I’D HAD MY fair share of girls in high school, that wasn’t a secret. But I had never really been in love. Well, not with any of the ones I’d had, anyway.
And still, there was her. She climbed out of Mitchell’s car, tossed her long brown hair over her shoulder, and adjusted the pink tee that was a snug fit and accentuated all the good stuff. The bright morning sun blinded her, and she squeezed her eyes to thin slits, which made the corners of her sweet mouth move up into something similar to her beautiful smile. And as always when my gaze got stuck on Lisa Matthews, I felt something slithery in my chest move into place.
She didn’t look my way. Never had. And why would she? Her universe was rotating around my soccer buddy, Tony Mitchell. As long as I had known Tony, he’d always come in a double pack. He and Lisa were what some people at school called M&M. I hated that term. Hated how she stood on her tiptoes now and slung her arms around his neck. Hated how—
Dammit! Was she going to kiss him? My stomach hardened in a way that made me want to claw those muscles apart. But damn, I was a man. I wouldn’t give away how tense I was. Or so I thought as I stood stiff as an ironing board and failed to tear my gaze away from the two of them.
They had never kissed. Lisa was in love with Tony, and I would bet my Need for Speed collection that he loved her back in a very odd, very secret way. But they Had. Never. Kissed. And that was good, because if they had, I might have gone over there now and rearranged my buddy’s face so that not even his family would recognize him afterward.
“Relax, bro. It’s just a peck on the cheek.”
I turned to Justin, who’d sneaked up on me and slapped my shoulder, and I let out the familiar breath that I held every time Lisa got too close to Mitchell.
“Yeah, it better be. I’d hate to go murder on a good friend today.” I grinned at Justin and did the ghetto handshake we’d been doing since we were out of primary school and became the cool kids who roamed the corridors of Grover Beach High.
Justin Andrews wasn’t a member of the Bay Sharks, the school’s soccer team, which I happened to be the captain of. He’d never cared for soccer but was actually a pro on his BMX bike. What he could do was amazing, but only for people who had a serious death wish. Jumping from bridges with his bike or balancing on picket fences earned him bruised bones and awesome black eyes nearly every weekend. Today he’d come to see his little brother off, who was only one year younger than us and actually played soccer on my team.
Justin jerked his chin to my left. “Are you going over there to say goodbye to the girl?”
“Why would I do that? We haven’t even made it to the hello yet.”
“Dude, if they haven’t become a couple in ten years, they probably never will be. It’s about time to let her know about the other fish in the sea that’s trying to get a bite of her.” He scratched his chin. “If you won’t do it, maybe I will. After all, you and that Mitchell guy are gone at soccer camp for five weeks.”
I slung a chummy arm around his neck, pressing a little harder than necessary. In fact, if I’d been any less gentle, the boy would have been blue in the face in a minute. “You can try, dude. But you know not even the FBI would find your body then.”
He punched me in the ribs so I let him go. But we were laughing so hard that some of the guys and their parents turned their heads our way. We didn’t give a shit about them but bickered some more, until I heard a familiar voice shout my name.
My sister came over and caught me in a hug that was impossible to evade. “I have to go. Phil’s waiting. Be careful, baby brother.”
“Yeah, sure.” I tried to fend Rachel off when she kissed my cheek. This was okay at home or anywhere people didn’t know me. But in front of my soccer buddies this was just unacceptable. “Go away, Rach. And take care of Mom and Dad while I’m gone.”
“I’m pretty sure they’re old enough to take care of themselves, but I’ll drop by for dinner once in a while if they feel alone or miss their pretty baby.” She laughed and ruffled my hair. Then she headed back to the parking lot near the train station.
Some of the kids had already boarded the train and were waving goodbye from the open windows. As I picked up my duffel bag and walked toward my coach, I caught a glimpse of the last thing I wanted to see this morning. Mitchell and Lisa in a pose that pressed her perfect body flush to his. He leaned down those few inches that he was taller than her and whispered something into her ear that made her blush an adorable pink.
“Man, you’re pitiful.” Justin shoved me forward, and only then did I realize that I had actually stopped walking.
Gnashing my teeth and keeping my eyes glued to the much safer ground in front of me, I moved past Mitchell and the girl I’d been dreaming of since ninth grade.
I knew I should just keep walking. I’d see Tony in a minute on the train, anyway. But the weaker part of me looked up just as Tony let go of my girl. “Hi, Mitchell,” I said as my gaze went out of control and swept over Lisa, taking in every inch of the suntanned skin that her illegally short pants exposed. I acknowledged her and cracked a smile. “And Mitchell’s groupie.”
She didn’t say good morning or how are you doing or even get lost and don’t ever talk to me again, though the latter might have been written in her green eyes which always seemed to turn a demonic shade darker when she looked at me. I knew she wasn’t my greatest fan. Not because she personally hated me, but because she blamed me for taking away her precious time with Tony. Mitchell had let that bit of information slip one day after she had all but growled at me for doubling the training time.
“See you, Mitchell,” I said and walked away.
“Save me a seat in your compartment,” Tony shouted after me.
I waved at him over my shoulder but didn’t look back. “Sure thing.” If it wasn’t me and Justin doing something stupid, it was always me and the guys on the team hanging out. We were really close. Like closer than family close. And yet, none of them knew of my obsession with a girl that only had eyes for my best player. Yeah, sometimes you just had to accept the crap life threw at you and put a shit-eating grin on your face.
I climbed the two steps into the coach before turning around to bump fists with Justin. “Enjoy the sun in Santa Monica,” he said. “I hear the girls down there are hot!”
“I’ll check them out and let you know.” Maybe. If I could get Lisa off my mind long enough to relax with another girl, something I hadn’t done in quite a few months. If this madness was going to hang on any longer, my reputation would be in serious trouble soon. Unfortunately, I had a weird feeling that it was only going to get worse for me.
Justin pointed a finger at my face. “And you take care of Nick. If he comes back with one scratch on his skin, I’ll hold you personally responsible.”
“Yeah, right.” I flipped him off, because we both knew that his little brother was…well, a little accident prone. Whatever happened during the next five weeks at our annual summer soccer camp, that kid would come back with a limb in a cast—no matter what. The question was just which limb it was going to be. Some of the guys on the team had a bet running. I had twenty bucks on any finger of his left hand, but Justin didn’t have to know that.
I found Frederickson and Alex Winter in a four-seat compartment in the middle of the train. We waited until Tony joined us, then closed the opaque sliding doors and settled in for the three-hour ride. We had chips, we had root beer, and it was just us guys. I decided that the next five weeks were going to be one helluva good time for all of us. But then I sneaked a glance out the window and caught Lisa still standing at the platform, her arms folded around her middle, her face sad.
If that look had been because of me and not Mitchell, I would have felt a lot better.
The first three days at camp were hell. We played a serious schedule every day, and by the time we were let off, our legs were on fire. By then, we weren’t up for anything other than grabbing some food and dropping onto our pillows. But we got used to the drill fast, and on day four, Mitchell, Winter, Frederickson, and I thought it was okay to stretch the camp rules a little and sneak out after dark for some fun.
Santa Monica had a few very cool places for students to hang out. No alcohol in the place called “The Teen Spirit,” but awesome music and some eye candy, too. It didn’t take long for a bunch of girls to close in on our table like we were the light to their moth lives. Two of them each sported something black that could barely be called a dress, and the other three were plastered into skintight jeans and tops that left the navel exposed to our view.
“Hi, guys,” one of them said, batting her lashes at me. Her eyes were a striking navy blue. I guessed that she was barely seventeen, still a year younger than me, probably a junior. “We usually know all the good-looking boys who come here. You must be visiting?”
Okay, she was a brave one, and not only because she dared to come here in heels that were longer than my middle finger and clearly gave her trouble walking. I wondered if she would have said that if she’d been facing us alone, without her lioness pack to back her up.
“We’re playing soccer just outside the city,” I told her. “Over the next few weeks, you might have time to get used to us coming here.”
She smiled a wide welcome and hooked her brunette hair behind her ears, revealing pirate hoops for earrings. “Mind if we sit down?”
“Sure.” I grabbed a seat from the vacant table behind me and pulled it around so that she’d sit right next to me. I didn’t know why. Maybe because Frederickson had made the most hopeful face when the girls came over, or maybe just because it was an old habit. Whichever it was, I regretted doing it the moment the other girls got chairs, too, and the pirate replica scooted so close that our legs touched under the table.
Gentlemen that we were, we paid for a round of sodas and made some casual conversation, but other than Frederickson, none of us guys seemed really impressed with the catch we’d made. The girl next to me, who had introduced herself as Sandy, ordered a mineral water and leaned in a little too close to say thank you. When I looked at her face, all I could think was that I’d prefer a girl who came clean and natural, without all the colorful cement on her face. I leaned back a few inches then widened the space between us to a solid foot. Not only was she painted like Picasso’s first test subject, but she also seemed to have fallen into a pot of her mother’s perfume, which stung my nose.
I’d stood next to Lisa a million times, and the floral scent of her shampoo and soap had never curled my toes.
Mitchell was having trouble warding off a strawberry blonde, who flashed braces in a flirtatious smile at him. It would have been interesting to know if he was avoiding her because of the same girl that was on my mind right now. We made it through one hour, but finally Tony and I shared a look that said, Run, and run as fast as you can.
To escape, we produced a lame ass excuse. That we weren’t allowed to stay out so late or we’d get thrown out of soccer camp, which wasn’t exactly a lie, but also nothing that we were really bothered with.
“Will you come back this weekend?” Sandy asked and curled a strand of her hair around her forefinger. God, who had taught this girl to flirt? It was like she had watched the worst chick flicks ever and taken notes.
Okay, maybe she wasn’t that bad, and a few months ago, I might even have encouraged her flirting, but tonight I wasn’t in the mood. “Guess we will. But we’ll probably bring our girlfriends, too, so this round won’t happen again.”
That made her back off, and I wasn’t in the least sorry for pulling that shitty lie out of nowhere. I tapped Frederickson on the shoulder and interrupted his making out with a girl who had hair as red as his. “We’re off, dude. Are you coming?”
He bit his lip, seriously deliberating. Then he detached himself from the girl he called Kelly and walked out the door with us.
“I’ve never been that happy to get away from a bunch of girls,” Mitchell said as we climbed over the threaded wire fence back at camp.
“Why?” Frederickson mumbled. “The chicks were willing. What’s your problem? Don’t wanna get laid?”
Tony and I simultaneously smacked him upside the head. “I don’t like it when a girl doesn’t take no for an answer,” I told him, then held the door to our dorm room open for the rest to slip inside. “And Sandy’s hand on my thigh definitely hasn’t heard the word no before.”
We crawled into the bunk beds and turned off the light.
As I walked out to the training grounds the following morning, I knew at first sight that this was going to be a special day. A group of girls, all dressed in soccer jerseys and cleats, sat on the lush green lawn, apparently waiting for us. This was the first year that girls had come, too. We’ve heard that the school administration felt guilty for not sponsoring a girls’ team at Grover Beach High, so they sent the girls along to soccer camp to make up for it.
Initially I’d thought that was a good idea. But when the coach told us to gather into co-ed teams, I was a little skeptical. We’d never played with girls before. They were fragile and breakable and definitely shouldn’t have been out on the field with us rowdy guys.
“Hi, Hunter,” two girls from my chemistry class greeted me.
“Hi, McNeal. Summers,” I said without stopping to talk to the two blondes. Chloe Summers was a capable player from what I’d seen the past three days on the other field, and Brinna McNeal seemed glued to her heel, no matter what.
For the sake of everyone’s bones, the guys and I toned it down a little as we started the first match. Maybe this was foolish of us, because before the first half was over, Chloe had fouled me three times, and I don’t mean gentle, womanly fouls. Twice she rammed into me at full speed and the last time she’d hooked her right leg around my ankle so that I went sailing a couple yards before I bellyflopped onto the grass.
I took a moment to pump air into my lungs again then climbed to my feet and headed toward her. Since she almost matched my six-foot-two, I could easily press my brow to hers and growl in her face. “Ah, you’re such a lady, Summers.”
“Sorry, did I hurt your feelings?” she countered with a grin that sat custom-made for trouble on her lips. “Can we continue with the game now, or do you need a minute to catch your breath, Hunter?”
I’d known that girl my whole life, since she only lived three streets away from me, and she’d never interested me one bit. But her aggressive style left an impression that day, and after two weeks of occasionally playing with the girls, I decided to chew through a topic with the guys on my team.
The Teen Spirit was the place where we would talk tonight. We hadn’t gone there since our first night out, and I wondered if Sandy and her lionesses would be around again. Guilty of the stupid lie about our girlfriends, I had a queasy feeling as we walked through the door. The feeling grew when we spotted the lionesses hanging out by the bar.
Very much to Frederickson’s dismay, we chose a table at the far end of the room. The place was packed on this Saturday night, and so we lost those junior chicks easily enough.
“I was thinking,” I started, only to be immediately interrupted by Alex.
“Shut up, Winter!” I punched him on the shoulder. “So, anyway, I was saying, what do you guys think about a co-ed team back home?”
All seven of my players leaned forward to rest their arms on the table. “What?”
“Not all the time, don’t panic! But you saw that playing with them isn’t half bad. I was thinking we could sort of recruit the best of them and then split our training time. Half time with and half time without the chicks.”
“If they agree, anyway,” Tony pointed out.
“I saw Chloe Summers and her friends near the entrance when we came in. If you’re cool with the idea, I’ll get them, and we can discuss this together.”
There was a collective silence. Slowly, grins began to grow on their faces. “Sounds like a plan to me. I’m in,” Frederickson said.
I knew he would be swayed easily because, out of all of us, he seemed to have the most fun with the girls.
Mitchell pulled a skeptical face. “I don’t know about this. I mean, they wouldn’t be playing the big games with us, anyway, so why sacrifice training time?”
“Well the girls don’t have a team at school and even though we wouldn’t play important games with them, we could play some friendly matches. I know Hamilton High has a co-ed team, too, and unless I’m very much mistaken, so do the Riverfalls Rabid Wolves. They’re two teams we could invite for a game once in a while. It just seems fair to give the girls a chance to play, too.” Then I laughed and slapped him on the shoulder. “If it helps, you can ask your girlfriend to join the team as well.”
“Who? Liz?” He made a baffled face. “She’d rather touch a leper than a soccer ball. And she’s not my girlfriend.”
“Yeah, right.” I was teasing him, but to hear the truth out of my friend’s mouth felt unspeakably good. “So, do we ask the girls now or not?”
The guys agreed as one. I got to my feet and headed over to the bar where I had last glimpsed Chloe, Brinna, and three other girls from our school. Tough luck—right next to them stood Sandy and the junior chicks. Sandy saw me walking closer, and the fact that I was alone seemed to make her happy. Her smile moved into place, and she said hi to me.
“No girlfriend again?” It sounded like a mix of accusation for the lie I had told her and delight over finding me still single.
I didn’t want to give her false hope, and more importantly, I didn’t want to spend the next hour fending her off again, so I grabbed the first familiar girl I saw and pulled her to my side. “Sorry to disappoint you,” I told a baffled Sandy. “But I just came over to get my girl.” I tilted my head to see who my girl actually was and found myself nose to nose with Chloe. She lifted a delicate brow at me but was cool enough to handle the moment. “You ready to come back to the table with me, hun?” I said through a grin.
Chloe caused me a second of panic, but then she played along. “Of course, baby. Let me just tell the girls that we’re moving. And that you agreed to pay for a round.”
I gritted my teeth behind tight lips, but the rescue was worth it. With my arm still around Chloe, I walked her over to our table in the back, knowing that Sandy would stare after us with those disappointed navy blues.
Chloe played her part a little too well. She was overdoing it when she wrapped her arm around my waist and shoved her hand into the back pocket of my jeans.
“Hands out of there, Summers,” I growled, but kept her tucked to my side.
“Why? You have a sexy ass, Hunter.” She laughed and pinched my butt cheek before moving her hand out of my pocket and up to safer grounds.
The guys had already found chairs for the ladies, and I was more than happy when I could let go of Chloe and slump back into my seat.
“Wow, this looks like you’ve been expecting us,” she said as they all sat down. “What’s up?”
“There’s something we want to discuss with you,” I replied.
“Really? And here I thought you only wanted to use one girl to escape another.”
I grimaced. “Yeah…thanks for that.” Then I ordered sodas for all of us, and we told the girls what we had in mind.
All of them were intrigued by the idea, especially since they didn’t have a girls’ team back in Grover Beach. The most soccer they got was in gym class, and only when the teacher was having a good day.
“I know of a few girls at school who would love to be on a team,” Brinna said. “If you don’t mind that they aren’t all going to be seniors next year.”
“It’s actually only Sasha, Tyler, and myself who are going to be seniors on our team,” I pointed out. “So you don’t have to worry.”
“Cool. I can text a few girls back home and we can all meet up when we’re back. How many girls do you need for the co-ed team?”
