Play With Me
Grover Beach Team, 1
HE’D NEVER TRIED to kiss me, even when we practically shared the same bed for half of the summer. And then he was gone. For five tormenting weeks. I thought I was going to die after day two.
But today, my torture was over. Today, Anthony Mitchell returned. My best friend and future husband.
Not like I had informed him of that yet, but it wasn’t necessary. Everyone knew it, and I couldn’t wait to trade my last name, Matthews, for his. Tony and I had been hanging out since kindergarten. We were inseparable, except for the few hours every day when he had soccer training and I had—well, some time to write how much I loved him in my diary for the sixteen millionth time.
Lisa and Tony, that went together like Bonnie & Clyde. Like Lois & Clark. We were M&M, really.
The door bell chimed.
My heart banged against my throat as I tossed my diary to the side, struggling to disentangle the quilt from around my legs. I finally flopped off the bed together with the comforter.
“I’m coming!” On the way down the winding stairs, I raked my fingers through my long, brown hair to give it the last bit of oomph before I rushed to open the door. A sunbeam hit me first, then Tony’s long-missed good looks followed. His tousled blond hair fell over his forehead, almost touching his pretty blue eyes. He wore a white shirt half open, and I always had to fight really hard not to drool over his naked skin.
Hands shoved into the pockets of his shorts, he just stood there and looked at me. Then his mouth curled into his typical sly grin. “What is it, Liz? I know you’re dying to hug me.”
I flashed my teeth, which now were perfectly straight after wearing braces for two years, into a broad smile and gave him the bear hug he expected. He dragged me outside and twirled me under the warm sun with my face buried in the crook of his neck. Ah, he smelled so good, sun-kissed and all Tony. I never got enough of that special brand.
“How was camp?” I asked after he set me down.
He mocked me by wrinkling his nose. “Boring as hell without you, what else?”
“Yeah, right. As if.”
To fully understand him, one had to know that, apart from cheese crackers with mayo, soccer was Tony’s greatest passion in the world. But I appreciated his lie and stuck my tongue out at him.
Tony tsked. “Manners, girl. If you want to kiss me, just say so.” His face was close enough that his nose brushed mine. I swallowed the urge to tilt my head and do just that. But I knew he was teasing me again. So far, we’d never kissed. In regular intervals, I fell asleep in his bedroom when we played video games, or he would crash at mine when his parents were on business trips around the state. He let me rest my head on his shoulder, even played absently with my hair. But a kiss? Nah.
I was going to be seventeen at the end of this summer and had started feeling a little weird because I hadn’t been kissed yet. But no one other than Tony would touch my lips, and if he needed a few more months to realize he wanted me, too, I could wait.
“Hey, want to go down to the beach? I got this pretty new swimsuit and haven’t tried it out yet.” In anticipation of our reunion, I had put on the neon green bikini that morning, and now pulled down the collar of my pink tee to tease him with a glimpse. Green was his favorite color.
He snarled like a jaguar, with one corner of his mouth lifted. “I’d love to see you half-naked, Matthews.” Just another tease, but it didn’t matter. Goose bumps shot up on my skin. “Unfortunately, I have to pass. I’m going to see some friends from the team down at Charlie’s.”
My shoulders slumped. “Seriously? You just got back, what, ten minutes ago? Didn’t you see the guys enough at camp?”
“Hunter wants to discuss tomorrow’s tryouts.”
I pouted. Ever since Ryan Hunter had become the new captain of Grover Beach’s high school soccer team, Tony’s training time had doubled. And more training meant less time for him to hang out with me. I hated Hunter.
“Cheer up, girl. Why don’t you come along? You know most of the guys anyway, and I’ll introduce you to the rest. I’m sure Hunter won’t mind.” He gave me no chance to argue, or even trade my flip-flops for decent shoes. My hand in a tight grip, he hauled me down the path through our front yard.
“Wait! I have no money on me.”
“Don’t need it. That single soda you’ll sip on for the next two hours won’t ruin me.”
I pulled my hair back and fastened it with a hair tie I had in my pocket as we ambled along Saratoga Avenue to Charlie’s Café and Diner.
