah, she was right; it wasn’t. And Sam would know a thing or two about dramas herself. Only a week ago her cousin Chloe had almost succeeded in making her parents send Sam back to Egypt, where Sam’s parents still lived. Because her father was a general in the U.S. Army and garrisoned in Cairo for three more months, Samantha had been allowed to move ahead to Grover Beach at the beginning of November to stay with Chloe and her family, so she wouldn’t have to move later, during the school year.

No one could have guessed that Chloe still had a crush on Tony Mitchell, the guy from my soccer team who Sam had hooked up with. It had caused a pretty nasty scene a week ago when Chloe wrecked her car and later almost drowned herself in the sea. We had quite an eventful fall.

Admittedly, none of us had liked Chloe Summers much before. But after what happened, we all looked at her with different eyes now—even though she never looked at any of us, ever. It seemed she felt really bad and sorry about what had happened. And now, knowing all the facts, it wasn’t hard to forgive her, whether she asked for it or not.

On the weird side, none of us had ever seen Tony as radiantly happy as he’d been since the day he and Sam became a couple. He spent every minute of his free time with her, so it didn’t surprise me when he came over to us during timeout. Stopping behind Sam, he bent down and stole a kiss. He did that every so often, and most of the time, he didn’t come alone. Hunter normally couldn’t stay away from Lisa either, but today he kept away.

Noticing, Lisa pouted at Tony. “Why isn’t Ryan coming over?”

“He’s scared.” Tony chuckled. “After the thing with Ethan, he’s afraid Miller will bite his head off.”

“Ha, ha,” I said. But there was a grain of truth in that joke. I flashed a tight-lipped smile across the field at Ryan. Catching my gaze, he rubbed his neck and laughed out loud, knowing that Tony had just ratted him out.

With only a short time left for practice, Tony headed back to score another goal against Ryan’s team. Watching the two of them out on the field was always a delight. Hard to say which of them was the better player. Since it was Ryan’s final year at Grover Beach High, I often wondered if he would nominate Tony for captain of the team when it was time for him to leave. But that was still a few months off and no one talked about it just yet.

Practice ended at quarter to four, and my friends immediately fanned out to their guys on the field. Being seventeen and still as single as could be, I stayed put and shoved my book into my backpack. It was then that I saw Ethan walking toward me and my mouth dried out. Why? Because he’d taken off his shirt and was wiping his face with it. Before he shook it out and put it back on, I got an exclusive glimpse at his rock-hard abs and shapely chest. I was pretty sure the real Charlie Brown didn’t look anything close to this beneath his yellow shirt.

Determined not to get caught staring again, I quickly turned my head away and rose from the bench. The backpack was already on my shoulders and I was about to walk off in the opposite direction when Ethan called out to me, “Hey, Susan, can you wait up a minute?”

Startled, I pivoted to him. He loped over and stopped so close to me that a whiff of his sweat caught me square in the face. Luckily he’d put on enough deodorant that it didn’t smell bad at all. Maybe it was just his shower gel, I couldn’t tell. In any case, it smelled manly and…nice.

Still slightly out of breath from practice, he sat down and glanced up at me. His cheeks were red and he’d tossed his ball cap aside, displaying a disheveled thatch of blond hair. He resembled a little boy, which was quite a cute look. It suited him.

“What’s up?” I asked, feeling a bit awkward because of my previous gawking. Hopefully that wasn’t the reason he wanted to talk to me. I’d put his iPod back on the bench without a scratch, too.

When Ethan reached out for my hand and pulled me down next to him, I didn’t protest. “I need to talk to you about my joining the team,” he said.

“You stole my place, end of story,” I answered, a little sullen now. “What more is there to talk about?”

He grimaced and released my wrist. “Hunter says I can stay, if you say I can.”

“Oh.” My gaze skated over the soccer field to find Hunter with Lisa some sixty feet away. When I lifted my eyebrows, he started to walk toward us, but Lisa quickly grabbed his arm and said something to him that made him stop and smile. She cast me a brilliant grin, gave me two very unsubtle thumbs-up, and dragged Ryan away to the parking lot. I rolled my eyes. Did she think she was Grover Beach’s new matchmaker all of a sudden?

It was a miracle Ethan hadn’t seen them sneaking off. He was still gazing at me. “So what do you think? Do I make a worthy player for the Bay Sharks?” His voice sounded awfully hopeful.

Dropping my gaze to the ground, I coughed to get rid of the annoying dryness in my throat. “How would I know?” I mumbled. “It’s not like I watched you play today.”

For a few seconds, Ethan just stared at me. The feeling was aggravating. As I turned to him again, the corners of his mouth tilted up in a slow grin and he drawled the word, “Liar.”

The heat of embarrassment rose in my body and here I was, once again wishing for a time machine. Since that wasn’t going to happen, all I could do was laugh. I don’t know why, it just burst out of me, and rather hysterically, too. I sounded like a hyena. Yeah, that was sexy Susan Miller at her best.

But sexy or not, the anger and tension from the past hour slipped away from me. I could look Charlie Brown straight in the eye and didn’t even blush. “Okay, you’re right. I did check you out, but I had to see what Hunter came up with to replace me. And”—while we were at it—“the thing with the girls before was totally stupid, but I’m not saying sorry for that.”

Ethan had watched me, fascinated, when I had my laughing fit, but now he chuckled, and the sound of it was quite delightful. “You don’t have to. It’s sweet that you couldn’t wait to tell your friends my name.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, right. Like that was the only thing on my mind since you introduced yourself.” Yeah, right. Like that wasn’t the truth. A shrug rolled off my shoulders, and suddenly I felt I could be honest with him. “As for joining the team—only temporarily, of course—you’re actually a passable player from what I saw. Your long passes are excellent. I guess Hunter could use you. And yes…I like your music.” Now I stuck out my tongue at him.

Man, I needed to stop before I talked myself into a frenzy which, hands down, happened more often than not, especially when I started to feel comfortable with someone. I couldn’t tell why exactly he made me feel so at ease, but I’d obviously slipped past the point of no return already. “You have a lot of good stuff on your playlist. And it was your fault anyway; you didn’t turn off the music when you left.” Duh!

A little surprised, either over my swell of words or about my taste in music, he tilted his head. “You like Aerosmith?”

“Not so much, but I kinda inhale Kings of Leon day and night. Sadly, there’s not enough Volbeat on your iPod. That’s my second favorite band in the world.”

Ethan turned to me on the bench, putting one leg on the other side to straddle it. An excited gleam appeared in his eyes. One that I knew all too well from myself, when I talked about books or music. “Yeah, they’re awesome,” he gushed. “I’ve only just discovered them, and I’m going to get all the CDs they have. Call me weird, but when I really like a band, I just don’t want to download their music. I’m like a—”

“Hoarder? That’s totally what I do.”

“Yeah, something like that. Only, the music shop in town isn’t very well stocked. I’ll have to order a few things online.”

“I have all their CDs, and DVDs. Their best one is Live from beyond Hell. You can borrow it if you want.” When he nodded, I made a mental note to find it tonight and bring the CD to school tomorrow. “Guess what! I even got them to sign my hoodie after a concert last winter.”

“You’re kidding me! You’ve met them? How cool is that?”

“Veeeeery.” I pulled my backpack down from my shoulders and fished for my phone before thumbing euphorically through the thousand pictures on it. When I found the right one, I held the phone out to him so he could look at the screen. My proud grin reached from Utah to Ohio. The picture showed me with the singer from Volbeat, his arm casually draped over my shoulders, both of us smirking at each other rather than into the camera.

“Holy cow! That’s awesome!”

“Yeah. And he smelled so terrible, all sweaty and worked up after the show—” I laughed. “But, for the life of me, I couldn’t bring myself to shower that night.”

Ethan nailed me with a calm stare. “I totally understand. I wouldn’t have washed Michael Poulsen’s DNA off either, if it was pasted on me.”

Oh boy, could it be that Charlie Brown and I spoke the same language? I’d known him for what, five minutes? And I already felt like I’d met my soul mate. We raved endlessly about the bands we loved, those with a natural talent for singing, and ranted about others who apparently thought they needed to strip naked in a video to draw attention.

It struck me dumb how much Ethan and I were in tune. Okay no, it didn’t—nothing ever rendered me speechless, but it was amazing. None of my friends felt so strongly about my taste in music, so this boy in front of me was definitely a keeper.

When my phone went off after some time, we were so deep in conversation that I didn’t answer until the fifth or sixth ring. Absently, I said, “Yeah?”

“Susan? Where are you?”

My mother’s impatient voice dragged my attention away from Ethan’s shiny blue eyes. “Still at the soccer field,” I answered warily. “Why?”

“It’s after seven. Your great aunt Muriel is here. We’ve been waiting for you to start dinner for over half an hour.”

I brought the phone down quickly and glanced at the display to check the time. She was right—it was five past seven. Crap! Being with Ethan, I’d totally forgotten my grandfather’s sixty-eighth birthday. His slightly senile, hard-of-hearing sister Muriel had come from Pasadena to celebrate with us tonight. I was supposed to help Mom cook dinner. Just where had the time gone? We couldn’t possibly have been talking for three hours. My face felt like the color just vanished from my cheeks. “Sorry, Mom. I got caught up,” I said into the phone and promised to be home in a few minutes.

“You have to go?” Ethan asked after I hung up.

“Yes. Family celebration.” Grimacing, I packed my stuff and stood up. “I can’t believe I forgot about that.”

Ethan rose with me. “It’s crazy. I wouldn’t have thought we were talking for more than twenty minutes.” He walked with me to the exit of the field, matching my slightly slower than normal pace. As we reached the parking lot, he stopped by a blue Ford Mustang and unlocked the doors with the punch of a button on his key ring. Looking back and forth between the car and me, he asked, “Need a ride home?”

I shook my head. “It’s not far. Only five minutes.”

He said, “Okay,” but it sounded like: What a shame. And it was exactly how I felt about having to go home now. I hadn’t enjoyed anything as much as talking to him in a long time. In fact, my mouth and throat had gone so dry from talking that I constantly had to swallow now to keep my voice smooth.

We looked at each other for an extended moment as if neither of us wanted to say goodbye first. When I decided I would be the one, Ethan beat me there, but what he said was, “Um, that was nice. Maybe we should do it again. What do you think? Tomorrow after school? We could go get a soda together somewhere.”

I ran a hand through my hair and played with the ends that hung in front of my chest. “What…you mean like—”

“A date?” He shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. Three o’clock at Charlie’s Café?”

A very funny feeling spread in my stomach. One that was usually reserved for when I was watching a movie with Zac Efron in it. “Okay.”

“Okay,” Ethan repeated with a smile, already opening the door of his car.

I waved at him instead of saying goodbye and turned around, grinning like a lunatic. But before I could walk away, he shouted after me, “Hey, wait.” As I pivoted once more, he asked, “What should I tell Hunter about me playing on the team?”

I laughed and again found a strand of my hair to twirl around my finger. “Well, I said yes to the date, didn’t I?” And with that I hurried home, hoping to get a piece of Granddad’s birthday cake before Aunt Muriel ate it all.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

MONDAY NIGHT WAS a fight night in my house. It started right after dinner when Gramps had blown out the thousand candles on his birthday cake and Dad cut it, then handed him a piece.

“Richard, you know my father shouldn’t be eating sweets,” my mom scolded him through gritted teeth. “Remember his diabetes, for goodness’ sake.”

“Come on, Sally,” Dad wheedled. “It’s his birthday. You didn’t make this cake to have the birthday boy watch the rest of us eat it.”

After that conversation starter, it was clear to me that I’d be sleeping with a pillow over my head tonight—like so many times before. Granddad cut me a wary look from across the table just before I got up and went to the fridge to get a glass of milk. No idea why I did that. I didn’t even like cold milk. But each time my mom and dad got in an argument, I felt the need to dash out of the room and find something else to do.

I gulped down some milk right from the carton, then went to the sink and washed away the cow-ish taste in my mouth with a glass of water.

“…it will take a ton of insulin until he’s back at his normal sugar level! Why can’t you be reasonable for once in your…”

My mom’s angry shouts drifting from the dining room were drowned out by Grandpa’s deep rumble behind me. “Have a glass for an old man, too?”

With a smile that I didn’t have to force as much as expected, I turned around and found him sitting at the small, square table in the middle of the yellow room, his wrinkled hands folded in front of a huge piece of cake. I filled a glass for him, then another, as my great aunt Muriel joined us with a confused expression on her face.

“Are they always like that?” she asked, pointing a finger over her shoulder.

A sigh escaped me. “Most of the time.”

Muriel pulled out a metal folding chair next to my granddad and sat down. Her hair wasn’t as white as his yet, but otherwise they couldn’t deny being siblings. Same big nose, the thin lips, and a healthy rosy color to their cheeks. I must have gotten my green eyes from my mother’s bloodline, too. Fetching three forks, I joined them, and we ate the cake to the background music of my parents having their second go at each other this week—and it was only Monday.

 

*

 

Mom and Dad were decent enough to stop fighting for a moment when Gramps and Muriel said good night and thanked them for the invitation to dinner. My grandfather’s house was next to ours. When my folks’ fights escalated at night, I used to walk over and knock on his door—no matter what time—dressed in my PJs and armed with my alarm clock. Gramps always let me sleep on the couch. Tonight, however, due to Muriel’s visit, I had to suffer through an argument that found its climax at twenty minutes past midnight with banging doors and my mother shouting, “What is wrong with you? Do you want to wake Susan?”

Thanks, Mom. Only took them four hours of nonstop shouting at each other to remember they actually had a daughter. I pressed the pillow harder over my ears and tried counting sheep to escape the mad reality downstairs. It didn’t work, and soon the sheep turned into soccer balls being kicked over a fence by Ethan. I watched him do that for some time and concentrated on the warm feeling that spread in my stomach. It was the thought of seeing him again that had my insides in a funky twist.

Oh boy, I was so going to put on nail polish tomorrow. Simone did it all the time, and she was the most beautiful girl I knew. I wanted to look pretty for Ethan. Remembering how he’d smirked and called me a liar today released a shot of adrenaline inside me. Getting really excited, I flashed a smile in the dark. Three p.m. couldn’t come fast enough.

Sleep must have claimed me, because when the alarm went off next to my face, I jerked upright to bright morning light in my room. Rushing to the bathroom, I showered, put on some tropical-smelling body lotion, combed and tied my wavy, light brown hair in a high ponytail, and fished for the untouched set of ten little bottles of nail polish in the cabinet beneath the sink. It was a giveaway prize from one of my favorite authors some time ago. Each color of the spectrum was in that box, from yellow to deep purple. I tried the soft pink one to match the pink shirt I’d put on after the shower.

Except, when I was done, the result looked nothing like Simone’s ever pretty nails. Maybe because hers were always perfectly manicured and hyper long, and mine were as short as could be from biting them in French class. No way was I going to leave the house looking like I’d been finger-painting. The only problem: the gift set came without nail polish remover.

Mom was my last resort. She always did her nails, so she would have some remover, too. Grabbing my schoolbag and also the CD for Ethan, I rushed downstairs to find my life-saver but stopped dead in the doorway to the kitchen when I saw her sitting at the small table where Gramps, Muriel, and I had held our own little celebration last night. She was wrapped in her dressing gown, a cup of steaming coffee in front of her, and the pretty auburn hair I always envied tied in a messy knot at the back of her head. When she looked up at me, dark rings dug deep into her skin underneath her green eyes. Obviously, the fighting hadn’t been over with the door-banging.

Mom smiled at me. A smile that drew forgiveness from everyone so easily. Including my dad. He came in at that moment and kissed her on the top of her head before he left for work. But first he came toward me and planted a kiss on my forehead, too. “I’m late,” he said. “See you sweeties tonight.”

“Bye, Dad,” I called after him. When he was gone, I sat down across from my mom. “You look tired.”

“I’m all right.” She reached across the table to squeeze my hands. “I’m so sorry for yesterday, honey. We didn’t mean to ruin the evening for you and Gramps.”

“It’s okay.” That was a lie, but she looked sorry enough; I didn’t want to add to that. “We ate the cake in here while you and Dad wrestled it out in the living room. And guess what?” I gave her a teasing smile. “Gramps didn’t die of a sugar rush.”

That made her laugh and eased the tension a little. “I know it was a silly reason for an argument. Dad and I will try to be better, I promise.”

I nodded, giving her the encouragement she needed. The problem was, all their fights started with silly reasons and I’d given up hope for a change a long time ago.

When she dragged my hand toward her and planted a kiss on my knuckles, she noticed my failed experiment and her forehead creased to a frown.

“Yeah,” I whined. “That was an accident. Can you help me fix it before I have to go?”

Mom brought out her first aid kit, which was actually a whole damn bag full of nail polish and stuff, and started rubbing drenched cotton pads over my nails until they were as clean as ever. “I’ve never seen you put nail polish on before,” she said, concentrating on the task at hand. “Why today?”

Grinning, I waited until she looked up and caught me pausing for a dramatic moment to announce my news. “I have a date today.”

“You don’t say!” All of a sudden, her face lit up like a light bulb. “Who is he? Do I know him? Is it Nick?”

“Frederickson?” I grimaced. “God no!” He was just a good friend. Even though there was this one moment when I’d thought I was falling for him. We’d just won a soccer match and Nick wrapped me in a bear hug, twirling me around. My stomach had filled with that butterfly feeling you always hear about, but it turned out to be just a burp from the soda I drank after the first half—which I suppressed of course. The moral of that story: Don’t let somebody shake you after you drink something bubbly.

“His name is Ethan,” I told my mom. “After school, we’re going to meet in town. He’s playing soccer in my place for a while. You know, because of my knee. We talked all of yesterday afternoon and he invited me to have a drink with him today.”

Mom stopped rubbing the nail of my pinky. Her face fell. “Did you say after school?”

“Yes. Three o’clock.”

“Honey, we have to pick up the car from the shop this afternoon. Did you forget?”

Hell, yes, I had forgotten. Dammit. The car had been in the shop for over two weeks, and Mom needed me to drive her out to Nipomo in my dad’s car, so she could bring hers home. I blamed Ethan for the recent black hole in my memory, since I normally had no trouble remembering anything like that…or my granddad’s birthday, for that matter.

“Can’t we pick it up tomorrow?” A whiny sigh escaped me. “I really want to go on that date. It’s my first, Mom.”

“Oh dear, I’m so sorry, but I need the car tonight.”

“What about Grandpa? Can’t he drive you?”

“He’s going to take Muriel back to Pasadena. She has an appointment she can’t miss.”

“Noooo.” With a loud thud, my forehead knocked against the table.

“We’ll be back around four. Maybe you can ask Ethan to meet up later?”

“Fine,” I muttered, fogging up the metal tabletop with my breath. What other choice did I have, anyway?

After Mom was done cleaning up the mess on my nails, I snagged a donut from the kitchen counter and left for school, eating on the way. The trouble with the nails had cost me too much time to sit through my usual breakfast of toast, eggs, and OJ this morning.

Licking my fingers after the last bite, I walked through the doors of Grover Beach High and headed to my first class—science. Pushing through the crammed corridors always proved a little hard in the morning. I shouldered my way through to my locker and got my science book out. As I banged the door shut and spun the lock, I caught a familiar figure in the corner of my eye. My heart started breakdancing. Crazy, I’d never had that feeling before, and it really felt as exhilarating as it was so often described in the many romance books I’d read. I stood there nailed to the floor for a moment, savoring that new experience down to the core. Eventually, I inhaled deeply a couple of times and walked up to Ethan.