“I don’t know. Eight to ten would be good. If there are more who want to join, we’ll have to hold tryouts.”
The evening wore on a few more hours, before we finally left the bar together.
“Everybody grab a girl,” Alex said over his shoulder with a grin as we passed Sandy and her lionesses by the bar.
I wanted to tuck Chloe under my arm again, because she was walking next to me, but the blonde gave me a grim look. “Take Brinna,” she snapped, then she hooked her arm through Tony’s and batted her lashes at him. “I want to be his girlfriend for the walk out.”
Mitchell raked a hand through his blond hair and let loose a shit-eating grin. “Sorry, Hunter.”
He didn’t have to be. Brinna was as good a match as anyone, and I released her as soon as the door had fallen shut behind us. However, Chloe clung to Mitchell’s arm the entire way home. Then I got an update from Frederickson on the flirting that had apparently been going on all evening, and which I had completely missed.
Summers and Mitchell? Now, why did that thought make me grin to myself?
Back at camp, I threw a quarter in the soda machine in the hall, just to get a chance to see how Tony and Chloe would part tonight. Knowing Chloe, I was sure she’d go for a kiss, and if she did, this could finally be my chance with Lisa. If Tony was taken, she’d realize sooner or later that he wasn’t the only boy in the world.
I took a swig of Coke, watching them from the corner of my eye. To my total frustration, they didn’t kiss. They didn’t even talk about meeting the next morning at soccer training. All they said was “Good night,” and Chloe added, “Sleep tight, Anthony.”
Tony waited for me when she was gone and, together, we climbed the steps to the boys’ dorm. I didn’t touch on the topic, and neither did he.
CHLOE SUMMERS WAS the female equivalent of me. Heading from one fling into the next and enjoying uncomplicated relationships that lasted about two to three weeks maximum and left us free of any ties. I was perfectly aware of the terms playboy or school hottie that most of the girls used in combination with my name. While I didn’t want to be bound to anyone because the girl I wanted walked in front of me every day, totally unaware of how I felt, I didn’t understand what kept Chloe from having a deep and meaningful relationship.
She’d flittered through half the guys at soccer camp by the time we evacuated our dorms when the five weeks were up, and she’d certainly made a name for herself because of that. There were only a few of us who were immune to her flirting, and Tony Mitchell definitely didn’t fall into that group. It would be a lie to say I didn’t hope they would hook up, even though he was my friend and deserved better. But she’d been the first girl in like forever that he seemed to be interested in—apart from Lisa—and I couldn’t help getting my hopes high whenever I saw the two of them together. I would never hit on any friend’s girl. But if Tony was with someone else, he couldn’t claim Lisa Matthews as his own any longer.
On the train it was the four of us again: Alex, Frederickson, Tony, and me. We had all tanned nicely from playing in the sun and were fooling around like cocky jocks, bragging about how the girls would be at our feet when we got back. But the truth was, only Frederickson really meant it, because I…well, I had stopped plucking girls from every corner of the school’s corridors some serious time ago. And Tony was texting like mad with Lisa, while Alex Winter had finally come out with why he had been so low-key around the fairer sex during the past five weeks. There was a girl on his mind, too. A special one. And he intended to get her to go out with him eventually, even though she’d rebuffed him twice before the last school year ended. Her name was Simone, and I thought I remembered her from the parties I sometimes threw. Parties at which I’d always hoped to see Lisa walking through my front door, but as it was, Tony had never passed my invitations on to her. He said she was too nice to be dragged into a hellhole like my house on a Saturday night, but I was sure he was just scared someone else would hit on her and she might like it.
I glanced at my friend who had just punched out another text message. He was surely telling Lisa that we’d be home in about two hours, and she was probably sitting in her room, biting her nails because she couldn’t wait to see him again.
“Are you two making out over the phone or what?” I mocked and kicked his tennis shoe with the toe of mine.
Tony glanced up with this innocent What? look in his eyes.
“You’ve sent Lisa over twenty messages in the past half hour,” Alex said, backing me up with a sneer. “What’s so urgent that it can’t wait until we’re home?”
“Nothing.” Tony cleared his throat and tucked the cell into his pocket. “I was just giving her an update about the past few days. Because Hunter wants to meet with the others about this co-ed thing right when we get back, she’ll be in a terrible mood since I can’t hang out right away.”
“Dude, give it a break. Just make her come along with you. I don’t see why you’re being so complicated,” I said. But the truth was, I was jealous, and more than just a little bit. I wished I could text back and forth with Lisa on the way home, have her all euphoric to see me again, and wrap her up in a tight hug, which Tony would doubtlessly do when he walked over to her house in a little while.
“She won’t come. She hates soccer, and when I mention your name, her face usually turns into a grimace.” Tony smirked. “No offense, Hunter.”
“None taken,” I muttered and turned to stare out the window. Lisa was probably the only girl in the universe that was resistant to my charm. Goddammit! But then again, she hadn’t seen much of it so far. Since the girls of friends were a no-go for me, it made me tone down the flirt-factor automatically. It could all change with Chloe, though. A bubbly spark of hope lit in my chest. It made me feel stupid, and I struggled to get that feeling under control. I glanced sideways at Tony. “What about the Summers chick?”
“What about her?”
“You two hung out a lot at camp.”
His lips became a thin line. “Yeah. So what?”
Heck, we hadn’t talked about her in all this time we were at camp, and now that I thought of it, it was because whenever someone mentioned Chloe’s name, Mitchell changed the subject. “So, is there something going on between the two of you?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Why don’t you want to answer?”
Alex bumped his shoulder into Tony’s. “Because this dude is in love, and it’s not with Matthews.”
Tony shoved him back. “Knock it off. I’m not in love with anyone.”
“Then why are you so touchy all of a sudden?” Alex asked.
“And so defensive,” I added.
“I’m not. You’re just idiots.”
Okay, we couldn’t contradict that, but Tony’s secretive love life was interesting me more and more. And then it hit me like a hammer on the head. “It’s because of her!”
He quirked his brows at me. “Huh?”
“It’s Chloe! Not me. She’s the reason you don’t want to bring Matthews along. You don’t want the girls to meet, that’s it!” Heck, I almost sneered at my friend because of my ingenuity.
And suddenly something weird happened, which none of us guys could have predicted. Anthony Mitchell blushed a pretty, girly pink.
“Oh my fucking God!” I slapped my brow. “So you have something running with the Summers chick. And you’re scared to tell little Lisa.”
Tony raked a nervous hand through his hair. “She won’t understand,” he whined. It didn’t help that at that moment another text from Lisa came in.
I knew it was an asshole move, but this time I couldn’t resist. As soon as he fished the phone out of his pocket, I grabbed it and opened the text. Tony jumped at me, but I held it out of his reach and wrestled myself free.
“We can do whatever you want. Go for a swim? We haven’t done that all summer. But then, you were gone all summer, you rascal,” I read out loud, and the other two repeated, “You rascal!” in the most girly way one had ever heard. We laughed our asses off.
“Give it back. You’re such an infantile, Hunter.”
“Infantile!” we repeated and stuck our heads together like the three Stooges, already holding our stomachs from laughing. I was too weak to withstand Tony’s attacks, so I let him have his phone back. God knew what he texted Lisa then. Likely, that he was trapped in a train compartment with the kindergarten of Grover Beach.
When the train stopped at our station, we grabbed our bags and jumped off the coach into the warm Friday afternoon sun. I stretched my back and cracked my neck, which had gone a little stiff during the ride. Then I scanned the place for a delicate brunette with apple-green eyes. She hadn’t come, not even to pick up her best friend and childhood love. Not seeing Lisa for half of the summer and staying sane had been a challenge. Not seeing her now was torture.
But school was only three weeks away. I would be a man and bear it with a grin. Or so I told myself.
The guys and I bumped fists and shouted goodbyes to several other friends we’d made at camp. Then we fanned out to find our rides home. My dad would pick me up today, but before I found him, I ran into my friend Justin. He had a broken little brother by his side. Well, not everything of Nick Andrews was broken. Only his right wrist, which didn’t bring me any money, but it made me feel bad for him. It had happened only three days ago, up until which point we’d all wondered if he’d make it home sound for once. No such luck for the kid.
Justin wore a grim expression, but before he could say anything I cut him short. “Dude, I wasn’t even near him when it happened. He slipped in the shower. How could I have prevented that from happening, huh?”
He considered that for a second, then a grin curved his thin lips, and we went through our handshake ritual which ended with a fist-pound on each other’s shoulder. “What’s cracking?” he asked as he and Nick walked with me to the parking lot. Then he leaned in closer, so that only I could hear his taunt. “Did a nice babe come along and blast the Matthews girl out of your head?”
I grinned back. “Did you run a truck over your sacred BMX bike?”
“Nah,” we said simultaneously and laughed. Then I slapped his little brother on the shoulder and told him, “See you at Charlie’s in a bit.”
My dad was waiting by our black Ford Chrysler. I gave him a brief one-armed hug, dumped my bag in the trunk, and climbed into the passenger seat. Though this year at camp had been epic, it was nice to be going home at last.
Mom must have been waiting like a lynx behind the door, because the moment I opened it, she caught me in a bear hug that knocked the breath out of my lungs.
“Mom,” I croaked, but hugged her back and laughed. “Mom, let go. You’re hurting me.”
“Yeah, she missed you an awful lot,” my dad told me as he squeezed through between the doorjamb and my mom and me.
“Five weeks. You have no idea,” Mom exclaimed, then she stroked my cheek and kissed the other. “This house is way too empty with both kids gone.”
Ever since my sister ran off at age twenty—okay, she didn’t run off but moved to San Luis—I had become the sole center of my mom’s affection. While Rachel had quit college to marry the owner of a bar, I was the good kid who still lived at home and intended to go into my father’s business one day. He had a veterinary practice attached to our house and let me sneak in from time to time. I liked animals, and helping him treat the furry patients was cool.
When I made it out of my mom’s possessive embrace, I emptied my duffel bag into the wash and rushed upstairs to shower off the smell of a long journey. With a towel loosely wrapped around my hips, I shaved, put on some Axe Temptation, and rubbed my dark hair dry. From my closet, I grabbed a white muscle shirt and baggy pants then shoved my feet into black skater shoes. Next to my bed stood my graffiti-style skateboard. I stared at it for a few moments then decided to leave my car in the garage for one more day and use this ride instead.
Mom’s eyes widened when I came down the stairs with the board clutched under my arm. “Are you going out again? You’ve barely had time to say hello. And you didn’t tell me how camp was.”
“Yeah. I have a meeting with the guys from the team in”—I glanced at my watch—“fifteen minutes.”
“Will you be back for dinner? I was going to make a seafood platter tonight.”
My mouth spread into a huge grin. She knew I loved fish and shrimp prepared in all different ways and she usually prepared this for special occasions. Like when her beloved son came back from camp after five long weeks. There was only one thing to say to this. “I love you too, Mom.” I kissed her on the cheek. “I won’t be long. Just a couple hours, I promise. Then I’ll tell you all about camp at dinner.”
The kiss was my ticket to go. She could never deny me anything when I was the sweet boy who wasn’t ashamed of telling his mom he loved her.
Outside, I dropped the skateboard to the asphalt and headed to Charlie’s Café.
As I stepped off my board just in front of the low fence, I recognized some of the kids who had gathered around a few tables in the shadowy garden area. The place buzzed with activity this Friday afternoon.
I left my skateboard by the entrance with a couple others and headed toward the group to take a seat at one end of the table. Brinna was right, there were quite a few girls interested in playing soccer. I hadn’t expected this craze.
When Charlie came to take my order, I asked for a lemon juice and something to write with. A few minutes later, the tall, prematurely balding man brought me two white sheets of paper and a pen with my drink.
Tony wasn’t there yet, so a tiny flicker of hope remained that he’d bring Lisa after all. I took a sip of my juice and glanced over at Chloe in this white dress that looked like it was painted on her skin. Then again, it probably wasn’t such a good idea to introduce the girls today.
“All right,” I said to get everyone’s attention after I’d put my glass down. “It’s cool that so many of you came today. But since we can’t take on more than ten players, we’ll have to find a way to make a choice. Usually, it’s a tryout for the guys, so I was thinking of arranging one for tomorrow morning. Does anyone have a problem with that?”
There was some headshaking and mumbling that tomorrow was fine.
“Great. I’ll put each of your names down on the list then, and if you know of anyone else who’d like to play with the Bay Sharks, tell them to be at the soccer field around ten.”
I knew most of the girls here because they were either in my classes or I’d dated them once or twice in the past. When I was done with the list and lifted my head, my heart knocked seriously hard against my ribcage. Tony had just walked up to us, and with him was the most beautiful girl in the world.
Holy Jesus, how much I had missed the sight of her this summer! As always, her shiny green eyes caught my attention first. Looking at them reminded me of spring leaves. Lisa’s beautiful hair was tied in a high ponytail and only a few strands slipped out in the front, framing her heart-shaped face.
The pink T-shirt she wore today was my favorite, because it fit her like a second skin. From beneath the collar, two neon green straps ran up and around her neck to tie in the back. A bikini I guessed, remembering the text message I’d read on Tony’s phone earlier. She was up for a swim. And as I looked at her pretty, naked legs, I decided a swim was just what I needed to cool off. I pulled my cap a little lower over my forehead, tearing my eyes off my personal sunshine, and cleared my throat, which had gone from okay to dry-as-a-bone within moments.
They hadn’t even made it to our table when Chloe rose from her seat. “You’re late, Anthony. I almost thought you wouldn’t come.”
I found it hilarious how she was the only person I knew who ever called him Anthony, but he seemed to like it. When she walked to Tony and kissed his left cheek, all the hilariousness was blown out of the situation, and I found myself holding my breath. Alex and Frederickson seemed as stunned as Lisa and I obviously were. The scene went from bad to worse when Tony placed his hands on Chloe’s hips and let her kiss his other cheek.
Right now I wished I had the guts to stand up and wrap Lisa in a tender hug, and not for my personal pleasure, but because she looked like she had been run over by a bus.
“Mixed soccer teams, huh?” she growled at Mitchell then took a seat next to him, which meant she was also sitting directly opposite Chloe.
The least I could do was tease her a little and cheer her up. “The tryouts are tomorrow, Matthews. I can put you on the list, if you’re interested.” She didn’t seem particularly happy about my joke, which wasn’t really a joke anyway, but an attempt to get her on a team where I could play with her twice a week and have a reason to touch her. But she sent a surprised look in my direction. Maybe because this was the most I had said to her in one breath in all the time I had known her. I’d always found it easier to resist her when I didn’t have to talk to her.
“Liz and soccer?” Tony laughed. “You might as well try to get an elephant to dance the tango. Right, Liz?”
Oh shit. Could he be any more tactless? I’d never heard him talk to Lisa in this mean way. When she turned her head to him, her eyes held a great lot of hurt. But it seemed I was the only one to notice.
And then the unthinkable happened. Chloe opened her mouth, and I knew nothing nice would come out. “The elephant part hits home.”
There it was. Short, biting, and so Chloe-like. She definitely felt threatened by Lisa, or she wouldn’t have had to revert to bitchiness to carve out her territory, which, in this instance, was Tony. Somewhere in the back of my head, I was impressed. Chloe really looked like she felt a thing or two for this boy.
And this boy had just epically failed the friend test. He didn’t say one word when Summers insulted Lisa, and that—hooking up with Chloe or not—was totally intolerable. I wondered what Lisa was going to do.
“I tried puking up my meals in ninth grade, but that seems to be more your thing than mine,” was her retort. Obviously, that girl wasn’t as shy and silent as she made everyone believe.
I laughed, but apparently I was the only one who dared to. Everyone else was shocked into silence, trying to stay out of the line of fire.
“Did you just insult me?”
Yes, Summers, she did! Of course, this was a first for my female equivalent. She and I weren’t used to being bested by anyone. I was pretty sure that hurt her on a level she would never let on.
Lisa seemed more than relieved when Tony got a text message and asked her if she’d like to stay or walk back home with him. I’d never seen anyone knock back an almost-full glass of soda as fast as Lisa did while she rose from her chair.
“Nope, I’m ready,” she told him.
Tony shook his head at her, then he grimaced and shrugged in my direction.
“See you tomorrow, Anthony,” Chloe called out after him.
With her chin low and her gaze fixed on the ground, Lisa gritted her teeth in a way that made me fear for her molars. I didn’t want to be in her shoes right now. But then, it had been hard enough to be in my shoes the past few years whenever she was around. Maybe things were finally playing out to my advantage, sad as it made me to see her so crushed.
When she walked past me, I suddenly realized if I didn’t act now, I might not get another chance. The least I could do was get her to come to the tryouts. Maybe if I could show her that soccer wasn’t all bad, she’d be on my team. And pretty clear visuals of how I’d get closer to her were already playing in my mind.
In a mad lack of self-control, I almost reached out to grab her hand and make her stop. She couldn’t walk away from me just yet. But I pulled myself together and kept my fingers laced over my stomach when I asked her, “How about it, Matthews? Will you try out for the team or not?”
