The Roulet Plateau Country Club was situated on a slight upland amongst acres of rolling green hills a few miles away from residential Linbury. The lobby consisted of a large white building with green doors and windows that resembled an eighteenth-century farmhouse; it had a pool, a gym, a health club, two dining rooms, a hot tub area, tennis and basketball and squash courts, and a golf course.
Another place I didn't fit into. Roxanne, of course, would have made sure of that.
So I was glad when, after taking a bus to the entrance on Saturday morning, I saw Nathan in front of the wrought-iron gates talking to a deferential valet in a gray suit about parking his car.
The awkwardness of Tuesday night between me and Nathan had all but dissipated, so I was able to tap him on the shoulder and say "Hey" without much hesitation.
"Hey! You came." Nathan looked pleased to see me.
"Yeah, I did." Although I had no idea why. Maybe just to show Roxanne I wasn't afraid of her because I finally had something on her – or Jazz did, anyway. Maybe because Nathan had called and invited me last night, and I was feeling guilty about Tuesday night and, somehow, eager to see him. Maybe because…well, most likely because Jazz had wanted me to.
"This place is…pretty," I said, stating the obvious. "Exactly like the snotty country clubs you read about."
To my surprise the valet, a middle-aged man with carefully brushed brown hair who had apparently been listening, chuckled. Then he cast a hasty glance at Nathan and walked away, posture erect.
Nathan put his arm around me, rubbing my upper back with his hand, and I felt myself start to redden. "We used to practically live here all summer, before we started spending vacations abroad. We'd come over in the morning, play tennis, swim, eat, dance, eat some more, watch movies, and go home."
"I've always spent summers in Central Park," I told him. "Eating hot dogs. Reading. And stuff." Stuff meaning, during the long lazy afternoons, waiting for Curtis to finish playing shirtless, sweaty basketball so we could either make out furiously or lie in the grass with our legs tangled, thinking extremely different thoughts. "Hey, thanks for the CD you sent me."
"Tell me you liked it or I will officially give up on you," Nathan begged.
"I liked…one song," I said carefully.
"Very diplomatic." Nathan rolled his eyes.
"Can I help it if Korn and Zero Tolerance and most other rockstars seem to be whiny self-involved brats who do nothing about their problems except wallow in them?" I asked rhetorically. Then wondered if I sounded like a snobby hypocrite.
Nathan threw back his head and laughed. "You're getting more and more challenging everyday, Ward, and you know how I feel about a good challenge."
"Challenges are your drug," I said, goofily.
Nathan grinned. "And you're clearly a girl who knows me."
I frowned, thrown by the remark. How well did I know him, really? He never showed me anything but his light, fun, easygoing side; he had to have some doubts, didn't he? Some fears, some griefs –
"Natie!" exclaimed Roxanne Cartwright, brushing past me and throwing herself into Nathan's arms. Evidently she didn't hold grudges when it came to him.
I looked over her shoulder. Eve and Chris, her two official footstep-doggers, both present and accounted for. The surprise was that Zach was, too. He stood with his arms crossed over his chest, looking at me with open surprise – an emotion I reciprocated.
"Hi," I squeaked, my face warming inexplicably.
What the hell was he doing here? After Roxanne had left his house that day he'd made it abundantly clear that there was no way in hell he was going to attend her little ceremonial 'squash practice party' – a symbol, Nathan had explained when he'd called me to invite me later, of all of them playing together like kids before they went on their way to a drugs-and-alcohol-filled winter vacation; a tradition that dated back to his freshman year. Why they couldn't just play in the snow, I hadn't bothered to ask.
I didn't want Zach to be here. Well, I was happy to see him, of course – he was my friend – but…I was realizing my mistake in not having mentioned Roxanne's 'invitation' in Zach's house to Nathan, and in not having mentioned Nathan's invitation to Zach. In the first case, it had kind of slipped my mind, and in the second, well, I'd figured Zach wouldn't show up.
It was like I'd arranged for Roxanne's Christmas present by being a stupid, taking-things-for-granted idiot.
"Hey," Zach said briefly, his gaze flicking from me to Nathan and then back to me again.
"I didn't think you would show up." Roxanne snuggled into Nathan's body, turning just her face to look at me with her stunning dark eyes. "I mean, my invitation wasn't a real –"
"What are you talking about?" Nathan asked easily, kissing her perfunctorily on the cheek and then stepping away. "I invited her last night. And I'm very glad you showed up," he added to me.
"You invited her?" Roxanne's light, amused laugh veiled the very heavy threat in her eyes. "Wow, Summer, I really have to admire you. I mean, I'm supposed to be good at playing boys – you know, idiots like Chris, how can you not play them – but you –"
"Hey," Chris protested, but he didn't manage to distract either Nathan, who was looking confused or Roxanne, who was looking like a cobra in a sparrows' nest.
"Maybe we should –" I started.
"You, Summer –" Roxanne broke off to shake her head with exxaggerated admiration.
"What are you going on about, Roxanne?" Nathan said finally.
"I'm going on about your girlfriends' duplicity, cunning –"
"Can we just get going?" Zach broke in irritably.
Roxanne glanced at him, her eyes flickering. And miraculously, she shut up.
"But –" Nathan frowned.
"It's fucking freezing," Zach said, not looking at him.
I stared at him, but he didn't look at me either. Roxanne stood irresolute for a second before giving her sleek dark hair a toss over one shoulder and skipping away to latch her arm through Nathan's. He looked back at me and opened his mouth, but Roxanne gave his arm a tug and he stumbled forward involuntarily.
"I thought you'd have come on your own, if at all," I said softly to Zach, stepping back to allow Roxanne to drag Nathan off without any trouble. I couldn't wait to see the pictures Jazz had gotten.
"I thought you would have, too," Zach said briefly, before speeding up to join Chris.
Oh. So he thought I'd come with Nathan. Well, I had a right to come with a friend, didn't I?