He was surrounded by a group of people, three guys and two girls exactly. They all looked like seniors, a class above me, and I knew none of them. Ethan didn’t see me approaching. He was talking to one of the girls, a Thai supermodel lookalike—all long legs, delicate features, and yards of black hair.

The first thing I noticed about Ethan was his clothes. The white shirt and battered jeans fit him a lot better than the Charlie Brown outfit of yesterday. His short blond hair was styled to a casual Mohawk, his lips curving into a flirtatious smile directed at the girl.

A small sting in my chest made me aware of how much I disliked the sight of the two of them together, but I refused to read too much into this display and stopped next to him.

“Hey,” I said to catch his attention and gripped the CD I’d brought for him a little harder.

When Ethan turned his head to me, his smile wavered. He looked as if he was unsure whether I’d just spoken to him or to someone else. It didn’t escape me that he didn’t say hi. That caused my throat to dry out a little.

“Um, I brought you the CD,” I continued, my voice going from steady to hesitant within a couple of heartbeats as I held out the Volbeat album to him.

Now that he couldn’t deny I was speaking to him any longer, he turned to me fully, one hand in his pocket, the other wrapped around the strap of his backpack he carried on one shoulder. He still said nothing, and he didn’t take the damn CD, either. Instead, his gaze wandered from my head to my toes in a skeptical once-over. Heck, what was wrong with him today? And the worst thing about this was that all his friends were staring at me like I was some kind of alien.

I hated how a feeling of insecurity crept into me at Ethan’s considering look. Where was the chatty, fun guy from yesterday? Could he really forget me so easily, or was he just playing stupid? Well, there was one way to find out. Clearing my throat, I straightened my spine. “Listen, I can’t meet you at three today, something’s come up. So maybe we can postpone the date until a little later? Would five work for you?”

Ethan’s eyes widened. Folding his arms over his chest, he actually had the nerve to laugh. “Sweetness, what made you think you and I would be going out together?”

The air froze in my lungs. As a round of chuckles erupted from his friends, I wanted to vaporize like a vampire in the sun. He was nothing but an ass who’d been nice to me yesterday because he needed my Yes to join the soccer team. Nothing else. My hand with the CD dropped to my side. I swallowed hard, shock freezing my body, but I refused to let him have the last say. He could dump his crap on someone else.

“Obviously I got it wrong. Sorry, my bad,” I snapped, flipping him off as I whirled about and strode away.

From behind, a humored female voice drifted to me—the pretty Thai girl, I supposed. “What was that?” There was also the sound of a soft smack on someone’s shoulder, arm, or wherever it was that she hit him. “Are you dating that girl?”

“Ow, you’re breaking my heart, Lauren!” Ethan half whined and half laughed. “You’re the only one I’m dating tonight. I don’t even know who she is.” That was the last I heard before I let the voices of the other students around me drown him out.

And to think I’d even tried to paint my nails for him today… Agh.

But deep down it still stung.

Walking straight to science, I found my seat close to the window and slumped down with my arms crossed and chin dipped low. It took all of ten seconds until Sam and Nick made a beeline toward me. Sam sank into the vacant chair at my side, while Frederickson parked himself on the corner of my desk. “Wow, Susan, you’re wearing the face of a badger. What has you so wound up?”

“Ethan!” I spat.

“What about him?”

“He’s a complete and utter blockhead.”

Nick exchanged a wary glance with Sam before he replied, “Are you serious? From what I heard this morning, you and Ethan seemed to have quite a nice time after practice. Hunter mentioned that Ethan said you’d told him he could play.”

“Did he lie?” Sam demanded.

“No… I did say that.” Sort of. “But when you see Hunter again you can tell him I changed my mind. If he cares about my feelings even a little, he won’t let Ethan play my position.”

Nick sucked air in through his teeth, scrunching up his face. “Ooh.” He lifted his hands, rising from my desk like a fire had broken out. “I’ll leave you girls alone, so you can talk this out.”

The moment we were to ourselves, Sam lifted her eyebrows, prompting me to clarify. I would have done so, if the bell hadn’t cut our plans short. Sam, who sat next to Nick in science, vacated the chair beside me for Trudy Anderson. But as soon as the teacher had come in and started the lesson, I got a text from Sam asking for the full story.

Hiding my cell beneath the desk, I typed in the most important deets about my recent encounter with Ethan and sent the message off. Her reply was a sad smiley face, but another text followed soon. She suggested we skip lunch with the guys in the cafeteria today, get the girls together instead, and go into a huddle out on the campus grounds. This sounded exactly like what I needed. I looked up from my phone and over to her, pressed my lips together, and nodded. In a final text, I asked her not to tell Nick what had happened. The guys didn’t need to know everything, though they might find out soon enough. Once they met Ethan, he’d certainly spill the amusing story of how he embarrassed Susan Miller.

With Sam, Lisa, and Simone in most of my classes, the morning went by quickly enough. They were all taken aback as much as I was when they heard what had happened. When lunch break came and we found a place outside in the sun where we ate the sandwiches that Sam had picked up at the cafeteria, I could finally rant in a volume fit for a situation like this. It felt so good to just let it all out and not whisper behind cupped hands anymore.

“He’s such a moron! You should have heard him, oh my God! ‘What made you think you and I would be going out together?’” I reiterated in a dull imitation of his voice, then dropped my forehead to my folded arms on my knees and moaned. “He just used me. Pretended to like me so I’d say he could play.”

“Cheer up,” Simone said, placing her hand on my shoulder. “We’ll get even and make you feel better.”

I lifted my head. “How?”

“Simple. First, Lisa will tell Hunter to kick Ethan off the team. And then we go shopping.”

“Shopping?” Lisa laughed. “Is that your answer to everything?”

“That’s my answer to boy trouble. It’ll help Susan get in a better”—she leaned forward in a conspiratorial way—“mood.”

And it was the best answer she could have come up with. Buying new books always did to my soul what conditioner did to frizzy hair. There was only one problem. “I can’t. I have to drive out to Nipomo with my mom after school to pick up her car.”

“Fine, we’ll meet you in town when you get back,” Simone stated. “It can’t take you all day to drive those thirty miles.”

“No. We should be home around four. I’ll call you.” And already, my old smile was back in place.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

 

THE GOOD THING was that Mom and I made it out to Nipomo and back in record time and I was free to go book shopping, or whatever it was that Simone had in mind, by three forty. The bad thing was that just before I left the house, my father called and said he’d be late this evening. That was going to end in another argument. Mom worked as a nurse at the French Hospital Medical Center in San Luis Obispo. She was on duty tonight, so it was Dad’s turn to cook dinner for us and make sure that Gramps took all his pills and the insulin injection.

At seventeen, I was old enough to cook dinner for myself, and Gramps wasn’t a helpless, senile old man, either. He could look after himself very well. But since my gran had died of a heart attack two years ago, Mom had become hyper-careful and overly protective of him. Nobody said it out loud, but I believed she blamed my father for my grandmother’s death.

That particular day, Dad had begged on his knees for Mom to go with him to a very boring, very late charity banquet his boss had invited him to. She thought if she’d stayed home that day, she might have been able to save her mother.

Honestly, I didn’t see how. Grams was sitting at her sewing machine when it happened. She just slumped forward and was dead. It was over within seconds, the doctor had told us. She didn’t suffer or even cry out for help. No way would Mom have heard anything, given that we lived next door. Still, that was the time when the fights had begun. And they had never stopped.

Whatever the cause, Mom and Dad would argue again as soon as they were together, but at least it wouldn’t happen until tomorrow morning. I’d learned to treasure those rare occasions when only one of them was home. Reading in a silent house was the best thing I could think of. And I planned to do that right after shopping with the girls today.

At ten to four, I met my friends in front of Charlie’s Café. We’d agreed on starting the shopping trip with a hazelnut latte deluxe, which Charlie, the middle-aged owner, had recently added to the menu.

We filed in one after the other, me being the last to walk through the door. Just as it slid closed behind me, I heard the first traitorous gasp from Simone. Another followed instantly from Sam and Lisa. Sam was small enough that I could look over her head, but it took Simone, who was as tall as me, stepping aside for me to catch a glimpse of the person who had stunned them into silence.

Ethan sat at the bar.

My heart pounded like a bass drum—not from excitement to see him, but from anger. He turned around, maybe because he’d been waiting for someone and heard us enter, or because my friends’ loud gasps drew his attention. Whatever it was, when he saw me, he cracked a goddamn smile.

I gritted my teeth and just followed the others past him. Strangely enough, Ethan seemed to be expecting me to stop by him, so when I didn’t, his smile vanished and a confused frown took its place.

“Hey, Susan,” he said in a wary voice from behind me.

Now look who remembered my name when his friends weren’t with him.

Simone stopped walking and cast me a quick glance full of questions over her shoulder, but I shook my head, so she went to the low, rectangular table in the back. I, on the other hand, turned around and folded my arms over my chest. “What?” I snapped.

He peered at me, tongue-tied, for a couple of seconds. His brows furrowed even more as he slid from the bar stool to stand before me. “Um, I thought we had a date at three?”

“Excuse me?”

At my harsh tone, the guy behind the bar, who Ethan had been talking to when we’d come in, cast a surprised glance at me. He was a pretty boy with dark hair and even darker eyebrows. His name was Ted, and I knew him from my journalism class.

Ignoring Ted, I concentrated on Ethan as he murmured, “I’ve been sitting here the past hour, waiting for you to show up, and now you come with your friends and don’t even say hi?”

“Whoa, dude, you’ve got some nerve. Maybe you should’ve been thinking about that before you dumped all that shit on me.” I paused and put on a sugary smile. “Have a good day, Ethan.” Spinning on my heel, I stomped off to my friends.

Man, payback felt so good.

By the time I sank into one of the dark rattan chairs and picked up the menu just to have something to hold on to, Ethan had disappeared from the café and the door slowly drifted closed on its own.

“What did he say to you?” Sam hissed, shoving the menu down so it was no longer hiding my face.

“That he was waiting for me.”

“He did? That’s weird.”

I grimaced. “It is, isn’t it?”

Ted came over to take our orders and hushed us into silence. Only when we were alone once more did Lisa demand, “So, what are you going to do?”

“Nothing. He’s a moron, obviously with multiple personalities, and I don’t have to stand for that.”

She let out a thoughtful sigh. “I just don’t get it. I’m sure I saw Ryan hanging out with him a few times and, even though we were never officially introduced, he seemed like a nice guy to me.”

“Whatever problems he has, it shouldn’t ruin our shopping, so let’s not talk about him anymore,” I said. Ted returned then and served each of us a hazelnut latte deluxe. I took my cup and lifted it in a salute to my friends. “He was a short chapter in my book. Very short, indeed.” I took a sip, dipping my lip into the hot milk foam, and wondered why Ted was still standing by our table.

When our gazes locked, he said, “Your drink’s on Ethan. He paid for it before he left. And he says sorry for whatever shit he supposedly dumped on you.”

Choking on my mouthful of latte, I put the cup down before it spilled over my pants. Sam smacked me on the back until I could breathe again.

I wiped the foam off my mouth. “You’re kidding me!”

“Nope.” With a smirk that made him appear several years older, Ted turned around and went back behind the bar.

Was Ethan really that crazy? How could he forget what he’d said to me this morning? “Serious mental issues,” I thought out loud, shaking my head. “Can any one of you make sense of this?”

All three shook their heads. A great help they were.

I moaned. “Here I finally find someone seriously sweet”—someone who could measure up to any fictional character I’d ever been in love with—“and he turns out to be just a weirdo.”

Leaning back in her chair and lacing her fingers over her stomach, Sam chewed on her bottom lip. “What if it was all just a big misunderstanding? Maybe he’s on some anti-amnesia meds and simply forgot to take his pills this morning.”

I let out a throaty laugh. “Watched some Sci-Fi with Tony last night, did you?”

“Why?” She looked at me innocently. “Things happen.”

“In what universe?”

“Fine, don’t believe it.” She stuck her tongue out at me. “But I think, for the latte alone, he deserves a second chance.”

“You can’t be serious.” I grabbed a sugar pack from the glass bowl in the middle of the table and ripped it open. Adding the sugar to my latte, I stirred until it sank into the foam. “He totally embarrassed me this morning. How does that deserve a second chance?”

Sam raised her eyebrows, grinning. “Tony was a complete douche when I met him. Now we’re happy together. Just saying.”

Fair enough, she had a point. And the side I got to know of Ethan yesterday made me want to spend more time with him. It was as if we were on the same wavelength. Maybe there did exist some weird explanation for his behavior this morning. There were certainly no anti-amnesia pills involved, though. I’d rather believe Ethan was abducted by aliens. Finding out the truth tempted me… Only, was it really worth the effort?

I doubted it, yet I wanted to hear my friends’ opinions. In eleventh grade, you didn’t make such serious decisions all by yourself. “All right. Let’s vote. What should I do?”

Simone said, “Forget him.”

Lisa said, “Forget him.”

Sam said, “Talk to him.”

“That’s two against one.” I shrugged. “Sorry, Sam, you’re out.” And that was that. I wasn’t going to talk to Ethan ever again. With that decision made, I could finally enjoy my hazelnut latte deluxe, which I didn’t even have to pay for. Win-win.

The shopping afterward was pure delight. I found a dozen books to add to my TBR stack, a pair of skintight blue jeans, a picture frame—which I had no idea how to fill but needed to have because of the beautiful seashells on it—and some accessories for my hair. Satisfied, exhausted, and happy, I sank against the door when I got home and reveled in the silence in the house.

My new books found a place on the giant shelf my dad had built for me some years ago and which reached from wall to wall on one side of my room. The bags with the other stuff I’d bought today, I dropped on my desk. There was no time to put them away. Quiet nights were as holy to me as Christmas Eve. I didn’t intend to waste even one minute of it. Armed with a book, I settled on my bed in the corner next to the window and stuck my feet under the crochet blanket that my grams had made for my eighth birthday. Bambi was on that quilt. It was my most valued treasure.

Before I began to read, I leaned as far out of my bed as I could without falling. My arm was just long enough to reach the top drawer of my desk where I kept a pack of liquor-filled chocolate pralines. Placing them on the mattress next to me, I shoved a piece into my mouth. The pralines would keep my hunger in check, because no way was I going to stop reading for dinner alone.

Around nine, Dad came home and knocked on my door to say hi. I was lucky he didn’t make it past the threshold or kiss me good night, because from all the pralines I’d consumed, my liquor breath might have gotten me into trouble.

I waved from the bed and when he closed the door again, I finished this volume in my now-favorite series. As I turned off the light a couple of hours later, I hoped to dream of the Scottish Highlands.

Instead, I dreamed I was swimming in a pot of caffè latte while Ethan sat on the edge of the pot and repeatedly shouted down at me, “You can’t even play soccer right now! What made you think that you and I would be going out together?”

Since my paddling didn’t seem to be getting me out of the pot, I stopped at some point and drank up the five thousand liters of coffee instead. Afterward, I walked up to Ethan and spit it all at his face. “That’s for playing my position!” I yelled at him.

Luckily, I woke up after that. To say I wasn’t done with Ethan yet was a vast understatement. The guy seemed stuck in my mind like a toothpick in a cheese cube. So how could I get him out of there?

Sitting at the kitchen table and shoving a spoonful of scrambled eggs into my mouth, I wondered if it was better to evade soccer practice for a while. At least until my knee was fine and Ethan would have to clear the field for me again. Not seeing him seemed like the easiest way to forget about him. I toasted myself with my glass of orange juice on that decision and washed the eggs down with a sip, then I got ready for school.

A few minutes before the bell rang, I slipped into the building and headed straight for my first class. Certain that Sam would be the first to grill me this morning on the subject of Ethan and how I felt about him today, I was surprised to run into Lisa in the hallway.

“Susan, wait,” she hissed with an urgent look. “I have to tell you something.” Only problem—she was talking to a teacher and had to finish that little chat first. Patiently, I waited at the corner of the hallway, off to the side, for a couple of minutes, until a familiar voice carried to me—and caused the hair at the back of my neck to stand on end.

I cast a look over my shoulder. In front of the restrooms, Hunter and Ethan were engaged in a chat. It looked like one had just come out and one was about to walk into the restrooms, but both had too much to tell the other to move on.

Instantly, I shielded my face with one hand and lowered my head. Right, as if Hunter wouldn’t recognize me the second he looked over. And probably Ethan, too. Rolling my eyes at myself, I ducked around the corner fast, so they wouldn’t see me, but their voices kept drifting through the corridor.

So much for not going to soccer practice to avoid Ethan. I’d have to skip school, too! Seeing him today totally ruined my intention of getting the blockhead out of my mind. And heck, yesterday’s free hazelnut latte still had my emotions in a knot. Maybe we needed to talk it out once and for all—just so I could stop thinking about him and hopefully sleep better.

But with my nerves in this state, I could hardly walk over and confront him. Gah! What misery, and before first period even started. Frustrated, I banged my head against the wall behind me, pulling at my hair.

Lisa, who was standing with her side to me, must have caught my angst. She shot me a puzzled look, which I returned with a nod in Ethan’s direction. She bit her lip, so obviously wanting to tell me something, but the stout woman wasn’t done talking to her yet. I had no idea which subject Lisa had with her, but they seemed on very close terms. Man, what would I give to spring my friend from her teacher’s clutches and consult her about my trouble with Ethan.

Since that obviously wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, I steeled my nerves and stepped around the corner, facing the guys in front of the restrooms. My breakfast rolled around in my stomach, but I ignored that queasy feeling and walked straight up to Hunter and Ethan, gaining speed and courage as I went.

Ethan saw me first. Though he kept talking to Ryan, his eyes focused on me alone. Only when I stopped a couple of feet before him and stared at him did he cut off mid-sentence.

“Okay, explain,” I snapped.

Surprised, Hunter turned to me, too, but I ignored him.

“Explain what exactly?” There was that same dismissive edge in Ethan’s voice as yesterday. As he cocked his head then, a taunting grin replaced his frown. “Sweetness, are you stalking me?”

That caught me off guard and I coughed an outraged laugh. “Oh my God! What’s wrong with you?”

“Excuse me? You’re the one who keeps chatting me up.”

Hunter chuckled. “Susan…” I wouldn’t have paid him any attention, if he hadn’t put an arm around my shoulders, too. “Susan…” he said again and waited until I tilted my head in his direction.

Ryan had all my respect as team captain and I valued him as a really good friend, but right now I wanted to wipe that smirk right off his face. “What?” I snarled.

He put his other hand on my shoulder and turned me to face Ethan again. “Meet Chris.”

“Chris who?”

“Donovan,” Ethan said.

“Ah right.” I folded my arms over my chest, adopting a cynical look. “And you’re Ethan’s alter ego, or what?”

The guy who looked like Ethan smirked at me. “Brother.”

“Brother…” My face fell.

Ryan leaned closer and whispered into my ear, “Twins.”

“Twins.” A second passed and the information sank in like a hot dog in a bun. “Twins?” I pivoted to Ryan, banging my head against his chest. “Nooo…” If only I could knock myself out this way.

The duplicate of the nice guy I met Monday afternoon started to shake with laughter. “So you met Ethan? Hell, now I get it.”

