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Life with Jesse Daniels

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LIFE WITH JESSE DANIELS

by Chrissy Favreau

 

Life With Jesse Daniels

Copyright © 2014 Chrissy Favreau

Distributed by Shakespir

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without written permission from the publisher. For information regarding permission, address Cold Snap Studio via the worldwide web: www.ColdSnapStudio.com

Published November, 2014.

Ebook formatting by www.ebooklaunch.com

LIFE WITH JESSE DANIELS

(Jesse Daniels, Book 1)

Prequel to:

[+ JESSE DANIELS REIMAGINED+]

(Jesse Daniels, Book 2)

Other books by Chrissy Favreau:

[+ MY BEST FRIEND’S BROTHER+]

BOOK OF LUKE

MY BEST FRIEND’S BROTHER, Book 2

FINDING TROY

MY BEST FRIEND’S BROTHER, Book 3

MAKING UP BLAKE

My Best Friend’s Brother, Book 4

 

For updates on new books, including new books in this series, visit us on the worldwide web:

www.MyBestFriendsBrother.com

 

CONTENT WARNING

This book contains non-graphic sexual content

and some strong language.

 

Table of Contents

Tuesday, May 3

Thursday, May 5

Friday, May 6

Thursday, May 12

Friday, May 13

Saturday, May 21

Friday, May 27

Saturday, May 28

Saturday, June 4

Sunday, June 5

Monday, June 13

Tuesday, June 14

Friday, June 17

Saturday, June 25

Monday, June 26

Thursday, June 30

Saturday, July 2

Monday, July 4

Wednesday, July 6

Friday, July 8

Monday, July 11

Wednesday, July 13

Friday, July 15

Sunday, July 17

Monday, July 18

Thursday, July 21

Monday, July 25

Tuesday, July 26

Saturday, July 30

Sunday, July 31

Friday, August 5

Saturday, August 6

Sunday, August 7

Wednesday, August 10

Epilogue

 

[]Tuesday, May 3

Wanna do it?

A text from Jesse Daniels.

I looked across the bus aisle, and he raised an eyebrow. My thumb brushed the y key on the phone.

“Why do you people do that?” Tiffany demanded. “He can’t be more than four feet away. Isn’t it easier to just talk?

My sister has a problem with absolutely everything I do. “It’s our thing,” I mumbled.

“Well, your thing is stupid.” She put down her version of the bible—a steamy romance novel—pulled out her compact mirror, and freshened up her lipstick for Greg.

I peeked over at Jesse again who was cleaning his glasses. Without them, he looks a lot like a blond River Phoenix. Think young Indiana Jones. Think charming. Think hot.

My eyes rolled down his bulky arm. My fingers slid over the letters on my phone.

Yeah, let’s do it.

Within seconds he looked my way and grinned. After a soft smile, I turned off my phone, put it in my pocket, and prepared for our stop. I’d spend Thursday night with him. Right after my shopping trip with his brother.

~ ~ ~

Like the Daniels, Greg moved to our rural, Sleepy Hollow Vermont town from New York. He moved in with the Daniels three years ago, at the end of freshman year. That’s the summer we started camping out in the woods behind my house. We’d set up two tents, built a fire in the clearing, sat in a circle, and roasted marshmallows under the stars. It gave me a chance to drool over Derek Daniels. Admiring him was my favorite thing in the world to do.

No, I don’t have much of a life at all.

On this particular summer night, an owl landed in a tall, ancient maple a few yards away and uttered a distinct Who-o-o-o?

“Your mother!” Derek howled. He chuckled and rammed his speared marshmallow into the fire. “I think we should catch it and cook it,” he said, trying to spot it by firelight. He wore designer jeans, a long-sleeve shirt, and a new pair of three-hundred-dollar Nikes. His hair had the habit of getting into his eyes. I don’t see why he didn’t just cut it an inch, so he wouldn’t look through it like an Old English Sheepdog.

“I think the owl’s cute,” I said. I’d parked myself across from Tiffany, between Derek and Jesse. Their enormous dog Manny slept by Jesse’s side. Tiffany and I wore sweats to beat the night chill, even though they didn’t make me desirable for Derek. Wearing good clothes while you’re camping just ruins them anyway. Unless your name is Derek—then you don’t have to worry about ruining clothes, ‘cause Daddy can always send money to buy more. “Can I have Zorro back now?”

Jesse dumped the baby ferret in my hand. Dad got me Zorro for getting straight A’s throughout freshman year. Zorro wore a tiny black tee shirt and a red bell collar, and I had him on a matching leash. He’s mostly white, with a pitch black mask across his face, hence the name Dad thought up. I’m not a Zorro fan or anything.

“Anna, let me hold him!”

I shot my sister a look, annoyed at her demanding tone. Couldn’t she ask politely? Better yet, couldn’t she get her own?

My nasty look came right back at me. “Hey, I’m still older than you—you can’t get an attitude with me!” She waited, arm extended. “Ferret…”

Her obsession with being an hour older than me got old so long ago. Yes, she’s my twin, but she’s fraternal. She looks way different. I actually look a lot like Amy Adams, which isn’t a bad thing. I have blue eyes, fair skin and a wonderful complexion. The only bad thing about me is my auburn hair. While the color is great, it’s curly, it hangs past my tailbone, has volume, and boy does it tangle! I’d trade it in for my sister’s calm, dark brown princess locks any day.

Tiffany was always an inch taller, and it looks like I’m a permanent five-foot-two. She’s actually popular, she hangs out with the “cool” crowd. As for me, that bug geek Jesse is practically the only friend I’ve had since grade school.

Tiffany glared at me and grabbed Zorro. For some reason, she thinks Mom left her in charge. When our mom called it quits, Tiffany went mute for a year, but it didn’t last. I prefer her mute—now you can’t shut her up, and she won’t stop giving orders.

Manny stirred in his sleep. He’s a red and white Giant Alaskan Malamute with a shaggy tail and deep amber eyes. At age two, he was 135 pounds and forty inches tall at the top of the head. You’d think Jesse named him after an Ice Age mammoth. No. Jesse named him after the praying mantis in A Bug’s Life.

We were so focused on browning our marshmallows that we jumped like jackrabbits when Manny leapt to his feet, heaved hard on the leash, and barked up a storm.

“Did you guys hear that?” Derek’s eyes skimmed the woods, his expression spooked.

We all looked at Derek, wide-eyed. “No,” we said, and shook our heads. Tiffany passed Zorro back to me. I held him close.

Manny’s barks intensified. He growled and yanked on his leash so hard, Derek could barely restrain him. His choker blocked his windpipe, yet he pulled eagerly still, snarling and wheezing.

Then we heard it, shuffling in the bushes about a hundred feet away. We gazed, petrified. I trembled from my core.

“What is that?” Jesse pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head. I inched toward him, dragging my butt on the ground.

“Maybe it’s a black bear.” Derek’s voice cracked. “Black bears are dangerous. Once they attack, you can never get them off. They eat humans when they’re starving!”

Beads of sweat gathered on my forehead. It had to be a large animal, from the way the underbrush shook. A bear would make sense. And it grew closer.

Manny jerked the leash again. I’m surprised that choker didn’t pop his head off! Derek held onto him like his life depended on it.

Even through all the racket, the bear drew closer. It was too dark to see it. Blood drained from my face. The thought of a starving black bear ripping us apart—limb from limb—was horrifying.

Then it charged. It plunged its heavy mass through the bushes, heading straight for us! Jesse grabbed my arm. I jumped into his lap. We screamed as it emerged.

ROAR!

Eyes closed, I screamed at the top of my lungs, completely paralyzed from the neck down. I could barely move or think. Jesse’s head collided with mine. We cowered in fear.

“Oh my God!” Tiffany shrieked, surprise in her tone.

Then there was an outburst of laughter. Manny kept barking. I peeked. It wasn’t a bear, it was… Matt Damon?

I squinted at the brown-haired guy with a huge white smile. He wore black jeans and a matching jersey, and looked about Derek’s age. He gave Derek a high five, fell beside him by the fire, brushed his hair aside, and waved at me, still grinning with those big teeth of his. “Hey, I’m Greg—Derek and Jesse’s cousin.”

Okay, so it wasn’t Matt Damon.

Jesse and I exchanged looks, still locked in an embrace. My heart fluttered. I pulled away and inched back to my spot.

“What the hell did you do that for, you dumb jock!”

Greg’s expression darkened. “Hey, Jesse, the next time you call me that, you’ll have a lot more to be scared of!”

Derek laughed. “It was just a prank, Jesse! Chill.”

Tiffany laughed like she wasn’t drop-dead-terrified seconds earlier. She crept closer to Greg and started talking to him about all sorts of things she knew absolutely nothing about—football, video games, weight-lifting, and sports teams. She was so interested when she heard he didn’t have a girlfriend.

That’s when it happened. Derek crept up behind me and wrapped his arm around my neck. My heart leapt. He chuckled. “Sorry. I thought it’d be funny…”

Thoughtlessly, I nudged him away. Realizing what I’d done, I tried to think of how to get him back. “I knew all along it wasn’t a bear!”

He laughed and wrapped his arm around my neck again. “No you didn’t!”

“Sure I did. I was just playing along to scare Jesse.”

We looked at him. Jesse’s eyes were steady on Derek. I stared blankly for a second. “Jesse, what’s wrong?”

“I’m going to sleep.” He got up, glanced back at us for a second, and disappeared inside his tent.

Derek’s face touched the side of mine. “Think he’s mad we tricked him?”

Our faces are touching! I could feel his breath! My heart hammered my ribcage. Why was he acting like this all of a sudden? Did he actually like me? I figured it was my overactive imagination, as I read into things a lot. He’d only teased me before. He’s too popular for me. Total friend zone. Best not get my hopes up. “Think he’ll let you sleep in there now?” I pointed to the tent.

“I don’t know.” Our eyes met. “Where else can I sleep?”

Then, like a total moron, I said, “Manny’s got some room on his blanket.”

Derek’s smile faded. “Oh.”

Yeah. He didn’t hit on me again for a month. I’m surprised he even talked to me again at all, after I said something so cluelessly stupid.

~ ~ ~

We dated for three years. Three years with a boyfriend who looks like a young Leo DiCaprio, and I didn’t even sleep with him.

I know, I can hardly believe it myself.

So far, he hasn’t complained too much, though at eighteen and after three years, I’m sure he’ll start soon. As soon as Friday night, actually. Because Friday is my senior prom.

Derek and Greg just finished their freshman year of college, but they’re alumni and under twenty-one, so they can escort us to the prom. Not that I’m looking forward to Greg’s presence on what’s supposed to be the best night of my life.

The bad thing about the prom is that Jesse will be there. After all, it’s his prom too. He’s expected to have a date, and I don’t look forward to meeting her. Or finding out it’s his on-and-off-again girlfriend, Zoey Jacobs.

 

[]Thursday, May 5

“Oh my God, I have a brilliant idea!” Tiffany hissed in the night.

“What?” I groaned, annoyed that it was after midnight and her mouth kept moving.

“We should hook Dad up!” Her head hung from the top bunk, staring through the darkness.

Is she out of her mind? Dad hasn’t dated in years! “Who would date Dad?

“Claudia.”

“Claudia?”

“Hello! They’re both single! If we hook our dad up with their mom, the boys will move in!”

That’s all she ever does—think of more ways she and Greg could be together. They’re already together all the time. Derek and Greg commute to college, so when he’s not in class and we’re not in school, guess what they’re doing? Yeah, he’s like a drug, and she has a serious addiction.

“Miss D needs a man, anyway.” Her white teeth practically glowed in the dark. “This is genius! Can you help me pull it off?”

I knew it’d be better to not get involved. All her plans are stupid and she always gets caught.

“Well?”

I wanted to get to sleep. I knew her dumb plan wouldn’t work, and I wanted to stop hearing about it. “That’s a good idea,” I said sarcastically.

“Of course it is,” she breathed, laying back in bed. “After all, I thought it up!”

~ ~ ~

Tiffany planned over breakfast. I ate my eggs, toast, and practically inhaled my hash browns.

When Dad came in for his morning coffee, Tiffany hid her stupid little notes like a third grader. She smiled at him in the most obvious way imaginable, watching him pour his coffee. Dad wore a navy bathrobe, matching slippers, and his shoulder length, wavy brown hair in a ponytail. He’s 6’3” and built. I’ve always adored my dad, he’s my hero. When we were young, we thought our dad was a giant. He would always intimidate the boys, because they’d never stay out of trouble long enough for him to be nice. A fine example was what I considered—to date—the best day of my life.

~ ~ ~

Summers earlier, Derek rang our doorbell. Behind him stood Jesse, who nudged his glasses up the bridge of his nose and held a praying mantis.

“What do you want?” Tiffany put her hands on her hips and pouted. A bouncy curl slid into her eye, and she tucked it back behind her ear.

“I need to use your bathroom,” Derek said with a crooked smile, hands behind his back.

“Why don’t you use your own bathroom? You live right across the street!”

“Because we were playing in the woods all day and I have to go really bad. Our mom locked us out.”

She sighed, moved aside, and he quickly vanished up the stairs. My sister didn’t seem to like Derek much. Maybe she wasn’t into boys yet, though she did carry around these Young Adult novels she was way too young for. I snuck a look at one once, and it had guys and girls “kissing passionately.” It seems my sister was always a pervert.

Tiffany crowded the doorway as Jesse tried to enter. “Drop the bug first!”

Jesse set the thing down. “Anna, wanna play tag?” There was dirt caked to his dirty blond hair, which I thought was really nasty. We were eleven—when would his hygiene improve? I mean, even then I showered daily!

Tiffany sneered as Dad wandered into the foyer, wearing his commonly wide smile. “Jesse, how are you? How’s your mom today?”

Jesse shrugged carelessly, looking up at him like he was miles high.

“We’re having hot dogs and French fries for dinner. Would you like to join us?”

“Can we have ketchup, too?”

“Sure we can! I’ve even got the green ketchup!” Dad can be so cheesy at times.

“Cool!”

Derek descended the stairs wearing a huge grin. He stood beside me, eyes glimmering. Even back then his hair hung down past his eyes, parted down the middle.

They ate like pigs at the dinner table and ironically, Dad still seemed thrilled to have them there. “Doesn’t your mom feed you boys?” he joked, dragging a fry through a puddle of ketchup.

Derek answered with his mouth full. “We were in the woods all day.”

“We dissected a frog!” Jesse added.

As if eating hot dogs wasn’t gross enough!

Dad looked amused. “Did you? And what did you find?”

“We pulled its guts out!” Jesse exclaimed. “And it had a poor bug stuck in its belly!”

Tiffany snickered. “You killed a frog to save a bug?” She rolled her eyes. “Boys are so immature!”

Derek grinned. “Who said we killed it?”

Tiffany’s expression was blank.

“It’s been dead for weeks!”

I practically gagged.

The boys laughed and shoved their remaining fries in their mouths.

Tiffany sneered. “Really, for weeks? Exaggerating much? I’m taking a shower. Hopefully you’ll be gone by the time I get out!”

“Tiffany, that isn’t nice,” Dad scorned.

After she left, the room grew silent. I grimaced at the hot dog on my plate. The smell alone made me nauseous. I’ll bet Tiffany asked for hot dogs so often just to piss me off. I pushed it aside so my fries wouldn’t touch the so-called meat. Dad shot me a look, so I picked at the bun and grabbed a fry.

“So are you two going to be explorers when you grow up?” Dad asked a few minutes later, tossing his napkin on his plate.

Derek showed me his chewed-up hot dog. “My teacher said we were born in the wrong generation. There isn’t much left to explore.”

Dad laughed his deep, warm laugh. But it was drowned out by Tiffany’s bewildered screaming.

Practically tossing the table aside, Dad ran up in a panic, with the rest of us on his trail. Tiffany was in our bedroom, wrapped in a towel, dripping on the carpet, crying feverishly. She held a chunk of long hair, her face deep red. “Daddy, my hair’s falling out!” She pulled at her scalp, held another chunk, and sobbed.

I gasped.

Derek chuckled.

“What did you put in your hair, Princess?”

“Conditioner!” Her bawling intensified.

Dad ran his hand over her head and sniffed the yellow residue. “This is Nair!” He pulled her into our bathroom, where the shower was still running. “Wash this off immediately, understand? Hurry, before all your hair falls off!”

That last sentence made her shriek like he just said she’s going to military school.

Dad was on fire. WHOSE IDEA WAS THIS?!”

Now Derek’s face was long, his eyes were scared, and he’d wiped that grin off his face really fast. I was mad for show. What I was really thinking was, That’ll teach her to have better hair than me!

~ ~ ~

Dad looked at Tiffany, an eyebrow raised. Despite her weird behavior, he went about his business.

“That was close,” she said when he left, playing with the clicker on her pen. She pushed her untouched breakfast aside, which put her hash browns up for grabs.

I ate her food as she yapped on. I seriously couldn’t repeat a word she’d said, because I wasn’t paying any attention.

My phone vibrated. I had a new text.

Got tickets for 8:00.

I grinned and cleared my throat, almost to my feet. “I have to feed Zorro.” I figured a hungry weasel was the perfect excuse to leave. Zorro eventually outgrew his cage, so he lives with us in our room. Of course, Tiffany was too busy matchmaking—I mean victimizing—Dad and Claudia to hear me.

~ ~ ~

I walked circles around Derek in the prom dress aisle at Macy’s. I couldn’t decide on a dress, and he was no help.

“How about this one?” He held up an ugly green strapless dress.

“I don’t like it.” I pulled my hair into a ponytail, holding a hair tie in my mouth as I did. Derek wore baggy jeans he always stepped on and a black t-shirt. He was hot.

“I think it’s nice,” he said, examining it.

I looked it over. The back and the front were identical.

“Though… how are you supposed to get it off?” He looked at it analytically.

I giggled and put it away.

He dragged his feet behind me. “So, we’ve been here since a quarter to four.”

“I know.” I checked out a tight, slim, sparkly dress that wasn’t ugly.

“Well, it’s almost six.” He wrapped his arm around my waist. “Can you pick one so we can go?”

“But I don’t want to rush…” Although I thought I probably should. Jesse and I had to be at a Johnny Depp movie in two hours.

He was quiet for a second. “Well, you’re not technically rushing. We’ve been here for almost two hours. Why don’t we just go to another store?”

“It’s either that dark blue strapless one,” I said, pointing to a mannequin behind him, “or that long-sleeve black one.” I motioned to a glittery black dress on the other side of the prom section.

“Blue one.”

I smiled quizzically.

“You’re going to a prom, not a funeral.”

I grabbed my size. He’s right—I’d save the black one for his funeral when Dad finds out what he intends to do after the prom. Walking to the checkout counter, a smile crossed my face. Despite how hot he was, how cool he was, and how much I worshiped him, I sort of had the urge to slug him.

“I’ll pay.” He handed the cashier money. I put the cash Dad gave me back in my purse.

Outside, he jumped into the driver’s seat of his red Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 convertible, as the roof was folded back. He unlocked the passenger door for me. I seated myself, put the bag in the backseat, and shut the door. The sun was setting and the parking lot was packed with cars, although we were pretty much the only people out there.

Derek is your typical rich boy. His dad tries to set limits, but they’re a complete joke. For instance, on his 17th birthday, he said he’d give him $30,000 for a car and pay his college room and board, or buy him this $60,000 car he wanted and let him commute. Well guess which he picked!

We sat in an awkward silence. I didn’t know how to tell him I had to be home by 7:15 to go out with his brother. Not that he’d find it all that unusual, because Jesse’s been my best friend forever. Still, I didn’t want to seem like I’m pushing him aside for Jesse. I stared out the windshield, feeling his eyes on me. “So, prom night, do you have a curfew?”

I shot him a look. “Yes.” If I asked Dad to let me go to a chaperone-free after-party with my boyfriend at a beach more than a hundred miles away, the answer would be, “Absolutely not!” So I didn’t even bother.

“Well, what if I sneak you out?”

My eyes widened, still glued to the windshield. “Sneak me out?”

“Yeah, just for the night. I’ll have you back home by morning. Greg and Tiffany are going.”

I was fairly certain Dad wouldn’t let Tiffany go, either. Regardless, I felt like a little kid, having to be snuck out. My cheeks grew rosy at the thought of how childish I must seem to him. “I guess.”

He nodded, started the engine, revved it twice, put the car in reverse, and peeled out of the parking spot. On the highway, he slammed on the gas, burning rubber. Derek drives like his shoe is glued to the gas pedal.

~ ~ ~

At 7:30, I was still struggling to get my hair in order. I spent twenty minutes brushing and wasted a quarter of the bottle of detangler. My hair is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it’s long, an awesome color and—when it isn’t knotted—it makes me desirable. A curse because it’s everything else.

My phone vibrated as I applied my lipstick, startling me, so I smeared.

I’m downstairs. Why are you taking so long?

I rolled my eyes. ‘Cause I need to look hot! I was not about to type that, but I was thinking it.

I put the phone down, wiped the smudge and reapplied. A girl’s got to look good, even for her best friend. Because you never know who you’ll run into while with him. Derek and Greg went out with a few of their college friends. What if they went to the mall? What if they run into us and Derek must introduce me? I need to look my best. Just in case.

As if he’d read my mind, Jesse texted:

You look great.

I smiled.

How do you know?

A few moments later, he wrote:

Because. You’re Anna.

My smile widened.

Jesse was in the foyer talking to Dad when I got downstairs. He dressed in the usual—jeans and a baggy tee shirt—with his hair gelled back. He stopped talking mid-sentence when he saw me in my violet top and black shorts, and grinned. “I told you,” he breathed, referring to his text.

I blushed and giggled.

“You look great, Princess!” Dad’s smile lessened as his eyes traveled below my waist. “Aren’t those shorts too short, though? Your legs will freeze.”

“Dad! It’s like 70 degrees out tonight, I’ll be fine.” I gave him a hug and grabbed my shoes.

Dad crossed his arms, smiled and looked at Jesse. They just stood there in silence for a moment. Then Dad said, “Have her home by 10:30, Jesse. Drive safe.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Devlin.” And he followed me out the door. Dad doesn’t give Jesse a hard time like he does to poor Derek.

We got into Jesse’s bumble bee yellow (as he called it) Chevy Camaro 2LS Coupe. It “only” cost his dad $30,000. I wish my dad gave me “only” thirty grand for a car. I don’t even own a car and I’ve been licensed for six months! I guess it’s understandable, though, as my dad doesn’t work on Wall Street. There’s also no million in Dad’s name, like there is in Maximilian Daniels.

“Seat belts,” Jesse uttered, feeling for mine. He always checks, but this time he accidentally grabbed one of my 34Cs. He immediately removed his hand, his eyes steady on the windshield. “Sorry. I was feeling for the shoulder belt.”

“It’s on,” I assured him, glad he couldn’t see my smile in the dark car. Not that he was looking.

He cleared his throat. “That’s good.”

“Yeah,” I breathed. “So it’s 7:50, and we’re going to be late.”

“Right,” he said. “I noticed.”

“Do you want to do something else?”

He looked at me. After a moment of complete silence he uttered, “Like what?”

“We can go skating.”

“Oh.” He pulled a pack of gum out of his pocket. He offered me a stick but I declined. He popped one in his mouth, nodded, and said, “Sure.” So we were off.

We got to the outdoor skating rink half hour later. He parked the car and we sat in it for a while, watching people skate to the music. I don’t know why we just sat there, but I didn’t mind it. The AC felt good on my bare legs.

Jesse took off his glasses and cleaned the lenses with his shirt. He put them back on and looked at me. “What’cha thinking?”

I smiled. “Are you going to the prom tomorrow?”

He looked out the window briefly. “Yeah. Are you?”

“I am.”

He nodded. “I thought so.”

“Who are you going with?” I asked casually.

He chewed on his gum for a moment. He likes to chew with his mouth open, which is half rude and half cute. “Zoey. I asked and she accepted.”

I knew it. God, I can’t stand that girl! “That’s nice.”

I don’t know what the deal is with them. They were never serious, they just used each other for dates. Like at the junior prom, she went with him and left with someone else. I don’t think there’s a single guy in school she hasn’t dated. When they’re together, the girl flirts with other guys with Jesse there, and he either doesn’t notice, or he doesn’t care.

Seriously, he deserves way better than that.

Jesse shifted in his seat, so his body faced me. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” I said instantly.

He nodded. “You know, my brother and Greg reserved rooms.”

I figured they would, but I acted surprised. “Really?”

“Yeah. What do you think about that?”

I chuckled. “What is there to think?”

He shrugged and blew a small bubble. It popped noisily. “Are you… excited?”

I didn’t answer for a moment, since I really wasn’t sure. “I dunno. Should I be?”

He grinned and looked away. “No.”

“No?” I confirmed.

He looked back at me. “No.”

“You don’t want me to be excited?” I smiled, knowing we were skating around a very intimate topic.

He scratched the top of his head. Then he shrugged again and said, “No.”

“Did you reserve a room?” I asked.

“What’s it matter?”

I was silent for a moment. “Just wondering.”

“Oh.”

Oh? That’s it? You’re not going to answer my question? I sighed and looked straight ahead. I could feel his eyes on me. “Do you want to go?” I asked, motioning toward the rink.

“In a bit,” he breathed. “I like to talk.”

I took off my belt and hugged myself. “Me, too.”

“Cold?”

“A bit,” I breathed. I wasn’t sure if I was actually cold or just nervous. I wasn’t even sure why I was nervous, but I sort of felt it.

He turned down the AC. “I think I’ve decided on the University of Nebraska. They have one of the few entomology programs in the country. So I’m going to do that in the fall.”

“Nebraska!” I practically shrieked.

“Yeah.” Our eyes met. “What do you think about that?”

Tears gathered in my eyes. He was leaving? I mean I know he applied to a bunch of schools but he picked one halfway across the country? To study bugs? “That’s great,” I breathed, trying to sound cheerful. In the meantime, my heart was on the floor.

He bit his lip. “So, you’re happy for me?”

I half laughed and it pushed some tears out. I wiped my eyes instantly. “Yeah, of course I’m happy for you!” I looked at him. For giving me such “great” news—which I apparently was expected to be thrilled about—he wasn’t even smiling.

His eyes broke free from mine. “Thanks,” he mumbled. “I’m not into dorm life, shared bathrooms and showers, so I’m renting a place off campus.” His expression remained serious. “Maybe I’ll get a roommate.” Our eyes brushed.

“Oh,” I breathed. A roommate? Like a girl roommate, or a boy roommate? I wasn’t going to ask, but I sort of wanted to know. “That’s great,” I repeated, although part of me wanted to slug him. I can’t believe he’s doing this to me!

He heaved a sigh, unbuckled his belt and said “Let’s go.”

I got out of the car. He’d completely ruined my night. We weren’t apart more than a day since the fourth grade and now he’s going to Nebraska? For four years. To dissect bugs!

Derek was majoring in hospital administration. Why couldn’t Jesse do that? Why couldn’t he study Ecology? Zoology? Biology? Something normal. No, Jesse has to move halfway across the country to study creepy, crawly, gooey, disease spreading… insects.

“Are you okay?” he asked as I adjusted my skates. I may not be myself tonight, but he wasn’t, either.

“I’m fine.” I double-knotted my lace and grabbed his hand. By the time we stepped foot on the ice, they started playing N’Sync’s Bye Bye Bye.

I should have stayed home.

 

[]Friday, May 6

The first thing I did this morning was check my phone. No new texts. He’d dropped me off by curfew and told me he’d text me. He didn’t.

I put on a pair of hip-hugger jeans and a t-shirt, then started brushing my auburn locks. I couldn’t believe he was leaving me. Had Derek moved into the dorms, it wouldn’t have bothered me as much as this did! Jesse’s been there for me for nearly half my life. How can I live with him being 1,600 miles away? Would he stop texting me, too?

My dad hovered over an open gift box on the kitchen table. He stared at a card, thoughtfully confused. In the small box was a pair of silver boxers with red hearts. Finding that disturbingly weird, I went about my business, pouring milk over my Lucky Charms. “Who’s it from?” I asked, putting the first tablespoon to my mouth.

“Claudia.”

I nearly choked on my food. If Tiffany got him those, what did she get Claudia?

“This was sitting on the porch this morning.” Dad shook his head and rubbed his chin. “You know it says on here she has a crush on me?” His fingernails dug into the card. “Why doesn’t she want me to mention this gift to her? Artists!” He shook his head and peered at me. “You think I should go talk to her about this?”

Tiffany was so dead if Dad found out! I considered telling him, as I wanted no part in this when things get ugly. But that very second, the doorbell rang. He went to answer it and curious, I followed.

Claudia stood on our porch in her red Mickey Mouse bathrobe and black heels, her make-up perfect, her hair bottle-red, her cheeks the color of cotton candy. Her blue eyes sparkled, engaged with his.

All I could think about was the oddity of this situation. And wonder where she got that robe, because—as an artist myself—I loved it.

“Hello,” my father said, scratching his head.

“Hello, Kevin.”

They stared at each other for a few seconds.

“Come in, come in,” Dad insisted, stepping aside. “Anna, why don’t you clear the table?”

After hiding everything in the living room, I peeked into the kitchen. For a little while, they had coffee in an awkward silence. Then something freaky happened.

Claudia got to her feet and twirled the rope of her bathrobe clockwise.

Dad stared at her, his elbow on the table, still confused.

She spun around once. Then—all of a sudden—her robe dropped to the floor!

I gasped.

She wore a silk two-piece that hugged her butt and exposed her bellybutton. Her smile faded slowly as Dad gazed, wide-eyed, his mouth hanging. He looked staggered. When he came around again, he chuckled and said, “I’m sorry, Claudia, what’s going on here?”

Her smile had completely evaporated. “Well, you asked me to wear this for you!”

He maintained a confused smile, like that was the craziest thing he’d ever heard.

She quickly picked up her robe and pulled it over her. Her face was flushed, her hands quaking. “Then why did you leave it on my doorstep?”

Dad closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.

She dropped into a chair. “It had a letter from you. It said to put this on and come over, that you’ve had a crush on me for years!” She was totally bawling by now, red as a lobster.

“Wait!” Dad said. “I got a card from you, too… and silk boxers. You didn’t send those?”

She wiped her eyes. Her mascara ran down to her chin. “What? No!”

Dad’s face started to match hers. His glare hit me so fast I had no time to escape the door. “Anna, come here!”

Half smiling, half terrified, I clambered over to him. I could feel and hear my heart in my ears.

“Are you behind this?”

Claudia looked at me, her face covered with her hands, her eyes red and black.

I shook my head no instantly.

“Then who is?!”

I bit my lip. I’d regret it, but I had no choice.

“Anna! Whose idea was this?”

I cringed and uttered, “Tiffany’s.”

~ ~ ~

On the bus, Tiffany’s arms were crossed and her lips pouted. Dad and Claudia figured out her intention. She got yelled at and punished.

My sister was fuming.

I didn’t see her again until graduation practice. How many times did we need to practice, anyway? Walking to your chair, then to get your diploma and back to your chair isn’t that difficult. A monkey could do it.

Tiffany wasn’t paying attention to any direction given. She was on her iPhone, probably typing up another dramatic Facebook post. Beside her stood her best friend, Lydia DeWit. Lydia has long red hair, a fair complexion, violet contacts, and sported hooker attire. She seemed too preoccupied checking out guys to even ask what my sister’s problem was.

Jesse sat next to me, since alphabetically he comes before me. He peered at me, his deep blue eyes thoughtful. “You seem upset,” he noted.

“I’m not,” I lied. He could have texted me last night, like he’d said. I didn’t want to seem bothered by it, though.

He looked quizzical. “So you’re okay?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I breathed.

He nodded. “That’s good.” After a brief silence, he frowned like he remembered something. “Why’d my mom come running from your house crying this morning?”

I groaned. “Because my sister is out of her mind!”

Jesse laughed. He leaned my way, lined his mouth up with my ear and breathed, “Did you just figure this out?” His breath tickled my ear and neck.

The feeling made me smile. “No. But she gets worse every year.”

“I noticed,” he uttered, looking into my eyes.

He’s not hard to forgive. I need to work at staying mad at him longer.

~ ~ ~

When I got home from the hair salon, my hair was mostly straightened, in a tight bun, with a few loose curls hanging from the back. And—I’d been warned—it’s only temporary.

My sister was crying like it’s the end of the world.

“Why is it that she can go?” Tiffany whined, pointing to me like an eight-year-old. Tiffany leaned back on the black leather couch and placed her feet on the glass coffee table. She sneered at my father, who sat on the love seat across the room.

Dad sighed. “Tiffany, Anna can go because she had no part in this dirty trick.”

“Daddy, this was not a dirty trick, this was for the best! I know Ms. D totally has the hots for you!”

Dad picked up a magazine. “Tiffany, try to be serious with me here.”

“I am serious! I’m going to the prom with Greg! This is my prom, we’ve waited years for this!”

Dad turned some pages. “No you’re not, young lady.”

“Yes, I am!” She stomped her foot, shaking the living room. “I’m going!”

“Tiffany, the only place you’re going is to your room, where you’ll think over what you’ve put that poor woman through today. This was very immature of you.” Dad spoke calmly, as he was rather used to her temper tantrums.

Tiffany stormed past me, practically shoving me aside. “I can’t believe this!” she growled as she headed upstairs. “This is so stupid!”

Dad tossed the magazine aside. He sat head-in-hands.

“Dad, are you okay?”

“Claudia won’t answer her door. Or her phone. I feel awful for her.” He rubbed his eyes. “Well, I trust you’ll be home by eleven. I think I’m going to hit the sack. My day was longer than I’d anticipated, and I might have a tennis match with James in the morning.”

“Okay.” After-party, here I come! But then I wondered if he said that to trick or test me.

He got up and stretched, with his hands on his mid-section. “Well, I hope you have a good evening.” He placed a kiss on my head as he made his way past me.

I spent two hours preparing. I put on pantyhose, applied make-up, changed into my dress, and had terrible scenarios race through my head at a mile a minute. I wondered how things would go with Jesse there. Jesse and Zoey.

