“Hit the gas!” Jared shouted. “And don’t turn so hard. You’re losing time correcting yourself.”
“Who’s in first place?” I reminded him.
“Don’t get cocky.” Jared alternated between scoping the road and looking behind us to the Trans Am.
Sweat dripped from my brow and my fingers were exhausted from clenching the wheel so hard. Relaxing, I turned up the music and kicked us into sixth gear, bypassing fifth altogether.
This is awesome! The easy way the gas propelled the car forward felt like a space shuttle. Or so I assumed.
“Next turn is coming. You need to slow down.”
Yap, yap, yap.
“Tatum, you need to slow down.” Jared’s voice echoed somewhere in the back of my mind.
The turn was three seconds away, and the vibrations shooting through my legs prevented me from laying off the gas. Gripping the steering wheel tighter, I charged ahead.
Taking my foot off the gas, but not braking, I made a sharp left, and then skidded right, and then forced the wheel left again until I was straightened out. More dust flew around us, but I recovered quickly and slammed on the gas again. Looking behind us, I saw that the Trans Am had spun out around that turn and was now trying to recover. They were more than thirty yards behind us.
“Don’t do that again,” Jared grumbled, now holding the dash with both hands as I stared down the road ready for more. The next turn came and went successfully no matter how much Jared wailed about slowing down.
For an ass**le and a rule-breaker, he really played it safe. And for someone who always played it safe, I’d turned out to be quite the rule-breaker.
As we advanced on the last turn with a significant gain, I slowed down to about thirty miles an hour and shifted down to third. Cruising around the bend at a comfortable speed without any skidding or dust, I looked over at Jared with a wide-eyed, innocent expression.
“Is this okay, Ms. Daisy?” Biting the corner of my mouth to keep from laughing, I noticed his eyes flash to my lips. Heat rose in his gaze, and tingles blossomed through my stomach and down to the sensitive area between my legs.
“Tatum?” His eyes narrowed to slits. “Stop toying with your opponent and win the damn race already.”
“Yes’m, Ms. Daisy,” I retorted with my best Southern accent.
I cruised over the finish line at a safe and hilarious thirty-five miles an hour as I caught the Trans Am in my rearview mirror stuttering around the last turn. Clusters of people swarmed the car, but Jared and I stayed inside for a few moments.
Putting the car into neutral and lifting the e-brake, I leaned my head against the head rest and massaged the steering wheel. My pulse was still going a mile a minute, and I felt alive. That was the most exciting thing I’d ever done. Every nerve on my body felt like it was on a sugar high.
“Thank you, Jared,” I whispered, not looking at him. “Thank you for asking me to do this.”
I reached over and grabbed my mom’s necklace off the mirror and slipped it over my head.
When I looked over at him, he was leaning against his fist with a finger across his lips. What was he trying to hide? A smile?
Raking a hand through his hair, he opened his door, and the sounds of cheers and screaming rushed in like water into a sinking boat. Looking down at his boots, he shook his head. “Waking the demon….” he mumbled to himself, and I wasn’t sure what he meant.
Before he climbed out, he looked over at me again through hooded lids. “Thank you ,Tate,” he whispered.
The hair on my neck stood up, and my hands shook.
He hadn’t called me “Tate” since we were fourteen. Not since we were friends.
Maci Feldman charged me once Ben and I had arrived at the bonfire. “That was awesome! My brother is like so unbelievably happy he won that bet.”
Bonfires were held on Marcus Hitchens’s property, on the banks of Swansea Lake, practically every week, especially following races and football games. The bitter cold of January and February was the only time when little happened, both at the lake and the Benson farm track.
“I’m glad I could help,” I responded. And it was true. Racing tonight had been the best time I’d ever had. “But I only won because the other girl had no idea how to drive a manual.”
Why did I say that? I rocked that race whether or not the twit knew what she was doing.
She hooked my arm, while Ben had his hand around my waist. Others came up to greet us, either to say “hi” to Ben or to congratulate me.
“Well, I for one would love to see you race again. How about you, Ben?” Maci addressed my date as he turned his attention away from his football buddies.
“I think I’m a lucky guy.” He peered down at me, and it didn’t escape my notice how he evaded the question. I wondered if it embarrassed him to have his date doing something the guys typically only took part in.
As it was already ten-thirty, I committed to staying for an hour before having Ben take me home. With the meet in the morning, I’d have to get home and rest whether I liked it or not.
“Great race tonight, Tate.” Jess Cullen patted me on the shoulder as she passed by.
“Thanks,” I exhaled, feeling unsettled with the attention.
“You alright?” Ben pulled me close.
“Absolutely,” I choked out before inching towards the refreshments. “Can we get something to drink?”
He held up his hand to keep me put. “Stay here, I’ll be back.” And he walked off to the keg.
Clots of people stood around the fire or sat on boulders, while others circulated. K.C. hadn’t arrived yet, that I could see, and I assumed she drove with Jared. I stood there, feeling uneasy about my place. I guess I could thank Jared for me being more comfortable around a small group than lots of people. Because of him, I’d never been invited to these things.
I shook my head slightly to clear my thoughts. I needed to stop blaming him. It was his fault that I’d been black-listed in the past, but it wasn’t his fault that I’d accepted it. This was on me now.
