That night, I couldn’t sleep. I was too busy worrying about Principal Cartwright’s vague, cryptic warnings. At seven in the morning, I decided to give up on sleep and go downtown for coffee instead. It was a nice morning; orange and yellow and a few green leaves crowned the sidewalks, the wind was pleasantly cold, and it felt and smelled like the beginning of a crisp fall. The nearest Starbucks was by Lincoln River. Conveniently, it was the kind of day that was perfect for a walk along the river.
I got my coffee and sat down on one of the picnic tables scattered around the riverside. I was used to the hustle and bustle of the city, and the quiet and emptiness was a pleasant change. The peace felt good. Sipping my espresso, I felt surprisingly good.
“Oh, God. Oh, God.” The moan floated over from just a few feet away.
Glancing over was an automatic reflex action, and I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Linbury wasn’t the type of town that promoted public displays of affection. Yet, on a red-and-white checked picnic blanket spread over the grass, were a guy and a girl, all but swallowing each other’s tongues.
For a moment, the bottom dropped out of my stomach as I thought of Curtis, my boyfriend back in Manhattan. I missed him so keenly that the pain was almost physical. I reached for my cell phone, fiddling with the speed-dial menu, trying frantically to remember his number.
The guy raised his head, and I glanced away from the phone, distracted. More and more, Linbury was turning out to be Hottie Central.
This guy on the picnic blanket was off-the-scale gorgeous. He had long, fine dark blond hair; he had the kind of sharp, chiseled, beautiful face that would have had Rachael panting with longing the moment she saw it; even from the distance, I could make out the piercing intensity of the smirk he wore; and to top it all off, he had a perfectly-sculpted, broad-shouldered body that could rival any male stripper’s…
Shit. I couldn’t believe that I’d let some stranger, however handsome he was, sidetrack my attention from my longtime boyfriend. What was wrong with me?
The girl on the blanket pulled the guy down on top of her and then rolled slightly onto her side. I recognized the shiny dark hair and the lightly-freckled shoulder encased in a strapless white top. Triple shit. It was Roxanne Cartwright having a moment that was probably…private. A moment that she would probably kill me for witnessing.
I got to my feet fast enough to break my ankle and took off in the opposite direction with the speed I hadn’t even known I possessed. Without realizing where I was going, I charged into Starbucks again and skidded to a stop by the counter, peering frantically outside to check if Roxanne or the gorgeous guy was anywhere around.
“Back already?” The girl behind the counter at Starbucks grinned at me. She had a vaguely British accent. “Didn’t have you down as a caffeine junkie.”
“What?” I looked at her cluelessly. My hands felt clammy.
“Are you okay?” The girl looked concerned.
I took a deep breath, struggling to pull myself together. “I just saw my friend…making out with a guy I don’t know.”
The girl looked puzzled. I realized that I sounded like some psychotic possessive lesbian stalker and blushed, the words tumbling out of my mouth in a bid to explain myself. “See, this girl, she’s a total bitch and she hates me, and the guy she was with is totally gorgeous and…”
“Right,” the girl behind the counter cut me off. “Why don’t you go ahead and take a seat and try to calm down?”
I nodded. I wasn’t the kind of girl who watched porn and read romance novels. Barging in on someone else caught up in a – delicate – moment embarrassed me deeply. And when it was someone I knew – someone who didn’t exactly wish me well – then it really, really freaked me out. “That’s probably a good idea.”
“Yeah.” The girl was still studying me suspiciously, so I backed off and crashed into the nearest table. The girl rolled her eyes, and I felt my cheeks flame. What was wrong with me? Things didn’t normally faze me quite so much.
“Hi,” said a deep voice behind me.
I turned around hastily and crashed into a hot guy with sandy blond hair and piercing green eyes. As in, Roxanne’s make-out buddy. As in, the guy on the picnic blanket. As in, the gorgeous guy who’d made me forget about my longtime boyfriend for a few seconds.