Tiffany lay on the top bunk, her chin on her arms, looking pitiful. I almost felt sympathy.

“I texted Greg and told him,” she mumbled. “And I’m sneaking out later tonight. Period.”

I adjusted my dress over my boobs. “Uh-huh.”

She sighed. “And I was so convinced the plan would work!”

I put on my gold earrings and matching necklace. When I heard a car horn, my heart fluttered.

“You look nice,” Tiffany said, again in tears.

I opened the door, and to my surprise, ran into Dad. He looked beat. He had bags under his eyes, his hair was out of its usual ponytail and it looked like crap. He stuck his head in and said, “Tiffany, on second thought, you can go to the prom. Be home by eleven, and your punishment begins tomorrow.”

She squirmed around in bed, jumped down from the top bunk and hugged him. “Thank you, Daddy!” She reached in the closet, grabbed her dress, and rushed into the bathroom. “Anna, tell Greg I’m coming!”

I gave Dad a look. He is way too soft on her.

~ ~ ~

In the ballroom of a five-star hotel, we were surrounded by masses of people. Derek looked incredibly sexy in his black tux, bow tie, and silver shirt. Greg wore a white tux and black silk shirt, so he looked like one of the waiters. My sister looked like she was wrapped in someone’s lawn. Seriously, that dress was awful.

“You look amazing,” Derek breathed as we made our entrance.

We spent the next hour taking pictures of our friends (okay, Derek’s friends, since no one in my own grade even gave me the time of day) or posing for pictures ourselves. Everyone was raving about how great we looked together—I really liked the attention. You know, ‘cause I’m always deprived.

We slow danced. He smelled incredible. My grip around his waist tightened and I buried my head in his tux. I’d waited years for the prom and ironically, I just wanted everyone else to disappear. Everyone but Derek Daniels, the hottest guy there.

Well, maybe not everyone.

“Are you okay?” Derek asked.

“Yeah.” My eyes wandered. The place was packed with at least 400 people, but I sought just one. “Where’s Jesse?”

“He left home about 20 minutes before us. I haven’t seen him since. Why?”

“Just wondering,” I uttered. “It’s loud in here. I actually have a headache.”

Our foreheads touched. “Wanna get out of here?”

No, I want to find your brother, I thought. I didn’t say it, though. I just shrugged. That’s when I spotted Zoey, on the far end corner of the room. Her shoulder-length black hair was in a French braid. She wore a glittery baby blue dress with a slit up the leg. A dress to match her eyes. Eyes like Jennifer Connelly’s. She was hot, and she was leaning on Jesse’s chest. Stupid slut.

“Wanna get out of here?” Derek repeated with a grin.

“Look, there’s Zoey and Jesse,” I said dryly. “Let’s go say hi.” I didn’t wait for a response, I sort of just dragged him over there. When they saw us approach, I kind of wished I’d been less obvious, though.

Jesse looked incredible in his black tux. His shirt was already partially unbuttoned. When he saw me, his eyes lit up. He grinned. “There you are!”

Zoey sneered as her gaze traveled from him to me. “Hi, Anna.” She looked Derek over. “Derek…” she said with a light smile.

Now I wanted to smack her.

“What’s up, Zoey?” Derek wrapped his arm around my waist. “We’re just passing through.”

My eyes locked with Jesse’s as Derek pulled me toward the doors. Zoey whispered something in his ear, he smiled and their foreheads touched. I was appalled.

Derek led me out the door, behind which was silence. “Are you sure you’re okay?” He was so close, his breath tingled.

I was mostly sure before, but I was no longer sure now.

“Would you like to go upstairs?”

While it sounded better than facing Zoey again, going upstairs made me nervous.

He tilted his head. “Yes? No?”

“Sure,” I said uneasily, my stomach in a knot.

We walked toward the check-in counter. “I have a reservation.”

“Name?” asked the clerk, who was so checking him out.

“Daniels. Derek.”

She typed into the computer. “You’re in room 612.” She handed him our entry card. “You have to be checked out by 11:15 tomorrow morning or else you’ll be charged for an extra day.” She smiled at us. “Enjoy your stay, Mr. and Mrs. Daniels.”

Mrs. Daniels? A smile crept upon me. Anna Daniels, that does have a nice ring to it! He blushed, but he didn’t look my way.

His hand brushed mine. Was I supposed to take it, now that we’re unofficially married?

In the elevator, I stood between him and an ancient couple who looked like they were wondering what the hell I was doing going to the sixth floor with this stud muffin.

Derek chewed on his lip the whole ride up. His hands were all sweaty, and he mumbled stuff between his teeth, like he was rehearsing for something.

Their scowls disturbed me, so I stared at the light and counted the floors. The elevator couldn’t get to our floor fast enough.

My cell phone vibrated. I pulled it out of my purse.

Where did you go?

I bit my lip. I knew he knew full well where I went and was fishing for details. On my way up to a honeymoon suite with your brother, I should have said. But I kept it simple.

We left. What are you doing?

I got another text a minute later.

We’re in the ballroom. Still.

Still? Was that subject to change? Derek was staring, so I turned off my phone. I cringed when the old couple got off on the same floor as us. To make matters worse, they were right next door! The old hunchback lady with an obvious blond wig took her time searching her huge handbag for the card to room 611. The bald old guy stared at us with a raised bushy eyebrow. What exactly does this man think will be going on in our room?

I was actually too scared to even think about it.

Derek fiddled with the card, trying to scan it the right way so he could get the door open. He kept wiping his forehead and smiling at me. “Stupid thing!”

The room was huge, with a king-size bed smack in the middle of it, and a heart-shaped mirror above the bed. I didn’t want to even take a guess at why people would need a mirror on the ceiling. It just made me that much more nervous.

To one side of the bed was a dresser, to the other was a heart-shaped Jacuzzi, all on a plush red carpet. An open door led to the bathroom, and in the mirror I could see it had a double shower.

Although I found myself in a honeymoon suite with the guy of my dreams, all I could do was stand there and fiddle with my hair.

He threw the card on the dresser. “Wanna have a seat?” His thumb pointed to the bed behind him.

I was officially unable to move my legs. “Okay.” Though I didn’t actually go anywhere.

He sat. “You know I’m not gonna bite you,” he assured me with a light smile.

When I finally got myself to move, I sat beside him. My left boob was thumping.

I looked up at the mirror and saw us on the bed. He was wiggling his way out of his jacket.

“It’s hot in here,” he breathed.

I literally jumped at the opportunity to keep his clothes on. “There’s an AC switch right over there!”

He laughed and went by the door to turn the switch. I hopped to my feet and grunted when my heel gave in.

“Are you okay?”

I sat back on the edge of the bed and rubbed my pulsing ankle. “I think so.”

He sat beside me and examined it, sending a shiver up my back. “Well, it’s definitely not broken.”

I looked at him intently, adoring him. Our eyes locked on each other’s. He loosened his top shirt button. The room was cooling down fast. Was the place refrigerated?

When the left side of his hair slipped into his eyes in this extremely sexy way, I tucked it behind his ear. His forehead was shiny. Unfortunately, that just made him that much sexier.

It took Derek Daniels a full year to work up the nerve to kiss me. We’d made out before, many times. On a couch. On our steps. In his car. Never on a bed, or in a honeymoon suite.

My body trembled in anticipation. He set his hand on the back of my neck and inched forward.

And then he laughed under his breath, looked down, and shook his head.

“What?” I asked casually.

His elbows rested on his knees, and his eyes settled on the floor. “I suck at this.”

“At what?” I was thoroughly confused.

He shook his head again. “Never mind.”

The tips of my fingers touched his hand. “No, it’s okay.”

He looked at me for a long second. “I probably look like a real asshole for bringing you up here, huh?”

“No, you’re not an asshole.” My hand wrapped around his. “I prefer it up here. It’s quieter.”

He turned to face me, the way he was positioned when he was about to kiss me. Just not as close. “You really do look amazing in that dress,” he breathed.

My cheeks flushed. “Thanks.” I reached for my head to make sure my hair was still contained. “You look great, too.”

“Thanks.”

Our eyes met briefly. He cleared his throat and rubbed his hands together. “So, what do you want to do?”

I smiled, “Don’t you wanna figure out how to get this thing off?” I said flirtatiously, referring to my dress.

He looked stunned. His cheeks grew red. “It’s pretty obvious. Though I’d probably screw that up, too.”

I laughed. “Then you can just kiss me.”

Our mouths locked. He kissed my lips, my cheek, the side of my neck. I stared into the mirror at his tense back. I swear that was his heart slapping me over the chest.

Derek has always been an extremely experienced kisser which, for a guy like him, doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. I was nervous about doing more though, and it didn’t help that I couldn’t do anything but stare at that damn mirror! How are people expected to have sex while they stare into that thing? It’s distracting!

The thought of having sex terrified me. And to make matters worse, he began to rattle.

“Are you okay?” I asked, pushing him from my neck so I can see his face.

Shy eyes brushed mine. “Yeah, I’m fine.” He quickly moved back up to my lips, silencing me with another kiss. I could feel a wild pulse on his neck. I could still feel him tremble. I liked it. It made me feel better, being a nervous wreck myself.

“It’s okay.”

He looked confused. “What’s okay?”

“You’re nervous.”

He sighed and looked away uncomfortably, his face growing flushed. “No,” he uttered, “it’s not okay.”

“I’m nervous too,” I breathed. Then I pulled him close and kissed him.

~ ~ ~

Pounding awoke us. Derek rubbed his eyes and checked his watch. His eyes ballooned. “Aw shit!”

“What?”

“It’s ten to one.”

My heart hit my toes. I felt chilled. I’d missed my curfew by almost two hours, and it was more than a one hour drive home! I was so dead!

We jumped out of bed. I tried to fix my hair, and he buttoned up his shirt, although somehow I didn’t recall him undoing that many buttons. We fell asleep talking! How many people actually fall asleep in a hotel room on prom night?

Derek opened the door. On the other side stood Greg and Tiffany. Greg pushed past him and fell onto the bed.

“Well, what were you doing through the whole prom?” Greg taunted.

Derek was clearly at a loss for words. But at no point did I expect him to say, “Sleeping.”

All eyes fell on me, and all I could do was gnaw on my thumbnail. Was I supposed to explain? Not like there was anything to explain—we didn’t do anything.

Greg looked at Derek. “Well, I think these ladies missed their curfew.”

Tiffany glared at me. Would she tell Dad? She’d tattled in the past, for less than this. Except this time, I’d get in trouble for something I seriously did not do! I hoped I could blackmail her out of telling with that hickey on her neck.

~ ~ ~

“What did you guys do?” Tiffany demanded. We were alone in the car—me in the front passenger seat, her in the back—waiting for the guys to get back from the checkout counter.

“Nothing,” I insisted, looking in the rearview mirror. I cringed when I realized she wasn’t the only one with a hickey—I had two of them! I grabbed my purse from under the seat and used foundation to cover them up, though it only worked to an extent. Great—now I have to wear turtlenecks in May!

“You did nothing…?” She sounded skeptical.

“We did nothing.” I focused on my neck.

“And you expect me to believe that?”

I looked over my shoulder. “Yes.”

“Puh-lease!” She turned on her iPhone to update her Facebook status. Somehow I doubt it read “Caught my twin in bed with a Leo DiCaprio lookalike. They fell asleep talking.”

The truth is stranger than fiction, you know.

The guys were on their way to the car, carrying on a conversation that seemed to be going better than ours. “So tell me, what did you and Greg do?”

She dodged the question. “Did you catch us in a hotel room?”

“No, but you had reservations. Stop being a hypocrite.”

“I am not a hypocrite!”

I rolled my eyes and turned to her. “Whatever. You’re one hour older than me. Stop lecturing like you’re my mother.”

She flinched and looked away.

Derek got behind the wheel. Greg jumped in back. I sat back in my seat.

“Okay,” Derek said. “Ready to go?”

“We’re goin’ to the beach!” Greg announced.

I still looked irritated by Tiffany, so Derek shot me a confused look.

I shook my head so he wouldn’t worry about it. Sometimes I seriously wish I was an only child. When Mom left, I don’t recall her leaving Tiffany in charge.

Greg slapped Derek’s shoulder. “C’mon, we promised Pete we’d be there.”

Derek’s face grew strained. I didn’t know who Pete was, but I hoped Derek would take us home before we’re grounded for life. The wind chill made me tremble, and the way things were going with curfew, I had a bad feeling. Derek looked over his shoulder. “It’s not a good idea. What if my mom tells their dad?”

Greg laughed. “Are you kidding? Did you see how bad your mom was crying Friday morning? Man, she’s never talking to their dad again!”

Tiffany groaned, turned off her phone, and stooped in her seat.

Derek rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “The beach is about an hour and a half away,” he uttered. “So we can only stay for an hour, if they’re gonna get back in before sunrise. I say we just take them home.”

“Well, take Anna home. Tiffany and I wanna go. There’ll be other chicks there,” Greg said.

There’ll be other chicks there? Was this the college attitude? Anna’s not around, just find someone else? I stared into the side of Derek’s face, half surprised my glare hadn’t burnt a hole through it.

“Well?” Greg nudged Derek’s shoulder.

I looked away so Derek wouldn’t see the look on my face. He started the car, slammed on the gas, and peeled out of the parking spot, headed straight for the highway. My eyes grew teary.

Derek sped up to 81 in a 55. He glanced back at Greg like that’s a safe thing to do. “We’ll just go for an hour.”

In the mirror, I saw the most unpleasant look cover Tiffany’s face. But after a while, she started making out with Greg. I didn’t look again after that.

Derek glimpsed in the rearview mirror and shook his head. An energetic grin lit up his face. I was glad he wasn’t taking me home, even though I knew Dad would kill us when we finally get there. The numbers on his stereo read 1:20. The sight of the time made my stomach clench. That and the speed made me so nervous, I felt sick.

~ ~ ~

The beach was dotted with seniors. It was dark, the stars were bright, and the music was loud. Nearby was an all-night eatery, so the smell of pizza filled the air.

The instant the car stopped, Greg and Tiffany hopped out of the back. She tossed her shoes and they ran toward a crowd by the water. We were surprised they were still fully dressed.

Derek sat on his hood and watched them. His tuxedo jacket was off, his shirt half unbuttoned, his hair a mess from the convertible top being down. His cologne tickled my nose as I sat beside him. I took off my heels so I wouldn’t scratch his hood and hoped my presence wasn’t ruining his partying—you know, with all those chicks there and all.

He smiled thoughtfully at nothing in particular. There were boats out on the harbor and noisy seagulls overhead, swooping down to snatch bits of hot dogs and pizza crust off the sand. People were spread out in clusters—laughing, flirting, dancing. And we just sat there all alone. At least, we were alone, until Greg’s crowd approached—him, Tiffany, two guys and two girls, one in a prom dress and one in a swimsuit.

“We’ve got beer!” Greg announced, his shirt flying back in the breeze. A tall, muscular surfer who I’d heard addressed as Pete was with them. Pete had a buzz cut, pierced ears and a cooler full of booze. Greg stopped short of us, his arm wrapped around my sister. He threw Derek a drink and offered me one, too.

Everyone stared at me—what was I supposed to do?

Pete took it from Greg and placed the bottle directly in my hand. It was freezing cold and wet. I eyed the green bottle, then everyone before me. Tiffany glowered like I wasn’t supposed to. Then she grabbed an open one and guzzled it down. I wonder if “World’s Biggest Hypocrite” is a category in the Guinness Book of World Records? She’d take the cake.

Derek cleared his throat and threw his beer back. “Thanks, but my parents will kill me if I crash my car.”

“It’s only one drink!” Greg laughed and tossed it back. “C’mon, man, it’ll wear off by the time we leave.”

I sat with my beer unopened, staring at them as they stared back at me. I leaned into Derek’s ear. “Can you get them to leave?” I was buckling under all the pressure.

Derek nodded at them and toasted his beer bottle. “Can we get some privacy over here?”

Greg chugged down his beer. “We thought maybe you had enough privacy earlier, that’s all.”

Tiffany shot me that look again, like I’m supposed to convert and join the abbey. I twisted the top off my beer and tasted it. Way too bitter. I set it down on my lap.

“You barely had any!” Pete howled, staggering toward me. The guy was totally drunk off his ass.

“She had some,” Derek said. “I saw her gulp it down.”

Pete elbowed Greg. “He saw her gulp it down.” They laughed like that was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. What a bunch of perverts! Pete took a chug. “Man, yours isn’t even open yet!”

“Chill, I’ve got it!” Derek popped the top off and held the beer up. “See?”

Pete practically fell on the blonde in the bathing suit. Thankfully some girl by the water called him over, so he gathered his beer-binging posse and was on his way.

Derek sighed. “Bitter?”

“Quite.”

“Yeah, this is the cheap crap.” He drained his bottle on the ground by his car, eyeballing the shore. “Greg’s a bit difficult sometimes.”

I slid closer to him and dumped my beer. “He is.” I wasn’t gonna say flat out, “Hey, I hate your cousin.”

“Who’s Pete?” I wondered aloud.

“A guy we have classes with,” Derek said. “He’s more friends with Greg than he is with me.” He looked at me for a second, then moved in and kissed me. The palm of his hand was cool on my face. The noise around us just phased out.

The kiss ended abruptly, but he didn’t pull his face away. “Ever been in love?” he asked in this soft, distant voice.

My hand got sweaty on the Mustang’s red paint. “I’m not sure. You?”

His eyes brushed the shoreline, then met mine again. He smiled shyly.

“What?”

“Hard to tell. I have nothing to compare it to.”

I had an idea of how love feels. Maybe it feels like the butterflies in my stomach. Maybe it feels like it does when I don’t want him to stop kissing me. Maybe it’s what makes my heart flutter every time he looks at me that way.

But my heart also fluttered when I hopped into Jesse’s lap the night I met Greg. It flutters every time I get a new text. It flutters when I think about my best friend. So that can’t be what love feels like.

Derek kissed me again. When we parted, we looked out by the water. My sister laughed wildly, her arms tied around Greg, her body half covered in sand.

Our time there didn’t feel like long. But the moment I dreaded came and went. Derek cleared his throat. “It’s ten after four. What time does your dad usually wake up?”

“Six.”

He held his forehead. “Aw shit.”

~ ~ ~

We snuck in through the back door and listened from the garage for any movement inside the house. It was absolutely silent. With sweaty, shaky hands, I pushed cautiously on the kitchen door. Tiffany groped my shoulder for a better view. Her breath reeked of alcohol.

I elbowed her to get her to back up.

“Ow!” She flinched.

I peered inside. Once I determined it was as clear as it’d ever be, I hurried in, tiptoeing around the corner and up the stairs, my sister on my tail. When my door was within arms’ reach, I jumped for the doorknob and we hauled ass inside. She leapt in behind me and I closed it.

Zorro pounced and caught himself in my pantyhose. I picked him up by the scruff. He’s big and fat, the size of a juvenile kitten. As tends to happen when I pick him up that way, he yawned time and time again. “I caught you too,” I mumbled, planting a kiss on his dry pink nose.

Tiffany was already in her nightgown, in bed, staring at the ceiling. I was surprised she didn’t pass out from the three bottles of beer Greg shoved down her throat.

We didn’t leave the beach until after five, and at 7:28, Dad wasn’t even awake! Derek sped all the way home and we didn’t get busted—not by the cops, not by Dad. We couldn’t possibly get any luckier!

I crawled out of my wrinkled dress, threw it in the corner, put on beige shorts and a tee shirt. I didn’t intend to pretend I’d just woken up, like somebody else I know. Nope, I put on my clothes, stretched, and fed my ferret.

Our room is a disaster. Sure, Zorro loves all the clothes scattered about to hide in, but pretty soon Dad would lecture and call us slobs. I threw a few things in our laundry basket as Tiffany dozed off. I then lay on my bed and looked thoughtfully at the top bunk. My cell phone vibrated. I looked at the screen.

Hi.

I grinned. I wanted to ask where he was. Where he’d been. What he’d done. When he got home. Unfortunately, none of those were any of my business.

What’s up?

I figured that was a safe question. I was being nosy, without being obviously nosy. It would break the ice. He’d tell me everything, like he usually does.

My phone vibrated.

Do you really wanna know?

I stared at it, unsure how to take it. I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic, or if my mind was in the gutter. I smiled, amused. Yeah, I wanted to know, but I was too afraid to type that in case his mind was in the gutter too.

When the clock struck eight, I entered our private bath, where I noticed my hickeys needed fresh cover up. That’s what I spent another ten minutes doing. It had to look convincing, because it was about seventy degrees outside and I was not gonna wear a turtleneck! When I was satisfied, I brushed my teeth, tore the hyper ferret away from my leg, and knocked on Dad’s door.

No answer.

I knocked again, feeling an adrenalin rush. Hopefully he wasn’t up at eleven last night, waiting for us to get back! Again there was no answer. He had to be on his tennis date.

I poured myself some Lucky Charms, ate so quick my stomach hurt, and washed the bowl. The phone was so unexpected that my head almost hit the ceiling.

I picked up the cordless and hit the talk button.

“He’s here,” someone breathed.

After a momentary silence, I recognized the low, deep voice murmuring into the phone. It was Derek. “What?”

“He’s at my house, at the breakfast table, with my mom.”

I panicked. “Did he see you sneak in?”

He was silent for a second. “Come over.”

“But—”

“See you in a few.” He hung up.

I stormed into my bedroom, hopped onto the base of the bed, grabbed Tiffany’s foot, and yanked. Her eyes shot open. “What!”

“Dad’s across the street!”

She rubbed her eyes. “What?”

“Dad—he’s at Derek’s house, with Claudia! I think they got busted!”

“Oh my God!” She jumped from her bunk, grabbed a pair of my jeans and a random shirt from the closet, and hurried off to the bathroom.

After a minute, she spit her mouthwash all over the sink and rushed past me down the stairs. In the foyer, she fell to her knees and looked up at me as she tied her laces in knots. “Can you see my hickey?”

“Nope.” It’s not like there’s anything she could do about it anyway, it’s purple.

“Good.”

I set myself on the bottom step and put on my sneakers. “Can you see mine?”

She made a face as she got to her feet. “You have a hickey? And you expect me to believe you guys fell asleep? Do you think I’m stupid?”

I followed her out the door. My hickey was a bad thing, but her drinking beer, partying, and straddling Greg in the backseat of Derek’s car were okay? I would’ve asked too, but before long we were ringing Derek’s doorbell and it was a bit late for quarrels.

Jesse opened the door. His smile faded. “Anna, what’s with your neck?”

So much for cover-up!

We walked past him, through his huge, marble-tiled foyer and into the kitchen. Their kitchen is almost twice the size of ours. It’s a really well lit room with an oak table, black and white tiles and ivory walls. Pots and pans hung beneath the cabinets. They had every kitchen gadget imaginable and two marble sinks. And there was Dad, at the table, sipping coffee, talking with Claudia.

Today Claudia’s face glowed. “Tiffany, Anna, good morning! How did you girls sleep?”

Tiffany and I exchanged looks. “O-o-o-okay,” we muttered.

Now Claudia was more conservative than a nun, in a long-sleeve shirt and jeans, wearing her hair in a ponytail. Dad wore sandals, jeans, and a dress shirt. His hair was tied back neatly, his eyes were refreshed, and his smile was big. I assumed he didn’t notice our absence after eleven, as he hadn’t killed us yet. So I was relieved.

Tiffany sat herself on the chair next to them, pulling her hair over each shoulder nervously. “I was up kinda late,” she said, “since we got home around eleven.” My sister tried way too hard to sound honest.

Dad looked remorseful. “Oh, sorry, Princess, I was fast asleep. I set my alarm for that hour and it never went off.” He and Claudia exchanged smiles. “At 6:30 I got a call from Ms. Daniels to take a look at some illustrations, and I’ve been here since.” My dad’s a content manager for a big insurance company. He works from home three days a week and in the office the remaining two. He’s in charge of finding freelance illustration and design to make the company’s website more interesting. Since Claudia’s an illustrator, that’s working out very well for both of them. And for us, apparently.

Hearing Dad say that made my blood pump a bit slower.

“Anna, how are your sketches? Are they done yet?” Claudia asked, referring to my still lifes.

Over the past year, Claudia has become my mentor. She’s a self-taught artist and she’s been helping me with my art. I wasn’t going to spend a hundred grand on art school just to work as a freelance artist, as she said I shouldn’t. She said people don’t ask about what degree is hanging on a wall they can’t see in your house—they ask to see what you can do. So she’s been helping me prep my portfolio, and I’m getting my own website this coming fall. I just have to turn eighteen before I open up a business.

I like the idea of working out of my house in my pajamas like she does. I can move anywhere I want and have the freedom to do anything I want. “Still working on them,” I breathed. “I’ll bring them by when they’re done.”

She smiled her warm smile. “I’d love that!”

Derek showed up beside me, leaning on his fridge, wearing an unbuttoned yellow shirt, sandals and long denim shorts. His eyes rolled down my body and he winked. “Mom, we’re going hiking.”

She waved us away, her attention turning back to my dad.

We were out the door and across the street in a heartbeat.

Derek and I headed for our camping spot. There, we childishly hid behind the ancient maple, in case anyone followed. He leaned on the giant trunk of the tree, his legs apart and his arms cradling me. The birds chirped above, the sun shone on us, and the sky was a perfect blue when he kissed me, his warm hands cupped around my face.

“So he didn’t say anything about you coming in so early this morning?” I asked when our lips parted.

“No. We just told him we went out after we dropped you girls off. My mom was in the bathroom, and when she came out, she didn’t even ask.” He swatted a mosquito in annoyance. “He was really focused on my mom. Don’t think he even remembered we were there after she walked in.”

“I’m glad I went with you,” I said, referring to the beach.

“I’m glad, too. It kinda kept me in check.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant.

He smirked and glanced away. “Greg’s not the best influence on me.” He combed his hair aside. “Wanna camp out next weekend?”

“Yeah,” I breathed, getting exited. Camping is seriously my favorite thing to do.

 

[]Thursday, May 12

This whole Dad-dating-Claudia thing is freaking me out. Nowadays he gets her chocolates or flowers daily. This morning, he brought her four dozen roses and even a card thanking her for moving in next door. And when he’s not working or playing tennis, he’s reading this magazine on dating in your 40’s. He doesn’t even cook for us anymore. Now he’s like, “Here’s some money, Princess, why don’t you order Chinese?” Then he immerses himself in those magazine tests. The ones that rate how good a lover you are, and have the word “sex” on the cover in 72-point font.

It’s highly disturbing!

Today is graduation. Jesse, Tiffany, and I hung out in the gym after school. As usual, my sister had her iPhone for updating Facebook and Twitter, and a steamy romance novel to keep her company. I got curious and peeked over her shoulder several times. I don’t think she’s old enough to even read those things. I read two sentences, and they made me blush. I could never read stuff like that, not with a straight face. It’s completely perverted.

“Oh my God!” My sister gasped. “Sloppy Seconds is a trending topic! That book is so hot!” She laughed, scrolling down the iPhone screen with her finger. “Seems they’re not all talking about the book though!” She giggled.

Jesse rolled his eyes. “So that’s why they say Twitter is for twits.”

I started to laugh.

Hundreds had gathered by the time the ceremony started. It dragged on until the diplomas were in our hands and we were all dying to leave. The speeches were long, boring, and pointless.

My phone vibrated, with Jesse inches from me. Tiffany gave us a crazed look. I giggled and read the text.

I cheered for you.

My grin widened. I was pleasantly surprised at how many people did. It seemed like a contest, to see how loud the crowd got when each name was called to get their diploma.

I leaned into him. At the same time, he turned his head to look at me, bringing our lips uncomfortably close. “I cheered for you, too,” I whispered.

He smelled incredible. He glanced at my lips and smiled shyly. “Thanks, Anna. I thought you would.”

To celebrate, we ate at this really pricy seafood restaurant Dad picked out. I guess Dad wanted to impress his girlfriend, but would that impress her, anyway? I mean, she’s been married to richer! Her ex-husband Maximilian works on Wall Street and drives a beamer. Maximilian dumped them all in Vermont eight years ago, after he’d decided they were taking up too much of his time and holding back his career. He only sends them money now. Sure, he sounds like an asshole—but Wall Street and a beamer—I doubt Dad can top that!

Throughout dinner, we listened to our parents talk. It went something like this:

Dad: “Business is booming! The website gets at least eighty thousand visitors per day!”

Claudia: “How do you stay on top of it all?”

Dad: “Time management, patience, and a lovely lady to keep me sane.”

We rolled our eyes. Greg groaned when they started feeding one another. “Hey, Aunt Claudia, I’m goin’ out for some fresh air.”

“Okay, Greg.”

“Oh! Me, too!” Tiffany ran off before Dad could say otherwise.

“Can I go?” Derek and I asked at once.

“No,” our parents answered sharply. “Eat!”

Jesse smirked. Derek shot a look. When our parents were busy talking again, Derek breathed in my ear, “Meet me at the camp site at midnight.”

Jesse sighed and impaled his shrimp.

 

[]Friday, May 13

The sky was inky black and moonless. Swaying leaves masked the night silence. It reminded me of those nights in Sleepy Hollow.

I’d left my house at exactly midnight, and when my light-up watch read 12:17, there was still no sign of Derek.

I sat on an old tree stump and watched the wind hit the side of the tent. An owl was in that maple again. I wondered if it was the same one Derek cursed at three years ago.

I wore black polyester pants and a formfitting t-shirt that barely covered my bellybutton. The pants were wind proof, but in the t-shirt I was freezing. I wished he’d hurry up already.

At 12:20, Manny started barking. Loud, deep, fierce barks that echoed in the night. Manny sometimes sleeps chained outside, and barks every time an animal gets him started. But this time he sounded uncommonly agitated.

At 12:22, the barking stopped abruptly. I got to my feet, thinking maybe I should go back inside. What if Tiffany woke up and didn’t see me in bed? She’d be out in a heartbeat to pester me. Derek probably forgot or fell asleep. I’ll wait till 12:25.

The leaves crackled in the wind. I sat back down and hugged myself, rubbing the lengths of my arms for warmth. It was 12:24. I strained to see in the darkness: 12:25.

Unable to bring myself to leave, I stayed. I wanted to see him too bad.

At the sound of footsteps, I froze. His golden hair and shaded face were the first to come into view. He wore black jeans and a gray shirt. His hair was gelled back, shiny in the low light, and he smelled like aftershave. “Hi,” he whispered, growing closer.

“Hi.” I hugged him for warmth.

“Sorry I’m late. You feel cold.” He took off his jacket and wrapped it around my shoulders.

“Thanks. What kept you?”

“My mom was still awake at midnight. She was talking on the phone with a friend in Boston. She’s so happy nowadays.”

“Do you wanna go into the tent?”

He looked at it for a moment. Then he said, “If it’s okay, I’d rather be outside.”

“Okay. Want me to get the sheet?”

“Sure.”

I went into the tent, pulled it out, and spread it across the ground. We fell into sitting positions. The wind was dying down, and I had a coat now, so I’d manage. “So what do you think about our parents?”

He lay down facing me, holding his head in his hand. “I dunno. We’re still allowed to be together if they get hitched, right?”

“Yeah, why not? We’re not blood relatives.” We were silent for a moment. “So what are we doing out here?”

He inched closer to me. “I just wanted to see you. Sorry I’ve been busy with finals. I hope you don’t feel neglected.” He kissed my hand. “I miss seeing you in school. You’ve been my favorite part of school, ever since the seventh grade or so. Remember the seventh grade?”

“Yeah, I remember,” I said, trying not to. Mostly I remembered him yanking my hair, taunting and teasing me. I definitely prefer this relationship to that one!

“It wasn’t anywhere near this fun, though.”

I totally started sucking his face. His hands brushed my boobs, though he removed them immediately, so I couldn’t tell if it was intentional or a mistake. It also made me think of Jesse.

After a few minutes, he breathed, “Do you want to?”

My back grew tense. Do I want to?

Our eyes locked. “What?” His face lit up.

I shook my head instantly. “Nothing…”

“You didn’t answer me.”

I wrapped my arms around him.

“Why not?”

I chuckled. “Because we’re in the woods, and we’re not mountain lions!”

“Okay, so where do you want to?” He wore a soft, harmless smile.

“Well you’re eager!”

His voice softened. “I know.”

My heart sank at the disappointed look on his face. I pulled his neck in and kissed him. “Soon, okay?”

“How soon?”

I gazed into the sky. The moon escaped a blanket of dark clouds. “I don’t know. Soon.”

He rolled off and turned on his back, lying by my side, studying the sky with me.

“Derek, why’d you pick me?”

“Why’d I pick you for what?”

I turned my head to him. “Why’d you pick me? You’ve had girlfriends before. Far more popular than me.” I know, that made it sound like I was even popular at all.

He grinned, still looking up. “You act like I had a lot. I only had two girlfriends. Well, two plus Zoey, but we didn’t date long enough for it to count. And they’re not like you.” He glanced at me. “Plus, I seem to hyperventilate less around you than other girls. Staying conscious when I’m supposed to is a plus.”

Wow, so he’s more nervous around other girls? I honestly couldn’t imagine that. I hovered over him, our faces a mere inch apart. “Then why did you always tease me?”

“Because I liked you!”

I rolled my eyes.

“You don’t believe me?”

“You didn’t give me the time of day till you were fifteen.”

He laughed. “Sure I did! I started giving you the time of day the minute I moved across the street!”

I laughed. “I don’t call taunting and pulling ponytails giving me the time of day!”

His grin was ear to ear. “I do.” Our eyes locked, and his twinkled. “Anyway, I guess Jesse intimidated me. You guys are always together. Maybe I didn’t want to impose.”

“Well, what are best friends for?” I smiled. “That’s all he is, a friend.”

Derek smiled thoughtfully.

Twigs snapped in the woods. Manny started barking up a storm again. We looked toward his house. Derek chuckled. “That dog’s out of his mind. A mouse crawls by, and he lunges at it!” By the time he finished saying that, the barking stopped, which is a good thing, because I didn’t feel like having the dog wake our parents.