She stopped dead and looked at me, seriously surprised. “I—”
“You shouldn’t tease her. She’s just not made for soccer,” Tony said, cutting her off. He tried to push her on, away from me.
Oh, how I wanted to kick his ass for that.
I don’t know what really swayed her at that moment, whether it was just the wish to spend more time with Tony, or if it had to do with Chloe’s snorting laughter. But when she turned around to Mitchell and told him, “Know what? I think I’ll just give it a shot,” I had to really struggle to keep my stupid grin under control.
Tony gave her a dubious look. “You’re shitting me.”
Damn. She wouldn’t dare change her mind, would she? But the look she threw Tony said What do you wanna bet, buddy? And it was obvious she’d bite his head off if he said just one more stupid word.
“Cool, so you’re on the list.” Now I couldn’t help but smile. Also because, with her standing right in front of me, I could enjoy her beautiful view without seeming like a peeping Tom. The little strip of bare skin flashing out between her tee and shorts was an illegal temptation. “We meet at ten on the field,” I murmured.
“I’ll be there.”
This held the seal of a promise. And I’d nail her to it.
Once more, her deliciously long legs dragged my gaze down. I wanted to touch them—Lord, kill me now. I drank in every inch of her exposed skin, from her thighs over the little bruise on her left knee, to her bare feet in those light blue flip-flops. I swallowed, forcing my glance back up to her face. We looked at each other for a silent second, which gave me a strange feeling of goose bumps at the back of my neck, like she knew I was seizing her with my eyes—and like she enjoyed it.
“Bring shoes,” I told her and winked in a way she’d probably never seen from me.
Her lips parted very slightly. Just looking at them made me want to kiss her senseless. But I never got to hear whatever she’d contemplated saying, because Mitchell made her move.
When they were gone, I caught Alex staring at me, and it got on my nerves in the span of a millisecond. “What?” I mouthed at him.
Alex smirked and shook his head with backup from Frederickson, who did the same. I flipped them the bird, covering the gesture by dragging my cap a little deeper still. But a grin was sneaking to my lips, and I could do nothing to stop it.
DINNER WITH MOM was exhausting. She knocked a hole in my head with her questions, and I struggled to enjoy my seafood between answering them. Right then, I decided I really needed to call her more often when I was gone for an extended period of time.
After dinner I got a text message from Mitchell asking me to meet him outside my house in twenty minutes. There was nothing else I had planned for the evening, so hanging out with him was cool. I asked him in when I opened the door a bit later, but he made a face and said he’d rather walk.
Walk? The guy who came to my house three times a week to play video games and who inhaled tons of cheese crackers every time? Who was the reason my mom now kept a supply especially for him? He shrugged off my invitation and just nodded in the direction of the old playground a few streets up. Something was off.
I nodded and started walking alongside him, tucking my hands deep into my pockets. “What’s up, Mitchell?”
It took him a few moments to answer. “I’m totally screwed, man.”
I cocked a brow at him. Tony cut me a glance, but then he focused on the pavement again, dragging out a deep sigh. “I need your help with Lisa.”
Ah heck, no! Don’t talk to me about her. Giving another guy advice on how to make it right with the girl I wanted ranked seriously low on my wish-to-do list. Yet here I was, still biting my lower lip and answering, “What can I do?”
“I want her on the team.”
I almost stopped walking. Okay, this was something I definitely wanted, too. “She said she’ll come to the tryouts tomorrow. That’s a start, isn’t it?”
“Yes, she’ll come. But you haven’t seen her handle a soccer ball yet. I swear she’d rather burn it than touch it.”
“That’s just because she hates you playing all the time when you should be spending time with her instead.” I winced. Why the hell did I say that?
Tony was distracted with kicking a stone in front of him, so he didn’t notice my grimace. “Maybe. But she won’t stand a chance at the tryouts tomorrow.”
Aha. He was worried about her failing. He shouldn’t be. Heck, I had been waiting too long for her to be on my team to care about her skills now. Whatever Lisa was going to do tomorrow, I’d make sure she was a member of the Grover Beach Bay Sharks at the end of the day.
But then I started to wonder. “Why do you want her on the team, anyway?”
We reached the playground where Rachel and I used to play every day when we were children, and while I took a seat on the swing, Mitchell sat on the slide, resting his elbows on his knees, staking me with a meaningful look. “You were right today. I’m kind of dating Chloe Summers.”
Excuse me if I get up and do a stupid victory dance right now. I cleared my throat, kept my expression even, and said, “That’s cool.”
“I just don’t know how to break it to Liz. She was pissed earlier because of a few things I did…or apparently didn’t do. I don’t want to hurt her, but I know it will be horrible for her if she finds out that I’m seeing another girl.”
“Yep, you’re going to break the girl. That’s a given.” But don’t you worry, I’ll be there to make her feel better. “So having her on the team helps you how?”
“Liz really hates Chloe. And that after only twenty minutes together. I’m hoping for them to get to know each other better. Maybe they’ll become friends.” Tony leaned back on the metal slide, crossed his arms behind his head, and gazed up at the already dark sky. “I don’t want to lose Lisa just because I have a girlfriend now.”
I didn’t know what to say other than, “Tough situation.” And it sure was for everyone. Didn’t he see that I was the wrong person to be giving relationship advice when it came to that girl? It would be so easy to talk Mitchell into something that would drive a wedge between him and Lisa. But I liked Mitchell, and once again, I put my own needs aside and said what he needed to hear from a good friend.
“Are you sure you’re doing the right thing, Mitchell? I mean, Lisa Matthews is madly in love with you. Just the way every guy would probably wish for. She’s nice, she’s pretty, she’s cool, and she’s fun. That’s everything I always hear from you.” I heaved a deep sigh and swung a few times back and forth, seriously wishing I didn’t have to say this. “What in the world is keeping you from hooking up with her?”
Tony sat up again, legs crossed. “I don’t know.” He sounded every bit sincere. “You know how much I like her. But I just can’t see us being together in a way like I want to be with Chloe. Not that I don’t find Lisa attractive, that’s not it. Heck, she’s probably the prettiest girl in town.”
She sure was. I got more and more confused as he continued.
“But I already know her. Like every little thing about her. She’s been my best friend since forever and I love hanging out with her. But Chloe…”
Oh boy, there was that devoted sigh that had gotten many men before him into trouble.
“She’s so different. She’s wild and tells me what she wants. It doesn’t even bother her that she’s a few months older than me and going to be a senior.”
The chains of the swing rattled when I got to my feet and walked to a tree, leaning one shoulder against it, folding my arms over my chest. “You do realize that she might have said the same thing to all the other guys she was with in the past? And by ‘with’ I mean for a couple of weeks, if we stretch it.”
“She told me it’s different this time. That she hasn’t felt this for any other guy before.”
Hah! I wanted to laugh about that, but it was late and dark and we were on a silent playground, so it would have made me sound like a mad serial killer. Besides, I wouldn’t laugh at a friend.
“I think I want us to be official,” Tony confessed.
I rubbed my hands over my face, feeling the need to drag Tony under a cold shower to open his eyes. “Look, I don’t want to sound like the older brother now.” Mostly because I always hated when Rachel did that shit with me. “But you should really think about it again. You and Chloe…well, you don’t have a future together. She’s not the type to go for a relationship. She’s like—”
“Yeah, thanks,” I muttered. “But that’s probably what it is. That girl has a record where guys are concerned. You’re interesting to her now, but she’ll dump you before you can put your pants back on.”
“That won’t happen. She really likes me.”
Damn, he wouldn’t listen. How very frustrating. I straightened, and my voice became cold. “You plan on sleeping with her any time soon?”
Tony pressed his lips together and shrugged one shoulder.
“Fine. We’ll talk again then. But be prepared for the possibility that by the time you’ve messed with someone else, Lisa might not be there waiting for you to return to her.”
“Liz and I becoming a couple, that’s not going to happen. I don’t need her to wait for me. I just don’t want to lose my friend.”
“With the way she feels about you, that just might happen, Mitchell.”
“I just need some time to tell her. So I want you and the guys to shut up about me and Chloe, until I get the chance to come clean.”
I chuckled. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
And then it became clear to me that I might destroy what little chance had just been dangling in front of my face if I said anything more. I didn’t intend to give it up when Tony was so set on the course he was currently taking with Chloe. However, there was one thing I needed to get straight. The bark of the tree rubbed against my back when I pressed a little harder against the trunk. “You want Chloe? Take her. I’ll keep my mouth shut. You want Matthews on the team? Consider her a member. But only under one condition.”
“And that would be what?”
“As part of my team, everyone sees her as that, and no longer as your sacred little girlfriend.” I paused to let that first bit sink in before I went on. “She plays soccer, she comes to my parties. You don’t stop her. And whatever happens there—if guys hit on her—you keep it together, man.”
Seconds passed, and Tony remained silent.
“I just don’t want any rivalries on our team,” I added. “Are we clear?”
Mouth still shut, Tony stood and slowly walked toward the exit of the playground. He didn’t turn around when he told me, “Deal.”
I lay awake for half of the night, wondering if I should have tried harder to talk sense into my friend. He was going to fall flat on his face, and the jerk just didn’t want to see it. If it was only about Chloe and him, I wouldn’t have thought about it twice but instead let Mitchell head into the adventure and come out of it a wiser man.
However, I knew what was going to happen. I hated to think of Lisa getting hurt in the game and my friend flushing the chance that I had always wanted—and which he’d had his entire life—down the gutter.
But it was not my job to change the world. And after so many years of having a crush on Lisa, it was time to think about myself for once. Well, about myself and her. She’d be in my house tomorrow night as part of my team. After-match parties were customary, and heck, I’d make sure to throw one for the new team members after the tryouts. I punched a short invitation into my phone and sent the text off to a group of sixty people. They would spread the word. My mom was on the texting list, too, just in case I forgot to tell her about the party in the morning. I never had to worry about running late to stock the fridge. Drinks and snacks were always there, and some of the kids would bring beer and wine coolers, anyway. But the best thing was, tomorrow, the girl of my dreams would be there. Sometime after midnight I fell asleep with a grin on my face.
The next morning, I went through my usual routine of showering, shaving, and getting dressed, all with music thundering from the speakers in my room. Currently, it was P!nk and Nate Ruess asking for a reason. I liked the song, mostly because it was the ringtone of Lisa’s cell phone, and listening to it reminded me of her.
I tugged the white soccer shorts up over my hips, sat down on the corner of my bed, and tied my shoes. The cleats went into my backpack to wear later on the field. I grabbed a fresh jersey and pulled it over my head. Over the lamp on my desk hung my Indians cap. It was my favorite and the one I wore most of the time at school, but as I was about to put it on this morning, I looked at myself in the large mirror attached to the door. My hair was still wet from the shower and all over the place. I knew that this chaotic look usually made girls go stupid. It was worth a try with Lisa. Back in the bathroom, I pressed a tiny bit of gel into my palm, just enough to fix the style without making it look sticky or coated.
The car keys jingled in my hand as I headed downstairs. From the dining room drifted noise, and I guessed my mother was in there. “Mom!” I shouted over my shoulder, already late. “You got the text?”
“Yes, darling!” she answered. “Your dad and I got an invitation to Mary Fisher’s birthday celebration. We won’t be home tonight!”
“Yesss,” I hissed and punched my fist in the air. Parties were so much better when I had the run of the house. “I’m off to soccer. Laters!”
In our double garage, my Audi A3 was dwarfed by my dad’s Chrysler, but I couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel of my baby painted a shiny, nightfall silver. It had been a present from my parents for my eighteenth birthday, shortly before soccer camp. And with my own savings, I had turned the brand-new car into a real attention-catcher, with twenty-inch tires on specially designed aluminum rims, an epically mean-looking front, and the body slammed to the ground. Two hundred and forty hp made this rocket race through the streets like a shark under water.
When I climbed into the bucket seat and stroked over the curve of the wheel, I inhaled the scent of new leather and smirked. “Miss me, love?”
The answer came when I pushed the start button and softly tipped my foot on the gas pedal. The Audi gave a roar that would have made its big brothers go pale with envy. Man, I loved that sound. The garage’s wide roll-up door opened at the push of the button on the small remote attached to my key ring. Sunlight streamed into the garage and blinded me. I grabbed my sunglasses that lay in the center console, shook them open with one hand, and put them on.
The music boomed from the speakers on a level meant for going deaf as I left the garage and our driveway to head down the road. In no time, the ride was over, because the soccer field was right next to our school, only two miles away from my house. On this Saturday morning, the parking lot was quite busy, which meant that more students had come to the tryouts than expected.
From the floorboard on the passenger side, I grabbed my backpack and threw it over one shoulder. Locking the car, I headed for the grounds.
There I spotted Torres, Frederickson, Sebastian Randall, and Alex. I had asked them to come help me sort through the girls today, kick around some ball with them, and judge their skills. Frederickson was our goalie, so he’d do what he always did. The rest of the crowd on the lawn was female. Since Tony wasn’t here yet, I didn’t even bother to look for Lisa, because she wouldn’t come without him. I headed straight to the bench where about a million handbags and backpacks were parked, and one girl. While all the others did some stretching or chatting elsewhere, this one was actually reading a book.
She wasn’t in any of my classes, nor had I ever gone out with her, but I knew she’d told me her name yesterday at Charlie’s. Heck, what was it again?
I dumped my stuff next to her and said, “Hi.”
She looked up from her book and took off her metal-rimmed glasses. “Hey.”
“Fantastic.” Then she blushed an awful red and grimaced, probably because she’d just caught my subtle taunting. It was weird to go to soccer tryouts to read a book. “I only have half a chapter left, and I just couldn’t stop.”
She was sweet, this one. “Go finish your chapter. I still need a few minutes to get everything ready, anyway.”
She seemed totally happy with my words, putting her glasses back on and her nose back in the book, which made me shake my head but chuckle as I fished for the list of names in my backpack. Running my forefinger from top to bottom, I looked for the name that I’d jotted down below Elisabeth MacKenzie, because I was pretty sure this girl had been sitting right next to her in the café. Yep, there it was. Miller. That was her.
Sitting down beside her, I traded my shoes for my cleats. An airy thud next to my ear said she’d finished her book. “How are you going to go about this?”
Making a knot with the loops of my tied laces, I tilted my head to look up at her. “What do you mean?”
“Well, there are way over fifty girls wanting on your team. How do you choose between us?”
I moved to my other shoe and started lacing it. “Dunno. Let you kick some goals and stuff. Watch you play.”
“Tough job with so many girls,” she replied and put her book in one of the million backpacks lying around. “Do you have a rating system?”
No, I didn’t. Because I thought there would be fifteen to choose between, maybe twenty. I didn’t reckon on half the school. I quirked my brows at her, chewing on my bottom lip.
“That means no, right?”
She laughed at that. “Maybe you should give points for certain things and then just take the girls with the highest scores?”
That sounded like a brilliant idea. “You’re a smart one.” I stood and gave her one of those smirks I usually saved for asking-a-girl-out moments. It was okay, because those moments had become rare, anyway. The only sheet I had with me, though, was full of names, and there was no room left for taking any sort of notes. “You wouldn’t by any chance have—”
“A notebook?” she finished for me, giving me the same mocking tone I had used on her before. By her grin, it was apparent she had one, indeed. She handed me the notebook together with a pen.
Yeah, that was perfect. I placed the book on a small table in front of the bleachers and moved a second bench closer so that I could sit down for writing. The girl came over and gave me a hand with the bench. “Thanks,” I told her.
She nodded then walked out to the field. It was rare that any girl managed to get into my good-zone so fast, but she was a nice one, smart and helpful. “Hey, Susan!” I shouted after her.
As she stopped and turned around, there was this quirky look of surprise on her face. “Yes…Ryan?”
Ah, it was the fact that I knew her name that caught her off guard. I chuckled. I certainly wouldn’t forget it again. “Would you care to help me with the notes? I just think I should be more on the field instead of sitting here writing things down.”
Susan came back to me and looked me sternly in the eyes with her arms folded angrily over her flat chest. “You want me to be your secretary?”
“Ugh-ph…” I hadn’t meant to offend her, and to be fair, I had no idea what to reply to that.
Luckily, her cute face scrunched with a smile then, and she swatted me on the shoulder. “Just kidding, Hunter. Of course I’ll help you.”
I laughed and rolled my eyes. Yeah. Definitely liked her.
We discussed that she’d rasterize the sheet and in the end just add up the scores at the bottom. Her notebook turned out to be a grab bag of surprises, because she ripped two pages from the very back that had square stickers on them and gave them to me. “You write a number on each of these and have the girls stick them on their asses or wherever. It’ll be easier to work the scores out this way.”
She gave me another pen and, like a real assistant, shooed me off to get started.
The girls lined up, and one by one they took a sticker with a number from me, while I shouted the matching names over to Susan. Chloe was one of the first, and her friend, Brinna, of course grabbed the number that followed. By the time I’d given out over thirty stickers, the queue had only halved. It was amazing just how many girls at our school wanted to play soccer.
