I pull the last Funyun out of the bag and glance over at the boys, envying their carefree youth and fighting the urge to rush over to tell them to study hard, to go to college, to do whatever they can to give themselves options. Make plans, and make backup plans. Network, and meet people, and don’t be afraid to try something new and fail at it—experience is everything. I want to tell them, more than anything, not to settle down in the first job they get.
One of the boys runs screaming toward the pool and does a cannonball so epic he soaks all of his friends and a good portion of the pool deck.
“I had my phone, you motherfucker!” another shouts. This is followed by a chorus of delighted cackling that echoes off the building. The pool area sits in a U-shaped courtyard created by the exterior walls of the hotel, with floors of windows that look down. I expect a set of drapes to slide open, or a parent or chaperone to appear with a stern warning to Behave Yourselves or Else, but it doesn’t happen.
Because they are clearly unsupervised, some form of boy wrestling ensues, complete with a few of the dirtiest words I’ve ever heard—and my dad worked construction, so I’ve heard them all. Splashes turn into waves that ripple to where my bare legs dangle in the water. The boys are slowly morphing from Kids on the Loose to Lord of the Flies, but the chaos out here is still preferable to facing whatever is going on inside.
My phone vibrates, and I look, reluctantly. I have a few missed calls from James. Nothing from Melly, but then, I don’t expect that until tomorrow. After a few hours to cool off—and with nobody else around to placate her—she’ll apologize in the morning, like she always does. I think.
But there is a message in my group chat with Peyton and Annabeth.
I think about how to best reply here. Having to actually type the lie that everything is fine will make my head explode, but I can’t really describe what’s going on, either. Weirdly, the only person I think would truly understand is James.
And I can’t confide in him.
You know how parents tell you that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all?
Mine never said that.
Because Liz and Bill Gibley live for the gossip.
It’s true. They do.
Going out on a limb and guessing that the book tour is not off to a solid start, C?
What an understatement.
I’m so startled I nearly drop my phone in the pool, and look up to see James hovering over me. The sleeves of his dress shirt are rolled up, and it accentuates his forearms so nicely it’s enough to distract me from my morose mental bender.
“I didn’t want to interrupt your Funyunning.” He clears his throat, and I blink to focus, eyes scanning down his arms (he really does have very nice arms) to where he’s carrying a bag of Funyuns in one hand and a beer in the other. This makes him my current dream man.
With my own bag empty, my mouth waters immediately. From the Funyuns, not the forearms. I think. “Those for me?”
“I thought you might need them after …” He jerks his head back toward the hotel. “That. But I see you beat me to it.”
Embarrassment washes over me again. Muttering a bleak thanks, I take the offered bag and look down; my hair slides forward, mercifully blocking his view of my flushed cheeks.
“Mind if I join you?”
I can think of at least twelve things I’d rather do than talk this out right now, but I motion to the ground next to me anyway. “Knock yourself out.”
He takes a moment to toe off his shoes and roll up the legs of his expensive pants before taking a seat next to me and gently lowering his feet into the water. He lets out a quiet, rumbling groan that sends a surge of goose bumps up my legs.
“It’s nice out here,” he says, surveying the patio and then the balconies overlooking where we sit. “My room has a view of the Hooters across the street.”
I laugh. “You’re probably the first straight man to ever say that and sound disappointed.”
“Never was a huge fan of the color orange.” When he grins wolfishly, I am reminded that he has lovely white teeth but very sharp—and oddly seductive—canines. They change his face from nerdy-serious to sexy-devious.
“A shame,” I agree.
Reaching into his pocket, he pulls out a bottle opener and pops off the cap of the beer before setting the bottle on the cement between us. I manage to wait all of two seconds before carefully picking it up and taking a long drink.
I watch the boys roughhousing on the opposite end of the pool. For as long as I can with James, I want to ignore the shrill-voiced, platinum-haired elephant in the proverbial room. I open the fresh bag to reach for a Funyun, and my crunch is comically loud in the awkward silence between us.
“Sorry,” I say around the bite. James laughs and takes the bag, reaching inside for a few and popping one in his mouth.
