Heat greeted Nick as he slipped inside the gymnasium. The motion of bodies dancing stirred the temperature, making the room hot and sticky. His borrowed clothes clung to his skin and hung on fearfully.
Some people glanced over as he let in light and cool air. The breeze rushed in behind him, nudging him along and fluttering his hair. He pulled the door shut, and the staring few turned away, disinterested.
Blood zipped to his head, which made his neck swell and the top button of his shirt press tight against his windpipe. But he refused to tug at the collar. Instead, he tucked a thumb in his pants pocket and strolled toward the refreshment table.
The first rule to lying was to believe the act yourself. If Nick was going to believe he was one of these people, he couldn’t be worried about a stupid old collar. Yet with each step he took, the cloth seemed to grow tighter around his throat.
He stationed himself at the end of the refreshment table, crossed his arms over his chest, and waited for Vinny to hurry his rear up. A slow song played around him. Couples edged in closer and swayed. A girl rested her head on one boy’s shoulder, and he brought his arms all the way around her back while she did the same to his neck. Others moved rigidly with a foot of room between them and stared over their partner’s shoulder. One guy slid his hands down to the fullest part of the girl’s skirt until a parent or teacher or whatever the dude was came over and blared a flashlight at them. They jumped apart and the hand moved back up to a respectable position.
Nick grinned. This wasn’t so different from his school after all. Adults were lecturing a pair of tipsy-looking guys and rushing them outside. Lone girls sat up in the bleachers with their arms wrapped around their upraised knees. A growing group of gossipers lingered at the edge of the floor laughing. His shoulders eased as he took in the sights. It wasn’t so different at all.
Uncrossing his arms, he surveyed the food. Taking his pick of a tortilla chip, he dunked it in some nacho cheese sauce and brought it to his mouth. It was warm and spicy. Cheese dribbled down his chin. He glanced around, but no one took notice. Licking off as much as he could, Nick grabbed a napkin and wiped the rest clean.
A large crystal punch bowl sat in the center of the next table. Surrounding it were glass cups with handles. Nick picked one up by the handle and blinked at it. He tapped on the glass, thinking of the plastic cups set out at his own school dances.
OK, so maybe the two schools did have their differences.
He reached for the punch ladle but his hand collided with another. He snapped his fingers back and jerked his head up. A girl standing two feet away did the exact same thing, cradling her hand to her chest like it’d been bitten.
They spoke in unison.
“I’m sorry,” she gasped.
“Go ahead,” he said.
They smiled in unison.
She was tall, almost as tall as him, with a smooth expanse of blond hair, so yellow he’d seen pictures of ripe wheat the same hue. Even in the dark, her perfect locks glowed golden. She’d pulled the strands back from her heart-shaped face with a tortoise shell headband. Her cheekbones were high and her eyes large and dark. Her chest didn’t fill out the top of her blouse like some of the other girls around, but her long slender legs made up for it.
Nick tried to swallow, but a lump got caught somewhere around the constricting collar area. “Go ahead,” he repeated and motioned toward the punch ladle.
“Oh.” She dropped her hands to her sides, then glanced at the punch to which he’d been motioning. “Thank you.”
He watched her ladle juice until her glass was three-fourths full. Then she offered the dipper to him. His hand grazed over her cold fingers when he accepted. He thanked her, and she stood by him while he filled his cup to the brim.
Nick took a drink; the carbonated liquid tickled his tongue. He sighed, refreshed. “Good stuff.”
She nodded, and they stood side by side, sleeves brushing as they watched the dancers. Nick fiddled with his cup, tapping on the glass with his thumbnail. He could smell her, like some fruit, peaches maybe.
He turned, mouth open and ready to speak when she said, “I don’t think I have any classes with you.”
“Oh, well, I…” He bit the inside of his cheek. “I’m new here.”
Her eyes lit. “Really? So am I.”
His eyebrows lifted. “Really?”
She nodded. “Where are you from?”
“Me? Oh, not too far away. My dad, uh, he transferred here.” She listened a little too intently, so he changed the subject. “What about you?”