“Forty-five, Higgins! Forty-six, Stevenson! Forty-seven…” I looked up to see who was next and found myself face to face with the girl who dominated ninety-nine percent of my thoughts. “Matthews.”
IT WAS NICE to see that Lisa mirrored my smile with one of her own. She hadn’t done that before, ever. Not that I had smiled at her a lot so far, or that we’d had any eye contact other than a passing look in the school hallways. Not wearing a cap seemed to have been a good idea, because her gaze so obviously wandered up to my chaotic hairstyle then snapped back to my face as though she was caught ogling. I didn’t mind. If she liked what she saw, she could happily stare at me all day.
With a confident feeling in my gut, I decided that things were going to change today. Radically.
“Good luck, Matthews.” I gave her the sticker, which she popped on the upper curve of her left boob, and rubbed it smooth.
Holy penalty kick, she shouldn’t be doing this to me. My eyes fastened on that same spot while my mouth watered so badly I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to say anything else without drooling all over her.
Fortunately, she didn’t pay attention to my sudden lack of composure but turned around and headed back to Tony. Pulling myself together fast, I nodded a greeting at my friend then cleared my throat…several times. “Okay, everybody. For a little warm-up, I want you to run three laps around the field then come back here,” I shouted over the murmurs.
After some protesting moans, the crowd got moving. Susan left her post to join in the warm-up, and I jogged over to run with her. “Thanks for your help,” I told her. “That’s really cool of you.”
“Yeah, sure. No problem.” She gasped for air as we ran then continued, “As long as that gives me a special status for the tryouts, we’re fine.”
That made me laugh. In fact, I was thinking about it already. Though I had no idea how she’d handle the ball, I thought it would be fun to have an upfront girl like her on the team. “Don’t you worry about that, Miller. If you can hit a ball with your foot, we’re good.”
I left her side after the first lap and sat on the small table with Alex and Frederickson, watching how some of the girls already fought for air.
“Tony’s girl is going to collapse before she makes the three rounds,” Frederickson stated, and I automatically scanned the girls for Chloe. But she ran like a pro. Then, of course, to everyone else, Tony’s girl would still be Lisa. I found her crawling more so than jogging next to Mitchell. She was totally red in the face and panting like a tank engine.
“That’s not good,” I mumbled.
“Why?” Alex wanted to know.
“Because last night Tony asked me to take her on the team.” And of course, I would have done so even if I had to give her a piggyback ride just to finish the warm-up.
“Well then, I guess you have to be gentle on her.” Alex laughed and pushed away from the table. Something told me that his joke was, in fact, on me.
After most of the girls had finished the three laps, I started a goal drill. Everybody had to score at least once. Three points if the first kick was a goal. None if they didn’t manage to get the ball past Frederickson even on the third try. Of course, Frederickson wasn’t giving his best today. It was more like fifteen percent of what he was capable of. But we didn’t want to win a match today, we wanted to restock the team, so fifteen percent was good.
I got a little excited as numbers forty to forty-six took their turns. Next would be Lisa, and I couldn’t wait to practice shooting with her. But when I turned around, she was sitting on the ground talking to Mitchell, who handed her a drink in a paper cup. I had always been cool with him being her companion, best friend, playmate, whatever. It had gotten on my nerves, but I had never said a word. However, since last night—since Tony had told me he was seriously involved with Chloe—I was more jealous than ever. At their tiniest touch, the urge to hit something hard rose within me. This was a serious problem, and I could only hope that Mitchell would come out with the truth fast. She would see him with different eyes then. With eyes that didn’t bear this romantic, dreamy, take-me-now look any longer.
“Matthews! Your turn!” I yelled, suppressing my jealousy, and kicked the ball toward her. She turned around and caught the ball to her chest. Good reflexes. There was definitely some potential in that, even if she’d used her hands.
I waited next to the goal while she placed the ball in the grass then kicked it with mild power toward Frederickson. He didn’t have to move an inch to stop the ball. In fact, it died on the way to the goal, looking like it needed resuscitation. So, shooting wasn’t Lisa’s strength, either.
“Come on, Matthews!” I shouted as I picked up the ball and jogged over to her. She looked like she was going to surrender. Sweat coated every inch of her skin and breathing still troubled her after running the three laps. But I couldn’t let her fail in this qualifying exercise, so I tried to tickle out her ambition with a smirk. “I’ve seen you kick Mitchell’s butt harder than that.”
Since she didn’t back off, I guessed she was up to another try, so I dropped the ball in front of her. Then I placed my hands on her shoulders and moved her several steps back. “Now take a short run and put a little more power in your thrust.”
This was the first time that I’d ever touched Lisa Matthews. And I thanked God for the invention of tank tops. Her skin was smooth and heated, emitting the warm scent of some flower mix. I didn’t know what she rubbed on her body after a shower, but the smell of it drove me crazy and close to not giving a fuck about who might see it if I went and kissed the girl in another moment.
Unfortunately, she didn’t look very happy about my touch. She grabbed the collar of Tony’s jersey and whined, “Ah no, don’t let him make me do that. We both know I’ll just trip over the damn thing.”
She looked so hilariously panicky that I couldn’t stop myself from laughing while Tony pried her fingers loose from his collar. “No, you won’t,” he told her in a confident way. Then he shot me a quick glance that looked like he was asking my permission for…something. I nodded, because I trusted him fully. Anyway, we both wanted the same thing today, which was getting Lisa on the team. “Tell you what, if you hit Frederickson straight in the chest, I’ll buy you a chocolate decadence ice cream sundae,” he tempted her. “Deal?”
It wouldn’t be a goal if the ball didn’t make it past Frederickson, but as long as the outcome at the end of the day was the same, I didn’t care.
Lisa considered the new task for a second then grinned. “Deal.” She ran two steps then kicked the ball with honorable strength. It dropped like a baby in Frederickson’s arms. At least she’d mastered the new task.
“Well done!” I told her, wishing I would be the one to buy her ice cream later.
I returned to the table and to Susan. “Forty-seven gets three points for the goal shooting,” I told her. She’d seen what happened, and of course it earned me a quizzical look from the book lover, but I was the captain of this team, and what I said was law. It only took my arching one brow to make her understand that, and she scribbled a perfect “3” next to Lisa’s name. When she grinned up at me in a nice, schoolgirl manner, I did the same. I liked how we communicated without words and understood each other so well.
I finished the goal exercise with the remaining players then joined my buddies Alex and Sasha, who were practicing dribbling across the lawn and passing with some of the girls. Tony did the same with Lisa, and though she wasn’t a pro, she managed a few very promising passes to Mitchell. I watched them for a while, deciding whether to give her the deserved two points in this drill or the full five. And she was really lame at the next exercise, which tested their balance and skills at juggling the ball with one leg, doing kicks without dropping it. I grimaced and dragged my hands down over my face. There was no need to even start counting how many she could do.
I scratched my head. If I gave her a fair rating, she’d never make it on the team. There were at least thirty other girls better than her. On the plus side, she wasn’t the worst, so having her on the team wouldn’t turn out to be a total loss.
On the way over to Susan, a sneak attack made me drop to all fours. One of the girls had hit me at the back of my left knee with a really hard kick that Alex had failed to stop. Me going down like a shot buffalo caused a round of laughter and some taunting from Alex. It took exactly two seconds until he was on the ground underneath me, and we wrestled around like young dogs.
“Hey, Sash,” Frederickson yelled above us. “Help me get the kids apart. They’re always so hyped up when they get coffee in the morning.”
Alex and I each grabbed one of Frederickson’s legs, which was his downfall.
“Oh, come on, guys.” I heard Chloe’s annoyed voice. “Can you wait until later with the wrestling? Some of us would like to know if we’re on the team.”
I wrestled myself free from Alex and Frederickson and gave Chloe a wry look. “You got the maximum score in every event, Summers. I guess it’s okay to say that you probably made it.”
She disappeared on a happy skip, and I could finally tell Susan the last few scores to enter onto her list. I walked up behind her, braced my palms on the wooden top on either side of her, and leaned over her shoulder. Susan gave a short gasp, probably at the unexpected nearness. If I’d judged her right, she’d never had a boy touch her, let alone kiss her. Dating might not be important in her books. That was a shame. She was cool and she smelled like vanilla milk. She had a pretty face, even with her glasses. The only thing missing on this one was boobs, but she was only sixteen. They might come soon.
I pointed to the bottom of the list. “Fifty-three and four get three points each for dribbling and passing, and they did seven and ten at the juggling. There’s no need to write anything down for numbers fifty-six, seven, and eight. They won’t make it.”
“Okay, so we have all of them. Well…all but one.” She tilted her head a little and studied me from the corner of her eye. “You didn’t give me the scores for Lisa Matthews.”
“Didn’t I?” It was a suggestive drawl, and it made Susan chuckle.
“Let me guess, five points for dribbling and passing, and at juggling she probably did an imaginary…twelve?”
She pointed the tip of her pen at me. “Right.” Then she wrote the numbers on the list without further discussion, but she wore a knowing smile all the time.
I leaned lower to speak into her ear. “You know, as my personal assistant, you’re bound to secrecy.”
“Absolutely,” she confirmed with the same sneer I wore, and for some reason I knew I could trust her with that. When she was done writing, I took her hand and pulled her off the bench. “Okay, it’s your turn now, book lover. Let’s see what you can do with a ball.” As my unofficial secretary, she hadn’t had much time to take part in the tryouts, so I ran her personally through the drills. She probably wasn’t going to be a professional soccer player, not now or ever. But she was better than Lisa at most things, and even though her scores sucked, I put Susan’s name on the new members list.
Her shadow moved over the paper when she leaned forward to take a look at what I wrote. Then she straightened with that quirky grin again. “You know, some people say you’re an ass, Hunter. I can’t see why that is.”
“That’s because they don’t know me.” I winked at her then headed to the middle of the field and welcomed the new members. When Lisa realized she’d made it, her sweet mouth hung open like she was trying to catch fish with it. Apparently, it took Mitchell a minute to assure her that she hadn’t heard wrong. Happy like a kitten, she hurried to the bench and fished around for her backpack.
I followed her. Step one of courting my dream girl was a success. She was on my team now. Step two: invite her to my party.
I intended to say hi when I stood right behind her, but at the same moment, she whirled around so fast that she bumped straight into my chest, throwing me a step back. Cupping her elbows, I prevented her from tripping. And once again, I couldn’t resist taking a deep breath of the beautiful scent that clung to her hair and body. “Congrats, Matthews,” I said. “You handled the tryouts quite well.”
She only gave me a mean growl. “Yeah, whatever.” I was so stunned that I didn’t even hold her back when she strode past me, with a pissed glare on her face. But then she stopped and spun on her heel, folding her arms defiantly over her chest. “What does Tony owe you for putting me on the team?”
Whoa. That, I sure didn’t expect. Hell, what to do now? Lie to her? Give her the truth? Grab her by her neck and just haul her into me for a distracting kiss? I would so go for the last option, but it didn’t seem like something that would work to my advantage. So I did what I felt like and laughed, deciding for the almost-truth. “You don’t want to know.”
Obviously, she did, and by the look on her face, she was ready to beat it right out of me if necessary. I decided I might tell her why I put her on the team…one day. For now, it was better to pull my head out of the noose. I turned around and started walking away, but then I remembered the one thing that had brought me over to her in the first place. I cast her a look over my shoulder that suggested she’d better not say no. “See you at my house, Matthews.”
She nailed me with her baffled gaze, and that was everything I needed. She’d be there tonight. And in my house it would be my rules. She didn’t know it yet, but she wouldn’t stand a chance. In the end, she’d be mine.
Smiling to myself like a lovesick fool, I grabbed my backpack and headed for my car.
I had only reversed out of the spot and turned onto the road, when I spotted Susan Miller walking on the pavement. She was the only new member on our team who hadn’t been at my house yet, and I had totally forgotten to give her an invitation for tonight’s party. Slowing down to match her pace, I rolled the passenger window down and leaned forward a little, so I could see her face. “Hey, book lover!”
She didn’t stop but turned her head in my direction. “Hi, there.”
“Need a ride?”
Taken aback, she raised one brow, something I knew I did a lot and it was weird to see it on someone else’s face. “Um…no thanks. It’s not that far.”
“Would you get in, anyway? I need to talk to you.”
As she stopped, I did, too. She looked up the road then back at me. “I guess that’s okay.” With her backpack on her lap, Susan sat down in the passenger seat and buckled herself in. “What’s up?”
“I forgot to tell you something,” I began as I pulled away from the curb and cruised up the street. “Where are we going?”
“Half a mile this way, then turn onto Rasmussen Avenue. So what did you want to talk about? If it’s about the cheating with Lisa’s scores, you don’t have to worry. She’s my friend, I won’t tell anybody.”
“Okay, that’s good to know then.” This was, in fact, the other thing I really felt the need to discuss with Susan. “Mitchell asked me to bring her on, so it’s a personal favor. Matthews doesn’t have to know that. I don’t want her to feel bad because of it.”
She nodded like she totally understood, but then she sucked her bottom lip between her teeth and started chewing on it. I cut her a glance through speculative slits. “What?”
I chuckled, because it sure wasn’t nothing. “Come on, you can say it.”
“Yeah, maybe I can. I mean, I’m sitting in this hot car with you, something half the school will envy me for if I tell them, right? And I have no idea why I’m here, but it’s cool so…I’ll be honest. I was wondering if it really was only a favor for Tony.”
“What, taking Matthews onto the team?”
I felt a grin tugging on the corners of my mouth as I quickly glanced at her from the corner of my eye. “What makes you think otherwise?” I looked back at the street, but I knew she was staring at me openly now, because she’d shifted in the seat to face me.
“The way you checked out Lisa’s butt while she was running, for instance.” She made it sound like a suggestion, but then she added quickly. “Unless you were checking out Tony’s butt, which I seriously hope you weren’t. And then I saw you sniffing your hands in a very weird, very romantic way after you touched her, which made me think you like how she smells.”
The more she said, the wider my smile grew. “Were you spying on me, book lover?”
“Is it bad to say I watched you?” she whined. “I was just curious to see what you’d do today after you so secretly flirted with her yesterday.”
I gulped as I turned onto Rasmussen Avenue. “It certainly wasn’t that much of a secret if you noticed it.” And then Frederickson and Alex had, too.
Now she gave a sigh. Something dreamy and longing. “I guess I’m just spoiled in that way. I read so many romance books that I can smell it from ten miles away when a guy is falling for a girl.”
“Falling for her?” My voice held a hint of defensive accusation, so much so that I probably sounded as if I’d been caught red-handed. Enough that she knew she was dead on.
“Don’t panic. Like I said, I’m not telling anybody. And Lisa certainly isn’t aware of it just yet. Could you stop here? The yellow house is mine.”
Bringing the car to a halt in front of her yard, I watched her unfasten the seat belt and said, “I guess I’ll be seeing you in the evening.” As she lifted her head and gave me a questioning look, I added, “At the party? You’re coming, right?”
The next second, I realized she was just winding me up again, because her expression turned sickly romantic and she hugged her backpack dreamily to her chest. “Oh Hunter, I thought you would never ask.”
Rolling my eyes, I had to laugh about the way she made me look. Crazy chick.
She climbed out and slammed the door shut then walked up the front steps. “Hey, book lover!” I shouted after her and waited until she turned around. “It’s nice to have you on the team.”
Susan’s eyes wrinkled behind her glasses as she smiled. Then she walked inside, and I stepped on the gas, heading home.
All afternoon I was busy getting the house ready for the party of the year. I didn’t need to wait for responses to my text. Everyone who had time would come and have a little fun tonight.
I got all the expensive carpets out of the way so that only the naked stone tiles were left. From the credenzas and shelves, I removed everything that could be broken, and also Mom’s beloved Chinese Ming vase that stood close to the French doors leading into our garden. When Dad came in after work, he helped me drape some blankets over the leather couch and replace the glass coffee table with an old chest that would do the job just as well, before he and Mom gave me the usual sermon on the party rules and then left for Mary Fisher’s house. In the end, our entrance hall and front room looked like the Hunters had moved out, but only until the first bunch of guests arrived. Everyone had free access to drinks and food, and while they made themselves at home and put some music on, I headed upstairs to finally change for the night.
I slipped into my favorite faded blue jeans with the ripped hems and found my tennis shoes under my bed. After styling my hair in a David Beckham style Mohawk, I picked a white shirt from the closet, but as soon as I had it on, I unbuttoned it again and threw it on my bed. White clashed with my dark hair too much to look cool. A black dress shirt would do. I let it casually hang out and rolled the sleeves up to my elbows as I stepped in front of the mirror again. Yep, much better.