A bunch of kids sat around three tables in the shade of the wooden roof sloping over half of the outdoor area. I recognized a few of them from Tony’s team. Sasha Torres, Stephan Jones, Alex Winter. Nick Andrews’ arm was laid in a cast. The training camp obviously hadn’t passed without leaving battle scars.
I was surprised by the many female faces there, though. “What’s this?” I whispered to Tony when we were still out of earshot. “Are you into co-ed training now?”
“Cool, isn’t it? We played a few games together in Santa Monica, and Hunter thought it would be fun to assemble a mixed team here, too.”
Some of the girls looked familiar, and I even had Spanish with Susan Miller. But a handful of them I swore I had never seen before. Like the one who stood as we approached and kissed Tony on the cheek with her awfully bright-red-painted lips.
“You’re late, Anthony. I almost thought you wouldn’t come.”
Anthony? The only person I ever heard calling him that was his grandma.
“Hi, Chloe,” he replied in a strange, deep voice I’d never heard before. His hands rested on her hips. He dipped his head and let her kiss his other cheek.
She winked at him then gave me the strangest once-over I ever got. The spite in her eyes made me feel as if I fell short in the looks and fashion department in her book.
My glance skated to Tony’s face. What the hell was that? And seriously, he didn’t have to drool over her shamelessly long legs when she sat down again and swung one over the other. Her white mini dress must have shrunk in the wash, because something red flashed underneath.
Tony shouted our order to Charlie behind the bar. A Coke and a Red Bull. The Red Bull certainly wasn’t for me. But when did Tony start drinking that nasty stuff? Red-lips-and-white-dress had a bottle of that in front of her, too. I started feeling really awkward all of a sudden.
“Mixed soccer teams, huh?” I grumbled at Tony while we sat down—he opposite Chloe, and I between him and Nick with the cast.
“The tryouts are tomorrow, Matthews. I can put you on the list, if you’re interested,” Ryan Hunter called out to me, a mocking glint in his deep brown eyes.
The fact he even knew my name caught me off guard.
“Liz and soccer?” Tony laughed next to me. It hurt in a weird way. “You might as well try to get an elephant to dance the tango. Right, Liz?”
I directed an irritated scowl at my supposed best friend. He didn’t even notice when the entire bunch joined in on the laugh.
“The elephant part hits home,” Barbie said to the redhead next to her then flashed me a cruel smile.
Sorry, what? I was a perfect size XS. My five-feet-four might seem a little short to her Amazonian six-foot-something, but I was in no way fat. I picked up my dropped stomach from the ground and decided to punish Tony later for pretending not to have heard that. In all the time we had been friends, not once had he let anyone insult me without breaking their jaw. Okay, messing with Chloe’s face would be a little drastic, but he could at least have said something to defend me.
Since he seemed to have forgotten how, I returned the saccharin-sweet smile to the Barbie clone. “I tried puking up my meals in ninth grade, but that seems to be more your thing than mine.”
The laughter died, and Tony choked on his swig of Red Bull while the rest of the group pretended to be conversing in lowered voices. The only sound, a chuckle, came from the place where Ryan Hunter sat.
Chloe frowned at me as if I’d spoken a foreign language. “Did you just insult me?”
The funny thing was she really meant it. I cut a glance skyward and sipped on my Coke.
Thankfully, Tony got a text message from his mother not long after that. Mrs. Mitchell was hoping to see him again before she and her husband had to leave town for two days. Tony looked at my glass of soda and asked me if I wanted to stay with the others.
I downed the drink in three seconds, already standing. “Nope, I’m ready.”
He shook his head, but smiled, and let me walk in front of him.
“See you tomorrow, Anthony,” Barbie cooed.
I ignored the rising heat of jealousy and resisted the urge to glare at her over my shoulder. Instead, I counted the tiles on the floor to the exit. One, two, three…
“How about it, Matthews?” Ryan Hunter said as I passed him. “Will you go out for the team or not?”
I stopped, stunned that he was serious about it. My eyes fastened on the easy smile he cast me. “I—”
Tony’s hands on my shoulders gently pushed me forward. “You shouldn’t tease her. She’s just not made for soccer.”