I didn’t care if anything made sense to him. He was a jerk for how he’d talked to me yesterday, and I wanted to be as far away from him as I could. And, holy guacamole, I had to find Ethan and sort out this terrible misunderstanding. After all, I still had the live album of Volbeat in my backpack.

“See you later,” I growled at Hunter and said nothing at all to Chris, but turned and trudged off, mentally banging my head on a brick wall for not realizing what was going on. Moments later, though, it hit me that I might not find Ethan or—worse—I might mistake Chris for him again.

To avoid another disaster, I stopped in my tracks, spun around, and walked back to the guys. Hunter was laughing, but Chris still had his eyes on me. I must have made quite the impression. Not a very good one, I was sure.

As I stood in front of him once more—and boy, the brothers did look incredibly alike—I fished a pen from my schoolbag and reached for Chris’s arm. Explaining myself wasn’t going to help me much, I supposed, so without a word, I shoved the sleeve of his white sweatshirt up to his elbow and pulled his forearm to me. Then I scribbled my number on him.

It was funny how he let me write on his skin and didn’t even budge. Maybe my behavior startled him into silence. Good. I suppressed a sneer as I said, “Tell Ethan to call me.” I was about to walk off again when I remembered the CD and fetched that from my backpack, too. I pushed it at his chest. “Give him that and tell him thanks for the latte.”

Chris blinked twice. His eyes were the same cornflower-blue as Ethan’s. Beautiful and captivating. He let a smirk loose that sped up my pulse. “Pleeease,” he drawled.

“Pleeease,” I repeated, faking my sweetest smile. As I turned and walked away, I banged straight into Lisa. My schoolbag slipped from my shoulder and landed on the floor.

“Am I too late?” Lisa whispered as I bent to pick up my backpack.

I made no effort to keep my voice low like hers. “For what?”

“To tell you that this isn’t Ethan and that I figured it all out.”

I straightened and cast a crotchety look over my shoulder at the guys. Chris’s scrutinizing gaze bored into me like a lance. “Yep. Too late.”

 

 

Chapter 4

 

 

IT TOOK UNTIL five o’clock this evening for Ethan to finally call me. I knew it could only be him when an unknown caller ID flashed on my phone, and I picked up with a galloping heart. “Hello?”

“Hey, sweetness,” the guy at the other end said, and with a shudder slithering down my spine I knew I had been wrong. This was not Ethan. He wouldn’t call me sweetness in that wicked drawl.

I moaned, disappointed and twice as frustrated. “Why are you calling me, Chris?”

“Because you gave me your number,” he teased.

“I didn’t give it to you.”

“No? The handwriting on my forearm objects.”

I took off my glasses and rubbed between my eyes, where a hard throbbing had started two seconds ago. “Fine. I didn’t give it to you to call me. Where’s your brother?”

“Last time I checked, he was in his room.”

“Get him on the phone, please, will you?”

“Hmm. That means I have to get up and walk over there. I don’t think I’m in the mood to do that just now.” Was he actually chuckling?

“Then why did you call me?” There was only a heartbeat between that and me banging my head on the keyboard of my computer where I was doing homework.

Chris laughed, and he sounded amazingly sweet when he did. Just like Ethan had when we’d first met. “I told you, because you gave me your number,” he explained.

“Not that again,” I whined.

“Fine.” He paused. “Then maybe to ask you to go out with me?” By the sound of it, a smirk came with that question.

“What?” This was so unexpected that I jerked around in my swivel chair and slammed my knee on the desk. Ow, crap, that hurt. Thank God it was my good knee. The pain came and faded quickly. “You must be kidding me.”

“Nope. Why would I?” Was he teasing me again?

“Because I want to talk to your brother and not you, to begin with. And aren’t you supposed to be dating Laura?”

He hummed into my ear. “Who’s Laura?”

“Asian supermodel? Long black hair?” I pointed out with an annoyed snarl.

“Oh, you mean Lauren? Well, I did date her yesterday. And I might again sometime. But there’s always a free spot in my calendar to squeeze you in, sweetness.”

“Are you actually mental?”

“I hope not,” he answered with the same seriousness that I had put in my voice. “Why? Are you not a safe girl to date?”

“I’m the perfect girl to date, just not for you, dumbass!”

“Aw, don’t say that, little Sue. You don’t know me yet.”

“And God willing, I never will. Please, go get Ethan now and stop wasting my time.”

Chris laughed again. It was so loud I had to pull the phone away from my ear. “All right, you win. But tell you what,” he said. “If it doesn’t work out between you and Ethan, which I know it won’t, you let me take you on a date. Deal?”

There was only one answer to give. “When hell freezes over.”

His voice turned serious—too much so for the next line to pass as a casual remark. “That happens more often than you think, sweetness.”

An odd chill started at the back of my neck and spread way down into my limbs. The strangest thing was, the chill didn’t feel at all uncomfortable.

I heard some rustling at the other end of the line, a knock, and the faint sound of a door being opened. “Call for you,” Chris said, but from a distance now. More rustling and a smack followed.

“Hello?” Ethan said moments later. I wondered if Chris had tossed him the phone.

“By the way, she said thanks for the latte!” I could hear Chris’s last comment, followed by his chuckle and a door slamming shut.

“Hi, Ethan. It’s me. Susan.” I felt so awkward I could burn a hole in my chair from embarrassment.

“Hey, Susan,” he said, with surprise ringing all the way from his house to mine. A moment of silence passed. Then a deep breath—my breath—and finally a laugh from the other end. “You’re welcome.”

I frowned at the stack of books on my desk. “Welcome for what?”

“For the latte. I guess it’s what you ordered at Charlie’s yesterday, right?”

“Um, well. Yeah.” Charlie’s… Did I have to apologize now? But how could I have known they were twins? They were the ones who had messed around with me. Heck, Ethan should have figured all that out way before me—before I made a complete idiot of myself. “It’s not my fault that you have a twin, Charlie Brown,” I blurted out and rose from my chair. Walking to the window, I gazed at the street below.

“Ah, so it’s mine?” Ethan laughed at me, the same sweet sound I’d heard from his brother a minute ago. “I don’t see how exactly I could have prevented that from happening.”

“You could have tried in an embryonic stage.”

“And kick my brother out of my mom’s womb? Yeah, I would have liked that.”

“You could have told me,” I said a little calmer now, but more sulkily, and swirled around, facing my room instead of the sun outside.

“There was no reason to. It usually doesn’t come up as the first thing I say when talking to a cute girl.”

He thought I was cute? I squeezed my eyes shut and suppressed a silly little squeal. My hand curled so tightly around the phone, I was surprised it didn’t crack.

“Susan? Are you there?”

“Um, yeah. Yeah, of course.” Dammit, he’d heard the smile in my voice. It made him chuckle.

“Hey, I was thinking…” he drawled, and all I heard was: Go out with me, go out with me! “Maybe you want to hang out a little. Today. You know, to make good for standing me up yesterday.” There was a teasing note in his voice.

When I said nothing—because, frankly, I was too giddy from his request—he continued, “I can come over to your place, if you’d like that. Or you can come over to mine.”

It was five o’clock, my mom was home, and my dad would be here in another ten minutes. They hadn’t had a chance to finish the fight that started yesterday with Dad’s call about coming home late, so that would be flashing over our house like a sign of doom for the rest of the evening. I didn’t want Ethan to get here and find himself in the middle of my daily horror show.

“I think I’ll come to yours. My folks are a little busy tonight.” I hurried across the room, tripped over my own feet in my excitement, which was spreading throughout my entire body, and fell against the door. My cell dropped to the floor with a clang. Crap!

Picking up the phone and wildly cursing at myself in a voiceless stream of f-words, I heard Ethan’s laugh. “Susan? Did you just hurt yourself?”

Rubbing my head, I moaned, “Only a little.” Maybe I’d pop a chill pill before I left. Stumbling around his house this way was not an option for making up for our missed first date. “Give me your address, and I’ll be there in ten.”

I jotted down his addy in the back of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which was the first thing I grabbed in my current state of mega-nervousness. After I hung up, I went downstairs to ask my mom for her car.

“Where are you going?”

“To Ethan’s.”

“Be home by seven.” She lifted her finger in my face with the keys dangling from her hand. “And no forgetting about it again!” She only said that because of my excited flush.

“Promise.” I crossed my heart and headed out with one last check of myself in the mirror. My hair was in a perfect ponytail, skin a healthy pink—too pink—no leftovers from lunch between my teeth, and there were no stains of any sort on my light green tee. Ethan, here I come!

Taking a deep breath, I sank behind the wheel of my mom’s car and stalled the engine twice before I got my nervous foot to dose the gas just right to drive off. Now I knew why the girls all had anxiety attacks before their first dates. Not that this was really a date, it was merely hanging out with Ethan. Alone. At his place. A snicker escaped me, which didn’t matter because no one was there to call me a nutcase. Heck, I was so going to title this a date later when I called Sam and told her everything about it.

Ethan’s house, though small and squeezed in between equally sized bungalows, was easy enough to find. They didn’t have an exclusive drive or a garage to park their cars, but from where I stood, the white bungalow with the dark brown roof, windows, and door looked cozy and inviting. And my CD was playing somewhere in that house. A smirk slipped to my lips. I rang the doorbell and waited while the first line of Ode to Joy played out, drowning out my music.

When the door opened, I found myself face to face with a woman who looked set to run me over like a bus. She pushed her arms through the sleeves of a beige trench coat, slipped into a pair of black pumps, flicked her amber hair over her shoulder, gave me a smile, and slid the strap of her purse up her arm, all at the same time.

“Hello, sweetie, what can I do for you?”

Uh, did I look like a Girl Scout trying to sell cookies? I swallowed, feeling the nervous pit in my stomach again. “I’m Susan. Is Ethan home?” Immediately, I wanted to slap myself for that question. He was listening to my music and he’d told me to come over not fifteen minutes ago, so of course he was home. But honestly, what else was I to say?

“Yes, he’s in his room.” She shouted over her shoulder, “Ethan!” Then she grabbed a scarf that was way overdoing her attire considering there was just a light breeze today, but it complemented her outfit, which had me thinking she was going to an important meeting. She left me standing in the entrance, excusing herself. Obviously, she was running late.

The door slammed shut behind me, but there was no sign of Ethan. In fact, the music was all that was to be heard for the next twenty seconds. I felt a little stupid being left alone in this house and considered walking outside to ring the bell once more. Eventually, I shook my head and tracked the sound down the hallway to the back of the house.

There were two doors next to each other at this part of the bungalow. One of them must lead to Chris’s room. A shudder skittered down my spine at the memory of our chat on the phone. Luckily, it wasn’t hard to tell from which room the music was coming, so I knocked on that door and when no one answered, I hesitantly entered. No wonder Ethan didn’t hear me. The loud music blasted away my every thought as soon as I opened the door.

Sprawled in a comfy chair close to the wide, square window that must be overlooking their garden, Ethan was reading what looked like a textbook for Spanish class, because there was a smiling boy wearing a sombrero and shouting HOLA! in a speech balloon on it. Immediately, drool formed in the corner of my mouth because, oh my freaking Jesus, he was wearing sweats. Only sweats—totally with nothing on top and no shoes or socks either. He knew I would be coming, so was he doing this on purpose to set my heart in a flutter for a greeting? If so, he’d totally succeeded.

Ethan didn’t hear my hoarse “hi,” nor did he notice me standing in his room. I had to reopen and slam the door to get his attention, but when he looked up, his lips formed a smile. Not instantly. It took him a couple of seconds to get rid of that frown, so I guessed the textbook was really captivating and I’d just ripped him out of some serious studying for finals or something.

Ethan didn’t say anything. It wouldn’t make much of a difference anyway with the volume turned up like he was trying to give a bunch of aliens a signal. He rose from his chair, put his textbook away, and lowered the volume of the music, his eyes glued on me all that time.

When the room was quiet enough for us to hear our own voices, I said rather fast because of my nerves as I gushed over his toned body, “Um, hi. Sorry for breaking into your room…sort of.” I shrugged. “Your mom let me in.”

Ethan came toward me—slowly, I’d like to add, like some sort of tiger on a prowl. He still said nothing, so I blabbered on, and not only because it gave me something to do other than staring at his oh-so-naked chest where a set of two silver chains glinted. “She called you but with that noise fending off the cats and dogs of the neighborhood, I get it that you didn’t hear—”

Ethan placed his hand over my mouth, cutting me off mid-sentence. He put his index finger in front of his lips in a sexy shh gesture. The urge to plant a kiss on his palm took hold, but I managed to resist. What would that have made me look like? A horny dork?

His blue eyes raked over me for a moment, and all I could do was swallow hard. What was his plan? Maybe his brother was napping next door and he didn’t want to wake him.

Yeah, sure, with the music blasting the roof away just a second ago.

My ragged breath was dampening the back of his hand as I tried to keep from swooning by breathing deeply through my nose.

Ethan took his hand away from my lips. “I didn’t expect you to jump at my offer so fast…especially after you turned me down so mercilessly on the phone.”

What in the world— My brows furrowed to a baffled V, then it dawned on me and I groaned. “Nooo. Chris?”

“The very same.” His smug grin pricked my nerves like little needles.

“Why are you listening to my CD?”

“I could tell you, but you might not like the answer.”

I dared him to explain with my lifted eyebrows.

Chris leaned a little closer and said softly in my ear, “Because you gave it to me.”

The guy was driving me up a wall. I wanted to knock myself unconscious with a hammer, but maybe that was a bad idea, considering I stood in the door of Don Juan’s room. Not only equipped with the body of the infamous seducer, Chris clearly had the ego to match.

“That, as well as my number,” I growled, keeping a lid on my anger, “you should have passed on to Ethan. Why didn’t you?”

He twirled a swath of my hair around his finger, almost stroking my cheek with the move. “I wanted to learn what taste you have in music, so I know what to put on when we make out on my bed.”

I smacked his hand away. “In case you haven’t figured it out all by yourself, let me make it clear now: You have a screw loose. More importantly, it’s considered rude to hit on someone who actually came to see your brother.”

“Why? You think he’ll be mad?” His mouth curved up. “You think he’ll date you?”

Well, he invited me over and called whatever we missed yesterday a date. So, yes, I was under the impression, which is why I came over today. What I said out loud, though, was, “Why, don’t you?”

Chris stroked his chin with his thumb and index finger. “In fact, I think I’ll just watch for a while and let myself be entertained by how things go from here.” He winked at me, grabbed my shoulders, and spun me to face the door. As he leaned around from behind to open it, I caught a whiff of mint that must have been his breath way close to my face. Steering me out into the hallway and to the left, he opened the other door and gently pushed me into the room.

The exact copy of the guy behind me, only dressed in a washed-out, green t-shirt and actual jeans, sat on the bed in the corner playing some video games. When he looked up and saw me, his mouth stretched into an immediate smile.

“You’ve got a visitor,” Chris taunted and moved me farther into the room. He let go and left without another word, but erupted into fits of laughter on the way out.

I shut the door behind him and dropped against it, releasing a long exhale and making a mental note to never again enter the room on the left in this hallway.

“Hey there, you okay?” Ethan asked and got off his bed, walking toward me with a puzzled frown.

“Mm-hmm.” I nodded but still felt too shaky to leave my safe spot by the door. Now I couldn’t hang out with Ethan ever again without imagining that exact same six-pack on him that Chris had displayed. Crap.

“You look a little out of breath.”

“I walked into the wrong room.”

“Why?”

“Why do you think?” I folded my arms over my chest and scowled, blaming him for misleading me. “He’s playing my music. Why did you give him the Volbeat album?”

Ethan laughed at me as he parked his butt against the corner of his desk, gripping the edge. “I didn’t. You did.”

Jeez, could these guys stop rubbing it in already? “But only so he’d give it to you.”

“Well, he refused to. At least he’s playing it loud enough that I can listen, too.”

As if that was his cue, Chris turned up the music in his room again. We could hear it at a low volume through the wall. “See?” Ethan flashed a brilliant half-smile that I just so happened to fall in love with that minute.

“So, um, what do you want to do?” I asked, to take my mind of the encounter with Chris, and tucked my fingers in my tight pockets with a shrug.

He clearly hadn’t put much thought into that part of me being here when he’d invited me over. His face was a blank wall. He pursed his lips thoughtfully to one side, but not so much as a single idea came out.

Straining my neck, I glanced over his shoulder at the widescreen TV a little away from the foot end of his bed. “What were you playing?”

FIFA. You know what that is?”

“Are you kidding me? I play it all the time with Nick. Care for a match?”

Ethan’s eyes started to glow. “Sure. Make yourself comfortable. I’ll get you something to drink and”—he paused and studied me like I was a whole different race—“popcorn?”

When I looked at him in those baggy pants and the washed out t-shirt, I was thinking Peanuts, but I didn’t say that out loud. “Popcorn would be great.”

While he was gone, I settled on his bed, took the controller, and continued the game he’d started. He came back with a bottle of mineral water, soda, and a bowl of warm, buttered popcorn. Yum. I made room for him to join me on his bed and he picked up a second controller, placing the bowl between us.

“Don’t think just because I’m a girl you stand a chance at winning,” I bantered and picked my team—the Netherlands.

Ethan picked the Ukraine. “I’d never dare to think that.” He shoved me with his elbow and chuckled.

We played for a while. It was one of the funniest afternoons I’d had in a long time. And I hadn’t exaggerated when I told him I was good at this game. Ethan was going down in flames! Only, he was a sore loser and tried to cheat by reaching for my controller.

“Hey, stop that, you!” I tossed a single kernel of popcorn at his face.

Charlie Brown took that as a challenge, grabbed a handful from the bowl, and called out, “Eat that, Miller!”

Lips pressed shut, I tried to wiggle away, but he didn’t let me. His controller dropped to the floor, mine slid between the bed and the wall, and the bowl went flying with popcorn snowing down on us. I laughed so hard that I opened my mouth and was immediately fed popcorn.

“Go away!” I shouted, chewing what he managed to shove into my mouth.

“Only when you admit that I’m the winner.”

“Some loser you are! I won this game fair and”—I grinned—“easy. You totally suck!” That was a mistake, though. Ethan pursed his lips. He wagged his brows once, and I knew whatever was to come wasn’t going to be good. His fingers found my sensitive sides and he started tickling me until I was choking from laughter and coughing out popcorn crumbs.

I shoved hard at his chest, but my hard was cotton soft for him, because he didn’t budge an inch.

“Surrender!” he demanded, smirking down as he lay half on top of me, pinning my wrists on the mattress now.

“Never!” I screamed at his face, only it didn’t come out as a scream at all. It was a hoarse whisper, induced by the hot tingle his nearness caused inside me. We both stilled. His face was close enough that our noses would have rubbed against each other at the slightest movement. His eyes were as wide as mine, but they switched down to my mouth the next instant. I didn’t know why, but this made me lick my lips. And he did the same.

My heart jumped from a light jog into race mode. Oh my freaking goodness, this was it. Ethan was going to give me my first kiss. How in the world was that happening on our first date? And it wasn’t really a date anyway, but just us playing some stupid Wii.

All of a sudden, Chris’s words pressed back into my mind. I wanted to learn what taste you have in music, so I know what to put on when we make out on my bed. I was crazy to think about that right now, but the memory of his smirk when he’d said it wouldn’t go away.

And here I was, about to make out with his brother. A mocking na na na na na na chanted though my head—and Chris deserved it for being so overly bold and arrogant. Swallowing, I focused back on Ethan.