The music switched from Nickleback to Bob Marley’s “Stop That Train” as I closed the door to my room and headed downstairs. A funny memory came up with that song. I was about ten years old when Justin had stolen a cigar from his granddad and we tried to smoke it in the gazebo in our garden. The outcome wasn’t all that pretty. In fact, after the second drag, we both went green in the face and puked into my mom’s rose bushes. Yeah, we were so cool…
I wondered if Justin was the one fumbling with the hi-fi, because the song was suddenly cut off after the first few beats, and Sean Paul came on next. “She Doesn’t Mind.” I liked that one.
When I came down, Claudia Wesley ran into me. Narrowly escaping getting splattered by the drink in her hand, I steadied her by her elbows, and her face lit up. “Hunter, you’re late to your own party? That is so like you.”
“You know me. I can’t be on time to save my life.” I had gone out with Claudia in tenth grade, and if it had ever worked with a girl and me, then it was probably her. The only downside—she wasn’t Lisa. But she made a fantastic wine cooler, and the glass in her hand was most likely filled with the stuff. I took it out of her hand and tasted the berry mix, then arched a brow at her. “That grog could kill an elephant.”
She shrugged it off with a grin. “Yeah, it’s a little strong. But the strawberries make it perfect.”
It tasted delicious, but I didn’t intend to get drunk tonight, so I gave the glass back to her. The house was already bursting. I had to fight my way through all the kids to get into the kitchen and grab a beer from the fridge. The lights had been dimmed and the music was at maximum volume, just what a good party needed. I popped the cap of the Corona and headed back to the hall, taking a swig.
In the arch between the hall and the kitchen, Tony bumped into me, dragged by a very excited Chloe. “Hey guys, what are you up to?” I asked, amused about how they held hands like preschoolers, and seriously enjoying the fact that Tony seemed totally into that girl.
“I want to show him the gazebo,” Chloe squeaked. “You don’t mind, Hunter, do you?”
I shook my head no, but caught Mitchell’s arm before Chloe could pull him away from me. Leaning in closer, I gave him a concerned look. “Did you come with Matthews?”
My eyes widened as I glanced from him to Chloe and back. “And she knows you’re going to make out with someone else in my garden?”
Tony sucked in an uneasy breath through his teeth. “No.”
Yeah, that was to be foreseen. “Where is she?”
“Somewhere back there.” He nodded over his shoulder toward the front door. “A friend held her up. Look, I won’t be out with Chloe long. Just a minute. Don’t tell Lisa when you see her, okay?”
Chloe impatiently blew a strand of her blonde hair out of her eyes, but I made a point of not letting go of Mitchell’s arm just yet. “You will have to tell her at some point.”
“I know.” He grimaced. “I will.”
“All right. Get along with you,” I growled. “I have you covered for tonight. But make sure to come clean with her soon. I hate lying.”
“Thanks, man.” We bumped fists before the two of them slipped out into the garden through the back door.
I wondered how he’d gotten Chloe to agree to hiding their relationship for now. She wasn’t usually one to keep a low profile and it must’ve been annoying the hell out of her. But then, our garden was a perfectly romantic place for some kissing under the moonlight, and she would probably get her money’s worth with Mitchell tonight.
A little frustrated at how Tony was messing with Lisa’s feelings, I slumped against the wall inside the arch, dragged a hand over my face, and took a long sip from my beer. Gaze skating over the crowd, I wondered where she was. There were close to three hundred people in this house. Looking for her might turn out to be difficult. But then, there was no need to. The little hairs at the back of my neck bristled when she emerged from the mass, glancing around like a shy little doe.
Her super short, black pants took a millisecond to make my eyes go wide and my mouth water. A moment after her gaze met mine, I turned toward her fully, leaning only one shoulder against the wall. She fumbled with the hem of her gray tank top as she glanced to one side and back at me. From years of charming girls, I knew what I was doing. Since she had my direct attention now, she had no other choice than to come over and say hello. I took another swig as I watched my plan work.
Near enough to grant me a close-up of the pendant on her necklace dipping into the valley between her breasts, she stopped and lifted a hand in greeting instead of speaking.
I cocked my head and gave her the lightest smile I could manage. “Hi.”
“You have a nice place. So full of—”
“Yeah. Thanks.” Hm, was that the right thing to say? I pushed away from the wall and leaned in a little closer, because I hated to shout over the music. Okay, the music wasn’t so loud back here, so it might not have been only that. I also really liked to breathe in the sweet scent of her shampoo. Her hair tickled my cheek when I lowered my head even more to speak into her ear. “It was about time Mitchell brought you here. He kept you away from this place long enough.”
Her nose brushed the underside of my jaw, giving me a really good feeling in my stomach. “Do you know where he is?”
Sorry, baby, but I can’t tell you that. Looking down, I only saw her perfect, apple-shaped boobs and a waist that begged to be hugged against mine. The bottle of beer in my hand gave me a chance to hold onto something as I fought against the urge to grab what I had already determined was mine. “Nope,” I answered her question then washed away the bitter aftertaste of the lie with a swig of Corona.
Lisa had her own bottle of beer and drank when I did, but she looked like it was the nastiest stuff one could’ve given her. I wondered if she’d gotten it from Tony, but I was pretty sure he made a point of keeping this girl sober.
Our fridge was stocked with things that tasted better than Corona, and I didn’t like the thought of her getting tipsy at my party, anyway. At least no one had given her a glass of the strawberry wine cooler. That stuff would have knocked her out of her shoes.
With her wrist in my hand, I pulled her away from the hall and into the kitchen to trade her beer for a soda. Touching her actually felt so good that I couldn’t bring myself to let her go immediately, so I put my bottle on the counter and worked one-handed to pop open a can of Sprite for her. Replacing the bottle with the can, I made an effort to gently close her fingers around it.
“You shouldn’t drink beer,” I told her and hoped I didn’t sound like her dad or something. “Especially not in this place.”
Thankfully, she wasn’t pissed at my parenting her. In fact, she looked happy about the new drink and sipped from it while I still held her discarded bottle. I leaned my butt against the counter and crossed my legs at the ankles. “You did really well today,” I offered as an icebreaker for an easier chat.
She swallowed the hook, but she knew I was being polite—and not very honest. “I was lousy. And you know it. I still don’t get why you chose me to play on your team.”
Yeah, why? I gave a nonchalant shrug and drank from her bottle. Jeez, I had my mouth on the same spot her lips had just touched. It might be childish, but I enjoyed that moment like nothing else before. Then I drawled, “I don’t know. Maybe I just want you there.” My teasing added a spark to her shiny green eyes. I liked how I could give her a coating of goose bumps with just this tiny bit of truth. “Do a little endurance training every day, and you’ll be a capable player.”
“I guess I’m lacking the motivation to do that. I’m like a lame duck at running.”
Is that so? Hm, what could we do about that? “What you need is a personal trainer.”
The pretty girl in front of me laughed and took a short step back, studying me with disbelieving eyes. “You want the job?”
That was why I suggested it. But I played my cool role to perfection. “Sure, why not? If you promise to show some enthusiasm, I promise to be there.”
She tilted her head and narrowed her eyes a little. I couldn’t blame her for not trusting me just yet. We were only getting acquainted with each other. Lisa wasn’t someone you rushed into your bed. She was a gem that you enjoyed marveling at. If you were lucky, you got the chance to touch her delicate surface. A treasure that I’d go to any length to make my own.
Eventually, she said, “Okay, deal.”
Deal? That was a fucking yes to a date. I felt like an idiot from one of Susan Miller’s romance books when my heart actually did some sort of backflip in my chest. I struggled to stay cool but managed to keep my pleasure under control and just nodded. “We’ll start Monday morning.”
She didn’t look so happy anymore. Hopefully, she didn’t regret her decision already. Regardless, I wouldn’t let her go back on her word, and I made that clear by trapping her gaze with a hot, determined look. If she got her foot into this game with me, she wouldn’t get out of it single. I wanted her to be aware of whom she was dealing with, because I’d never felt as true to the name Bay Shark as I did in this moment.
“Hey, Ryan! We’re starting a game of pool. Are you in?”
Fuck you, Justin! I wanted to strangle my friend for ruining this moment for me. I glared over Lisa’s shoulder at him, and he sure knew right then that he’d come at the entirely wrong moment.
“Sorry, man,” he mouthed and grimaced.
Exhaling a sigh, I pushed away from the counter. The spell was over. I might as well go play pool with my friends now. But I was going to train with Lisa on Monday. I had been waiting years for that chance, so what was one more day? “There in a sec,” I told Justin.
When he was gone and I looked at Lisa’s beautiful face again, I wondered what that sweet mouth of hers would taste like. I stroked her cheek with the neck of my bottle. And there it was—the first dreamy look in her eyes that was only for me.
“Enjoy the night,” I said in quite a soft way. “And whatever you do, stay away from the strawberries.”
It was time to go, or I would do something stupid way too early in my plan for seducing Lisa. So I headed for the door, leaving her a little stunned. But when I stepped past her, I couldn’t resist stroking the back of her hand with my own.
A FEW GUYS stood around the pool table. Justin was playing a game against Alex when I came into the room adjoining the main hall. Justin looked up and his face crumpled worse than a raisin. “Ah man, sorry, that wasn’t my intention,” he apologized again, straightening and leaning on his cue.
“Forget it.” I grinned. “It’s all set for Monday.”
That made him lift his brows in an impressed way and nod.
“What’s set for Monday?” Alex demanded after he shot the yellow ball into a hole. “And what wasn’t your intention, Juz?”
“Nothing,” Justin and I shot back at him.
“Is there money in the pot?” I tried to change the topic as I sat down on the couch between Frederickson and a guy whose real name I didn’t know but who we all called Sylvester.
Alex tapped the stack of dollar bills on the table with the tip of his cue. “Twenty-five from each.”
“I’ll play the winner.” I didn’t have to play for money to stock up my bank account, but it was way more fun playing with the guys if they had the right incentive. For one, they didn’t play pool like sissies then.
It wasn’t easy to tell who was the better player, but this time Justin came out the winner, because Alex sank the eight ball early.
“Fifty’s in the pot,” Justin said to me with a wide sneer. “I want to see your money if you want to play.”
I pulled two twenties and a ten from my wallet and placed them on Justin’s prize money. “I’m in.”
Alex passed me the cue, and I chalked it while someone else racked the balls for us. Because I’d only just come in, I got to shoot first. Number twelve ended in the left corner pocket, which left Justin with solids and me with stripes. It was a fast game. In only four turns I had dumped most of my balls. Only the orange and white ball—number thirteen—was left, and I holed it into a corner pocket with a spectacular shot over three cushions. Now just the eight ball, and victory would be mine.
My confident smirk at Justin made the guy a little nervous. “Come on, Ryan, give a friend a chance. You can’t hole the ball just yet,” he whined.
That didn’t irritate me. “What’s your problem, Justin? Afraid your mama’s going to find out you’re playing for money?” I leaned forward, focusing on the black ball, measuring my final shot.
“My mama doesn’t give a damn. But I really, really need this Spiderman comic. It’s an original.”
Ah, right. With Justin, if it wasn’t about BMX or girls, it was always comics. He hoarded them like squirrels hoarded nuts, and I couldn’t believe how much he was willing to spend on those books when his pocket money for a year was what I got in a month.
He had me feeling bad for him…almost. Heck, this was a guy thing, and I couldn’t lose just to make a friend happy. When you’re eighteen, it’s all about rep.
I positioned the cue in a perfect line with the white ball, the eight, and the left corner pocket. I was so close to winning this game. Only, I made the mistake of looking up for a second and froze.
For an immeasurable moment, I forgot to breathe. How dare she come in here and ruin this game for me? Ah God, how dare she look so good? It only took a second for the others to realize something had gone wrong, and they all turned to find my personal downfall standing in the doorway.
Lisa grimaced and played uncomfortably with the hem of her top. “Is something wrong?”
Everything was wrong. It always was with me when this girl was anywhere near. The day I had first seen Lisa Matthews, I’d tripped over the soccer ball and landed face first in the dirt. She always made me forget about anything else around me. And now, she’d cost me a fair sum if she didn’t turn around and walk out so I could get my head back in the game.
No such luck. Justin made sure of that. He rushed to her side, the grin of victory sitting fat on his face. “You just saved my life, hun.”
Lisa seemed a little surprised when Justin laid his arm around her shoulders and pulled her farther into the room where the warm light from above played up the various shades of brown in her hair. I wanted to kick my best friend’s ass at this moment because, for one, he knew I’d screw up with Lisa in the room and he was using that to his advantage. And secondly, because he dared to lay his fucking arm around my girl. He was going to pay for both later.
“Ah…yes,” Lisa said and looked from Justin to me. “And how so?”
She had no idea. That was one of the things I liked about her most—that she was always so sweetly unaware of everything. Especially of the crap that was just about to fall on my head.
“He can’t play when someone is watching him,” Justin stated the obvious. “Totally screws up then.”
Her brows knitted together. “But you all are watching him.”
The way she spoke to everybody else but looked only at me made me grin.
“Yeah, but we’re not girls.” That was Alex from the back of the room, and he certainly enjoyed selling me out. Bastards. Were they all against me tonight?
It was probably time to say something in my defense, to save my honor, but all I did was fix Lisa with a salacious stare as I straightened and chalked the tip of my cue.
“Sorry,” she croaked. “I’ll leave you guys alone then.”
Justin didn’t let her slip away. “Uh-uh, no way, hun! You’re my insurance of getting that comic book. You stay.”
His arm around her got mightily on my nerves, even though he made Lisa smile. And heck, she had the prettiest smile in all of Grover Beach. One that conjured sweet dimples on her cheeks and made her pretty green eyes crinkle. One that made me lick my bottom lip, wanting nothing more than to kiss her.
And because she was still only gazing at me and no one else as she smiled, I couldn’t help that one corner of my mouth tilted up. I was in serious trouble. Lisa distracted me something awful. She made me lose my mind and she was about to make me lose this game, too. More importantly, she’d made me lose face in front of my closest friends—and yet she still lived. Damn, I must be in love with this girl.
Taking a deep breath, I shook my head and leaned over the table once more. Everybody was tense and silent. They would’ve just loved to see me butcher this shot. I cleared my throat, playing for more time, hoping for a miracle that would swipe Lisa out of the room this second. But she remained, and I couldn’t stop looking at her. Hard as I tried to concentrate on the balls in front of me, my gaze drifted up to her face time and time again.
Ah, to hell with it! This game was lost.
I dropped my forehead to the edge of the table and laughed. “Take your money, Andrews. I give up.”
The boys broke out in a rowdy cheer. Yeah, right, rub it in guys!
Bracing my palms on the pool table, I hung my head for a moment, accepting their gloating. But when I looked up, Lisa was still there capturing me with her gaze, and I knew it was totally worth it.
“I’m so sorry,” she mouthed.
And she’d better be. Lisa probably had no idea how badly she’d damaged my rep and that the boys would never let me live this down. But I wasn’t angry. How could I be? She was the sweetest distraction that had ever walked through my door.
I didn’t let her out of my sight but smirked and mouthed back, “You are banned from this room.”
She didn’t move an inch when I slowly walked around the table toward her. In fact, she even pressed a little harder against the wall, her eyes growing wider, her breathing coming just a bit faster. It looked like she couldn’t make up her mind whether she should shy away from me or be fascinated.
I stood only half a foot away from her, with the cue tight in one hand. The other I placed against the wall next to her head so she couldn’t escape me. “You just cost me fifty bucks.”
“Yeah, I know. But he really, really needs this comic book.” She batted her long lashes at me. To my shame, I had to admit that this simple move bulldozed right through my coolness.
I laughed. “Siding with the enemy. I should have known.” Then I seized the opportunity to touch her one more time tonight and placed my hand in the small of her back. “For tonight, this room is off limits for you.” Gently, I pushed her through the door back into the main hall and enjoyed every second my hand lay on her warm body.
“Oh why? It’s so much fun to watch you…screw up.”
She mockingly glanced up at me, and I should have bitten her bottom lip for that impish pout.
But I resisted that urge and also the one to brush my thumb over her lip. Instead, I leaned in a little closer. “Off you go.”
She obeyed, and I didn’t know if that made me happy or sad. But as soon as she was gone, I closed the sliding wood door and slumped with my back against it, facing a hoard of sneering guys.
“Can anybody tell me why I never have my phone ready to record when things like that happen?” Chris Donovan popped open a new bottle of beer and saluted into the room. “Hunter screwing up a game because of Lisa Matthews. This is priceless.”
“Mitchell is so going to kill you for stealing his girl,” Alex said while rearranging the balls on the green felt.
“Mitchell doesn’t have to know,” I sneered back. “Anyway, I’m not stealing her. That was just some harmless flirting. Nothing to blow a fuse about.”
“What she did was harmless. What you did, man, was begging on your knees to get laid.”
A laugh escaped me at the honesty and probable truth in that. “Fuck you, Winter. Are we playing pool now or what?”
“You just epically failed. I’m not playing you, Hunter.” He cast me a mocking glare then turned around. “Frederickson, get your ass off the couch. We’re playing.”