He kissed me again. His fingers crawled up my shirt and hesitantly rested on my mid-section. His mouth tasted like cinnamon. I liked peeking as he kissed me. A few times, I caught him peeking, too.

But it was short lived.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of something. I jumped off of him and stepped backwards toward the maple. He stared in the same direction, practically wheezing. Something hurried toward us—something faster than anything we’d ever seen! In passing I wondered if this was another prank. But I doubt Greg can run that fast on all fours…

He jumped to his feet and picked up a branch about as thick around as a baseball bat. The bushes rolled to their sides, the leaves crackled, the moon vanished, the sky lit up, and suddenly thunder boomed. “What the hell!” he screamed over the sudden hail that hammered us.

Whatever ran toward us emerged, growling fiercely, whipping its shoulders from side to side. I screamed, falling to the wet moss beneath me. My butt hit the stone-hard tree roots that snaked above ground, sending a painful spike up my spine.

Derek swung and smacked it right in the jaw, knocking it off balance. It lunged at him again and bit the other end of the branch. It held onto it fiercely, pulling it with a deep growl, wagging its bushy tail. Derek gasped. “Sit!”

It released the branch, whimpered, and sat. I moved a few steps closer. It was only Manny. He probably thought the branch was a game. “Did he break the chain?”

“It looks like someone let him go!” Derek yelled over roaring thunder and now-freezing rain.

“Who would do that?”

He shook his head and looked around. “I dunno! Someone he knows is my bet. But I have to get him back!” He grabbed the dog’s collar and looked at me. I could see his breath. “I’ll see you later, okay?”

I sprang forward and kissed him. Manny whimpered as the rain clobbered on our heads.

It’s like he’d have to fight me off, that’s the kind of grip I had on Derek. I didn’t want our time together to end. And he didn’t resist. When our lips finally parted he said, “You should go! I don’t want you getting sick.”

He tugged on Manny’s collar, and I watched them disappear. Then I rushed back to my house, as lightning struck and the sky rumbled all around me. My clothes were soaked and I was freezing cold.

Whoever let the dog go really ruined our night, and it annoyed the crap out of me. At least it didn’t get our parents up, though. Friday the Thirteenth could have been worse.

I decided I won’t sneak out again for a while, just to play it safe.

 

[]Saturday, May 21

After dinner, Derek, Greg, Tiffany and I left Dad and Claudia in the dining room and went to set up camp. Before we reached the campsite, I checked my phone for new texts. Jesse missed dinner and I thought he’d at least text me to tell me why. But I got nothing.

We got the fire going, sat around it and began our marshmallow ritual. Only this time, our ritual was different, because Greg brought a 12-pack.

Tonight Derek wasn’t so beer-shy.

“This stuff doesn’t taste like moose piss,” Derek said, chugging down most of the bottle in under a minute. “It’s pretty good.” He wiped his mouth and handed me the remainder of the bottle. “Try it.”

I peered toward my house. Dad would kill us if he caught us.

Tiffany was having one, Greg was on his second, and Derek was staring at me. So I took a sip. Then another. And another. I drank until the bottle ran dry.

Greg threw Derek another one. Derek popped the top off and passed it to me.

“For me…?” My stomach kinda burned.

Derek caught a third one. He popped the top off and took a gulp.

I didn’t want to have too much, but I took another sip.

Greg shook his head. “You’re such a goody-two-shoes.”

“I’m not. I’m drinking it.” I drank some more.

He looked dubious. “Whatever.”

I cleared my throat. My entire body felt hot. “I don’t like how it burns going down.”

“It’s alcohol, it does that.” Then he kissed my sister. How she can sleep with him—and I have no doubts that she does—is beyond me!

We heard footsteps approach. Derek collected all the bottles and stood them up in the cooler, closing the lid. We fell silent and looked in the direction of the noise.

It was just Jesse. But not the Jesse I expected.

“Where are your glasses?” I asked as he parked himself a few feet away from me and Derek.

“Don’t wear them anymore.”

Derek moaned. “He got contacts.”

Greg grunted, made his way to the cooler, and started redistributing beers. He even placed one in Jesse’s hand.

I looked Jesse over. His hair was styled, his eyes were awesome, his arms were bulging out of a tight muscle shirt, and he wore a sexy new silver chain. He wore baggy new jeans and his shirt complemented his eyes. I was in complete awe! I thought he was hot before, but now? I’d hung around that guy every day for the past eight years!

Derek pulled me into his chest. His beer was gone, but he refused another. He kissed me briefly. I giggled and scooted toward his younger brother.

“So why did you ditch your glasses?” I probed.

Jesse held the unopened beer bottle up to the fire and looked through it. “I didn’t like them.”

I looked them over for comparison to figure out who’s hotter now, Jesse or Derek.

Derek combed his hair back with his fingers. He wrapped his arms around me again and kissed my neck. “I’m thinking to shorten my hair a bit,” he breathed in my ear.

“Like I’ve been telling you to do for the past eight years?”

His response lagged. “Yeah.”

I turned my attention back to Jesse. “Are you gonna drink that?” He’s really not the type.

His eyes rolled down every inch of me. He popped the cap off, drank much of the bottle almost instantly and said, “Not bad.”

“Wow,” I said in awe.

Derek groaned. “I had two!”

“I know,” I said. “This is all just… new.”

Derek tightened his grip on me. His breathing in my ear felt unusually intense.

Jesse wore a smug grin. “Looks like I can be just as cool as you, huh Derek?”

My back slid down so Derek’s chest supported my head. Derek’s narrowed eyes fixed on his brother. “Whatever Jesse,” he mumbled.

Jesse glared into the fire. “Hey, maybe I’ll even be better at some things than you are.”

Derek’s pulse slapped the side of his neck. “Like?” he growled through his teeth.

Jesse took a last sip of beer and trickled the rest into the fire. As the flame grew, he glowered and said, “Maybe I won’t start college a virgin.”

Every drop of blood in Derek’s body rushed to his head.

The next thing to come from anyone’s mouth was Greg’s “Oh, shit!”

All eyes were on Jesse. Tiffany was stunned. I couldn’t believe he said that! He was so unbelievably cool! So ballsy! So calm!

It made my mouth drop. It turned me on. It made me gasp. “Wow!” I said again.

Derek got to his feet, his hands in tight fists by his side. “I’m not a virgin, asshole!”

Jesse’s eyebrows gathered. “Really?”

“Fuck yeah really!”

Jesse laughed. “Whatever makes you feel better!”

Greg practically rolled on the ground laughing.

Derek scowled. “Jesse, shut the fuck up!”

“Why? Because I’m right?”

“Because you know I’ll bust your head open if you call me that again!”

I watched intently, my heart pounding. Not only was Jesse new, this was new too!

Jesse’s smile was practically ear to ear. “What are you gonna do, Derek? Beat me up for mocking you?” His smile grew wider still. “Derek’s a virgin, almost nineteen! He can’t get a grip on his nerves. Do your popular little friends know?”

By now Tiffany couldn’t even contain herself.

I was at a loss for words.

Jesse wasn’t shocked when Derek charged him.

Jesse threw a punch, slamming Derek down with all his body weight. In an instant, they were on the ground, Jesse on top, pounding Derek into the dirt. Their faces matched the fire burning inches away.

“Knock it off!” Tiffany screamed. Then to no one in particular she demanded, “Stop them! They might set themselves on fire!”

Greg still laughed, gripping his stomach and gasping for air.

I didn’t know where to start trying to pull them apart. They punched and screamed and cursed. They raised a dust storm. They were going to completely mess each other up. “Derek, stop!” I grabbed him, but it didn’t help. Jesse advanced.

“Stop Jesse!” I called to Tiffany. Derek pulled himself from my grasp, lunging toward his brother. I lost my balance and fell in the dirt. I scraped a rock, peeling the flesh off my palm. I started to bleed.

Tiffany had Jesse. I grabbed Derek’s shirt. But we weren’t strong enough to hold two furious guys apart. They only collided again, fell to the ground, punched, kicked, screamed, swore, and choked each other with rage. They looked like they’d fight to the death.

“What the hell is going on here!”

Dad’s voice. He rushed in and broke the two apart. Everyone froze. There were empty beer bottles everywhere. We were all completely screwed!

Derek looked at my father apologetically. Jesse wiped the blood off his nose and caught his breath, glaring into the blazing fire before him.

“I think it’s time you boys get inside! We’ll be discussing proper behavior for when you’re around my daughters!” A huge vein bulged out of Dad’s temple. “Let’s go!” He turned to Greg. “How about you put that fire out and pick up those beer bottles. Then you get your ass to my living room!”

I grew uncomfortably hot. I didn’t recall seeing Dad that furious before.

We followed him in, single-file, Jesse in front and the rest of us behind. Derek and Jesse sat on the couch, Tiffany and I on the love seat. Greg sat between Derek and Jesse.

Claudia stood in the entryway. “What’s happened?” she demanded.

Derek wiped the constant stream of blood from his nose. Jesse’s head fell.

“They got drunk and started fighting,” Dad said. “Isn’t that right, boys?”

Jesse looked at Claudia. “I’m not drunk, I had a sip.”

“You had a whole bottle!” Derek hollered.

“You had two!” Jesse screamed.

Claudia scowled. “What were you two fighting over?”

Derek’s eyes brushed mine.

Jesse glared at the carpet.

No one said a word.

“Well, here’s what I think,” Dad started. “I think you boys need to get your priorities straight and not attempt to corrupt my little girls. None of you are legally old enough to drink.” He stood before them firmly. “There are laws for a reason, you know.”

“It wasn’t the beer,” Derek muttered. “It was Jesse being a smart ass.”

“I wasn’t being a smart ass, asshole!” Jesse got to his feet, arms bulging, fists clenched. I wasn’t sure what got into Jesse, but I thought it was hot. “I’m sick of you pushing me around!”

Derek rose aggressively, though Dad kept them apart.

Claudia stomped between them and pulled Jesse by the ear like he was five. His face instantly grew red. He fell onto the couch and glared at Derek.

“You two, stop now!” Claudia screamed viciously. “Jesse, what is the matter with you! You know what? I don’t care what the issue is here! I don’t want this to happen ever again!” She glowered at Derek and pointed to the door. Then she ordered Greg over with her index finger. “I will send you home! And I mean your real home, not the one I made for you! Don’t make me, Greg! Because you know I will!”

Greg headed for the door, hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched. Out he went. Derek followed, not so much as even glancing at me, instead shooting his brother a dirty look. Jesse gaped at me with glossy eyes.

“Kevin, we’ll figure something out.” Claudia grabbed her purse and keys off the coffee table.

Dad nodded, that vein still bulging. “We’ll talk.”

Tiffany and I swapped looks.

“Get to your room, young man,” Claudia ordered Jesse.

Jesse strolled out in a cool stride like he was untouchable. Claudia looked briefly at Dad. “Thanks again.”

We heard the bolt click when the door closed, and little else.

Dad sat across from us and tightened his ponytail. “What started this, girls?”

I wasn’t about to say, “Derek got pissed for being called a virgin.” Surely Dad didn’t need to know everything.

When we didn’t respond, he heaved a sigh. “You two are grounded for a week. Got that? And I don’t want to hear of you or see you ever drink another drop until you’re twenty-one. Is that clear?”

We nodded, Tiffany in tears.

“Now get upstairs, and stay there!”

 

[]Friday, May 27

There were no get-togethers all week. Dad and Claudia talked on the phone, or he went to her place.

On Wednesday night, at a quarter to eleven, Dad turned off the TV and said, “I’m going over to talk to Claudia. Be in bed by eleven.”

Couldn’t talking to Claudia wait until morning?

“I’m telling you, they’re doin’ it!” Tiffany said as she applied nail polish to her toenails an hour later. She sat on the top bunk, in a sea of perverted novels. Seriously, she needs a new hobby!

I rolled my eyes and rubbed Zorro’s tummy.

“They are,” she insisted. “They have to be. It’s like, midnight and he’s not home yet. Plus, neither of them has dated in like, eight years!”

After my perverted sister went to bed, I waited up for Dad to come home. In the darkness, I turned on my phone and sent Jesse a text:

Is Dad there?

Five minutes later, my phone vibrated.

Was downstairs with my mom. Not sure now.

My fingers glided over the buttons.

You looked great the other day.

I nervously hit send.

You look great every day.

My heart fluttered. I turned the phone off. He said I looked great every day. I’m not sure about every day, but he’d managed to make me melt.

It was after one. No signs of Dad. All I could hear were Zorro’s occasional squeals. Manny hadn’t even barked since Dad went over.

Dad didn’t go “talk” to her in person since Wednesday. I haven’t seen Derek in five days, and that’s five days too many.

Our parents are way too hard on us. It was just a fight after all, and except for a few scrapes and a bloody nose or two, no one was hurt. I think they are taking it a bit too far, and grounding us for a week is way too harsh. For God’s sake, it’s just a beer! It’s not like we’re drunks or anything. Well, except for Greg.

Over the past few days I started reading again. Life of Pi, one of my favorites.

I’m a pretty simple soul. Not a fan of e-books. I like to have something to hold in my hands, and you can’t beat the smell of ink and paper! I don’t see the point of posting to the world every time I sneeze. I was on Facebook for a day—not for me. If I want to talk to my friends, I can either text them, call them, or visit them. Not like I have many anyway.

Tiffany spends a lot of time on the phone with Lydia, whispering things I’m not supposed to hear about her and Greg. That’s actually the only good thing about being grounded—not being bothered by Greg.

~ ~ ~

This afternoon, I sat on the porch, snooping on the boys next door. They were too preoccupied to notice me, and the trees in front of my house kind of hid me from them. I was in a position where I could see them clearly but they couldn’t see me unless they really looked.

I know, I’m bad.

Derek and Greg sat around talking on their porch, throwing Manny’s little rubber ball at the siding of their house. There were hardly any birds out, and our street is a pretty dull place, so I was able to hear them quite well. They mostly talked about college and their classes next term. For the most part, what they were saying was rather uneventful.

Then Zoey rode up the street in bike shorts and a sports bra. Her hair was pulled back neatly in a French braid. She stopped in front of their house, giggled flirtatiously and called, “Hi, boys!” She was probably batting her long, thick eyelashes at them, too.

Greg nudged Derek. “Go, go!” he pressed.

“I haven’t seen you in a while!” Zoey called to Derek. “Wanna hang out?”

My ears began to steam.

Derek was hunched over on the top of the four concrete steps, his face being licked by that monstrous dog of theirs. “Maybe some other time.”

“Oh. Because my parents went to Hawaii and I’m kinda bored alone at my house.”

I went up in flames. What a slut! Does she know how to do anything aside from flirt? I crossed my arms over my chest and quivered. Seeing Greg nudge my boyfriend toward her again wasn’t helping matters. I wanted to dig my nails into her eye sockets and pull!

Derek’s face was flushed. “Ah, I’ve got a lot to do here.” He pushed Manny’s snout away.

“Like what?” Zoey dragged her bike closer to him.

“Yeah, like what?” Greg elbowed him again. Then he hollered, “Derek’s a bit shy!”

“Manny, attack Greg. Manny, please attack Greg,” I mumbled wistfully. But Manny just sat by Derek’s side, oblivious to the evil that stood in his driveway.

With another of Greg’s nudges, Derek was on his feet, a mere ten feet from her. His hands were in his pockets, his hair short and finally out of his eyes.

“You don’t have to be shy,” Zoey said. “In fact, I can help you with that!”

I can help you with that? O-o-oh, I so knew she was a slut! I bit my bottom lip so hard blood gushed from it.

Derek tilted his head. “Really?” His voice was oddly cheerful. He advanced toward her slowly.

My breath caught in my throat. Did he want her to help him with that!

“Yeah, I’d love to.”

He stopped two feet from her and nodded, looked in the direction of her house, rubbed his chin. Was he actually considering it?

Zoey tucked what I assumed to be a stray hair out of his eyes. It wasn’t even in his eyes, his hair is short! His smile faded for a second. He took a step back. “So, what do you think?” she pressed.

He looked down the street again. “I think…”

I strained to hear, as I could hear my pulse above all else.

“… my mom’s gonna expect me to help her with the groceries,” he finished.

Claudia’s Lexus steered around the bend. Unfortunately, it did not hit Zoey like it would have in my fantasies.

She pulled into the driveway, turned off the engine, got out and said, “Hi, Zoey! I haven’t seen you in a bit!”

“Hi, Ms. Daniels.”

“How are your parents doing?”

“They’re on their second honeymoon.”

“Oh, lucky them!” Claudia walked around the side of the car and opened her trunk, grabbing two grocery bags. “Derek, get the dog food,” she ordered. Then she acted like Zoey wasn’t even there—and it’s about time someone did! Manny hurried down the driveway to greet her.

Zoey watched Derek walk by, the whole time smiling at my boyfriend.

His face got all rosy as he smiled back.

I sucked my teeth. My entire being was on fire! But my feelings changed in an instant when I heard a progressively loud noise inside the house and something suddenly slammed into the front door. Tiffany opened the door abruptly and stuck her head out. She didn’t see me there. Nor did she check. “Anna! Get in here! Your cell phone’s ringing!”

I gasped in horror, raising my hands to my face. Anger and jealously juxtaposed into panic and humiliation. And I didn’t know what to do!

Derek practically tripped over the dog when he looked over his shoulder and saw me. The dog food crashed on a yelping Manny. Zoey turned toward my sister’s voice.

Everyone spotted and stared at me. Derek, Greg, Zoey, Claudia, Tiffany. All staring, all judging!

I bolted through the front door and up the stairs. They’d all seen me snooping! I started sobbing. My face felt hot and flushed.

I’m so embarrassed, I want to be grounded for life!

 

[]Saturday, May 28

“It really isn’t so bad.” Tiffany leaned against the frame of our bunk bed. “Come on. He’s been outside for like ten minutes. Go talk to him!”

I pulled my head out of my pillow. “I can never talk to him again!”

She sighed. “Gimme a break! I doubt he’ll even bring it up!”

“No, he probably won’t, but he was there… he saw me!”

She sat on the edge of my mattress. Her shorts were barely long enough to contain her butt. “I didn’t know you were right by the door. I figured you’d want to take Jesse’s call. How do you even know they saw you? Maybe the trees blocked their view.”

Hello! They looked right at me! There aren’t that many trees, and I was quiet before you started screaming for me!” I stuck my head under the pillow. “I never want to see him again!”

“Well, at least he turned Zoey down before he knew you were snooping!”

I threw my pillow aside and sobbed, “Oh God!” when I heard the word snooping. I was totally bawling. “We have to move!”

Her eyes widened. “We are not moving! Now get dressed, get ready, and in five minutes I’m letting him in. You’ve been up here for twenty-four hours obsessing over this! It’s giving me a headache!” She got to her feet and tugged on the pink shirt she outgrew two years ago. At our dresser, she put on some of what I could swear was my lipstick. “Dad’s on a tennis date and he won’t be back until late. I intend to spend my entire day with Greg and not trying to comfort you.”

“Fine,” I muttered, tossing my nightgown on the bed, replacing it with a bra and clothes.

She’d left by then. I could hear her talking to Derek at the door. I was in the bathroom doing makeup and thinking of an excuse for being out there yesterday when I heard a light tap on the door. I swore under my breath because my hair was a disaster!

Derek stared back at me in the mirror. He leaned coolly against the frame of the door, wearing a sexy smile, a jersey, and denim shorts. He was seriously hot.

I shoved him away and slammed the door in his face.

Turning on the faucet, I drenched the top of my head and pulled out the brush. I brushed and brushed and brushed some more. As soon as it was manageable, I tucked my hair behind my ears, opened the door, and smiled angelically.

His back was hugging the wall. “What was that about?”

I rolled my eyes. He had to know what that was about! I walked past and nudged him flirtatiously.

He sat on my bed and hugged his knees. Zorro munched on his fingertips. “Ouch!” He pushed the ferret off the bed as I hovered over my dresser, applying my lipstick. “He’s wild!”

I hoped Tiffany was right about Dad being out all day, because I didn’t feel like getting grounded over this.

Derek smiled, spread himself across my mattress and clasped his hands behind his head. “So, which bunk is yours?”

“The one you’re on.”

Oh, I’m in your bed!” He wore a heavenly grin and eyeballed my nightgown and last night’s panties on the floor. “Hey, I got pretty far today!”

I put my hand to my mouth to cover my smile. For once I wished I’d put my laundry away! My cheeks flushed.

He set his feet on the floor and smiled suggestively, gripping the sheets. “So what do you want to do?”

It was easy to guess what he wanted to do.

After a moment of silence on my part, he said, “Let’s go for a walk.”

I was in disbelief. “And leave my bed?”

“Well, I don’t particularly want to, but I am physically able to.”

I laughed and pulled him to his feet. As he followed me downstairs, he caught me off guard. “What happened yesterday?”

I stopped dead in the foyer. “I wasn’t snooping.”

“I meant, with your dad.”

I am such an idiot! “My dad…?”

“I saw him put a bunch of boxes in the garage. Are you guys moving?”

I had no idea what he was talking about. Yesterday I was too busy crying to even eat. Dad would’ve discussed it with us if we were, and he never mentioned it. In fact, Dad made it clear many times that he plans to be buried in the backyard. So I think we’re safe. It’s about time he cleans up the garage anyway, that would make room for that car he’d promised me eons ago!

We walked into the woods, to the pond near our camp site. The pond is small, but it’s full of life. There are fish, frogs and turtles in there. And all around it I saw those creepy, fuzzy caterpillars Jesse collects.

We sat by the water. Derek’s arm was wrapped tightly around me. I was still embarrassed about yesterday, but he didn’t say a word about it… or anything else, for that matter. I watched his reflection in the pond. He sat with the corner of his mouth on my forehead, staring back at me thoughtfully through the stillness of the water. I asked what he was thinking.

He swatted a bug on his leg and leaned closer to my ear. “I’m thinking… that I may be in love with this girl. She’s got beautiful eyes, a great smile, a hot body, and really nice hair.”

The last part didn’t quite describe me.

“Really? Who?”

He pulled me close and kissed my neck. “You.”

I laughed.

“What?” He leaned closer to look at my face.

I glared. “You’re kidding me. My hair is a curse!”

“How’s it bad?”

Okay, he’s only wondering that because it’s not on his head! “It’s everywhere! It knots. I have to spend half my morning getting it together every day. That’s like one-twelfth of my entire lifetime just trying to get my hair to look presentable! It’s ridiculous!”

Then he kissed me, probably to shut me up. It worked. I wanted to keep complaining, but this made me feel much better. I wrapped my arms around him and closed my eyes. It should’ve lasted forever, it was so blissful. When it was over, his forehead leaned against mine. Our noses touched. “I love your hair.”

The pink rushed to my cheeks. “I love yours, too.”

It was so romantic… Until I heard my name, out of someone else’s mouth.

“That’s definitely your dad,” Derek said. His arms fell beside him on the ground.

I groaned. “Yeah. So much for being out all day.”

The whole neighborhood heard Dad ramble about how he needs to have a talk with me.

~ ~ ~

Unfortunately, Dad didn’t plan on telling me what the problem was until after dinner. He looked really absorbed as he unpacked groceries in the kitchen. I don’t think he was too thrilled to see Derek with me when he got home, but hey—at least Derek wasn’t in my room.

“Set the table for seven, will you Princess?” Dad asked as he rinsed the salad.

From the way he behaved, I started feeling paranoid, like maybe we are moving after all. After the table was set, Derek and I watched Dad cook. The silence made me sweat. Derek didn’t look totally dry, either.

By seven o’clock, dinner was in full swing. We had lasagna, garlic bread, and a side of salad. I sat between Derek and Jesse, though they seemed hormonally balanced today.

Everyone had finished eating except for Dad and Claudia. And they took their sweet time too, discussing work and plans for a fishing trip on Lake Champlain. I was dying to find out what the deal was and get out of there. I had better things to do.

Claudia finally finished eating and pulled the pumpkin pie out of the oven. Each of us got a slice. Then she sat and looked at my dad. He cleared his throat and said,

“We’d like your input on this, as this is a big step for us.” He looked at Claudia, now sweating more than I was.

Claudia tucked her hair behind her ears. “That’s right. Do you want to tell them, or should I tell them?”

“It’s up to you… ladies first.”

“No, maybe you should? I mean it’s your—”

“It’s okay, go ahead.”

Our anxiety grew by the second.

She cleared her throat. “I’m selling the house!”

My breath caught in my throat.

“You’re what!” Derek panicked. “We’re moving?”

Claudia’s teaspoon made the plate ring. “We’re moving here!”

I dropped my spoon. “When?”

Dad dabbed his mouth with his napkin. “Next Saturday.”

“Where will we all sleep?” Jesse asked.

Derek tried to hide a naughty grin.

Dad glared. “I’m cleaning out the den,” Dad said, turning to Jesse.

“But why are we selling the house?”

Claudia sighed. “Well Jesse, Kevin and I are serious now and we’d like to see how things work under one roof. You’ll all be out of the house within the next few years, so why keep a place so big? We’re always together, so what difference does it make if we live in the same house or in homes fifty feet apart?”

Tiffany was so trying to hide her smile. Her plan actually worked! I was dumbfounded!

“So, we’re all gonna live right here,” Derek confirmed with an astonished smile.

Dad threw the napkin on his plate. “That’s the plan. There will be some ground rules of course, and I will have a talk with each of you over the next week.” He paused. “So, does anyone have any objections, comments, questions? Speak now or forever hold your peace!”

Only one question.

“Greg?”

“Do you actually expect us to follow these rules?” A content grin broke out on his face.

Dad pinched the bridge of his nose, sighed, and closed his eyes.

I was so excited, I could barely contain myself. This was utterly awesome!

 

[]Saturday, June 4

As I helped Derek unpack his stuff around noon, Dad came into the den and said, “Derek, join Greg on the couch.”

Of course I hid in the stairway and listened. I already got the no-fooling-around-while-I’m-not-looking lecture last night. And the four nights before that.

“We need to lay down some rules,” Dad announced.

I really wished I wasn’t just snooping again, because I would’ve loved to see the looks on their faces during this entire lecture.

“You two are not ever to touch or in any way coerce my daughters into anything while you are living in my house. Understood? That means no sneaking around at night while we are asleep, because I will find out about it, and you will suffer terrible, life-altering consequences!”

“Sure Mr. Devlin,” Derek said.

“No problem, Mr. Devlin,” Greg finished.

Yeah, okay! “Good. That’s what I like to hear.”

~ ~ ~

The boys are moved into the den, across the hall from our room. The den is kind of small for the three of them, but it looked smaller with all that crap Dad used to have in there. Now they’re setting up their room, arguing, playing loud music, and making dumb bets on Dad and Claudia’s relationship. Dad bought them a triple bunk bed, as Claudia decided to sell their house fully furnished and they couldn’t fit three beds in there. They fought over the top bunk for a while and have since moved on to other matters.

Dad and Claudia got tired awfully early and “went to sleep” around eight.

Right. I believe they went to sleep like I believe Tiffany’s still a virgin.

 

[]Sunday, June 5

I was down at the breakfast table by eight, with Manny in my tracks. Jesse was alone in the kitchen, searching the cabinets.

“What are you looking for?”

He was shirtless, crouched down, holding the bottom cabinet doors open. I forced myself not to look at all the muscles I couldn’t help but like. “Where’s all your cereal?”

“We only have Lucky Charms.” I sat at the table. Manny rested his snout on my lap.

Jesse shot me a look.

“I eat them too,” I assured him. Then I pointed to the griddle preheating on the stove. “Claudia’s gonna cook for us.”

He fell into a chair. His pants hung down to his hips, revealing blue boxers under them. He rubbed the back of Manny’s neck.

“Jesse, do you know how Manny got loose on Friday the thirteenth?”

“What’s it matter?”

“I think you were out there,” I said, matter-of-factly.

He avoided my gaze. “So?”

So… Are you my friend, or a party pooper?”

He was thoughtful for a moment. “I’m your friend. ‘Cause you don’t date bug-loving dweebs.” He slouched in his chair. “I guess that’s all I ever was to you.”

I was in complete shock. “It’s not like that,” I attempted.

“But I’m okay now, right? I guess it all comes down to a pair of glasses, an outfit, and a drinking habit. What’s that called…? Popularity.” Then he just up and left as Claudia came into the kitchen.

I felt like I’d just been slapped. Even Manny ditched me the instant Jesse snapped his fingers.

“Would you like some breakfast?” Claudia asked as I walked past.

“I lost my appetite,” I said, heading for the stairs.

~ ~ ~

I spent breakfast in bed, sketching a still life. I’m not a fan of realism and my art teacher told me to practice this summer. I could sit there for hours trying to sketch my hand or a t-shirt, staring at it like I’ve never seen it before when I see it each and every day. It’s the most common things people have issues drawing. My teacher said that’s because when you get them wrong, everyone notices.

Thankfully, when I illustrate professionally, it will be cartoon characters. And you don’t see many of those running around.

I probably should have picked something a bit more exciting than fake flowers in an ugly vase. I was fairly annoyed with it by the time my phone vibrated. I looked at the message, half-expecting an attack.

I’m having a bad day.

My fingers glided over the keys.

I can tell.

I waited for his next text, but it never came. So I sent a new one.

You’re awesome the way you are. When you leave, I don’t know how I’ll manage without you.

I wanted to add “hint hint” but I was sure he’d get it. I mean, he’s not a moron!

You’ll have Derek.

Wow, he is really good at making me feel like crap! I turned my phone off, pushed my sketchbook aside and cried. I didn’t want him to go. I couldn’t be any more obvious and he still didn’t get it. The guy is clueless! I don’t get guys at all!

 

[]Monday, June 13

Today was an especially bad day. First, Dad knocked on my door at four in the morning because he thought he heard something. That something was Zorro running face-first into my bedroom door, trying to evade the dog. It was Dad’s idea to leave the dog indoors, because “if there’s any sneaking around, the dog will bark!”

Still, it got worse.

Derek was already up when I went down to the kitchen at six. His hair was a disaster and he looked super irritated. “So was your dad a devoted security guard in his past life or what?”

I sat beside him. “It could be worse. He could sleep outside our doors rather than run out every time a pin drops.”

He leaned closer and kissed me. “Maybe we can try again tonight.”

Claudia and Tiffany were down by six-thirty. Tiffany had bags under her eyes and looked pale as death. Of course, her hair still looked way better than mine. She sat at the table and shot Derek a dirty look. I know she didn’t get to make out with Greg in at least a week, and that’s why she’s pissed. Dad was so ridiculous with his night patrol, they’d given up.

Claudia touched her forehead. “Tiffany, are you feeling okay, sweetie?”

“I’m tired.” Her head fell on the table.

Claudia set a plate of blueberry pancakes in front of each of us. She pulled some curly locks out of Tiffany’s nightgown and onto her back.

Tiffany barely sat up and forced a smile. “Thanks, Claudia.”

Much like a pack of wolves, Dad, Greg, and Jesse emerged at the smell of food. They devoured their meal and passed coffee, cream, and sugar around the table. When we were almost done, Zoey appeared at our doorstep.

She stood outside our door in skin-tight shorts, a tee shirt, tennis shoes, and bright red lipstick. Her bike was parked on our lawn. She greeted me with a nasty look.

I slammed the door in her face and crossed my arms in protest. And she started ringing the doorbell like a maniac.

Dad appeared, gave me a blank stare, and opened the door.

At that I stomped up the stairs and slammed my bedroom door so hard the obviousness embarrassed me. I was on fire. Now they all know I don’t like Zoey. Attractive, perfect, annoying Zoey! I lay on my bed, grinding my teeth. Zorro started nesting on top of my head, digging tunnels through my hair. I grunted and set him on the floor.

No one even bothered checking on me. And the worst part, she was out there, giggling with the boys, right outside my door!

I wanted Manny to attack her. At least this time—in the hallway—he barked. Until I heard a thump, followed by a sharp, sudden whimper, and all barking ceased.

“What the hell is your problem, asshole!” Jesse screamed. But no one answered.

When I stormed out of my room, Manny was five feet outside my door, lying on his belly, his ears glued to his neck. His eyes watered, his head was lowered, and his back leg was trembling. “Who kicked the dog!”

“I kicked the fuckin’ dog! He never shuts up!” Greg howled.

“So, you’re taking it out on him that you can’t sneak out at night with my sister? You freaking jerk!” I stopped in realization of what I’d said. Greg looked beyond me like a deer in the headlights. I turned, and surely enough, there stood my father.

Oops!

“Greg, I need to talk to you.”

“About what?!”

“Get downstairs.”

“No, she’s lying because I kicked her stupid dog! It’s not even her dog! It’s Jesse’s dog!”

“Get downstairs right now! This isn’t an issue of who owns the dog!”

Greg took a challenging stride toward us. “I’m not getting lectured because she lied! She’s a fuckin’ liar!”

Get downstairs!”

Greg stomped toward the stairs, glaring as he walked past me. Dad followed him down.

Derek shook his head. Jesse ignored me, rubbed Manny’s head, and started small talk with Zoey. I tugged Manny’s collar and he followed me into my room.

On my bed, I rubbed the dog’s forehead. Drool dripped down the side of his mouth and fell onto his mane. Happy eyes made me smile. I reached onto my dresser and pulled down the bag of treats. He licked his nose repeatedly until I gave him a dog bone. He chewed it, his eyes steady on me. When he finished, his tail wagged as he begged for more.

Minutes later, Tiffany stormed in. She stopped short of me, hands on hips, eyes narrowed, face red. “What the hell is your problem?”

My eyes fixed on Manny. My blood was boiling. I wanted to tell her I hate her stupid boyfriend—that I can’t stand him living here with us! Anger just bubbled inside me. It was on the tip of my tongue. All I had to do was say how I felt—maybe then she’d get off my ass about it. But I avoided her, so she grabbed a dirty novel, shot me a nasty look, and climbed up to her bunk. Besides Manny’s panting and the blood whooshing in my ear, everything was quiet—until the knock on my door.

I stopped beneath the frame of my door and looked into the hall. “Where’s Jesse?”

“He went out,” Derek said.

“Like to the woods?”

