Chapter 16: Pardon My French

"I don't know why you use a fancy French word like détente when there's a good English phrase for it – cold war." – Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir

The cloud of awkwardness still hung ominously over our house the following evening. Indeed, it had gathered strength – the whole household was now aware of what had transpired, and no one knew how to act around either Charlie or Clara. Lev and Tom were tip-toeing around the house like the floor was covered in bear traps, trying not to draw attention to themselves and inadvertently set off an uncomfortable interaction with either party. I had tried to discuss matters with Clara earlier in the day, but she had brushed me off, saying she needed space. All of us were holed up in our own rooms, and the house was as silent as a tomb.

It was hell.

I sat at my desk, working on an assignment for my Arabic class, but I was having a hard time concentrating on anything but the nearly stifling unease that permeated the very air of our home. Just as I was about to start blasting metal, if only to fill the silence, I heard a soft knock at my door.

"Can I come in, Riley?" came Clara's voice.

"Of course," I replied, getting up to open the door for her.

Her blue eyes were rimmed with red, and it was clear she'd been crying. She seemed both physically and emotionally tired, and I couldn't say that I blamed her. I ushered her over to the small love seat by my back window.

"How are you doing?" I asked her.

She sighed. "Awful. Haven't been able to sleep. Was basically a zombie in my classes today and almost spilled acid on my hand in lab."

I grimaced.

"I can tell that the whole house is avoiding me, too," she added.

"I'm not," I pointed out.

She gave me a sad smile. "That's true. Thank you."

There was a moment of silence.

"You want to talk about it?" I finally asked.

She nodded. "Yeah."

"Did you know?"

"Know?"

"That Charlie loves you," I clarified.

She shifted uncomfortably. "Honestly? Not really. I sometimes thought he might have a crush on me, but we've always been really close, so I figured I was just misinterpreting things that are just how he is as a friend."

I nodded. Charlie was the sort of person who was nice to literally everyone, so it would be easy to miss subtle romantic overtures if you weren't actively looking for them. "How do you feel about it?"

Clara took a few deep breaths. "I'm… I'm scared, Riley."

I hadn't expected that. Clara was usually a pretty fearless person. "Scared?"

"Yeah. I have… I don't know, some kind of feelings for him, like more-than-friends feelings, but I haven't really figured them out yet."

"Is this just since last night?"

She shook her head. "No. I've been trying to work through it in my head for a while now and figure out what things mean. I don't think I've ever been more scared in my life than when Charlie was in that car accident. It really got me thinking about what it would be like to not have him in my life anymore. Like what if we never got to do our party conga line thing ever again? Stuff like that. That kind of set the gears turning."

I considered her words. "So… you like him?"

She bit her lip. "I think… maybe? I was still trying to figure it out when… last night happened."

"I can see why that might have thrown a wrench in your process."

She rested her chin in her palm, leaning on the arm of the loveseat. "I've never been in a serious relationship before, Riley," she told me. "It's a whole new thing for me. What if I hurt him? I can't stand the idea of hurting him."

"I mean… he's already pretty hurt."

Clara let out a choked sob and I immediately regretted my words.

"I'm sorry," I apologized, rubbing her back. "That came out wrong. I just meant that if you think you might like him that way, you should tell him. Give it a shot."

She stared at me incredulously.

"Look," I tried to explain my thinking. "The fact that you're so concerned about hurting him says pretty clearly that you care about him a lot. You said the other day that 'the right guy' might be like a friend. Maybe that's Charlie. You won't know if you don't put yourself out there."

To my surprise, she scoffed. "Riley, you're my best friend and you know I love you, but that has to be the most hypocritical thing anyone's ever said to me."

"Hey!" I protested, somewhat hurt.

"You know it's true," she insisted. "You and Asher have been dancing around each other for months and no one's made a move."

I scowled at her. "Asher and I don't live together with three other roommates who have to walk around on eggshells because of the tension."

She winced. "Yeah… I know it's been weird for you guys. I'm sorry."

I patted her arm. "It's okay. You guys will work things out either way eventually. As for me and Asher, though, we've got a good thing going right now and I don't want to disrupt it."

She raised an eyebrow in question.

I grinned. "We're friends with sexual tension. We flirt sometimes, but no one does anything about it. It's the perfect system."