My heels dug into the ground. Not because he’d tried to save me from answering, but because of her snortling laugh behind me. “Know what?” I turned to face Tony with a determined glare. “I think I’ll just give it a shot.”
“You’re shitting me.”
That didn’t require a reply, but I raised my brows at him anyway.
“Cool, so you’re on the list. We meet at ten on the field.”
I turned to Hunter’s amused tone and gave him a polite smile. “I’ll be there.”
A ball cap shadowed his face as he lowered his chin, but I could feel his gaze skim down to where my cut-off jeans ended then travel slowly farther down my naked legs and back up. “Bring shoes.” He smirked and winked at me.
This sent a shiver skating down my neck. Tony shoved me out of the café before I could figure out why.
We walked most of the way in silence, until we were close to home and I exploded right in his face. “I can’t believe you did that!”
“What?” He looked at me, baffled, like a toddler who was robbed of his sucker.
“You let that girl insult me and didn’t say anything.”
“You had everything under control. And she didn’t really insult you.”
“Oh, right. You did! You called me an elephant.”
Tony took my hand and pulled me with him. “You know it wasn’t meant like that. I don’t see why you’re throwing a fit now. You’ve never liked soccer. When did that change?”
“Today. Now I love it.”
“Yeah, I can see that. So badly that you want to be a player.” He rolled his eyes. “Please, tell me you’re not doing this because of Chloe.”
I’m doing it for you, idiot. But it would have taken more than a crazy afternoon to tell him that. I gritted my teeth. “That girl can get lost in her closet full of Barbie dresses.”
Suddenly, his arm was wrapped around my shoulders, and he pulled me close to his side as we walked on. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’re jealous of her.”
“We’ve been best friends since we grew out of our diapers,” I moaned, slightly comforted by his embrace.
“And I promise we’ll still be when we need them again.” His laugh rocked me with him. “Chloe is just a girl who likes to play soccer. But you’re the only girl I know who can watch E.T. without bursting in tears.”
Even though there was an obvious note of admiration, I couldn’t help but feel a chill sneak around my heart at the way he said it. Like I was one of the guys and not a delicate girl like Chloe. I wiggled out of his embrace, and a snort escaped me.
Tony quirked his brows. “What?”
“Are you mad at me?”
“No,” I grumbled.
He waited a second, eying me with skepticism. “Okay. Is this one of those moments where you say no but actually mean yes?”
Another growl. “No.”
He slapped his hands to his face then slowly dragged them down, glancing helplessly at the sky. “You know I don’t speak this language. Just tell me your problem.”
“There is no problem!” I ran up the path to my house, slamming the door behind me.
AT NINE THIRTY the following morning, I answered the door and found Tony outside. Hands braced on the doorframe and head hanging, he cast me a sheepish grin as he looked at me from under those incredibly gorgeous lashes.
I swallowed. The endless speech I had prepared for him the previous evening—including words like ignorant, idiot, and dumbass—slipped from my mind. “Never again call me an elephant,” was all that came out in a low grumble.
“Promise.” The silly boy pouted and even crossed his heart.
I smiled. “We’re good then.”
Tony’s metallic green mountain bike leaned against our low picket fence. I grabbed mine from the shed, and we cycled to the high school soccer field together. Close to fifty girls and boys from tenth to twelfth grade had gathered in front of one of the goal posts. Someone was handing out numbers as we joined them. Already a member of the team, Tony didn’t have to participate in the tryouts. But I lined up to get mine.
“Forty-seven…Matthews,” Ryan Hunter shouted to Susan Miller, who wrote down names on a list. He gave me the sticker, which I was supposed to pop on my chest, and smiled. So far, I hadn’t seen Ryan without his ball cap, except on rare occasions, and then from far away, too. But today, the sun played in his dark hair that fell devilishly over his forehead, giving him a whole new appearance. His unexpected good looks took me unaware, and he caught me staring. His matter-of-fact tone changed to a sly rumble. “Good luck, Matthews.”
When everyone got their numbers, he raised his voice over the chatting crowd. “Okay, everybody. For a little warm-up, I want you to run three laps around the field then come back here.”