Manny rubbed himself on Derek’s shorts. Derek stroked the dog’s back. “He went out with Zoey.”

Great! He dumped his glasses, his pants are falling off, he fights with his brother, and now he gets pissed at me and ditches me for my archenemy!

“If you want, we can go out for ice cream,” Derek offered.

With the lump in my throat, I felt that if I opened my mouth, I’d completely break down. So I shook my head no.

He frowned analytically.

“Maybe later,” I muttered, and retreated to my bed, undeniably depressed.

Manny climbed into bed with me.

Tiffany turned pages on the top bunk. I could hear music blast into her ears from her iPod. Good. Now she can’t hear me cry.

I wrapped my arm around Manny and started weeping, my face buried in his furry chest. It feels like the only good that came out of them moving into our house is their dog.

 

[]Tuesday, June 14

Jesse didn’t get home till 9:15 last night. He shot Derek a smug smile on his way upstairs.

“Jesse, is that you?” Claudia asked from the kitchen.

“Yeah, Mom.”

She appeared at the bottom of the stairs, holding a plate and dishrag. “Where were you all day? You didn’t even tell me you were leaving!”

Jesse froze halfway up. “Oh… I was playing video games at Zoey’s.”

“Well, you missed dinner,” she said in annoyance. “Get ready for bed.”

Tiffany zoomed down the stairs, nearly knocking Jesse over. “I’ll be sleeping at Lydia’s! See you guys later!” The front door slammed behind her as Dad wandered into the foyer.

Greg was next, though Dad grabbed his shoulder. “And where are you going?”

“Camping.”

“With whom?”

“Myself.”

Dad whirled him around so he faced the top of the stairs. “Absolutely not!”

Yes, Dad and Claudia were on full alert. That’s why we waited until one o’clock this morning. That way Dad’s dozing off after his midnight patrol, and we were sure he wouldn’t hear a thing.

The red digits on my alarm clock turned 1:45. I waited for the signal, but still there was nothing. Being so dark, I was afraid I’d fall asleep.

At 1:50, Manny’s head shot up, ears aimed at the door.

“Manny,” I breathed, “Stay. No bark.” Just to be sure, I shoved some dog treats in his mouth. He rested his head on the mattress and chewed them. I wasn’t thrilled about crumbs in my bed, but it’s better than getting grounded when he barks.

I slithered out of bed and tiptoed to the door. I discreetly pulled it open, yanking it before it could creak. Derek crept in and I closed it.

He sat on my bed, where Manny attacked him with kisses. Afterwards, Derek signaled for the floor and the dog lay down at the foot of the bed.

“Are you okay?” he breathed as I plopped myself down beside him. “You seemed upset all day.”

“I’m fine.” Why was I even angered by Jesse seeing Zoey? It’s not like I care—Jesse’s not my boyfriend. It’s better than Derek seeing Zoey. “Did you prop up your body pillow in case my dad checks on you?”

“All set.” He shifted closer. He wore these cute glow-in-the-dark skull boxers. “I waited until I heard him snore. That’s why I’m late.” His face drew near. “I like it when your sister’s gone.”

“Me, too.”

In a heartbeat his lips were attached to mine. Not long after, his mouth was glued to my neck again. He moved down to my collar bone, breathing like a rhino. My mind had wandered before I realized that his breath was wet. He rolled his tongue over the side of my face. I wiggled my nose at funky breath.

“Why are you laughing?”

It sounded like he was hovered a few inches above my boobs, and it felt like he was spitting on my face. Then I realized what was happening, wiped my cheek in disgust and sat up.

“Manny, no!” I hissed.

Derek pushed the dog’s head away. Then his face hovered over mine again. “I love you. Do you love me?”

He covered me, wearing only a t-shirt and boxers. I hoped he didn’t feel my heart flutter. “I think so,” I said hesitantly.

He kissed my forehead, my jawbone, the side of my neck. The whole time I was thinking, My hair’s gonna be really knotted in the morning!

He whispered something I missed and squirmed to take off his shirt without our lips parting. Eventually they did. Our mouths met again. He tugged at my nightgown strap, his pulse wild on his neck.

My heart leapt. “What are you doing?”

“I’m taking it off.”

“Why?”

His face rested against the side of mine, so he was breathing in my ear. “You wanna leave it on, then?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Okay.”

Manny started whimpering.

“Manny… shut up,” Derek mumbled.

Manny whined.

Derek felt around for the dog treat bag. He threw a dog bone and we made out some more.

Before long there was another whine. So Derek threw another bone.

Manny munched on.

Derek started feeling my legs, like checking if I shaved them.

Oops! I knew I’d forgotten something!

“I forgot to,” I breathed, in his ear for a change.

“You forgot to what?”

“Shave them.”

“Oh.”

“Are they okay?” I stressed.

“Yeah, they’re okay.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah they’re fine.”

Manny whined again.

Derek threw another bone.

It started all over again.

We pulled my blanket over us. Our mouths were attached and he was shivering, tugging on my underwear with one hand and holding the other an inch from my boobs, like unsure if he should touch.

Derek sucks at multitasking!

The room was getting hot, and his pulse was practically slapping me in the face. He really needs to calm down or he’s gonna have a heart attack. Then I’d have to explain why Derek Daniels died in my bed, and I’d be in so much trouble!

“Am I doing something wrong?” he asked, probably because my legs were super-glued shut.

I sighed indecisively. “I don’t know if I want to do it in my bed.”

“Why, what’s wrong with your bed?”

“My dad’s in the next room.”

“So is my mom.”

“So we can’t.”

He kissed my forehead. “Yeah we can. Come on, don’t you want to?”

My breathing picked up, and my limbs felt a bit tingly. “I do…” I kinda did.

“Then let’s just do it.” His mouth met mine again.

I pulled away and looked into his eyes. “I’m afraid we’ll get caught…”

He heaved a frustrated sigh. “We won’t get caught. Please?”

Great, now he was begging.

Manny begged, too.

Derek reached into the treat bag. “Aw shit.”

“What?”

“They’re all gone.”

Manny whined again, louder this time. He set his snout on the edge of the bed and sniffed at the bag. Then he grabbed it with his mouth, flung it around, held it down with his front paw, and tore it apart with his teeth. He gathered the crumbs off the bottom of the bag, licked his chops, shook his body, opened his mouth, and barked!

“Manny, shush!” Derek got off me with a start, backed him into the corner of the room, and tried to hold his snout shut. “Shhh!”

Manny pulled his snout free and barked playfully.

Then again.

And again.

Footsteps.

Derek turned to me. “What do we do?”

I had a far-fetched idea. I put Derek on the bed, between me and the wall. I covered him with my sister’s blanket and propped the body pillow on top. Then I grabbed the dog. “Down,” I breathed. My blood zipped through me. I patted the blanket that covered Derek and pulled Manny’s collar until he was in position, but he refused to lie down unless he faced the door. I was kind of nervous about his weight, I didn’t want him to crush Derek. Then again, we really didn’t have the luxury of time, and I wasn’t going to move him now.

Dad knocked.

Manny barked. His stomach began to grumble.

I closed my eyes, pushed my back against the pillow and acted like I just woke up, although I was so scared I thought I’d give us away.

Dad peeked in.

I faked a yawn.

“Is everything all right in here?” Dad whispered.

“Manny found the treat bag and ate ‘em all.” I tried to control the quiver in my voice.

Manny barked, his stomach grumbling louder. He put his head down and whined ever so sharply. He crawled backwards until his butt hit the wall. I tried to inch him closer to the door without being too obvious, so Derek doesn’t suffocate. Manny’s stomach thundered.

“Perhaps he’s hungry.” Dad’s head was still stuck between the frame and the open door.

That’s when it happened, a seriously nasty fart! I heard a soft gag and cleared my throat to cover it up, my heart pumping faster. I wanted to vomit. Manny lowered his head still. His stomach grumbled louder, and he did it again. The back half of his body shook wildly.

Dad grabbed his collar. “He seems to have an upset stomach.”

The dog wouldn’t budge—his body trembled, his stomach rumbled, his whining persisted. I pushed his butt away from the wall, my stomach churning. “Take him out, Dad!” I urged, pushing with all my might.

“Manny, come!” Dad ordered, pulling harder on the collar.

The dog lunged forward, out the door like a lightning bolt. His nails hit the marble floor at the bottom of the stairs and his paws scratched at the front door.

“Are you all right in here?” Dad asked.

“Fine, Dad.”

“Go to bed. I’ll let Manny sleep outside the rest of the night. Then I’ll check on the boys and get back to bed myself.”

My breath caught in my throat. “Okay…”

“Good night, Princess.”

“Good night, Dad.”

The room went dark, as did the light beneath the door. Footsteps descended the stairs. I pulled the blanket off Derek’s head. He rushed to my bathroom, turned on the faucet and gagged. I looked toward the door nervously, wondering if he’d have enough time to sneak back to his room before Dad checked on him. Derek came back in, opened the window really wide and sat on my bed. I tossed the blanket at the laundry basket, missing as always.

Dad climbed the stairs again. We held our breaths as we heard the den door open.

Silence.

The hall light went on. Light creeped in under the frame of my door.

Still nothing.

Derek analyzed my window as cool air flooded the room.

The hallway light went off. The den door shut. Dad bought it—he was going back to bed!

We sighed in relief.

Derek wrapped his arms around me and kissed me.

That’s when the door swung open.

When the light came on, we were lip-locked and wide-eyed. Derek’s eyes went toward the door. We moved apart. I could hear my father’s breath, but was too afraid to turn around. My chest felt constricted. After a second, Derek’s head fell and he got to his feet.

“Downstairs!” my father growled. “Right now!”

The house was instantly awake. I had to face the music next. As Derek walked back to the den after his lecture, our eyes brushed.

Trembling, I scrambled to my father when he hollered for me.

As he screamed, all I could do was cry. Then I retreated to my room, where I cried some more. I couldn’t sleep. Jesse and Greg watched from the stairway—I walked by them as I went back upstairs. And what’s worse, by the time I made it back to my room, I thought I heard Dad cry. Dad never cried before, not even when Mom left. But now he cried. I lay numbly on my bed and stared at the top bunk.

I’m a crappy daughter. I wonder if my mom left because of me. I never understood. Dad never told me. And because he stayed, this is what he gets. He gets to be let down. He gets to be lied to. He gets to have a daughter who makes him cry.

I pulled my pillow over my head. My head felt hot as I released more tears. I guess I deserve the punishment handed to me.

~ ~ ~

I’m grounded. I can’t have any contact with Derek for over two weeks.

As if that’s not bad enough, Dad moved the boys down to the family room. They worked all day taking the bunk bed apart and moving it down the stairs. All the furniture that was in the family room went into the garage. So now there’s even less room for the car I’m never getting. Not like I deserve one.

Dad went out after lunch. He brought home a tall pet gate and a gadget that he mounted high on the wall at the top of the stairs. No one asked what it was, but he told us anyway. “It’s a motion detector, remote activated, with a silent alarm. It will be on every night. Manny will sleep behind the gate, so no one can pin the alarm on him. This way I can sleep,” Dad said, “and you can, too.”

 

[]Friday, June 17

I sat alone by the pond. I was only out there for an hour, but it felt more like an eternity. While sitting there helplessly, staring into the water, I heard a voice.

“Mind if I join you?”

Jesse’s reflection appeared in the water, and I was suddenly uncomfortable. He found me in ugly sweat pants and an old, baggy white shirt. I shrugged carelessly.

He sat beside me and tossed a pebble into the water. It skipped the water twice and landed on the other side. A sigh escaped him. He was propped on his elbows, lying down across the grass, his feet inches from the water.

“No Zoey today?” I mumbled numbly after a lengthy silence. He appeared to have lost interest in her, as she hasn’t shown up at our doorstep again. Not that I’m complaining.

“No Derek today?” He sat up, moved the hair out of my face, and looked at me with those deep blue eyes of his. The intensity of his gaze made me even more uncomfortable, and I wasn’t sure why.

I looked away. “Obviously.”

“Look, I’m really sorry you were busted.”

“I feel really bad about upsetting my dad,” I uttered, on the verge of tears. I’d heard Dad and Claudia argue about whether things would even work out between them. Our sneaking around all the time is really screwing up their relationship.

His finger nudged my chin. “You okay?”

I was so embarrassed with myself, I couldn’t contain my tears.

Jesse wrapped his arms around me, rested his chin on my head, and heaved a sigh. I didn’t pull away. I pulled him closer and held him tight, like I didn’t want him to even consider letting me go. My head dug into his chest. His heart beat eagerly, and his aftershave smelled good. And the whole time I couldn’t believe what I was thinking or feeling.

“It’ll be all right, Anna. You’re not grounded forever.”

“Jesse?” I breathed, my head still buried in his chest. “I’m sorry about the other day. You’re not just a bug-loving dweeb.”

He moved like he wanted to pull away and look at me, but I held him like my life depended on it. So he hugged me tighter. “Then dump that loser Derek and go out with me.”

I laughed and dried my eyes. He smiled at me. “What’s the point? You’re going to Nebraska,” I uttered.

His smile faded. “I guess,” he said to my disappointment. I wished I could just tell him I didn’t want him to go, but then I’d be thinking about my happiness, not his. Then I’d be selfish.

We sat silent for a while.

“What’cha thinking?” He looked concerned.

I hugged myself and smiled. “Nothing,” I breathed. But when our eyes met again, I could tell he didn’t buy it. He smiled thoughtfully. “What?” I asked.

He shook his head, looked away and scooped up a ladybug. It did circles around his finger. “If you have something to say, just say it.”

“I have nothing to say,” I lied. Except I want you to stay. And I want you to kiss me.

I wish I could’ve said it. But saying that to your boyfriend’s brother is kind of taboo. It’s just not something you do. So I couldn’t do it.

 

[]Saturday, June 25

I spent my morning alone, sketching on my bed. Tiffany was at the mall with Lydia. Derek’s music was blasting and he was working out in his room. The guys have been doing that an awful lot lately. I just wish I could’ve watched.

Not being able to even talk to someone who lives in your house is beyond ridiculous! But Dad’s always working off the couch, and I don’t want to put any strain on him and Claudia. I want them to be happy.

After noon, I got a text.

Wanna do something fun?

With him? In a heartbeat! I brushed my hair, applied my make-up, put on a form-fitting shirt and denim shorts.

We got in Jesse’s car and drove off. It was a beautiful day for a drive!

The carnival was packed. The sky was vast and blue, the temperature a warm eighty degrees, and the smell of funnel cake filled the air.

He spent a few hours just trying to win me stuff. All he won was a stuffed unicorn, but I adored it, almost as much as I adored him.

“What do you want to eat?” Jesse asked in line at the pavilion.

“I’ll have a slice of pizza, funnel cake, and cotton candy.”

Jesse ordered two slices of pizza, two lemonades, my funnel cake, and cotton candy. He paid and we sat at a little round table in the corner. Did his paying make it a date? I would’ve paid my share, but he stepped in front of me when I reached for my purse. That’s when I noticed he’s got a cute butt.

I checked him out as I ate, trying not to be too obvious.

His pizza was gone in a few bites. His hand went to his eye progressively, until all of a sudden, he groaned, blinked twice and started rubbing intently.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Nothing.” He blinked a few more times, took out his Visine and applied a few drops. “My right eye’s been acting weird lately.”

“The white in your eye is red!” I exclaimed. “Shouldn’t we get you to the doctor?”

“No. It’ll go away. It’s happened before.” He applied another drop and blinked repeatedly. “It’s probably just a bad contact. Don’t worry about it.”

I finished my food. “Wanna go home?”

“No, let’s go on the Ferris wheel.” He got up and took my hand. “Seriously, let’s go!”

We dumped our trash and stepped into the blazing sun. It burned my scalp almost instantly. And the heat didn’t help when I saw Zoey.

“Hi, Jesse!” Zoey hollered with a wave. She wore a short skirt and black spaghetti-strap top, and held a teddy bear she won. Her hair was all perfect, tight in a bun.

Jesse smirked. He had that look in his eye—the one he only gives me!

“Hi, Anna,” she mumbled, looking repulsed by me.

Jesse eyeballed her as we passed by. Again, my chest began to constrict. And who was that guy she was with? She seems to have a new boyfriend every day. Well, better him than Jesse I guess.

“Are you okay?” Jesse asked a few minutes later.

“I’m fine.” I tried my best to hide my annoyance, but I had a feeling I’d failed big time.

“You know,” he said, “she’s just a friend. She’s never been anything else.”

“Just a friend? That you find attractive?”

He popped a stick of gum in his mouth and chewed noisily. “What does that have to do with being friends?”

“How can you be ‘just a friend’ with someone you’re attracted to?” I wanted to know.

He grinned, looking astonished. “Are we seriously having this conversation?”

I blushed. “Why go on dates with her? To proms and dances.”

He popped a bubble and shrugged. “Why not?”

Oh, how I wish that answered my question!

“To be quite honest,” he said as we got in line at the Ferris wheel, “the girl I want is taken.”

I was silent. I wasn’t sure who this mystery girl was, and I wasn’t about to ask.

We sat on opposite ends of the seat on the Ferris wheel. He looked uncomfortable. Maybe I should have asked who the girl he wants is, but I was too scared to. It probably wasn’t me, anyway. What if it’s an acquaintance of mine? Someone I like? Then I’d have to hate her.

We’re best friends. We always have been. Our relationship never evolved beyond that. Nothing has changed.

Well, maybe some things have changed. He’s grown up. He’s mind-bogglingly hot. He’s not caked in mud like when we were eleven.

Jesse tapped me on the shoulder.

I squirmed. “Get it away!” He held this fuzzy green thing that had a million legs and beady antennae!

“It’s just a caterpillar,” he said with a grin. “Hold it!” He held it out for me.

I sneered.

“Come on, hold it! Its legs feel cool!”

I looked at him like he was crazy.

He recoiled, looked in the opposite direction and shook his hand until it fell to its death. Then he held his head in his hand and went quiet.

~ ~ ~

“Wow. That’s a whole lot of silence.” Jesse tossed his shoes off in the foyer of our deserted house. It was the first time he talked since the bug incident.

“Where do you think they went?” I asked, headed for the living room.

“Big item shopping is all I know. Your dad said they won’t be home until seven or eight.”

I threw myself on the couch. He stood there with his hands in his pockets like it wasn’t his house, too. My foot tapped the couch, an invitation for him to join me.

He dead-bolted the door and sat on the other end, facing me.

“So I guess we have a few hours…” I said, for the sake of saying something.

He looked at his watch. “At least three.”

We fell silent for a while. My eyes kept moving to his lips. And I think he noticed. “Wanna watch a movie?” I asked.

“Sure. Which one?”

I hopped to my feet. “Pick one! I’ll get us a snack.”

I went into the kitchen for popcorn. I just wanted to get kissing him out of my mind.

All Dad’s fault. I can’t see Derek, so I’m lonely.

By the time I was back in the living room, the lights were dim and the screen was black. He’d pulled the curtains, which blocked out most of the sunlight. He sat waiting for the disk menu to come on. I set the bowl of popcorn between us. We watched the screen, still waiting for the menu to appear. He looked at me, uncomfortably.

“What?”

“You have sugar on the corner of your mouth. From your funnel cake.”

I licked my lips. “Did I get it?”

He grinned and wiped my mouth. “No. But I did.”

Our eyes were locked. He had the sexiest look in his eyes. His fingertips pressed gently on my lips. I put my hand up and touched them. “So who’s the girl you want? The one that’s taken…?” I breathed. My heart was racing.

“You,” he whispered. And then he kissed me.

I liked it—really liked it. I pulled him closer. His mouth tasted sweet, wet, but not drooling. He had a firm, confident grip on my upper arms. He moved my hair away, wrapped his hands around my neck, and kissed me fiercely. The room warmed up fast. So fast, I really couldn’t think about what was happening, or where it was happening. I’d gone farther with him in a few minutes than I’d ever gone with Derek. All my feelings just spilled out—feelings I didn’t even know I had. Feelings Jesse shared and clearly didn’t hesitate to show.

He nuzzled my ear, his breath tickling. “You’re amazing, Anna.” It made me melt.

When it was over, we sat in an awkward silence. I kept fiddling with my shirt. My heart raced. I could hardly breathe. I never thought Jesse Daniels would take my virginity.

What and how am I going to tell Derek? My body began to tremble. When I thought of Derek finding out what I’d done, it felt like my lungs would fail me.

I stared at the television. He’d put on Arachnophobia. Figures.

Jesse thinks Arachnophobia is wildly entertaining. He doesn’t get why everyone is screaming. To me, Arachnophobia is a hundred percent horror. To Jesse Daniels, Arachnophobia is a hundred percent comedy.

I didn’t know what to say. As I’d never had sex before, I wasn’t sure what an appropriate topic would be for the aftermath. “How many times have you seen this now?” I joked, my voice quaking. I tried to put the incident out of my mind, but looking at him made it hard to do. His hair was all ruffled, and now that I’d slept with him, he only looked hotter.

He cleared his throat. “Lost count. Do you prefer King Kong?”

A movie with bugs the size of people. “I’m fine with this,” I breathed.

He grinned. “Because of the bugs?”

“You know me too well,” I said with a light smile. He touched my hand. Then he went from touching it to playing with it. It made me feel funny. I liked it.

I hit the play button and we watched the screen.

A few minutes into the movie I wasn’t watching, I peeked his way again. It felt like I’d crossed a line I couldn’t uncross. I worried about what Derek would do if he found out. And I hoped Jesse wasn’t planning on saying anything.

I definitely regretted it. Didn’t I?

~ ~ ~

Since the door was dead-bolted when they arrived home, we had about 45 seconds to make sure we were decent. When they finally got the door open, they froze in the doorway. Dad, Claudia, Derek, Greg, Tiffany, and Manny. For whatever reason, they looked so stunned I had to double check if we were dressed. Derek leaned, shoulder into the wall, arms crossed. Greg and Tiffany giggled and hurried into the boys’ room with a new lava lamp. I could hardly catch my breath. What was the giggling about? What were the looks about?

“Hey guys.” Jesse paused the movie.

Dad looked around. “Boy, it’s dark in here! Well, we’ve got a surprise outside—go have a look!” Then Dad wrapped his arm around Claudia and they went into the kitchen.

So at this point I’m relieved, because our parents don’t suspect. My boyfriend, though, may be a different story.

Jesse moved past Derek like he didn’t even exist, slipped into his shoes and stepped outside.

Derek was still staring me down. His face was somber. He cleared his throat, and after a little while, broke the silence that was hurting my ears. “What were you guys doing?”

I casually pointed to the TV. “We were just watching a movie,” I said, trying to hide my shortness of breath. I felt weak. Should I tell him? Better to hear it from me than his brother? I kissed Derek’s cheek and wrapped my arms around his neck, so he wouldn’t see my face. “Did you miss me?” I inhaled his aftershave, relieved to get Jesse’s scent out of my head.

He stood stiff. “I guess.”

“You guess?”

A light smile crossed his face. “Yeah. Yeah, I missed you.” He kissed me. It somehow felt wrong, even though it was supposed to feel right.

When Jesse stopped sharply in the doorway, the kiss ended. Our eyes met. He walked past us. His eyes didn’t break free from mine until he started to climb the stairs.

Derek moved in to kiss me again, but stopped abruptly. “That’s strange.”

“What?”

“Are you using a new deodorant or something?”

“No, why?”

“You smell different…”

I do smell different. I smell like your brother!

“And why are you trembling?”

“I’m not trembling,” I lied, trying my best to stop.

Derek’s face was blank.

I changed the subject. “What’s out there?”

For a moment, he stood silent. But he finally said, “Your dad bought a boat for that trip to Lake Champlain.”

“Oh.” I smiled uneasily, preoccupied with Jesse’s glare a few seconds earlier. Derek leaned his shoulder into the wall again, smiling as I pulled away. “I guess we should break this up, before we’re caught,” I uttered.

His expression was unreadable. “Yeah. We wouldn’t want to get caught, now would we?”

 

[]Monday, June 26

I cried well into the night. Mostly as I stared at the text he’d sent:

Can’t stop thinking about you.

My reply was just a button away, but I was too scared to send it.

Jesse, I love you.

Yes, way too scared to send it.

I couldn’t sketch, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t focus, and I couldn’t go around pretending to be all innocent. I’d put Derek off forever, and now that’s exactly what he’s going to expect—and what he’s not going to get.

Considering how we’re still punished, I guess Derek doesn’t find my behavior all that unusual yet. Since no major fight broke out, it appears Jesse just hasn’t said anything yet.

Rereading his text comforted me. Not replying pained me. I cried because I knew I couldn’t be with him. At least, not while I’m with Derek. And even if Derek and I broke up, and I got with Jesse, we all live in the same house; how awkward would that be?

~ ~ ~

I sat by the pond, unknotting my hair with my fingers. I never imagined I’d be in this predicament. I’m torn between two guys, and neither of them is imaginary.

I was dressed decently, since my being there alone was an invitation for someone to find me. And while he took longer than I’d hoped, he eventually did.

Jesse sat beside me on the grass. “You’re my best friend, Anna. You can be brutally honest with me, about anything. So be honest. Do you regret it?”

I looked to make sure no one else was around. If anything was for certain, it’s that I don’t know if I regret it. And despite having sworn to myself that it would never happen again, I kissed him. You know, because I’m not screwed enough as is.

His hands folded around my waist as he kissed me back the mind-boggling way he did yesterday. When it was over, I asked fearfully, “Did you tell him? Will you tell him?”

After a lengthy stare, he wrapped his arms around my neck, sighed, and pulled me into another embrace. “I’m sorry, Anna,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’d never hurt you… on purpose.” He leaned his head into mine. His touch was so comforting. “I know you weren’t set on being with me. And I just want you to be happy. So be happy, and don’t worry about me.” Jesse kissed my forehead, got up, and left.

And at that, all I could do was cry again.

 

[]Thursday, June 30

Claudia cooked breakfast in a dress practically covered in acrylic paint. She made muffins, scrambled eggs, bacon, and hash browns. Lots of hash browns. Just for me.

She smiled and placed a basket of hot blueberry muffins on the table. “Do you think Tiffany will like these? I know she likes my pancakes, but I’m sure you’re sick of those by now!”

“No way! They’re too good! Before you moved in, we ate microwaveable meals most of the time.” I bit into one quickly and put it down. It was steaming hot.

“Why, thank you! You girls are such angels!” She hurried back to the stove to turn the bacon. It’s ironic how she considers me an angel after I snuck around with her oldest son and pissed my dad off. Oh, yeah, and I cheated on her oldest son with her youngest son. My pulse raced as that thought reentered my head. I’m a cheater. No, make that a lying cheater.

Tiffany dug into the muffin basket. The guys were there before long, and eventually Dad came down in his robe, his hair wet from a shower. They all passed coffee around as usual, but I sensed an alarming tension in the air. Derek and Jesse completely ignored each other. I really hoped Jesse hadn’t said anything. He technically didn’t answer my question yesterday, so I still know nothing.

Throughout most of breakfast, I thought about Jesse. About Jesse’s lips, pressed against mine. About the looks he’s been giving me. I craved another kiss, another moment alone. And after all the trouble I now find myself in, I ask myself why I still feel that way.

The next thing I know, Derek’s staring at me. Struck by inner guilt over my awful thoughts, I quickly reached for another muffin. When my eyes glided back in his direction, Derek hadn’t moved. He analyzed me, mindlessly poking around on his plate with his fork. I could literally feel the sweat rushing down my back. I couldn’t breathe. I really wish they hadn’t gone out to buy that boat! Then Jesse wouldn’t have given me the amazing kiss that started all of this and turned me into a lying, cheating person.

This is all Dad’s fault!

Jesse started rubbing his right eye, like he did the other day at the carnival. When his eye came into view, Claudia totally freaked! She rushed over to him, had a closer look, and shot my dad this horrified glance. “It’s blood red!”

Jesse rubbed his eye and groaned. “Mom, I’m fine.”

She grabbed his hand to stop the rubbing. “You call this fine, Jesse Thomas Daniels? Are you out of your mind? You’re going to the doctor!”

Jesse pushed her hand away. “Mom, it’ll go away.”

“This happened before? Jesse, you have to lose the contacts!”

“No! I’m fine!”

Claudia looked to Dad urgently. “He needs a doctor.”

“I’ll get dressed. Jesse, pull the contact out.”

“No!” Jesse barked. “It’ll go away! It’s fine!”

Greg wore a grin bigger than his head, like this was the highlight of his day. I wanted to knock those huge teeth right out of his mouth! Derek still stared at me in the most serious way, except every few seconds his eyes glided over to his brother.

“Pull it out! I’m not kidding, Jesse, pull it out!” Claudia started poking around in his eye. He tried to push her away, flinching every time her nail poked his eyeball. Wow, Claudia, clawing his eye out won’t make it any better!

He squirmed angrily, his face growing red. “Mom, knock it off!”

She grabbed his wrist and dragged him out of the kitchen like he was eleven. Less than a minute of insisting later, the door slammed behind them and they were gone.

“My mom’s too damn paranoid,” Derek uttered, eating another muffin.

“Jesse should stop trying to be what he’s not: Cool!” Greg laughed with my sister. “Going to college to study bugs… what a loser!”

I glared at him with ultimate hatred. But I didn’t want him turning on me, so I kept my mouth shut.

“Anna likes him,” Tiffany said, shooting me a look.

Derek eyed me. I was suddenly paranoid about what my sister knew. Was she just picking on me, or did she figure something out?

Greg laughed. “Yeah, well they make a cute couple!”

I stuffed my scrambled eggs into my mouth. Why’d they have to make jokes about him like that? And why were they dragging me into the middle of it? Is this all a big coincidence, or did everyone aside from our parents know?

“Greg,” Derek uttered. “Come on.”

“I’m telling you, man, they’re perfect together! He’s a geek and she’s not far off, with that scruffy 80’s ‘do of hers!”

I flung my fork and sunk in my seat, all choked up. My ears started to buzz, and my face was stifling.

“Greg, why are you being such an asshole? Knock that shit off.” Derek looked at me and shook his head. “Don’t listen to him,” he mumbled.

“Derek, how about we tell her the real reason you’re with her,” Greg uttered.

Derek glanced at me.

Greg looked me dead in the eyes. “He’s just desperate to get laid!”

So that was it—he was desperate! Tiffany stared, expressionless, with her perfect hair and overly-exposing clothes. I loathed the sight of her.

Derek’s fist hit the table. “Greg, what the fuck’s your problem? Why would you say that?”

I stormed up to my room and slammed the door behind me. The tears started to flow. I can’t believe I’m such an idiot, believing Derek actually liked me—no, loved me!—this whole time! I hate my hair! Why can’t I control it at all? Why is it everywhere? It looks even worse short. I can’t even cut it! I can’t do anything with it. Except shave it.

It’s a plague on my life.

I cursed myself for believing Derek. Why would he lie straight to my face by telling me he loved me? When in fact, all he’s concerned about is getting laid! I thought for a second I should just go give him what he wants. It doesn’t matter at this point anyway. It’s not like I have to worry about the right time, or the right place, as I certainly didn’t seem too concerned about that with Jesse. I wonder what that should tell me.

My breathing slowed as I realized something. Did it even matter now if that’s all Derek ever wanted from me? After all, he is still a better person than me, after what I’d done!

I jumped at the knock on my door.

“Anna, let me in. Greg was just being an asshole.”

Why does he even bother? I’m a terrible person anyway.

“Go away, Derek!” I pulled the blanket over my head and cried myself to sleep.

 

[]Saturday, July 2

When I woke up, I had two texts from Jesse. One was sent last night:

Are you okay?

The other was sent this morning:

If you don’t come out, I’m gonna beat Derek to a pulp.

A giggle escaped me. I replied with a simple “LOL!”

I’m serious. When are you coming out? I miss you.

I didn’t leave my room yesterday, and I didn’t let anyone in, not even Tiffany. I wanted to let him in for his company, but I’d turned everyone else away, and I was afraid accepting him would look weird.

Greg pissed me off.

I wiped tears away and waited for the next text. After a long moment, my phone vibrated.

Want me to beat him up?

I laughed out loud. If only.

Derek tried to get me out three times yesterday. He sounded so miserable, it made the guilt worse. “Anna, we’re allowed to talk today. Please talk to me.”

There was really nothing to say besides, “Derek, it’s okay if your secret is that you’re only with me to get laid. My secret is that I slept with your brother. My secret’s worse than yours, huh?”

Yes, there was nothing to say that wouldn’t turn this all around on me.

I tried my best to make my hair presentable. I used an excessive amount of hair gel to get it in a decent ponytail. But it still wasn’t perfect, and the tears started flowing. If only I had the guts to shave it off and buy a wig!

I put on a form-fitting shirt, Tiffany’s super short shorts, extra makeup, loop earrings, and bright red lipstick.

By nine, I was finally out of my room. The cinnamon buns on the table were cold, but after two days without food, it didn’t matter. I ate like a homeless girl.

Jesse was in the backyard, playing fetch with Manny. His glasses were back, though he got invisible frames, so they weren’t as noticeable. And every so often he still rubbed his eye.

Claudia strolled into the kitchen. She kissed the top of my head, put her sketchbook down and sat beside me. “You look nice today. Would you like me to cook you something?”

“Where is everyone?”

“Your dad and Derek are packing the boat. Greg’s in New York visiting his parents for a bit, and Tiffany’s at Lydia’s. Are you all right?”

I nodded numbly, exhausted from worrying and all the tears I’d shed.

“What happened the other day?” She rested a hand on my shoulder. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” I breathed. If I talked about it, I’d likely break down again. I was just glad Greg was gone. I focused on Jesse, who waited for Manny to fetch his ball. His baggy jeans were covered in grass stains and his hair was a hot mess. He was shirtless, sweaty, and his muscles bulged. He could model for a World’s Hottest Entomologist calendar. Do those exist?

Doubtful. If they did, my sister would have one.

“Hi, Princess,” Dad breathed as he came in. “Glad you’re out and about. I was afraid you’d starve to death up there!” He breathed heavily and rubbed his lower back. “Are you ready for that trip Monday?”

