“Thanks. I’ll see you later?” I inched towards K.C.
“Yeah, but if I don’t see you, good luck in France,” Jess shouted as she danced her way out of the kitchen.
Watching her leave, my face quickly fell. Dread crawled its way through my chest and down to my stomach.
No, no, no….
Jared walked into the kitchen, and I froze. He was exactly the person I’d hoped not to see tonight. His eyes met mine with surprise followed by immediate displeasure.
Yep. I’m totally familiar with that look. The I-can’t-stand-the-fucking-sight-of-you-so-get-off-my-planet look.
His jaw clenched, and I noticed how his chin lifted slightly as if he had just put on his “bully” mask. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath.
The familiar pounding in my chest echoed in my ears, and a hundred miles away sounded like a really nice place to be right now.
Was it too much to ask that I had one night of normal teenage fun to myself?
There were so many times when we were kids, growing up next door to each other, that I thought Jared was the greatest. He was sweet, generous, and friendly. And the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen.
His rich, brown hair still complimented his olive skin, and his stunning smile—when he smiled—demanded undivided attention. Girls were too busy watching him in the hallway at school that they ran into walls. Like actually ran into walls.
But that kid was long gone now.
Quickly turning away, I found K.C. at the bar and tried to fix myself a drink, despite my shaking hands. Actually, I just poured a Sprite, but the red cup would look like I was drinking. Now that I knew he was here, I needed to stay sober around the ass**le.
He walked around to the bar and stood right behind me. A nervous heat ran through my body at his proximity. The muscles in his chest rubbed against the thin fabric of my tank top, and a shockwave burst from my chest to my stomach. Calm down. Calm the hell down!
Scooping up some ice and adding it to my drink, I forced my breathing in and out slowly. I maneuvered to the right to get out of his way, but his arm shot out to grab a cup and blocked my passage. As I tried to squeeze out to the left next to K.C., his other arm reached out to grab the Jack Daniels.
Ten different scenarios ran through my head of what I should do right now. What if I elbowed him in the gut? What if I threw my drink in his face? What if I took the sink hose and …?
Oh, never mind. In my dreams, I was much braver. In my dreams, I might take an ice cube and do things God didn’t intend a sixteen year old girl to do just to see if I could make his cool demeanor falter. What if? What if?
I had planned on keeping my distance from him tonight, and now he was positioned right at my back. Jared did things like this just to intimidate me. He wasn’t scary, but he was cruel. He wanted me to know he was in control. Time after time, I let the jerk force me into hiding just so I wouldn’t have to endure any embarrassment or upset. Enjoying at least one party had been my top priority all summer, and now here I was again, dreadful anticipation twisting me into knots. Why didn’t he just leave me alone?
Turning around to face him, I noticed the corners of his mouth turned up. The smile was lost on his eyes, though, as he poured a hefty serving of alcohol into his cup.
“K.C.? Pour some Coke into here, please.” Jared spoke to K.C. but his eyes were on me as he held up his cup for her.
“Um, yeah,” K.C. stammered, finally looking up. She poured a small portion of the liquid for Jared and glanced nervously to me.
As usual, Jared never spoke to me unless it was to bite out a threat. His dark brow knitted before taking a swig of his drink and walking away.
Watching him leave the kitchen, I wiped away the cold sweat that broke out across my forehead. Nothing had happened, and he hadn’t even said anything to me, but my stomach had hollowed all the same.
And now he knew that I was here tonight.
“I can’t do this, K.C.” My weary whisper was a contradiction to the force with which I clenched my cup. It was a mistake to come tonight.
“Tate, no.” K.C. shook her head, probably recognizing the look of surrender in my eyes. Tossing the cup into the sink and making my way out of the kitchen, I weaved through the throng of people as K.C. followed behind.
Grabbing the glass fishbowl, I began digging around for my keys.
“Tate, you are not leaving,” K.C. ordered, every word dripped with disappointment. “Don’t let him win. I’m here. Liam’s here. You don’t have to be afraid.” She was bracing me by my upper arms while I continued my search.
“I’m not scared of him,” I said defensively, not really believing it myself. “I’m just…done. You saw him in there. He was already messing with me. He’s planning something. Every party we go to, or every time I relax at school, there’s some prank or embarrassment to ruin it.”
Still searching for my colorful DNA-shaped key chain, I relaxed the knit in my brow and offered a tight smile. “It’s okay. I’m fine,” I reassured her, my words coming out too quickly. “I just don’t care to stay and see what he’s cooked up this time. The dickhead can starve tonight.”
“Tate, he wants you to leave. If you do, then he wins. He, or that jackass Madoc, might come up with something, but if you stay and stand your ground, then you will win.”
“I’m just worn out, K.C. I’d rather go home mad now than in tears later.” I returned my attention to the bowl. Every time I sifted through a pile of keys though, my hands would bring up nothing resembling my set.