I shoved his shoulder for that last remark, and Alex laughed as he grabbed the edge of the pool table for balance.
Donovan hoisted himself onto the mini-bar, feet dangling, and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his thighs. The fat silver chain around his neck slipped out from under the collar of his T-shirt and swayed back and forth. “I never knew you felt anything for the chick.”
Jeez, I’d have preferred if we didn’t discuss my feelings and just continued with a nice evening of playing pool. “I’m not saying I do.”
“Right, that’s what you have us for,” Alex said, still struggling to stop laughing. “And, dude, you got it bad.”
As if I didn’t know that. When I cut a glance over to Justin, the only one in the room who had known from the start how I felt, he shrugged, clearly telling me that I had no choice but to face it with the guys.
Frederickson got to his feet, grabbed my cue, and placed a hand on my shoulder. “Sincere condolences, Hunter. That girl won’t let you get within a yard of her.”
Rubbing the back of my neck, I couldn’t bite down a smirk. “I believe I was way closer than that just a couple of minutes ago.”
“Oooh,” a collective taunting echoed through the room. I hated it when the guys behaved like some silly chicks at a bachelorette party. But at eighteen, almost everything was worth making a fool of oneself. I’d totally be with them if the joke wasn’t on me tonight.
I dropped to the couch and leaned my head on the back, dragging my hands over my face, mostly to cover my stupid grin. “Shut up, you fuckers.”
Alex made tsking noises before his first shot, knocking the balls in all directions. “Language, dude.” When none of the balls dropped into a pocket, he dumped his ass next to me and waited for Frederickson to take his shot. His long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles, he cast me a sideways glance. “Seriously, you think you stand a chance with the chick? To me it looks like she’s happy to be Mitchell’s groupie forever.”
At this point, I wasn’t sure if determination and charm alone were enough to change Lisa’s mind, but I was ready to die trying. By what she’d showed me tonight, she wasn’t totally resistant to everything I said or did. Maybe the problem was just that she’d never considered a different future for herself than one with Anthony Mitchell’s ring on her finger. But there were so many possibilities for her, if only she would open up. And I was definitely one of them.
“That’s because she doesn’t know what she’s going to miss while running after him,” I said to Alex.
“You’re going to show her?”
“Yeah. Hunter’s just the man for that,” Chris pointed out with an impish waggling of his brows. “I bet he has her in his bed before the week’s over.”
“Twenty that she doesn’t even let him kiss her in that time,” Frederickson countered.
“Guys!” I shouted to get their attention then nailed them all with a severe stare. “Don’t you even think of making a wager on this. Matthews isn’t a girl you fool around with to win a bet. First, because she’s the friend of a friend. And second—” I paused then slowly lifted one corner of my mouth. “Because I would hate to see you lose your money, Frederickson.”
That made the guys hoot and whistle, and they all wished me luck. I definitely needed it if I wanted to land Lisa.
A few minutes passed before everyone was cool again, and we could play pool for a little while without distraction. When we’d depleted the mini-bar down to just tonic water, I left the guys to grab some drinks. “Going to get beer. Anybody else want one?”
Alex said yes, and Justin ordered soda.
As I walked into the kitchen, my hands immediately fisted by my sides, and I had trouble unclenching my teeth. Lisa sat on the counter, and Mitchell stood between her dangling feet. At first look I thought they were kissing, and my heart hurt so bad that I wondered if someone should call an ambulance because I was suffering a cardiac arrest. Until I realized Chloe was with them and Lisa was apparently having some trouble sitting upright. I’d sent her off with Sprite. How the hell had she ended up drunk?
Chloe pulled on Mitchell’s arm, but he didn’t seem to be ready to go. “Anthony, you promised to dance with me,” she nagged him.
And then, in spite of my rage over Tony standing so close to Lisa, I had to suppress a chuckle as Lisa iterated in the voice of a preschooler, “Anthony, you promised to dance with me.”
That sure pissed Chloe off. “What’s wrong with her?”
“She just had a little too much of the wine cooler,” said Tony. “I’ll be with you in a minute.”
I was about to tell him he should go with her now and let me handle Lisa. In her condition, it wasn’t a good idea to let her deal with Chloe and the crap she didn’t know about them yet.
But at the same moment, Lisa’s head dipped to his shoulder. “I’m so tired. Can we go home?” she whined.
Chloe took a step back and folded her arms over her chest, which threatened to jump out of her plastered-on black dress. “Aw, come on, Anthony. You’re not going to leave already. It’s only eleven. Take her upstairs to one of Hunter’s guest rooms. She can sleep there.”
“And not bother you any longer?” A moan came from Lisa who looked like she was already falling asleep on Tony’s shoulder.
Not up to getting involved in the drama of the night, I walked up beside Mitchell and said, “You don’t want to do that. In her state, she’s not safe in any of the guest rooms. You know how the parties go on the later it gets.” So what option did we have left? “Take her to my room.”
“What?” Lisa and Tony shouted, Lisa suddenly sitting up straight with her eyes wide open. So much for getting her in my bed before the week was over.
“Don’t be ridiculous, guys.” I rolled my eyes as if the thought of doing anything with Lisa was totally absurd. If they knew the truth, Tony wouldn’t trust me one bit. “She’ll be awake and gone before I even get upstairs.” Unfortunately, that was also the truth.
Since Lisa was as drunk as a rum truffle, it was up to Mitchell to decide for her. He was, after all, her best friend and therefore responsible…somehow. But he hesitated.
“Hell, do it already, Anthony, and come back fast,” Chloe demanded.
When Tony pressed his lips into a straight line, I thought he would never agree. But then he said, “Come on, Liz,” and pulled her off the counter. With his arm around her waist, he steadied her and walked her to the door.
After only three steps, she slipped away from him and knocked against the fridge, bounced back, and stumbled. “Pardon me,” she said as if the fridge had just grown a soul.
She was going to run into the counter next, so I wrapped my arms around her, pulling her tight against me. “Didn’t I tell you to stay away from the strawberries?” I growled into her ear, immediately getting high on her beautiful scent.
“Strawberries? There was one in my last soda.” The silly girl grinned like a loon. “It was yummy.”
“Yummy, all right.” I chuckled. Then I scooped her up. Lord, had I known that this was Heaven, I’d have tried to be a nicer guy in the past. Her body was light and soft, and her warmth seeped through my shirt, causing my skin to prickle. My hands lay on places that I wouldn’t have dared to dream of touching just a couple of days ago.
“I’ll carry her to my room, Mitchell. You can grab her when you go. Or come back for her in the morning.” Or…don’t come back at all and just leave her with me.
“You sure?” Yep, he didn’t trust me at all.
“Yes. Go dance with Chloe or she’ll pester me next.”
He looked at Summers, and she flashed a radiant grin at him. All right! The battle was won. Mitchell handed Lisa into my care. If she’d been my best friend, I wouldn’t have done that.
Savoring every second of cuddling Lisa to my chest, I carried her upstairs. She wrapped her arms around my neck, and suddenly her head rested on my shoulder. I briefly closed my eyes and my jaw tightened as I struggled to stay cool.
“You don’t like dancing with Chloe?” she murmured.
I touched my cheek to her brow. “Would you?”
“I don’t like her, period.”
That was obvious. “And I know exactly why that is.”
I just wanted to tell her that everybody knew how she was in love with my buddy, but she distracted me when her nose brushed against my neck and she inhaled deeply. “You smell good,” she said in her lovely, drunken ramble, and I knew that without the strawberries I would have never heard this from her lips.
It made me happy and I laughed, and though I would have loved to get her into a conversation where she could tell me all the other things she might like about me, I knew it was wrong, because she would hate me for it tomorrow. If she even remembered it then. “Time to go to bed, Matthews.”
Opening the door to my room with Lisa in my arms wasn’t an easy thing, but I managed it with my elbow and carried her over to my wide bed underneath the window. Before I laid her down, I hugged her a little tighter with the intention that whatever else happened, I’d always remember this wonderful moment where I held the girl I’d loved for years for the very first time.
When she snuggled up to my pillow and sniffed like she couldn’t get enough of the scent on it, I smiled to myself. Then I pulled her shoes off, covered her bare legs with the quilt, and squatted down beside her, staring at her sweet, pale face. “You comfortable?”
Her eyes were closed as she made a whiny face. “I’m not sure. But can you check if my head has sprouted helicopter blades?”
I stroked her soft, straight hair, brushing the long bangs from her forehead. “No helicopter blades, baby,” I whispered so low that she couldn’t hear. A little louder I said, “That will go away when you sleep. If you need anything, the light switch is right in front of your nose and the bathroom is the next door on the left.”
She didn’t reply or move. I was afraid she’d already fallen asleep without hearing the most important information when one was drunk and sick. As much as I adored this girl, I’d rather she didn’t throw up in my bed. “Did you hear me?”
Her mouth curved into a strained grin. “Light, nose. Toilet, left. Gotcha.” She even gave me a thumbs-up, which reassured me.
I rose from the floor, but just when I went to walk away, she said my name. “Hunter?”
Hunkering down again, I leaned my forearms on the mattress. “Hm?”
She dragged a deep sigh. “Sorry about the pool game.”
Yeah, I know you are. But I’m not. The way our gazes had met across that table was special. Way too intimate to be brushed off as harmless flirting. I let my glance move around me, scanning the familiar things in my room, then I looked back at her, the one thing that was totally unfamiliar in here. She made everything complete for me.
Gently, so as not to wake her up again, I stroked her warm cheek with the back of my fingers. “Sleep tight, princess.”
WITH MY THOUGHTS continuously drifting back to my room and the person who lay in there now, I went back down to the party. If only it was possible to kick everyone out right now, end the night early, and return to Lisa. I wouldn’t take advantage of her drunkenness. I wouldn’t put any moves on her. The only thing I would do was sit by her side all night and look at her beautiful face.
But then I’d gotten so much out of this night already. We’d flirted and she’d hugged me when I carried her upstairs. She’d told me that I smelled good. Jeez, I was a seriously lucky guy tonight.
When I sauntered back into the poolroom without any drinks, the boys wanted to know where I had been so long. I told them I had to take care of a drunken guest, but I didn’t let slip who it was or where I had taken her. Justin was the only exception. I filled him in on everything once the two of us were hanging out in front of the house to cool off after a couple more beers.
Tony came out with Chloe tucked under his arm. “Cool party, Hunter,” he told me. “We’re off. Do you think I should take Lisa home with me?”
“Nah, let her sleep. She’s all right up there. I don’t think being woken up now and riding in a car is what she needs or wants.”
He nodded, and Chloe seemed more than relieved about his decision to leave Lisa with me. And so was I. When the two left, Justin clinked his bottle against mine and flashed a grin so typical of the Andrews boys. “Seems like this is your lucky night. Why are you not upstairs?”
I took a swig, wondering the same thing. “Because I’m a gentleman.”
Justin laughed at that, and I swallowed the rest of the beer in one go. The truth was that I was probably an idiot. And I hated not being with Lisa right now.
The party went on for a couple more hours but ended abruptly when Veronica Malloy threw up on the floor in the hall. Her friends helped me clean up the mess—or maybe they did all the work because by that time I could hardly keep myself upright. Beer, in combination with Claudia’s wine cooler, was a very bad thing. But heck, the strawberries were a tasty addition.
When everybody had left, I dragged myself upstairs and into my room. The door slammed shut behind me. I didn’t care about being loud, because my mom and dad were still out, and I was the only one in this big, dark house. Or maybe not. Usually, I found some friends in my place in the morning who hadn’t made it home after the party. In the silence, my ears still rang from the loud music, and my head felt like a truck had run over it.
Holy shit! I nearly jumped out of my skin. There was someone in my room. The voice sounded familiar, and if my head didn’t hurt so badly, I probably would have recognized it in the first instant. Now I tried to focus on the girl sitting on my bed in the darkened room. Lisa? Memories came back in a blurred vision. Good memories.
“You’re still here?” I drawled, unable to believe my luck. Unbuttoning my shirt, I kicked my shoes into the corner and flung the shirt on top of them.
“Where is here exactly? And why are you undressing?” She sounded very uncomfortable as she rubbed her temples.
“Well, for one, this is my room. And second, that thing you’re lying on is my bed. Since I don’t usually sleep in clothes, I figured I’d just take them off.” Duh.
“Is the party over?”
No, baby, the party begins now. I sneered at the beautiful creature waiting for me just a few feet away. But then I realized she probably meant the previous party, and my shoulders slumped. “Someone puked on the floor. Yeah. Party’s over.” And here I stood, totally regretting that I’d had way too much to drink tonight. I should have stayed sober to enjoy this moment without a subway tunneling through my brain. “I swear, next time Claudia brings her strawberry soda, I’m going to kick a girl’s butt for the first time in my life. Harmless, my ass.”
Lisa groaned. “What time is it?”
No need to get hysterical. “It’s dark outside. Of course it’s a.m.”
Suddenly, she was out of my bed and on the floor, crawling around. It happened so fast, I could only stay rigid and watch.
“Where are my shoes?” she croaked, patting the floor.
What did she need shoes for? I wanted to tell her to get back into that bed and just snuggle up to me like she’d done when I carried her in. But she didn’t look like she wanted that when she got to her feet again.
“What are you doing?”
“Whoa.” Not going to happen. I had to do something to stop her from leaving. We weren’t done with each other. I wanted more cuddling! Think fast. Make her stay. While thinking itself was hard enough, coming up with something quickly was next to impossible. For a start, I placed my hands on her shoulders and pushed her down onto the mattress. “So not a good idea,” I told her. “Since we already agreed that it’s the dead of night…and you’re sixteen…and drunk—”
All right, she was in denial, which was totally fine with me, because I was way past that stage and knew what was really going on. “Whatever. I can’t let you do that.”
Yeah, what? “Walk alone.”
She frowned. “You want to come with me?”
Hell yes! But not tonight. Because she would only send me home, and I’d be down on my luck. I sat down next to her and tried to focus on her eyes that gleamed nicely in the moonlight shimmering through the window. “It’s a mile and a half to your house. That’s three for me to walk. I’m positive I won’t make that tonight. So if you really want to go home, I’ll have to drive you. But right now, I’d rather not.” I was drunk, but fortunately I wasn’t an idiot.
“So what do I do now?” She looked every bit helpless and lovely.
“I’d say lay back. Sleep. And worry about everything tomorrow.”
“What about you?”
I will lay back, won’t sleep, and will stare at you until the morning. If she let me sleep next to her, that was. But how to convince her? “The floor is hard. And I’m beat. There’s room for two in that bed…”
She looked at me for an intense second, then she suddenly dropped back onto the pillow without another word. Either she was just weird, or she was getting sick. However, the fact that she didn’t say I had to sleep on the floor lifted my spirit. “Good choice, Matthews,” I mumbled and settled down beside her.
Right then, I was aware of every inch of her that touched me. Her left fist was curled under her chin and pressed against my shoulder, our legs touched the entire length, and if I moved my arm just a little, I’d be holding her hand. Oh my freaking goodness. It would take so little to roll on top of her and kiss her thoroughly.
I took a deep, steadying breath and wondered if she had the tiniest idea of how much effort it cost an eighteen-year-old guy to rein in so much testosterone. But I did—for now. And only because I wanted to be fully aware of all my senses when I kissed Lisa Matthews.
Tilting my head to her side, I let her know through a smirk exactly how I felt. Then I growled, “I swear you’re safe with me for the next three to six hours. I can’t make promises for any time after that, though.”
I wasn’t sure if she was aware of the small smile that just slipped to her lips. She gazed into my eyes for a moment longer, then her pretty eyes closed. It didn’t take long until her breathing became even, evidence of her being asleep.
Hard to say how much longer I studied her that night. I lost my sense of time. But when I couldn’t hold my eyes open any longer, I was positive that every little detail of her beautiful face was etched into my memory. The three freckles on the tip of her nose, the fact that the right curve of her upper lip was just a tad higher than the left, her long lashes that rested on her downy skin when her eyes were closed. She smelled like the roses in our garden, and her hair felt like fine sand running through my fingers.
I fell asleep with one thought. This girl was mine. She just didn’t know it yet.
The next thing I knew I lay on my back in what seemed to be my bed, and someone’s eyes were fixed on me. My arm was draped over my eyes, so I couldn’t see, but the awareness ran from the back of my neck down to the very tips of my toes.
However long it had been, this wasn’t the first time I woke up with a girl in my bed. But for once, I had no memory whatsoever of what had happened last night, and who I had taken up to my room with me. It was a weird feeling, especially since we seemed to have taken on quite an entangled position from what I could tell.
“I can feel you staring at me,” I said, without turning or taking my arm away from my eyes. The warm hand that had rested on my chest snapped away. “I only hope you’re a girl and not one of the drunken guys.” I reached down to the leg that was draped over my hip. Wow, that leg was naked and satiny soft. “Yep, definitely female.”
I wondered how much more naked skin I would find if I ran my palm upwards. Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far, because the girl’s hand caught mine in a tight grip and held it in place.