The moment for my first kiss couldn’t be more perfect, though I wished Ethan wouldn’t lie on top of me like this, because now he would notice each of my hitched breaths and find out exactly how nervous I was. He would know in an instant that I hadn’t been kissed ever before, and somehow that made me freak out even more. Looking at this perfect copy of a god above me, all I could think of was how many girls he must have kissed already in his life. Nice girls, good kissers, no wallflowers like me. What if I sucked at kissing?

Ethan’s gaze moved back to my eyes. His breathing came a little strained as well now and the tiniest crease formed between his brows. He hesitated.

I didn’t know much about kissing in reality, but I did know that one should look excited, smitten, or even relaxed when about to do it—not wary. “I’m sor—” he began, but he never got to finish the sentence, because there was a sharp knock on the door and it opened at the same time.

“Hey, E.T.,” Chris said in a casual voice as he walked into the room. “I’m going to order pizza—” That’s where he stopped not only speaking but walking too, and gaped at us with his chin smacking against his chest. “You’re shitting me.”

Hello? Could you find anything more awkward to say?

With a cough, Ethan sat up, letting go of my wrists, and ran nervous hands through his hair. I scrambled up, too.

For some reason, Chris couldn’t stop staring at us like he’d just caught his brother making out with a monkey. What the hell was his problem? A mere hour ago, he was the one predicting he’d have me next on his list.

Since he’d successfully ruined this perfect moment, could he please get out now? But then I remembered Ethan’s reluctance and wondered what his brother really had interrupted.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were still here,” Chris told me in a shaken voice, something that made absolutely no sense to me—especially since it was so far away from the arrogant, confident voice he’d had when I was in his room. Finally turning on the spot, he walked out.

Ethan stumbled to his feet and shouted after him, “Pizza sounds good.” He turned to me and freaking forced a smile. “Want to eat with us?”

Is that what happens when a kiss goes wrong? Everyone behaves weird afterward? “Um…” I glanced at my watch and, with a jolt, shot off his bed. It was six minutes to seven. “Dang!”

“What’s up?”

“I have to go.”

Ethan followed me out of his room to the front door. He sounded troubled when he said, “Look, if it’s because of what—”

“No, it’s not,” I assured him quickly, trying to save us both from an embarrassing situation. However, part of me wondered if he actually might kiss me if I stayed longer. “Mom needs the car and I’ve got about three minutes to make it back home.”

“Oh.” An easy smile slipped to his lips and his cheeks turned a soft pink.

Somehow I had the feeling I should be the one blushing after what had happened in his room, but I was too stressed out right now, so I blurted, “Hey, it was nice. We should totally do that again.” Playing Wii, of course, not fooling around on his bed with no real outcome. Crap, I wanted to slap my forehead for that thought. “I mean—I—”

Chris leaned around the corner from a different room, maybe the kitchen, with a skeptical expression—one I didn’t appreciate. Could he just keep his nose out of this, please?

“Ah, heck, I guess I’ll see you,” I said to Ethan and pulled the door open, but I didn’t get a chance to leave. He grabbed my wrist and held me back, swinging me around to face him once more.

“It was nice, Susan. Come over again tomorrow?” His smile was unsure. “Or let’s go have that soda we talked about.”

After a halfhearted sigh, I nodded. “Okay. Call me after school.” I smiled back at him and pulled my hand out of his. Remembering who had actually called me today, I nailed Chris with a scowl down the hallway. “Give him my number, dickhead!”

Chris, who was still staring at his brother like he’d lost his marbles, nodded, and I walked out the door.

 

 

Chapter 5

 

 

ON THURSDAY MORNING, I repeated to Lisa and Simone all the details about my visit to Ethan’s, which I’d already told Sam on the phone last night—minus the encounter with Chris. That was just too embarrassing to mention. My friends squeezed my hands and squealed like little guinea pigs, full of hope that there might be something budding between Ethan and me. Considering the fluffy feeling in my stomach when I chased that thought, I couldn’t even blame them for their outburst of excitement. If only they’d be a little more subtle about it. Half the crowd in the hallway was giving us sidelong glances.

It was a good thing their guys came along and pulled the girls away so I could head on to science. Only, I wasn’t walking alone for long. As I rounded the corner, someone casually draped his arm around my shoulders and said, “Hey, Sue.”

Looking up, I found a set of flashing, blue eyes trained on me. My smile was inevitable, but the next instant I stiffened in wariness. Careful, Susan, I told myself. So with a distrustful frown, I asked, “And you are…”

“Chris.” He rolled his eyes as if tired of me not being able to tell him and his brother apart. Heck, how could I? It was like trying to tell one grain of sugar from the next. Impossible—until one of them opened his mouth, I thought grimly.

“What do you want, Chris?” I snapped, not bothering to hide my disappointment about walking through the hallway with the wrong guy by my side. And to make my point clear, I picked his hand up with two fingers and removed his arm from my shoulders.

Instantly, Chris slid in front of me, blocking my way. He leaned against the metal door of a locker and folded his arms. Sporting a black leather jacket and ragged jeans, he didn’t look like a Peanuts character one bit, so maybe that was the way to tell them apart.

“I’m curious,” he said with a crooked smile that rendered me speechless for a second.

Uh-oh. One look at his face, and I knew he was trouble. I got that bad feeling deep down in my gut, almost like when you’re facing a Rottweiler and you know it’s going to bite you at your next move. Maybe it was just his black leather jacket producing that visual, but most of it probably had to do with his wicked invitation to make out on his bed.

He tilted his head, locking gazes with me. “Did you and Ethan kiss yesterday?”

“Keep your drool in, Spike,” I managed to say after I figured out how to use my vocal cords again. “What happens between your brother and me isn’t any of your business.”

Chris only laughed at that. “I knew it. He didn’t have the guts.”

What the hell was that supposed to mean? The longer I stared at Chris’s face, the more he got on my nerves. Or maybe the little chills did, the ones he ignited with his look. Anyway, I decided not to question that last comment but pushed past him, knocking against his shoulder with mine.

“Have a nice day, little Sue,” he cooed after me, and I was once again tempted to flip him off over my shoulder. Ah, actually, why not? My middle finger was the last thing he saw of me before I rounded the corner.

Unfortunately, my history teacher, Miss Hayes, saw it too, and she didn’t hesitate to pull me aside and tell me I had detention.

Punished because of that moron, Chris Donovan? I was steaming with fury as I slipped into science class, my face hot and red also because I was terribly embarrassed by the prospect of having to sit through an extra hour after school for the first time in my life.

I didn’t tell Nick or Sam about it, but I was still angry when first period was over. Outside class, I hooked my arm through Sam’s and walked down the hallway with her, trying to shake off Nick for a moment. “Ethan’s brother is a dick,” I snarled.

“Chris? Why?” Sam asked.

“Because he thinks Ethan doesn’t have the guts to kiss me.” And because he got me in freaking detention, for Christ’s sake!

Sam’s messy, layered hair swung around her chin as she cut a glance at me. “How do you know?”

“He waylaid me before class and said some crap about yesterday. About when he caught Ethan and me on his bed.”

“And you think he’s right—about not having the guts, I mean?”

I let my arm slip out from hers when we had to part for our next classes. “I don’t know. But I hope not, because I really, really want Ethan to be my first kiss. He’s cute,” I whined, “and super sexy, and he makes me laugh.” Hopefully, he’d stick to his promise and meet up with me again after school today. Well, after school and detention.

With drooping shoulders and a growl erupting from my throat, I went to second period, which was French with Miss Lewis. Oh joy. I chewed on my nails twice as hard in her class this morning.

No more incidents occurred before lunch, which gave me some time to cool off and accept my doom. It wasn’t so bad after all, was it? I’d probably meet Alex Winter there. He was in detention all the time for either forgetting his homework or talking in class. At least that’s what I’d heard about him.

The girls and I headed into the cafeteria together. A line had already formed in front of the food counter, and it would take us ages to get there. Luckily, Nick, Tony, and Ryan stood quite a bit ahead in the line. They called to us, offering to take our food on their trays, so we didn’t have to line up at all.

“Pizza and kiwi for you?” Nick asked me, reciting my usual.

“Yeah, but grab an extra kiwi, please,” I told him, following my friends to the long table by the window that was known by all as the soccer table. Hoping Ethan would join us, since he’d temporarily taken my place on the soccer team, I searched the room for him and found him sitting with a bunch of seniors, two rows away from the science club table. On the way to my seat, I had to pass him. It was nice how he cracked a smile when he saw me. He also reached for my hand and stopped me.

“Meet at Charlie’s today?” he asked and winked.

Yeah, I have to admit, I kind of melted a little right on the spot. The sigh that came out of my throat was unintentional, but it couldn’t be taken back. “Five okay?”

“Want me to pick you up?”

A million thoughts shot through my head at once, all of them connected with my parents having another argument and Ethan walking into the middle of it. No way! “Um, why don’t we just meet there? I need to get a few things from town anyway.”

“Cool. See you then. And please, Susan…” At his dragging out my name, I swooned a little more. “Don’t stand me up again.”

Our short conversation earned him some curious looks from his friends, but none of them said a word. At least not in front of me.

“I won’t,” I said with a smile and headed off to my friends.

In my usual place, Nick had already put down a plate with two slices of Hawaiian pizza—ham and pineapple, my usual toppings. “What’s the extra kiwi for?” he asked me as he tossed both fruits, one at a time, across the table.

Flames of shame licked at my face. Lowering my head, I mumbled, “It’s for later.”

“What’s later?”

Since I couldn’t just ignore his question, I said with some hesitation and my voice as low as possible, “I have detention.”

“You what?”

I swear all the kids at the table turned their heads and their disbelieving gazes on me.

“Very subtle, guys,” I muttered, aware of other heads now turning in our direction as well. Grabbing the fork on my plate, I scattered the heap of pineapple pieces on my pizza, put the fork down and took a bite. “Miss Hayes caught me saluting someone with my middle finger this morning, so she put me in detention. It’s no big deal.” The food in my mouth muffled my voice. “Alex is kept after school every other day.”

Alex Winter laughed at me. “But I’m not flipping people off in the hallway.”

“Yeah, and that’s totally not like you,” Lisa said. “What happened?”

I swallowed and sipped from my bottle of Sprite. “Some dick got on my nerves. Never mind.”

“Ooh, language, Miller,” Tony said and chuckled as he bumped his shoulder against mine. “All you need now is a tacky tattoo in a striking place and you’ll have a rep as the school’s new bad girl.”

Everybody burst out laughing at that visual. Only Ryan kept it low with a chuckle and a teasing look at me, as though he might have an idea about just who the mentioned dick was. I neither denied nor agreed to his suspicion but kept munching my pizza. Once done, I peeled and cut one of the kiwis into slices. The other one I slipped into my backpack.

Simone and Lisa pestered me about my punishment in PE until I told them how it was Ethan’s stupid brother who got me into trouble. Loyal friends they were…they giggled their heads off again.

My final class of the day was journalism. Lisa was in it with me. We sat down in our front-row seats and watched the rest of the students filing into the room. Ted came in last. He said “hi” when he passed and took the seat behind me.

“Hey,” I replied, turning around, and tilted back with my chair, leaning one arm on his desk. “Are you working at Charlie’s today?”

“Yep, all week through Friday.”

“Cool. Ethan and I are swinging by this afternoon.”

“What?” He gave me a mocking smile. “You and Ethan are showing up together this time?”

“Ah, shut up, you.” I stuck out my tongue at him and faced front again just as the teacher walked into the room.

The lesson went by fast enough and while most of my friends went home after seventh period, I trudged through the hallway back to the room in which Mr. Ellenburgh usually taught English. Now he was sitting at his desk, keeping an eye on renegades like me.

“Hi, Mr. Ellenburgh.” I waved when I entered.

As he looked up from his newspaper, he did a double take. “Susan! What in the world are you doing in this class?”

I grimaced. “I guess I belong here. If you check your list, I’m sure you’ll find my name on it.”

Mr. Ellenburgh ran his finger from top to bottom on a sheet under his newspaper and, certainly enough, said in a baffled voice, “Susan Miller. Here it is.” His gaze skated back to me. “What reason did Miss Hayes have to send you here?”

The wrong ones, obviously. At this point, I was pretty sure if I told Mr. Ellenburgh it was all a mistake and I did nothing wrong, he would let me walk right out the door. But I wasn’t a liar. “She caught me in a weak moment. Don’t you worry, Mr. Ellenburgh”—oh, my favorite teacher of them all—“I don’t intend to make this a habit.”

“Fine. Take a seat then, Susan.” As he gestured for me to choose a place in the room, his compassion for my unfortunate situation showed in his eyes, and it made me like him even more.

I kept my gaze low as I walked down the aisle between the rows of desks, so nobody would notice or recognize me. Of course, that was a stupid thing to hope for, but I just couldn’t look at any of these gangsters’ faces. It gave me a feeling of complicity.

In the far back, I sank into a chair and pulled out my math book to do my homework. All around me, the guys and girls started to chatter away, having a great time.

Mr. Ellenburgh didn’t call them to order or make them shut up. Obviously, at this time of the day, no one really cared what people did. Who knew that detention wasn’t all about punishment and discipline but could be fun? I started to grasp why Alex never complained about being kept after school. It was a shame he wasn’t here with me today, but getting a head start on my homework was fine with me.

I’d started working on the second algebra problem when something orange teased the corner of my eye. A moment later, a basketball slowly rolled across my desk, from right to left. It was so surreal that I didn’t even think about stopping the ball and instead gave a tiny shriek of surprise when it dropped with a bang to the floor, bouncing up and down a few times next to me. My pen had slid from my fingers, too, and rolled over the edge of the desk.

I bent down to pick up both the pen and the ball. When I straightened again, one of the Donovan twins stood in front of me, and by his roguish smirk I decided it had to be the infamous and less likable of them.

“Hey, Sue,” Chris said and took the ball from me. “Never seen a basketball?” His white muscle shirt sported a flashy green Grover Beach Dunkin’ Sharks brand across the chest, accompanied by the image of a cartoon shark tearing a basketball with its teeth. So, on a wild guess, I assumed he was on our school’s basketball team.

It could’ve been that he was also one of the guys who got a little rowdy every now and then and played basketball in the halls during school hours, which was an absolute no-no. The thugs on the other side of the room grinning at him—definitely his friends—confirmed my assumption.

“My name is Susan,” I corrected him with a growl. His calling me Sue, or even worse, “sweetness” was becoming a real pain in my neck.

The chuckle that followed was proof enough that he didn’t give a damn about my name. “I’m wondering…does my brother know that his girlfriend is in detention?”

“If you tell him, I’m going to shoot you.” My glare manifested my intention of really doing that. “And I’m not his girlfriend,” I added with a huff.

“Yeah. I know that.” Chris stated this with an odd inflection in his tone, which made me wonder what he really meant by it.

I decided I didn’t care and hoped he’d leave me alone, but instead he slid into the seat next to me, tipped back to balance the chair on two legs, and stacked his feet on the desk. He started to spin the ball on his finger. “So, what got you in here?”

Since there was no getting rid of him, I put my pen down, turned to him, and crossed my arms over my chest. “You, in fact.”

Me? Wow.” Chris caught the ball with both hands. “How?”

“My history teacher saw me flipping you off this morning.”

“Yeah”—he furrowed his brows, totally faking a hurt look, when he very obviously had trouble holding back a laugh—“that was actually rude.” For good measure, he waggled a finger at me. “We really need to work on your manners if you’re going to keep going out with my brother.” As he spun the basketball again, his toned biceps twitched underneath perfectly smooth skin, and I wondered why he’d abandoned his leather jacket. It might have stopped me from staring. Chris certainly was a dick, but there was no denying he looked just as mouthwatering as Ethan. Duh!

“Speaking of which,” he continued with an innocent look I didn’t trust—not one bit! “Are you two going to meet up again today?”

“Why are you so interested in your brother’s privacy? You should stop poking your nose where it doesn’t belong. Especially when it’s also concerning my privacy, because I’m not going to tell you shit.”

“Ah, such a cute mouth and such bad words. Now I get why you’ve been put in detention, Miss Miller. Must be a soccer thing with the language, eh?”

When I didn’t get his meaning and pulled my face into a frown, he shrugged one shoulder. “It was a surprise to see you sitting with the Bay Sharks at lunch today. I assumed you’d be with the geek squad.”

“Why would you think that?” I felt like I’d knocked into a wall. But then it dawned on me. “Oh, no, let me guess. The glasses, right? You really think because I’m wearing them I’m a nerd?”

Wary, Chris hummed a sigh. “That was the idea, yes.”

“And Ethan didn’t tell you that I was—am”—I rolled my eyes at my own slip—“on the soccer team?”

“Ethan doesn’t say much these days.”

“For good reason. It’s none of your business.”

“Maybe. But now I’m curious.” Chris made a face as if he’d left one detail totally out of sight. “Why does he suddenly go to soccer practice?”

“If you must know, he’s taking my place for a while because I hurt my knee.”

He sucked his lips between his teeth, and I swear, if it was Ethan doing that in front of me, I’d feel the need to throw myself at him this instant. But this was Chris, and I decided I felt nothing. Not even when his blue eyes turned a shade darker and a bit more mysterious. “Is that so?” he drawled.

“Yes, that is so,” I replied, mocking his lilt. “And for your information, just because someone’s wearing glasses doesn’t mean he or she’s a geek. I only need them for reading, not for playing. And now, if you don’t mind, go and grate on someone else’s nerves. I’ve got homework to do.” I shooed him off with a wave of my hand.

With a laugh, he got to his feet and clamped the ball under his arm. “Just tell me if he kisses you. I’d really like to know.”

“The hell I will. Now go away.”

Chris tossed the basketball to one of his friends, who must have been watching because he was prepared to catch it. Then he leaned across the table toward me and pulled my glasses off my nose, staring straight into my eyes. “My offer for a date in a week is still on.”

He must be crazy. That was the only possible explanation. I reached for my glasses, but he pulled them out of my reach in time. “Give them back, dickhead! And I’ll never go out with you,” I snapped. “Not today, not next weekend, and not in ten thousand years.”

For an infinite moment, Chris studied me. Eventually, he began to smile. “You will go out with me, sweetness. And I’ll show you how fast hell can freeze over when I want something.”

If nothing else, his reducing me to something should have made me kick out under the desk and hit his shin. Maybe it was his smile that hammered all the way through my barriers or his dangerously sweet purr in my face. Who knew, but for that moment I was immobilized, except for the twitch in my throat when I gulped.

“You see?” Chris teased and put my glasses on the desk in front of me, never breaking eye contact. “The fire’s already reducing to a soft glow.” He nudged my chin lightly with his knuckles then straightened and walked away as if he’d just borrowed a pen from me and not made my insides quiver with an unholy foreboding.

With a shake of my head and a hard mental slap, I got a grip on myself again. I knew his kind—he was trouble, the kind that drew looks from every corner when he walked through the hallways and that could turn a girl’s brain to mush with just a dimple in his cheek. But not with me. I was not going to be the next name on his checklist and I wouldn’t let him ruin something as important as my first kiss because he just smelled easy prey.

After I found my dignity again, I cleared my throat and called out, “Hey, Chris!”