Left with a silent Eve, I busied myself with glancing around as we entered the lobby. It was a spacious room with low lilac walls, a wooden counter, several colourful mugs, tiger-skins and moose's heads thrown around lavishly, and several antiques behind glass cases including a gleaming golden grandfather clock. It was empty save for a dark-haired Heath Ledger-lookalike behind the counter.
"Good morning, Miss Cartwright, Master Wellington," he chirped – yes, chirped – to the boy I now liked and his bitchy best friend. "Any guests today?"
"No," said Roxanne, just as Nathan said, "Yes, hi, Andrew."
"Put Miss Summer Ward on my tab, Andrew," said Chris, with a worried look at both of them.
"But she's my guest –" Nathan began.
"We insist," said Eve firmly, before Roxanne could open her mouth. I had to wonder at that one.
"Any boy will do, right, Summer?" Roxanne said snidely anyway.
I was really getting tried of listening to her imply that I was a slut when she was rolling around naked with Jimmy Caldwell. Why was I so incapable of standing up to her?
"As long as he isn't twelve years older than me," I said politely.
Chris, Eve, Nathan and Zach looked confused. I was gratified to see a sudden uncertain wariness in Roxanne's eyes before she smirked again. "Glad to see you have limits, sweetie," she said, well, sweetly.
Eve cleared her throat. "Shall we get going, then?"
The squash court was right above the lobby. The walls in it were – unlike the rest of the club, Chris informed me politely – spotlessly white. "Shall we get changed?" Eve had to suggest again, when the seven of us had stood there for about half an hour without a word.
Ah, now this part I had been dreading. I didn't appreciate the thought of stripping down to shorts when Roxanne and Eve, who had sculpted thights the circumference of iPod minis and round perky butts resembling perfectly-shaped tennis balls, would also be doing so. Not that my lower body was fat or anything, and not that I would ever compare myself with them, but…
Besides. I had never played squash in my entire life; I'd never even seen anyone play. Now that I thought about it, letting Jazz talk me into coming here was just another stupid mistake in the mass of stupid mistakes I'd collected like stamps recently…
"Let go, Rox." Nathan broke the silence, his good-natured face more irritable than I'd ever seen it.
Roxanne returned his arm without looking at all abashed and blew an enormous purple bubble with her gum in Chris's direction.
Nathan looked at me. "You cool?"
What I was thinking was that a concentration camp was starting to seem like a better place to be. Zach was studying his sneakers like there was invisible ink on them and ignoring me completely, which annoyed me a little. Or a lot. "Yep," I lied.
"Are you sure, Summer?" Roxanne said, matching Nathan's solicitious tone so perfectly that it made him sound ridiculous.
"Yes," I said, tonelessly.
"Well, then." She stepped away daintily and walked right up to me. Before I could express any sort of alarm, she flung her arm around my shoulder. My nostrils almost shrivelled under the onslaught of her strong flowery perfume – she was the only girl in Thornton who didn't do designer perfumes – but I barely noticed in my startled surprise. "Come on, honey, let's go get changed."
I stared at her, slack-jawed. I wasn't the only one, either; what was with the sudden friendliness?
Nathan gave her a confused look. "We always just bung out of our clothes in the same room. It's your tradition."
"Yes, I know, baby," Roxanne said patiently, "but we don't always have a fa – chubby little inhibited sophomore with us, do we?"
Okay, seriously, I could stand up to her. I could. I could say something like, "That's a nasty thing to say about a loyal friend like Eve," and dare her to say more.
Except I couldn't.
"Roxanne," Nathan started.
"You know what, it's fine," I interjected calmly, even though I felt like steam was coming out of my ears. "I don't mind changing."
Roxanne smirked. "Aren't you accomodating."
Without another word she pulled her coat and jacket over her head, shimmied her way out of tight jeans, and bundled her hair into a ponytail that showed off her skinny shoulders. After a second, Eve did the same.
I didn't move. The boys looked at each other; all three of them were slightly flushed. They hadn't moved either.
"You know," Zach said suddenly, "I'm going to the locker room."
"Yeah," Nathan said, for once looking nothing like his cocky self even thought stripping was probably kind of his element, "Yeah, I'll just play in my t-shirt and – and – and stuff."
I remained immobile as he strode quietly across the room and disappeared behind a white door.
"Would you like to start off the game, Summer?" Chris asked politely, even though I hadn't changed yet. He wasn't meeting my gaze. I felt a bizarre sense of being invisible.
"Um," I said. "I don't –"
"Haven't you ever played squash before, Sum?" Roxanne asked, hitting the nail on the head as she glanced at me over her shoulder.
I lifted my head, feeling humiliated in spite of myself. What had I thought, they'd volunteer to teach me, know somehow that I didn't? "No."
"Go figure," Roxanne said sympathetically. "What do they play in New York City? How to Blow Two Guys In Three Seconds?"
"Roxanne," said Zach; his eyes were beginning to glimmer in a way I felt I recognized.
"What?" Roxanne snapped.
"Why," said Zach, with careful control, "don't you just play? This is your ceremony – a random squash game in the middle of Christmas season – just play."
"I'm not doing anything." Roxanne arched her neck. "You're too sensitive, babe."
Zach clamped his mouth shut. I wanted to hug him in gratitude, but he didn't even look at me. I wished Roxanne would contract some life-threatening disease. Why couldn't I stick up for myself when she was around?
"You know what you can do, Sum?" Roxanne smiled coolly, clearly having vanquished Zach as far as she was concerned. "You can chase balls around the court and bring that back to me. That's what you do best –"
"Roxanne!" Before I could even take in the significance of her statement, I was forced to jump away in shock as Zach's racquet whizzed past my mouth and struck the wall opposite.
First a fork, now a racquet. The guy was clearly unstable.
I wasn't the only one who stood still in shocked silence.
Roxanne shook her head, apparently unfazed. "This is certainly…the most heart and soul you've ever put into defending anything."
"You," Zach said venomously, "need to take up sewing."
We all blinked at him.
"So you can poke your talons into something other than Summer," Chris clarified, apparently understanding what Zach had said.
