Home > Be the Girl(9)

Be the Girl(9)
K.A. Tucker

I nod, unsure of how to respond. “I had fun.” And I did, I realize, even with Cassie’s prattling and the sense that I had to watch over her like a babysitter watches over her charge.

“Well, in case you haven’t noticed, she idolizes you. She came home the other day and demanded that we repaint her bedroom to match yours.”

“Really?” I laugh.

“Yes. Your mom gave me the color chip from your room. Mark is very excited about painting.” Her laugh carries a derisive note. With that, she collects the rest of the groceries from the trunk.

I watch her disappear behind the front door, feeling a sudden lightness in my chest that hasn’t been there in so long.

Emmett is waiting for me at the end of his driveway, stretching his hamstrings, when I emerge on Monday morning at 7:00 a.m. His brown eyes roll over my black running shorts and my bare legs—that I thankfully remembered to shave last night, because the air is crisper than I expected and I have gooseflesh—before landing on my old high school shirt. His face splits into a wide grin. “Llamas?”

“Hey, I didn’t pick my high school mascot.” I grab an ankle and begin my warm-up stretches, stealing a covert glance at his form—long legs coated with dark hair and rippling with muscle; broad shoulders that lead into a shapely back. He’s wearing a burgundy-and-gold Eastmonte Eagles T-shirt that’s threadbare and clingy around his sinewy arms and powerful-looking chest.

His body is not that of a seventeen-year-old boy—at least not one I’ve ever met.

“At least llamas are more creative than eagles.”

“Fair point.” He grins, connecting his hands behind his back to stretch his chest, a move that shifts his collar, revealing a purplish-red bruise on his collarbone.

“What happened to your neck?” I blurt out without thinking.

“Nothing,” he says, tugging at his T-shirt collar to cover it, his cheeks flushing.

“Oh.” It finally dawns on me—Emmett has a hickey? “Really?”

He groans. “Don’t you start, too. I’ve already gotten enough chirping from my team yesterday.”

“Sorry, I just haven’t seen one in a while.”

“Since you were twelve, right?” He grimaces. “Holly knew what she was doing, too. She thought it’d be funny.”

“It kind of is.” I press my lips together to keep from laughing.

“Yeah, to everyone else.” He’s annoyed but at least he’s smiling now. He tucks his earbuds into his ears. Now I wish I’d brought mine. “Come on, Jones. Let’s see what you’ve got.”

“Jeez …” A bead of sweat runs down the side of Emmett’s face by the time we reach the end of our driveways. “I can’t believe you kept up. Your mom wasn’t kidding.” His breathing is as ragged as mine.

I bite my tongue against the urge to taunt him, to remind him that I only just started training again. The truth is, I wouldn’t have gone that hard had I not had the carrot of Emmett dangling there to push me. But my thighs and lungs burn, the three-kilometer route around Miller’s Park—a hilly conservation area with a small pond in the center—equal parts peaceful and grueling. We were the only ones out this morning, save for a lady walking her black Lab.

Emmett uses the hem of his T-shirt to wipe his face, giving me a sublime view of his six-pack and the dark trail of hair disappearing into his shorts.

I have to turn away to hide my bulging eyes.

Seriously, he’s only seventeen?

“Moretti’s gonna have a lady boner when she sees you run.” He checks his watch. “’Kay. We better grab a shower before school.” He frowns, and points at both our houses. “I meant separately. As in, two showers. In our own bathrooms.”

“Yeah, I figured.” I laugh it off, though in my head, I’m suddenly wondering all kinds of things, namely, has Emmett ever showered with a girl before? And what does the rest of him look like in the shower? And did he think I’d take that to mean something different?

Can he tell I’m crushing on him?

My heart, already racing from the run, takes on a whole new tempo as my stomach flutters with nerves.

“See you in a bit.” With one last grin, he jogs toward his house.

Forty-five minutes later, I’m waiting by the Santa Fe when Emmett walks out of the Hartfords’ front door, a half-eaten banana in his grip. He’s freshly showered and looking as hot as ever.