Folding his arms on the backrest of the chair he’d straddled by his friends, he cast me an intrigued and self-assured glance over his shoulder. I didn’t give him the time to even think about the word “sweetness” leaving his mouth, but continued, “It takes a little more than a cute smile to get on my good side, and luckily your brother comes equipped with the whole package.” I flashed a sardonic grin that hopefully stung his ego in front of his gang. “You want to freeze hell? Go ahead and try. It’ll get you nowhere with me.”

For a stunned moment, Chris gazed at me. My snappiness had certainly terminated his interest in me. After all, he seemed to be someone after an easy lay and a jolly good time, nothing more. Especially not if that something proved to require serious effort. Right?

Wrong. The left side of his mouth tilted up so slowly that a shudder made it through my entire body before he was done with the smirk. He blinked and ran his tongue along the inside of his bottom lip. The whole class had stilled and all eyes were on him and me now, gazes darting back and forth.

With an audience to quote him later, he stated, “Game on, little Sue.”

 

 

Chapter 6

 

 

WITH THE RING of the bell, I was out of detention and hurried to get home and ready for my date with Ethan. But being trapped in a room with Chris for the past hour had me on edge. His smirk, his voice, and even his vile announcement of making me his next big catch haunted me. It meant nothing, so why the heck couldn’t I get this jerk out of my head?

What bothered me even more than his ego, which was obviously too big to fit in a ballroom, was his remark that his brother was not going to kiss me. Did he really think that Ethan didn’t want to go that far with me? Today was the third day in a row that Ethan had asked me to hang out with him. There must be at least some interest from his end. No one expected him to propose with a ring straight away, but a kiss should be in the stars for us. I’d read too many romance books not to feel it coming.

But just to help things a little, I consulted the expert—my friend, Simone. She came to my place after I called her and prepped me in a way I’d never done before.

“You go shower and blow dry your hair,” she commanded, clearly in her element. “In the meantime, I’ll see what your closet has to offer.” She was already flicking through the hangers bearing the mostly unworn dresses in my wardrobe as I headed out of my room. When I came back, she sat on my bed with a lurid red dress draped over her legs and a wraparound smile that she might as well have stolen from a Disney movie.

“You don’t really want me to wear that, do you?” I said with a skeptical frown.

“Do you want to get kissed tonight or not?” That seemed to be her standard answer to any veto I brought forth that afternoon. With it, she brushed away my protest and put mascara on my lashes, smeared apple-flavored gloss on my lips, and smoothed my waves with a flat iron. When she was done, my hair hung like liquid honey down my shoulders. Kudos to her for knowing what she did. I liked the new me. The girl in the mirror looked slightly older and, heck, tons more sexy.

Now it was time to stuff my slim self into a dress I’d owned since tenth grade but hadn’t worn once. My former lack of boobs would have ruined the effect. The dress had long sleeves but was quite short and showed a darn lot of my legs.

“It’s sending out the right signals,” Simone assured me, when I gave myself a sidelong look in the mirror. “Ethan will be drooling all over you tonight. If that doesn’t earn you a kiss at the end, I don’t know what would.”

Kissing Ethan… I didn’t know what I could want more in the world right now.

It was half past four—time to go if I didn’t want to be late for my date. Gathering my nerves, which were suddenly all over the place, I slipped into my black ballerina flats, picked one of the seventeen purses Simone had brought to match with a possible dress, and headed downstairs.

Mom gave me a hug when she saw me, all new and shiny. “You look beautiful, honey.” She held me at arm’s length with her hands on my shoulders and added in a stern voice, “Curfew at eight. It’s a school night.”

“Ten,” I whined. “Please.”

After a deep sigh, she offered, “Okay, nine then.”

“Oh, come on, Mrs. M.,” Simone rushed to my rescue. “It’s almost the weekend. Nine thirty? They need time for a good-night kiss. It’s Susan’s first, after all.”

While Simone beamed with hope for my mom to give in, I burned with embarrassment. How could she mention my first kiss in front of my mother? But her plan worked out and Mom let me off with a smile. “All right, nine thirty. But I don’t want you to walk home by yourself in the dark. Make sure Ethan takes you.”

“He will!” Nodding, I shoved Simone out the door so as not to give my mom a chance to change her mind. “See you later.”

Outside, Simone stopped in front of her car. “Want me to give you a ride?”

“No, thanks. I’ll walk. My nerves need a cool-down before I meet up with Ethan.” I hadn’t been this nervous since Dad and I got in line for a hug from Mickey Mouse in Disneyland when I was five. And kissing Ethan would be so much better than getting squeezed by a giant stuffed mouse in red shorts.

I was so deep in thought as I ambled down the road to Charlie’s, concentrating on the small craters in the concrete, that I didn’t notice someone falling in step beside me until I heard Ethan say my name. With a gasp, I jerked my head up, then cursed under my breath, and tried to rub away the twinge in my neck.

Ethan’s brows came down in a sympathetic grimace. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you jump. I just wasn’t sure if it was, well, you.”

“Huh?”

He gave me a quick once-over. “You look different.” From his voice it was impossible to say whether he meant good different or bad different. Because insecurity trampled over me like a running herd of antelopes, I didn’t want to find out the answer.

“Where did you park your car?” Yes, very clever and very subtle change of topic, I know.

“Um, I didn’t drive here.”

“You walked?” That must have been two miles or more. “Did your car break down?”

“No.” A soft laugh escaped him and now it was his turn to rub his neck, but not because of an obvious kink. He seemed bashful all of a sudden. “I was getting a little nervous this afternoon, so I took the long walk here to kill time.”

Smiling, I clutched Simone’s purse to my chest. “You were nervous?”

Ethan nodded and shoved his hands into the pockets of his black jeans. “I—” He broke off as suddenly as someone would do when realizing he was talking to the totally wrong person. With his gaze on me, he took two deep breaths which might have been accompanied by a racing heart from the look of it. Was he in shock?

“I wasn’t sure if I’d find you here or if you were going to stand me up again. I don’t fancy sitting at the bar alone,” he told me in a more controlled voice, his gaze lowered to his toes.

That was definitely not what he wanted to say before. A frown crept over my face but faded away fast. To nag him about it would only ruin the beginning of our date, and I didn’t want that to happen. It would probably have killed me to be stood up like that, too, so I blew some stray hairs off my forehead that had gotten static from the straightening, and said, “Good that you’re not alone today then.”

We reached the café and Ethan walked in before me. I took the chance to check my reflection in the glass door. Some of my hair on top was still floating up like Simone had rubbed a balloon on my head instead of using a straightening iron. Quickly, I licked my fingers and brushed my hair down, making it stay put.

Puzzled by my delay, Ethan turned around, scrutinizing me with lifted eyebrows. I dropped my hands and gave him an innocent grin.

We sat down at a round table for two near the bar. Ted waved at me when he saw me, then he nodded at Ethan in greeting. Since there wasn’t much going on weekday afternoons, Ted wasn’t only bartending but also bussing tables, something that Tony Mitchell did on weekends. Charlie, the owner of the café, was nowhere to be seen. Since he could rely on his staff a hundred percent, he took more and more days off lately.

Ted came around the bar with a smile, draping a dishtowel over his shoulder in a casual move. “So you brought company today,” he teased Ethan.

For the briefest moment, Ethan looked at me. He turned a sweet shade of pink and lowered his gaze to the pack of sugar he’d started to play with after we sat down. “Yeah, seems all the misunderstandings have been eradicated,” he replied in an awkwardly low voice.

Ted studied him for a silent second and finally said, “Good for you.” He turned to me next, and that’s when I saw that he’d lost his smile. Of course, he made sure to pick it up again immediately. “So what can I get you? A hazelnut deluxe?”

“Mm-hm.” I nodded, my mouth already watering for the caffè latte.

“And for you?” Ted asked Ethan.

“I think I’ll take a cappuccino. Whipped cream, no foam, please.”

Ted gave a quirky arch of his eyebrows, as if this order was especially interesting for him. Why, I couldn’t figure out.

As soon as we were alone again, Ethan leaned forward, propping his elbows on the table, and put on a shit-eating smirk. “Now, spill. What got you in detention?”

Oh my freaking Jesus! That put even my obvious change of topic to shame. I gulped and gritted my teeth. “I’m going to kill your brother.”

“For telling me?” Ethan laughed. “He wasn’t the first. Alex and Tony said something about it today at soccer practice, though they wouldn’t tell me the reason.”

My list of people to deal with tomorrow morning had just expanded by two names. Avoiding Ethan’s gaze, I shrugged it off. “It was nothing.”

“You know you’re just making me all the more curious by saying that,” he teased me. “I’ll just end up thinking some really funny shit about you.”

“Yeah? Like what?”

“Like you’ve been flashing your hot teacher in class or you’ve been spraying graffiti in the hallways.”

I laughed out loud and smacked him on the shoulder. “You’re crazy, you know that, right?”

“It’s all in your hands.”

“Fine, hear the full story then. One of my teachers saw me flipping off your brother this morning.”

In an instant, Ethan’s amused expression went blank. “Why’d you do that?”

“He seems a little too interested in what you and I do together,” I answered, trying for a casual voice to keep the mood light.

Ethan stroked his index finger over his chin. “Is he now?”

“You don’t have to worry. I told him he wouldn’t hear crap from me.” Somehow, this sounded strange even to myself, so I added quickly, “Anyway, what’s there to tell? I mean we’re friends, that’s all, right?”

Maybe that would change tonight, though. In a heartbeat my hopes got really high again, sending fleecy little balls of excitement down into my gut.

“Yeah.” Ethan leaned back so Ted could put our coffees on the table and murmured, “Thanks.”

I said thanks, too, but Ted only looked at Ethan and nodded.

I scooped up some of the foam in my spoon then squeezed my eyes and lips together and rubbed my nose because my static hair was tickling me again. Ethan reached across the table, surprising me when he twirled a bunch of my hair around his finger and tucked it behind my ear. There was, however, not half as much sensuality in this move as there was yesterday evening when Chris had done the same thing.

So Ethan was probably a practical-thinking guy, not a ravisher like his brother. All the better. Chris had the charm of a skunk and… Hell, I shouldn’t even be thinking about him right now. What was wrong with me?

Shaking off the chill that had stolen over me remembering Chris’s perfectly shaped torso, I anchored myself in the present by focusing on Ethan’s warm gaze. Silky as my hair was from straightening, it didn’t stay behind my ear for long, and after three more tries of hooking it behind my ear, I simply ignored the strands coming down again over my right eye.

“What did you do with your hair?” Ethan wanted to know.

“My friend straightened it for me.” I rolled my eyes. “She thought it would make me look good for a date.”

“I like it how you usually have it,” he told me in a sheepish voice.

Immediately, I thought Oh, thank goodness because—wanting to look good or not—the itchy strands had started to get on my nerves. With a relieved sigh, I brushed my hair out of my face and tied it at the back of my head with a hair tie from my purse. That gesture was enough to take away ninety percent of the tension that had built inside me this afternoon and, all of a sudden, I could breathe again. “Ah, this feels so much better.” Way more myself.

“But I like the idea that you did this for me,” Ethan said playfully, and one corner of his mouth tilted up.

“It was an experiment and it failed, so let’s pretend it never happened,” I teased back and poured some sugar into my caffè latte.

Ethan, playing along, adjusted the collar of his shirt in a perfect mockery of Elvis Presley. He lifted his eyebrows and screwed up his mouth. “I have not the slightest idea what you’re talking about.”

Did I say how much I loved this guy when only his natural self shone through? Never would I have thought that someone could make me feel so comfortable with such little things. I started to believe we weren’t only soul mates, but actually twin souls. Why in the world had I been so nervous all afternoon?

Soon enough, the conversation returned to our favorite topics: music and books. For most of the time we were sitting in the café, we discussed what a great job New Line Cinema had done with the adaption of The Lord of the Rings and the epic film music. We also talked through some Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes, which we both adored, but I couldn’t get him to like Twilight. That was okay with me, only it slowed down our conversation until it came to an awkward standstill.

Note to self: never mention sparkly vampires again.

I ran my index finger over my bottom lip, biting my nail, and cut a glance at the next table, where a girl was playing a game on her phone. “Know what I’d love to do right now?” I mumbled.

Ethan laughed. “Hopefully play Mario Kart, because that’s what I was thinking.”

My mouth stretched to a broad grin. “Let’s go!”

Ethan got up and pulled his wallet from his back pocket. He tossed a few dollars on the table for our drinks plus tip and offered me his arm. Laughing, I looped mine through his.

“Your place or mine?” he asked.

My place was out of question because of the fighting we’d get from my parents, but this time at least I had a proper excuse. “I don’t have a Wii.”

“So it’ll be my place. If we’re lucky”—he cast a glance at his watch—“we’ll be just in time for dinner, too. Are you hungry? I’m always hungry,” he ended with a guilty look.

With the nervousness gone, I realized I actually was hungry and smiled. “As long as it isn’t spinach or liver.”

A noticeable quiver fizzed through Ethan. “God forbid.”

Even though it was a two-mile walk to his house, the time flew by way too fast for me. He hadn’t let my hand slip away from his arm even once, and I relished the nearness. His body, so warm and firm next to mine, made me think I had reached my own personal heaven.

As soon as he opened the front door of his house and ushered me through, he called over my head, “Mom, we’ve got a guest for dinner. Is that okay?”

Mrs. Donovan came out of the kitchen and brought a spicy smell with her. “Of course,” she said and offered me her hand with a smile. “Sorry, I was in a bit of a rush last time we met. I’m Beverly.”

“This is Susan,” Ethan told her before I could introduce myself, so all I said was, “Nice to meet you.”

“Come on.” Ethan tugged at my hand. “Let’s have a race before dinner is ready.”

I followed him to the back of the house, but before we reached his room, the door at the very end of the hallway opened and, to my total surprise, Lauren, the black-haired supermodel came out. Of course, Chris slipped out right after her and he laced their fingers.

His hair was a mess and so was his shirt. He’d obviously been distracted while buttoning it up. Jerk! Could he be any more obvious and disgusting? He would so not get me next with that kind of stuff, I thought, rolling my eyes. But then a different image crossed my mind. My hands in this chaos of hair as he kissed me deeply. Oh no, not him but Ethan…when Ethan kissed me deeply. A strange heat lit my body at that visual and suddenly I had trouble breathing.

In a dreamlike haze, I’d stopped in the hallway when Ethan was already inside his room, not even caring about greeting his brother or his friend. My inability to take my eyes off Chris as he passed me right after Lauren made me want to kick myself awake.

Aware of my staring, Chris winked at me. My knees buckled, but it was all I needed to realize my mistake, and I hurried after Ethan, banging the door shut a tad too hard.

Ethan was already on his bed, a controller in the shape of a steering wheel in his hand, holding a second one out to me. Mario Kart. Right! I made myself comfortable next to him, but no matter how much fun this game was and no matter how much Ethan and I laughed while he totally brought me to my knees, the visual of my hands in Chris’s—no, no, in Ethan’s!—hair haunted me. God, sooner or later this twin issue was going to drive me insane.

Ethan had just beaten me for the fourth time in a row when a knock rattled the door and Chris called from the other side, “Feeding time!” We stopped the game and joined him and Beverly in the kitchen, which was also the dining room, with a round, cherry wood table at one side. I wasn’t exactly sure why, but realizing that Chris must have taken Lauren to the door to see her off when we’d met them in the hallway earlier was a relief. It would feel awkward to face his catch of the week after how grossly he’d hit on me today.

I had to give him credit for playing the innocent son and nice brother in front of his family. He didn’t let slip one word about how he intended to add me to his long list of bad rep, and I appreciated it. I didn’t think I could handle sitting through dinner with his normal self. A shiver rattled me. Then again, maybe he had a real liking for Lauren and had forgotten about our challenge already.

I made myself useful by carrying the plates and cutlery that Beverly had placed on the island unit over to the table and laying it out for four people. No one bothered to bring in a fifth chair and a fifth plate was missing, too. Warily, I sided up to Ethan, who put down a bowl filled with potatoes. “Isn’t your father coming home for dinner?”

Ethan gave a bitter laugh. He didn’t bother to keep his voice low like mine when he told me, “My father lives in L.A. with his former secretary. He hasn’t been home for dinner in almost six years now.”

“Oh,” I breathed, turning a little hot in the face.

“No worries,” he said, playing it off. “Take a seat.”

I sat down and was about to reach for the glass of water near my plate, when Chris came around the table and took my hand. Without a word, he pulled me up, moved me one seat to the left, and sat down in the chair I had vacated. Okay, every house had its own rules, I guessed, grimacing as I looked at Ethan, who lowered on Chris’s other side, across from me. He shook his head and smiled, easing my trepidation.

Beverly dished out fried fish and buttered slices of toasted baguette for everyone. When she took the seat to my left, we started eating. The boys immediately fell into easy conversation, telling their mother about their day at school. So this was what a normal family did when they ate together. It was the most relaxing thing to just listen to them and for once not have to deal with arguments and death glares at the dinner table. Jeez, it had been so long since we had peace in my house that I’d totally forgotten what it felt like.

Of course, the time came when Beverly started grilling me, but in a friendly way. She was most interested in how and when her son and I met and, funnily enough, in what kind of house I lived. It was a challenge to describe our two-story house to her so she’d get a real visual.

“Don’t mind her,” Ethan told me when I reached my limit trying to come up with a year of construction. He handed me the basket with the bread slices to grab another. “She’s like that with everyone. Mom’s a real estate agent, always on the hunt for houses to sell.”

“Wow, that’s a cool job,” I said to her. “Must be awesome to see so many houses from the inside.”

“It’s the best job in the world. I love houses,” she rhapsodized.

“Me, too.” Especially the quiet ones, but I didn’t say that out loud.

We kept chatting long after we’d all finished eating. I felt like I’d been part of this cozy little group forever—another sign that Ethan and I were meant to be together. And if Chris continued behaving like that, I might even get used to him as the brother of my future boyfriend.

When a grandfather clock chimed eight somewhere in the house, Beverly rose from the table and clapped her hands once. “All right, guys. Dishes to do. Go play it out.”

What kind of cryptic announcement was that? But obviously the twins knew what she meant, and Ethan complained, “Oh, come on, Mom. I’ve got a guest.”

“Yeah, right,” Chris backed him up, giving me a mocking smirk. “She can do the dishes.”

“Your brother’s girlfriend won’t be doing your chores,” Beverly told him off with a finger pointed at his face.

My breath caught in my lungs as I shot a glance at her and noticed from the corner of my eye that Ethan did the same. We looked at each other then, and I gulped. Ethan’s cheeks turned an adorable shade of lovely. “Mom, she’s not my girlfriend,” he murmured.

“See? She’s not his girlfriend.” Chris rose from his chair. “She can do the dishes.” He tried to slip out of the room, but Beverly caught him by the collar of his black shirt, which he’d buttoned correctly by now, and pulled him back, laughing.

“No way, buddy. You do your job first.”

“Ah, all right, I’ll do it,” he surrendered and chuckled. He started to pile the plates on the table. When he winked at me as he grabbed mine, I knew he was just taunting me all along. And it was okay. Nice, even. What in the world had happened to the jackass I met at school? Did he store his insufferable outdoor manners in the closet as soon as he got home?

Chris carried the dishes to the sink and shouted over his shoulder, “Dessert in twenty!”

That was the cue for Ethan to rise, and I followed suit. He pulled me back into his room for another game of Mario Kart.

“What did your mom mean by ‘play it out’?” I asked while I picked my character for the race.