I wondered if he was clueless or just stupid. A second later, as his face turned the exact shade as the Revlon's Paint The Town Red lipstick CeeCee used, I had my answer. I strongly suspected that my face was much the same colour.
"Unlike Zach, you mean?" Roxanne swooped upon it like the vulture she was.
"He's right." Nathan pushed his way out of the white door and stood, folding his arms. He was looking at Roxanne as though he didn't know her. "You know what? I don't – I know now why he left." Slowly, he let his racquet fall on the floor. "This whole gang thing – it's just fucked up. I can't…I can't deal with this shit. I'm out."
Roxanne's eyes widened as though he'd slapped her. "Nate –" She looked at Zach, something in her expression I'd never seen before. "Zach, I don't –"
I hated the feeling of passivity enveloping me, but I didn't know what to do.
"Nate," Roxanne said, a decision in her voice. "Nate, I – listen to me."
"Wow," Zach said. I knew, just knew from his voice that he had understood Roxanne's torn expression. "Nathan Wellington, playing the white knight again. The world's back where it belongs, right, guys?"
He turned as if to walk out, but Nathan moved swiftly to block his way.
"What," he demanded, "is your problem with me?"
"I don't have a problem," Zach said politely. "Now move."
"You have a problem," Nathan accused. "Ever since you've gotten back from boarding school you've been –"
"What?" Zach shot back, his eyes darkening. "Disgusted that you're still the golden boy of Linbury, despite screwing everyone's girlfriends behind your girlfriend's back in the backseat of my car?"
Roxanne's hands flew to her mouth but she didn't look surprised. She just looked frightened.
I could see that Nathan's hands were trembling. "You never bothered to tell me how you felt about Denise."
There was a collective inhale as the name escaped his lips.
"Well," Zach said impassively, "Here's how I feel."
Several things happened at once. There was a crunch as Zach's fist connected with Nathan's cheekbone; Chris swore and jumped forward; Eve said "Oh, my God" in an almost agitated tone to nobody in particular, and Zach kicked open the door and took off.
"Nathan!" Roxanne leaped at her ex with the kind of anguished cry I automatically associated with Ann.
I felt my throat constrict. Zach. "I have to –" I stepped towards the door blindly.
Roxanne was cradling Nathan's face in her hands. He wrenched it away from her. "Summer."
It was all he said, and yet it took every ounce of willpower I had not to rush to him.
And yet. And yet, I said, "I need to – I'll come back –" and rushed out the door.
I didn't know why. I didn't even know what, exactly, I was doing. All I knew was that I was scared and I didn't know why and that I needed to find Zach and…
That was all I knew.
I made my way through the trees to Zach's park bench and perched on the edge, my panic calming at the sight of his familiar jacket. "So I guess you have a 'place'."
"No offence, but I'm not in the mood to be around people I know right now." Zach seemed to have calmed down too.
"That's what you said when you took me to Snellwood," I remembered.
"Okay, fine," I sighed. "I'll pretend I don't know you. Hello, I'm Summer Ward."
"And you are?"
"Fucked up." Zach exhaled. "Why are you here?"
"I wish I knew," I said ruefully.
Tentatively, I moved a little closer to him so that I wasn't dangling off the edge of my brain. Again, my brain had stopped controlling my body; I was on autopilot and I didn't even mind all that much. When he didn't push me off the bench he was so territorial about, I let myself relax, then tensed up again when my shoulder touched his.
"Stop squirming," Zach snapped.
"I can't help it," I snapped back. "I swear it's like your butt expanded, I used to have a lot more space on your –" I stopped in utter shock as Zach lifted his arm and settled it around my shoulder, securing my position on the bench.
And against him.
"Ever consider that it could be your butt that grew?" he said, but mildly.
"After all that wriggling it did in Snellwood? No way."
"What happened to you that knight, anyway?" Zach asked lazily.
"You mean after you abandoned me?" I wanted to know.
He shrugged. "I just thought you were a bitch back then."
I let that slide and met his gaze squarely. "I called Nathan."
"Oh." Zach's arm receded.
I caught it mid way back to his own body without even thinking about it and held on. "Would you stop squirming?"
"No." Zach pulled his arm away forcibly.
Feeling both stupid and stupidly hurt, I said, "I don't want to choose between you two."
"I think you kind of have to," Zach said, very softly. "Everyone else has."
"That hurt you." It was a statement, not a question. "Zach, I'm here, you know."
"Unfortunately," Zach said, but it was half-hearted.
"I don't even know why."
"Maybe," Zach said sarcastically, "you want to save me."
I blinked. Did I? Had displaying my vulnerability to Nathan subconsciously made me so insecure that I needed to play the white knight to someone else?
But no. I was trying to save my family already. Zach didn't need saving. That much I knew. He could take care of himself in his very predatory world – he could charm people he wanted to when they didn't mean much to him, like that bartender in Snellwood, and for all his fork-throwing, he knew how to work hard and succeed.
"No," I said. "I want to be a friend."
Zach's gaze was accusatory. "You need to have friends, Summer, not always be a friend."
"Nathan's a friend to me," I said honestly.
Zach closed his eyes. "Way better than I've ever been. Big surprise."
"No," I said vehemently. "Zach, he tries, so much, and in that way, yes, he's been an incredible friend. Much better than you've ever been, yeah. But – I can talk to you. More than to him. You're rude and you're an ass, but that makes me comfortable because you pull me out of my comfort zone and what I've discovered since coming here is that I'm not really comfortable in my comfort zone –"
Zach frowned. "I'm only a friend to you because you are the way you are. It's nothing I did."
Were we really talking to each other this way? It seemed surreal, despite how much closer we'd grown lately.
I shrugged. "Exactly. You're really lucky."
He rolled his eyes.
"Just for the record," I said innocently, "when did we officially become friends?"
Zach rolled his eyes again, more exaggeratedly. "Since you became desperate for that to happen."