“I’m from Gold Beach.”
“Gold Beach?” He wrinkled his nose. “Where’s that?”
“Oregon. It’s south of Portland. But I was born here in Seattle.”
Nick nodded. “Why’d you move back?” There was no way he’d come back if he ever had the chance to blow this town. He wanted to go somewhere warm and sunny... someplace where a single person didn’t own his entire family.
“I moved to Gold Beach with my mom when I was five and my parents divorced.” She looked down at her sandals. “But they made some kind of custody agreement years ago; I'd stay with her through grade school and him through high school. So, I… I had to come back to live with my father.” She sounded forlorn.
Nick blinked. "You don’t want to live with him?"
She shrugged, shuffled her shoes. "I dunno," she mumbled. "I don't know him very well. I miss my mom."
“I’m sorry,” Nick said, wishing he hadn't brought up such a sore topic. If only he would’ve kept lying about himself and not asked about her life. But no, he had to ruin it and make her remember what was obviously an awful situation.
She lifted her face. “You’re sorry? What for?”
"Uh." He managed a small laugh, scratched his ear. “I don’t know. I guess I’m sorry I brought it up. I didn't mean to make you homesick”
“No, it’s fine.” She said and touched his arm. "I don't mind."
He waited for her to continue. When she didn't, he shifted, not sure what to say. A new song started, just as slow as the previous. He turned back to her, rubbed his palms against the hips of his pants.
Again, they spoke in unison.
“Do you want to dance?” he said just as she blurted out, “I’m sorry.”
He frowned. “Now, what're you sorry about?”
The girl lowered her face and stared at the floor. Nick glanced around. She was the prettiest girl in the room, but no one approached or talked to her. He didn’t understand why. Where he came from, she’d have friends galore and boys chasing her daily. It didn’t seem right she appeared to be an oddball here.
He held out his hand. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s dance.”
Startled eyes raised; she bobbed her head. “OK.”
She took his hand. Her fingers were slender and still freezing, but he felt a heat, a quick jolt of electricity at her touch. It shot through his chest and down to the bottom of his stomach were it sizzled and bubbled.
On the dance floor, he stopped and faced her, his hands cupping her waist. She held his neck; the ends of his hair curled over her fingers. Nick stopped breathing and watched her stare at the floor while they danced. When she looked up, she was almost eye level with him.
Lordy, but didn’t she feel good. He wanted to run his hands around her back, maybe down her backside, to get a better sense of her. He wanted to dip his head in close, smell that fruit on her again. It was so odd. She was one of them but didn’t act how he thought they would act. She didn’t come off like a rich snob, like she was too good for him.
Then again, she thought he was an equal.
Make it last, Nick. When will you ever hold a classy girl like this in your arms again? Tell her she’s a good dancer. Tell her how pretty she looks. He bent his head closer to her ear and got a whiff of peaches, or maybe they were apples.
“I’m sorry,” she said again, startling him.
He lifted his face. “About what?”
“I shouldn’t have made you uncomfortable. I shouldn’t have told you about the situation with my mom and dad.”
He tilted his head. “Huh?”
“I feel like such a jerk. Every time someone starts talking to me, and I’m about to make a friend, I tell them how much I miss home. Suddenly, they think I'm rude because I don't want to live here. But I don't mean to scare them off. I just... I'm really sorry.”
“Don’t apologize for that.” His voice was stern enough to make her stop and glance at him, a surprised expression plastered to her face. “You have all the right in the world to miss your mom. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it."
She let out a loud breath. “I… I’ve never thought about it that way.” Moving in closer to look over his shoulder, she whispered, “Thank you.”
“No problem,” he said and cleared his throat. Her silky hair touched his cheek. He squeezed his eyes shut. The heat from her, the smell from her, the feel of her went straight to his head. He glanced over her shoulder for any adults, and wanted so badly to lower his hands just a few inches more. He turned them so her back faced the wall and lowered his head until his breath fell on her neck. But instead of moving down, his finger went up along her spine. Her waist was so small he could probably wrap both hands around it and touch fingers.
