Home > Be the Girl(7)

Be the Girl(7)
K.A. Tucker

“That kid and hockey,” he grumbles. “I guess it’s going to pay for his college, so there’s that. You reminded Heather that I can’t eat cauliflower, right? It gives me terrible gas.”

“I mentioned it.” Mom shares a look with me before turning away, pressing her lips together to keep from laughing.

Mark Hartford answers the door with a grin and dimples that match Emmett’s. There’s no doubt Emmett took after his father; they have the same brown eyes, olive skin, and chestnut brown hair—though Mark’s is peppered with gray and beginning to thin on top.

“Wine for the hosts. One red, one white.” Mom practically thrusts the bottles into his hands before collecting the dish from mine. “And a homemade apple pie that I hope isn’t too runny, for dessert.”

“Never met a pie I didn’t like.” He chuckles softly. “Thank you. And welcome. Come in, come in.” He backs up, giving us room to enter. He grins at me. “It’s nice to finally meet you, officially, Aria.”

The Hartford house isn’t much bigger than Uncle Merv’s and it’s similar in layout, but every room I see so far has been renovated. Rich, warm planks of wood run the length of the hall, all the way to the kitchen in the back, where new white cupboards hang. The walls throughout are painted a dove gray and covered in framed photographs. Everywhere I look are pictures of Emmett and Cassie at different ages.

“We’re having schnitzel, Uncle Merv!” Cassie declares as I inhale the aroma permeating the air. “It’s your favorite. That’s why we’re having it.”

He frowns. “How do you know it’s my favorite?”

“Aunt Connie told me. I came to your house because of the snowstorm, remember?”

“Snowstorm …” His frown grows deeper. “That was years ago, wasn’t it? You were tiny.”

She shrugs. “That’s when she told me.”

“Good God, kid. What I’d give to have your memory.”

“Yeah.” She giggles. “You want to come see my room, Aria? I mean AJ?” She draws AJ out like she’s in on a secret.

I do a quick glance around. Emmett’s nowhere in sight, but I already knew that—his Santa Fe isn’t in the driveway. “Sure.”

We climb the stairs, my eyes on the collection of pictures hanging on the wall. I stall on the one with a much younger Emmett and Cassie—under ten, I’d guess—posing in front of a snowman, toques on their heads, their cheeks rosy from the cold. Emmett’s face is thin, his form gangly. Cassie is wearing the biggest grin I’ve ever seen on a kid. The two of them are almost the same height.

“Cassie, did you clean up your room like I asked?” Heather calls from the kitchen.

“I did! It’s clean!” She adds an “Ugh … mothers” under her breath as she stomps the rest of the way up the stairs.

I press my lips together to stifle my laugh at the petulant streak that flares every once in a while and follow her into her room.

Into the bubblegum-pink cave of disaster—dresser drawers sitting open, dirty clothes scattered across the floor, an unmade bed heaped with piles of stuffed animals and more clothes, a box overflowing with naked dolls of various sizes and styles, dog and cat posters and a calendar that sits on January. It’s not the room you’d expect of a girl turning sixteen in February, but the moment I see it, I’m not at all surprised that it’s Cassie’s.

She grins and then says, in that slightly stilted way of hers, “It’s not that messy.”

The front door creaks open as I’m heaping a spoonful of mashed potatoes onto my plate.

My heart skips a beat and then thumps in my chest, my attention locking on the Hartfords’ dining room threshold.

Waiting.

“Dining room, now!” Mark calls over his shoulder.

Heavy footfalls sound along the hallway and then Emmett appears, his hair still damp from a shower.

Nervous flutters stir in my stomach.

Mark gives his son a scolding look. “You’re late.”

“Coach wanted to have a team meeting after practice to go over a few things before tomorrow’s game.”

“If only there was some way you could communicate that to us.”

“He could text,” Cassie says, not picking up on the sarcasm in her father’s tone.