I shrugged carelessly.

He kissed Claudia. “I’m running by the office. I’ll be back soon.”

Claudia smiled. “Okay.” Dad left and she started sketching.

I saw Derek’s reflection in the window. I grabbed another cinnamon bun and shoved it in my mouth. When he poked my shoulder, I looked back and raised my eyebrows, sort of rudely.

“Can we talk now?”

I sighed, got up, put on my sneakers. Outside, he sat beside me on the front steps.

“Why are you dressed in those?” He referred to my sister’s shorts.

“You don’t like them?”

“They’re okay. I’m used to you wearing your clothes.” He sighed. “Greg’s a jerk sometimes. I’m sorry about what he said. It’s not true.”

“Greg’s a jerk sometimes?” I shot him a look. “Greg’s a jerk all the time!

He hung his head. “I guess you’re right.”

Although bringing up Jesse was the last thing I wanted to do, I felt I had to. “Why do you let him talk about Jesse behind his back like that?” My breathing picked up again.

“I don’t know.”

“He’s your brother.”

“So?”

“So you’re not supposed to let people call him a geek!”

Derek looked skeptical. “He is a geek.”

“So? Why let Greg be mean about it?”

“Who cares? He’s just a pesky little brother.”

“He’s fourteen months younger than you. Why not stick up for him for a change?”

“Well, Jesse hits on you!”

Before I could think, I blurted “So?”

So? I thought you were just friends.”

“We are just friends,” I mumbled.

“He’s a little pest. End of conversation.” He looked away and fell silent. After a minute he said, “Your hair’s not even that bad. It’s actually pretty damn hot. You stress too much about it.”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “What makes you bring that up all of a sudden?”

“Because you look like you spent hours fixing it. It looks great without a ton of gel. Don’t fret about it. Greg’s just being an ass.

“I’m not with you because I’m desperate to get laid. If that were the case, I’d be long gone by now. I’m with you because I like being with you. I love you,” he uttered in frustration.

I started to cry.

After a brief moment, he wrapped an arm around me. “Why are you crying?”

I took a deep, painful breath. I couldn’t hide it anymore. It was tearing me apart. “Derek, I’m a terrible person. I—”

He interrupted my near-confession. “Anna, you’re not a terrible person. You’re a wonderful person.”

I covered my face and, through tears, laughed at the irony. “No I’m not.”

Derek took my hand. “Anna, nothing you can ever do would make you a terrible person. And nothing you can ever do will change how I feel about you. Okay?”

To that incredibly sweet remark, I just cried harder. If he only knew!

 

[]Monday, July 4

Derek and I spent most of our day on the shore of Lake Champlain, binoculars in hand, scanning the water for any signs of Champ, the legendary lake monster. Dad and Claudia were on the boat, fishing and tanning. Jesse sort of disappeared, but I was too busy acting normal around Derek to ask to where. Tiffany rested on a beach towel in the grass with one of her dirty novels. Greg’s still in New York. Hopefully he’ll stay there permanently. Or get hit by a Mack truck.

“I’ll bet you it’s just an eel or something,” Derek uttered, scanning the water with binoculars. He referred to Champ, of course. Over the years, people have taken video and photos of the mysterious monster that lives in Lake Champlain. Champ’s a great legend, kind of like the Bigfoot of the east coast. But his existence was never scientifically documented. Most of the pictures turned out to be either of poor quality or hoaxes.

“It’s a Plesiosaur,” I insisted. “It’s out there.”

Derek put the binoculars down and lay on his side, facing me. “I think you just need something to believe in. You want there to be a lake monster.”

“Don’t you?”

He raised an eyebrow.

“Well…?” I insisted. “Wouldn’t that be cool?”

He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter either way.” He was basking in the sun, wearing only swim shorts, looking gorgeous. “I’m willing to bet you there is no monster.”

I looked across the shimmering water. The air was breezy and the temperature was in the high 80’s. I wore a two-piece swimsuit, just like my sister twenty feet away, who grinned and squirmed every time she got to a steamy part of her book. She’s such a pervert! I’m convinced her virginity is nonexistent. Kind of like mine.

“But even if there is, you’re afraid of it,” Derek teased.

“I am not!”

“Yes, you are.”

“No, I’m not.” I hate it when he still teases me like we’re twelve!

He moved his face forward until our noses touched. “Prove it.”

“How would I do that?”

“Go for a swim.”

“No, that’s okay.”

“Because you’re scared?”

No—”

“Then…?”

“The water might be cold.”

He got to his feet. “Then I’ll go.”

“Are you serious? You’re gonna swim in there?” Creepy ripples appeared just yards from shore. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”

He rolled his eyes and headed for the water.

Was he seriously going to swim in that lake? No one I’ve ever heard of actually swam in there! Who would want to, with a long-necked prehistoric beast in there? I’ve seen pictures! They may or may not have been authentic, but I’ve seen them! “Come on,” I warned. “That can’t be safe!”

He walked backwards briefly, holding his hands out to his sides. “You’re scared…? Don’t come!”

I eyed Dad’s boat. Our parents faced away from us, sitting in the sun on their beach chairs. I got up and inched closer to the water.

Derek plunged in, swam a few yards, and turned around. “I’m not dead yet!” He moved his hair out of his face and grinned.

Dark water made me stop short. The lake looked beautiful. But what was in it probably wasn’t. “I dunno…”

“You’re such a scaredy-cat!” He swam until he was about a hundred feet from shore.

Petrified, I forced myself to step in, cautious with my bare feet. A few feet out, the water reached my knees. Unfortunately it’s not the clearest water in the world. I looked out to where Derek was. That’s when I completely freaked!

There was something moving toward him—about fifty feet from him—scales sticking out of the water. It emerged briefly and sank down again, moving right toward him. “Oh my God! Derek!”

He hadn’t heard me; he kept swimming.

I was paralyzed. “Derek, look out!”

He turned, wiping his eyes. He had a terribly confused look on his face. “What?”

I plunged in and headed for him, so he could hear me. I swam as fast as I could, watching for it every time my head came above water. It had vanished.

“Did you drop something?” he asked, swimming toward me.

My eyes scanned the surface of the water for any sign of movement.

Nothing.

“No,” I said, “I saw something—”

“What did you see?”

“Champ! I think I saw it!”

“Oh come on! They’re just stories! It was probably a bass or something. Lake trout, maybe.”

“I saw it,” I insisted, looking him dead in the eyes. “I’m serious.” I skimmed the area again. On the boat, Dad was reeling something in.

Derek gripped my wrist and pulled me close, eyes twinkling. “Oh, I know this game. You’re trying to scare me!”

No, I’m trying to warn you!”

“Then why did you come out here?” He glimpsed toward the boat and kissed me beneath my ear.

I saw ripples, yards away. My fingernails dug into his arm, hard enough to make him flinch. The scales surfaced. “There it is!”

Derek’s jaw hung slowly. “Aw shit! What is that?”

“It’s Champ!” I yanked him toward shore, still eyeing the scales. It snaked toward us so fast. It was now feet away! I screamed. We struggled to get as close to shore as possible, but it was too late—we’d swum too far out. The thing vanished beneath us.

And Derek disappeared.

The water was so murky I could no longer see him. I screamed when something rubbed against my leg. “It’s Champ! Dad! Claudia! Tiffany! It’s got Derek!” Again I tried to reach shore. Less than ten feet shy, it tripped me and gripped my leg. My face slapped the water, my eyes wide open. They stung! It let go. When I surfaced, I turned toward Dad’s boat, trying to clear my aching eyes.

Suddenly, something lunged out of the water:

ROAR!”

I fell back with a big splash as it crashed into me. I closed my eyes and shrieked.

Then I realized what it was: It was Jesse in a stupid scuba suit!

Derek was on shore, laughing his ass off. Jesse had a stupid lake monster prop on his back, and a scuba air tube. I laughed and cried simultaneously. I felt like an idiot!

Tiffany laughed hysterically, and even Dad and Claudia seemed to have gotten a kick out of it. I stomped out of the water, got to my bag, pulled out a fresh towel and covered myself. The boys were in my tracks, laughing at me.

And here I thought those days were long gone!

“I can’t believe you just did that!” That was directed at both of them.

They attempted serious faces, but they swapped looks and exploded in laughter again.

My cheeks burned, so I looked away. I didn’t want them to see my smile, but had to admit, they got me!

“Come on, Anna, that was hilarious!” Jesse uttered, squirming out of the black suit and flippers. He stripped down to blue trunks and crashed on the grass, wrapping a bulging arm around my shoulder. “It’s been a while, you know.”

I shoved him aside playfully. “Yeah, I know.”

Derek sat on the opposite side of me. “We thought to pull you under instead, but you probably would’ve drowned.”

“Aw, you’re so sweet!” I said sarcastically, with an eye roll. “I think you guys have permanently scarred me!”

They laughed again.

Then Tiffany said, “Great job, boys!” like she knew all along. Actually, it seemed they were all in on it. It’s no wonder Dad didn’t freak when I was screaming!

“The real one could’ve gotten you,” I mumbled, addressing them both.

They each wrapped an arm around me and squeezed. I guess when they’re playing tricks on me, they still get along great. Though I felt awkward, having two guys I’m torn between with their arms around me, especially when one had no idea about the other.

“You’re way too gullible,” Jesse breathed.

“Yeah,” Derek added, “and it’s a lot of fun!”

I just know they’ll hold this over my head forever!

~ ~ ~

We settled down for a picnic. Dad grilled fish and corn-on-the-cob. Claudia made a salad and pulled out the jumbo blueberry muffins she brought along for the trip.

“These taste so good!” Tiffany stuffed one in her mouth and reached for another. “Claudia, you’re amazing!”

“Guess how many calories are in each of those!” Derek teased.

She looked at him quizzically.

“A thousand!”

Her face fell. “Are you serious?”

Derek nodded. “You eat three of those a day, and you’ll gain a pound!”

She looked pale.

“Derek Daniels, stop teasing the poor girl!” Claudia tapped Tiffany’s hand. “Don’t worry, sweetie, they’re practically fat free!” She looked at Dad. “Your daughters are so sweet, Kevin!”

My sister shot Derek a dirty look.

Dad chuckled. “So I saw Champ snuck up on you today, huh Anna?”

“Yeah Dad, and it isn’t funny!”

“I’d say it’s the funniest prank yet. Creative thinking boys, I’m proud of you!”

He’s encouraging this? They could’ve drowned me!

Jesse grinned at me. “Yeah, and it didn’t even take that long to plan it.”

Bees started buzzing around my head as I ate, landing on my soda can. Disgusting! I tried swatting one.

“You might not wanna do that,” Jesse urged.

Oh, yeah, I was in the presence of an insect-rights activist. Probably the hottest one there is.

“They’ll sting you! And if you’re allergic, you’re in trouble.”

“Well I’m not allergic. But why don’t you tell them to leave me alone?” I asked casually, avoiding eye contact. Having a direct conversation with him made me nervous. Because what if we’ll behave obviously different, and people will figure it out?

“They’re just trying to get sugar.”

I set my hand on my hip. “They’re laying eggs on my soda can! I’m gonna swallow them with my drink and they’re gonna hatch in my stomach!”

Jesse shook his head. “Drama queen.” He picked up a stick bug that walked across the bench and held it out for me, just to see me squirm. He grinned.

“Jesse, come on!” Claudia winced.

Derek shook his head. “Bugs are nasty, man!”

Jesse set the stick bug on the grass, sipped his Sprite, took a bite of fish and said, “Bugs are essential to the ecosystem!”

Derek and I exchanged looks. I’m sure he was also thinking about how big a bug geek his brother is. But he’s not a geek in a bad way… I saw for myself a few days ago that there’s nothing bad about him! If I were single and Jesse was to start that again—glasses and all—I don’t think I’d mind. In fact, I could practically smell him, feel him, taste his lips—

Jesse grinned. Derek wore a blank stare, like he did that morning over breakfast.

I finished my soda. I’m not single, I’m with Derek. I’m meant to be with Derek.

 

[]Wednesday, July 6

Our parents called a family meeting in the living room to give us some “really big news.” Greg’s not back yet. While I keep hoping he’ll never return, Tiffany assures me he’ll be back Saturday.

“Kevin and I are engaged!” Claudia beamed as she showed off her ring. I think we all saw that coming!

“We’re getting married on Valentine’s Day,” Dad added. “We’re having an engagement party next Friday.”

Derek leaned into my ear. “Maybe they’ll be too drunk to realize we’ve snuck out.”

I frowned. “Sneak out to where?”

“Anywhere,” he breathed, “where we could be alone.” Our eyes brushed. “Really alone,” he added. I have a pretty good idea of what’s on his mind.

Jesse watched from the couch on the other side of the room. I wondered what he’d think about what’s on Derek’s mind. I wondered if what Jesse thinks should even matter. I wondered if I even care… because I love him.

~ ~ ~

I got the text at eleven o’clock. I’d lain in bed thinking so long I was sure I was the only one left awake. I guess not.

I need to see you.

I didn’t know if I should answer, or pretend to be asleep. Yes, I wanted to see him, but didn’t it spell trouble?

After a few thoughtful moments, I typed back.

How?

I waited anxiously for his next text.

I’m watching TV, just walk on out. Your dad’s out like a light.

I got out of bed as discretely as possible not wanting to wake Tiffany. I put on a sweatshirt and a pair of shorts. As I could only go by moonlight, I wasn’t even sure what I put on matched. Hopefully it looked good.

I gathered my hair in a ponytail before reaching the bottom of the stairs. The TV was on, playing episodes of Wild America. Jesse was by the door, turning off his phone. I hurried over to him and whispered, “Hi.”

“Let’s go,” he breathed. His fingers locked with mine and he pulled me out the door.

Outside, I elevated my voice a bit. “Is anyone else up?”

“Nope. Just me.” He squeezed my hand and led me toward the camp site. The air was chilly, but it didn’t bother me too much. Mostly I got chills thinking we’d get caught, but Jesse didn’t seem too worried.

“Want me to start a fire?” he asked when we were almost there.

“Yeah, in the tent.” I could feel myself blush.

He grinned and squeezed my hand harder. “That’s dangerous.”

I laughed. “Well, I never stay out of trouble!”

In my tent, we turned on one of our flashlights for some dim light.

“What are we doing?” I asked, suspecting he wanted to do stuff again. Well, maybe I wasn’t suspecting. Maybe I was hoping.

“I dunno. I just needed to see you.”

He was so hot, of course I had to kiss him. You know, ‘cause I’m not screwed enough as is.

“I love you,” I wanted to say. But I was afraid to say it. I was afraid if I did, it would be official, and I’d be through with Derek.

“I love you,” was the next thing I heard. I was confused at first, not sure if I’d actually said it, or if he said it. I abruptly stopped him from kissing me. “Did you just say you love me?”

He looked hesitant for a moment. Then his forehead rested on mine, he looked into my eyes and said “You are so beautiful.” I went weak. I only kissed him about fifty times.

Once again I have demonstrated my level of self-control, topping off around zero. If I thought last time conflicted me, confused me. Well, this time he took a whole piece of my soul. It was so intense. He was so in control. I was so comfortable with him.

I was in head-over-heels.

He stopped abruptly, short of breath. “Shit. You’re not on something, are you?”

“Like, drugs?”

He laughed. “Like, the pill? Or something…?”

I blushed sheepishly. “Oh! It’s okay. I borrowed a month’s worth of my sister’s pills.”

“You borrowed them? Are you going to regurgitate them for her later or what?”

I laughed and squeezed him tight.

“Your dad got Tiffany pills?” He sounded dubious.

“Yup. She claimed she needed to regulate her cycle. The whole menstrual topic makes him uncomfortable, so he didn’t challenge her. She’s got a few packs, so I took one.”

He grinned. “She notice?”

I shrugged and we giggled.

I guess saying I’m on the pill was the go-ahead to do it five more times. By the time we were done, his blond hair was soaked. His body was soaked. He was so incredibly hot I even forgot about the night cold. Still covering me, he breathed, “I don’t want to go back. I want to stay with you.”

If hearts could burst, mine would have, because at that moment I realized I couldn’t love him more. I kissed his forehead. “I know, Jesse.”

He nuzzled my chin. “Anna?” he breathed. “I’m going to miss you when I leave.”

My breath stopped. I didn’t think it was possible to ruin this moment, but just like that, it was. Him leaving was the last thing I wanted to think about. I don’t want you to leave. It was on the tip of my tongue. I couldn’t help but think I was being selfish, though. I wanted him to stay for me; what about what’s best for him? “I’ll miss you, too,” was all I could bring myself to say.

He smiled sadly. “Anna, you know what you should do?”

A grin formed on my face almost instantly. Tell you I love you? Tell you to stay? No, I didn’t say it. But I was thinking it. “What?”

“I want you to lie awake at night, and think about me. Think about how you feel this very moment, and know I feel it about a thousand times stronger, about you.”

I kissed him adoringly. “I will. I promise.” I put my head down on his chest and listened to his heartbeat.

I decided that I couldn’t let him leave. Somehow, I had to convince him to stay. If he leaves, I will never forgive myself.

~ ~ ~

It was 3 a.m. when we got back inside. The TV was still on, and everyone was asleep. He planted a kiss on my forehead and breathed, “I’ll see you in a bit.”

After one more feverish kiss, I headed to my room. I lay in bed sleeplessly, thinking about how I’d made the same “mistake” more than once. About how I loved Jesse a bit more each time. About how I already missed him. And about how to tell Derek.

At 4:45, my phone vibrated. I read the text.

Yeah, I love you.

 

[]Friday, July 8

Keeping a secret of this magnitude is becoming increasingly difficult, because I see this person who shares my secret every waking hour of every day. It’s not like I can even call my best friend when I need to talk about it, because my best friend is part of the problem.

Derek wanted us to camp out tonight, but Dad said not without Jesse and Tiffany. And honestly, I’m sort of glad he did.

The air was smoky, the fire crackled, and the stars glistened in the vast sky. We roasted marshmallows, swatted mosquitoes, and reeked of bug spray. Jesse’s hesitant to swat mosquitoes. He said they need to eat, too.

“Well then, why don’t I send them your way so they could suck on all your blood?” Derek laughed. “What are you on, man? Mosquitoes carry diseases!”

“Actually, it’s only the female mosquitoes that bite. So they’re not all bad! And other animals eat them. So—”

Derek rolled his eyes. “So they’re essential to the ecosystem.”

“—to kill them is wrong, because other animals could be eating them instead.”

“But there are billions of them,” I said, slightly hesitant when our eyes met. Why does he sympathize with a mosquito, anyway? A caterpillar I get. But a mosquito?

Jesse shrugged and tossed a twig in the fire. “I just like them. Can’t wait to start entomology.”

By this point, even hearing the E word made me sick to my stomach.

Tiffany pulled a burnt marshmallow out of the fire. “I can’t wait for Greg to get back!”

I can’t say I share her enthusiasm for his return. By the look on Jesse’s face, he doesn’t either. But Derek said, “Yeah, it’s been strange without him.”

“We should do it more often,” I wanted to say.

It was almost midnight. Tiffany had turned in. That left the three of us, and me feeling sick.

Luckily for me, Manny provided at least some distraction. He strolled over to Jesse with his bouncy ball and sat on his haunches. Suspending a paw in midair, he wagged his tail and panted. Jesse pulled the ball out of his mouth and threw it. Manny hunted it down, returning less than a minute later, again on his haunches, holding it firmly in his jaws.

“No more, Manny.” Jesse pointed to his tent and Manny went back there to chew his dog bone.

“Aren’t you gonna hit the sack?” Derek pressed. Jesse slouched to the point where his elbows nearly touched the ground.

“I’m not so tired yet. I’ll stay up till you guys turn in.” It’s funny how he claimed he wasn’t tired, when I knew full well he didn’t get a minute of sleep last night.

Derek wrapped an arm around me and kissed the top of my head. Then he inched my chin up with his index finger, turned my head toward his face, and kissed me. It was a super long kiss that made me sweat, because it was happening with Jesse less than five feet away. When it ended, I immediately looked at Jesse, feeling a bit guilty. But he didn’t say anything, and then at least, he wasn’t looking.

Jesse crumbled his soda can and tossed it into the fire, where it melted almost instantly. Then he reached into the bag, pulled out more marshmallows, speared one, and started roasting. Our eyes met every so often, but only briefly, and each time he gave me a light smile.

Once again we repeated our marshmallow ritual. After years of doing this, I still either under-roast them or burn them. Jesse is a pro at getting them golden, though.

After a few quiet minutes, Derek broke the silence with, “So Jesse, do you have a girlfriend?”

“What’s it matter?”

Derek wrapped his arm around me possessively. “It matters. And you look pretty single to me.”

Jesse looked uncomfortable. “Looks can be deceiving.”

My breathing became strained.

“So do you?” Derek probed. “No Zoey lately. You’re always home.”

Jesse raised his eyebrows. “Yeah, well I live there.”

“You know what I mean,” Derek uttered, his arm releasing me.

Jesse glanced at him. “Not really. Why don’t you elaborate?”

I grew intensely hot, as it sounded an awful lot like it does when those two begin to fight.

“I guess I find it odd that I can’t talk to my girlfriend for over a week, then I come home one day and you guys are on a date.”

Jesse laughed. “Derek, you call watching TV in our living room a date?”

“Well, considering you took off with her before I even left home, yeah, I do call that a date.”

Jesse coolly popped the top off a new Sprite. “Oh, that’s right! We went to the carnival! That’s really romantic, with all those clowns, goldfish, and kids there.” He took a sip. “Since when do we need your permission to hang out? You never bitched about it before. Why start now?”

Derek looked at me. I just shrugged. Jesse sounded convincing to me, and I even knew he was lying! Derek sighed. “I was just wondering if you actually have a girlfriend, or if you think you can move in on mine. That’s all.”

“Your girlfriend’s my best friend. As for do I have a girlfriend… I’d say so.” Jesse put his soda down, reached over by the tent and pulled over his sleeping bag. He got in and closed his eyes like he’d fallen asleep already. I felt bad because he looked really annoyed. And part of me wondered who his girlfriend is.

We were quiet for a few minutes. Derek spread out his sleeping bag and we lay on it. I faced the fire and he wrapped his arms around me from behind, resting his chin on my shoulder. The warmth of the fire beat on my face, making me drowsy. Until I realized Derek wasn’t going to drop the subject.

“So what’s with you guys?”

My heart stopped. “Me and Jesse?”

I felt him nod.

“Not sure what you mean.” We were whispering, since Jesse was fake-sleeping five feet away. I wasn’t going to confess with Jesse right there.

“Are you attracted to him?”

Despite all the heat on my face, I felt myself blush as I shook my head no. I was glad I wasn’t facing him, so he couldn’t tell I was lying.

“You have nothing to tell me?” Derek’s voice was heavy and tired.

I held my breath and again shook my head no. “What would I have to tell?” I asked, moving my head to see the side of his face.

“I love you,” he breathed. His eyes grew weak and were half closed.

“I love you too, Derek.” I really do. And it doesn’t make things any easier.

Then Derek fell asleep. Without pressuring me. Without begging. Without demanding the truth.

I was too awake to sleep. What if he knew? There was no question in my mind that this would ruin our relationship. And it would happen sooner or later—this I knew. I guess I just don’t want it to happen yet. And although I know that Derek and I are doomed because of it, I can’t get my mind off Jesse Daniels.

 

[]Monday, July 11

Tiffany woke me at three o’clock this morning, trying to sneak out and see Greg. I guess she planned to take her chances with the motion detector. But when she opened the door, she was greeted with a growl. Then a bark. Then another, and another. She closed the door, cursed, and climbed back into bed, seconds before the hall light came on. I laughed under my breath. The dog guards our door—what did she expect?

In the morning, Derek and I jumped in his convertible and headed for the mall. He seemed to have forgotten our conversation about Jesse Friday night, because he didn’t bring it up again. Not that I’m complaining.

“Gotta get my mom an engagement gift,” Derek said, shifting into fifth gear.

“With what money?”

“With my money.”

Your money?”

He glanced at me. “Okay, with my dad’s money.”

“So you’re buying your mom an engagement gift with your dad’s money. How do you think he’d feel about that?”

“I dunno. Should I call him and ask?”

I giggled.

“Nah. He wouldn’t be home anyway.” Derek glanced my way again. “My dad’s never home. I haven’t seen him in over a year. All he does is send money. He hardly even calls on birthdays.”

That’s kinda like my mom. Except she never even sends birthday cards, let alone money. I wonder if she’s still alive. If she even misses us. If she has another family out there somewhere. I hope not. They deserve better.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.”

The car hugged a tight curve. I gripped the door handle to avoid crashing into him and just then remembered to buckle up. That’s what I get for paying more attention to him than to my seatbelt.

We parked the car and window shopped around the mall. For a summer day, the place was pretty dead. I guess that’s better than being elbowed to death, like I am at Christmas.

“So,” Derek asked in the mall, “what do you think I should get her?”

“Why don’t you just get her a card? I’m not getting my dad anything. Is it even customary?”

“I think she deserves something nice, to congratulate her. I actually look forward to Mother’s Day, birthdays. I always get her something, or make her something. The look on her face just makes me happy.”

I looked at him adoringly. Still, I couldn’t think of anything.

When eventually his eyes settled on the jewelry store, he dragged me in. Inside, a pretty young saleslady was so set on helping him, she hardly even noticed me.

“Can I help you find anything today?” she asked eagerly. She had this perfectly styled long blond hair and boobs the size of Mt. Everest. Well, okay, not that big, but I noticed them right away. I tried to figure out if he’d noticed them, too. Probably—but it’s not like he’s gonna comment on them.

“No, we’re just looking.”

“Are you looking for a ring by chance? We have an awesome sale on engagement rings! They’re twenty-five percent off, today only!” She sounded rehearsed, and downright desperate.

“Oh…” He looked over the pendants.

“If you’re interested, they’re right over there.” The saleslady pointed to a case a few feet away.

We looked where she pointed. He looked at me awkwardly. I shrugged, picked a random pendant, pointed, and said, “That one’s nice,” just so he wouldn’t think I expected us to go look at engagement rings.

He made a face. “That’s for old ladies.”

Actually, it was. That’s why I shouldn’t suggest random engagement presents for my future step-mom, or for my future mother-in-law. If Derek doesn’t dump me first.

Then, for whatever reason—probably to tease me before dumping me—he hauled me over to the engagement ring case. “I like that one,” he said, pointing.

What is he doing? It was very uncomfortable, to say the least. I mean, what was I supposed to do, say I want it? The boy’s eighteen. Why would he wanna be stuck with the girl who looks like she’d just been electrocuted for the rest of his life? Or with a girl who’s been screwing around with his brother? Although he didn’t know about that part yet, thus the possibility of him dumping me.

“Would you like to try it on?” The saleslady was smiling at me.

I pretended not to hear her, because I didn’t know what to say. When she asked again, I thought, she’s definitely getting paid commission!

“Who, me?” My eyes traveled from her, to him, and back.

“Yes, uh-huh,” she said, beaming.

“Yeah, sure,” I said coolly.

She pulled out the one karat diamond ring and Derek put it on my finger. You can only imagine I wasn’t breathing at this point. Derek examined it. “Do you like it?”

Did I like it? I was astonished. Breathless! Why was he smiling at me that way? What was I supposed to say? All I could think to say was, “My dad won’t approve.” But having a one karat diamond on the ring finger could do strange things to a girl. It could make her look Derek Daniels straight in the eyes and say, “I do.”

Crap! I can’t believe I said that!

He was flushed. And for a few seconds, he seemed short of words. “Yeah, but she’s already got an engagement ring,” he finally uttered, his eyes fixed on me.

My heart sunk like the necklace in the end of Titanic. The saleslady had this inconsolable look on her face. She looked more disappointed than me. For lack of better words, I said, “Yeah, getting your mom an engagement ring is pretty weird.”

“Yeah, it is.” He looked at my finger, then at the heartbroken saleslady. “What size is this, by the way? It looks a bit big.”

“They’re all size sevens. I can have it sized down, though. Would you like to have the finger measured?”

Our eyes met. Derek smiled and shrugged carelessly. “Would you?”

“I don’t care.” While I didn’t want to admit that I cared, I also didn’t really want it, ‘cause when he dumps me it’ll just be a waste of money, or it’ll end up on Zoey’s finger.

She pulled out a key ring full of silver bands of different sizes, and tried several of them on my ring finger. “You’re a size six.”

He rested his elbows on the glass. “So how long does it take to get one of these sized?” Was he hitting on her? I mean, why else would he act interested? But I didn’t feel like I was in the position to complain, as I’d done worse.

“Up to a week. It really depends.”

“Oh, okay.” He fell silent. Then he shrugged, looked at me and said, “Well, now you know your ring size!”

Yeah, that’s gonna come in handy the next time I buy myself an engagement ring. With my level of self-control, I would not doubt having to resort to that at some point in my life, just so I don’t look pathetic in my thirties.

I forced a smile so he wouldn’t think I’m disappointed, or think anything is wrong. How can he put a one-karat rock on my finger and expect me not to get attached? Then again, how can I sleep with his brother and expect him to put a one-karat rock on my finger? I tried to lift my spirits for appearance sake, but I was beginning to feel pretty crummy.

“I will take that necklace back there, though,” he told the saleslady, “with the shamrock pendant.” He winked at me. “My mom’s part Irish.”

~ ~ ~

Derek left Claudia’s gift in his glove compartment, and my engagement ring at the mall. It was so heavy it’d probably be bothersome, anyway.

After dinner, everyone scattered except me and Manny. I stayed for leftovers—further proof that I’m stressed—and Manny just lay on his belly with his nose at the tip of the food dish. He hadn’t moved since we got home, and only whined once or twice.

I washed my plate, sat beside him, and stroked his shaggy neck. “Manny, what’s wrong?” His water bowl was empty and his food bowl was full. I poured him some extra water. The bowl was dry in less than a minute. “Wow, you’re thirsty!” So I gave him more. He drank like a bottomless pit. Another refill—gone in a mere minute.

He uneasily lay back down and whimpered. His eyes fixed on his food. When I stroked his belly, he snapped!

He recoiled and growled. I drew back and kept my hands at a distance.

Almost instantly, he started gagging. Everything he’d just drank came right back up—cloudy with a light greenish tint—and it stank! Then he gagged again, throwing up a second time. This time it smelled stronger. I grabbed some paper towels and soaked it up. The paper turned lime green. Manny collapsed on his side. I panicked and screamed for Dad.

Claudia came from the other room. “He’s in the garage. What’s wrong?”

“Something’s wrong with Manny! He’s vomiting green stuff!” I dumped the towels in the trash.

Claudia kneeled and lifted his head carefully. When she tried to open his jaws, he growled. She rushed out the door, returning with Dad.

“Let me see the paper towels,” Dad said.

I pointed to the trash can, where he looked them over. “He got to the antifreeze.” Dad and Claudia exchanged looks. “How could he have gotten to the antifreeze?”

“Did you leave it out?”

Dad shook his head no and called Jesse and Derek into the kitchen.

“We need to get him to the vet,” Dad said. “He drank antifreeze. Help me pick him up.”

Alarmed, they quickly carried him out to the car and zipped off.

Claudia hurried back in. “I’m going to see where he could’ve gotten it from!”

I mopped the floor and sat at the table, distraught. Greg came out of his room, his shirt all sweaty, his breath fast, muscles tense.

“What’s wrong with you?” He turned on the faucet to pour himself some water. “Where’d everybody go?”

“Manny drank antifreeze, so they took him to the vet.”

He took a big gulp. “Oh, okay.” Then he walked off like I didn’t just say something serious.

I walked back over to the dog bowls. I washed the water bowl thoroughly and set it back on the floor. When I picked up the food bowl to empty it, I noticed it—mushy dog chow. At first I thought maybe he threw up in it. But when I stuck my finger to the bottom, I felt something slimy. I spilled some of the food into the trash can and tilted the bowl. On the bottom there was lime green liquid, thick and about a quarter-inch deep. Antifreeze. He didn’t just get to it! Someone put it in his food!

I wandered away in distress. I gazed up from the base of the stairs. Greg was at the top, on a step stool, messing with the motion detector. I climbed the steps and stopped outside my bedroom door. “What are you doing?”

He glanced at me, a glue stick in-hand. “I’m trying to cover up this sensor. Maybe your dad won’t notice. He’ll turn it on tonight, and it won’t pick up a thing.”

~ ~ ~

They came home without Manny. The vet said he has a slim chance, which I guess is better than nothing.

For hours into the night, Derek and Jesse sat on the couch, playing with that rubber ball, watching Bugs Bunny cartoons. I sat beside them and we watched quietly. After a while, Derek planted a kiss on top of my head.

“Good night.” Tonight he didn’t seem to care about my being alone with his brother.

Jesse sat on his side of the couch, staring blankly into the screen and squeezing that ball. I didn’t tell anyone about the antifreeze in the food bowl yet—not until I’m sure who did it. I don’t want to upset Jesse any more than he already is.

I heard the door shut and all the lights in the house went out. It was just me and him, once again. I reached for his hand and touched it with my fingertips. He looked at me, took my hand, and squeezed it. He held it and we watched TV.

I wanted to ask what he was thinking, beyond the obvious. And to ask him what he’d asked me—if he regrets it. I guess I can say I’m really lucky he doesn’t go around bragging about it, like I suppose most guys would. “Jesse,” I breathed, and he looked at me. “Wanna go out?”

He looked confused for a second, but then he figured out what I meant. We left the TV on and went by the door, where we quietly put on our shoes, then snuck out through the garage and back door. Outside it was comfortable. We held hands as we walked through our backyard to our camping site in the woods. There, he started a small fire, we sat and listened to the sounds of the night. For a while we lay on our backs, side by side, and studied the stars. The old owl began to hoot. Still on our backs, I took his hand, and he held it playfully.

“Jesse, what are we?” I finally asked, as he appeared too absorbed with my hand to start talking anytime soon.

His eyes met mine. “We are what you want us to be,” he breathed.

“What if I don’t know what I want us to be?”

