I waved good-bye to Amber, and she didn’t seem at all upset about me abandoning her. I gave Evan a once-over as we walked home. He had a red mark on the side of his neck and one on his bicep— probably from being pelted with the football. A long scratch ran across the back of his hand. Football wasn’t a bruise-free kind of sport, but he looked more beaten-up than normal after a pickup game.
“We have a hot tub,” I said. “That might help.”
“Not sure I want your brothers coming home and finding me in a hot tub with you. See, I didn’t ge the ‘We will kill you’ speech, and I’m realizing why guys might steer clear of you if they had. They’re like a force, the four of them.”
“They are, aren’t they?” I sighed. “But they’ll be playing for a while longer, so come on. I’ll find you some swim shorts, get you a couple aspirin, and we’ll relax.”
“I’m only agreeing because this means I get to see you in a swimsuit.” I blushed and nudged his shoulder with mine.
Up in my room, after finding him one of Gage’s suits and sending him to the bathroom to change, I pulled on my one-piece. He was going to be sorely disappointed. I only wore swimsuits for sport, so it was a pretty boring one.
We met in the hall in an awkward sort of “Do we hold hands on the way to the pool?” exchange that ended with his hand on my lower back. I tried not to stare at his defined chest and abs. So I kep my eyes straight ahead, even though I kind of wanted to see if he had any more welts from the game. No, I wouldn’t look; I was already angry enough at Braden.
I turned on the jets in the hot tub and we slid in.
“So . . . ,” Evan said after a few moments of silence. “Did I fail miserably?” “No. You were fine. Really.”
“I’m not a huge football player. If it were baseball, I would’ve given a much better showing.” His hand found mine under the water and grabbed it, playing with my fingers.
“You don’t need to excuse yourself over a stupid pickup game. My brothers were going hard on you.”
“Your brothers were fine. . . . It was Braden who had a problem with me.”
“No. He doesn’t have a problem with you. We got in a fight last night. He was angry with me and taking it out on you.”
“Maybe. But it’s more than that.” “What do you mean?”
“I think he’s jealous.” “Of what?”
“Of me dating you. I think he likes you.”
I laughed as I thought about the night I accused him of that and he looked like he wanted to die “No. I assure you. He doesn’t. Seriously, Evan, it’s not like that. He’s just quick to judge. He’ll come around.”
“If you say so.” He leaned in closer. “And what if I did this?” He kissed my cheek, then lingered there. “Would that make him come around faster or slower?”
“Maybe he’d get the point faster,” I said.
“Then this would help even more,” he whispered, and turned my face toward his. I knew he was going to kiss me, and I froze in panic. What if I did it wrong? He met my eyes, seeming to as permission, but I still didn’t move. He must’ve taken that as consent because his lips met mine. They felt exceptionally soft, and I wondered if that meant mine were dry. I wasn’t sure exactly what to do, which made my stomach drop to my feet. I worried it was obvious. I let him take the lead and it seemed to go okay. I tried to take note of everything he did—the way he moved his head, how he positioned his bottom lip just below mine, the speed of his breath, his hand on my neck—so that next time I’d be better at it.
Gage doing a cannonball into the pool next to us, spraying cold water across the side of my face, pulled me out of the kiss. When Gage came up for air, he said, “It looked like you needed to cool off.” He was fully dressed. They must’ve stopped the game early on my account.
“And you guys,” Gage yelled back toward the sliding glass door, “didn’t jump in on the count of three. You all owe me dinner.”
I glanced over my shoulder and saw Braden, Nathan, and Jerom standing by the door. Nathan and Jerom were laughing. Braden walked away.
That night at dinner my brothers all gave their initial impressions of Evan. They were better than could’ve hoped for. Braden, who’d stayed to eat with us, scoffed at every nice remark until finally Jerom looked at him and said, “Braden, do you have a problem with Evan?”
“Yes! He’s ridiculous. He’s everything we told her not to look for in a guy.” “He drinks V8?” Gage asked, mockingly.
Braden grunted. “He’s . . . never mind. Apparently he’s perfect. Have fun, Charlie.”
That night on my cell phone, I got the text: Fence. Now.
I thought about ignoring him. He wasn’t exactly making it easy to forgive him for his behavior. But maybe I could talk some sense into him. He was my friend and I hated it when we fought.
“Can’t you just be happy for me?” I asked at the fence. I need you to be happy for me, I thought but didn’t say.
“I could if he were right for you.” “You don’t even know him.”
“He doesn’t even know you.” His voice was tight, angry.
I tried to keep my voice light and friendly. “Isn’t that what relationships are all about? Getting to know each other?”
“If you were giving him the right information, then yes. But he thinks you’re . . . He thinks you’re like Amber. He wants an Amber.”
“What’s wrong with Amber?” “You’re nothing like her.”
We were both quiet for a long time. Finally, I sat down, deflated. Braden had proven to me today that half the guys at the game would’ve asked me out, but now he was saying Evan would be scared
away if he knew more about me?
“And you don’t think he’d want the real me?” “No.”
I put my forehead to my knees and pulled out handfuls of grass at the edge of the lawn. The pit in my stomach opened wide and wanted to swallow me whole. So if Evan couldn’t like me for me, was he implying there was something really wrong with me? “Why are you doing this to me? Why couldn’t you just let me figure it out on my own?”
“Because I don’t want to see you hurt.” “Unless you’re the one hurting me?” “I’m not trying to, Charlie.”
“Maybe I’m more like Amber than you know. Maybe you’re the one who doesn’t know me.” I fel different. Like I was learning more about myself lately. I wasn’t just my brothers’ little sidekick.
“If you’re like her, then maybe I don’t want to know you.”
An icy pain stabbed in my chest. The grass in my fists felt cold and rubbery, and even when I opened my hands to release it, several blades stuck to my palms. I wiped them on my pants and stood. “You’re being a jerk,” I mumbled and walked back into the house.