“Hi,” I squeaked.
He wore chinos and a crumpled white t-shirt he looked indecently good in. He also wore a wide grin that was almost ingratiating. I didn’t like it, but I had to admit that it was a hot grin. “You forgot something on the picnic table.”
I composed myself and tried my best to look innocent. “I’m sorry. Do I know you?”
“No, you don’t.” He leaned closer. “I’m trying to change that. A little help would be appreciated.”
I needed to get out of this sticky situation without mentioning…where was Roxanne, anyway? “Where’s Roxanne?” I blurted.
“Who?” he said with a blank stare.
Was it possible that he didn’t know the name of the girl he’d been making out with so vociferously? “The girl you were…” I trailed off and bit my lip in frustration as I realized his motive for looking blank. He’d wanted to make me admit that I’d been watching him on the picnic blanket.
Okay. I inhaled deeply. What did it even matter? I squared my shoulders. I didn’t care what he thought of me, because I didn’t need him. Or Roxanne.
“What did I forget?” I asked, adopting my most business-like tone.
“How about we do an exchange?” He crossed his arms over his broad, muscular chest.
“What kind of exchange?” I asked suspiciously.
“An exchange of information.” He flashed me a dazzling smile, and I obliged his intentions by being dazzled in spite of my best instincts. “You tell me your name, and I’ll tell you what you forgot.”
I didn’t have the time or the inclination to flirt with this guy, hot as he was. “Summer Ward. What did I forget?”
“Something I expect to be thanked for bringing back.” He held up something tiny and silver. My cell phone. The essential tool that I needed to contact Curtis and Rachael and everyone else I cared about.
I reached up, snatching it out of his grip. It was easy because he hadn’t been expecting me to. He gave me a look of mock surprise. “Aren’t you going to ask me my name?”
Patience was one of my virtues, but I was running out of it now. Who did he think he was? He’d been making out with one of the most gorgeous girls I’d ever seen a few minutes ago; now he was trying to flirt with me. Well, I wasn’t falling for it. He was nothing but a cocky, annoying asshole.
“Look, whoever you are.” I held up my hand. “Thanks for bringing me back my cell phone, and I’m sorry I made you leave your girlfriend behind, but I really need to leave now.”
He was watching me with a small smile on his lips. “My name’s Nathan. Nathaniel Alexander Wellington, actually. Your dad probably works for mine. Everybody in this town does.”
Was this Roxanne in pants or what? Maybe his easy arrogance would charm the hell out of some other girl, but it wasn’t going to work on me. I had a boyfriend I loved, even though he seemed to be afraid of me nowadays, and I had instincts that told me not to trust him. Those two things had always kept me safe from boys who could crush my heart if I got involved with them. “Whatever,” I said, starting to move towards the door.
“Listen – Summer.”
I turned around. “What?” I said, exasperation seeping into my voice.
“Roxanne isn’t my girlfriend. And I need a favor.”
“Right.” I knew he hadn’t been flirting with me just for the heck of it. I wasn’t that pretty.
He stepped closer, the charming smile flitting back to his face. “I can already tell you’re good at keeping secrets.”
“Right.” I folded my arms over my chest. “Look…Nathan. Stop trying to butter me up and just tell me what you want.” I didn’t know where the courage to tell him off was coming from, but I had an inkling it was from the utter impatience pervading my being.
He shrugged. “Hey, just trying to be friendly. But I’ll stop if that’s what you want.” He gave me a calculating look. “Roxanne told me you’re starting Thornton.”
“Roxanne saw me?” This was worse than I had thought at first. Roxanne hated me already, and she probably hated me even more now. Having the queen of the school loathe me wouldn’t exactly be conducive to a successful and happy time at Thornton.
“She saw your shoes.” He looked amused as he glanced down at my dirty sneakers.
Go figure. I doubted any of the girls Roxanne and Nathan went to school with ventured out in public without being decked out head-to-toe in designer wear. Belong here I did not.