Mark snaps his fingers. “You’re right, Cassie! He could text. If only he had a phone—”

“All right. I’m sorry,” Emmett mumbles, sliding into the empty chair beside Uncle Merv, across from me. “Hey, Merv. How’s it going?”

“Still alive.” His clouded eyes are focused on his dinner, clearly more interested in eating than carrying on a conversation. He likely won’t utter a single word through the meal.

Emmett smirks, unfazed by the old man’s response. I’m sure he’s used to that acerbic personality. And then his beautiful brown eyes shift to me. “Hey.”

“Hi.” I’m staring, I realize, and so I duck my head, refocusing on my plate.

“So, Emmett says you guys have a class together, Aria?” Heather spoons a few carrots onto Cassie’s plate.

“That’s enough,” Cassie declares, blocking the air above her plate with her hand.

She gets a warning look and two more spoonfuls in return, which earns a scowl at her plate.

“Social studies. Yeah.”

“And they’ll be on the cross-country team together soon, too. Right?” My mom looks at me expectantly.

“You’re joining the team?” Emmett slaps a heaping serving spoon’s worth of mashed potatoes next to the two large cutlets he grabbed. Is it just my wishful thinking or did I catch a hint of excitement in his tone?

“If I can get my time up before then.” If my run last night after dinner is any indication, I won’t be joining.

“I jog through Miller’s Park on the off-mornings. It’s not far from here. It’s hilly but it’s good training ground. You can come with me, if you want?”

Me, run with Emmett? Just the two of us? A thrill races through my chest. “Yeah. For sure.”

“I want to come!” Cassie exclaims.

“You want to run three kilometers at seven in the morning, Cassie?” he says doubtfully.

“Yes!” She nods in emphasis.

“All the way around the pond, without stopping?”

She seems to consider that a moment. “No. Maybe not,” she agrees.

He smirks. “AJ’s gotta try to keep up with me.”

“Don’t be surprised if she gives you a good challenge,” my mom chirps, and then takes a sip of wine. “She placed second in provincials.”

“That was two years ago,” I remind her quietly, my cheeks flushing.

“So! I’m still allowed to brag.”

I bite my tongue against the urge to remind her that she’s never even been to a race. We’re both starting over, fresh.

“I wish I had a tenth of the energy these kids have.” Heather’s attention shifts between my mom and Cassie, who is gripping her butter knife awkwardly in her fist and sawing away at her meat with little success. Heather’s hands reach out but then pull back, as if wanting to help Cassie but deciding against it.

“We’re watching a movie in the basement, tonight,” Cassie declares. “AJ, do you want to watch with us?” She nods, as if coaxing me into saying yes, her eyebrows arched with hope.

“Zach’s having people over. You should come with me,” Emmett throws out, taking a gulp of his milk. “You can meet a few people from school.”

Did Emmett just invite me to a party?

“Are his parents going to be home?” Heather asks.

“Of course,” Emmett says with his focus on his plate, in a way that doesn’t sound at all convincing—at least not to me.

“I don’t know …” my mom begins, wariness in her voice.

“I want to go to Zach’s, too!” Cassie bursts. “Can I go?”

Heather spears Emmett with a knowing glare.

He sighs heavily. “It’s mostly the hockey team, plus the music will be too loud. You wouldn’t have fun there.”

“Yes, I would!” She insists with a determined set of her jaw. “Zach’s my friend, too!”

Is he, though? Cassie calls everyone her friend.

“Hey! What about our night?” Mark jumps in, gesturing between himself and her. “I thought we were going to get banana splits at Dairy Queen?”

Cassie frowns deeply. “I didn’t know that.”

“I can’t believe you forgot. Don’t bail on me, kid.”

Something tells me Cassie wouldn’t forget something like a trip for ice cream. Something also tells me it’s meant as a distraction and a bribe, a treat that Cassie won’t pass up.

“Can AJ come?”

Mark shrugs, glancing at me. “Sure, if that’s what—”

“She’s coming to Zach’s with me,” Emmett cuts in.