"And since we're friends now," I went on, ignoring this, "do I get to find out about Nathan and Denise and…" I trailed off as his eyes locked on mine. "All."
Zach shook his head. "You really are impossible," he said, but he put his arm around me again.
"Well?" I waited.
Zach looked at me. "I thought Denise was kind of this…vision of perfection."
"Perfect?" I echoed. "You thought of a girl as a perfect?"
Zach pursed his lips. "I was a freshman, okay? And I was an idiot. So, yes, I worshipped her sezy ass."
I flinched. "Thanks for the imagery."
Zach's eyes lit up. "You want to know about her sexy ass? It really was stunning. I mean, she always wore tight jeans and thongs – you ever wear thongs, kid?"
Okay. Two could play this game.
"Nope," I said sweetly, chanelling my inner Roxanne. "Curt didn't like them. And I didn't want to disappoint him because he had a really big –"
"Shut up," Zach interrupted, his smirk fading into wariness.
"Heart," I finished, feeling my lips curl upwards.
To my surprise, Zach grinned back. "Didn't know you had that in you."
"I seem to discover different sides to myself around you," I deadpanned. "So. You were saying?"
"Denise wore thongs –"
"Zach," I whined.
"God." Zach's eyebrows slammed together. "You know the story. I liked Denise and Nathan fucked her without bothering to ask if I minded. The end. Finito. Can I go fuck myself now?"
"So that's when you started hating him and walking around telling innocent sophomores what a pig he is?" I said incredulously.
There was a pause. "I guess it was more like…" Zach leaned back into the bench. "I guess I always hated him in a way."
"What do you mean?" I asked, expecting him to evade the question as usual.
Zach held my gaze. "He was my best friend," he said simply, "and I grew up with him and I always had his back – and I always wanted to be him."
I held my breath. "Go on," I murmured.
"Do you get off on hearing me sound like a total loser, or what?" Zach said irritably.
"I'm a girl," I pointed out. "I get off on secrets. And I will totally slug you if you stop now."
"He was just the guy my parents wished I was, okay?" Zach was beginning to look murderous, but I must have been as well, because he didn't stop. "My friends, my girlfriends – do you know what it's like to have to support someone in getting what they want and what you want? To constantly have to compete with someone who's always around you, and fail, and feel inferior for even trying?"
"Kind of," I said, thinking of Rachel.
Zach raised his eyebrows. "Really."
"Well, not exactly." At least my family – and Curtis – had loved me the way I'd been.
"Yeah," Zach said. "Well. That's what I felt pretty much every second of every day. And it drove me nuts. I did so much crazy shit trying to figure out how to live my life as me instead of a Nathan-wannabe that…I think they were glad when I left. All of them. "
He didn't sound self-pitying, just matter-of fact.
"I could be me at Andover, though," he added. "And people liked me for it."
He sounded kind of awed by this, and my heart went out to him.
"How do you know they were glad when you left?" I said. "I bet they missed you a lot."
Zach snorted. "They didn't call, write, or come over. They really must have missed me."
"They must've been feeling awkward," I whispered. "With the whole Denise thing, and – Nathan could've sensed you getting increasingly bitter about him – "
I knew immediately that it was the wrong thing to say.
"Oh, my God." Zach's face clouded over. "You don't give a shit about me either way, do you? You just wanted to find out whether you should be legitimately scared of Nathan or not –"
"No," I said, feeling my cheeks heat up. "No, that's not it –"
He was looking at me so coldly that I almost shivered. "Are you in love with him?"
"Zach!" I gripped the arm that was still slung around my shoulder almost desperately. "Yes, okay, I wanted to know why I should stay away from Nathan –"
"That's not what I told you," Zach said disgustedly. "I told you why I hate Nathan. I hate him because he's a self-obsessed pig who was happy to get rid of me just because I made him feel awkward and less amazing than he thinks he is. I forgot that it's all supposed to be about why you should or should not be with Nathan –"
"It isn't!" I clutched his arm even tighter. "Zach, I wanted to know about you, too. I wanted to know why you hate him because I do care about you, and I want to know you. Okay? You know me – and I just – I wanted to listen to you. I want to –"
His eyes thawed a little but remained suspicious. "I don't believe you."
"Zach, come on!" I let go of his arm. "I'm here. Doesn't that mean anything?"
"Am I supposed to be grateful because you're here instead of comforting Nathan about what a jerk I am?" Zach spat.
"No, but you're supposed to understand that I'm there for you and I wouldn't desert you the way you think your other friends did!" I said, exasperated.
"The way I think my other friends did?"
"Look," I said recklessly. Time to lay down my platform once and for all. "I care about Nathan. Okay? I choose to trust him. I need to be friends with both of you. I want you to stop huffing and puffing like an insecure idiot whenever I'm with him. But if you can't...well, I'm still going to be here. Because…well, because…" Why? Why had I chased after him the way I had, leaving Nathan, who had taught me a lot about being there for someone? "I guess I…love you, or something."
"You what me?" Zach suddenly looked about ready to faint.
"Well." I shrugged. "Sad and corny as this is, you might be the best friend I've ever had."
Zach gurgled. He managed to look both alarmed and half-pleased at the same time, which I found simultaneously scary and endearing.
"Do you," I said after a few minutes, the fondness giving way to annoyance, "need CPR?"
"No," Zach said feebly.
"So?" Zach looked dazed.
"So are you going to accept the fact that Nathan and I are friends or do you want me to tell you I love you every time I hang out with him or show that I…care about him, too?" I was actually beginning to enjoy having the upper hand with Zach Gellar for an unprecedently long time.
He said, beginning to recover his impassivity a little, "I still don't trust him. It's called experience."
"I'm sorry, but I do. And I'd rather you were there to help me out if he hurts me than…huff and puff." I looked at him. "It's called friendship."
He was silent. I waited.
"You know," he said finally, "when you first came here, you wouldn't have asked a water-supplier for water if you were dying of thirst."
"It's called learning to stick up for myself from having you bug me for the past four months."