“I go to Thornton too. I’m a senior. Anyway, Roxanne and I aren’t dating. We’re just friends.” He looked at me with that piercing-eyed gaze. “With benefits.”
“Okay…” Why was he telling me that? I hadn’t asked, and I didn’t want to know.
“And I personally don’t care who knows it, but she has a boyfriend she’d like to hold on to for a while, and if I think about it, I honestly don’t want all the girls I could maybe fall for someday to look at me, think of Roxanne, and run in the opposite direction.”
I bit my lip, starting to get what he was trying to say. “Your point?”
“The point is…” He took a deep breath and flashed me a smile that was sexy enough to make me forget all about Curtis for five seconds again. “She – we – would really appreciate it if you kept what you just say to yourself.”
I was pretty sure the guy was delusional, or plain crazy, or both. He’d been making out with Roxanne in full public view. Anyone could have seen them. And then he’d bothered to run after some sophomore girl he didn’t even know, just to ask her not to spread rumors about what she’d seen them doing, even though they’d been doing it in full public view.
Why did he think anybody would believe my word over his? I was new and dorky. He was powerful, rich, gorgeous, and seemed to think he’d been ruling the town forever. Did it have anything to do with Chris? Was it simply that Roxanne didn’t want Chris to know, and she thought Chris would believe what I said?
None of it mattered. I’d come here for coffee and peace, not mystery and drama.
“Fine by me,” I said, shrugging.
“Great,” he said. He leaned even closer and grinned his dazzling grin. “See you around, Summer.”
And then he was gone.
Linbury wasn’t just Hottie Central; it was also Confusion Central.
I hadn’t planned to go to Rochester Park. I didn’t need Roxanne and Chris and Nathan and all their secrets and whatever they were hiding. I had Rachael and Curtis in the only place I could truly call home. I had planned to spend the night trying to mend my relationship with them, showing them I was the same girl they’d always known and loved. I wasn’t going to chase after a bunch of rich kids with my tongue lolling out of my mouth. I would hang out long-distance with the kids I truly cared about and hadn’t talked to for so long.
Except I didn’t.
Curtis was out playing basketball, according to his mother, who asked me sympathetically how I was and then seemed offended when I gave her a terse answer. Nobody even picked up the phone at Rachael’s house. I wasn’t surprised, really. Rachael and I had first bonded over the fact that, in the third grade, we’d been the only two girls in our elementary school who hadn’t received Valentine’s Day cards, since I’d been the gawky geek with the prettier older sister and she’d been the dweeby new kid from Arkansas. But over the years, things had changed for her – she had become gorgeous and exotic and striking, her body turning long and supple, her dramatic caramel-colored skin and almond-shaped amber eyes standing out against her high cheekbones, and she’d received twenty-three cards my freshman year, while I’d only received one from Curtis. And although our bond had stuck on, it was undeniable that our ideas of a good time were polar opposites – she liked clubbing, I liked reading. By the end of freshman year, she’d stopped asking me if I wanted to go dancing with her. I had no doubt that she was out with her friends – it was summer, after all.
At nine-thirty, I found myself strolling into Rochester Park. I settled down on one of the swings, looking up at the tree-tops above me. I’d expected balloons, noise, shouts, laughter, something that signified a party or at least a gathering. Instead, all that surrounded me was darkness and a few stars twinkling in the night sky. I presumed they were late, and I waited. And waited. As I did, I thought about the three guys I’d met today – rude, attractively hot and mysterious Zach Gellar, whom Jazz hated and who seemed to be into reading. Nathan Wellington, who was just as arrogant and hot, but in a completely different way. And Chris Fitzgerald, with his nice smile – but he probably wasn’t all that different from the other two.
At ten-thirty, I realized they weren’t coming. I should have listened to my instincts about not trusting Roxanne. I got off the swing and walked slowly back to my new house. Damn Linbury and its occupants to hell.
I wanted to go back home.