“Hold on. I didn’t approve that,” Mom says.

“Mom.” I stare at her, trying to convey with my eyes how badly I want to go. If I miss out on a night with Emmett, I will never forgive her.

“Maybe you should spend some time with Cassie tonight,” she says softly.

“It’s just a small group of kids from school, Mrs. Jones,” Emmett offers in a cordial tone.

“Call me Debra, please.” Her lips purse as she studies my pleading eyes. “Is this a gathering that would be suitable for my fifteen-year-old daughter?”

“Almost sixteen,” I clarify through gritted teeth, my cheeks burning.

“No drinking,” Emmett promises.

She gives him a flat look. “I’m not naïve.”

He holds his hands in the air. “I have a game tomorrow so I’m driving and coming home by midnight.”

I can see the struggle within Mom’s eyes.

“If there’s one thing my son takes seriously, it’s being well rested for his games,” Heather adds, and I silently thank her for the motherly seal of approval.

Mom takes a deep breath. “Fine. As long as she’s with you and you’re home by eleven.”

“Mom!”

“Eleven is fine.” Emmett smirks. “I can use the extra sleep.”

I let out a long, shaky breath, struggling to keep my excitement at bay.

That’s when I notice Cassie is staring at her plate with a crestfallen face. Heather’s hand is smoothing over her back in a comforting manner, her pained eyes flickering to Mark.

What must it be like for Cassie, to be told she can’t go to a party, but meanwhile I’m going with her brother? I’m technically only three months older than she is. How many times has she been told no to going out like other teenagers do?

Guilt for choosing the party with Emmett over a movie with her overwhelms me.

I think fast. “Hey, Cassie, do you want to go to the movies tomorrow afternoon to see that one you mentioned?”

Her eyes widen and then light up, the party at Zach’s temporarily forgotten. “Teen Queen? I really want to see that.”

I know. She’s only mentioned it every day this week. “Do you want to go with me?” I have no idea what it’s about, but I saw the name on the marquee as Mom and I passed the theater today and I thought of Cassie.

She looks to Heather, a strange—almost terrified—expression on her face. “Can I go?” she whispers.

Heather’s shoulders sag with relief. “Of course. That sounds like a great idea.” She flashes an appreciative smile at me. “I can drop you two off.”

“Alone? You mean, just AJ and me?”

“Yes.”

Cassie, already beaming, lets out an excited squeal that earns Uncle Merv’s grimace. “Oh Lord,” he grumbles.

I can’t help but laugh as I meet Emmett’s gaze.

To find his soft smile as he regards me.

The engine of Emmett’s SUV is already running when I rush across the lawn, five minutes late, adjusting the collar of the navy-blue boatneck shirt I threw on.

“Hurry up, before Cassie and my dad get home.” His wary eyes are on the street as I slide into the passenger seat.

“I thought she was okay with this?” I fasten my seat belt, discreetly inhaling the clean scent of his cologne. Emmett has changed too, into a pair of dark-wash jeans and a charcoal-gray T-shirt that clings to his torso without being too tight.

“She is, but if she sees us leaving, she’ll forget how excited she is about tomorrow and focus on what she’s missing tonight. And then she’ll cry that she’s being left out and I’ll feel like an asshole.” His voice sounds heavy as he puts the car in drive. “That was nice of you, by the way, offering to take her to the movies.”

I shrug. “I don’t have any plans tomorrow.”

His mouth curves with a secretive smile.

“What?”

“Nothing, just … you’ve never watched a movie with Cassie before.”

“Why? What happens?” I ask warily.

“Nothing bad.” He laughs. “You’ll see.”

I’m distracted from pushing for more information by my mom’s silhouette in my bedroom window, watching us drive away. My guess is she’ll be hunting for my journal as soon as we’ve rounded the corner. I don’t think she’ll find it. I tucked it under a loose floorboard I found under the desk while I was dragging furniture around to paint the walls. It’s a pain to fetch, but it was the best hiding spot I could find.

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