“Cassie, come on or we’ll be late!” He hits the button on his key fob to unlock the doors for me and then strolls to the end of the driveway to toss the peel into the green bin.

Cassie rushes out about thirty seconds later and climbs into the back seat. “I’m not ready!” she warns, as she does every morning.

He drums his fingers on the steering wheel, his lips pressed together tightly, as if he’s struggling to keep his patience this morning. What’s it like to have Cassie for a sister?

Her seat belt clicks. “’Kay, I’m ready.”

He pulls out of the driveway.

“When is your next hockey game, Emmett?” she asks.

“Thursday night.”

“Is it in Eastmonte?”

“Yup. Why?”

“AJ should come. Do you want to come with us to watch Emmett play, AJ?”

A rush of adrenaline courses through my body. Yes, I want to watch Emmett play. Now I have a valid excuse to go. “Uh … yeah, sure. Maybe?”

“You don’t have to,” Emmett offers in an apologetic tone.

“No, it’s cool. I’ve never been.”

“You’ve never been to a hockey game?” Cassie asks with exaggerated shock.

I laugh. “No. It wasn’t a thing for my family.”

“I’ve been to a lot of games,” she says. “How many games have I been to, Emmett?”

“I don’t know. Hundreds. You’re a rink rat.”

“I’m not a rink rat. What’s that thing on your neck?” she asks suddenly, changing topics without warning or pause.

I press my lips together to hide my smile as I steal a glance at the red bruise.

“It’s nothing,” he dismisses, his jaw tensing as he tugs at his shirt collar.

“There’s a dark mark right there. On your neck. I see it. What is it? Emmett?” A second later. “Emmett?” Another three seconds pass without answer. “Emmett.”

“It’s nothing, okay? A bruise, from hockey.”

“Oh. Okay.” There’s a long pause, as if she’s thinking about it, and then, “But don’t you wear a neck guard?” There’s a hint of skepticism in her voice.

“Of course you’d figure that out,” he says under his breath.

“Is that really a bruise from hockey?” When he doesn’t respond, she asks, “Is that really a bruise from hockey, AJ?”

Emmett shoots me a warning look.

I briefly consider keeping up his lie, but he’s not lying to protect her. He’s doing it to save himself from embarrassment. He should be embarrassed. “No. It’s a hickey.”

“I can’t believe you threw me under the bus like that!” Emmett groans.

I grin.

“A hickey?” Cassie tries out the word. “What’s a hickey?”

“I’m not explaining that to her.” His eyes are locked on the street ahead.

“What’s a hickey, AJ?”

How do you explain these things to a girl who is almost sixteen but is still so innocent? I guess the same way you’d explain it to a ten- or eleven-year-old—with gentle honesty. “It means Holly kissed your brother’s neck too hard.”

“What?” Cassie’s face scrunches up as she processes this. “So Holly’s like a vampire?”

I burst out laughing and even Emmett can’t help but smile. “Kind of, except she didn’t bite him.” At least, I don’t think she did.

And I don’t want to think about that.

“It’s not something you talk about with people, okay, Cassie? So don’t tell your teachers or the kids in your class.” Under his breath, but loud enough for me to hear, he adds, “Or everyone you know.”

“Yeah. I know. Okay.” I watch Cassie’s face from my side view mirror as she considers this concept of kissing necks too hard. It’s a good ten seconds before she frowns, gives her head a shake, and mutters, “Ewww.”

Cassie and I walk home that afternoon to find a tiny, white-haired lady and a giant car in Uncle Merv’s driveway.

“Hello, Iris!” Cassie waves dramatically.

Iris. Aunt Connie’s friend, a.k.a. the tuna casserole lady.

The lady shuffles her entire body around to regard us, and her wrinkled face splits into a grandmotherly smile. “Well, hello there, Cassie, how are you?”

“I’m good.” Cassie jabs my shoulder with her finger. “This is Aria, but we call her AJ. That’s her nickname.”