That earned me a laugh from Clara, which had been my goal.

"Can't argue with that. Thanks for listening to me, Riley. It was helpful to talk things out."

I pulled her into a hug. "Of course. I'm here for you no matter what happens."

Giving me a warm smile, Clara left my room and headed back upstairs. I was about to turn my attention back to my homework when my phone vibrated with a new text.

Asher: How'd you do on the paper? Didn't get a chance to ask after class.

Riley: A. You?

Asher: Also A. Kate also said she really liked my last section. =)

Riley: You should listen to me more often.

Asher: Apparently so.

There was a pause for a minute or so before another text popped up.

Asher: Want to celebrate by coming to a band party tomorrow?

I considered his invitation. The last band party I'd been to had set off the wild chain of events that was my hookup-turned-enmity-turned-friendship with Asher. However, I felt that I was in a much better head space than I had been the previous fall and far more capable of controlling myself. I'd also steer clear of any crazy band drinking games this time. Plus, I desperately needed to get away from the Clara-Charlie drama.

Riley: I'm in. Is there a theme I should know about?

Asher: It's a highlighter party. Just wear something white you don't care about and bring a highlighter.

Riley: Wtf

Asher: People write on each other and there are blacklights and stuff. It's fun, trust me.

Riley: Lol, you guys are weird.

Asher: Proud of it. =) You're on our way to the trumpet house, so we'll swing by to pick you up a bit before 10:30.

Riley: Who's "we"? And don't all band parties start at 10:23 or some weird shit like that?

Asher: Nate's coming with. And yeah, but I like to be fashionably late.

Riley: Fashionably late but worth the wait?

Asher: If you say so. ;)

Ah shit, I'd walked right into that. At least Nate joining us made it feel less like Asher was picking me up for a date.

Riley: I'll see you tomorrow, then.

Asher: Looking forward to it.

I spent the rest of my evening shifting my attention between my homework and scrolling back through my text conversation with Asher to re-analyze it. Maybe I was being hypocritical for telling Clara she should give Charlie a chance while holding out on Asher, but I didn't want to mess up whatever fragile friendship we'd managed to forge by letting my hormones take the wheel.

I fell asleep that night with a smile, thinking about all the witty things I could write on Asher with a highlighter.


"Coming!" I called in response to the knock at my front door around 10:25 the next evening. Asher and Nate were waiting patiently on my porch, dressed in jeans and white t-shirts. I took a moment to appreciate how well Asher filled his out, hoping he wouldn't notice. When my eyes returned to his face, he was giving me a knowing smirk.

He definitely noticed.

"Hey, Riley!" Nate greeted me, seemingly oblivious to (or choosing to ignore) the hint of sexual tension rising on the breeze. "You look great! I don't think I've ever seen you wear white before."

I glanced down at the old white tank top I was wearing. It was fairly snug around my bust, showed a hint of cleavage, and generally wasn't the sort of thing I'd wear out and about under normal circumstances. "Yeah, I don't really like the way white looks on me, so I don't have a ton of it. This is pretty much all I've got."

Asher gave me a lopsided grin. "Looks perfect to me."

I raised an eyebrow. He just kept smiling at me, apparently deciding to turn the charm up to eleven for the evening.

As we walked the few blocks over to the trumpet house, I'd occasionally catch a glimpse of Asher checking me out from the corner of my eye. It seemed like he was trying to do so surreptitiously, and I figured his "southern gentleman" politeness wouldn't allow him to openly ogle me. I may not have liked the way white looked on me, but I was self-aware enough to know that my tank top made my tits look pretty spectacular. Judging from the direction of his furtive glances, Asher seemed to agree.

The party was already in full swing when we arrived, and I began to understand the appeal of the whole highlighter concept. All the regular lights on the main floor had been replaced with blacklight bulbs, bathing the throng of dancing partiers crammed into the living room in a surreal bluish-purple glow. The white shirts the bandies were wearing, along with the (frequently inappropriate) things that had been written on them in highlighter, shone brightly in the darkness along with the stolen road signs adorning the walls, which seemed at once like distant memories and long-forgotten friends.

"Y'all want beer?" Asher inquired, raising his voice to be heard over the thumping music.

"Yes, please!" I affirmed.

"Me too!" Nate seconded.