He smirked. "And yet you still can't stick up for yourself if Roxanne's involved."
I made a sound like a man dying. At least the past four months hadn't destroyed my whistling ability. "Nasty."
His smug look didn't disappear. "Hey, now that I know you love me, I can be."
"That's the closest thing to a declaration of friendship and affection I'm ever going to get from you, isn't it?" I said, rolling my eyes.
Zach looked serious. "Look. I am never going to stop huffing and puffing, as you so elegantly refer to it, when Nathan's involved. That's my declaration of friendship and affection."
I sighed. "Zach."
"Let me finish, okay? I…I accept that you're going to make your own irrevocably stupid decisions, and I'll be waiting for the day I get to use the words I told you so enough to make Professor Trelawney happy." He shrugged. "Best I can do."
I shrugged back. "Deal." I smiled. "I like your declaration." I stood. "I'm going to see how Nathan's doing." I could feel my stomach sink at the thought of facing him after the way I'd walked out on him, but I also knew that Nathan was more malleable than Zach, and also a lot more inclined to be nice to me and hear me out.
"Summer?" Zach drawled.
"You're right. It's totally sad that I'm now your best friend."
"I know," I said cheerfully. "And it's even sadder that I seem to be yours."
"Let's be sad together!" Zach said with fake, girlish enthusiasm. He gave me a very sarcastic look.
But he didn't deny one word I'd said.
"Summer!" Vi looked pleasantly surprised to see me. "This is a nice surprise."
I smiled nervously up at Nathan's mother. "Thanks."
"I suppose this has something to do with my son stomping in an hour ago looking like someone kicked him where it hurts?" She didn't move from her position squat in front of the Wellingtons' door.
I swallowed. A part of me was grateful that I'd tracked Nathan down. He wasn't taking my calls, and I wasn't yet desperate enough to call Chris or Eve. "Is he – alone?"
Vi stepped aside. "You can go find out."
I walked in even though all I really wanted was to run. There was a magnificent Christmas tree in the foyer, reminding me that Winter Break was seven days away and Christmas, ten. "Um," I said. "Where is he?"
"Up the stairs," Vi called from the door. "Room with all the teenage paraphernelia on the door. And don't look so frightened, Summer. I don't know what's going on with you and Nathan, but nobody's going to eat you."
Well. That was good to know.
I walked up the set of stairs tucked into a corner of the living room and down the corridor it led to. There were three white doors along the corridor, setting off the mauve carpet and light blue walls; the one at the end had a poster of the New York Knicks on it. Feeling guilty that I hadn't before known any sports teams Nathan liked, I knocked on some rosy-cheeked white guy's face.
"Come in," said Nathan's voice flatly.
Colour dazzled my eyesight the moment I opened the door. Nathan's room was covered ceiling to floor in stuff. Pictures, posters, souvenirs like a small model of the Eiffel tower and a red embroidered Chinese lantern, certificates, writing on the walls in markers, even a random balloon in the corner. The carpeted floor was crowded with CD cases, textbooks, and notebooks, a silver Sony Vaio laptop, flipflops. The bed and the wardrobe seemed to be afterthoughts. Compared to the clinical luxury of Zach's room, it was like being inside a museum chronicling the 21st century.
It took me a second to notice Nathan, sitting cross-legged on his bed. It was the first time I could remember that he didn't look happy to see me.
"Hi?" I offered through dry lips.
Nathan's eyebrows lifted. "Hello," he said. Not coldly, not warmly, just…questioningly.
I thought of remarking on his room, but it seemed pointless. "I'm sorry," I blurted.
Nathan gestured at his bed. "You can sit if it was a long walk from…wherever you were."
I stepped forward timidly, shifting from one foot to another. If a room was the window to the soul, Nathan's was fascinating, but I still felt cagey being so close to a handsome boy's bed. But I didn't back down. I wasn't going to hide my relationships with Zach and Nathan from either of them anymore. "I was with Zach."
Nathan's face remained unchanged. "You never mentioned that you guys are close."
Couldn't he just explode for once? Let me in for real? "It just kind…of crept up on me," I said, and then I realized that I was actually trying to provoke him.
"It makes me feel kind of stupid for assuming you're close to me," Nathan said quietly.
My heart dropped. I didn't want to have heard that strain in his voice. I had hurt him. I wished I could go back in time and take it back.
"I am," I said loudly.
"I don't know if you are." Nathan rubbed his Hawaiian-themed bedspread reflectively. "It just seems like – I can try all I want but I can't get to you."
If only he would start screaming and shouting. His quiet self-control was flustering me.
"Nathan," I said. "Zach and I are friends. We're good friends. But I didn't realize we were, you know? I know that sounds stupid, but…I didn't. I was scared to tell you I was hanging out with him, because…I don't know. Your history."
Nathan grinned a twisted grin. "You know, you sound more like a girlfriend telling the guy in love with her that she's been sleeping with a guy who has a grudge against him than a friend talking about another friend. I would think you'd know me better than this. I would think you'd know I don't have a problem with you caring about anyone, as long as we're good too. We're friends, Summer. That does mean something to me."
I felt heat creep up my neck. "It's not like…Nathan, your whole gang thing is making this complicated. Not me."
"Believe it or not, Summer, I don't really enjoy being hated and punched on the cheek."
Shit. I really had hurt him. He would never have said anything remotely confrontation-provoking if I hadn't. reflexively I reached out and touched the deepening bruise on his cheek. His eyes met mine and my hand froze. Now the heat was spreading all over my body.
"I'm sorry," I said softly. "I'm so sorry for walking out on you."
There was something unbearably hopeful in Nathan's face. "You mean that?"
I nodded sincerely. "Thing is, though…Zach shouldn't have punched you but you really did hurt him. More because of you avoiding him after he left than because of Denise." The hopefulness was fading fast. I cursed myself for not keeping my mouth shut. "Nathan," I said desperately. "I don't want to have to choose between you two. I told him that, too."
"I understand." Nathan looked away.