Panic kicked me in the gut. “Is he kidding? Three laps?”
“Don’t say you already regret going for the team.”
I hated Tony’s I-told-you-so chuckle as he dragged me from the trimmed lawn and started jogging next to me. Swallowing my retort, I tried to match his pace—impossible, of course, when one of his strides measured two of mine.
Shit, one lap seemed like ten miles. Screw Hunter and his warm-up. By the time I was done, I collapsed on the grass, hearing nothing but my own erratic breathing. Thank the Lord I had a chance to catch my breath as forty-six candidates attempted to score goals before it was my turn.
Tony got me a drink from the water cooler while I mimicked a dead frog for several minutes. My mouth and throat felt like the desert. As he stepped over me, his shadow was a welcome respite from the sun. I sat up, longing for the cup of water he held out to me.
But when I grabbed the plastic cup, my heart sank. “So little?” I held the mouthful of liquid against the sun, turning it this way and that, seeing if it would miraculously become more. “There’s something seriously wrong with your head.”
“Not at all.” He laughed. “But since you can hardly breathe after this short run, more water would make you sick. In fact, it would be better if you just rinsed your mouth with this and spit it out.”
I offered him a sneer. “Can I spit it into your face?” Not waiting for his comeback, I downed the little water he granted me. The sip evaporated on my tongue in an instant.
“Matthews! Your turn!” That was Hunter, and when I turned in his direction, the soccer ball came flying toward me. Praise my mad reflexes! I caught it before it hit my churning stomach. Tony pulled me to my feet and gave me quick instructions on how to hit the ball for the best impact.
Yeah, right. As if I really wanted to know that. I placed the ball on the ground then kicked it toward Frederickson who stood in the goal. It dropped to the lawn several feet in front of him then rolled on as if out for a relaxing stroll before it touched his left shoe.
My beam at Tony was full of fake enthusiasm. “Hey, what do you know, I got the direction right.”
“Come on, Matthews.” Ryan came jogging toward me with the ball under his arm. “I’ve seen you kick Mitchell’s butt harder than that.”
Beaten and exhausted, I was ready to surrender, but when he offered me the soccer ball, his lips curved into a mocking smile, which prompted me to prove him wrong. I accepted the challenge.
He planted the ball in front of me, but then he had me take several steps back. “Now take a short run and put a little more power in your thrust.”
“Ah no, don’t let him make me do that,” I begged Tony, grabbing his shirt in growing horror. “We both know I’ll just trip over the damn thing.”
The boys laughed, and Tony pried my fingers loose from his collar. “No, you won’t. Tell you what, if you hit Frederickson straight in the chest, I’ll buy you a chocolate decadence ice cream sundae. Deal?”
Ice cream? If there was the right incentive… “Deal.” I started forward and kicked hard, aiming for the redhead guarding the net. The soccer ball dropped neatly in Frederickson’s arms.
“Well done!” Ryan told me. Then he sprinted back to the low desk where Susan took her notes and called Cynthia Ramirez to try her luck.
Unspeakably proud, I turned a smiling face at Tony. But my smile got lost the moment I glimpsed Barbie girl standing with him.
Hands laced behind her back, she rocked on her heels in front of him. Her boobs pushed out so far, she could have staked him in the heart. “Will you be at Hunter’s party later?” she asked him in a sickly sweet voice.
I gulped. Ryan Hunter’s parties were legend. I could only rely on the gossip in school of course, but rumor had it his father was friends with Chief Berkley, and so Ryan could turn up the music to a maximum all night. Beer flowed in endless rivers, and he even had his own pool table. The closest I had been to his house was when we drove by to get to the library, but it looked big enough to bear several halls. Getting an invitation to one of those parties meant stepping up into the cool league.
Not that I cared about hanging out with jerks like Chloe—yuck. But Tony had been to many of his parties, and he never told me much about the events behind those doors. That alone sharpened my curiosity.
He would go tonight for sure. The fact the Barbie clone would be there too had my heart slipping to my pants. I put up a nonchalant face while I actually felt like bawling and trudged over to the water cooler to get a drink larger than the fly pee Tony had brought me after the warm-up.