“We have a deal in this house. When Chris and I cook, she has to clean the kitchen afterward, and when she cooks, one of us has to. Usually, we play a game of basketball in the backyard.” He grinned. “Loser has to do the dishes.”

That was so sweet my heart melted a little for this family, but what really caught my attention was something different. “Wait. Did you say when you and Chris cook?”

“Yeah. It’s something I enjoy a lot. We both do.” Ethan waited for the red light on the screen to switch to green, then we both raced off, and he continued, “A couple of years ago, we actually had this plan to open a restaurant together one day and call it The Twin Chefs or something.”

“That’s a great idea.”

He nodded. “I’d still love to do that, but I think Chris is more into basketball than cooking now. He wants to play in college, maybe go pro.”

The sad note in Ethan’s voice loomed over us like fog over San Francisco, so I suggested, “But you can do that restaurant thing on your own, as well. You could be One Amazing Half of the Twin Chefs.”

“Right, and you could come test my food.”

“I’d be there every evening, I swear.” Quickly, I crossed my heart before I grabbed the wireless steering wheel again and tried to beat Ethan in this race. Not a chance. “Well, if your dream of the restaurant doesn’t work out,” I said, “you can always pursue a career in car racing.”

“And spray the name Super Mario on my cart?” He laughed.

I shrugged and put my controller down. That was enough defeat for one evening. “Where’s the bathroom?”

“Past the kitchen, second door on the right.” Ethan pulled back his legs so I could get off the bed, while he started a single player race.

Out in the hallway, music drifted to me from the kitchen. I sneaked a peek inside on my way. Instead of the mount of dishes getting smaller in there, it seemed the stack had doubled after dinner. Chris was pouring what looked like cream into four dessert bowls on the kitchen island, singing along to Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me.” He didn’t notice me at all. His body moved gently, as though he was tapping his heel to the rhythm. Next, he grabbed some fruits from a bowl behind him, started to peel them, and I went to find the bathroom.

I could hear his singing even in here. It gave me goosebumps of fascination. Ethan had been right; busying themselves in the kitchen gave the twins a happy time. This was so weird because it was so different from how I pictured them—especially Chris. Maybe I was wrong and he wasn’t an insufferable moron after all? To say he confused me was the understatement of the year.

On my way back to Ethan’s room, I slowed my steps, only because I hoped I could listen to Chris’s singing a little more. Maybe that was a mistake, because when I dared another glimpse into the kitchen, he looked up. Never stopping his singing, he crooked a finger at me and beckoned me to come to him.

Why I followed his invitation, I don’t know.

His black shirt hung over the backrest of one of the kitchen chairs and the t-shirt he was wearing now was a snug fit, showing off his dancing muscles while he cut more fruit. The dessert bowls he was preparing each had a different name painted on it. Ethan was scrawled on the green one. The blue one spelled Christopher, but somebody had crossed out the opher with a sharpie and written ian above. The yellow bowl was for The best mom in the world, and tonight I was obviously Milk.

When I stopped across from him at the island unit, he sang to me, “Oh, won’t you…stayyy with meee… ’cause you’re…aaall I need,” and dipped a slice of peach into the cream in his own bowl. When he held it out to me with a tempting look, I shook my head. I didn’t like peaches.

Unimpressed, Chris shrugged his shoulders and bit off the creamed tip. He put the peach slice away and reached for another fruit. I could do nothing about it when the corners of my mouth tilted up as his hand hovered above a kiwi wedge, and Chris noticed. Knowing he’d finally found my week spot, he smiled, too. He kept singing, “This ain’t love, it’s clear to see, but darling, stay with me,” while he dipped that little piece of fruit into his bowl. He held it out to me across the kitchen island once more.

With the cream on it, there was no chance I could take it from him with my hands. But that was probably not his intention anyway. If I wanted it, I had to let him feed it to me. My mouth watered. That was okay, considering it was kiwi, my favorite fruit, he was offering. But why my heart had flung itself into a beating race was unclear to me. Our gazes locked above his outstretched arm. He was patiently waiting for my next move which, frankly, could have been an off remark as well as me catching the kiwi with my teeth.

At this point, neither of us knew which option I was going to choose. What I noticed, though, was that he’d stopped singing while the song played on.

A silent argument started inside my head.

This is kiwi. You want kiwi.

But this is also Chris. I don’t want his fingers to touch my lips, even by accident.

Screw his fingers. This is kiwi! And there’s cream on it.

Still…it’s Chris.

Pretend it’s Ethan, then.

Oh hey, I could do that.

Pressing my lips together for a brief moment, I started to lean forward, never breaking eye contact. I swallowed then parted my lips, and Chris cracked the tiniest smile. He dipped his chin a little lower which resulted in his gaze getting all the more intense as I carefully caught the kiwi between my teeth.

I thought I was prepared for the moment when my lips would inevitably brush against his fingers, but I was not. I didn’t know why it was such a big thing, because it was for the shortest possible time, but a hot sizzle of adrenaline rushed through my body nonetheless.

What made this even more awkward was the way Chris’s gaze remained fixed on me as he withdrew his hand and licked the remaining cream from his thumb and index finger. It was the thought of my lips brushing exactly these spots that ignited another prickling rush through my veins.

Unable to stay a second longer in this room, I spun around and left with a determined stride. Chris’s laughter followed me, then he continued singing, an amused note in his voice.

 

 

Chapter 7

 

 

THE DONOVAN FAMILY and I came together again at the table five minutes later. Chris placed the dessert bowls in front of us and took the seat to my right again. He played it cool, no remark about feeding me in the kitchen at all. It would hardly be the right thing to do, anyway, with his brother being present and all. But hearing him whistle the tune of “Stay With Me” as he placed a dessert bowl in front of me still felt like a taunt.

My cheeks warmed with the memory of how he’d tempted me to take the fruit he held out…my lips brushing his fingers.

Because of my nerves, I hadn’t even had a chance to savor the taste of the kiwi wedge dipped in cream. Now, however, I realized that the dessert wasn’t actually just bland vanilla cream with fruit, as I had expected. In fact, Chris had created an awesome coconut-lemon cream. And though various types of fruit slices floated in my bowl, I couldn’t find a single peach slice.

How very considerate of him. But I’d have rather bitten off my tongue than tell him that.

After dessert, Ethan offered to drive me home, and not a minute too soon. If I was late, my mom would ground me for at least a week. We headed out to his car where he made me swoon a little when he opened the door for me like the last gentleman left in Grover Beach. The drive didn’t take half as long as I’d wished, but on the plus side, Ethan cut the engine in front of my house.

Was this it? The moment when he’d lean across the center console and kiss me? My heart pounded like it was trying to bulldoze a way out of my chest.

Ethan turned to me, a half-smile on his lips. I was breathing so fast that in another couple of minutes we wouldn’t have any air left in the car. My knees shook as I shifted in my seat to face him, too. “Thanks for a lovely evening,” I said with what little control over my voice I had left.

“Mm, it was really nice.” Instead of leaning toward me, he dipped his head back against the headrest. “It’s funny how my mom took a liking to you in an instant,” he continued, his voice still light but coy. Then he laughed, a heartwarming sound. “Chris and I always suspected she wanted one of us to be a girl.”

“You can’t be serious.” It came out as playful banter, but inwardly it felt like a complaint about his making small talk rather than kissing me.

“I am.”

Yeah, I’d figured as much. My heart sank as my longed-for first kiss drifted farther and farther away. What was happening here? Hadn’t we had a great time together? It was our second official date—or whatever—and three minutes past my curfew. Not that I wanted to rush anything, but it was now or never!

As the seconds ticked by, “never” seemed to be the more likely outcome of the above.

A grim thought sneaked into my mind. When Chris drove a girl home, he probably didn’t waste a minute on words. Gee, why was Chris in my head right now, when I wanted Ethan to kiss me?

Frustration seemed a reasonable answer to that one. The thought of my first kiss had clearly wound me up. Ethan was a great guy: gorgeous, polite, sweet…and seductive when he didn’t think about it. Hm, maybe that was the whole problem. Were we both overthinking it?

“Hey, I really like hanging out with you,” Ethan said next, and I could sense that this was going in the direction of another date. At least I hoped as much. A small stone dropped from my chest.

“You’re only saying that because you beat me at Mario Kart tonight,” I teased him, not knowing what else to say, since I didn’t want to be the one to ask him out.

“Yeah, that, and because your feet don’t smell like my other friends’ do,” he joked.

We both shook with laughter, and I poked him with my elbow. “Thanks for that visual, Ethan. It’s really what a girl wants to hear after a second date.”

He smirked at me. “Oh, you should hear what I come up with for the third one.”

Was there going to be a third? The question must have been written in my eyes, because he cleared his throat and stammered, “Want to, er…do something again this weekend? If you’re already bored of video games, we could go to the movies.”

Truth be told, I had spent way too much time with Nick Frederickson, and he’d spoiled me in an irreparable way. “Are you kidding me? I could never get bored of playing Wii! But a movie sounds good.”

“Saturday night? We could even do both. Come to my place, and we can play some games before we go out. But no Mario Kart.” He nudged me with his shoulder, a chuckle rolling off his chest. “I don’t want you to get too frustrated to see me again.”

“That won’t happen.” Even without getting kissed, I enjoyed the time with Ethan a lot more than being the third wheel in Sam and Tony’s relationship—or in any other relationship, for that matter. Ethan would make an awesome boyfriend, but he was a cool friend, too. “Call me about Saturday.” I fumbled with the door until it finally opened. After a deep sigh, I told him good night and climbed out.

Swallowing hard as I adjusted my dress, I gazed after his car until the red taillights turned around the corner.

Mom was waiting for me on the couch in the living room. Dad was in the kitchen, pouring himself a glass of Scotch. The current silence in the house was deceiving. If Dad was knocking back a drink before bedtime, it was an indicator of two things. One, the fight they’d had in my absence was one ranking quite high on my self-made scale of severity. And two, Mom would have another reason to attack Dad—for getting drunk, even if he wasn’t going to be wasted from only one glass. Anyway, it would drive me out of my bed and next door tonight.

“Hey, Mom, I’m back,” I said.

She rose from the couch and came toward me with a smile. Kudos to her for keeping me out of their fights and always having a loving tone for me, even during their loudest arguments. Both of my parents did. That was the reason I could never be mad at either one of them, even if the nightly shouting hurt my eardrums and I’d end up on a therapist’s couch before my twenty-fifth birthday, telling him where my insomnia stemmed from.

Mom ran her soft hand over my hair. “How was your date?” She was probably as excited to hear whether Ethan had kissed me as Simone was.

“Quite nice. I’m going to see Ethan again this weekend.” That was the most detail I’d give her. I mean, come on, she’s my mom. You don’t tell all the sickly sweet details about a date to your parents. Especially when those details aren’t as sickly sweet as you’d hoped for in the first place.

Upstairs in my room, I stripped out of my dress and put on a tank top and flannel bottoms. After brushing my teeth, my bed tempted me, but Simone expected a call and it would be impolite to make her wait. My phone lay on the nightstand, and I picked it up while I crawled under the covers. The screen lit up at a swipe of my thumb. There was a surprise text waiting for me.

It wasn’t from any of my friends, but I knew the number of the sender. Earlier this afternoon, I’d saved it as Arrogant Dick in my contacts.

My first thought was to delete the message from Chris unread. No court in the world could convict me for that after how he’d confronted me in detention today. But the image of him singing in their kitchen and holding out a cream-dipped kiwi pressed back into my mind. Curiosity got the better of me so, with a snort and a shake of my head, I opened the message and read: Not like a geek.

Who in the world was supposed to make sense of that? Was there something missing? Scratching my head, I typed: What? And sent it off.

While waiting for his explanation, I keyed in a quick update about tonight for Simone, but also added Sam and Lisa to the receiver line. As soon as that text had gone out, my phone started to ring. My first thought was that one of the girls had been really quick to read my text and wanted to talk about it, but checking the display, it said that a certain Arrogant Dick had dialed my number.

What in the world— “Chris, why are you calling me?” I groaned into the phone. But I’d probably run right into that one when I decided to respond to his text.

“To wish you a pleasant night and to answer your question,” Chris replied with a chuckle.

An irritated sigh escaped me. “Does your brother know that you’re talking to me?”

“No. He just came in…too soon after he drove you home, if you ask me.” He added with a tease in his voice, “Does that mean he, once again, didn’t kiss you?”

Teeth clenched, I snarled, “None of your business.”

“Come on, it’s a simple yes or no question.” An amused laugh drifted through the line. “I’ll sleep a lot better if I know the answer.”

What did I care if he slept well? “Why don’t you ask him yourself if you want to know so badly?”

“Okay… Since you told me to…” There was a pause and the sound of a door opening which added ten extra degrees to my blood. He wasn’t really going to— “Hey, Ethan!” Chris called out, cutting my thought short. “Did you kiss Susan tonight?”

“No. Why?” The answer came from far away. My heart sank with Ethan’s flat voice. Then a door banged shut somewhere in Chris’s house.

“Ethan said no,” he rubbed it in, as if I hadn’t heard the news myself. “I wonder why he didn’t.” His voice had adopted a thoughtful edge that was one hundred percent fake. “Could it be that he’s just not interested?”

Much as his suggestion stung, I was wondering it myself. But it was too early to give up hope just yet. Third time’s a charm, the saying chanted in my mind as I said to Chris, “FYI, he asked me on another date.”

“Aw, playing video games again? Is that really your idea of a successful date?”

“We’re going to the movies.” And might play some video games before that, but I didn’t mention it. “Your idea of a successful date is probably coming out of your room with bed hair and a messy shirt.”

Chris waited a second. There was an unmistakable smirk in his tone when he purred in my ear, “I knew you noticed that.” His voice became even lower and a quantum more seductive. “Did it bother you?”

“Why the hell would it?”

“Because, for one,” Chris didn’t hesitate a beat to explain, “I look exactly like my brother and, from what I can tell, you’re totally into him. Means you’re totally into me, too. And two, only one out of us seems to be dying to snatch a kiss from you these days.”

His explanation, or whatever the heck that was, sent my thoughts into complete chaos. It was silent enough to hear a pin drop in my room.

“You stopped breathing, Sue.” There was, for once, not the slightest edge of teasing in his tone. Rather astonishment. But that faded away quickly and a chuckle carried through the line. “I guess that means you agree with me on both points.”

Did I? The likeness of the twins was striking and not something one could overlook. Since I thought Ethan was the cutest boy in the world, it would make sense to assume I thought the same about Chris. Except that Chris was lacking charm, manners, courtesy, and my fabulous taste in music. Although his singing “Stay With Me” had stroked a sense of admiration awake in me.

“Chris, tell me one thing,” I whispered, not at all sure if I really wanted an answer. “You had the most beautiful girl in your room this afternoon. Why do you want to kiss me?”

“Because Lauren, like most other girls, is an easy catch.” After telling me this in the most nonchalant way, he made a dramatic pause. “You, on the other hand, challenged me today—and in front of my friends, too.”

“So you want me because you can’t have me?”

“Who says I can’t have you?”

“I do.”

“Oh, okay. So yes, then I definitely want you.”

His logic made me laugh, but there was more frustration than humor ringing in it. “You need to understand that I could never kiss a guy without having true feelings for him…which I don’t have for you, Chris.”

“Really?” His voice went up like he was scrunching up his face. “I’ve kissed more than twenty girls the past few months, and it was lots of fun. But not one of them made me feel anything. Well, other than—”

“Stop it!” I shouted, squeezing my eyes shut. “I don’t want to hear it.”

“Okay, okay,” he laughed. “Anyway, there’s another reason why I want you.”

“What’s that?”

“You looked way hot in that dress today. Definitely not like a geek, which should answer your question to begin with.” I thought he couldn’t sound any more seductive than that, but a moment later, he proved me wrong, as his voice dropped another notch and picked up a layer of heat. “If I’d been the one driving you home tonight, I would have kissed you. And you would have liked it.”

Chills ran down my back and arms like a melting scoop of ice cream. Not unpleasant, but awkward, anyway.

“Sleep tight, sweetness,” he breathed and hung up.

My mouth snapped open as I lowered my hand and dropped the phone into my lap. I knew he was saying these things for only one reason…and I was not going to be taken in by them. He might have caught me in a weak moment when he fed me the kiwi, but if he thought I was going to fall for him because of such a trivial thing, he was in for a surprise. My hair wasn’t black, I wasn’t called Lauren—and most of all, I wasn’t a random chick waiting for him to pick me up at a corner and enjoy for an evening, maybe two.

Gorgeous? By God, he was. I couldn’t deny that when I was head over heels for his twin brother. But it took more than good looks to be really attractive, and Chris needed to clear his ego before it swallowed him whole in a bubble of delusions.

Damn, why hadn’t I thought of that comeback when he was still on the phone? “Super, Susan, just super,” I muttered and slapped my brow. Finally, I scooted lower under the covers and turned off the light.

But sleep? I wish.

As I had predicted, my parents took stuff out on each other again so loud one might have thought they were giving a rock concert. A bit before midnight, I was so fed up with their noise that I grabbed my phone, which served as my alarm clock, and sneaked out of the house. Grandpa kept a spare key under the potted plant on the windowsill so I didn’t have to wake him when I went over for refuge and crashed on the couch.

He was up long before me in the morning and kissed me on the forehead when I said my mandatory thanks and returned to my own rackety home. Mom looked sheepish when she saw me coming in. Dad had already left for work.

“When are you ever going to stop that shit?” I wanted to yell at her as I grabbed a donut from the plate on the counter. But instead, I broke off a bite and shoved it in my mouth. There was no point in discussing it. Some things never changed.

Avoiding talking with my mother at all, I got dressed, packed my stuff, and beat it to school.

On the up side, it was Friday and the first day this week that Ethan sat with the soccer team at lunch. I was sure Ryan had invited him over, but it was also obvious that Lisa was the puppet master. She beamed like a streetlamp at midnight as we walked to the table and squeezed my arm a little too tight.

I didn’t complain about her matchmaking ambitions this time. In fact, being near Ethan for the entire lunch hour was the highlight of my day, even if we didn’t talk much because Alex engaged him in a discussion for most of the time. It didn’t matter, I got a kick out of staring at him just as well.

When the break was over and we all had to go to our afternoon classes, Ethan promised to call me tomorrow to make plans for the evening.

And he kept his promise.

Saturday afternoon, my phone went off, ripping me out of the last chapter of another Outlander book. This unknown number belonged to Ethan, and right after our chat, I saved him in my phone as Charlie Brown. He’d suggested we meet in his room as soon as I was done reading, which made me fly over the final pages twice as fast. Ten minutes later, I tossed the book away and got ready to go out.

Since the red dress had gotten me nowhere with him on Thursday, but had only given Chris some funky ideas, I decided to roll with more comfortable clothes today. Jeans and a white blouse over a strappy blue top. On the way downstairs, I had a merry whistle on my lips, for once not making the success of this date dependent on a kiss.

Since my father was the first one I ran into downstairs, I asked him, “Could you drive me over to Ethan’s house, please?”

He folded the newspaper he was reading and rose from the table, fetching his keys. I liked Mom’s car a lot better than Dad’s, and as always when I climbed into the black Toyota, I pinched my nose, trying not to gag. Four months post purchase, this vehicle still bore the typical new car smell that I just couldn’t seem to get used to. Rolling down the window, fresh air slapped me in the face and gave me a chance to refill my lungs before I turned blue.