As Asher left to acquire our beverages, Nate uncapped the highlighter he'd brought with him. Before I could protest, he began scribbling on my back.

"I claim this territory in the name of International Trade and Finance!" he declared as he finished.

"What the fuck did you just write on me?" I demanded, trying in vain to look at the offending doodle over my shoulder.

Nate grinned. "A price ceiling graph."

"You would," I laughed. "Alright, my turn." I uncapped my own highlighter and thought for a moment about what would constitute an appropriate retaliatory drawing before deciding and claiming Nate's left sleeve as my canvas.

"Is that a price floor graph?" he asked, staring at my work upside down.

"Mhm," I confirmed. "Thought it was a proportional response. Yin and yang."

"God, we're such nerds," he chuckled.

"What's so funny?" Asher inquired as he returned with our beers.

"We drew nerd jokes on each other," Nate told him, showing off the brightly-glowing graph on his sleeve.

I shot Asher a mischievous grin, uncapping my highlighter once more. "You're getting one too, lest you feel left out."

Bending slightly, I scrawled "HST SUCKS" in big, bold letters right across his stomach.

He gave me a look as I straightened again and he saw my handiwork. "'Hegemonic Stability Theory sucks.' Really, Riley?"

I batted my eyelashes innocently.

A familiar competitive spark ignited in his eyes. "Oh, it's on." Claiming the same spot on my shirt, he began to write.

Nate read as he finished. "'Defensive realism is for suckers?' You guys are weirdos."

I ignored him, raising an eyebrow at Asher. "Oh, so that's how it's gonna be?"

He smirked. "Mhm. Now we're at parity."

"Hey guys!" Carrie greeted us as she emerged from the living room. She took note of our newly decorated attire. "Are you guys seriously using highlighters to argue about IR theory at a party?"

"I know, right?!" Nate emphatically agreed.

"Pft," I scoffed. "Like you can talk, Mr. Price Ceiling Graph."

He chuckled. "You got me there. I guess we're all just a bunch of nerds."

Asher raised his beer. "I'll drink to that."

We all clanked our cans together.


An hour or so later, I had a nice buzz going and was feeling a bit frisky as we hung out with Carrie and Nate in the upstairs hallway near the punch bowl. Asher and I had continued writing snarky, nerdy nonsense on each other's shirts, and I'd be a liar if I said the back-and-forth wasn't affecting me in a not-so-platonic way. I thrived on the battle of wits; it was almost like flirting to me.

Asher had just finished his latest bit of graffiti ("I heart constructivism," written in large text on my side) and seemed rather pleased with himself.

"Oh hell no!" I protested.

"Oh hell yes!" he mocked me, flicking my nose for good measure.

I glared at him. No more Mr. Nice Riley, I thought to myself, grabbing his arms and turning him around.

First, I scrawled TX MA on his left shoulder.

Second, as Nate told him what I'd written and he began to kick up a fuss about it, I added an even more pointed comment to the small of his back, making him shiver from the unexpected touch in such a sensitive area.

Carrie read what I'd written and giggled.

"What did she write now?" Asher asked Nate.

Nate took a look and howled with laughter. "'Riley kicks this' with an arrow pointing right at your ass. Well played, Riley!"

I gave him a little bow.

Asher turned around and fixed me with a look that was simultaneously competitive and deeply flirtatious. "Oh, you asked for it now, Quinlan."

So saying, he took hold of my shoulder and, to my utter shock, wrote four giant letters directly across my right breast.

MINE.

"That oughta shut you up for a while," he declared.

I stared at him, mouth agape. It wasn't the audacity of his move that had me speechless. It wasn't even that his possessiveness irritated my inner feminist.

It was how intensely it turned me on.

Some hidden part of my innermost self was absolutely wild about the idea of Asher taking me, claiming me, possessing me. Not in a domineering way that impinged on my independence as a person, but in a raw, feral manner driven by pure carnal need.

I didn't think I'd ever wanted anything as much as I wanted him in that moment, and as we stared each other down, I saw a subtle darkening in his eyes that made me think he had boarded my exact train of thought.

Thankfully, any monumentally foolish things we might have done were preempted by Carrie's inability to abide awkward silences.

"I'll just modify this…" she muttered, adding a three to what I'd written on Asher's shoulder so that it read 'TX 3 MA.'