"You do?" How was I supposed to explain how much I wanted to hug him and hold on at that moment?
"Yeah. You shouldn't have to choose between us. You're allowed to hang out with whomever you want, you know?" Nathan smiled wryly. "I just need to know that you…feel something for me. Because it kind of seems like you don't."
"Why do I matter so much?" slipped out of my mouth.
"If I knew…" Nathan shrugged. "I guess I'd try not to let you."
Ouch. What could I do to let Nathan know that he was important to me, too? I couldn't exactly leap over and attack him, much as a part of me had wanted to ever since I'd touched his cheek and he'd looked at me the way he had. I still wasn't ready for that. So what was there to do?
Put myself on the line. Risk chasing someone for once, the way he always did. The way I'd known to do for Curtis. The way I constantly did for Zach.
"What do I have to do?" I said.
Nathan frowned. "What?"
"To…prove that I care about you." I shrugged. "I'll do whatever. Short of…anything involving underwear or body fluids or –"
"Anything except sleep with me," Nathan said innocently.
I flushed. "I –"
"Okay," Nathan announced.
I looked at him uncomprehendingly.
The playful gleam was fast returning to Nathan's lovable green eyes. "I'm going to Italy on the twenty-sixth till school reopens." I could feel my face fall a little. "So spend Christmas day with me."
I stepped backwards. "Are you serious?"
"With my family. You can bring your folks, too, if you want."
There were so many things wrong with this. What about the Champagne Gang? What about Hadley and Dad? What about…what about…
"Okay," I heard myself say.
"You're considering it." Michael squinted through his glasses.
"Come on," I said defensively. "It's not like I'm going to be missing out on some big family thing. I asked Dad what his plans are for Christmas. He said he'd volunteered for overtime work at the hospital."
"I know you're angry with him," Michael stated.
"That's not why I want to go!" Everything was working out perfectly for a Christmas with Nathan; the rest of the Champagne Gang had taken off for Hawaii two days before the start of Break and Zach was going to Barbados on Christmas Eve. I wasn't sure what the rules of our new relationship were anyway. Rachel and I had spent Christmasses together, but Zach and I weren't that kind of best friends. "I want to go because…"
"I don't understand." Michael took off his glasses and placed them on the kitchen table, where we were sitting on the evening of the twenty-third. "You've always been loyal to this family."
That stung. "I'm tired of being loyal to people who don't care about me," I said more harshly than I'd intended to.
"He cares about you?" Michael said.
"You don't think he does?" I crossed my ankles guardedly.
"I care about you," Michael said. "As much as he does."
"Then you think he cares about me a lot." I felt myself blush the minute I'd said it. I'd sounded like a total teenager. A selfish, inconsiderate teenager with a crush. What was wrong with me? "You know what?" I looked up at Michael guiltily. "You're right. I'm being totally self-centred. What am I thinking? Of course I can't go. It's our first Christmas after Neil. We should do something –"
"With Dad at the hospital," Michael said thoughtfully. "Hadley too drunk to care."
CeeCee in New York. Ann too depressed to remember what day it was.
"The twins deserve some fun." I was beginning to feel sick from guilt. "We could go do that Christmas fair thing up at Lakeview –"
Michael's eyes met mine. "Did he say you could bring people?"
I blinked. "What?"
"Eric and Erica should have a normal Christmas, with a tree and a family. I just want to be with you. It might be all right if he's sure he wants us all."
I felt an unecessary flicker of annoyance, considering that he was giving me what I'd wanted. "Do you just want to disagree with me?"
"You deserve some fun," Michael said simply.
"I have fun," I said indignantly. "Boring as the last week of school was."
I didn't know why I was being so disagreeable. To Michael, of all people. I just felt edgy and nervous. About the holidays, about Roxanne, about my family.
The doorbell rang. I got up, leaving the question undecided, and strode to the door. Threw it open. Felt my jaw drop open as Ann's face stared back at me.
"Where – you were out?" I stuttered.
Ann looked shellshocked. "Dr Steele recommended I take a bus ride on my own."
"Oh, my God!" My hand flew to my mouth. "Ann, you should have told me! Are you okay? Is everything – do you need to – did anybody hurt you? Where did you get the money? Why didn't you – where did you go?"
Ann looked blank. I realized I was overwhelming her.
"Come here," I said gently, taking her hand.
More guilt. For not noticing that the television wasn't blaring telenovelas in Ann's room. For barely talking to Ann about the six therapy sessions she'd had. For not checking on her, not being alert, being too wrapped up in my boy drama. My stepmother could have died today and I wouldn't even have known. I took a deep breath, trying to calm myself down.
At the same time I felt completely thrilled that she'd gone out on her own and actually survived.
Michael's eyes widened imperceptibly as I pulled Ann into the kitchen and helped her into a seat. "How are your – how's it going with Dr Steele?"
To my amazement, Ann smiled a little. "She's a very nice woman."
Michael got up and busied himself with the coffee machine. I squeezed Ann's hand. "What do you guys talk about?"
"A lot of things." I couldn't believe Ann was answering the question. "You. Michael. Things I think about. My favourite TV shows." She almost sounded like a fully-functional human being. How had I missed this change?
I figured it was too soon to mention Neil, so there was an awkward silence as Michael placed three steaming cups of coffee on the table. Then Ann said an astonishing, stunning, miraculous thing. "It's two days before Christmas."
I could not have been more electrified if Jesus had appeared and asked for coffee. "I – how do you know?"
"The bus driver said so." Ann sipped her coffee gingerly.
Well, that settled it. I was going to have to spend Christmas with my family. Nathan could –
"I – just wanted to know," Ann said timidly. "Do we have a tree?"
"God, I'm bored. I almost wish I had homework," Erica's voice grumbled as the sound of thumping feet floated over from the stairs. My little sister catwalked into the kitchen, made a beeline for the refrigerator, and stopped short.
"Mom?" Her twin brother Eric, following closely, collided into her. He stared at Ann with golf-ball-sized eyes.