The afternoon dragged on with more exercises that involved passing the ball back and forth, zigzagging over the field with short kicks, and finally a count of how many times one could juggle the ball in the air without losing it. I got an amazing two and a half.
This was it. I was done with soccer. May the ball rot in hell and the players die of thirst. I didn’t give a damn if I made the team or not. Playing ball in the scorching sun was for morons anyway.
I wiped the sweat off my face with the towel Tony had brought, then stuffed it back into his backpack, and stomped off.
“Hey, where do you think you’re going?”
Tony caught up with me. “You can’t. Ryan hasn’t announced the new players yet.”
“Like I care.”
He wrapped his arm around my shoulders and used my speed to propel me in the opposite direction. “You don’t want to know if you’re on the team?”
Trying to wiggle from him, I gave him a hard stare. “Nope.”
“Where’s your spirit gone?”
“Where has your eyesight gone?” I stopped dead. “You saw what a miserable player I am.”
“Ah, I’ve seen worse. Actually, I’m pretty proud of you. This was the first time you came into contact with a soccer ball and you almost got a goal on the second try. All you need is a little training.”
I found that hard to believe, but the expression in his eyes told me differently. He meant it. Confused, I gave him a sideways glance. Unfortunately, Chloe intruded into my view as she came skipping over to us like the tooth fairy. Her perfectly manicured fingers wrapped around his biceps as she bounced up and down before him.
“Come, quick. Hunter’s naming the players in a minute. He already told me that I was on the team.”
“I’m not surprised.” Tony allowed her to drag him away from me. “You proved in camp you’re a natural at soccer.”
“Only at soccer?” She winked at him and skipped away.
My molars suffered from the hard grinding I did. The thing was—I needed to become a member of this team, badly. How else could I fend off this bimbo?
Ryan Hunter held a list in his hands as he stepped in front of the expectant crowd. “We need eleven new players. I’ll call out the names of those who made it onto the team. If yours is among them, well done. If not, I’m sorry but hope you’ll try again next year. You’ve all shown great enthusiasm today.” He cleared his throat and reeled off the new players. “Stevenson. Jones. Summers—”
Since Barbie jumped with her friend then, I figured I now knew her last name.
“—Smith. Jackson. Daniels. Hollister. McNeal. Miller. Matthews. And Warren.”
My jaw hit the dirt. I pivoted to Tony. “Did he just say Matthews?”
“Guess he did.” His silly grin made me want to slap some seriousness into his face.
“I’m going to play?”
“Yes,” he chuckled. “Now get your things, I owe you a sundae.”
I really made it, and he owed me ice cream. What a freaking fantastic day. I jogged to the bench and slung my backpack over one shoulder. Certainly, I had the most stupid grin in the world pasted on my lips. It slipped as the word owe got stuck on repeat in my mind. What if he had asked Ryan to let me onto the team even if I was a miserable player? At the thought of depending on Hunter’s mercy, I felt awfully embarrassed.
I had to know, and Tony would spill—even if it meant I had to threaten to crunch his entire six months’ supply of cheese crackers, which he kept hidden under his bed.
Whipping around, I bumped into Ryan.
“Congrats, Matthews,” he cheered. “You handled the tryout quite well.”
“Yeah, whatever.” Pissed at something I didn’t yet have proof of, I shoved past him but then stopped. “What does Tony owe you for putting me on the team?”
For a moment, he looked confused. Then he laughed out loud. “You don’t want to know.”
My hands fisted around the strap of my backpack. Hell, of course I wanted to know.
Turning to leave, he glanced at me over his shoulder. His eyes sparked with a glint of mischief. “See you at my house, Matthews.”
Holy shit. Did he just invite me to his party?
THE SUNDAE WAS yummy, but so was Tony as he licked vanilla ice cream off his spoon. I couldn’t take my eyes off his lips the entire hour we sat at Charlie’s. Unfortunately, the boy was like a fortress. Bolted down. He refused to tell me what he had to give Ryan for letting me play on the team. Well, he actually said he didn’t owe Hunter anything, but I didn’t buy it.