"Much more fitting," Nate concurred, a knowing grin creeping across his face.

Several sets of footsteps ascending the stairs further dispelled the tension. Elizabeth, Amory, Evie, and a tall redhead I hadn't met before emerged onto the second floor.

"Hey guys!" Elizabeth greeted us. "Having fun?"

"Yup," Asher replied, snapping out of whatever sexual fog he and I had been floating around in. He nodded to Amory and Evie. "Nice to see y'all again."

Evie smiled. "Likewise. Guys, this is my boyfriend, Tully. Tul, this is Asher and Carrie, both in the pep band, Riley, who's one of my Lynah friends, and…" she turned to Nate. "I don't think we've met before?"

"Nate Huntley," he introduced himself, shaking her hand. "I'm Asher's roommate. Nice to meet you."

"Nate," she repeated. "Nice to meet you, too."

"Nice to meet you guys," the redhead greeted us with a grin and a wave.

I could see the gears turning in Carrie's brain. "Wait… Tully, as in McFadden? The hockey player?"

He nodded. "Yup."

"The one and only!" Elizabeth added dramatically.

"Oh hush," Evie chastised her. "You're going to inflate his ego and then he's going to be annoying and smug all night."

Tully pouted at his girlfriend. "Eves, I'm hurt! You think I'm annoying?"

"Only when you're awake," she teased him, stretching up onto her toes to kiss his cheek.

I smiled to myself. The two of them were almost nauseatingly cute, but in a good way.

Amory rolled his eyes and voiced my exact thoughts aloud as Tully wrote 'MCFADDEN' in large letters with a highlighter across the back of Evie's shoulders. "You two are nauseatingly cute."

"Pft," Tully scoffed, reaching to pour himself and Evie some punch. "You know you love us."

As he was leaning forward, Amory sneakily scrawled 'MRS. KAISER' on his back.

I snorted, recognizing Evie's last name.

"So… Asher, right?" Tully asked as he straightened and began sipping his punch. "I recognize you. You're the one who plays the snare drum at games, right?"

"That's me," Asher confirmed.

Tully grinned broadly. "You guys are awesome! The whole team loves the band. Scrivens even has a picture of you guys on his helmet."

Carrie blushed, seemingly a little starstruck. "Aw, shucks."

Asher, decidedly less flustered, grinned. "We love the team right back. The championship this year was amazing."

"Thanks! Lifting that trophy was a pretty incredible experience. Still only my second all-time favorite game, though," Tully added, his green eyes twinkling.

"Which was your favorite?" Nate asked.

Tully grinned so widely that I thought his lips might somehow tear. "The game at Harvard last year."

Evie groaned and buried her face in her palm.

Asher chuckled. "You mean the one where Evie ran onto the ice to confess her undying love for you?"

"That's the one!" Tully nudged Evie until she looked up at him and seemed to utter the next sentence solely for her benefit. "It was the best day of my life by far."

I melted a little inside from the vicarious cuteness as the two of them kissed tenderly. The moment was all too quickly shattered, however.

"STICK IT IN HER FIVE-HOLE, MCFADDEN!"

I genuinely thought Evie would die of embarrassment as the random trombone who'd shouted at them scuttled away down the stairs. Tully just laughed it off and put his arm around her shoulder.

"Mind your own fucking business, Derek!" Elizabeth shouted after her section-mate as he retreated into the distance.

Our little group continued to chat amiably, mostly about the hockey team's prospects for the next season. Amory eventually wandered back downstairs to get a beer, and Elizabeth followed shortly thereafter. Nate, who didn't know all that much about hockey, listened long enough to be polite before excusing himself to see if there were any snacks in the kitchen. I didn't think anything could peel Carrie away from talking to a real-live Cornell hockey player, but her boyfriend texted her something that looked suspiciously like a booty call (judging from her expression) and she ducked out.

When it was just the four of us – Asher, Tully, Evie, and I – remaining, I asked a question that had been on my mind for a while.

"So how did you guys meet?"

Evie smiled as Tully pressed a kiss to her temple. "We actually grew up next door to each other, so we've been friends pretty much since we were babies."

"But you didn't start dating until college?"

Tully laughed, though I wasn't sure why my question was all that funny.