"Where are you both going?" I asked, noticing Erica's pink crop top and creased jeans and frowning. I was feeling just the way she seemed to; Thornton was stressful, but it was preferable to being stuck in my house all day. Seeing the twins more often didn't help; I'd barely talked to them for a month and now that I had more time to notice that they had almost definitely been neglected and unsupervised ever since we'd arrived at Linbury, I felt cagey and out of touch.
Eric tentatively took the chair next to Ann. He was watching his mother like she was a ticking time bomb.
"Anywhere that isn't this boring house," Erica snapped, loudly scraping a chair back for herself. "Why are you downstairs, Mom?" She frowned. "Are you wearing jeans?"
Oh, my God. She was. Jeans and socks that matched. How how how had I missed this?
Ann's face quivered. "I feel like I haven't seen you both in a while," she said softly.
Michael and I exchanged glances. "That's because you haven't," Erica said with a look of studied boredom. Eric pushed his chair closer to Ann's and touched her shoulder delicately.
My stomach fluttered. How long had it been since all five of us had been together?
Michael cleared his throat. "I have a proposal."
We faced him. Erica still looked bored, Eric clutched his mother's shoulder possessively, Ann looked tired but coherent, and I felt the caginess disappearing.
"As Ann, pointed out, we have no tree and no decorations. Despite Christmas being day after tomorrow."
Erica tossed her glossy red mane over one shoulder. "If you're suggesting we do some corny family bonding decorating thing, no way. I have better things to do."
"Like what, try to decide which shade of Mom's lipsticks look better on you?" Eric snickered.
Erica's face turned the same colour as her hair. "She isn't using them, fuckoron."
"Language." I gave her home-manicured hand a slap.
"Whatever." She rolled her Ann-green eyes.
I felt warm and gooey all over. This was familiar.
"Summer's friend has invited all of us over for Christmas lunch," Michael said concisely.
"Lunch at a rich kid's place? Sweet." Erica's eyes lit up. "Your friend does go to Thornton, right? Everyone there is going out of the country. I've never been out of the country."
"Are you serious?" I said to Michael. I was about to have a heart attack.
"It's got to be better than Christmas here," was Eric's verdict.
"Okay." Erica grabbed Eric's arm. "We're outta here."
"Where are you going?" I said helplessly. "Michael, we can't just –"
"We're gonna go watch The Eye." Erica had already dragged Eric out of the kitchen. "Be back by dinner."
"Erica, you can't –"
"Don't try to dis-ci-pline us just because you've got more time on your hands now," Erica called from the door.
I slumped. She was right. The gooey feeling was fast giving way to fear.
"It was very nice of your friend to invite us," Ann said politely.
Make that panic.
"I think I'll go upstairs and rest," Ann said fearfully, possibly in response to my fast breathing and dilated pupils.
"You're crazy!" I whisper-shouted at Michael as soon as Ann was out of earshot. "She's not ready for that!" And I wasn't ready to out my family's secrets to the Wellingtons. Even if Nathan was ready for me to. If he was.
"It'll be fine," Michael said briefly, patting me on the shoulder as he moved away.
Leaving me alone to brood about how I truly was going to pay for my selfishness in accepting Nathan's invitation.
I wanted to spend Christmas with him, no doubt about that, even though I desperately wanted Zach to be there as well. Confusing as that would have been. But I'd gotten used to Nathan being there for me. What if…what happened when he met my family?
Michael was a sadist.
Bookworm15: i think i might miss u when ur gone
Zach Gellar: Don't go all chick flick on me.
Bookworm15: im rolling my eyes
Zach Gellar: Very attractive.
Bookworm15: im going to copy-paste that and email it to everyone
Zach Gellar: How…lovable of you.
Bookworm15: u fishmonger
Zach Gellar: What?
Bookworm15: the history teacher at my old school said that to whoever flunked a test like it was the worlds biggest insult
Zach Gellar: What the hell IS a fishmonger?
BookWorm15: u r so illiterate
Zach Gellar: You're the one using IM language.
BookWorm15: when in rome, use italian
Zach Gellar: Tell Nathan to remember that when he's gondola-ing and you're stuck in freezing Linbury trying to unfreeze your uptight ass.
BookWorm15: very nice
My cellphone beeped. I flipped it open with one hand as I waited for Zach's reply, smiling widely at his familiar snarkiness despite how worried I was about Christmas. I looked down…and froze, my index finger hovering over the keys.
One new message: From Curtis.
Suddenly, incongruously, I remembered that Curtis loved the New York Knicks.
I accessed the message with shaking hands. It had been a long time since I'd thought of him and I was almost definitely over him, but this text message was a bolt from the blue that rendered me immobile.
hey. hows life? u on break yet?
"WHAT?" I shouted at the screen.
"Fucker," Hadley bellowed from her room.
I thought about just deleting the message, but my hands took on a life of my own. I sent back a Yep. u?
Three minutes later there was a Same. rach and i were thinking abt u. it's weird not having u here for the hols. can i call u sometime? sitting in my inbox.
So many questions rushed through my head as I texted back a sure, happy holidays! Was he with Stacey Templeton? How was Rachel? She hated Curtis for being a jock and he hated her pseudo-intellectualism – why exactly were they thinking about me together? What colour was her ever-changing hair now? What did Manhattan look like in the snow? Why did Curtis want to call me? What the hell had just happened? Was I feeling outraged or indifferent? What was going on?
When ten minutes had passed by without a reply, I walked to my mirror. There was a picture of me with Curtis and Rachel stuck to the side. I looked closely at myself in the picture and then at myself in the mirror. I hadn't realized I'd changed on the outside, but I had. My brown hair had lightened very slightly and it was quite a few inches longer. My skin was clear – clearly an effect of the clean air. Best of all, I was both taller and thinner.
I realized with a shock that even I had to admit I looked far better than I used to.