He looked up thoughtfully at the sky. “Then I guess we ought to just be ourselves.”

“Remember how you asked if I regret it?”

“Yeah?”

“Well, I was wondering the same about you.”

He shifted onto his side, so he faced me. “I only regret it if you regret it. But I kind of still hope you don’t regret it. I figured you don’t, since it happened more than once.” He raised an eyebrow. “And you never answered my question, by the way.”

I sighed. “He’s gonna break up with me.”

“I wouldn’t break up with you.”

I shoved him playfully. “That’s ‘cause I didn’t sleep with your brother.”

He grinned. “That’s true. But seriously,” he continued, his tone growing somber, “if you’re so worried about it, tell him already. Get it over with.” He nudged my chin. “And if he gets nasty with you, let me know, and I’ll beat him up again.”

I chuckled. “Yeah, thanks.” Then I said, “You didn’t answer my question, either.”

“What question is that?”

Our eyes met. “Did you tell him?”

Jesse smiled softly. “Anna, you worry too much.”

“I guess I do.”

“Do you love him?” he asked, after a short silence.

“I dunno.” I certainly didn’t want to admit it to Jesse.

“Do you love me?”

My heart jumped. “Do you love me?” I shot back instantly.

He smiled. “I think I’ve already answered that. Now it’s your turn.” He tilted his head. “Or is that a secret, too?”

I leaned forward and kissed him. The warm glow of the fire felt so good. His lips felt even better. He kept kissing me. He wouldn’t stop. Nor would I. I liked it too much.

I was certain it’d happen again. But once I got his belt unbuckled, his lips parted mine. “I’d rather wait until you make a decision,” he breathed. “That way there are no more regrets.” He had sad, glimmering eyes.

I wanted to say I wouldn’t regret it, but I don’t know if that was true or just heat of the moment. He rested his head on his hands again and watched the stars, so I did the same.

After a while, I kissed him goodnight. “I’m heading in, okay?”

“Okay.”

I halfway got to my feet. “Are you coming?”

“I’m gonna lie here and think for a while.”

“About what?” I asked, though I was fairly convinced that I already knew.

“About you,” he breathed.

I sighed and got to my feet. I’d be thinking about him too, whether I stayed or went. But I decided to go. My feelings drained the energy right out of me. “Good night, Jesse.”

He grabbed my hand, pulled me onto his chest, and kissed me that amazing way one more time. “Sweet dreams, Anna.”

And after a kiss like that, I knew I wouldn’t get a second of sleep tonight. And I didn’t, ‘cause he was all I could think about. All I could smell. All I wanted was to be with him one more time. I was head-over-heels for Jesse Daniels.

I climbed the stairs, half-expecting Dad to rush out because of the motion detector, but he never did. Greg took care of it all right.

Although I was extra careful with the door and doing everything right, when I got under the covers, Tiffany stirred.

“Enjoy your alone time with your boyfriend?” she breathed.

“Derek’s been in bed a while,” I uttered.

“Not that boyfriend.”

My breath caught in my throat. “What do you mean?”

“Puh-lease! What do you think I mean?” she hissed.

“I don’t know.”

She laughed villainously. “I suppose you’re going to deny sleeping with him as well.”

By now I was feeling asthmatic. I’d somehow forgotten that Tiffany can spot a couple who’s had sex from over a mile away. “What makes you think that?” I wheezed.

Her head hung upside down. “It’s obvious. Especially when I look in my drawer and notice I’m missing a whole month’s worth of pills. I hope you had the sense to read the directions and use them properly, by the way.”

I groaned. I’m not sure why I was so naive, to think she wouldn’t notice.

“And may I add you make a cute couple,” she continued. “Always thought so.”

I sighed. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It doesn’t?” she asked skeptically.

“It’s just something that happened that I’m not especially proud of. Because it wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Knowing my sister, she was rolling her eyes by now.

“Does Derek know?” I asked. I don’t think I honestly wanted the answer to that.

“Why, you’re not going to tell him?”

“If I do, he’ll break up with me,” I breathed.

“If you don’t, he won’t, and you can just live out your life pretending you’re not in love with his brother. Does that sound like happily ever after to you?”

My heart sank. “Not really.” I moaned. “I can’t stop thinking about Jesse,” I confided. “I try, but I can’t.”

Tiffany sighed. “Yeah, well once you cross a line, you can’t uncross it. That’s just the way it is.”

“You won’t say anything?”

She dodged my question, yawned, and went back to sleep. Who knows what’s going on in that sadistic mind of hers! I could literally feel my stomach tie itself in a knot.

Number of people who know Anna and Jesse’s dirty little secret: Three. And I was afraid that—at the very least—that number would double the next time I pissed my sister off.

 

[]Wednesday, July 13

With the engagement party two days away, Dad and Claudia are spending every waking minute they aren’t working fixing up the house, cleaning, and decorating. Derek went out, insisting he just wants to be alone. I stressed about whether he knew, and if Tiffany told him.

After dinner, Claudia took Tiffany and me to the mall. I wondered during our happy little shopping trip if that’s how moms are. If that’s what I’ve been missing out on all these years.

Claudia bought us dessert at Dairy Queen, Tiffany got a new pair of shoes and jeans, and I got all the hair accessories I could get my hands on. Claudia bought a pretty brown dress for her big night, and by the end of the evening, we ended up exhausted on the bench Derek and I sat on Monday, the one right across from the jewelry store.

“Are you girls ready to go home?” Claudia’s body was limp. Her hands were full of shopping bags.

Tiffany checked out some guy strolling past. “Sure, in a minute.” She took out her iPhone and checked for a Wi-Fi signal.

“And you, sweetie?” Claudia’s hand tapped mine.

“I’m gonna go in there for a bit,” I said, pointing to the jewelry store.

“All right. Well my legs will surely fall off if I shop anymore. We’ll wait here.”

Inside, I didn’t see the saleslady we talked to on Monday, but a much older one who didn’t give me the time of day. She was preoccupied with a middle-aged man shopping for an engagement ring. I looked around in hopes of getting a peek at the ring that stole my heart, but it wasn’t there. They’d sold it. After being looked at like a nuisance, I rushed out of the store. Surely I can’t look that poor and pathetic!

~ ~ ~

Tiffany’s sniveling woke me up just before midnight. I wondered what exactly she was crying about. I thought, Maybe she’s pregnant. Wouldn’t that be something! At least Dad would get rid of Greg then!

Zorro tickled my toes as he slithered past my feet. A slight giggle escaped me, and the sniffling ceased instantly. A second later she demanded, “Why are you still awake?”

“Your crying woke me.”

“Well, go back to sleep.”

“I’m waiting for you to leave first.”

“And go where?”

“To be with Greg.”

“And why would I wanna do that?”

“I’ve been wondering that for the past few years,” I said, and instantly regretted my cocky tone. With what she knows, I was skating on thin ice as is.

As usual, she hung her head upside down. “I’m mad at him.”

“About…?”

She fell silent for a moment. “Promise you won’t tell Dad and Claudia.”

Yeah, I thought, she’s pregnant. “I promise,” I swore with an ear-to-ear grin.

She took a deep breath and confessed. Okay, so she isn’t pregnant, but she confirmed what I’d suspected. “He put antifreeze in Manny’s food, so he can’t bark at night when we’re sneaking out.”

My grin vanished and my temples throbbed.

She broke into a sob. “It really bothers me that he did that. I don’t see why he would go to that extreme.”

I climbed up to her bunk, where we sat up together and I tried to comfort her. “Does Derek know… or Jesse?”

She shook her head no, wiping her eyes. “It just really bothers me. And I’m scared to bring it up with him.” The moonlight lit wet streaks on her face. “I feel bad for the dog, but I don’t want Greg to get in trouble—I still love him.”

Unsure of what to say, I cradled her. It frightened me how she quivered. I don’t intend to tell Dad or Claudia yet, but I should bring it up with Derek. It’s his dog, too.

 

[]Friday, July 15

The worst night of my life started at six.

Dad’s friends, coworkers, and Claudia’s artist friends were all at the party. When Derek gave Claudia the necklace, she was so happy she literally broke into tears. I could see now why he got it.

They said our grandparents were on the way, so we should stick around and see them. As usual, Derek and Greg had other plans.

Derek fell beside me on the couch, this incredibly sexy look in his eyes. He seemed intrigued with my miniskirt and heels. And it helped that my hair was presentable—probably as presentable as it’d ever been, thanks to our salon trip with Claudia. “Wanna split?”

Based on his mood I assumed he wasn’t talking about literally splitting yet. “Where are we going?”

“Greg’s taking Tiffany to the beach. And we need to talk.”

We need to talk? I suddenly felt so anxious, refusing was not an option. From that moment on, “we need to talk” preoccupied my every thought.

Tiffany and Greg were already in the backseat, doing the usual. I guess she’s over what she told me the other night, about Greg trying to kill our dog. We got in the car. I put on my seatbelt and smiled at Derek, still jittery about what we needed to talk about. He started the car, revved the engine, and put it in gear. He steered in reverse, avoiding a few other cars in the driveway.

That’s when we heard him call us and braked. Jesse stopped at the car and rested his hands on my door. His eyes glimmered in the light, his shirt collar was loosened, and damn was he hot! “Are you guys going to the beach?” he asked, catching his breath.

Derek put the car in neutral. “Yeah, why?”

Jesse glanced toward the end of the driveway. “Can I come?”

Greg groaned. “No, you can’t.”

Derek looked at me like it’s my decision.

“I won’t be a bother to anyone,” Jesse said, his eyes fixed on mine. “I just wanna tag along.”

Derek and I swapped looks. I didn’t wanna be the one to say he could come, not with Greg back there. I also didn’t want to seem overly excited about Jesse joining us. Tiffany didn’t say anything rude, probably because her boyfriend tried to kill his dog. And Derek seemed more worried about whatever he had to tell me.

I nodded like it didn’t affect me.

Jesse hopped in back, right behind me. Greg shifted into the center of the backseat, where he and Tiffany still made out the whole way.

Several times I gazed into my side mirror and met Jesse’s eyes. He smiled, causing a lump in my throat. He didn’t seem too concerned with Derek’s arm around me.

It was a chilly, starless night. It was definitely gonna rain. My legs felt cold in that convertible, and I wished we’d get there quicker. I wanted to get Derek’s dumping me over with, so I can get on with my life. I was sick of being torn between two guys like this. I needed to make my decision, or have Derek make it for me.

At the beach, Derek turned off the engine and squinted at the shore. That’s where the party was. And the worst was yet to come.

“What took you so long?” Hearing that voice made me cringe.

Derek glared over his shoulder. “What’s Pete doing here?”

Greg raised his eyebrows. “Pete practically lives here!”

“I thought this was just the four of us—” Derek glanced at his brother. “The five of us. What the hell!”

“I had to get outta that damn house and I needed a ride. What’s the big deal?”

Greg jumped out of the car and helped Tiffany out. She now looked troubled. “You can do something else if you want to,” Greg grumbled. “I never said you have to join us. I just prefer a real party.”

We sat in the car for several minutes, watching Greg dig into the booze cache with his friends. My sister took a beer, popped the top off, and walked alone to shore. She fell to the sand and stared out at the ocean, not looking back once.

“Jesse, why don’t you go get yourself something to eat? Do you have cash?”

Jesse’s eyes brushed mine. He looked kind of annoyed at being shooed away. “I’ve got money. Do you guys want anything?”

Derek got out of the car. “No thanks.” He started walking toward shore, away from the party.

Jesse rested his elbows on the front seats, his breath tickling my ear. “Where are you guys going?”

I felt bad, but I wanted to hear what Derek had to say. “I dunno.”

Jesse tilted his head. “What are you guys doing?”

I laughed nervously, not sure what to say. Not even sure what the answer was. “Jesse, I need to go with him now, okay? We’ll talk later.”

Jesse’s face grew long, his eyes glazing over. The breeze blew a whiff of his cologne at my face. “Fine,” he mumbled. “If that’s what you want. Text me if you ever make a decision.” He jumped out of the car, tugging up his baggy pants once his feet hit the sand. He looked at me again and headed toward the lights of the eatery.

My heart sank. I felt so conflicted. I had to restrain myself from calling him back. And his cologne was killing me!

I met up with Derek and we walked toward the opposite end of the beach, where I tried to get Jesse out of my mind.

A strong ocean mist slapped me in the face. Sand blew at my feet, and the sky grew ever so dark. We’d walked slowly, quietly, hand-in-hand, though mine was sweaty. Water crashed onto huge boulders by shore, leaving washed-up crabs behind to fight their battles with the seagulls. The seagulls almost always won.

Far from all the noise, we threw off our shoes and soaked our feet in the tide. He took my hands and squeezed them tight. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, why?”

“You’re so quiet.”

“I guess I’m just waiting for you to tell me what there is to talk about.” I squeezed his hand and forced a smile.

We settled on dry sand a few feet away, absorbing the sight of the ocean and lighthouse, and the sounds of the tide and the gulls.

“We need to talk about us.” He pulled me close and nipped my earlobe. “I wanna move out. So we don’t have to be around when our parents are married.”

So he officially hadn’t dumped me! So now, I thought, I should tell him and get it over with. One way or another, I knew I was gonna get dumped tonight, because I don’t wanna lie anymore!

“I wanna start a new life, just you and me,” he continued. “No more living with my mom, your dad, Jesse. Just us.”

No more Jesse. Could I seriously live without Jesse? I’ve barely been able to even think about anyone else since the day they bought that boat. He’s the only real friend I’ve had for eight years. He gave me the time of day when Derek didn’t. Derek teased. Jesse didn’t.

And how would Jesse feel about this, anyway? He didn’t feel too loved in the car earlier, when I ditched him for his brother. But then, Jesse was ditching me for Nebraska. Nebraska! He might as well go to Mars!

I groaned. “Derek, about Jesse…”

Then everything turned silent, as if the world stopped spinning. I looked at him, and he looked at me. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.

“What about Jesse?” His tone didn’t sound pleased. I tried to figure out if he knew.

I shook my head. “I’m confused,” I managed. “I recently…” My voice trailed off. I swallowed hard as our eyes met. He was staring. Waiting. Eyes narrowed. Intent. Hot.

I couldn’t do it! I was too scared!

“You recently…?” He stared intently.

I bit my lip. “I recently… realized… that I might have a crush on him.” Yeah, that’s it. I didn’t recently sleep with him while on a date in our living room. Or in my tent the other night. I realized it may be a crush.

He wrapped his arms around his knees, heaved a sigh, and didn’t say anything for a looooong time. I was so disappointed in my poor, unsuccessful attempt at honesty that I didn’t know what else to say. He looked pissed. If he was that pissed over a crush, what kind of reaction would the truth get me? I was afraid to find out. I felt like such an ass that I decided I didn’t even deserve him.

I was so stressed, my head started hurting. Really bad. I’m sure holding back tears didn’t help.

I got up and walked away. When he called after me, I didn’t turn. I was going to find Jesse. I loved them both. But I didn’t deserve Derek, and Jesse didn’t deserve the runaround.

Derek’s hand hooked mine. “Why’d you leave?”

I turned and looked at him. “Derek I—”

“Look, I love you, okay, so can we talk about this?” he pleaded.

I shook my head. “No, you don’t understand—”

What don’t I understand? You have a crush on him, fine.”

“No.” I pulled my hand away and resumed walking. “No, it’s not fine.”

He didn’t pursue me, though I felt his glare. And the last person I wanted to see was Greg, walking toward us with a cooler full of beer! I turned swiftly and shouted, “By the way, that asshole poisoned our dog!”

Derek stood, hands in pockets, shirt flying back in the breeze. Quite obviously pissed.

I walked past Greg and my sister, but I stopped as soon as I passed them. My head hurt so bad, I was in tears from that alone.

“What’s your problem?” Derek asked her, dejected.

Tiffany ignored him and looked at me through a film of tears.

“Here,” Greg uttered, passing Derek a beer. “Have some.”

Derek collapsed on the sand and started drinking. Two beers, in no time at all. He refused the third. He grimaced, held his forehead, and looked at his watch. “It’s late. Where’s my brother?”

“Talking to some girl at the eatery last I saw him,” Tiffany said, her voice trembling. “Can we please go home now? Derek? Please?”

Derek rubbed his eyes. “Later. I don’t feel so good.”

“I want to go now.

“H-h-how about you stop bitchin’!” Hearing Greg scream sent shivers down my spine.

Derek got to his feet. “Greg, what exactly is your problem?”

My sister sneered. “He’s an asshole when he’s drunk!”

Greg stumbled to his feet and lashed out at her. Derek shoved him aside. “What the hell are you doing, man, she’s a girl! Look, I’ve had about enough of your bullshit!”

Tiffany stomped away. I shot Greg a dirty look and followed her. Despite the gust, I felt heated.

Tiffany reached the car first. She sat in the backseat, crying, typing on her iPhone. Jesse walked toward the car from the opposite end of the beach. He stopped before her and said something—I couldn’t hear what—and by the time I got there, they fell silent.

I stopped a mere foot from him. He didn’t look happy. Neither was I. He touched my arm gently. “Are you okay? What’s wrong?”

I hugged him. That’s all I wanted. He held me tight, lips on my forehead. I cried quietly. My head throbbed.

Derek suddenly shoved him. I was stunned. “Back off, Jesse!”

Jesse shoved back, so hard Derek fell. “Because you said so?”

Derek was quick on his feet. “Yeah, she’s my girlfriend and I did say so!”

“I didn’t realize she’s property,” Jesse uttered.

Derek held his forehead. “Not now, Jesse.”

Irritated, I sat myself in the front seat, waiting for Derek to get in and drive away. My headache made me want to hurl. Looking at Greg only made me sicker. Especially when he threw up in the background. No one really cared, not even Derek turned around to check on him.

So Derek said, “Who wants to drive?”

I shot him a look.

“Look,” Derek started, “I just had two beers. My head hurts. If something happens to the car, my parents will kill me. I don’t see why we have to leave now… Tiffany. They’re partying tonight, there is no curfew. Let’s just wait.”

Tiffany shook her head. “I want to go home.”

Derek threw her the keys.

“I’ve had more beer than you, I’m not driving! I don’t drive manual anyway.”

Derek had a sour look on his face.

“So what are we going to do?” I demanded, maybe a bit too harshly.

Derek sighed. “Rent a room and sleep it off.”

Tiffany laughed. “Listen, I am not sleeping in the same room as that jerk! I want to go home! Now!”

Derek looked at me. I shook my head no. “You know I can’t drive manual.” Not to mention it felt like someone was shoving needles into my skull.

“Then who the hell’s going to drive?” He sounded desperate. Then he looked apologetic.

Jesse met him by the driver’s door. “I’ll drive.”

Derek laughed. “A manual?”

“Well, you drank and they can’t drive manual either, so I’ll give it a shot. Because apparently I’m the only one here thinking straight. What is our alternative?”

Derek groaned. “Our alternative is to find a damn hotel and go to sleep!”

My vision started blurring. I think I was dehydrated. It started drizzling out there. “It’s gonna rain,” I uttered. “We should roll the top on.”

Tiffany threw Derek his keys. He tossed them to Jesse. Then he walked around to my door and said, “Mind if I sit up front?”

Everyone got in the car. Greg sat between me and Tiffany, and he reeked to the high heavens! I couldn’t wait to get home so I could hop in the shower.

Jesse stalled the car before he even got it into first gear. Derek sighed and rubbed his face. I could see him in the mirrors. He hit the button to pull the motorized top up and uttered, “Start it again. Don’t let your foot off the clutch till you’re moving.”

Jesse started the car as the top rolled over our heads. The beer smell on Greg’s breath made my head spin. Jesse put it in gear, hit the gas, and slammed on the brake. The car stalled again.

“You need to have your foot on the clutch if you’re coming to a stop in first gear. If not, it will stall,” Derek explained, his voice strained. “Start it again.”

Greg moaned. “C’mon, just let me drive! I feel better now!”

Jesse started the car a third time. He took a deep breath, put it in gear, and stomped the gas, nearly turning into the eatery so he wouldn’t have to brake. “Look,” Derek uttered, “if you need to brake in first gear, push lightly on the clutch. And don’t let the engine rev up so high without up-shifting.”

“Oh my God, he’s giving him driving lessons!” Greg whined.

“Shut up!” my sister snapped.

Jesse made it to the stop sign without stalling, though it was at the top of a hill, so when he got the car in gear, we started moving backwards. “Why am I going in reverse?” He slammed on the brake, hit the gas, and gasped when he saw we weren’t moving.

“Let off the clutch as you hit the gas!” Greg screamed.

The car peeled out. Jesse swerved to the right to avoid a truck and stalled the car. We were all thrown forward. He stared at the steering wheel, panic stricken and wheezing. Derek held his head.

Driving a manual looks like a serious pain in the ass. Why do they still make them?

“I’m driving,” Greg announced. He pushed on the back of the driver’s seat for Jesse to get out. Derek still rubbed his forehead.

“You shouldn’t drive!” Jesse screamed in the pouring rain. I couldn’t see them with the top on.

“I’m gonna drive! At this rate we won’t be home by Christmas! Give me the keys!”

Jesse’s head popped in. “Anna, get out of the car. We’ll call your dad to pick us up.”

Tiffany rolled her eyes and shook her head.

Jesse glanced at Derek. “Derek, come on!”

“Just get in the fuckin’ car, Jesse!” Greg howled.

Jesse had urgency in his eyes. I can’t get them out of my head. “Come on. Please, Anna, come with me!”

I shifted, intending to get out, but I froze. Derek sighed impatiently. Tiffany didn’t look at me. I just wanted to get home—the sooner the better. I wanted to get out with Jesse, but Derek was pissed enough. And Dad would ground us if we called because half of us were drunk.

I didn’t budge.

Jesse sighed and got into the backseat. His eyes were glossy as he settled between us. He felt around for the seat belt. “Where’s the belt?”

“You’re such a sissy,” Greg remarked as he cranked the engine.

Jesse frowned and sat back, his face strained. That’s when I noticed the smell—he smelled like perfume. I guess I was sniffing too loudly, because he looked at me. “What?”

“You smell funny.”

His head fell. “Look,” he breathed, touching my hand. “I need to tell you something.”

I squeezed his hand and gazed into his eyes. In a soft whisper I said, “Me too. When we get home, okay?”

He smiled weakly.

“Hi, I’m Greg and I’ll be your drunk driver for the evening!” Greg slammed on the gas. Jesse, Tiffany and I exchanged looks. Greg laughed obnoxiously, looking at us in the rearview mirror. “You people are so damn uptight!”

Derek’s head fell into his hands again, like he couldn’t believe this was happening. Neither could I.

~ ~ ~

Greg drove. The whole drive I was petrified. Derek had dozed off, but he was awake now. He looked over his shoulder at us, then back out the windshield and uttered, “Slow down. You can’t see a thing.”

Greg maintained his speed. The car skidded slightly. “I don’t need driving lessons.”

Derek sat up in his seat. “It’s my car man, slow the hell down.”

Round headlights shined straight through our windshield. A semi-truck honked loud enough to take my breath away. Derek veered the steering wheel to the right. The semi passed. Greg aligned the car with the road.

Derek exploded. “Stop the damn car, Greg! I’m driving!”

“Greg, stop the car so Derek could drive,” I pleaded.

“I can drive,” Greg insisted. “It’s just too damn slippery!” He laughed. “I love slippery!”

Tiffany groaned. “Greg, you’re drunk! Pull the hell over!”

“I’m not drunk, Tiffany! I can drive the fucking truck!”

“We’re in a car, moron! The truck is what you nearly hit!” Tiffany screamed.

“Tiff, stop being such a technical bitch!” Greg snarled.

Derek shook his head and glared out his window. Please insist, I hoped. Derek, please insist!

Everyone went silent. All I could hear were the engine, rain, and thunder, and none of it was comforting. Everything the headlights didn’t touch was pitch black. There was close to no visibility out the windshield, yet the speedometer read sixty. My heart was pounding.

Jesse’s hand squeezed mine. Our eyes locked on each other. I couldn’t read his expression. Was he trying to comfort me? Tell me something? He leaned in toward me. I felt his breath. He nuzzled my cheek. “Anna,” he whispered, “everything will be okay.” Then he drew closer and breathed something else into my ear. Thunder rumbled and I’d missed what he’d said. I squeezed his hand tighter. I figured he’d tell me what I missed later.

I couldn’t wait to get out of that car. I was so upset, I could barely breathe. I decided I’d tell Dad, even if we all get grounded. Dad would kick Greg out if he heard he was driving drunk. That’s what I wanted him to do!

Suddenly, the car swerved.

Sped up.

Slid off the road.

I tightened my grip on Jesse, grabbed Derek’s headrest with my free hand. A sudden force stopped us. I heard crunching metal and a shatter. I was jerked forward. My chest tightened. I heard a buzz. My face felt hot. Everything went black.

~ ~ ~

I don’t know how long it had been. My neck hurt. My nose bled. My body was stiff. I gasped. Tiffany was screaming. Her hands were cupped over her mouth. She looked straight ahead. She trembled violently. I turned to Jesse. Where was Jesse?

“Derek!” I unfastened my seatbelt and tugged at his shoulder. “Derek, where’s Jesse?”

Derek groaned and undid his seatbelt. He was drenched in blood. Was it his? Panic struck when he checked the backseat. He hit the button for the roof to slide back. It just hummed. “Where’s Jesse?”

“Where’s Jesse?” I echoed over Tiffany’s screams.

“How did he get out?” He rammed the door open. I pushed on his seat and followed him out, wobbly on my feet. Greg fell out of the car with a loud thump.

We were off to the side of the road. The car had hit a large stump. We looked around, dazed. My heart stopped when I spotted him. I had to check again. Derek looked where I looked. In an instant, he was in the mud by his brother.

Jesse was motionless. His glasses were missing. Half his body was submerged in mud. Derek lifted his head, sobbing. “Jesse, get up!” His voice and body shuddered. He repeated himself. He held his brother in the headlights, covered in mud and blood as rain hammered on his head. The sight made me rattle. My lungs felt clogged.

Tiffany kept screaming, her arms around me, her nails digging into my flesh.

Someone parked behind us. A man ran toward us. He held a cell phone in his hand.

“Is someone hurt?” He trampled through the mud toward us. “I called the police! Is someone hurt?”

“My brother! What’s wrong with my brother?”

I could feel what I can only describe as a panic attack. I could barely breathe. Every strained, rhythmic breath hurt. I couldn’t control it. I stooped over. It was unreal. Must be a dream. He couldn’t be dead. Jesse couldn’t die. My best friend couldn’t die.

Then I saw his neck. His neck was limp. He’d snapped his neck! I threw up. Shook violently. Let out a painful scream. My sister squeezed me tight. I couldn’t control my trembling. I felt cold. I felt like I had absolutely no control over my body.

The man propped his jacket under Jesse’s head to keep it above the mud. He felt for his pulse. He helped Derek up. “We shouldn’t move him anymore until the paramedics arrive,” he explained. He grabbed Derek’s shoulder, trying to get his attention. Derek looked disorientated. “Hear me? Don’t move him! Y’all can wait in my car if you want. Get out of the rain. Just don’t move him anymore.”

Derek just sobbed. He didn’t go anywhere. He stared at his brother. He pulled his own hair. Then his eyes fell on Greg. His chest inflated. “You killed my brother!” The words will echo in my head forever. It stopped whatever breaths I was still able to take. I felt woozy.

Greg sneered. “Well he shouldn’t have come!”

Then God himself couldn’t hold Derek back.

~ ~ ~

Everything was so blindingly white. White lights, coats, floors, walls, faces. We were in the ER. I was stuck in a nightmare.

Derek was in shock. Tiffany sat, trembled, and wept by my side.

Derek had beat the hell out of Greg. I’d never seen such rage. I didn’t even know Derek was capable of it. I would expect it from Greg. Not Derek.

I’m pretty sure their friendship is over. To say the very least.

But Greg deserved it. From the way they acted, even the cops and paramedics seemed to think so.

Initially, they put Jesse on a stretcher. I’d convinced myself that meant he’d be okay.

A doctor in his thirties stood before us. His hair was already graying at the sides. His face was long and his stance was sluggish. He held a chart in his hands and looked at Derek through a pair of thick glasses. “There was nothing we could do for your brother. I’m so sorry.”

Derek’s face was white, his eyes red from tears and rubbing. They’d cleaned his face and stitched up his forehead, thirty stitches right across his hairline. There were bruises on his neck, though it’s hard to tell from what—impact with Jesse in the car or the fight with Greg. “Can’t you try to help him? He’s my brother.” He could barely speak.

The doctor crouched down to our level. “His death was instant.” He glanced at me. “There is nothing we can do.”

I took Derek’s hand. He squeezed so hard it hurt. And he groaned so hard his face turned a deep red.

“I’m so, so sorry,” the doctor repeated. “I wish I had a chance to help him. But I couldn’t.” He sounded so genuine. He rose to his feet slowly and took a few steps back before disappearing around a corner.

Dad and Claudia rushed through the emergency doors. Dad stopped to talk to the staff, but Claudia spotted us instantly. She fell beside Derek. “What’s happened?” She looked around. “Where’s Jesse?”

Derek clenched his teeth and tightened his grip on my hand.

“Derek, where’s your brother? Where’s Jesse?” She looked to me and Tiffany. “Where’s Greg? Someone talk to me, what’s happened?!”

My mouth opened, but no words came out. We were in so much trouble, I was too scared. Dad took her arm, lifted her up, and led her into the corner, where he whispered. Then she covered her mouth and emitted a painstakingly loud scream. Her face grew red and her eyes overflowed with tears. “No, no, NO!” She started pounding on my dad, trying to pull out of his grasp. He wrapped his arms around her to restrain her. She shook and sobbed.

Derek’s grip on my hand intensified. It hurt so bad that, under normal circumstances, I would’ve screamed. He didn’t look up.

“Anna?” A nurse stood before us.

Weeping, I followed her. My ankle hurt. Dried blood covered my skin. Tacky blood covered my clothes. I don’t even know whose it was. I had to sign papers, I didn’t even know what for. They took x-rays. Even from the x-ray room, I still heard Claudia. I’d cried so much, my eyes felt like they’d shrivel up. My head felt worse by the minute.

I couldn’t bear to live anymore.

 

[]Sunday, July 17

Two days ago he was here, now he’s gone. He can no longer bug me, kiss me, or text me. He never will again.

His embrace won’t leave my head. It hurts to feel so empty.

I keep throwing up. I feel so sick. I flushed what remained of my pills down the toilet. I spent hours looking at his last text: “Yeah, I love you.”

I decided to text him. Not like he’d ever get it. But I thought, what if he could, in spirit? So I typed “I love you,” and I sent it to his phone. Over and over and over again.

Derek’s a motionless lump on his bed, staring into oblivion. We haven’t talked since before the accident. Claudia had a complete nervous breakdown when we got home from the hospital. My dad had to restrain her again, just to keep her calm.

Today Claudia’s locked herself in the bedroom, where I could hear her weep. She tore the boys’ room apart looking for Jesse’s ragged old teddy bear. He’d dragged it around everywhere until the second grade. Pictures of him popped up all over the house.

It’s so painstakingly quiet. We haven’t had a real meal in days. No one wants to eat, talk, or even leave the house.

Zoey came by with flowers, and Dad told her to come to the viewing tomorrow. She didn’t look at me all bitchy. She looked depressed.

When I was young, I thought that when your heart breaks, you die. Well, mine’s broken and I’m still here. It’s unbearable.

Why didn’t I just take his seat? Why didn’t I get up and go with him? Then I wouldn’t have to feel like this. Then he’d still be here with me! It’s all my fault.

Why couldn’t I die instead?

I wish I hadn’t survived, because I can’t live with myself. I can’t cope with the guilt, every day for God knows how long I have left to live.

 

[]Monday, July 18

I couldn’t breathe. My knees grew weak. He lay before me in a cherry oak casket. I was so in love with him. And I never told him. He never knew.

He had no glasses. He was dressed in a brand new suit, white shirt, shoes, a tie, and his hair was combed back neatly. He was sunken into white pillows and supports and fabric, surrounded by possessions we’d placed with him. Crying beside him, I wished so hard that he’d get up and grab me, like in his old pranks. I wanted so badly for him to grab me.

I thought about his last kiss, and how I’ll never get another. If only I’d told Derek, he would have dumped me and Jesse wouldn’t be here. He’d be alive, moving to Nebraska to study bugs. I prefer him in Nebraska.

Derek was supposed to give a eulogy, but when the time came, he just stared blankly at his brother. Tears streamed down his face. All people said was, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Some were sincere. Others only said it because they felt they were expected to, or didn’t know what else to say. It was so generic, it got annoying.

Even after everyone left, Derek didn’t move from his seat. I walked over to Jesse and kissed his cheek. “I love you, Jesse. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” I whispered between sobs. “I’m sorry I didn’t go with you when you asked me to.” He looked so sad, so alone. And there was no way to reach him, no way to change anything that had happened.

I held his stiff hand once more and sobbed. He was so frighteningly cold. I took his phone out of his pocket and put it in his hand. I thought somehow that would keep him within reach.

I didn’t want to leave, because I would never see him again. But I forced myself to. I walked past the flowers, pictures, and that beat up teddy bear, and left him and Derek alone one last time.

~ ~ ~

For the number of people at the funeral, the air was painfully quiet. Derek wouldn’t stand by the grave. He sat on a stone fence fifty feet away, fiddling with a rose, watching with distant eyes.

After the minister finished the prayer and I placed my rose on Jesse’s casket, I went and sat beside Derek. He looked more depressed than any of us, and that’s hard to do.

“This is my fault.”

“Derek, it’s not your fault.” It’s my fault.

“I was supposed to protect him. I let Greg take the wheel, so I killed him. Now he’s spending the decades he would have lived… in there.” He looked down. “What if bugs get in there? I doubt he liked bugs that much.”

His morbid words sent shivers down my spine. It added yet another dark thought to the dozens that already filled my head.

“He’s always been here for me,” Derek breathed. “And suddenly he’s not. What the hell am I supposed to do now?”

I was in tears again. “I don’t know, Derek.”