"It's a long story," Evie explained, her pale blue eyes twinkling with mirth. "I'll tell you about it sometime."

"It's the greatest love story ever told," Tully declared emphatically.

"I don't know about that," Asher replied. I felt his fingers gently brush the curve of my waist. "Some people are still writing theirs."

Oh, he's feeling bold tonight, I thought.

Evie had apparently picked up on the state of play and gave me a subtle wink.

I needed to extricate myself from the situation.

"I'm going to go get another beer," I announced, making a move toward the stairs. "I'll see you guys later."

Asher followed me. "I'll join you."

Not wanting to let on that I was just trying to get some space to clear the haze of lust from my brain, I said nothing and continued down the stairs as though I really did need another beer. Asher stayed close behind me. As we reached the main hallway, a new song came on over the stereo and I paused.

"No way," I gasped excitedly, grinning as the opening strains of KISS's "I Was Made for Lovin' You" pulsed out through the house. "I love this song! They almost never play rock at these things."

Asher gave me a lopsided smile. "I know. I snuck this one and a couple other songs onto the mix for you."

Wow, that was actually really thoughtful of him, I thought to myself, swiftly losing the battle to contain the warm fuzzies that were welling up in my chest.

He tilted his head toward the living room and held out his hand, his brown eyes warm and inviting. "C'mon. Dance with me."

Amid the heady mix of the music, his charm, the blacklights, and my desire, my hesitance and efforts to preserve the status quo of our relationship finally crumbled. I took his hand and allowed him to lead me onto the dance floor.

Asher pulled me flush against him, my back to his front, and began to move to the beat, giving me a surge of déjà vu as I recalled the last time we'd been in this position. That party the previous fall felt simultaneously like another lifetime and like it had just happened the day before.

I felt Asher's breath against my skin as he sang the lyrics into my ear, his voice a rumbling baritone that nearly made my toes curl.

"Tonight, I want to give it all to you
In the darkness, there's so much I want to do
And tonight, I want to lay it at your feet
'Cause girl, I was made for you
And girl, you were made for me."

My breath hitched in my throat from the overpowering sensuality of the situation. I shivered as, instead of singing along to the chorus, Asher captured my earlobe between his teeth and gave it a gentle nibble.

Any pretense of keeping things platonic, at least on his part, was gone.

I moaned as he made his way down to my neck, pressing soft kisses to the sensitive skin. He began to trace circles with his thumb just under the waistband of my jeans, his feather-light touch igniting my senses. I arched against him, the contours of his torso firm and warm against my back. As he gently nipped at the spot where my neck met my shoulder, I knew.

I knew that this time, I wasn't going to run away.

Every fiber of my being was reacting to Asher's touch and screaming more, more, more. As we swayed to the steady, pulsating bass line, the last line of the chorus echoed through my soul – "I can't get enough of you, baby. Can you get enough of me?"

As the final chords faded away and a new song began, I turned around to face Asher. He kept hold of my waist, gazing at me with an intensity and hunger I'd never experienced before. I could see the raw emotions burning in his eyes – passion, desire, overpowering need – and I was sure my own eyes mirrored them.

I reached up and gently cupped his face. He leaned into my touch, covering my hand with his. We drew closer together, the distance between our lips steadily closing.

Suddenly, the music cut out. Panicked shouts began to filter in from the front hallway.

"COPS! COPS! Ohmygod run!"

Asher and I shared a worried glance, whatever moment we'd been having quickly dissipating. I certainly didn't want to be cited for underage drinking, a noise violation, or whatever else the cops had been called about, and he seemed to agree. Seizing my hand, he pulled me toward the kitchen and the back door. Dozens of other partiers had the same idea, and the large crowd struggled to squeeze through the single opening.

Amid the chaos, I lost Asher.

I cursed to myself as I ran down the back steps and through the backyards of the houses along East Buffalo Street.

Asher Ives was fully under my skin.

I wanted him.

I needed him.

I liked him.

And if the cops hadn't shown up, odds are I would have acted on it and had him.

Dammit, Ithaca PD.


A/N: In case the formatting didn't work out (it kept messing up when I tried to fix it), the highlighter writing was supposed to say "TX [lesser than] MA" and then "TX [lesser than]3 MA." Don't know why I can't get the site to accept that one symbol, but c'est la vie.