After I gave my dad clear directions where to take me, he said, “So who is this guy? Ethan.” He was trying to sound casual, as if he hoped this question didn’t bear the stamp of a worried father.

Major fail, Dad!

“He’s a guy from my school and soccer team. We went out a couple of times.”

“The guy from Thursday, right? Your mom told me about him.”

“Really?” I teased. “With all that fighting, there was a moment when she could squeeze that in?”

I didn’t mean it in an accusing way. Heck, if I could joke about this with one person in the world, it was my dad. But he heaved a deep sigh anyway. “It’s not easy for you right now, huh?”

I shrugged. “What kid likes listening to their parents’ endless arguments?”

After a short pause at a crossing, Dad patted my knee. “We’re trying to find a way to deal with it. It will get better. I promise.”

Deal with it how? With Scotch and more arguments? “Come on, Dad. You know it won’t get any better. She’ll always find reasons to attack you. She just never got over Grams.”

“We talked about seeing a marriage counselor this morning.”

Did they? Or did he? I couldn’t imagine my mother doing anything like that. Not when she wouldn’t accept the true problem and reason for their fights, even after two years. “That sounds like a good idea,” is what I said out loud.

A moment later, Dad pulled up to the curb in front of Ethan’s house. Thank God, because talking about my parents’ issues was starting to depress me. We both looked out through my window, silently regarding the cozy-looking bungalow. No fights in there. Was he thinking the same?

Suddenly, my Dad surprised me when he chuckled. “I’ve got the feeling I should get out with you and introduce myself to this boy.”

“Dad!” I rolled my eyes.

“What? Isn’t that what considerate fathers do?”

“It’s what fathers do when they want to embarrass their daughters and brand them as dorks for life. Please, don’t be that guy.”

Laughing, my dad reached behind my neck, pulled me forward, and placed a kiss on top of my head. “Have fun, sweetheart. Curfew is midnight.”

I nodded and cast him a smile. “Bye, Dad.”

While he reversed in the broad, empty street, I jogged up the two steps to Ethan’s door and rang the bell. One of the twins opened it, striking me with his smooth appearance. Washed out jeans and a white polo shirt, hair in a cute mess; this could be either of them. Not even the warm and welcoming smile was enough to assure me I was facing the right one.

“Hi, Susan,” he said.

I took my time, just staring.

He folded his arms over his chest and regarded me with delight. “You’re trying to figure out who I am, aren’t you?”

“Nope, I just got the answer,” I replied and shoved past Chris. “Is Ethan in his room?”

“Yes.” He closed the door and ran after me, successfully holding me up in the hallway. “How did you figure it out?”

“Simple.” I reached to his collar and picked up the massive silver chains around his neck that I had seen on him the other day, when I entered the wrong room. I wound them around my finger until they were almost choking him. “Your I rule chains gave you away.” With a smug smile, I dropped them and flicked him on the forehead.

Chris frowned at the soft attack but wouldn’t step aside to let me pass. “Hey, that’s rude.”

“What? The flick or calling your chains what they are?” I laughed and flicked him a second time.

“Both,” Chris snarled. He grabbed my arm and spun me around so fast that I had no chance to realize what was going on until my back was flush against his chest. His arms built a firm cage around my torso. “And if you do that one more time,” he growled into my ear, “I’ll give you a hickey the size of Ohio…right here.” As he dipped his head a little lower, his breath feathered against my neck an instant before he touched that very spot with his lips.

Little electric fire bolts zipped through my body, starting right where his mouth was. I could feel the shivers way down to my toes. A gasp escaped me, so full of shock that I couldn’t savor the traitorous feeling of excitement trying to take over. Writhing in his hold, I landed a weak jab to his chest with my elbow. “Go away, Chris! You’re disgusting!”

He chuckled, but the iron cage around me eased, and he let me slip away. For a moment, I used the wall for support, struggling very hard to catch my breath after that sensual assault. “Never…do that again!”

“Why?” The tilt of his eyebrows mocked me. “Afraid you might get addicted to it?”

“Yeah, either that”—I rolled my eyes and made a gagging sound—“or throw up.”

“Every addiction starts with denial, so I’ll let you believe that.”

I was having trouble resisting the urge to kick him, but the sudden change in his expression kept me frozen.

“Why did you come here, anyway? Are you coming to my basketball game tonight?” he asked, a frown marring his face.

“What? No.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Movies? Ethan and I?” I made a duh face. “I told you on the phone, remember?”

When I decided Chris had wasted enough of my limited time in this house and took another step down the hallway, he lifted his arm and braced his hand against the wall in front of me. “Wait. That’s today?”

“Yes.” Why did that shock him?

“But you can’t.”

Hah, you wait and see! I was so about to tell him just how we could do that, only I never got a chance to. Chris whirled about and stormed to Ethan’s room, entering without a knock.

“Hey, what’s this crap about you going to the movies tonight?” he snapped.

Over his shoulder, I caught a glimpse of Ethan sitting at his desk, looking up from whatever he was doing there. “I’m going with Susan. What’s your problem?”

“My problem is that it’s my last game this year. The big rematch against Clearwater High. You were supposed to come.”

Oh my God, if Chris sounded any more like a sulking little boy, I might take him in my arms and cuddle him for comfort. He was seriously hurt over his brother blowing him off. I’d always suspected that every person had a weak spot, and basketball was clearly Chris’s.

“You promised,” he added, frozen in Ethan’s door with his shoulders sagging. His voice dropped another sulky notch. “Mom’s coming, too.”

All right, I was officially undone. It might sound terribly cliché, but it was true. If there had ever been a playboy on his knees, it was Chris Donovan, right now, all because his brother had driven the proverbial lance through his heart. I couldn’t stop my own hand from lifting and carefully touching Chris’s arm. “If it means so much to you, we won’t go to the movies tonight. Ethan can go to your game.”

Both the twins’ gazes zapped to me. Ethan asked, surprised, “I can?” while at the same time Chris pulled his brows to a frown and said warily, “He can?”

“Yes,” I answered them both, feeling a little ridiculous, because they were obviously making this depend on me. “The movie won’t run away. And if it’s the last game before winter break, you really should go. It would kill me if my family didn’t come to my big games.”

“Okay, but you have to come, too,” Ethan demanded.

Uh. Basketball was really not my thing, but in order to spend more time with Ethan, I would put up with any trial. Pressing my lips together, I gave a helpless shrug. “Basketball it is.”

A grin stretched Chris’s mouth wide and he looked for a moment as if he was going to lift me in an effusive hug. Not because he was being a dick again and wanted to rile me, but because he was genuinely happy.

He thought better of it, however, which I had to give him credit for. Nevertheless, turning to me so that only I would see his face, he mouthed, “I owe you.”

Oh, I had a feeling I might take him up on that sometime.

 

 

Chapter 8

 

 

“THAT WAS REALLY nice, Susan,” Ethan told me a little later. And he didn’t just mean my strike in Wii Bowling. “Sometimes basketball seems to be everything to Chris.”

“Well, I have my soft moments,” I teased, but I was wondering if it really was all about basketball for his brother. To me, it seemed like family played a big role for him, too. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been so hurt that Ethan had found something else to do.

I aimed another virtual shot at the screen. “When does the game start?”

“In forty-five minutes,” the answer came from the door. Chris peeped inside the room, pressing his lips together and arching his brows. “Mom is ready and we’re leaving in five. If you two want a ride, you better finish this fast.”

The ball rolled down the line on the TV and knocked out all the pins in a sensational strike that won me the game. Beaming, I whirled around and rocked on the balls of my feet, hands clasped behind my back. “I’m done. We can go.”

Stabbed by my gloating, Ethan folded his arms over his chest and narrowed his eyes at me, all but tapping his foot. “I don’t care how much you complain…next time it’s Mario Kart again.”

“Fine with me.” As long as there was going to be a next time, I was the happiest girl in the world. Smiling brightly, I met Chris’s interested smirk and wondered if, at that moment, he was reading my mind.

As we all came out of Ethan’s room, Beverly slipped on her black pumps and a cardigan that matched her burgundy wool dress. It’s not what I would wear to a basketball game at my high school, but I couldn’t imagine her wearing tattered jeans topped with a too-long jersey and wielding a foam finger, either.

Outside, she stopped in front of a black SUV and faced us, holding out the keys. “Does anyone want to drive?”

That offer certainly didn’t include me, but with a look at her heels, I thought I knew the reason she wasn’t so keen on driving tonight. Chris didn’t hesitate to grab the keys and get behind the wheel. With Beverly riding shotgun, I had Ethan all to myself in the backseat. Three minutes in the car with him, and his smell was already making me gaga, evoking the wildest dreams. I hadn’t seen him put on cologne before we left the house, but I might just have missed it while tying my shoes. It was a mix of something herbal and exotic, very boyish and very bewitching.

“Susan, darling,” Beverly said shortly before we arrived at the school parking lot. “How long can you stay out tonight?”

“Um…my curfew on weekends is usually midnight,” I told her, leaning forward so she could hear me over the faint music drifting from the radio.

“Great!” She shifted a little in her seat and half-faced me. “You know, we have a little tradition on game nights. If the Sharks win, I take my boys out to the St. James Steakhouse in Oceano. If they lose, my boys have to take me out to Burger King in Arroyo Grande. Whichever it is, you’re in for a treat tonight.”

My heart melted. A soft laugh escaped me, and I turned to Chris. “I better cheer for your team tonight, so you and Ethan get a proper meal, huh?”

“He and I,” Chris teased, with a brief skip of his gaze to me then back at the road, “…and you.”

I noticed two things at that moment. One, from the sound of it, Chris was happy to have me going out with them after the game. And two, the amazing smell in this car didn’t come from Ethan. It must have been Chris who put on the exotic-smelling cologne. Staring at the side of his face, I took another couple of deep breaths, suddenly not wanting to lean back in my seat anymore.

“What?” he said when he noticed my puzzlement, an obvious smile in his voice.

“You smell nice.” Oh my freaking Jesus, I did not say that out loud, did I? Please, no!

Chris chuckled, and so did the other two. “Well, thanks,” he said, and I melted back into my seat, wishing my raised temperature was enough to burn a hole for me to hide in.

Ethan, of all people, cut me an amused look. “Hey, if I’d known you like Axe, I’d have put some on as well.” Shouldn’t he be mad that I—his sort-of date for tonight—complimented his brother instead of him? If he was, he was a damn good actor. But I was starting to believe Ethan didn’t care at all whether I was interested in him. Of course, I’d just made such a fool of myself that he probably pitied me more than anything.

Glad when we all got out of the car and the evening breeze cooled my still-burning face, I sidled up to Ethan and set a pace that would give Chris and his mom a chance to walk a little ahead of us.

Reveling in the smell of my great love’s only brother wasn’t cool. But getting past the cash box at the school entrance free of charge because we knew one of the players definitely was.

In front of the locker rooms, Beverly hugged Chris and wished him luck. Ethan smacked him on the shoulder, stating, “I want a steak, bro.” When it was my turn to say something, I shrugged and cast him a playful smile. “You made us all come watch you tonight, so you better try not to slip out there on the court.”

His laughter bounced around in the hallway as he shouldered his black duffle bag and walked through the door into the boys’ changing room.

The rest of us found a spot in the middle of the bleachers with a great view of the court. Music boomed down from the loudspeakers on the ceiling and mingled with the noise of people talking to each other, some shouting across the rows of seats. The crowd, a milling mass as they swarmed in through the two double doors at either end of the gym, slowly settled down and the whole place started smelling of hot dogs.

It didn’t take long for the pop song to change to an excited fanfare. Students, teachers, and outsiders alike cheered as my high school’s basketball team rolled in like they’d already won the game. I clapped my hands along with the others, and winced when Ethan whistled with his fingers next to me because Chris had dunked a ball into the basket for warm-up.

The opposing team stormed in shortly after ours, and they received the same welcome blast from the guest section across from us. Their dark blue jerseys created a strong enough contrast to the Dunkin’ Sharks’ white ones that there wouldn’t be any trouble keeping track of the players.

I’d never heard of the other team’s high school, but they brought their mascot—a lion. At the beginning, the guy in a lion suit motivated the guest supporters to sing and clap for their team, but he soon sank onto the low bench on the sideline and rested his chin in his mighty paw, bracing his elbow on his thigh. No one could blame him for his drooping confidence when the Sharks were leaving his team behind like a Ferrari zooming ahead of a moped.

That changed, however, after the first half. Their coach took out three players. On our team, no one was replaced. The new guys, all tall hunks with feet as big as boats, turned the game around with a far more aggressive technique. Though not all moves were fouls, there was a lot more scrambling for the ball all of a sudden. Every time one of our guys got blocked or tossed off balance and skittered along the floor, the sound of skin rubbing on linoleum made the little hairs on my arms stand on end. I’d experienced the burn of such a fall, and it was nothing I wished upon anyone, be it our team or the other. The rest of the audience obviously felt the pain, too, because a collective “ow” sounded from the bleachers each time a guy tripped.

While the opponents sank one after the other, most of our team’s shots were easily caught before the ball could even touch the basket. Team Lion evened the score in record time.

Chris found himself blocked by a guy who towered above him by about a head. This one brought man-marking to a whole new level, and soon enough Chris was displaying more burns on his legs and shoulders than most of the other players put together. But it didn’t take away any of his determination. If anything, it made him attack harder and dive for the ball more. He and one of his teammates sank two shots each shortly before the end of the fourth quarter, which made the crowd rampage and cheer. But the Lions evened that out before the referee blew his whistle.

I turned to Ethan. “Twenty to twenty. What now?”

“They play five minutes overtime,” he told me.

The Lions managed two more points, and I was biting my nails in agony as the huge scoreboard beneath the ceiling counted down the final seconds of extra time.

With nine seconds to play, Chris caught the ball from one of his friends. In a mad run, he dribbled toward the opposite basket, but right as he tossed the ball, his shadow from team Lion rammed a shoulder into his back. With a groan that I could hear all the way to where I sat, Chris landed on his knees. He looked irritated for a moment, but thankfully not severely hurt. And the amazing thing was, even with being fouled, he’d scored the two points they needed to get even with the Lions again.

Basketball rules were a riddle to me, and to be fair, I always had to look at the scoreboard to check how many points a basket was worth after one team scored. But I had played enough soccer this year to know such a foul wouldn’t stay unpunished, even if the playing time was officially over now.

Chris was given the ball.

“It’s a free throw. If he gets the damn ball in the basket now,” Ethan told me, all tense and focused on his brother, “he wins the game. If he misses, there’ll be five more minutes of overtime.”

Good to know. I crossed my fingers, pressing my hands under my chin. When Chris tossed the ball, taking a light jump, my eyes grew wide and I traced the path of the basketball with my gaze until it slid smoothly through the hoop.

The display switched. 23 to 22.

The Dunkin’ Sharks had won! I sucked in air to cheer along with the rest of the crowd and only now realized I’d been holding my breath all through his free throw.

While most of the people who’d come tonight slowly fought their ways toward the exits now, some headed down the bleachers to congratulate the players. Ethan, Beverly, and I did, too.

Chris spotted us on the sideline. Slapping some of his friends on the shoulders, he detached from them and came barreling at us like a bouncing ball drenched in Red Bull. It was cute to see him worked up and happy like that, his cheeks all red from playing. His mother didn’t even grumble when he crushed her in a hug that reeked of man sweat and euphoria.

Although I didn’t let him get anywhere near me when he tried to wrap an arm around me while he laid the other over Ethan’s shoulders, I wasn’t a complete spoilsport and still congratulated him on their win. “That was pretty cool,” I said, mirroring his smirk.

He leaned close and purred in my ear, “How about a kiss for the winning team?”

“Yeah…I actually think I’d rather kiss that stuffed loser lion over there, thanks.”

“So you have a thing for wild cats?” he mocked me quietly. “What the hell are you doing with Ethan then?”

I shoved against his shoulder. With another grin, he rushed back to his team. As they headed for the showers, he shouted to Beverly, “Fifteen minutes!”

We sat down outside the changing rooms and watched as the hallway rapidly emptied. Ethan asked me, “How did you like your first ever basketball game?”

“That was quite extreme.” I scrunched up my face. “It hurt me so much each time one of them bruised a knee or something. It feels like I’ve gotten more abrasions on my legs now than any of them.”

Beverly laughed at my confession. “They can be really rough sometimes. At least I only have to worry about one now and not both my boys.” She rubbed Ethan’s back in a loving way.

I gave Ethan an incredulous look. “What, you played basketball, too?”

“Mm-hm,” came his answering mumble.

“Why did you stop?”

He shrugged one shoulder. “I had my reasons.”

And that was that. He didn’t say more, and I could tell by his averted face that it wasn’t the time to knock a hole in his head with questions. Instead, I fell silent and we just waited for Chris to come out of the changing room. Yet his promised fifteen minutes stretched into twenty, then twenty-five, and when he wasn’t out after half an hour, I started wondering if he’d traded steak for a party with his friends in there tonight.

Ethan got impatient, too. He stood up, suggesting he’d find him and haul him out of the locker room if necessary. Before he reached the door, though, it opened and a guy came out, freezing him on the spot. Since Ethan blocked my view, I could only see a black sweatshirt and jeans, but from the muffled voice it was Chris. “Let’s go,” he said, already walking toward the exit. He’d pulled up his hood, probably because his hair was still wet from the shower and he didn’t want to get brain freeze outside.

Beverly and I got up and rushed after him. His angry stride gave me a horrible sense of foreboding.

“Chris, wait,” Beverly called and snatched him by the sleeve. “What’s up with—”

When she broke off, I froze on the spot. Ethan slowly walked up to me. He’d already seen what was wrong with Chris, but to me it was a shock that nailed my tongue to the roof of my mouth.

There was a small cut above his right eyebrow and a bit of a tissue stuck in one of his nostrils. It had completely soaked with blood, and some more was pooling at the corner of his mouth. Nausea churned my stomach. Without thinking, I pulled a tissue from my pocket and dabbed at the smudge of blood on his brow. Chris turned his startled gaze on me, his right eye sporting a real shiner.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, having no idea how to get myself out of this. All I knew was that Chris was hurt, and I didn’t like it. He grasped my wrist and leveled a long look at me. Trying to cover up my worry, I told him, “I don’t like seeing anyone hurt.”

“I’m fine,” he murmured.

Heat flooding my face, I hastily dropped my hand and stepped back. Ethan said nothing, just moved closer to me, for which I was grateful.

Beverly’s voice hitched as she grabbed Chris’s chin and turned his face into the light. “What in the world happened?”

Chris pulled away with a sigh. “Leave it, Mom. It’s nothing. Can we go now? I’m hungry.”

“No, we certainly cannot go. Look at you! Who did this?”

Ignoring his mother, Chris walked through the double glass doors, but Beverly wouldn’t let it go. She stormed after him and we followed, the cool breeze once again welcome. She cornered him by the car, snatching the keys from his hand.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Beverly snapped.

“To Oceano…as was the plan,” he growled back.

“But not with that black eye. And we’re not leaving until you tell me what happened.”

“Someone had to shut up Will Davis, that’s what happened.”

Beverly took a surprised step backward. “What?” she whispered. “You started it?”

I rubbed a sudden chill from my arms, wishing I could get out of here somehow with nobody noticing.

“I didn’t start it, no,” Chris replied. “He got on my nerves, and I broke his face.” He cut a quick glance at Ethan, eyes so narrow they couldn’t even be called slits any longer. As he reached for his mother’s keys again, I saw that his knuckles were bruised, too. Pulling the bloody piece of tissue out of his nose, he tossed it into the street and added, “He deserved it, so can we drop it and go eat?”