After a quiet minute, he fell to his feet and walked away. He stopped before the coffin, added his rose, and ran his hand across the polished wood.

Once the coffin was lowered into the vault and the ground leveled on top of it, my sobbing father put up the temporary marker to mark Jesse’s grave. After some time, the crowd started thinning out. And eventually, we left him, too.

 

[]Thursday, July 21

Derek’s dad took him to the auto insurance company. When he got home, he looked pretty pissed, though that’s not unusual these days. He rushed to his room, ignoring my dad’s, “Derek, how’d it go?”

Claudia left last night, maybe for good. Dad asked where she was going. She didn’t want to even talk about it, much less consider staying.

Then my sister threw a fit like it’s appropriate. “Where are you going! Why are you leaving?” She sobbed like a 5-year-old.

Claudia hugged her briefly. “Tiffany, I just need time away from here.” That’s all she said. She didn’t say when she’d be back. Or if. She just got in her Lexus and peeled off. Tiffany stood in the doorway and shrieked. She fell to the floor, hugged herself and trembled, with a far-off look in her eyes. Dad tried to comfort her but he wasn’t all that stable himself, and after a minute he left the house. Derek emerged from his room, Manny in his tracks.

“It’s okay, she’ll be back.” He kneeled down to her level. “Will you be okay?”

She was unresponsive, wide-eyed and pale.

“Tiffany?” He nudged her.

“Maybe she’s mute again,” I uttered. She looked like she did when Mom left.

“I can talk just fine, Anna! I’m not deranged.” She shoved Derek aside and bolted upstairs.

Derek looked offended. I followed him to his room, uninvited. He lay on the bottom bunk, Manny at the foot of the bed. The fire crackled in the fireplace. The room was so empty now. Three beds to himself.

I sat beside the dog and rubbed the back of his head. Dad brought him home the day after the funeral.

I wonder if Manny knows Jesse won’t be coming home. It’s probably one of the things that drove Claudia mad. He attempts to jump onto Jesse’s bunk, he won’t eat, he sits by the door at attention and waits, rubber ball always at his feet.

“Will Tiffany be all right?” Derek mumbled.

“She’ll get over it.” I forced my hand under Manny’s snout to rub his chin. He looked at me with watery eyes.

Derek reached for him, too. He stroked the shaggy fur around his neck and sighed. “We should force-feed him. After how sick he’s been, you’d think he’d want to eat again.”

Manny yawned. He pawed under the bed and pulled out that ball again. He chewed on it and wagged his tail playfully.

Almost instantly, his ears shot up and he rushed out of the room. He whined seconds later, scratching at the front door.

“Who’s gonna do it?” I asked. I’d never force-fed a dog before.

After a thoughtful minute, Derek sat up and said, “We’ll both do it. I don’t want to lose Jesse’s dog, too.”

 

[]Monday, July 25

One month ago, Jesse and I had a hot date in our living room. That’s the first thing I thought about when I woke up today. I prefer having that “problem” to this one.

I’m so alone in my grief. It’s hard to talk about what you’re feeling when your best friend is dead, and you know everyone else would judge.

I went through my text messages again. I was so stuck on the last one. “Yeah, I love you.” I should have replied when I had the chance. Why didn’t I reply?

We had breakfast in a deafening silence. Manny is closer to the daily routine, begging for scraps.

I knew trouble was brewing when Dad’s eyes alternated between us. He never did yell at us for what happened. He said we’d get to that “when it’s all over.” As I suspected, he wiped his mouth, tossed his napkin on his plate, and said, “It’s been ten days. It’s time to talk about it.”

We groaned and remained silent, like hopefully he’d forget about the lecture and go on with his day.

He wasn’t addressing anyone when he said, “I know there was alcohol involved. I don’t know the rest. So tell me what happened.”

When no one else would, Derek spoke. “I drank some, and I wasn’t feeling well. I didn’t want to drive. Jesse tried to drive, but he didn’t know how to drive manual, so Greg pressured me to let him drive. I…” Derek’s voice trailed off, and his head fell. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I was pressured to get us home,” he breathed, giving Tiffany a brief glance. “I was having a bad night.”

“Why didn’t you call me, or your mother?”

“Figured we’d get in trouble.”

“And this was the better of the two options?” Dad sighed and fell quiet for a few moments. “Well, can’t change a thing now. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked.” He got up and left, not looking mad, just disappointed.

~ ~ ~

“Try to behave yourselves,” Dad told us before he left, though that actually sounded optional. Greg’s in jail—what sort of trouble can we possibly get into? After what happened, it’s not like we’re gonna throw a party anytime soon.

Dad didn’t say when he’d be back, but since Claudia called and he wanted to persuade her to come home, it probably wouldn’t be tonight.

I watched Titanic. I sat alone on the couch with a whole pint of ice cream, my hair a disaster—I haven’t cared to brush it in days—tied back in an ugly ponytail. For once, I was just too depressed to worry about my looks.

It was dusk by nine. The living room was dark, although the 42-inch TV lit up the room quite a bit. Manny sat beside me with his eyes glued to the screen. Until suddenly, his head shot up, his ears at attention. He looked at something, eyes focused. His tail started wagging. He barked playfully, at nothing. I paused the movie and eerily looked where he stared. Within seconds, he jumped off the couch, bolted for Derek’s room, pushed the door open, and hurried in.

“Hey!” Derek’s music shut off. “What’s up, Manny boy?”

I turned and looked again. There was absolutely nothing there.

Manny returned. He paced to the front of the couch, sat on his haunches, lifted his front paws and smiled to reveal the rubber ball in his mouth. His gaze was fixed on nothing, yet he panted and wagged his tail.

I dropped my teaspoon.

I jumped in place when I noticed Derek beside me, staring blankly at Manny. His eyes brushed mine briefly. Then he kneeled, patted his knee, and whistled. “Here, boy.”

Manny glanced his way, not moving an inch otherwise. He looked back up and whined gently. That’s when the ball jumped out of his mouth, into the foyer. He rushed playfully to retrieve it.

“Wow, what a bounce!” Derek had a really freaked out look on his face.

Every hair on my body lifted. Either we have overactive imaginations, the dog is crazy, or something very strange is happening. In a way, I hoped it was the latter. I moved aside for Derek. He fell onto the couch and sighed. Manny was now scratching at the door. “Manny, come!”

No response, though the scratching stopped.

Our eyes met. Derek looked around the room. He looked rather uncomfortable. It was just our imagination anyway—wasn’t it?

“Maybe the antifreeze caused some brain damage,” he suggested, not looking totally convinced.

I shrugged. “Maybe.”

“Where’s Tiffany?”

“At Lydia’s.” I set the ice cream down on the coffee table and pulled my hair out of the ugly ponytail, trying to flatten it against the top of my head. “Think your mom will come home?”

“Probably.”

He inched toward me. I wiped my mouth nervously and smiled, feeling seriously ugly. “I’ll be right back.” When I got up, he caught my hand.

“Where are you going?”

“Um…”

He grinned and gestured with his head, “My room’s that way.”

My face flushed. “I was just gonna brush my hair.” And my teeth. And do my make-up. And put on decent clothes.

“Why?”

I literally laughed. What a stupid question.

He pulled on my hand until I was on top of him, and wrapped his arms around my waist. We sat silent for a long while.

I thought about when we were younger. How he used to squirt me with freezing water, how the corners of his mouth twitched in that unforgettable way, about the look on his face when he realized putting Nair in Tiffany’s hair conditioner wasn’t such a good idea. I touched the side of his face. Cool tears streamed down my cheeks. He gazed into my eyes as if he remembered something too. He breathed intensely and his hands began to tremble.

“Jesse loved you,” he breathed, holding back tears. “You have no idea how much he loved you.”

The mention of Jesse and love in the same sentence gave me an adrenalin rush. I wondered how Derek knew this. I wondered what else he knew. “How do you know?” I asked, barely breathing,

“He told me.”

“He did…?” I swallowed hard. “Oh,” was all I could say.

“And I love you. That will never change.” He paused, looked down, and practically gasped. “That night at the beach…” He took a deep, nervous breath. “Well, we didn’t finish our talk.”

My eyes widened. I could hear my heartbeat. This was it—he knew. He had to. I tried to brace myself, make sure I’m composed, so when he says, “I know what you did, and I wanna split up,” I can calmly be like, “Okay, I completely understand!”

“I know things have changed,” he continued. “I know…” His voice trailed off, and he rubbed his face. I know…? My eyes were so wide they started to hurt. I sat with my chest puffed, unable to exhale, scared out of my mind.

“I know you were confused. But I still feel the same. I want us to move out.”

He wasn’t dumping me?

“Anna, I know you had a crush on Jesse. But as long as you love me, I’m fine with that.”

“It was more than just a crush on Jesse,” I wanted to say.

“I want you to know that I thought it over, and this is what I want. But only if it’s what you want, okay?” He glanced away. When our eyes met again, he said, “Think about it, okay?”

I smiled softly. I’m such a coward, I couldn’t even speak. Why couldn’t I just tell him the truth?

I’m overwhelmed by guilt. Guilt about what happened to Jesse and now guilt about what I can’t tell Derek. Should I just not say anything? Should I leave the past where it belongs?

 

[]Tuesday, July 26

This morning, I pulled the blanket over my head and concentrated on Derek’s heartbeat. He tightened his grip on my shoulder, so I knew he was awake.

I peeked out from beneath the blanket. Our eyes met. Then he looked up toward the top bunk thoughtfully. “Were you up long?” I ran my hand across his abs.

He shifted down and pulled me up until our faces aligned. Not cool, because I had morning breath. “I thought I heard something.” He pointed to Jesse’s bunk. “Just wishful thinking, I guess. Then I just watched you sleep.” He opened his mouth and kissed me. I guess he didn’t mind my breath. “I love you.”

“I love you, Derek.”

After a lazy moment, I pushed the covers aside to get out of bed. I was fully dressed and he had shorts on, so no, we didn’t do anything. He said he wouldn’t rush me, which is great, because I’m not ready. At least, not until I tell him the truth. I slept with his brother—I keep thinking he should probably hear about it. Someday.

“You’re leaving me?” Derek grabbed my wrists playfully and pulled me back on top of him.

I laughed. “Yes, I’m leaving you! I’m hungry!”

He eyed the door. “Heard dogs taste good.”

“That is so gross!” I got one hand free and reached for my hair, which was everywhere as usual.

“You’re obsessed!” He pulled me close and kissed me.

I pulled away. “My head looks like a Chia Pet!”

He laughed and pulled the covers over our heads. “Come on, you can’t go yet! It’s not even noon!”

“What about my dad?”

He raised an eyebrow.

“What if he gets home?”

“Your dad’s gonna hear about it anyway.”

“Will he…?”

“Yeah. Or he’ll see it, once we start packing.” He got up and walked to his dresser for a shirt and clean socks.

I tried to straighten my hair with my fingers. Manny waited patiently for us to open the door.

Derek sat beside me on the bed. “My dad’s taking me car shopping today. Would you like to come?”

“Um… sure,” I said hesitantly. “Would he mind?” His dad intimidates me.

“No, he won’t mind.” He got up, our fingers locked, and he drew me to my feet. Then he reached for Manny’s snout, rubbed it until it tickled, and pulled the door open. Things looked grim when he froze in the doorway. When he stepped out, I could see why—Tiffany was on the couch, iPhone in hand, probably updating her Facebook status on how screwed we were.

“Hey,” Derek breathed.

“They’re in the kitchen,” she uttered, her eyes fixed on me. “Lunch is ready.”

Derek looked at me. I grew sick with worry, because, honestly, I know what it looked like, and we didn’t even do anything!

We walked into the kitchen awkwardly, Tiffany and Manny trailing behind. Our parents sat, hands touching. Dad looked up from the morning paper. Claudia put her graphite pencil down and pushed aside her empty plate. They watched as we stood together, sweat mingling on our hands. After Dad’s piercing look, I let Derek’s hand go and took my seat. Derek stood awkwardly.

“You slept in,” Dad said casually. “Up late?”

Derek eyed me nervously. “Yes sir.”

“What were you doing?”

“Watching Titanic.”

Dad looked at him, mockingly. “Really?

Well, it’s kinda true. We did stare at that paused screen for some time.

Derek cleared his throat. “Yes sir.” I think he was cute standing there, sweating, calling my dad sir. My eyes met Claudia’s. She gave me a hint of a smile, but she was still pretty serious.

“I didn’t know you have a television in your room.” Dad glanced back down at the paper.

Derek’s eyes roamed the room. Tiffany sat beside me, an unpleasant look on her face. “I don’t… Sir.”

“So how did you watch Titanic without a television?”

“Well, you asked if I stayed up late, and I did, and I watched it in the living room” —Derek motioned to the room behind us with his thumb— “on the TV.” He slipped his hands into his pockets.

“And my daughter was in your bedroom because…?” Dad eyed me and turned to him quizzically. I couldn’t read Dad’s expression. He seemed unusually calm about what he thinks happened.

Derek glanced at Claudia hesitantly, took a deep breath and said, “We fell asleep there?”

My father folded his newspaper and tossed it on the table. “Derek, I know there are things happening between you and my daughter—”

“There are?”

“—and they need to stop.”

“Dad, nothing happened,” I insisted.

My dad rolled his eyes. “Right. You’re saying you’re still a virgin?”

My breath caught in my throat. I’d honestly never expected such a daring question from my father! The room fell silent. They all stared at me, waiting for an answer. I was trembling, sweating bullets.

My eyes shifted to Tiffany, who grinned and shook her head! I nervously looked at Derek.

I was mortified!

Dad went back to reading his paper again. I didn’t need to have said anything for him to know the answer. Claudia cleared her throat and turned the page of her sketchbook, shaking her head at Derek, who now seemed angry, in disbelief, or both. Derek put his hands out to his sides, looking at my Dad. “Mr. Devlin, Sir, I swear to God, I didn’t do anything—”

Dad put his hand up. “Derek, you can no longer date my daughter! It’s not an option.”

Derek exhaled. He looked at me, though his expression hadn’t changed. “I don’t think so.”

Dad leaned toward him, as if to hear clearer. “You don’t think so? How’s that, son?”

“Because…” He’d pulled his hands out of his pockets and started rubbing them together, then wiped them on his jeans.

“Today, Derek!”

“I love her, and I asked her to move in with me, and she’s going to move in with me. I think.”

Claudia’s head traveled back and forth between us. Dad just stared at him, dumbfounded. I was stunned. He must be confused. I hadn’t been dumped yet?

Manny whimpered.

Dad shook his head and pointed to him. “Derek, you will not—”

Claudia tapped his hand and shook her head. “Don’t bother.”

Dad’s jaw dropped. “They’ve only known each other for… seven… eight years, and they’re moving in together?”

“Dad, that’s what you and Claudia did,” Tiffany uttered.

Dad looked at her, his eyes wide. “We’re adults, Tiffany!”

Tiffany looked at me and shrugged.

“Eight years is a long time,” Derek said.

“To you—you’re eighteen!” Dad’s head swung between Derek and Claudia. “You know, first this tragedy with your brother—”

“My brother has nothing to do with this. I asked her before that happened.”

“Derek, I think you’re confused.”

I totally agreed with my Dad! In fact, I was so certain he was confused that I was still shaking.

“I’m not confused!”

“This is what you want today. You’re going to break up and she’ll have to move out and I’m going to have to deal with her move and a broken heart—”

“What makes you assume that?”

Dad clenched his jaw.

“This is not up for discussion with you or anybody else. This is between me and Anna.”

Somehow, I found the courage to get to my feet and walk around the table. To my surprise, his fingers locked with mine. Then Derek pulled me toward the door.

And we walked out.

~ ~ ~

Maybe I was hallucinating when Derek’s jaw dropped at my refusal to proclaim my virginity. Considering his reaction, you’d think he’d bring it up right away. You’d think I’d be interrogated the second we were out the door. But when we stepped outside, his dad’s car was idling. And Derek Daniels didn’t look at me or say a thing, about that or anything else. I couldn’t stop wondering what was going through his head. I wished he’d just spit it out so I can breathe again. I was so scared my chest hurt!

We had lunch at a fancy restaurant across the border. I didn’t at any point expect it to be low scale.

“Can I take your order?” a tall, thin waitress wearing excessive make-up offered. She checked out Derek’s rich dad.

Mr. Daniels’ eyes twinkled. “Yes! You sure can!”

Derek rolled his eyes and gazed into the menu. I gazed into mine. Except as hungry as I was, I wanted to order water. The cheapest meal on the menu cost forty-five dollars! I didn’t even feel comfortable ordering that.

“But first, I’d like to say that I love your earrings,” Mr. Daniels said. “They go well with your hair.”

Derek folded up his menu and waited for the waitress.

“You think they go with my hair?” She tucked some golden strands behind her ear and grinned. I wanted to make a wig out of her hair. “Thank you! My ex-boyfriend got me these. And to think I considered tossing them!”

“Oh, your ex did?” Mr. Daniels straightened his tie.

Derek cleared his throat. “Excuse me, I’ll have—”

“Why yes, he did! He wasn’t so nice, though.” She batted her eyelashes and brushed Mr. Daniels hand with her fake red nails.

“—I’ll have—”

“Well,” Mr. Daniels said, “then it’s good you tossed him!” They laughed.

Derek cleared his throat again. “—I’ll have—”

“You know, you don’t quite fit in with the other waitresses here. You’re exceptionally pretty!” A waitress cleaning off the table next door shot him a dirty look. “Have you been working here long?” Mr. Daniels said casually.

The waitress blushed. “Actually, I’ve been here for a week! I’m an out-of-work accountant, just out of college. I’m only twenty-three. Need to pay the rent while I land a job!” she said cheerfully.

Mr. Daniels looked surprised. “Just out of college? Well, I’ll tell you what… I manage a Wall Street firm, and, if you’re interested, I happen to need an accountant as early as next month. If you’re willing to relocate, that is. All expenses paid.” He dug into his pocket.

Derek tapped the table. His face was a bit flushed. “Hey, I’ll have—”

“Here is my business card so you can give me a call.” He pulled out his thousand-dollar pen and jotted something down on the back. “And here’s my cell, in case I’m out of the office. And my fax number. And home phone. And the number at my country club.”

“Why thank you! That sounds fantastic!”

Derek blurted, “I’ll have a New York Strip steak, medium-rare, a side of baby back ribs, mashed potatoes—hold the gravy—and steamed vegetables.”

They looked at him. “Anything else?” the waitress asked, slightly annoyed.

“Yeah, I’ll have your dessert special with extra whip cream and an iced cappuccino.”

Okay… I stuck my head in the menu. I could not believe that his youngest son just died, and this man’s top priority was to hit it off with an underemployed twenty-three year old blonde.

When I looked back up, they were all staring at me. “Not sure what I want,” I mumbled nervously. My eyes brushed Mr. Daniels’. “I’m really not hungry.”

Derek leaned toward me. “Just order something. You were hungry earlier.”

“I’m just not hungry,” I insisted politely, kind of relieved Derek even spoke to me.

“She’ll have the same,” he said to the waitress. After that he hissed, “If you don’t like it, just toss it.”

How would it look if I tossed $200 worth of food?

The waitress nodded. “Iced cappuccino?”

“Sure.”

“Okay.” Then she took Mr. Daniels’ order, which only took about ten minutes. Nine of those were spent flirting. “I’ll be right back,” she said cheerfully once they were done, and she took off with our menus.

Mr. Daniels looked over his shoulder as she walked away. After some silence he asked, “Derek, how’s your mother feeling?”

Derek shrugged.

“You don’t know how your mother’s feeling?”

“No.”

His dad looked at him questioningly.

“She was upset Dad, she left. She just got back this morning.”

“And…?”

Derek shifted in his seat. “And I haven’t talked to her. I was too busy arguing with her fiancé that I’m moving out with his daughter.”

“Well why would you want to do that?”

I slouched in my seat, wondering the same thing after what I’d done.

Derek cleared his throat. “Dad…

Mr. Daniels raised his eyebrows.

Derek tilted his head toward me. “… this is her.”

I slouched farther in my seat.

Mr. Daniels sat up in his seat. He looked at Derek, confounded. “Isn’t this the girl you always teased? Your mother complained all the—”

“Dad, I’m not thirteen anymore, okay? Everyone’s treating me like a little kid and I’m sick of it.”

Mr. Daniels put his hand out for me to shake. “Hi, I’m Maximilian. Don’t recall if I ever properly introduced myself.”

I shook his hand politely and smiled. I doubted he liked me much. Though lately, I didn’t like me much either, so I couldn’t blame him.

After Derek’s dad paid the enormous check, we got in his flashy red BMW and he drove us to the car dealership. Of course, Derek jumped out and headed for the convertibles, though he stopped short of one and stared hard. His old Mustang was practically waiting for him.

“Insurance is paying,” Mr. Daniels told the salesman, pointing to it. They walked over to us.

When I touched his hand, Derek jumped. He walked a few feet in the opposite direction. I followed. “What’s wrong?” Hopefully he knew I referred to the car and not my absent virginity.

He looked over his shoulder. “I don’t even know if I could drive…” He ran his fingers through his hair and looked at me. “Should I get that one? I don’t think I want that one.”

“That’s not the same car.”

“It looks the same. I can’t—”

“Problem?” the short, balding salesman asked in a nasal voice.

Derek’s dad raised his eyebrows. “Derek, what’s the issue?”

Derek looked at the salesman. “Do you have a different color, with a different interior?”

“Derek, the insurance company is paying us what the car was worth. You were irresponsible and crashed it and quite frankly I don’t think I should buy you a brand new one. This one’s here and available. It saves time.”

Derek cleared his throat. “Greg crashed it.”

Mr. Daniels checked his watch. “Fine, Greg crashed it.”

“Dad, I just want a different color or something. I don’t want the exact same car. I can’t drive it!”

His dad threw up his hands, walked to the convertible, and looked at me. “Amy, isn’t this a beautiful car?”

Derek groaned. “Her name’s Anna, Dad!”

“Anna!” he corrected himself. “Isn’t this still a beautiful car?”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.

Mr. Daniels took a few steps toward us. “Derek, looking for another car is too time consuming. This one’s here, it’s worth as much as the old one, we can get this taken care of easily and hit the road.” He glanced at his watch again. “I really should be heading back to New York, I have a dinner meeting. So let’s get this over with, okay?”

Derek headed toward the BMW. “Take me home, Dad. I don’t want the car.”

 

[]Saturday, July 30

“Mr. Devlin, can you please take me to the car dealership today?” Derek asked at breakfast.

“You went with your father,” Claudia said.

“I know. And he was being an asshole. So now I’m asking you.” He looked at my dad. “Mr. Devlin, I don’t know how to buy a car alone.”

Derek started calling him Mr. Devlin because Dad ordered him to after that incident the other day, which Derek still won’t talk about and I’m afraid to bring up.

Dad pointed a scornful finger. “You’re not taking my daughter anywhere.”

“That’s her decision, not yours.”

Tiffany shot me a look that said your boyfriend’s got guts!

“Then I’m not taking you,” Dad threatened.

Derek sucked his teeth and stabbed his egg yolk.

Eyes circled the table. Tiffany bit into her muffin and tapped her nails on the table. Her forehead was all shiny.

“Don’t suck your teeth at me like that again,” my father warned.

“I didn’t mean to be disrespectful—”

“But you were, Derek.”

“—I just don’t see why you don’t want me—”

Dad slammed his fist on the table. “You are being very disrespectful by challenging me!”

“—moving out with your daughter.”

Dad got to his feet, leaning toward him. “You are a bad influence on my little girl!”

“No, I’m not!”

“You’re not? And where’s your brother right now, Derek?”

Derek recoiled.

“Kevin, that’s enough!” Claudia demanded.

Dad dropped in his chair and held his forehead. “Claudia… Derek, I’m sorry, I—”

Derek got to his feet. I grabbed his wrist and pleaded silently for him to sit.

“I’m not kidding, Kevin, don’t you ever say that again!” Claudia snapped. She dropped her fork and wiped her eyes. “Derek, eat your food!”

“—Claudia, I—”

She showed Dad her palm. “That’s enough! Forget it!” She glared at us. “Legally, you’re both adults soon, do as you please! I’m sick and tired of everyone arguing about this! This is not the best time!”

“—I’m sorry,” Dad finished. He looked at Derek. “I’m sorry, that came out wrong. What I meant is—”

“I said enough!” Claudia blared.

Derek held his head.

I shot Tiffany a look to change the subject. And after a bewildered moment of uncertainty, she did. “Anna didn’t sleep with Derek!”

I gasped and hit her. Everyone fell silent.

Derek pointed to her. “See?”

Dad shook his head in disbelieve and gestured toward me. “Do I want to know who?”

She clearly didn’t know what else to say. “Ask her!”

My eyes met Derek’s. He looked so betrayed, my heart broke.

“Excuse me,” I breathed. I hurried out of there, in tears. And he didn’t bother following me.

~ ~ ~

Not long after I got to my room, there was a knock at my door. I wiped my tears, straightened my hair out a bit, and answered it. But it wasn’t Derek. It was Claudia.

“Hi, Anna.” She looked at me awkwardly. “Are you okay?”

The last person I wanted to discuss this with was standing before me. And yet I couldn’t lie. “No.”

“May I come in?”

I figured she might as well, so I went to sit on my bed.

“I’m sorry about at breakfast. You know, sometimes parents just worry about their kids’… activities.” She sat beside me uncertainly. “Derek’s always had a crush on you.” She forced a smile.

I laughed and cried all at once. “Derek and I didn’t do anything. I know my dad thinks otherwise but we didn’t.”

Claudia touched my shoulder uncertainly. “You know, we’re just worried… Do you have any questions?”

I nodded. “Is it my fault Jesse died?” I burst into tears. “It’s my fault Jesse died.”

She looked speechless for a minute. “You know, Anna, that was Greg’s fault. And in a way, my fault. I let Greg move in with us.” Tears gathered in her eyes. “Greg got into too much trouble in New York. We thought a country setting would help him. I thought I’d be helping. And instead it killed my youngest…” Her voice trailed off. She wiped her eyes. “We can’t bring him back. Blaming yourself won’t bring him back.”

“He was my best friend. And I didn’t tell him how I felt.” I admitted, feeling queasy.

Claudia wrapped her arms around me. “Jesse adored you. He always tried to impress you.” She smiled. “You were a good friend, Anna. Don’t be so hard on yourself. He wouldn’t want you to be.”

We fell silent for a moment. She squeezed me tight. “Will you be okay?”

I nodded. “Where’s Derek?”

“Derek went out with your dad. They’ll be back soon. Do you want to talk about anything else?”

I shook my head no. “I just want to sleep awhile.” She said that was okay, and if I ever needed anything to let her know. Then she left me to myself. And I thought about Jesse, and about Derek, and about the betrayed look on his face. I couldn’t get that look out of my head, no matter how much I tried.

I got my phone out for the first time in what felt like an eternity. My fingers glided over the keys.

I miss you.

I wanted a response, but I knew it’d never come. So after a while I turned the phone off, and cried myself to sleep.

~ ~ ~

A little after six, Derek and Dad got home. Claudia and Tiffany rushed out the door to see his white convertible, just as the phone rang.

I stopped in my tracks and answered it. Manny barked and followed Claudia out. I could hear them outside. I put the cordless to my ear and took it to the window. “Hello?”

There was a brief silence on the other end. Then a low, fragile female voice asked, “May I speak to Jesse, please?”

I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say.

“Hello? Are you still there?”

“I’m here, I’m here! You sound… upset,” I said, for conversation’s sake.

Short silence. “Is Jesse there? I really need to speak with him.”

“How do you know him?”

Another pause. “Should I call at a different time? He gave me a cell phone number, too, but he’s not returning my calls.”

“No, no… I… um…” I thought fast. “Look, can I meet with you? Please? I’d like to speak with you.” I was not about to tell whoever-it-was over the phone.

“Uh, I live in Manchester. This is a Vermont number, right?”

“Yeah. I can drive up to meet you,” I offered.

She gave me directions to a café and told me she’d be there at eight. “Is Jesse coming?”

“Sorry, there’s someone on the other line—eight o’clock?”

“Uh… okay.”

I hung up and glanced at my watch. It was 6:30. I rushed out the door. “Derek?”

He stopped talking to my dad and looked my way, his grin fading.

“Will you drive me to Manchester? I’m meeting someone at eight.”

He looked slightly annoyed. “For what?”

“A girl called asking for Jesse. I couldn’t tell her over the phone, she sounded upset enough as is.”

“Who did Jesse know in New Hampshire?” Dad pondered.

Derek motioned for the car. I got into the passenger seat and put on my seatbelt. Derek snapped on his belt and started the car.

“Maybe a friend who moved?” Claudia hugged herself nervously.

Dad wrapped his arm around her shoulder. “Be careful, Derek! Don’t speed.”

~ ~ ~

“What does she look like?” Derek asked as we walked into the café ten minutes late. It was the first thing he’d said since I asked him to drive me.

“I don’t know. I only talked to her, remember?”

The place was pretty empty, except for a few people around the corner tables. The aroma in there was mouth-watering.

A girl sat alone at a side table by the window. This girl was really pretty, with long, straight blond hair and blue eyes. They rested on Derek and narrowed.

We walked up to her. “Am I meeting you here?”

She looked at Derek again. Then at me. Then beyond us. “Yeah.” She moved her purse off the table and we sat beside her. The looks of her made me reach for my hair.

Derek tapped the hand that headed for the top of my head. It sucks when a guy knows you think someone’s better than you! I put my hand down and smiled at her. She wore tight jeans, a t-shirt and was still preoccupied with the door.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Kelly. And yours?”

“I’m Anna. And this is Derek.”

She smiled.

“Can I buy you a coffee or something?” Derek looked from me to her.

I nodded.

“No. But I’ll take a donut.”

He went to the cashier, so it was just me and her. “I hope it’s okay that I brought Derek.”

“That’s fine. Will Jesse be here soon?”

I acted like I didn’t hear her. I just couldn’t tell her.

Derek carried back two coffees, donuts, and napkins. He sat in his seat across from the window, looking grim. He placed my coffee in front of me and gave her a choice of the three donuts. She took the jelly-filled one. He looked like he wanted to know if I’d told her, and I shook my head no. And suddenly, she was staring at us.

“Why did you want to meet me? Where’s Jesse?”

Derek rubbed his hands together. “Jesse’s my brother,” he said uneasily. “He died in a car accident a little over two weeks ago.”

All the blood literally drained from her face. “What? You’re serious?” She looked at me like she wanted me to say no.

“How did you meet him?” I asked.

She was silent momentarily. Actually, for a second she looked like she wanted to leave. “I met him on the beach, in an eatery…” Her voice trailed off. “And uh… he gave me his digits before he left. And today I… uh…” Her face grew a deep pink. “Today I wanted to talk to him about something.” Her eyes met mine and she paused. “I’m not trashy…”

Derek looked disoriented.

“I’m not. I’m actually modest,” she said, looking at Derek. “I thought your brother was cute.” She looked distraught.

Derek looked like he wanted an explanation for her behavior, but I was equally confused. And curious. And possibly a bit jealous.

At first I thought maybe the news really got to her. But she said she’d met him on the beach. That means she knew him for like two hours. Why would she be this upset over someone she’d known for two hours?

She broke into tears, picked up her bag, dropped it on the tiny round table, and opened it. That’s when it filled the air. Perfume. Very familiar perfume.

Derek nudged me under the table.

I whiffed the scent of her bag again. That’s what Jesse smelled like that night! I covered my mouth and gasped. For a second I felt like I was back in that car, next to him, when he looked at me and said, “There’s something I need to tell you.” It was eerie.

Derek shot me a look.

I needed to catch my breath.

“Anyway,” she continued, “I called him because of something that happened today.” She didn’t look at us for some time. “I was calling to find out what he thought I should do about it.” She covered her face again.

I’m sure Derek thought she’d never get to the point. He leaned back in his seat and took a few big gulps of coffee.

She looked at me suddenly, blinked hard, took a deep breath, and said, “I wanted to tell him I’m pregnant.”

Derek started choking. Coffee leaked from his nose and he couldn’t stop coughing. He spilled the rest of his coffee onto the table. We quickly moved our chairs aside. He grabbed napkins, and tried to soak up the coffee before it got on our clothes. “You’re what?” we both asked, Derek between coughs.

“I’m starting college this fall. I can’t keep it. So I wanted his input.”

We sat after Derek piled this pyramid of napkins up in the center of the table. “Are you sure you have the right Jesse?”

Speechless, I was hoping she didn’t.

“Blond guy, blue eyes, glasses. When we met he was trying to convince me not to squash a daddy-long-legs.” Yeah, she’s definitely got the right Jesse, probably on rebound. “Anyway,” she continued, “I guess he can’t offer his thoughts now, so I should be going. It was nice meeting you. And I’m sorry about Jesse.”

“Wait,” Derek said. “What are you going to do?”

She hesitated. “I don’t know. Abortion, adoption…? I didn’t exactly plan this.”

“No, no, please don’t do that. I’ll talk to my mom, okay?”

Her face flushed again. “You’re gonna tell your mom? She’ll think I’m a—”

“No, she won’t.” He pulled a piece of paper from his back pocket and grabbed a pen off the cashier’s counter. “Please, write down your number. Please. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

She looked at me uneasily and wrote it down.

“Don’t do anything, okay? Please?” Derek looked anxious, and he clearly couldn’t say please enough. “I’ll call you.”

“Sure. That’s my cell phone number. I live alone, so I don’t have a house phone.” She picked up her purse and looked into his eyes. “You’ll call…?”

Derek nodded. “We’ll call you about it tomorrow. I swear on my life.”

“Okay.” She smiled, waved at me, and walked out the door.

I was absorbed in my thoughts. I wasn’t sure how I felt. Jealous? Betrayed, maybe? Disappointed? I wondered if I seriously meant anything to Jesse, or if it’s something that happened to show Derek up.

“What’s wrong?” Derek took a tiny bite out of his donut. His tone suggested he knew what was wrong.

“I lost my appetite,” I mumbled.