“Move another inch, Hunter, and you’re a dead man.”
Could someone stab me in the eye right now, please, so I know I’m not dreaming? It was the most wonderful sound to wake up to, and totally surreal to hear it in my room, especially next to my ear when I was lying in my bed. I laughed softly. “Matthews?”
Oh glorious morning, so much for getting Lisa into my bed before the week was over.
She didn’t reply, but then she didn’t have to. I knew it was her, could tell by her sweet scent. Our hands were still joined on her thigh, and it didn’t seem like she was going to let go of me any time soon.
It was time to open my eyes and take a peek at what I’d done last night. Dropping my arm to the pillow above my head, I turned toward her and instantly took in that she was fully dressed, even though I only seemed to be wearing my jeans. I most definitely hadn’t slept with her, which I was unspeakably glad of, because I couldn’t remember a thing. But that didn’t mean she had to be so abrasive. “Tell me, Matthews. Why do I have you in my bed, when I’m not allowed to touch you?”
She looked at me for a stunned second, then her face crinkled to a grimace. “I didn’t know there were strawberries in the soda.”
Right. And that meant what? “Come again?”
“Someone was getting me berry soda all evening.” Her voice didn’t sound really steady, and her gaze kept drifting down to her naked thigh, which I still had my hand on. “I didn’t realize it was the wine cooler you meant when you said—”
“Not to touch the strawberries.” Heck, now I remembered. Claudia’s wine cooler was the reason Lisa lay in my bed, with her sexy calf resting on my groin. Unfortunately, it was also the reason I couldn’t remember much of the previous night. “Damn, I told her not to punch it too much,” I muttered. Then I studied Lisa’s face for a sign that I should be worried this morning. “Sorry, I don’t remember much of the night after I carried you up here. Am I in trouble?”
“As far as I remember you were pretty drunk yourself. So I was quite safe from you.”
That she had been. But I was clear in my head now, and having her laying half on top of me gave me pretty cool, maybe X-rated thoughts. Her smooth skin tempted me to stroke and explore, and I started to run my thumb in small circles over her thigh. “I’m afraid my time of numb indifference is over. So, unless you’re up for some trouble now, would you mind moving your leg?”
Her eyes grew wide at that, and she clearly didn’t know how to respond.
“What?” I gave her a tentative smirk. “You know you’re not the ugliest girl in the world.”
For some reason, that must not have gone down so well with her, because the next thing I knew, she’d pushed aside my bent leg, with which I’d trapped hers in place, and rushed out of my bed. She was crazy, or maybe just not used to a hangover, but it was clear she’d suffer a head-rush any second, and I didn’t want her to black out in my room. I got up with her and, before she had a chance to fall, I cupped her elbows.
She took a second to steady, then she looked up at my face.
“Feel better?” I asked.
“Not really.” She slipped out of my hold and grabbed her shoes from the end of the bed where I had put them last night, if I remembered it right.
I gave her a minute to put them on then headed downstairs, knowing she’d follow me. The tiled floor felt cold against my bare feet. I needed that now to settle down my boiling blood.
“Hey, Hunter,” someone called from the hall as we came down the stairs.
“Morning, Chris,” I said back and found him sprawled on a sofa. His look when he realized who was trotting down after me was hilarious.
As we reached the bottom of the stairs, Lisa wanted to take a turn for the front door, but I couldn’t let her slip out like that. Not without a goodbye and some advice on dealing with a hangover. Taking her hand, I pulled her into the kitchen where I gave her a water bottle with an aspirin dissolving in it.
Standing rigid in the middle of the room, she sniffed the water but didn’t drink.
“Why so skeptical, Matthews? It will ease your headache,” I said as I leaned against the counter and took a swig of my own sobering drink.
The sip she took then would hardly have been enough to drown an ant.
“You don’t trust me?”
“How could I?” she answered. “I woke up with a hangover from soda and with an equally drunk person sleeping next to me half of the night.”
Ouch. “Yeah, sorry about that. I don’t usually get drunk at my own parties.” Not from beer, anyway. “And believe me I’m going to give Claudia an earful for messing with the wine cooler.” I rubbed the back of my neck. “Look, as long as you keep hydrated today, you’ll be fine.”
She massaged her temples, and didn’t look one bit like she believed the headache would ever go away again. “It feels like someone installed a construction site in my head.”
“Oh yeah, I know the feeling.” It was like I invented it. But the aspirin usually worked wonders. “If you give me a minute to shower, I’ll drive you home.”
“No!” she blurted and shocked the hell out of me. Or maybe it was just disappointment, because she made it sound like she couldn’t get away from me fast enough. At the same time, her face scrunched up, and she winced. Then she said in a softer tone, “No thanks. I’ll be happy to take the walk and sober up before seeing my parents. My mom will freak out.”
Oh, okay. That I could understand. “Suit yourself. Want my sunglasses?” I added as I walked her to the door.
“Why would I want your sunglasses?” She pulled the door open, and with the first sunrays streaming in, she flinched back and knocked straight into my chest.
Ah hell, I could do that all day. And unless I was totally mistaken, she enjoyed the brief body contact, too. “I know you so want ‘em,” I purred into her ear with every intention of seducing her back into my room. But if she didn’t trust me enough to drink what I served her, she’d never come upstairs with me sober. I just had to work a little harder to make her trust me. And tomorrow I’d get the first real chance during our personal training.
I gave her my shades, which I’d left on the shelf next to the coatrack yesterday when I’d come in after training, and Lisa put them on before she left my house without saying goodbye.
“Matthews,” I called after her. She didn’t really think she’d get away that easily, did she? “We’ll start your training tomorrow morning. Be up and ready at five. I’ll pick you up.”
And just so she didn’t get a chance to change her mind or talk herself out of our date, I cast her a last smile then closed the door on her stunned face.
Hell no, I wouldn’t let her get off and go back on her word.
Back in the hall, I made Chris help me clean up what my mom hadn’t already done this morning. We moved the furniture back into place and rolled out the carpets. As we carried the boxes of empty beer bottles into the garage, he seemed to finally wake up fully.
“So that’s it?” he said with the edge of surprise in his voice. “You already had the chick in your bed?”
“What? Now you doubt me? Yesterday you sounded way different, dude.” Stacking the boxes in the far corner, I let loose a brilliant smirk. “But it’s not really what it looks like. I didn’t touch her at all.” I reconsidered. “Or if I did, I don’t remember.”
“Ah, I never thought I’d say this, but it’s those girls that make you wait who are totally worth their salt.”
Wait, whine, beg on my knees—Lisa could have all of that from me. She only had to snap her fingers. Of course, I would never let her know that. She’d only be introduced to the art of subtle seduction. And I liked how one thing had led to another these past few days.
Later that day, Alex sent me a text message saying that a few guys from the team were meeting at the beach. It was mid-August, the perfect season for surfing. I met up with them at three in the afternoon, and when I saw Mitchell pulling up in his parents’ car, a brief flicker of hope that he might have brought Lisa struck me motionless. Unfortunately, it was a blonde and not a brunette climbing out with him.
Alex and I took a few rides on nice waves, seeing who was the better surfer today. When the girls tiptoed into the sea, I made an exit, though, shook out my wet hair, and slumped down next to Mitchell. He pretended to be sunbathing when in fact he was watching Chloe in the water through his opaque sunglasses.
“Things are cool between you and Summers?” I asked.
“I’m surprised you didn’t bring Lisa. The girls could be playing in the water together,” I mocked him and put my cap on over my wet hair. “Does she know we’re hanging out here?”
“She knows,” he replied and looked at me for the first time, taking off his glasses.
Wow, he didn’t look happy all of a sudden. That made me abandon my taunting grin. “What’s up?”
“I asked her to come, but she can’t. Her mom grounded her for the rest of the week. And then Liz was pissed because, one, she thinks I forgot her at your place, and two, because Chloe is here with us, and she’s not.”
“Yeah, it sucks majorly.” Tony put the glasses on again to watch some more of a nearly naked Chloe, and it brightened his mood in an instant. “Liz also said you weren’t your usual self this morning.”
A shit-eating grin appeared on his lips again. “She said you behaved like a perfect gentleman. I didn’t think you’d be able to keep it together when a girl was sleeping in your bed and you’re drunk to boot.”
I laughed about that. “So my usual self is a horny dickhead who’d grab any chance he got to make out with a girl?”
“Sounds about right.”
I mirrored Mitchell’s smirk. “Guilty.” Even if that self was now in the past. But it was nice to know Lisa thought of me as a gentleman. Meant I did something right last night. “What are you going to do about her being pissed at you?”
Tony shrugged. “Dunno. Make it up to her somehow. Maybe drop in and watch some movies with her since she can’t go out.”
“Are you going to tell her about Chloe?”
“Eventually. I don’t have a choice.” He grabbed a handful of sand and let it run through his fingers. “But not while she’s angry with me. She’ll never ever speak to me again if I screw this up.”
I rolled onto my stomach, enjoying the warm sun on my back. “Dude, you better tell her fast. I think she’ll hate you more if she hears it from someone else.” That Mitchell had brought Chloe here today made things a little more obvious. The guys on the team would be talking, even if they didn’t mean to hurt anyone.
“I’ll get it sorted out with her in the next few days,” Tony said, but the sigh he heaved sounded like he dreaded nothing more than that little chat with his best friend.
I smoothed out the beach towel beneath me, folded my arms on the ground, and rested my chin in the crook of my elbow, intending to catch up on some missed sleep. Tony had different plans. I heard him roll to his front, too, and let go of a long sigh, so I opened my eyes again.
“Do you think Lisa already suspects something?” he asked me.
“Seriously, Mitchell, if she doesn’t, she must be blind. But you know, when you’re in love, there’s this denial button you just switch on, and everything is good for a while.”
“You saying she doesn’t want to believe it?”
“I believe she could see you fool around with Summers in the water and kiss, and it would only take one word from you to convince her you had to give Chloe mouth to mouth resuscitation.” As my own words sank in and made total sense, even I started to dread their little chat. Lisa hurting was the last thing I wanted. “Anyway, how do you think this will work out? I mean, once you dump the bomb on her. You can’t have a relationship triangle. The girls hate each other. They’ll always be jealous of one another.”
“I’ll make it work. Somehow.” Now he sounded like a sullen child that hadn’t gotten the toy he’d seen in a shop window.
“Tony, listen to me, because I’m your friend. And right now you can’t even begin to understand how good a friend I am for telling you this. You can’t have the both of them. And in the long run, Lisa Matthews is the better choice for you. One with a future.”
Resting on his elbows, Tony laced his fingers in the sand and let his head hang. “I told you that it’ll never be like that between Liz and me.”
Fuck, I hated myself for saying this. “If you don’t want to lose her, you have to think about making her your girlfriend. Because: She. Loves. You. And I’ve known you long enough to see that you do, too.” I growled, clamping my teeth together. “And now go away. I want to sleep.” And not totally destroy my flickering chance with Lisa.
But then I’d probably done the right thing. If there would ever be an us for Lisa and me, I wanted to be the only one in her thoughts, not fighting against something that wouldn’t happen for her, anyway. They needed to get this thing straight between them or else I’d be the one hurting in the end, when they both realized later they were meant for each other. I didn’t think I would survive getting myself lost in Lisa and then losing her to someone else.
So however things developed between us, I wouldn’t kiss her until she knew the truth about Mitchell and Summers.
BEFORE I WENT to bed that night, I set the alarm on my phone to four thirty. That would give me enough time to dress and get over to Lisa’s house before five. Then I stripped down to my boxers, turned off the light, and climbed into my bed. The window was wide open, and I could hear the crickets in our garden. It wasn’t their noise that kept me from sleeping, it was thinking about who had slept next to me in this bed last night.
I had never thought it possible that a couple of days could make such a difference. Suddenly, this bed felt way too big to sleep in alone.
Scooting back to lean against the headboard, I switched my nightstand light on and hugged a pillow to my chest. With my chin pressed into the feathers, I scanned the familiar room around me. Though nothing in here had changed in the previous two years, it now felt empty. Something was missing. A pair of apple-green eyes staring at me. The sound of Lisa’s even breaths in the dark.
I wanted her back with me. I wanted to be the first thing she thought of in the morning and the last to tell her good night. I wanted all of her. And goddammit, I was so tired of waiting.
With the light turned off again, I remained sitting in my bed for a long while. In fact, I must have fallen asleep that way, because when the alarm went off in the early morning hours, I found myself curled in a strange position against the headboard, still hugging the pillow. I groaned and got up, rubbing the nasty kink in my neck.
A few stretches and push-ups helped ease the stiffness. Slipping on a black tee and shorts, I felt the rush of excitement coming over me. While I had endured most of the summer without seeing Lisa, the past twenty-four hours without her had been torture.
I washed my face, brushed my teeth, and slipped on my sneakers, then I headed downstairs and out to my car. From hanging out at Mitchell’s place for years, I knew where Lisa lived.
I didn’t know if she was ready to go or still asleep, and if I had to wake her, how I would go about it, since it wasn’t really an option to ring the bell at five in the morning. Mitchell shouldn’t see my car in front of her house if he got up early, so I parked two houses down then walked back up.
Everything was silent, the street as well as her house. No light shone from any room. In the dark, I walked around the house, wondering what to do. Maybe I should just throw a pebble at one of the upstairs windows. But if that was her parents’ bedroom, I might get into trouble. Brilliant.
Above a small shed beside the house, the window to one room was open. The glass didn’t reflected much, but a desk and a wardrobe. Could be the room of any teenager. Maybe she’d left it open because she knew I was coming? It was the best chance I’d get, so I decided to try.
“Matthews,” I called to her in what happened to be a little more than a whisper—more a suppressed shout. Nothing happened for a minute, so I tried again, just a little louder than before. This time it took about ten seconds until my very own Juliet appeared in the window. My heart knocked its approval when I saw her. First, because I had really, really missed her. And second, because I’d picked the right window and not that of an angry father who’d come after me with a shotgun for seducing his daughter.
She looked sleepy and surprised to see me here.
“Hi,” I said. “You don’t look like you’re ready to go.”
Lisa leaned over the sill, her long hair slipping from her shoulders and hanging down. “How did you know this was my window?”
“I didn’t. It was trial and error.”
Her face paled in the dark. “How many windows have you tried?”
I laughed and gave her the truth. “Yours.”
Something was going on inside her head. I couldn’t tell what, but some very interesting emotions played out in her eyes then. Shock, fascination, happiness, then shock again. All the time, she didn’t say anything.
“Are you coming?” I demanded.
“I can’t. I’m grounded,” she whispered back.
“For sleeping with me?”
That made her smile, even though she tried to hide it. Baby, you failed.
“For not sleeping in my own bed,” was what she answered.
“How long are you grounded?”
“Until Sunday. But I can come to the practices.”
“At least there’s that.” I would have hated not to see her there when she was, at long last, on my team. But I wanted to train with her now, too. There had to be a way to get her out of that room without her parents finding out. Scanning the garden, the tree, and the shed, I had an idea. “What time do you usually get up in the morning?”
She narrowed her eyes. “I don’t know. Eight, nine, sometimes later.”
“So we have at least three hours until someone will expect you downstairs.” That was enough time to get her out, do some running, and get her in again. And I wouldn’t waste one minute of that precious time with her. With a flick of my head, I motioned for her to get moving. “Come out.”
“What?” she gasped.
“Get dressed and climb to the roof of the shed. I’ll help you down.”
I smirked. “You are a coward.”
She bit her bottom lip, looking a bit wary, in need of a little push. “So?” I prompted.
“Fine. Give me a minute.”
Hell, yeah! I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment, keeping a leash on my delight. While Lisa disappeared into her room again, I leaned against the tree and spied through the window, trying to see what was going on up there. Unfortunately, I saw nothing but a shadow.
I stepped closer to the shed when she reappeared and started climbing out the window. She looked scared and clumsy, definitely not a fan of acrobatic moves. After a minute, she’d made it down to the roof of the shed.
“Good,” I encouraged her. “Now hang onto that branch, and I’ll get you down.”
Lisa turned wide eyes to me, all but calling me insane for even suggesting it. “I’ll break my neck if I fall.”
She would hurt her ass if she fell. Maybe. However, I didn’t intend to let her get hurt. “I won’t let you fall. Promise.”
It amazed me how quickly she trusted me this time, because without further discussion, she grabbed the nearest branch and stepped off the wooden roof. She probably hated that I heard her frightened whimper, but I found it sexy as hell.
As she hung on that tree like a sheet on the clothesline, my gaze ran up and down her body. What I did next would certainly be the highlight of my day, and I intended to savor it to the full. Stepping so close that I could touch her, I placed my hands at the back of her calves then moved them upward over her thighs, until I had a good grip right beneath her butt. All her muscles tightened at my touch.
I had to unstick my tongue from the roof of my mouth before I could speak again. “I have you. Let go.”
What did she think we were doing here? Did she want to hang from that tree for the rest of the day? “Let go of the branch, Matthews,” I said, laughing. “Now.”