At eight thirty that evening, Tony picked me up at my door and drove us to Ryan’s house in his mother’s car. I had no idea what people wore to those parties, but since it was still over sixty degrees in the evening—not unusual for Northern California in August—I chose a dark gray tank top and black hot pants. Judging by the smirk I earned from Tony, I supposed I had settled on the right clothes.
As we entered the lane of Hunter’s mansion, a long queue of cars told me just how big this party was. Tony appeared unimpressed and maneuvered into a spot at the corner, but I had a hard time closing my mouth. “How many guests is he expecting?”
“Can’t say. Usually, there are a hundred to a hundred and fifty. If his parents are gone, the number might well get up to three hundred.”
Heck, I didn’t even know that many people if I counted all my friends, family, and their pets together. We walked up the drive then climbed the marble steps to the door with the bowed top. The music blasted through the wood so we figured we didn’t need to ring the doorbell. Tony jiggled the handle, and it opened easily.
Sean Paul’s She Doesn’t Mind was blaring from the many speakers as we entered. Bodies bumped and ground against each other in salacious moves I only knew from films. Several boys shouted a conversation over the noise and drank beer from bottles while groping the butts of the girls with them. Some people kissed in the dim light.
I clung to Tony’s comforting biceps. “Oh my God, don’t leave me alone in this place.”
He laughed, or so I thought when his ribcage shook slightly, because I couldn’t really hear him. But his arm pressed my hands tighter to his body as he pulled me into the mass of people. Not all of them were kids. It seemed Hunter had a lot of older friends, too, ranging from sixteen to about twenty-five.
A small group of girls from my history class gathered in the middle of the room. Simone Simpkins grabbed my arm when we passed them. I had to lip-read to understand that she wanted me to join them.
“I’ll get you something to drink,” Tony shouted in my ear.
I nodded and watched him walk away with a weird quiver in my stomach. What if he never found his way back to me in this blasted place? The distance he put between us was quickly filled with the throng of strangers. Shit, I shouldn’t have let him go.
Turning back to the girls, I tried to join in the conversation, but mostly I just stood there and nodded, pretending to understand what they said. Simone handed me a bottle of Corona when Tony hadn’t come back after ten minutes. Parched by the heat in the room, anything cool was welcome. I wet my lips with the beer then licked it off. Okay, this stuff wasn’t half bad. I took a real sip. A little bitter, but quite palatable. I had downed half of the bottle when my head started to feel dizzy.
Across the room I thought I spotted Tony. I waved goodbye to the girls and headed off toward the back. The crowd thinned a little there, and I could actually move without rubbing against other people’s sweat. But Tony was nowhere in sight.
A high arch in the wall connected this room to the kitchen. I headed there and found Ryan standing in the doorway, leaning one shoulder against the wall. The sleeves of his black shirt were rolled up to his elbows, and the jeans he wore were ripped at the hems. Black was a color I loathed on Tony. It made him look way too demonic. With Ryan it was different. The top buttons undone, he looked mysterious. Kind of sexy. Him looking like the devil was cool.
His gaze flickered my way then stayed as he sipped his beer, watching as I drew closer.
It would have been plain impolite not to say hello to the host, so I stopped before him and lifted my hand in greeting. The music wasn’t as loud back here, and I actually caught his hi.
“You have a nice place. So full of…people,” I said, feeling awkward and a little stupid for not knowing how to start a cool conversation.
“Yeah, thanks.” He moved away from the wall and leaned closer to me so I could hear him. “It was about time Mitchell brought you here. He kept you away from this place long enough.”
Huh? I frowned. Tony was the reason I hadn’t been invited to any of Ryan’s parties yet? That bloody wretch. But then he probably figured I wouldn’t feel comfortable among this drinking lot and with all the noise. I, the idiot that I am, proved his point the second we came here by clinging to his arm like a frightened cat.
“Do you know where he is?” I said into Ryan’s ear, thankful that I didn’t need to shout and damage my vocal cords even more.
“Nope.” He took another swig from his beer.