“Yeah, you’re not the only one.” He shook his head. “And to think up until this morning I thought my brother died a virgin,” he said sarcastically.

I knew that was supposed to get me talking. But I was too uncomfortable.

“So I guess he shocked us both,” he said, his eyes fixed on me.

“Derek, I’m sorry.” Our eyes met briefly. “I truly am. I know you’re pissed and I understand.” I tried to contain my tears.

He just slouched back in his seat.

I decided to go cry in the car. I’d ended up alone. And this was not the best time to be so alone.

I had an idea why he did it. I guess I just didn’t expect it, and I was disappointed. But it’s not Jesse’s fault at all—I was the one dragging my feet, too hooked on Derek to make a decision. Too selfish about losing Jesse to Nebraska, when I could have just asked to go. Had I done something different—anything—none of this would have happened.

I got what I deserved.

~ ~ ~

We got home after eleven. The night was chilly and dark. Derek turned off the engine and leaned back in his seat, heaving a sigh. He’d been in that café for an hour as I waited in the car. Not once did I look at him, but I knew he’d been watching me through the window.

I didn’t get out of the car because he clearly had something to say.

“So what do we do now?” I could barely see his face in the moonlight, but he sounded tired.

I didn’t have an answer. Only because he waited for one did I mumble, “I don’t know. I should’ve told you before he died.”

“Maybe you should’ve told me when we got home from buying the boat.”

“I’m sorry,” I breathed.

He shook his head. “Did you honestly think I wouldn’t find out about my own brother?”

“Derek, I had conflicting feelings for him. And then I got confused, and it just happened—” I immediately regretted my poor choice of words.

He laughed. “It just happened? What the hell was I doing wrong? Why were you so willing with him but not me?”

I was unsure what to make of his tone. And even if I had an answer, I wouldn’t dare spill it. “I understand, okay? I wouldn’t want to be with me, either.”

“Why him and not me? What did he have that I didn’t?”

I started bawling. “I don’t know, Derek.”

He turned on the light beneath the rearview mirror. “I just want an answer. I want an honest answer.”

I wiped my snotty nose with my elbow. “I didn’t think about it. He was so cool about it.”

Tears streamed down his face as he reached into his pocket. He took my hand and dumped something in it. “I bought that before I found out. I have nothing to do with it now. It’s been sized, so no refunds. So do whatever with it.”

I stared at it in shock. He’d bought me the ring! He spent all that money on someone who was not worthy of it.

I looked at him through a film of tears. He stared at his steering wheel. “If Jesse were alive today, who would you be with?”

My ears grew hot. “Um, that’s not a fair question. And you know what, considering what we just learned, and the fact you just dumped me, I’d probably be alone!” I stormed out of the car, heading for the house. When he grabbed my arm, I stopped under the motion-censored light that just came on.

“Sorry, did I just dump you? Because those words did not officially leave my mouth.”

I put the ring in his hand. “I don’t deserve it and I don’t want it. I’d be less hurt if you just slapped me!”

“Can I ask you a question?”

“What?”

“Why are you yelling?”

I glanced toward the windows. The last thing I needed was someone listening in.

He put the ring back in my hand. “Keep it. There’s nothing I can do with it.”

I looked at it.

“My brother is dead. I’d give anything to have him back. I’m sure you would, too.” He paused. “I knew about it, okay?”

My heart sank.

“I’m not stupid, I can put one and one together. I suspected. I heard him sneak in one morning. And the day after our last camp out, I asked him and he told me…” He paused for a long moment, looking away. “And I was pissed the fuck off, but you know what, shit happens you can’t change. I was just hoping you’d come clean with me, because this happened while we were an item. I wanted to see how long it would take you to tell me. Would you have even bothered?”

“I wanted to, but I didn’t know how to,” I breathed.

He heaved a frustrated sigh. “Anna, I cannot even describe how hurt I am. I don’t even know what to do. I don’t have a single friend I can ask for advice. Because all of them would just tell me to dump you.”

“How many times do I have to say I’m sorry?” I wept.

He shook his head like he couldn’t believe his ears. “Do you have any self-control?”

I was taken aback. “No,” I admitted. “Did he?”

“Obviously not.”

I wiped my eyes. “Well, I don’t blame you for hating me. I deserve it.” I paused briefly to gather my thoughts. “I guess I just fell for him. Maybe I was more comfortable with him. Maybe it’s like how you said Zoey’s more attractive than me, but you’re more comfortable with me than her.” I wiped more snot with my sleeve.

“I never said Zoey’s more attractive than you. What are you talking about?”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m not blind.”

He scowled. “Maybe you are.”

I stared at him through more tears. “Well,” I said for what felt like the hundredth time, “I’m sorry. If I could change it, I would.”

He didn’t seem to buy it. “Did you love him?”

I covered my face. “Does it matter now? He’s not here anymore.”

“It matters to me,” he insisted.

I didn’t know what he wanted to hear. At the moment, that was more important than how I felt. But I figured I’d tell the truth for once. So I nodded yes.

He looked thoughtful for a moment. Then he said “Okay then.”

What in the world did “okay then” mean?

I inched closer to him and reached for his hand. But he took a step back and put it in his pocket. He looked conflicted, which wasn’t comforting. “We’ll finish this later. I’m going to bed.”

Then he left me in the walkway, feeling like a bigger ass than I’d ever felt in my life. I didn’t know if he’d dumped me, or if he’s staying with me, or if he’d forgive me. I had no answers. To anything.

~ ~ ~

When I reached the bedroom, Tiffany apologized about breakfast, but I told her it’s not necessary. I explained to her that I’m a bitch and I deserve it. And she looked stunned at my admission.

She joined me on my bunk, though I was trying to sleep. “Anna, you’re a good person. You’re not a bitch.”

I rolled away and covered my head with my pillow. “Thanks, Tiff. But what you think doesn’t matter.”

She pulled the pillow from over my eyes. “Anna, you’re like my hero! Seriously! I mean, not even I would have been able to do that!”

I groaned. “Make me feel worse why don’t you!”

“I’m just saying, you’ve got guts!”

“I wish I didn’t,” I exclaimed.

She smiled with this far-off look in her eyes. “Jesse was doable.”

I rolled my eyes and got under the covers. “Thanks for trying to cheer me up,” I mumbled. If my eyes weren’t dry as toast, I would’ve broken down again.

She patted me on the back and turned out the lights. A few minutes later she had the nerve to ask, “What was he like?”

“You know what, of the hundreds of perverted books you’ve read, I’m sure the exact description is in there somewhere. Good freakin’ night, Tiffany!”

And like a child, she giggled.

 

[]Sunday, July 31

I actually checked for texts this morning. Surely that means I’ve lost my mind.

I’ve lost a lot, in such a short time. I’ve lost my best friend, my boyfriend… two people I love.

I pulled the blanket off my lazy sister and yanked her leg. She groaned and pulled it back over her. “What?” she grumbled.

“Tiffany? What does ‘okay then’ mean?”

Her head shot up and she looked at me with a grimace. “What?”

I sighed. “When a guy says ‘okay then’, what does that mean?”

She looked at me like I’m stupid. “Uh… it means okay then?”

I shook my head. “Never mind.” I headed for the door.

She hopped out of bed and grabbed some clothes. “How about some context?”

I turned to face her. “Well, Derek asked if I loved Jesse. I asked if it mattered anymore, and he said it matters to him. So I nodded yes. And after thinking about it for a short while, he said ‘Okay then.’ He’s still pissed though.”

She still stared at me like I’m stupid. “You actually admitted you loved his brother?”

I groaned, opened the door, and walked out. Apparently I can’t do anything right, not even answer a simple God damn question.

What I saw at the bottom of the stairs didn’t make me feel much better. It was Zoey. And Derek. She was putting on her shoes, like leaving. So now I’m wondering when she got here. And if she was with him.

They stopped talking and stared at me as I descended the stairs. If they were waiting for a reaction, they sure didn’t get it. I was in no position to complain about him seeing someone else. I don’t even know if he’s with me or not; why did it matter who was over?

He didn’t say anything to me, he just looked away. Zoey waved gently with a brief smile. I attempted a smile back and said, “Hey.” I just didn’t have the energy to be jealous.

I picked up a magazine and sat on the love seat. I guess I was sort of snooping. Mostly I hoped I wouldn’t hear about how great last night was, but I’d actually deserve that. I doubt she stayed the night, anyway. We got in after eleven and somehow I think he was too pissed and tired to sleep with anyone.

“Well I had a nice time,” is the next thing she said. My heart sank. I couldn’t complain, either. The tables had turned, and it was no fun on the receiving end.

“Thanks for dropping by so early,” he said. “My mom’s having a hard time with it, so I really appreciate your help.”

“Yeah, I understand, it’s probably too depressing for you guys to go.” Brief pause. “Well I will drop these plans off at the monument place, and if they have questions I’ll give them your number.”

“Great, thanks.”

She opened the door. “Thanks for the coffee!” And then I heard “Bye, Anna!”

Thanks for the coffee… I had a nice time. I stared at the wall. He didn’t even sleep with her! I just assumed he did.

In a way I was relieved. And the stupidest thing is, I was also upset at the same time. ‘Cause now I’m still the cheating bitch, and I’d jumped to conclusions, again!

The door shut and I waited for him to walk in.

I looked at the magazine I was holding, bewildered, wondering what the hell I was reading. I’d just picked something up and opened it!

“Reading up on Men’s Health, Princess? I’m actually not sure you’re old enough for half that stuff in there.” I didn’t even hear Dad walk in.

I’d just seen the cover when he mentioned it. I tossed it on the coffee table and rubbed my eyes. “I picked up the wrong mag, Dad.” I got up, walked to the kitchen, and poured myself a cup of coffee. Derek was at the table, holding his head. I didn’t sit next to him, I sat in Tiffany’s seat.

I peeked over at him from time to time. He sipped his coffee and looked through his phone like I wasn’t even there.

Manny came barking into the room. He lay down and rolled over, again and again. When he was done, he sat on his hind legs, looked up at nothing, and panted.

The dog jumped aside when the door swung open. Claudia entered in her bathrobe. She preheated the oven, made some batter, and put cranberry loaf bread in to bake. Her face was long and thin. She’d definitely lost some weight, as if she wasn’t thin enough. She sat across from us, poured herself some coffee, and glanced at Derek. “Did Zoey pick up the sketches?”

He shifted in his seat. “Yeah, she just left with them. We think they look great.”

Claudia nodded. “Well it’d be nice to have the headstone design out of the way,” she breathed, her voice cracking. She wiped some tears and sighed.

Dad strolled in, poured himself the last of the coffee and brewed some more.

“So who did you two see last night?” Claudia picked up an orange from the center of the table.

“A girl named Kelly.”

Dad sat and held his chin. His hair was knotted. I could relate. “Kelly?”

Derek nodded.

“What did she want?” Claudia ripped the peel.

“She wanted to talk to Jesse.”

“And you told her…?” Dad asked.

Derek nodded. He scratched his stitches. His hand shook enough to spill coffee onto the table. Dad and Claudia stared at it.

“There’s something else,” Derek said uneasily.

“What, you’re moving out with my daughter, whether I like it or not?” Dad smiled. His eyes were easy this time.

Derek ignored the humor.

“So now what?”

“This girl—Kelly—she’s pregnant.”

Dad looked stunned. Claudia looked confused. After the initial shock, she said,

“What did you do, young man!”

“It wasn’t me, Mom!”

“Then who was it?” She looked super stern.

“Jesse!”

“What? How?”

“Mom, do you really need me to tell you how?”

Dad chuckled.

Claudia looked to me. “Is he serious?”

I nodded, wanting to add, “Unfortunately.” But that probably wouldn’t make Derek any happier with me.

“Well, what’s she going to do?”

“She doesn’t want it, so abortion or adoption.”

Claudia’s eyes widened. “What? What about her parents?”

“She said she lives alone.”

Claudia turned to my dad. “I can’t believe this!”

“Apparently they just met that night,” Derek continued.

“So this happened the night of the crash,” Dad said.

“Yeah.”

Claudia got up and pulled Dad aside. They started talking real low, so we weren’t able to make out what they were saying. Dad nodded and listened, the whole time eyeing poor Derek. When they were done she said, “How do I contact her?”

Derek handed her the number.

She took it, grabbed the phonebook, and dragged Dad out of the room.

Well that just left me and him. Although, he still didn’t look at me. He seemed uncomfortable.

After a few minutes, I decided to break the silence. “Derek?” My voice trembled. “I really am sorry I hurt you, Derek. You believe me, don’t you?”

He tilted his head back toward the ceiling and rubbed his eyes, making me suspect he hid tears. Then he got up and left the room.

I sat alone, waiting for Claudia’s loaf bread to finish baking. I set it on the table when it was ready, but I didn’t touch it. I was too miserable to even eat.

~ ~ ~

I was ignored at dinner, too. Not once did Derek look at me, even when our parents or Tiffany talked to me. He just poked his food with his fork, looking pissed off and depressed unless he was being addressed by someone other than me.

After dinner, Dad was reading on the couch. I stood before him. “Daddy?”

“What is it, Princess?”

“What does ‘okay then’ mean?”

He didn’t look up from his magazine. “Okay is a formal word used to express agreement, acceptance, or satisfaction with something, Princess.”

“Um. I know what okay means. I was wondering what okay then means.”

Dad’s eyes fixed on me and he raised an eyebrow. “Okay then is not a word that appears in the dictionary. Okay then is just the word ‘Okay’ followed by the word ‘then’. The ‘then’ doesn’t change the meaning of the word ‘Okay.’” He lowered the magazine. “Does that answer your question, Princess?”

“… Yeah,” I said, thoroughly confused.

I went up to the studio and decided to try again with Claudia. She sat in front of a dark painting she made, looking thoughtful. “Claudia?”

She looked at me. “Yes, Anna?”

“I have a question about guys.” I wasn’t sure how else to word it, so I don’t get what sounds like another regurgitated Webster’s Dictionary definition.

“Sure. What is it?”

“If a guy asks if I loved somebody, and I say yes, and he thinks for a minute and says ‘okay then’, what is that supposed to mean?”

She just stared at me for a moment. “Well, I think it means you answered his question.”

I sighed. That doesn’t answer my question!

A small smile crossed her lips. “It may also mean you think too much.”

I smiled with a nod. “You’re probably right,” I said. “That must be what it means.”

 

[]Friday, August 5

Derek hasn’t talked to me all week. I was so lonely I have no clue what to do. Tiffany has Lydia, Dad has Claudia, Derek has his college friends, and I have nobody. Absolutely nobody.

I went by Zoey’s just to have someone to talk to, but no one answered the door. I don’t even have an archenemy.

This afternoon I sat by the pond, clutching my phone. Once again, I was going through my saved texts, fondly remembering what they were all about.

I sat there a long while before I decided to do it again. I felt silly, but he was the only person I could talk to. My fingers moved over Jesse’s digits.

I miss you.

Send.

But I miss him too. I am so lonely. You both left me.

Tears rolled down my cheeks as I went off, typing a long, drawn-out pointless text.

We had a fight and he asked. So I told him I love you. Then he thought a while and said okay then. Jesse, what the hell does okay then mean? No one can give me an answer.

I sobbed. I hugged my phone because that is what it has come to: a piece of Chinese plastic with numerical digits and a 2” screen was the only friend I had left in the world. How pathetic is that?

Vibration startled me. My heart caught in my throat when the screen read “new text message.” I eerily hit the view button.

Okay then means he’s glad there was love. ‘Cause what would it say about you if there wasn’t?

I stared wide-eyed at the screen, unable to breathe. I double-checked the number it came from, and it was Jesse’s.

My heart raced. I didn’t understand what was happening. That instant, the phone vibrated, and the screen again read “new text message.” And this one said,

I love you.

I was bewildered. My phone fell to the ground. I got to my feet. I backed away from it, until I bumped something that gripped me. I shrieked and turned, stunned to see him there.

Derek turned off the phone he held and tossed it to me. I somehow managed to catch it, confused, breathless and still in tears. He wrapped his arms around me. “I missed you, too,” he uttered in my ear.

I laughed and cried simultaneously. “I put the phone in with Jesse,” I managed. “How were you using it?”

“He still has his phone,” Derek said. “I had his number transferred.”

I laughed in disbelief. “So you read everything I’ve been texting? I feel so silly now.”

His finger traced my lips. “Don’t feel silly, Anna. You can tell me anything.”

And then he kissed me.

 

[]Saturday, August 6

“So, Birthday Boy, what do you want for your nineteenth?” Dad asked at breakfast. He winked at Claudia.

“I want to move out with your daughter.”

Dad looked at me over his newspaper. “Fine. But break her heart and I’ll break you.” He smiled at me.

I’d somehow convinced myself that this is okay. After all, before the accident, Jesse found someone else, and she’s prettier than me.

Derek’s face was blank. I wondered if I’d missed something, so deep in thought about how inferior I am to Kelly. “What?” I asked.

“I said, do you want to go look at the house today? I have an appointment at one.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Kevin and I are going to Boston tomorrow night,” Claudia announced. “We’ll be staying with a friend of mine, since we have business early Monday morning.” Claudia beamed. “Kelly’s letting us adopt the baby!”

“That’s great!” I exclaimed, growing excited.

“Yeah, I can’t wait!” She took my dad’s hand. “We’ll have a new addition here by—what—April?”

“Good thing your room’s coming available, Princess.” Dad joked. He glanced at the seat to my right. “Tiffany, get down here!”

She didn’t answer, but we could hear her trample around upstairs. About the same time, Manny came running through the kitchen door, chasing his bouncy ball. He scooped it up with his mouth, sat on his hind legs and wagged his tail at nothing. “What’s with this dog?” Dad asked with a shudder. “He chills the room everywhere he goes. That’s not economical in the winter.”

My eyes met Derek’s. He grinned devilishly at my bare legs (I wore those short shorts). I smiled bashfully because—from the temperature in there—you could tell I hadn’t shaved them.

~ ~ ~

We met with a Realtor in Beausejour about renting a home. Derek’s taking it out of his trust fund until he gets his hospital administration job after college. I wish I had a trust fund! Jeez, being born poor sucks!

Beausejour is an awesome little town. The people are so friendly and that home made my jaw drop! It’s a two-story home with a huge kitchen, two awesome bathrooms, a hot tub, and a balcony. I used to beg Dad to build me a balcony when I was younger, so Derek could sweep me off my feet. Dad didn’t see the need I claimed to have for such a structure.

In the living room, Derek wrapped his arms around me and rested his chin on my shoulder. I let my face touch the side of his. “Do you like it?”

I get to live with him, the place is awesome, I have a balcony (not like I’ll need it now), and we’d be close enough to still visit our parents regularly. What was there not to like? I couldn’t wait!

“I love it,” I said. “But why do we need two bedrooms? Are we each gonna have our own room?” That would make moving out pointless.

Derek’s face flushed. The Realtor smiled and retreated into the kitchen so we could talk. “It’s just an extra room. In case we need it.” He smiled. “For the dog.”

Right—dogs need their own bedrooms all the time!

“If you want a one bedroom, we can ask to see a one bedroom.”

Although I don’t see the point in giving a dog his own bedroom, I said, “No, this is fine.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m positive.”

“You wanna take it?”

I smiled. “I wanna take it.”

He grinned and waved his hand across the room. “We’ll take it.”

Her eyes lit up. I suppose if someone rented a place from me for $3,000 a month, my eyes would light up too. “Fabulous! When would you like to move in?”

“September twelfth.” My eighteenth birthday.

“Great! Mr. Daniels, I just need your signature on the lease, and a deposit to hold the place for you!” I couldn’t help but think her profession was perfect for her. You know how all these Realtor ladies on TV all have the super short hair, the business suit, and those dangly earrings? That’s her.

Derek read the lease and signed it. He wrote a check for the first and last month’s rent, plus the security deposit, and handed it to her. “We have a dog, too.”

“Oh…? What breed?”

“Giant malamute.”

The Realtor smiled. “My niece has two malamutes! Such a beautiful, fascinating breed! You know, they’re like cats, in a way, they groom themselves. Very tidy. And according to her breeder, they see ghosts!”

~ ~ ~

Since we’re officially moving, we decided to clean up the camp site this afternoon. We didn’t really want to, but we had to. We talked about it. We prepared ourselves for it. But when we got there, all we could do was experience it.

I thought about the campfires, the pranks, the bugs, the frogs, and the boys. Derek looked like he was struggling with some memories himself. Eventually he brought himself to do it, something I couldn’t do. I just sat on a tree stump, silent, with an aching heart.

He grabbed the extra-large trash bag and started collecting years’ worth of junk—old magazines, chew toys, socks, outgrown sweatshirts, tennis balls, bottle caps, sheets, flashlights. He folded our tents and kicked around the rocks we’d used to contain our campfires.

In the end, we stood in a small clearing with two large squares of dead yellow grass. That’s all it is now—an ordinary clearing.

Derek stared into the bag indecisively. He had to be thinking the same thing I was. How do we just toss it all?

He offered his hand and I took it. I forced a smile, though that also forced the tears out. I laughed like I was just being silly, and completely broke down. I shoved my head in his chest and he embraced me. “We won’t toss this stuff. Okay?”

In the garage, he placed the bag and tents in one of the large boxes laying around. He made sure they fit well and folded the corners over each other, so the box stayed closed. We stared at it, short of breath. The box had already been labeled during the move. It read, Jesse’s stuff.

 

[]Sunday, August 7

Today I woke up to what sounded like an elephant being moved into the den. I hopped out of bed, refilled Zorro’s food bowl, put my hair in a doable ponytail, and stepped out of my room.

Derek was in the den, faced away from me. When he heard me come up behind him, he looked over his shoulder. He was slouched over, working a screwdriver, with this incredibly annoyed look on his face. Plastic covered the carpet where Claudia was on a ladder, painting the room yellow. A kiddy radio in the corner played “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.”

“What are you doing?”

When Derek next looked at me, he held a shiny steel screw between his front teeth. He pulled the screw out of his mouth, positioned it in a hole and grumbled, “Assembling the rocking horse!”

I stared in confusion. After the screw was tightened, he glanced over his shoulder at me again. He shrugged and reached for the next one. Rocking horse? We’re only in August!

“Make way.” Dad nudged me aside and pulled in a solid wood toy box and a musical carousel. He slid it across the carpet. “Derek, Derek, I’ll do that. Why don’t you bring up that teddy bear? That way you can get a break.”

Derek grabbed my wrist as he walked past. We stopped at the bottom of the stairs to talk. I was staggered by the look of the living room. They’d bought teething toys, a highchair, a car seat, a jumper and diapers, too!

“What is going on?” I wanted to know.

Derek grabbed the teddy bear in the far corner—it probably weighed more than I do—and dragged it over to the stairs. He dropped it, walked back to the living room and fell onto the love seat. “What’s going on is that my mom’s become impatient and ecstatic. She woke me up at three this morning so I could go help with her big-item shopping. There’s more stuff in the car.”

“This kid won’t be born for like eight months.”

“Yeah. I have a feeling if Jesse were still here, she’d be pissed about this whole thing. But whatever makes her happy now, right? Otherwise she’s depressed, it’s all she thinks about and she can’t deal with life.” He got back up and grabbed the bear by the neck. “Do me a favor—if we ever have a kid, let’s tell her after it’s born.” Of course that put a smile on my face. He climbed a few steps and added, “You might wanna grab the car keys and pull the tricycle out of the trunk.”

~ ~ ~

“I’ll be at Lydia’s until later,” Tiffany announced early in the evening. Then she looked at me like Derek and I are going to jump into bed the second our parents leave.

“Tiffany, Claudia and I are going to Boston. Make sure you’re home by ten, we’re planning to call,” Dad warned. Dad looks a bit aged these days. I don’t know how you age over a few weeks’ time, but his hair was graying around the ears.

Tiffany left. Dad grabbed the umbrella and smiled at Manny, who sat beside us, panting happily. Manny looked at nothing, wagged his tail, and looked back at Dad. “Be a good dog!” Dad said. He pointed the umbrella to Derek. “And you, don’t touch my daughter!”

“Yes, Mr. Devlin.”

“Separate rooms in my house, understand? When you move out, it’s your business.” He gave us a quizzical look. We nodded. Then he looked at Claudia and said, “Ready?”

She smiled and kissed the top of our heads like we’re five. “Behave.” She patted Manny on the head. “That goes for you, too.”

“Expect us home tomorrow night,” Dad said.

We waved as they got into the car. Once the door shut, Derek dragged his feet to the couch and fell onto it. “I’m exhausted!” He gripped his head.

I sat across from him, my feet touching his. “My dad would be glad to hear you’re exhausted!”

“I’m not that exhausted.” He winked.

My cheeks were hot. “Hmm… I wonder what that’s supposed to mean.”

He put his hands behind his head and stretched. “I’m hungry. What do you want for dinner?”

“I want roast duck.”

“See, now you’re trying to exhaust me.”

I giggled. “How about we order a pizza and watch a movie?”

“Sounds good to me.” So that’s what we did. And, despite all his begging to do otherwise, I forced him to watch Titanic with me. Half way through the movie, he cleared his throat and said, “Having fun yet?”

“Are you?”

He laughed. “Maybe once I turn it off!” Then he flung himself at me. I screamed and laughed, holding the remote out of reach. When he nearly got it, I shoved it under my body. He reached under me for it, thinking tickling me will work. I didn’t even squirm. “Not ticklish anymore…? ‘Cause I can still pull your hair!”

I pulled the remote out, tapped him over the head with it, and hid it again. He laughed and dug into the cushion, trying to retrieve it.

He grabbed both my wrists and held them single-handedly above my head. But he let go when he noticed the ring on my index finger. “Super tight fit for this finger,” he breathed, after a moment trying to pull it off.

I smiled. “Yeah. Well, it’s too pretty to sit in a jewelry box.”

Things got awkwardly silent when he finally had it off. “You shouldn’t wear it so tight on that finger, if it gets caught on something it can break your finger off.” He looked at me with some hesitation. Then he took off my chain, slid the ring through and reattached it to my neck. “There. Now you’re safely wearing it.”

I forced a smile. “That works, too.”

“Maybe I’ll get you a new one someday.” Our eyes met and he grinned. “I think maybe this one’s cursed.”

Somehow he got a genuine smile out of me. “I love you, Derek.”

“I love you, Anna.”

I stopped the movie and we made out so intensely and for so long, we didn’t even hear Tiffany come through the door.

She switched the light on and announced her presence with a fake cough.

We squinted and jumped apart.

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, right, Anna still has a boyfriend. Well, good thing I’ve got a new book,” she announced, waving her newest perverted novel around and heading up the stairs. “Don’t have too much fun now!”

 

[]Wednesday, August 10

Zoey showed up before breakfast this morning. I was the one to open the door, but this time I didn’t slam it in her face. “Hey,” she breathed. “I was just wondering how everyone’s doing.”

“We’re doing a bit better,” I said. “We’re expecting a baby!”

“Wow! You don’t even look it! How far along are you?”

I laughed. “No, Jesse’s expecting a baby!”

By then the poor girl was extremely confused. So I invited her in for breakfast, and we explained everything to her over eggs, bacon, and French toast. And she didn’t even hit on Derek this time!

In her own little world, Tiffany flipped through the pages of her dirty novel, and at the breakfast table at that! She was now highlighting passages in that book—not sure I wanted to know why. When she noticed me, Zoey, and Derek staring at her, she decided to take a break.

She grabbed the dog leash and whistled for Manny. “We’re going for a jog to burn off all those calories! We’ll be back in a few!”

Yeah, ‘cause you can burn off all those calories ‘in a few’.

Claudia smiled. “Okay sweetie.”

Dad picked up the morning paper. “Derek, I’ll need your help with some things around the house today.”

“Like…?”

“Like getting rid of that motion detector. Painting the nursery’s been killing our backs. I’m not doing any more reaching today, tomorrow, or any time this week for that matter. And I noticed the glue by the way, very clever.”

“That was Greg,” I informed my father.

Dad shook his head. “Why am I not surprised?”

Derek sipped his coffee. “Sure thing, Mr. Devlin.”

Dad grimaced. “Just… call me Dad. My father is Mr. Devlin. I’m beginning to feel old.” His eyes traveled between us. “Have you seen my gray hairs lately?” He pointed to the sides of his head. “I’m going to make people at work think I’m nearing retirement age.” Dad eyed Zoey. “You’re a pretty young lady. Do you think I’m old?”

Zoey laughed. “I haven’t noticed a difference!”

Claudia gathered our plates. “Kevin, come on, you’re not old!”

“I’m old enough for my daughter to leave the nest.”

“You’re just looking for sympathy, Dad. It’s not gonna work.”

“But we should never give up trying, Princess.”

Derek and I laughed.

When Tiffany returned with Manny, she had this heavenly look on her face. She leaned her back against the wall and gripped her heart dramatically. My sister is weird!

Dad threw Manny a piece of bacon. “So, are you going to tell us what happened, or are you going to make us guess?”

She squealed joyfully. “I met the new neighbor!”

It hadn’t occurred to me anyone moved into the Daniels’ old house yet. We waited patiently.

She slowly slid to the floor, looking blissful. “He’s twenty-one, he’s handsome, he drives a Mercedes Benz, and I think I’m in love!”

[]Epilogue

Three years have passed. Three years of guilt. Three years of tears. But those three years have taught me that Jesse’s not really gone. He lives on in many, many ways—some more obvious than others. I think of him often, I love him, and I miss him with all my heart.

We visit home often. This summer we planned an extended stay, and a fishing trip on Lake Champlain. Derek finished school and runs a hospital. He loves his job, he loves helping people, and he’s perfect for it. And like Claudia, I’m working from home as an illustrator. I landed my own clients and everything!

Tiffany’s engaged to Parker, the neighbor with the Mercedes Benz. And now she’s a professional romance novelist. Who would’ve guessed, right?

When we arrived at our parents’ house, I parked up front and honked. Manny hopped out of my convertible Jeep and rushed to the door. The front door opened, and he came running out.

“Anna! Manny! Deick!” He hopped down the front steps and hurried toward us, Claudia following close behind. Derek kneeled down, picked him up, and tickled him. “How’s it going, Jesse man? I haven’t seen you since your second birthday!”

Jesse laughed wildly. He looked like an angel in denim overalls. With golden blond hair and curious blue eyes, he’s the image of his dad Jesse—practically his clone!

He brings tears to my eyes. We are all so fortunate to have him.

Jesse grinned from ear-to-ear and reached to give me something.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Da bug!” He laughed joyously as I squirmed. But I took it. For God’s sake, it’s just a caterpillar!

Derek carried him on his shoulders. “What’s he been up to, Mom?”

Claudia held up a little plastic ant farm. “What do you think? It’s life with Jesse Daniels! They’re crawling all over his room! We got a puppy just to get him to stop!”

Did they honestly expect him to stop? Evidently, the love of bugs is encoded in the kid’s DNA. “So, did he get around to learning how to ride that tricycle yet? You know, the one we got eight months before he was born?”

“Not yet, but we’re working on it!”

In the kitchen, Jesse pounded on the table and bounced in his high chair. He pointed to a fly buzzing around Manny’s head. “Da Bug!”

Manny snapped at it and licked his chops. Then he panted merrily.

Jesse broke into tears—you’d think it’s the end of the world!

“Jesse Jonathan Daniels, you’re a handful!” Dad said as he limped into the room with grilled burgers. A nine-week-old malamute puppy was attached to his leg. Dad dragged it along, as it wouldn’t let go for anything. “Claudia, do you really prefer him to the bugs?” he asked over Jesse’s bawling.

Claudia laughed. “So long as he only does that to you!”

Dad sat beside us. “So how’s the happy couple?”

“Inseparable, Dad!”

Dad smiled. He asks us that every time he sees us. He always wants to make sure Derek’s treating me right. And the truth is, he always did.

It’s good to know Derek’s still as stuck on me as I’ve always been on him. And although they are so different, every so often I look at Derek and see a hint of Jesse Daniels.

 

Other books in this series:

[+ JESSE DANIELS REIMAGINED+]

(Jesse Daniels, Book 2)

Check out these other titles

by Chrissy Favreau:

[+ MY BEST FRIEND’S BROTHER+]

BOOK OF LUKE

MY BEST FRIEND’S BROTHER, Book 2

FINDING TROY

MY BEST FRIEND’S BROTHER, Book 3

MAKING UP BLAKE

My Best Friend’s Brother, Book 4

For updates on new books, including new books in this series, visit us on the worldwide web:

www.MyBestFriendsBrother.com

 


Life with Jesse Daniels

Book ONE in the JESSE DANIELS series. CONTENT WARNING: This YA Contemporary Romance is recommended for ages 16+ due to non-graphic sexual content and some strong language. - Anna can’t believe her life is such a mess. She’s dating Derek, but she’s in love with his brother—and her best friend—Jesse Daniels. To make matters worse, Anna’s dad is about to make them her stepbrothers! Now she’s graduating high school, but instead of thoughts centered on her future with Derek, all she can think about is Jesse. When had he slipped past her defenses, with his blond hair and soulful eyes…and that grin that makes her knees wobble? When had her crush become full-blown desire? Everywhere she turns, Anna’s confronted with her love for the Daniels’ boys, and she knows she can only choose one. Even her twin, Tiffany, is gaga over Jesse’s cousin, Greg—a bad boy with a mean streak! Anna is torn and doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t want to hurt either of them, but she can’t stay away from Derek any more than she can stay away from Jesse. Derek and Jesse are egged on by Greg, and it’s only a matter of time before they come to blows over Anna. As the summer heats up, so do emotions. At a beach party one night, Greg—as always—fuels the emotional fires to a raging blaze and the unthinkable happens. No one, not even Anna, could have imagined the unspeakable tragedy that awaited them, or the bittersweet aftermath that could be the balm to heal their hurting souls. LIFE WITH JESSE DANIELS is a poignant exposé of young love that is sure to become a keeper with everyone who reads it!

  • Author: Chrissy Favreau
  • Published: 2015-12-04 17:40:17
  • Words: 54966
Life with Jesse Daniels Life with Jesse Daniels