His mind whirled. Make it last, Nick. She’s all depressed about her mom. Give her something to remember you by. Besides, she’ll never see you again.
He moved his head up, rubbed his nose against her hair, smelling her shampoo. “I don’t even know your name.”
She grabbed his arm, her fingers digging deep into his bicep. “I’m going to be sick.”
“What?” He frowned, stepped back, and looked at her face. She slapped her hand over her mouth and gaped at him with horrified eyes.
“I’m mowing moo frow up,” her muffled voice came from behind her fingers.
He blinked. “Now?!”
Thinking quick, he grabbed her elbow and rushed her from the gym. The bright lights of the hall made him blink as he looked around for the bathrooms or a trashcan. She moaned and grabbed her stomach.
“Outside,” he said and dragged her to the double doors that led out the backside of the school.
They barely made it off the concrete steps before she dropped--her knees colliding to the sidewalk--and heaved over a row of tulips.
Nick stood by but had to turn away, listening to gagging and retching. He wanted to give her privacy, yet stuck around in case she needed something.
The seconds it took for her to empty her stomach seemed longer than the few minutes he’d been in the gym. As he listened, trying not to get sick himself, guilt flashed through him. Here he was, trying to grope her, and she’d been growing sick to her stomach.
Smooth move, X-lax.
After a quick dash back inside, he returned with a glass of cold water.
She looked worn out, but color had returned to her cheeks, so he knelt by her and handed her the water. “Better yet?”
She fell back onto her haunches and sat on the ground beside him, wagging her head up and down. “Yes, thank you.” She took the water and gulped every drop.
Street lamps sprayed down on them and made tears at the corner of her eyes glisten. Spit and chunks of something he didn’t want to think about drooled across her chin.
“I don’t have a tissue or anything,” he said. But he searched his pockets and felt a hard pebbled object wrapped in plastic.
“That’s OK,” she said. “I do.” She pulled a Kleenex from her own pocket and dabbed at her mouth while Nick held the item from his pocket up to the light.
“I’ve got a ‘Butterworth’s Original’ here.” He handed it to her. “Might get the bad taste out of your mouth.”
She took it. “I love these things.”
“Hmm.” He’d have to thank whoever he’d borrowed the clothes from for donating his candy to the cause.
Standing, he held his hand down to her and helped her to her feet. “Do you want to go back inside or stay out here a few minutes longer for some fresh air?”
She put a hand over her stomach. “Fresh air,” she said. “I still have butterflies.”
He jerked a leery step away. “You’re not going to throw up again, are you?”
“No, no.” She shook her head. “But I’d like to sit down.”
“OK, sure.” He led her to a wooden bench about twenty feet away under a hulking oak tree and gently sat her down.
He settled himself beside her and curled his hands in his lap. She looked cold with her elbows pressed firmly against her sides and her shoulders bent over as she shivered. Nick felt a little hot himself, but he wished he had a jacket to offer. Heck, he wished a lot more than that. She wasn’t like any person he’d ever met.
Whenever he pumped gas for a well-to-doer at Goodie’s Station where he worked, they called him ‘you, boy’ at best and never thanked him for filling up their Bentleys or apologized for spraying mud all over him as they pulled away.
And they never smelled like fruit.
He wondered if she’d still treat him the same if he weren’t in this outfit… if she knew what he was.
“I’m sorry,” she said, taking his hand to squeeze his fingers, and making his heart stutter. “I probably shouldn’t have danced. I’ve been nervous all day, worried about tonight and the whole school and—”
“Stop. Just— ” He shook his head and laughed. “Stop apologizing, OK. You have nothing to be sorry for. You haven’t done anything wrong.”
“But I’ve ruined everything. First my mother and now throwing up all over the place.”
“Hey,” he said lightly and squeezed her hand. “Don’t worry about it. If it’ll make you feel any better, I’ll barf too. Heck, I just might anyway after seeing what you tossed up.”
She laughed. “Thank you.” But the laughter stopped all too soon, and something sad and lonely entered her eyes. “Thanks for everything. You really don’t have to stay out here with me if you don’t want to. You can go back and enjoy the rest of the dance.”