Sighing, I sipped mine too, not liking it very much anymore. I grimaced. Ryan suddenly took me by the wrist and pulled me into the kitchen. He placed his beer down on a counter, popped open a can of soda, then lifted the beer bottle out of my palm and replaced it with the Sprite, closing my fingers around it.
“You shouldn’t drink beer,” he said in a stern tone. “Especially not in this place.”
Yeah, I didn’t want to end up someone’s groping puppet, like most of the other drunken girls. Thankful for the Sprite, I washed away the bitter aftertaste of the Corona in my mouth.
“You did really well today.” A smile slipped to his lips.
“I was lousy. And you know it. I still don’t get why you chose me to play on your team.”
Shrugging, he drank from my discarded bottle. “I don’t know. Maybe I just want you there.”
Jeez, the teasing in his voice made the hair on my arms stand on end.
“Do a little endurance training every day, and you’ll be a capable player.”
I’d always screwed up at athletics. I even tried jogging a few mornings at the beginning of this summer to get in better shape, but it didn’t work for me. Half a mile was the most I could manage before trudging back home, panting and frustrated. “I guess I’m lacking the motivation to do that. I’m like a lame duck at running.”
“What you need is a personal trainer.”
That made me laugh. “You want the job?”
Ryan pursed his lips and studied me for a moment as though I had just offered him good money for stinking work. He shrugged. “Sure, why not? If you promise to show some enthusiasm, I promise to be there.”
That sounded like an interesting offer. After all, I had to work on my endurance if I wanted to last an entire soccer game. I certainly didn’t want to give Blondie any more ammunition to use against me, especially if I broke down after the first half. Her satisfaction would ruin me. And Tony needed to see I was fit for more than just playing stupid video games with him.
Yeah. Training, it is.
Strangely enough, the thought of having Hunter coaching me sent a shiver of anticipation through me. He was the captain of the soccer team. It felt like an honor to personally train with him, and it sure would lift my status at school from average to super cool.
He gave a slow nod. “We’ll start Monday morning.”
Great. That meant suicide was delayed one more day. His gaze locking with mine promised I wouldn’t entirely regret my decision.
Someone shouted his name behind me. “We’re starting a game of pool. Are you in?”
Ryan pushed away from the counter. “There in a sec.” Then he ran the cool mouth of his beer bottle along my cheek. “Enjoy the night. And whatever you do, stay away from the strawberries.”
Dumbstruck, I stood rooted to the spot as he brushed past me and walked away, chuckling.
I swallowed a huge swig of Sprite to cool down. Susan Miller came in at that moment. Her face lit up when her gaze fell on me. She rushed over. “Hey, look who it is! Now we’re both on the team. And honestly—” She paused, and her eyes darted left then right to make sure we were alone in the room. Her voice dropped a notch, too. “I’ve never seen a prettier house than this. I’ve wanted to come to Hunter’s parties for ages, but he never noticed me in school. I don’t think he even knew my name until I told him at tryouts.”
“Yeah, me too.” Or so I’d thought until yesterday when I found out he actually knew my name.
“Will you wear your sports clothes for training or get a real soccer jersey?” Susan seemed so excited, I couldn’t understand her enthusiasm. What girl would voluntarily play soccer? Well, if there wasn’t a guy on the team she wanted to recognize her anyway.
I shrugged. “No idea. Think I’ll start with what I have. Just shorts and a tee. Anything else is too expensive to buy with my allowance.” And no way would I wear those horrible shoes with spikes on their soles. But the outfit was nothing that really concerned me. “Listen, did you see Tony anywhere this evening?”
“Not after you came in with him earlier. Why?”
“Haven’t seen him much. I just wonder where he is.” I threw my empty soda can in the trash and pulled an apologetic face. “Mind if I go looking for him?”
Susan was cool. “Do that. I’ll find you later.”
I went back into the hall and wandered around the ground floor, hoping to find Tony somewhere. But the shoving and bumping of sweat-drenched people soon got on my nerves, and I kept closer to the walls instead. When I reached an arch leading to another room, I peeked inside. No blond caught my eye. My shoulders slumped with disappointment. But then a few guys shifted to the side, and I spotted a pool table and someone leaning over it in an eye-catching way.