Looking over to the group of girls giggling near the water, I recognized one from my cross-country team.
“Screw it.” I shrugged my shoulders and decided to dive in. I took a step towards the group when a voice stopped me.
Goose bumps spread over my body as I turned around to face Jared. He held a cup in one hand and his phone in the other. He appeared to be sending a text while waiting for my reply. He slipped the phone into his back pocket and raised his eyes to me.
The hair on my arms felt electrified with static as if it were drawn to Jared. Rubbing my hands up and down my arms, I turned my head back to the fire, trying to ignore him. I still wasn’t sure where we stood. We weren’t friends, but we weren’t enemies anymore either. And having a normal conversation was still out of the question.
“You’re cold.” Jared pulled up beside me. “Does K.C. still have your jacket?”
I sighed, unsure about what was causing my annoyance this time. Maybe it was because every time Jared was around me, the nerves in my body became a springs pulsating heat, whereas Ben made me feel like curling up on the couch to watch American Idol.
Jared probably never watched T.V. Too mundane of an activity.
Also, I found it ridiculous that Jared acted concerned about me being cold when earlier this week he’d said he didn’t care whether I lived or died. He’d apologized for nothing, and I couldn’t forget that.
“Well, she was wearing my jacket when you brought her here, wasn’t she?” My snippy remark was greeted with a smirk.
“She didn’t come with me. I don’t know if she’s even here yet.” His head turned and his eyes looked down to me.
“What do you mean? You left the race without her, didn’t you?”
“No, she caught a ride with Liam. I came here alone.” Jared’s low, husky tone washed over me, and I fought back a smile hearing his last words.
It looked like K.C. and Liam were on the road to recovery.
I cleared my throat. “And that was okay with you?” I asked.
“Why wouldn’t it be?” He asked me point-blank, a confused expression on his face.
Of course. What was I thinking? Jared didn’t date, and there was no way he was invested in K.C. I dug into the small bag resting on my hip and searched for my phone.
“If I see her, I’ll tell her to find you.” Jared started to walk away but stopped after a few steps and turned back to me. “I’m going to need the fossil back.” He gestured towards the necklace around my neck.
I realized he was talking about his good luck charm. “Not going to happen.” And I directed my attention back to my phone.
“Oh, Tate. I always get what I want.” His low, flirty tone made me freeze. My fingers were paused above my cell screen as if I’d suddenly forgotten how to send a text. I looked up in time to see him smile and walk away.
Watching him head to Madoc and others in his crew, I was more puzzled now that I was earlier this week. I’d wanted Jared to become more human, and I’d wanted him to treat me well. Now that he’s showing signs of both, I was sick with unanswered questions. Old feelings seeped through the cracks of the wall I’d built to keep him out.
“Hey, here you go.” Ben walked up with two beers, handing me one.
“Thanks.” I licked my lips and took a sip, letting the bitter taste wet my tongue and throat.
Ben ran his fingers down my hair and combed it behind my ear. My muscles tensed. My invisible three feet of personal space had been breached, and I wanted to step away.
Why? Why couldn’t I just like this guy? I was frustrated with myself. He seemed decent and goal-oriented. Why wasn’t he turning my insides to goo or making me daydream?
I felt the certainty creep up on me, and I was powerless to stop it. I didn’t want Ben. Plain and simple. I wasn’t going to be one of those silly girls in a love triangle romance novel who couldn’t choose. Not that I was in a love triangle, but I never understood how a girl can’t know whether or not she wants a guy. We can be confused about what is good for us but not about what we truly want.
And I didn’t want Ben. That much I knew.
“Was that Jared you were talking to?” He gestured with his beer to the other side of the fire where Jared laughed with a couple of guys from school.
“Yeah.” I took another sip.
Ben exhaled a chuckle and took a gulp of his beer. “Still not big on giving up information, are you?”
“Oh, it was nothing. I was looking for K.C., and I thought they came together.”
“She gets around, huh?” Ben commented more than asked.
“How do you mean?” I said defensively. K.C. and I had been stressed lately, but she was my best friend.
“Moving from Liam to Jared, and back to Liam. I saw them after your race. They looked pretty close.”
“Two guys means she gets around?” I was actually relieved that she’d moved past Jared, but I didn’t like Ben or anyone else drawing conclusions about her.
Ben gave me a contrite look and changed the subject. Clearly, he was smart enough to know that he shouldn’t go there. “Well, you did great tonight. The school is going to be talking about it for a while. Looks like I scored the jackpot.” Ben hooked an arm around me and led me around the bonfire.
The jackpot? What was that supposed to mean?
Ben and I circulated to different clusters of his friends, in between him running back and forth to the keg. I’d had two sips of my beer and put it down. Despite my best hints to Ben that I needed to be home soon, he was on his fourth beer, and I knew he wasn’t going to be able to drive. I was starting to wonder how I’d be getting home.
I’d spotted K.C. and Liam a half an hour ago, sitting on a boulder talking. Or rather, Liam talked while K.C. listened and cried a little. Their conversation looked intense and important by the way their heads were together, so I’d opted to leave them alone.