I wandered over to my desk and opened the top drawer. Extracting the sheaf of glossy photographs resting in it with no effort to hide them, I stared down at Jimmy Caldwell's abs with Roxanne's bare arms wrapped around them. I knew from memory that the next photograph had Roxanne's face in it with an expression I really didn't want to look at.
I felt nauseous. Jazz had handed them to me at 'our' Starbucks on the last day of school. She'd looked so triumphant that I hadn't had the heart to back down. It helped my resolve that Roxanne would swell up like a bullfrog every time I was with Nathan – and in the last week of school, I was with both him and Zach a lot.
But…had I really changed this much?
What was I going to do about subjecting my family and Nathan to each other?
"My stepmom's sick," I barked into the phone.
"W-what?" Nathan said in sleepy alarm. It was, after all, seven o' clock on the morning before Christmas.
"Depression. She's like a kid. She can barely talk like a normal person. She's sick," I repeated.
"I –" Nathan sounded bemused.
"Her daughter Hadley is pretty much drunk all the time. My dad likes to pretend he's the only person alive in the world. My elder sister CeeCee is in New York pretending she's an orphan. My younger half-sister Erica is a smartass and her life revolves around lipgloss. She has a twin brother. Eric. He's a nice kid but he might be gay." I breathed deeply. I knew I sounded crazy and I probably was.
"Wow," Nathan said, a lot more awake now.
I imagined him curled up on his bed, green eyes drowsy, face confused but peaceful. I felt terrified.
"I had a little brother," I ploughed on. "He died. That's why we moved here. To get away. But it just made things worse."
I could hear Nathan breathing. My heart raced. Why wasn't he saying anything?
"Why didn't you tell me before?" he said finally.
"That's the point," I said bravely. "I'm telling you now. Does that mean something?"
He sighed. "You have no idea. Summer. I'm so sorry."
I leaned back on my pillow, adrenaline ebbing. "I was pretty much awake all night debating whether or not to tell you." And thinking about my ex boyfriend's text message. Not that he needed to know that.
"Thank you for deciding to," Nathan said earnestly.
"Still want to meet them?" I kicked at my blanket.
"Why wouldn't I?"
I tilted my head. "Because. My family's crazy."
"Why would I care?" Nathan wanted to know. "You're not."
"Really?" Talk about anti-climactic.
"Well, maybe a little, but not when it matters." Nathan laughed. "You're a lot more stable than most people at Thornton, and they haven't been through half of what you have."
My cheeks warmed. "What about you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Don't you have any secrets?"
"I think Pamela Anderson's ugly," he said in a stage whisper.
I laughed. "I'm serious."
"Look." I heard cloth rustling, probably as he shifted. "I know it's – fashionable to have deep dark secrets now. It's like people want to have gone through crap so they can be like everyone else. It's like a competition to see whose life sucks more."
I wasn't sure what to think. "Says a Korn fan."
"Not you," Nathan added. "You want to be happy. You show that."
"I'm not unhappy," I said. "Things are really really weird at the moment, but…I don't know, it can only get better." Ann had dressed herself properly yesterday, after all. "It is getting better."
"People think if you're happy, you're actually empty inside, or fake, or whatever," Nathan said thoughtfully. "But I am happy. I was born with a silver spoon up my ass, practically. I'm hot and rich and young and I have an amazing family and I have friends who're, okay, cracked, but still generally there for me. I like my life. Does that suck so bad?"
I smiled. "Tell it like it is. Don't bother being modest."
"How kind of you to allow me to," Nathan said teasingly. "Listen. If you feel uncomfortable about my family meeting yours, you don't have to go through with it. If you think it'll hurt them, or whatever. Just don't not come because of me. Because I want to…you know."
I felt a million pounds lighter. Maybe Christmas would be fine after all. "I'll see you tomorrow."
I could almost feel him smile. "Can't wait."
I'd barely settled into my bed to snatch some sleep after a wide-eyed night when my cell phone and the doorbell beeped simultaneously.
I struggled to read my text message while I staggered downstairs. I stopped with my foot on the bottom stair as the words leaped out at me. It was from Rachel.
I hadn't talked to her since I'd left. I'd talked to Curtis, of course. But Rachel and I had been over far longer than he and I had. What could she possibly want?
The doorbell rang a second time. I groaned, flipped my phone shut, and reached out to tug the door open. A rush of cold air almost knocked me off my feet. My eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness, focusing on the black-jacketed figure outside shifting from one foot to another.
And again, disturbingly, my heart did a strange little flip in my chest.
"Zach?" I said in disbelief.
"The one and only." He raised his eyebrows. "Who were you expecting, Adam Brody? Because I do have dark hair, but…"
I smiled, ignoring the weird exercizing my heart had been doing. It was probably just because he'd caught me unawares. "It's too early for sarcasm. What are you doing here?"
"Came to say goodbye. My parents' car's outside, blocked by a shitload of snow. You should do some shovelling, kid."
"You can do it for me if you really care that much," I said with all the fake sweetness I could muster. I hesitated for a second before finally moving aside. "Do you. Um. Want to come in?"
Zach's eyebrows almost shot out of his face. "Did you just invite me inside your house?"
I bit my lip. "I knew I was going crazy."
"Well, I am freezing my butt off, but I have a flight to catch." Zach smirked. "No shovelling necessary where I'm going."
"Ha ha," I deadpanned. "I do hear hell's really hot."
"Keep telling yourself that," Zach advised. "Anyway. Your house was on the way, and I just thought I'd come rub how lucky I am in your face before leaving."
"Good to know you appreciate your luck," I said lightly.
Then I flung myself into his arms.
His body went rigid. "Just so you know, kid, I'm not too comfortable with physical contact."
"Believe me, nobody's as surprised by this as I am," I said into his jacket.
Zach relaxed a little. Even rubbed my shoulder awkwardly. "You have bed hair."
I pulled back. My face felt flushed. I had absolutely no idea why. "Okay."
"Okay." Surprisingly, Zach squeezed my shoulder before backing away.
I stood at my door struggling with a sudden feeling of loss and wondering what the hell my heart was up to for a long time after he was gone.