“What restaurant do you think will let you in with a bloody face like that?” Beverly shot back, coming to the end of her patience. “Certainly not St. James Steakhouse! And what will Susan think of you now? We promised to take her out to celebrate your team’s and your victory tonight.”

What? Why did she have to drag me into this? An ice-cold shiver zoomed through my body. It intensified and turned sizzling hot when Beverly forced Chris to look at me again. “You will apologize to your brother’s friend this minute for ruining our evening. And she even tended to you.”

Jeez, I’d only wiped the blood from his face. I didn’t want him to apologize. But I was too stunned to croak even one syllable as our gazes locked in the dark parking lot.

Chris gave me a look that made my heart pound painfully against my ribs. “I’m sorry.”

I bit my lip and moved even closer to Ethan. That made Chris’s frown grow. Something was off, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Whatever his mother had said made sense to him, even when it was all so confusing to me.

When I finally located my vocal cords and found enough air in my lungs to speak, I stepped forward and placed a hand on Beverly’s arm, unable to look at Chris now. “Really, there’s absolutely no need to apologize to me. I don’t care much for fancy restaurants anyway. We can just leave and…and…you can drop me off at my house. I’ll be fine with that.”

“Bullcrap, of course you’re coming with us. We’ll go out and get a winner’s meal,” Ethan said in a much lighter tone, startling us all. He stepped forward and smacked Chris on the shoulder. “No one cares about your ugly face at Burger King.”

A small grin slipped onto Chris’s lips. “Right back at ya, bro.”

To my astonishment, Ethan had succeeded in taking the awkwardness out of the moment. Even his mother let go with a sigh. All this odd talk was probably due to the shock of finding her son beaten. I even noticed how her hands were shaking when she reached out to stroke Chris’s good cheek. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”

He accepted her apology with a nod and climbed into the car. We followed. As he started the engine and Beverly buckled herself in next to him, she said in a casual voice, “By the way, you’re grounded for the next two weeks, buddy.”

Chris stared at her, his mouth hanging slightly open, but he must have considered this a mild punishment, because he closed it without contradiction and drove us to Arroyo Grande.

 

 

Chapter 9

 

 

THERE WEREN’T MANY people at Burger King when we arrived. We must have missed the rush before a film started in the theater just around the corner, and I can’t say I was sorry about it. While Chris and his mom lined up to place our order, Ethan and I claimed a table in the back. It was in front of a wall-to-wall window, but the light in this fast food restaurant was so bright, the only thing I could see when I looked at the glass was a reflection of the interior and my pale face. Music drifted from somewhere, just loud enough to notice but not to break any flow of conversation…which Ethan and I didn’t really have right now.

He’d grabbed a bunch of straws on the way back here and started peeling the paper wrappings off them as he mumbled, “You okay?”

“Yes. Why do you ask?”

“You were so silent on the drive here.”

I stole one of the straws and peeled it, too. My usually cold fingers had gone to ice status, which wasn’t uncommon in situations of stress, but it made fumbling with the paper wrapping almost painful. “Well, everyone was,” I replied, and that wasn’t even a lie.

“Yeah, but still. You seemed a little concerned when Chris came out with that black eye.”

“I was.” I looked up, putting enough sincerity in my voice to make him understand what really unsettled me about it. “More because your mom seemed ready to pick a fight on such an important night for your brother. I hate fights.” My voice dropped. “I get more than enough of them at home.”

Ethan tapped a rhythm on the table with his straw. “Your parents fight with you?”

“Not with me, but they do shout at each other a lot.” I cut a glance at the counter and saw that Chris and Beverly were headed our way, each carrying a tray loaded with wrapped burgers and paper cups. “Long story. Now is not the right moment to talk about it,” I told Ethan.

He tracked my gaze and nodded.

Chris planted his butt next to me, and I knew I should have chosen the empty space beside Ethan instead of across from him. I mean, how was one supposed to enjoy a burger when the beguiling scent of Axe was clouding your mind and senses? Chris must’ve had a bottle of that stuff in his duffle bag and put it on again after his shower. Before the fight with Will. Thinking about it, I wondered what the guy had said that made Chris feel the need to put a fist in his face. No one mentioned it while we ate, but it had to be something really bad. I was curious. Maybe Ethan would find out later, and he could tell me tomorrow.

He and Chris were discussing the other team’s tactics right now, which sounded like gibberish to me. How would I know what a double dribble was, or an alley-oop, and even weirder, a backcourt violation? But that reminded me to ask Ethan why he’d dropped basketball, once I got a chance to grill him alone.

After giving his all in the game earlier, Chris obviously had to recharge his batteries. As I warmed my fingers on my burger and munched with pleasure, he inhaled freaking three. And after he’d finished his fries, too, he stole a handful of mine.

Not being a big eater myself, I didn’t mind. When only one fry was left, though, and his hand sneaked toward my tray once again, I quickly grabbed that last one and stuffed it in my mouth, turning to Chris and grinning while I ate it.

“Meany,” he mouthed with a wicked smile.

“Hey, you can’t promise to treat me for dinner, then eat half my meal,” I teased. With a glance at Beverly, I assured myself she was occupied with talking to Ethan, before I leaned a little closer to Chris and added in a low voice, “Anyway, it’s not my fault you gave away your chance at an unhealthy, half-pound steak that might have filled you up a little better.”

“Ah, I don’t care,” he shot back and shrugged. “Ethan’s steaks are much better, anyway.”

“True,” Ethan joined in our conversation. I wasn’t aware he’d been listening. “You have to let me cook for you one day,” he said to me.

“What?” I nailed him with a challenging stare. “Was that an invitation for dinner next Saturday?”

“It certainly was. But I can’t do it alone. Chris has to help me.” He looked at his brother as if this was enough of a request.

Chris made a scrunched up face. “No, I don’t like cooking for guests, Ethan. You know that.” He stole a couple of his mom’s fries and happily took the last bite of her double cheeseburger when she mercifully offered it to him.

“Oh, come on. Why are you always playing down your talent? She’ll love it. You’re an excellent chef,” Ethan countered.

If the dessert Chris had prepared the other night was any indication, Ethan was right. And suddenly, I really wanted him to relent and cook for me, if only to give me an excuse to watch Ethan do something he loved. I tilted my head to Chris and tried for a teasing smile. “Pleeease?”

He laughed softly, seemingly touched, but still he shook his head. “No.”

“Come on, don’t be a spoilsport. I promise I’ll eat up, even if it tastes terrible.”

His flattered smile disappeared, replaced by a blood-searing look pinning me straight in the eyes. “It won’t be terrible.”

Suddenly, all I could manage was a hoarse whisper—how could he do this to me in only two seconds? “So you’re going to cook for me with your brother?”

“Mmm”—he cut a musing glance into space—“nope.”

Dammit. My hopes dashed, I sighed, but a second later I had one last brilliant idea. Struggling to imitate his blood-heating gaze from before, and most probably failing, I cooed, “You owe me.”

Quietly, Chris studied his family for a moment and finally focused on me again, wiping his fingers with a napkin. “I do, indeed.” He paused. “You’re lucky I’m grounded and don’t have anything better to do next Saturday.”

That was the equivalent of a yes, and my mouth stretched into a grin.

“Ah, that’s lovely,” Beverly said. “But you have to make sure to come early to be around when they actually cook. Their meals are always delicious, but it’s even more of a delight to watch them in the kitchen together.”

I leaned back, dipping my head against the glass wall beside me, and locked gazes with Ethan. “Is that so?”

He waggled his eyebrows. “Well, if my mom says so, it must be.”

“Are you finished, guys?” Beverly asked a moment later, stacking the empty cups and cleaning up the mess the boys had made with crunched paper wrappings and extra ketchup packs. She got up and swung her handbag over her shoulder, which might have been a little too peppy, because the bag knocked Chris straight in the face.

Clapping his hands over his nose, he yipped and squeezed his eyes shut, biting back his curse. “Darn it, Mom!”

“Oh, sweetie, I’m so sorry!” She dropped her bag and leaned down to her son, caressing his hair and patting his shoulder.

When Chris lowered his hands, his eyes had glazed over, which was normal when getting a punch to the nose. I would know; several elbows had knocked into my face since I’d started playing soccer, and there was nothing you could do about the tears welling up at such a moment. A streak of blood also crossed his fingers. “Fuck,” he hissed and got up from his seat, heading at a fast stride for the restrooms.

“Ouch,” I whined, feeling Chris’s pain in each cell of my body.

“Ah, he just needs to learn to stay out of fights,” Ethan joked, “or, by all means, away from her.” With a nod at his mother, he gave me a conspiratorial smile. Grabbing the edge of the table and the backrest of his seat, he lifted himself up and climbed out of the booth over Beverly’s place. “Anyway, I better go after him and make sure he doesn’t bleed all over the place, or they’ll call the police on Mom before we’re out of here.”

“We’ll be waiting for you by the car,” Beverly told him, clearing the table. She shoved the trays onto the stack by the wall and tossed the cups in a separate basket.

I followed her to the exit but changed my mind at the last second. “I need to wash my hands. I’ll meet you outside in a minute.” Beverly nodded, and I headed to the ladies’ room. Pushing the door open, I heard Ethan’s voice drifting from the men’s. The only way I could tell it was him and not Chris was because he didn’t sound like his nose was broken.

“You did this because of me, didn’t you?” he said in a low tone, obviously feeling bad for what had happened to Chris. Curiosity kept me rooted to the spot and I strained to hear more of their conversation.

There was a pause and no reply from Chris, so Ethan added, “You know, you didn’t have to do this.”

“You’re wrong,” Chris snapped all of a sudden. “I did have to. And I don’t regret it either. Will has been asking for an ass-kicking for a long time. But you, on the other hand, shouldn’t have brought Susan home.”

Leaning back, I narrowed my eyes at the stick figure on the door and made a funny huh sound, as if this little sketch had anything to do with it. Fortunately, there was no one else back here in this corridor to see me acting a little crazy.

“I don’t know what you mean.” Ethan’s voice was small, guilty. I didn’t believe him, and obviously neither did Chris.

“Don’t play stupid, Ethan. You know what I mean. What do you want to prove with her?”

A thud on the door made me jump backward and I knocked into the wall behind me. Ow. Ethan must have tipped back against the door. He replied, “I’m not trying to prove anything. I like her.”

Chris laughed. “The same way she likes you?”

“Maybe?”

“And maybe not.”

At Chris’s sardonic voice, goosebumps grew all over my skin like moss on the forest floor. He’d told me before that he didn’t think Ethan and I were a good fit, but I’d thought it was only to irritate me. Now, as he confronted Ethan with the same accusations, I wondered how much truth there’d been in his chatter from the beginning—and if I wanted to find out after all.

This was probably a good moment to retreat and forget what I’d heard, but the masochistic side of me just couldn’t miss out on a chance to know everything.

“Sue seems like a nice girl,” Chris continued after a beat of silence. “You’re going to hurt her if you don’t tell her the truth soon.”

“You know what?” Ethan growled. “I don’t care about this shit. Come outside when you’ve stopped the nose bleed.”

The door opened, and in a panic, I slipped into the women’s restroom, hiding behind the wall while the door slid close. But before it shut completely, I heard Chris say in a stern voice, “Ethan. I’m your brother. I don’t care.” A short pause. “And neither does Mom.”

That was the last thing I heard, because the door next to me had securely closed and all I could do now was go pee. But Chris’s last words didn’t leave me alone. What did he mean, he didn’t care? Of course he cared about Ethan or he wouldn’t have said all these things to him. So what was that particular thing that he didn’t care about?

Washing my hands, I shook my head, cursing the moment I’d traded the movies for a darn basketball game tonight.

I got to the car before Chris. The nose bleed must have been worse than it looked. Ethan said nothing to me when I climbed into the backseat and sat next to him. He only looked out the window on the other side. Wondering if this was the end of our romance, and if all this had actually happened more in my head than reality, I pressed my forehead against the cool glass of the window and watched the streetlights flash by once Chris came out of Burger King and drove us home.

He found my house easily with my instructions at every crossing and parked at the curb to let me out. I thanked Beverly for the invitation and told Ethan to call me if he wanted to do something next week. He didn’t look at me but nodded.

Now thank you, Chris Donovan, for ruining this for me! Even if it was all only ever a bubble, which had popped now. Gritting my teeth, I slammed the door shut and walked inside.

It was just shy of eleven and I found both my parents still awake—and not fighting for once. They were both watching TV and said hi when I came in. Forgetting about the confusing night for a moment, I just leaned against the doorjamb and looked at them. Mom had her socked feet stuffed under Dad’s thigh. He absently rubbed her calf up and down while he focused on the screen, eating pretzels which they had placed in a bowl between them.

Why couldn’t it always be like this?

“Is everything okay, darling?” my mother asked, ripping me out of my musings. Both their puzzled gazes zeroed in on me now.

I cast them a warm smile. “Sure. It was just a strange night. I’m tired. See you in the morning.”

Mom blew a kiss my way before I headed for my room.

Once I was showered and dressed in my PJs, I crawled under the bedspread and fished for my phone, which I’d put on my desk. A text had come in, but it was not from Ethan, as I had hoped. It was from Chris again, reading: Good night, sweetness.

For a moment there, I felt the urge to throw my phone across the room and bang my head against the wall. Ethan had a secret. He liked me, but he was lying to me. And Chris obviously knew the answer, but he would only send me crap messages. How was that fair?

I considered sending Ethan a text and asking him about their chat in the restroom, but that, of course, was a dumb idea. He would hate me for listening in where I wasn’t welcome, and if he kept things from his own twin brother, I was certainly the last person he’d tell them to.

But the conversation swirled in my head and kept sleep at arm’s length. Frustration made me toss and turn and sigh at regular intervals—until I finally switched the bedside lamp on again and reached for my cell phone, my mind set.

Are you still awake? I keyed in and sent the message off to… Yeah, who would I send it to? Ethan or Chris?

My head dipped forward onto my bent knees and a sinister growl left me. Ethan would be the better choice for sure, just because it was about him and me, and we connected so easily over simple things like books and music. But the way he’d sounded earlier made me doubt he’d be happy if I confronted him about such a peculiar topic on the phone.

Chris, on the other hand, was a dick, and he would get a kick out of my texting him, but he seemed more ready to help me figure things out than his brother. Taking a deep breath, I straightened and sent him the message.

I am now, his reply came forty-five seconds later.

It was fifteen minutes past midnight. I should have checked the time before I texted him. But since I’d already woken him, I might as well go through with my plan.

I typed another message: Can I talk to you about something?

You can call me anytime. 😉

Agh, I’d been hoping for a “Sure, what’s on your mind.” Calling him seemed like such a bad idea that the hair at the back of my neck protested with a standing ovation. It was like he was teasing some sort of commitment out of me. But I wanted to find out the truth…

Swallowing hard, I steeled my nerves, swiped my thumb across the screen and called Chris.

“Hey, sweetness. What’s troubling you?” Some leftover sleep resonated in his voice, but it wasn’t too bad. In fact, he sounded positively surprised that I’d jumped on his offer and given him a call in the dead of night.

“Something that you did earlier,” I confessed, carefully.

After a beat had passed, he drawled, “Starting with offering to give you a hickey, that could be many things.” His soft laugh carried to me. “Could you get a little more specific?”

Why did he have to mention the hickey, for Christ’s sake? Now a rush of goosebumps tingled across my skin as I recalled the sensation of his lips on my neck. Rubbing the spot absently, I sank back into my pillow. “I did something terrible tonight,” I started, almost whining. “When you went to the restroom after your nosebleed, I did, too.”

“Okay, that’s really not a big issue, Susan. Everybody needs to pee sometimes,” he mocked me.

I wished he was in my room, face to face with me right now, so I could flick his forehead for that. Since he was two miles way, all I could do was roll my eyes in frustration and explain, “I was outside when you and Ethan were talking in the bathroom. I heard you.”

The silence that followed almost killed me. “Chris…?”

He cleared his throat, all amusement gone. “What did you hear exactly?”

Now that was a bit hard to explain. I didn’t want to repeat their entire conversation, so I simply said, “There’s something going on, and you know it. Since it’s concerning me, I think you should tell me.”

“No, I don’t think I should.” His answer was so curt, so absolute, that a shiver raced down my spine.

“Then at least tell me why you got in a fight with that guy—Will.”

“Sorry, can’t.” The same determination as before.

Irritation started to gnaw at me. Chris was a dead end. “Fine. Then there’s no need for me to talk to you anyway.” I hung up without saying good night, but it only took him ten seconds to call me back.

“That was rude,” he said as a second greeting.

“Keeping secrets from me when you know that I like your brother is rude,” I snapped back.

“Fair enough, but I can’t help it. It’s not my business, as you told me so nicely the other day.”

A deep sigh escaped me. I didn’t like his cynicism, but he was right. I’d wanted him to lay off us earlier, so why in the name of sanity had I even considered asking him about it now? But I knew why. I was falling in love with his brother, and I needed to know the truth. “How about I take a guess, and you just say yes or no?”

“Nope.” The sound of his chuckle warmed me. “It doesn’t work that way.”

Damn, this was getting us nowhere. Squeezing my eyes closed, I pinched the bridge of my nose and groaned.

“Do that again!” Chris’s voice suddenly took on a whole new layer of raspy. “And I might ask you what you’re wearing right now.”

Realizing that I’d moaned right into the phone, my cheeks burned with embarrassment. “Chris, you’re such a blockhead.”

“Yeah, maybe. But you have a date with this blockhead in a week.”

What the heck made him think that? “No I don’t.”

“Oh yes, you do. You’re coming to my house, I’m going to cook for you, and we’re eating together. Sounds very much like a date to me.”

He couldn’t really believe what he’d just said. Was he mocking me?

“And like it’s customary for a real date,” he continued, “I will kiss you before the evening is over.”

“You’re insane if you really think that.”

“So? I’ve been called worse.” He laughed softly, and I hated that the sound gave me pleasant shivers again. Moreover, it made me wonder now what he was wearing in bed. Agh!

“You should consider the possibility that Ethan, nice as he may be, just isn’t the right guy for you,” Chris added.

Well, with all their bullshit talk about me, they were actually forcing me to consider it. “But you are?” I snapped.

“At least I don’t have dark secrets.”

Jeez, so now Ethan didn’t only have secrets, he had dark ones. What had he done? Killed his last girlfriend and buried her in the garden?

“I think it’s late and time to end this conversation,” I replied.

“Really? Shame.” He didn’t mean it. Or maybe he did, but he just made it sound like the worst teasing ever. In a drawl, he added, “Before you go, could you moan for me again?”

“In your dreams,” I forced through gritted teeth, which only made him chuckle.

“I guess I’ll be seeing you around. Night, Sue.”

I hung up, shaking my head, and narrowed my eyes at the screen that said I’d been talking to Chris for sixteen minutes. But when I turned off the light again, a smile slipped to my face.

 

 

***

 

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One thought on “Dating Trouble (GBT 4)

  1. I am in love with Grover beach and because of that I was left wanting more!! I think it’s one of those series that I can read over and over again without getting tired, actually I already read Ryan Hunter for the second time❤️ It would be soooo amazing if there was a companion book that mentioned their college lives, etc… Seriously I would be the happiest person on the planet.

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