“You been out here this whole time?” he asks. Since you got your head chewed off, he means.
“I had a really awkward trip to the convenience store on the corner. Who knew sobbing at the checkout while buying junk food would make the cashier so uncomfortable. I’m sure he assumed I was on my period.” I pause, adding inexplicably, “—I’m not.”
I want to slide into the pool and submerge myself for eternity. James is understandably silent for a few beats. Finally, he gives a simple “Cool.”
One of the older boys finds two pool noodles hidden behind a clump of bushes, and he and another kid start whacking each other. When they team up and hit one of the boys so enthusiastically that he falls into the water like a sack of dirt, James looks nervously back toward the hotel.
“Should we go get an adult?”
But the boy pops back above water, grinning wildly.
“They’re just being dumb,” I say. “I’d be in there, too, but I’m not paying eighty-five dollars for a fishnet bikini in the gift shop.” After another particularly loud thwack from the other end of the pool, I glance at James. “Don’t you remember being like that?”
“Like that?” he asks, and picks up the bottle as if to ask Can I? I nod, and just like that, we’re sharing a beer. “Not even a little. Were you?”
“Not that specifically, but goofing around at the reservoir. Tubing down the Snake River with my brothers. Skinny-dipping with friends. There was a lot of skinny-dipping.”
He coughs, choking. I’ve never seen him make this face before, but I daresay he’s impressed. “Oh yeah?”
“We grew up kind of feral. My parents weren’t very attentive. My grandma used to call us ‘free-range kids.’ Summers meant leaving the house in the morning, and barely making it back before the sun went down. We had a lot of space around us, so it’s not like anyone was there to see.”
“I always forget you grew up in Wyoming. You’ve lived there your whole life?”
I reach for the beer and take a sip. “It was different then. Rural. More farms and houses, fewer multimillion-dollar compounds.”
“Did you grow up on a farm?”
“A small one. We’d leave the door open or something and my mom would shout, ‘Were y’all raised in a barn?’ Then we’d get our asses tanned by shouting back, ‘You would know!’ My dad did construction and carpentry around town and grew alfalfa. My mom has sold most of their land now, but we used to make forts and go muddin’ and cause all kinds of trouble in those fields—most of which my parents never found out about. It’s all subdivisions now.”
“Skippin’ rocks and playin’ in the old waterin’ hole,” he teases with a terrible hillbilly accent.
I give his shoulder a nudge and reach for the bag again. “You’re not that far off. I remember someone had a rope swing that hung over the river. It was plenty deep in most places, but some years the water level would be lower, and really shallow along the shore. Some of the more protective parents would cut down that rope every year, but before long someone else would have another one up. I still don’t know how nobody managed to kill themselves on it.”
“That sounds pretty great, actually. The diving part, not the dying.”
“It was. I miss those days. So much room to explore, so much time outside. It was still mostly pre-internet, even though it doesn’t feel that long ago.” I take another sip, washing a tight band of nostalgia down with it. “What about you?”
“I never had any skinny-dipping, I’ll tell you that right now.”
“I’m inclined to agree.”
I turn to look right at him. “Come on. You couldn’t always have been this buttoned up. Am I supposed to believe you just sprang up somewhere, fully Tom Forded and preloaded with a degree from MIT?”
“My sister can confirm.”
I study his profile and notice that he isn’t wearing his glasses. Because the universe is never fair about these things, his lashes are long, and dark, and curled. I am immediately envious. He takes a sip of the beer and then swipes a long finger across his upper lip.
James pats my back when I cough, and hands me the beer, careful to make sure I’ve got it before he lets it go.
Like he knows my grip is sometimes weak.
My stomach swoops low.
“You all right?” he asks.
“Fine,” I say, recovering with a sip. “Something didn’t go down right.” Composed again, I urge him to continue. “She’s older than you, right? Your sister?”
He looks surprised that I remembered, or maybe that I’m engaging in real conversation. “By four years. Old enough that I was more of a nuisance than a buddy.”
“My brothers are five and six years older, Rand and Kurt. Protective when needed, but if friends were around they were like, ‘That kid? Never seen her before.’”