After some moaning and unintelligible cussing, she let go of the branch, and the weight of a kitten came down on me. Panicking, she clutched at my shoulders, and I found myself trapped in her gorgeous green eyes. Finally, I eased my grip on her legs and let her slide down my body. Holy shit, that move turned me on like nothing ever had. When her feet touched the ground, I wasn’t ready to let her go. With my arms wrapped around her in a tight embrace, I inhaled her scent and soaked in the warmth of her body.
A smile tugged at my lips. “Hi.”
With her palms pressed against my chest, she shivered. That made me feel good because it wasn’t the least bit cold this morning, so I had to be the reason for her trembles. It was sweet how she struggled to hide that fact behind a calm expression as she stepped out of my hug.
“Can we go?” I asked, still smiling.
She gulped, probably because it was quite a distance, but she nodded anyway like a brave kitten. We started off together, and I settled for a seriously slow pace, so she wouldn’t collapse after a couple hundred yards.
I was used to running in the morning on weekends and usually enjoyed it because it was the only time of the day where everything was really quiet and peaceful. But with Lisa by my side it was twice as nice.
We jogged down a few streets with houses that all looked alike as dawn broke. Lisa did great—meaning she hadn’t resigned yet. But I didn’t like the silence between us and asked, “So your parents got angry because you didn’t get home Saturday night?”
“No,” she pushed out between erratic breaths. “My parents thought I crashed at Tony’s. Which is fine with them.”
What the hell—she’d slept at Mitchell’s house? I almost tripped over my own feet. The bastard had never said a word about that. “You do that often?”
Lisa cut me a curious glance. “You sound like you disapprove.”
Of course I did! I scowled at her, but didn’t answer as long as I felt this invisible fist clenching my stomach. Only when we got closer to the ocean and the sound of crashing waves drifted to us did I manage to sound normal again. “So why the grounding?”
She rubbed a forearm over her sweaty forehead. “My mom saw my red eyes and figured I’d been drinking.” Then she cussed, which made me arch a brow at her. “I forgot your sunglasses.”
“No worries.” I had forgotten about them, too. “You can give them to me tomorrow before practice.”
She nodded, and it was clear that the little distance we’d run so far had troubled her a lot more than me. She sounded like a pair of bellows. As soon as we reached the beach, Lisa slumped to the sand as though she had no life left in her anymore.
That was not part of the plan. I stood over her, hands on my hips, and gazed at her reddened face. “What are you doing?”
I liked how she made me chuckle with such simple things. “No, you’re not. Get up, we’re not done.”
“I am,” she protested. “But don’t mind me. You just go on. I’m sure in a few hours someone will come and scrape me off the pavement.” She waved a dismissive hand. “Dig me out of the sand. Whatever.”
Laughing, I squatted down and started to untie her shoes for what was coming next. We weren’t done yet.
“Hey, what the heck—” She pulled her leg away. “You don’t steal from a dying person.”
I surrendered, lifting my hands, palms up. “Fine, then take them off yourself.”
“What?” Her mouth sagged open as she propped up on her elbows in the sand and looked at me with wide eyes. “Why?” Then her gaze moved to the sea and her lips spread in a hopeful grin. “We’re going to take a swim now to cool off after all that training?”
“Nope,” I said, though she put a very beguiling thought in my head right then. I could be swayed to some fooling around in the water with her. But that would be too much of a temptation. Kisses came along with such nonsense. And I had sworn to myself that I wouldn’t do that until she knew the truth about Mitchell. After a longing glance at the sea, I faced her again and said with a firm voice that wouldn’t get me into trouble, “The little run was only warm-up. The training begins here.”
All color disappeared from her face. “You can’t be serious.”
“What are you willing to bet on it?”
She grimaced and sighed, but I’d figured out by now that my word counted to her, and she slipped her shoes off to hide them with mine by the rocks. I wondered if it was just the team captain she saw in me, or if she wanted to make a good impression because she saw me, the nice guy.
Only a few minutes later, she made it clear she didn’t see me as a nice guy when she shot me a look filled with loathing. “Do your parents know about this sadistic side of yours?”
I remembered the first time I’d run on the beach for training. Her calves probably hurt like mad. But she had to get through this. We wanted to turn her into a kick-ass soccer player. I tugged gently at her high ponytail. “What can I say? You bring out my best side.”
“Ah, great. I feel so special now.” Lisa shoved my shoulder, and I laughed as I struggled to steady myself with my feet sinking into the soft sand. “How far are we going?” she demanded.
“I never ran this route before, but I guess it’s about a half-mile. You know the houses at Misty Beach?”
“Your parents own a house down there?”
“Yep.” It was a nice little thing compared to the mansion we lived in, and I really liked to come out here after training on weekends and study or read on the wraparound veranda. My dad had set up a porch swing for Rachel and me when we were kids, and it was the perfect place to relax and enjoy a warm summer day.
We still had a way to go, and when Misty Beach finally came into view, I thought Lisa couldn’t endure another step. She licked her lips, and her lungs made a weird, gasping sound. “I swear I’m going to drink up the ocean,” she cried.
“Chin up, Matthews. We’re almost there.” I grabbed her upper arm when she stumbled and didn’t let her stop just yet, dragging her along with me the last few yards. As I led her up to our bungalow, her face lit up, seriously proud of herself. And I was, too.
There was always a set of keys in the potted plant on the broad railing of the porch. I fished them out and let us in. The door slammed shut behind us.
While Lisa stood rooted in the living room, her gaze traveling over the couch, wide-screen TV, and especially over the bookshelf, I headed into the sun-infused kitchen. From the fridge, I grabbed two bottles of water and tossed one at Lisa.
She guzzled the water down as if she came equipped with a camel hump, then wiped her lips with the back of her hand. “So, great tormentor, why did we run on the beach? Was it just for your personal pleasure of seeing me suffer?”
My personal pleasure would be to see her strip naked right now. Rolling my eyes at her, I cracked a smile. “Why do you think so badly of me?”
“I don’t know.” She left her spot on the wall and leaned her delicious butt against the backrest of the couch. As she folded her arms over her chest, it gave her words that sweet edge of sarcasm. “Maybe because I lost my lungs somewhere on the way here? Or because my legs are on fire?”
“Oh, come on now,” I teased her. “We jogged over two miles and you’re still standing. That’s great. And running in the sand will strengthen your legs a lot better than the pavement. Since we only run on grass at soccer, you need to get used to the additional—”
Smart-ass. “Exactly.” I walked toward her and gently swiped her sweaty bangs out of her eyes. Every time I touched her, I could think about nothing else than a first, tender kiss. Something in her look told me she was becoming aware of it, too. Breaking our locked gazes, I took the empty bottle out of her hands and tossed it along with mine into the trash can. Then I stiffened at the sound of footsteps on the porch.
Shit. That was my mom.
My glance skidded to the door then back at Lisa. Not a good moment to have her here. Lisa seemed equally shocked, but maybe just because I was sort of panicking right in front of her. There wasn’t time for an explanation. As my mom’s key rattled in the lock, I started toward Lisa and tried not to hurt her as I knocked her backward over the couch. We landed on the cushions together, then I rolled to the side and pulled her down to the hard wooden floor with me, out of my mom’s sight. Lisa landing on top of me was, hands down, the summit of my dreams, but it also pushed all the air out of my lungs.
As she scowled down at me, I could feel her warm breath on my face. Something in her expression softened for a millisecond. Like she was surprised by what she saw there in my eyes.
“Who is it?” she hissed, and her gaze turned annoyed once again.
“Can only be my mom,” I whispered back and suppressed a moan, then shoved her off of me. It was safer for both of us if she didn’t stay on top of me in this unbelievable turn-me-on position. I squeezed her in between the couch and me and placed one hand over her mouth to keep her silent while my mom carried several boxes into the kitchen. “She’s stocking the fridge.”
As my lips brushed against her ear, Lisa closed her eyes. Her warm breath caressed the back of my hand. Enjoying it, was she? So what the hell was stopping me from kissing around her ear a little just to make her sigh like that again? Ah right, noise drifting from behind the couch did.
A few seconds later, Lisa pulled my hand away from her lips. “Why are we hiding here?”
Because things like girls were a complicated issue between my folks and me. “My parents don’t like me bringing random girls to this place. Unless you want to be introduced as my girlfriend, I suggest you stay down.”
She didn’t move. Okay, apparently being introduced as my girlfriend wasn’t her goal, however much it was mine. But I really didn’t want to answer questions from my mom, so I appreciated Lisa’s silent agreement.
It didn’t take long for my mom to finish and leave the bungalow. Just to be sure, I waited another minute before I got to my feet.
Lisa breathed a relieved sigh. She wouldn’t take my hand when I offered to help her up, but remained lying, legs bent, feet on the floor, and folded her arms behind her head. “You sure your dad isn’t on his way, too?”
“Yes, I’m sure.” Silly little girl. “He never comes here during the week.” Ignoring her belligerent behavior, I reached down for her hand and pulled. “Get up.”
Rising, she patted invisible dust off her butt. “Next time you feel the need to knock me over, I’d appreciate a little warning first.”
If that’s all it would take to drag her down with me… “Sure thing!”
I went to the bathroom in the back of the house, right next to my bedroom, and fetched a fresh towel from the shelf. Walking back to the front, I wiped my face and neck with it then tossed it at Lisa so she could towel off, too.
She caught it, then looked at the terry cloth with a wry face. “Ew.”
Ew? Seriously? I stopped, turning to her, about to tell her that she was now a soccer player, not running for Miss California.
But her snappy tongue was faster than mine. “I don’t know how a little running together got us to that level of intimacy.”
It just did. Deal with it. She got my arching of a brow as an answer and, ignoring her grimace, I walked out on the porch and slumped down on the swing. It took only half a minute for her to follow me, and hey, she was rubbing her neck with my used towel.
She tossed it back at me with a hard thrust. I caught it before the bundle smacked me in the face.
“Let’s go back,” she muttered.
Already? I didn’t want to just yet. “Are we in a hurry, Matthews?”
She looked around uncomfortably, clearly not in the mood to hang out on the swing, then decided to park her sexy body against the post next to the wooden steps that led down to the beach. “Not really. But I won’t stay in a place where I have to sign a marriage license to be welcome,” she snapped.
Was she still scared of my mom? “She won’t come back.”
“I don’t care.” She cast me a glare that spelled out, Come back with me or drop dead.
“Fair enough. Let me just get the ball, then we can go.” I stood and walked back to my room for the soccer ball I kept there in case some friends came down here with me and we wanted to play on the beach. I stuffed it into a backpack together with a bottle of water and the towel that lay on the swing.
Shouldering the load, I dumped the keys back into the potted plant and ushered Lisa down the steps. She didn’t look like she could cope with running another couple of miles, so we ambled back instead.
The sky cleared from rosy to blue, and it was nice to walk barefoot in the sand, with the water brushing around my ankles and my girl strolling beside me. I wanted to reach out and take her hand, oh so terribly much. But she seemed a little stiff since we’d left the beach house, so I didn’t dare push my luck.
“Why did you bring the ball?” she asked after a while of silent walking.
“You need to practice kicking and catching. The beach is perfect for that.”
We reached the rocks where we’d hidden our shoes and put them on. Then I told her to stay put while I jogged some thirty feet back and got the ball out from my backpack. “I want you to stop the ball,” I shouted at her before I kicked.
But all she did was shriek and catch the ball to her chest with her arms. What the heck— “This is soccer. You’re not supposed to use your hands,” I told her. “Kick it back.”
She cast me a wary look and kicked the ball back at me. Not only did she raise a sandstorm with it, but the ball also missed me by ten feet. The girl was going to need quite a bit of coaching. But I was totally up to it. I jogged to the ball and kicked hard.
Lisa caught it again.
I cut a glance to the sky and rubbed my palms over my face. “No hands, Matthews!”
We shot back and forth a third time, and now she simply stepped aside and let the ball race past her. She couldn’t be serious.
“What was that?” I shouted as I jogged over to her.
“You said no hands,” Lisa snapped. “Want me to catch it with my teeth or what?”
“I strongly suggest you don’t do that.” I grimace. “During a game you will have to stop the ball. But you’re not allowed to use your hands. So you use your body to block it. Your shoulders, or head, but mostly your chest.”
“Aha. There’s only one problem with that.” She cupped her boobs with both hands. “I’ve got these!”
I couldn’t believe she just did that. A girl should never touch her own boobs when a guy is present…unless she wants to strike him dumb and ruin any chance of ordinary conversation for him. I gulped, as my mouth and throat went dry, unable to look at anything other than the nice handful she held.
She let go of her jugs and said shit to me I couldn’t understand, but I guessed it had to do with the fact that she didn’t like me staring at her when drool was coming out of my mouth. Slowly and with a smirk, I tore my gaze away from that delicious part of her body and looked at her red face.
“Enough training for one morning.” Her croak betrayed her, and I happened to really enjoy that. She looked away, digging her toe into the sand. “I want to be back before my mom finds out I’m gone.”
That was fine with me. But I didn’t let her off the first training day so easily. After some protesting, she finally agreed that we’d run at least half the way back then walk the rest to cool down. As we reached her house, she suddenly pulled me across the street and behind a tree. I followed like a well-trained puppy, totally ready to make out with her in that hiding place. But she wasn’t even thinking about it.
With her back pressed against the trunk, she leaned carefully to the side and spied around the tree. When she snapped back into an upright position, she glanced at the sky and whined, “I’m so screwed.”
I looked around the tree, too. Okay, so somebody was walking around in a room downstairs, and that room was close to the front door. Could be worse. I nudged her chin with the knuckle of my finger and made her look at me. “Do you always give up that quickly?”
“Apparently, you don’t,” she retorted. “So what do you suggest?”
Easy. “We get you inside the same way we got you out.”
Lisa narrowed her eyes at me. “The window?”
“Tony has been climbing in and out of there for years. But I don’t see how I can do it.”
Say that again! My heart refused to take the next beat, and I couldn’t help my face turning into an annoyed scowl. “Mitchell has been climbing into your room?”
“Yes. But I need a ladder to get onto the roof of the shed. And as far as I know, we don’t have a ladder.”
Stop and rewind. Mitchell climbs into her room? “Why?”
Come on, stay focused, girl! “Why does he climb through your window?”
“Can we please stay focused?”
That’s what I’m doing!
“I’m grounded and I need to sneak into my own house,” she snarled, not answering my question.
I wanted to growl at her, grab her shoulders, and forbid that Mitchell ever do that again. But she seemed really desperate to get back inside, and I felt bad, seeing her troubled like this. So I swallowed past my irritation and nodded. “All right. Come on.” Grabbing a fistful of her white top, I hauled her across the street. No one seemed to be anywhere near a window, so we were safe.
On the other side, she quickly hid behind the shed, scanning the garden for her parents.
I scanned it, too, but for a way to get her upstairs. The tree would work. “I believe Mitchell climbs up there to get onto the roof?”
“Um, yes.” Her gaze skated to me. “But you aren’t asking me to climb a tree now, are you?”
No, hun, I’m asking you to fly. I suppressed that sarcastic comment, because she looked worried enough, and instead tested the edge of the shed’s roof with my weight. As I hung on it, no board cracked, so I guessed we were good to go. “Come here, Matthews.”
She watched me as I took a position underneath the roof’s edge. “What are you doing?”
“Giving you a lift.” Lacing my fingers, I hoped she’d been given a leg up before and knew how this worked.
“No way,” she almost screamed, which was funny, because her mother might just have heard that.
“Don’t be a baby,” I dared her. It had worked this morning when I’d wanted her to climb out, so I was confident it would hit a sensitive spot again. “I already proved I can hold you, remember? Twice.”
She looked over her shoulder one last time then came forward and planted her hands on my shoulders, exhaling a deep sigh. Yeah, that was my girl. I went a little lower so we were on eye level to make it easier for her. “Ready?”
Her grip tightened on my shoulders. “Not at all.”
“See you tomorrow.” I pushed her up, and when she landed flat on her stomach on the roof, I shoved her further up by her feet.
She got on her knees first, then on her feet, and walked over to her open window. At least climbing back inside didn’t trouble her. But the look she gave me when she turned around was none too happy. “I don’t think we should do this again.”
“I’m dead if my parents catch me.”
“Matthews, they won’t,” I growled, not intending to let her out of our deal. Training with her had been too nice today. “Now shut up and go have a shower.”
Her jaw hardened to a frustrated grimace. “Well, I’m not coming tomorrow. There’s training with the team anyway. I won’t survive two rounds of torture on the same day.”
“Yeah. Right.” After what I saw of her endurance today, I totally agreed to that. I wanted to spend time with her, not kill her. But the deal was still intact. “Wednesday. Five o’. Be dressed this time. And Matthews—” I smirked at her, just so she got me right. “Don’t make me climb up there and fetch you.”
Because I sure as hell would go up and carry her out draped over my shoulder if I had to.
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