By now I was pretty good at recognizing Hunter’s black hair.
He held the cue low over the green felt, aiming the tip at the white ball. Some colored balls fanned out on the table too, but as it looked he was going for the black eight.
“Come on, Ryan, give a friend a chance. You can’t hole the ball just yet.”
I pivoted to the left to see who was pleading with Hunter. I didn’t know the tall boy’s name, but the look on his face was hilarious. One would think his life depended on Ryan’s hit or miss.
“What’s your problem, Justin?” Still working on positioning the cue perfectly, Hunter grinned. “Afraid, your mama’s going to find out you’re playing for money?”
Just then I noticed the stack of dollar bills at the edge of the table. They seemed to have a sum of about one hundred bucks in the pot. My jaw dropped. Fifty from each? I didn’t get half as much pocket money in one month.
“My mama doesn’t give a damn. But I really, really need this Spiderman comic. It’s an original,” Justin whined.
I felt really bad for him. Intrigued how the game would end, I moved around the edge of the wall and stood facing Hunter across the room. Narrowed eyes and knitted brows gave away how tense he was. The cue moved backward just a couple of inches. He’d shoot any moment.
But then his dark eyes looked up…and remained fixed on me. His body froze, only his chest moved with each breath. Heads turned in my direction. My heart drummed a little faster, and with all the attention, my cheeks warmed uncomfortably.
I grimaced. “Is something wrong?”
Ryan didn’t answer, but Justin victory-punched the air as he rushed to my side. He laid his arm around my shoulders, grinning like a loon. “You just saved my life, hun.”
“Ah…yes.” My gaze switched back to Hunter. “And how so?”
He started grinning, too, but didn’t seem as happy as the guy next to me. More like he knew crap was about to fall.
“He can’t play when someone’s watching him,” Justin almost sang into my ear. “Totally screws up then.”
“But you all are watching him,” I pointed out.
At the back of the room, someone laughed. “Yeah, but we’re not girls.”
Chuckling, Hunter straightened and chalked the tip of his cue, lips tight, eyes set on me. Although my being there obviously amused him, I didn’t want to trouble him, especially where money had a hand in the pie.
“Sorry,” I croaked. “I’ll leave you guys alone then.”
“Uh-uh, no way, hun!” Justin’s arm remained firm around my shoulders. “You’re my insurance to get that comic book. You stay.”
His antics made me laugh, even though I felt like a traitor.
Ryan, who hadn’t said one word in all that time, slid his tongue over his bottom lip, then the left corner of his mouth tilted up. He took a deep breath and leaned over the table once more. Everyone kept silent. Justin crossed his fingers next to my face, no doubt praying for Hunter’s miss.
I never thought a single shot could get an entire room this tense. Including me. Ryan cleared his throat, his gaze moving back and forth between me and the white ball. Suddenly he dropped his forehead to the edge of the table and laughed. “Take your money, Andrews. I give up.”
The room cheered as though the unthinkable had just happened. Justin pressed a kiss to my cheek and hurried to grab the bills. I stood rooted to the spot, staring at Ryan, who now braced his palms on the pool table and hung his head. But when he looked up, there was a flash of amusement in his eyes again.
“I’m so sorry,” I mouthed, not even trying to raise my voice over the other guys’ celebration.
“You are banned from this room,” he mouthed back, a smirk on his lips. Then he walked around the table, slowly, measuring me with each step he took. I pressed a little harder against the wall, welcoming the coolness seeping through my top.
He stopped right in front of me, the cue in one hand, the other placed against the wall next to my head. “You just cost me fifty bucks,” he drawled with a smile.
“Yeah, I know.” I put on a sad puppy look. “But he really, really needs this comic book.”
That made him laugh. “Siding with the enemy. I should have known.” With his hand on my back, he ushered me through the arch in the wall, back into the main hall. “For tonight, this room is off limits for you.”
“Oh why?” Playfully pouting, I glanced up at his roguish eyes. “It’s so much fun to watch you…screw up.”
He didn’t let his smile slip as he leaned in a little closer. “Off you go.”
Quick, get your copy from Amazon and find out how the party continues. 😉