“Nah.” Nick glanced up at the school. He hadn’t known what he’d been looking for when he’d snuck inside that dance. But sitting here, holding her hand, he knew he’d found it. He shrugged. “Besides, I was just trying to think up a way to get you outside alone when you said you had to puke.”
For a moment she stared blankly. Then she grinned and rolled her eyes. “I don’t think you’re supposed to let me in on your game plan.”
He winked at her, wished he could see the color surrounding her pupils. “At least you can’t say you were tricked when I have my wicked way with you.”
Her hands had warmed in his. He rubbed his thumb over her smooth knuckles.
“I don’t even know your name,” she whispered.
Her smile was soft. “I’m Kiernan.”
“Kiernan.” He said the name on a sigh as if it were part of his regular breathing. It was unusual and original, just like her. “You look like a Kiernan.”
She laughed. “And just what does a Kiernan look like?”
“Easy. I’m looking at one.” When she rolled her eyes again, he continued. “They’re very beautiful, you know. With skin like a china doll,” he touched her cheek with the back of his hand and then slid his fingers over her hair, “and hair like silk I could never afford. Soft, small hands. And lips so kissable you think you need them more than you do your next breath. You want them so bad, you’d pay money for a taste.”
She shook her head. “You’re not like anyone I’ve ever met.”
“Well you’re not like anyone I’ve ever met,” he countered.
“I mean, the rest of the boys at this school act like they’re so wonderful. They’re all full of themselves like they’re better than the rest of the world.”
“So, why aren’t you like that too,” he asked.
“Oh, my mom’s not rich. She got money from the divorce and all, but it wasn’t anything like what my father has. When I moved in with him last month, he insisted I go to a private academy. He said no child of his was attending a public school, when that’s all I’ve ever known.” She paused and looked up at Nick. “Have you ever been to a public school before?”
“Sure, I…” he trailed off, almost forgetting what he was supposed to be. “My dad, uh, when he was transferred, his business just recommended this school.”
She nodded. “So, this whole rich kid mentality is new to you too?”
“Well, yeah, I guess.” He bit the inside of his cheek and cracked his knuckles. He looked off across the street, thinking maybe he should tell her the truth.
She’d understand. He hoped.
“What grade are you in?”
“I’m a junior,” he answered, glad he didn’t have to lie about that at least.
“Oh.” Her shoulders deflated a little.
He frowned. “Why? What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing. I’m… well, I’m only a freshman. There’s probably not a lot of classes freshmen and juniors have together. I doubt we’ll ever see much of each other in the halls.” She looked up at him, sadness consuming her eyes.
He winced, feeling awful because after tonight, they’d never see each other again anyway. But instead of confessing, he continued the lie. “I’m not a very good student,” he said. “Maybe I could flunk a few classes, and we’d end up in the same grade.”
She laughed. “That’s sweet.”
“Oh, yeah?” He scooted closer until she had to tilt her head up to look at him. “How sweet?”
“Well… it’s the sweetest thing I’ve heard all day.” She grinned, fluttering her lashes.
He voice grew husky. “Just all day?”
“Maybe all week.” The breath rushed out of her lungs, and butterscotch air caressed his cheek. She swayed toward him.
“Kiernan,” he whispered and closed his eyes as his head descended.
But the kiss never came. The back door of the gym sprang opened; the two on the bench jerked apart and lurched to their feet. An adult came out and saw them. He paused and called back inside.
“Hey, out here!”
Nick would’ve run then but another adult emerged from the school. He hauled Vinny by the back of his collar.
“Nicky!” Vinny sobbed. “I’m so sorry. I tried to run.”
Then a third man exited. Seeing him, Nick sucked in a startled breath.
“Daddy?” Kiernan said when she saw the last arrival.
Nick’s mouth fell open. He spun to her, his breath choppy and rapid. “What? Hilton Childler is your father?”
She looked at Nick and bit her lip. “Yes. Why?”
He swiped a hand through his hair. “Not good.”