“No, I know exactly where they are.” I locked eyes with Madoc, Jared’s best friend and henchman, at the opposite end of the room by the patio doors. He smirked at me before redirecting his attention to some random redhead he had pressed to a wall.
Stalking over to him, K.C. followed in my wake as she viciously texted on her phone—Liam probably.
“Where are my keys?” I demanded, interrupting the pursuit of his next one-night stand.
He lifted his blue eyes slowly from the girl. He wasn’t much taller than me, maybe a few inches, so I didn’t feel as if he hovered over me like Jared did. Madoc didn’t intimidate me. He just pissed me off. He worked hard to make a fool out of me, but I knew it was all at Jared’s behest.
“They’re about eight feet under right now. Feel like a swim, Tate?” He grinned wide, showing his dazzling smile that turned most girls into puppies on a leash. He obviously loved every moment of my predicament.
“You’re a dick.” My tone remained calm, but my eyes burned from the anger.
I walked out to the patio and peered into the pool. The weather was perfect for a swim, and people were carousing in the water, so I trekked around the pool looking for the silver glint of my keys through all of the bodies.
Jared sat casually at a table with a blonde on his lap. Frustration knotted in my stomach, but I tried to appear unaffected. I knew every ounce of my discomfort gave him pleasure.
Spying the shimmering silver of the keys, I looked around for a pole to grab them. When nothing could be found, I looked to some of the swimmers for help.
“Hey, would you mind grabbing my keys down there, please?” I asked. The guy turned his eyes on Jared, who sat quietly back, watching the scene, and retreated from me like a coward.
Great. No pole, no help. Jared wanted to see me get wet.
“Come on, Tate. Strip down, and go get your keys,” Madoc shouted from Jared’s table.
“Fuck off, Madoc. You threw them down there, no doubt, so why don’t you go get them?” Liam, K.C.’s boyfriend, had joined her and was sticking up for me like he often did.
I slipped off my flip-flops and stepped to the edge of the pool.
“Tate, wait. I’ll do it,” Liam stepped up and offered.
“No,” I shook my head. “Thanks, though.” I gave him a grateful smile.
One whole year, I reminded myself, savoring the promise. I was going to have a whole year away from Jared.
I dove in hands first, and the water cooled my tense skin. My body immediately relaxed at the pleasure of the pool. No sound, no eyes on me. I savored the peace of it, the kind of peace I get when I run.
I continued downward using the breast stroke. Eight feet was nothing, and I reached my keys in seconds. Clutching them tight, I reluctantly ascended head first, releasing the air in my lungs.
That was the easy part.
“Whoo hoo!” An applause sounded from bystanders that weren’t actually cheering for me.
I just had to get out of the pool and face the whole party dripping wet. They would laugh and joke. I’d endure a few comments, and then go home and eat my weight in Swedish Fish.
Swimming gently to the edge and climbing out, I wrung out my long hair and slipped on my sandals.
“Are you okay?” K.C. came to my side, the wind blowing her long, dark hair.
“Yeah, of course. It’s just water.” I couldn’t meet her eyes. Here I was again. The laughing stock. The embarrassment.
But K.C. never blamed me. “Let’s get out of here.” She locked arms with me, and Liam followed behind.
“Just a minute.” I paused and looked over at Jared, who still had his challenging brown eyes on me.
Walking over to him—something I knew was a bad idea—I crossed my arms and gave him a pointed stare.
“I leave in two days and that’s the best you could come up with?” What the hell am I doing?
Jared fixed me with a hostile smile as he doled out the cards at the table. “You have a good time in France, Tatum. I’ll be here when you get back.” His threat made me want to hit him. I wanted to challenge him to deal with me now.
And I was none too comfortable with the thought of his impending wrath hanging over my head the whole year I was away.
“You’re a coward. The only way you can feel like a man is to pick on me. But you’re going to have to get your kicks somewhere else now.” As I dropped my arms to my sides, my fists tightened as everyone around the table and in the general area witnessed our exchange.
“Are you still talking?” Jared snorted, and snickers erupted around me. “Go home. No one wants your stuck-up ass here.” Jared barely spared me eye contact while he continued to deal cards. The girl on his lap giggled and leaned into him further. The crushing sensation in my chest hurt. I hate him.
“Hey, everyone, look!” Madoc shouted as I tried to hold back tears. “Her ni**les are hard. You must be turning her on, Jared.” Madoc’s goading echoed through the backyard, and everyone began hooting and laughing.
My eyes closed with mortification as I remembered that I was wearing a white tank top and was definitely chilled from the water. My first instinct was to cross my arms over my chest, but then they’d know that they got to me. Hell, they already knew. My whole face stung with humiliation.
Son of a bitch.
I’d be going home in tears again. No doubt.
I opened my eyes, feeling flushed seeing everyone visibly entertained by the harassment I’d endured tonight. Jared stared at the table, nostrils flaring, ignoring me. His behavior still puzzled me after all this time. We used to be friends, and I still searched for that kid in his eyes somewhere. But what good did it do me to still hang on to a memory of him?
“Why is she still standing here?” the blonde sitting on Jared’s lap asked. “Is she like “special” or something? She can’t take the hint?”