Iris sets her purse in the driver’s seat and then walks down the driveway to meet us, moving more easily than I’d expect of a woman in her seventies. Soft eyes land on me. “It’s nice to finally meet you, Aria. I just finished having tea with your mother! Came by to see how Merv was faring and to drop off another tuna casserole.”

Another tuna casserole. I force a polite smile. “Yum.”

“Well, I know it’s Merv’s favorite.” The lenses in her glasses must be twice the thickness as the black frames, and they make her eyes look unnaturally large as she studies me. “How are you enjoying living here?”

“It’s great, so far.” That, I can answer honestly.

“Well, good. I’m glad to hear that. Your uncle was so excited that you were coming. Listen, I’m going to let you two go now. I’ll bet you have a lot of homework to do. And Cassie … there might be something special waiting for you at home.”

Cassie’s grin falls off, her face turning serious. “Molasses cookies?”

“Better get them now before that brother of yours eats them all.”

Cassie takes off, yelling “Bye!” as she gallops across the front lawn.

Iris laughs and shakes her head. “Oh, that girl and her sweet tooth. Well, you take care of that old grouch in there for me, Aria. Or AJ.”

“Will do.” I say goodbye and head inside, dropping my backpack on the floor by the stairs. Uncle Merv is in his chair, watching another black-and-white war documentary. “Hey, Uncle Merv,” I call out on my way past, but I don’t get a response. Sometimes he gets so into those movies that you have to stand right beside him to grab his attention.

My mom is at the kitchen sink, washing dishes. “Hey, hon. How was school?”

“Fine.” A stack of Ontario law textbooks sits on the kitchen table. Next to them are a plate of crumbly brown cookies and a tall glass of milk.

“Iris made those,” she confirms.

I slide into my seat and break a piece off. “I just met her outside.”

“She’s a sweet lady. We spent the past hour reminiscing about Aunt Connie. It felt good.” Mom dries her hands with a tea towel and then, wandering over to peer around the corner at Uncle Merv first, she lowers her voice. “I think she’s trying to woo your uncle.”

“What?” I cringe. “But, she was Aunt Connie’s friend. And they’re old.”

Mom’s laughter fills the small, cramped kitchen. “That doesn’t mean they don’t want companionship. It happens all the time.”

I match her low voice, though I doubt he can hear anything over the bomb blasts and plane engines. “You think Uncle Merv wants companionship?”

“I think your uncle wants someone to cook his meals and wash his clothes.” She smirks, taking the chair across from me. “Okay, let’s hear it.”

I stifle my groan. Some days this is a real struggle, but Mom doesn’t seem to care what I tell her, as long as I’m telling her something. “Number one: I told Ms. Moretti I’d join the cross-country team.” I ran into her in the hall before third period.

Mom’s eyes light up. “Oh, fantastic!”

“The first practice is tomorrow morning before school.”

“Do you need a ride?”

“No. I’m going in with Emmett.”

“Oh, well …” She frowns. “How is Cassie going to get in?”

I shrug. “I don’t know?”

She waves it off. “Heather will figure that out. What else?”

“Um, number two: I might go and see Emmett’s hockey game on Thursday night. Cassie asked me to go with her.”

“That’s a great idea. Heather was telling me they try to go to all his local games. Maybe I should come, too. Get out of the house and meet some people,” she muses, collecting her tea cup. “Oh! Before I forget, we’re having the house repiped. I figure if we’re living here for however long, we should be sure there’s no lead in our water. Mick is coming next week. He said he could do it all in one day. I’m hoping that’s true, because Uncle Merv won’t like being without water for longer than that.” She sighs, as if even the thought of dealing with Uncle Merv in that situation is exhausting. “Okay, one more,” she asks and takes a sip.

“Cassie learned what a hickey was today.”

Mom begins choking.

“Sorry.” I wait patiently, picking at Iris’s cookies, as Mom coughs up the tea she accidentally inhaled.

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