“Yeah, Tate. You heard Jared. No one wants you here.” Madoc’s words came out slow as if I really were too stupid to understand him.
My throat closed. I couldn’t swallow, and it hurt to breathe. It was too much. Something inside me snapped. I pulled my fist back and popped Madoc right in the nose. He dropped to his knees, hands over his face, as the blood gushed through his hands.
Tears blurred my vision, and the sobs began erupting from my throat. Before I could let them get any more satisfaction out of me tonight, I walked as quickly as possible back through the house and out the front door without looking back.
I got in my car, K.C. climbed in the passenger side and Liam into the back. I hadn’t even realized that they’d followed me. It was on the tip of my tongue to ask about Jared’s reaction, but then I realized that I shouldn’t care. To hell with him.
I looked out the front window, letting the tears dry on my cheeks. Liam and K.C. sat silently, probably not sure what to say or do.
I’d just hit Madoc. I’d just hit Madoc! The novelty of my action was overwhelming, and I let out a bitter laugh. That really just happened.
I took a deep breath and blew out slowly.
“Are you okay?” K.C. looked at me.
She knew I’d never done anything like that before, but I loved the rush of fright and power I felt.
Hell, the last thing I wanted to do was go home now. Maybe a tattoo or something else was in the cards tonight.
“Actually, yes.” It was weird to say that, but it was true. Wiping the tears away, I looked to my friend. “I feel good.”
I reached to put the key in the ignition but paused when Liam chimed in. “Yeah, well, don’t let it go to your head, Tate. You’ll have to come back to town eventually.”
Yeah. There was that.
“So...how does it feel to be back home?” My dad and I video chatted on the laptop he bought for me before I left for Europe.
“It’s great, Dad. I’m set.” I counted off with my fingers. “There’s food, money, no adults, and you still have beer in the ‘frig downstairs. I smell a paaarty,” I teased. But my dad could give it as good as he got.
“Well, I also have some condoms in my bathroom. Use them if you need.”
“Dad!” I burst out, wide-eyed with shock. Fathers shouldn’t use the word “condoms”, at least not around their daughters. “That…just…crossed a line. Seriously.” I started to laugh. He was the dad that all of my friends wished they had. He had a few simple rules: respect your elders, take care of your body, finish what you start, and solve your own problems. If I maintained good grades, demonstrated direction, and followed those four rules, he trusted me. If I lost his trust, I’d lose my freedom. That’s a military parent. Simple.
“So what’s the plan this week?” Dad asked, running his hand through his graying blonde hair. I’d gotten my coloring from him but thankfully not the freckles. His once vibrant blue eyes were dull with fatigue, and his shirt and tie were wrinkled. He worked too hard.
I lounged cross-legged on my queen-sized bed, thankful to be back in my own room. “Well, there’s about a week before school starts, so I have a meeting with the guidance counselor next Wednesday about my fall schedule. I’m hoping the extra classes I took last year will boost my Columbia application. She’s helping with that, too. I also have some shopping to do and then catching up with K.C., of course.”
I also wanted to start looking for a car, but he’d tell me to wait until he got home at Christmas. Not that I didn’t know what I was doing. I just knew he’d want to share that experience with me, so I wasn’t going to burst his bubble.
“I wish you were home to help me research projects for the science fair.” I changed the subject. “I guess we should’ve done that while I visited you this summer.”
My father retired from the military after my mom’s death eight years ago and worked for a company in Chicago, about an hour away, that built aircraft and sold it around the world. Currently, he was on an extended trip to Germany, holding mechanical trainings. After my year ended in Paris, I’d joined him in Berlin for the summer. My mom would be happy to know I’d traveled and had plans to continue as often as possible after high school. I missed her so much, even more so in the past few years than when she first passed away.
At that moment, the French doors in my room blew open with a gust of sudden, cool wind.
“Hang on, Dad.” I jumped off the bed and ran to the doors to peek outside.
A steady force of wind caressed my bare arms and legs. I leaned over the railing and took inventory of leaves flapping in the gust and garbage cans rolling away. The smell of lilacs wafted through my doors from the trees that peppered our street, Fall Away Lane.
A storm was seconds away, and electricity filled the air with anticipation. Chills ran over my skin, not from cold, but from the thrill of a storm brewing. I loved summer rain.
"Hey, Dad,” I interrupted him as he was speaking to someone in the background, "I need to let you go. I think a storm is on its way, and I should go check all of the windows. Talk to you tomorrow?” I rubbed my arms to erase the chill.
“Sure, honey. I have to run anyway. Just remember that the pistol is in the entryway table. Call if you need anything. Love you."
“Love you too, Dad. Talk to you tomorrow,” I called out behind me.
Closing the laptop, I shrugged into my black Seether hoodie and opened the doors in my room again. Studying the tree outside, my brain snapped to unbidden memories of the many times I’d sat in that tree to enjoy the rain. I had shared many of those times with Jared…when we were still friends.
Quickly looking up, I took note that his window was closed, with no light to speak of coming from his house that sat less than ten yards away. With the tree acting as a ladder between our bedroom windows, it always seemed like the houses were connected in a way.