Ella Parker was not in a good mood.
As Ella walked—or rather, stormed—through the hallways of Claremont Prep, she clenched her jaw tightly and steeled herself in preparation for what she was about to do. She had begged Mathias to give someone else this article for the Student Life section of the newspaper, but he had refused. She had then begged that someone else conduct the interview required, but he had again refused. He had laughingly mentioned Ella's failure to be diplomatic was her biggest flaw as a journalist.
"Ella, I know you hate him, but you really have to do this. You're the only senior who won't jump him or melt into a pool of insecurity at the sight of him," Mathias had insisted.
"I'm also the only on who might actually kill him and/or myself if I deal with him for too long…"
"Ella, if you want to stay on as an editor you're going to have to suck this up. Plus I can pull your article off the front page, too"
"What's your point?"
"Stupid Mathias,"Ella muttered bitterly. She strode out the back doors quickly and headed towards the track bleachers. Even from afar, she could already see the members of the track team panting from exhaustion as they continued their drills. A few freshmen were nursing injuries on the grass, and they visibly reddened and lowered their heads when they saw Ella approaching.
That's what happens when your team captain is a Neanderthal, Ella thought. Scanning the track, she squinted to look for said team captain. The sooner she found him, the sooner she could get this over with.
Finally, she spotted him. Sitting casually on the bleachers, Zachary Perry watched the track team with a look of indifference and boredom. Despite the stance, Ella could see from the tension in his shoulders and the sharpness of his eyes that he was paying close attention to the practicing team before him.
Next to him, Ella saw two blondes she couldn't recognize latched onto his arms. Both seemed entirely oblivious to Zach's focus on the game, and continued to chatter away while their words went unnoticed. As Ella walked slowly towards Zach, she couldn't help but admire his sharp profile. He was, indisputably, singularly good looking. His tousled black hair always hung dangerously low on his forehead, and his piercing blue eyes were enough to drive half the girls in their school to madness. But what Ella had always noticed, what she had hated that she always noticed, was how goddamn attractive he was when he really and truly smiled.
Shit. He had finally spotted her. His eyes snapped to attention and a slow and lazy grin grew across his face as he sat up, waiting for her to walk over.
"Here to check me out, Parker? I'm flattered, but you should work on the subtlety thing," he said with a smirk. Ella raised an eyebrow and looked down disdainfully at Zach and the girls next to him.
"I assume you've spoken with Mathias, so I think you know the answer to that. I just have a couple questions for our article on the track team and then you can continue with your harem. It'll be five minutes tops," Ella said coolly.
"You can multitask quite well, from what I remember," Zach quipped. Ella rolled her eyes.
"Five minutes, Perry. Can we just do it and be done?"
Now Zach raised an eyebrow and smiled. Realizing the double entendre in her words, Ella flushed.
"Please," she said tightly.
"Sure. Ladies, could you excuse us?" The two blondes looked annoyed, but they both released Zach and walked away without saying anything. Ella shook her head and pulled out her notebook for the interview.
"Okay, so you're captaining now. How have you guys been doing this year?"
"What does well enough mean, Perry?" Ella forced out in a polite voice. Zach grinned.
"A few of us are going to nationals, Elle," he said deliberately.
"Ella. How many is a few?"
"More than two, less than six."
Ella bit the inside of her cheek and narrowed her eyes slightly. He was baiting her, but she wasn't so stupid as to take it.
"I see. So you can't quite count between those numbers?"
He said nothing, but simply smiled. Ella tried again.
"So if you can't count, math must be difficult. How many members of the track team would you say probably wouldn't get into Claremont Prep without their legs?"
Zach's smile froze on his face, and his eyes hardened perceptibly. Ella smiled sweetly, knowing she had struck a nerve. He looked at her with a calculating gaze. Then, slowly, he leaned in towards her. Ella stilled, confused. He was too close, and he was getting closer. She could almost hear the alarm bells in her head. She could almost feel his breath on her cheek. She could almost see the burning flames in his eyes. She could almost remember when he had been this close last time—
"Probably just as many who wouldn't get in without their daddy's donations to the deans," he said coldly.
Zach abruptly leaned back on his elbows again, with an aloof smile on his face. He looked, much to Ella's chagrin, completely unaffected. Forcing herself to breathe normally, she smiled tightly and closed her notebook.
"Great. Thanks for the interview, then."
"Running already, Ella?" he looked at her expectantly.
"I just have everything I need," she replied, meeting his gaze head on.
"Of course I do," she snapped, unable to suppress her irritation.
"Well then, my pleasure," Zach said smoothly. "See you later."
And with those few words, he had dismissed her. He was refocused once again on the track team, without a second glance. Ella took a deep breath and turned on her heel. She walked towards the school parking lot quickly, eager to distance herself from him.
Once Ella got home and calmed down from her rage, she finally realized that her entire interview had yielded essentially no fruit. Nothing Zach had said to her was actually usable. Irritated, she logged into her email, hoping Mathias would finally see reason. To her surprise, she saw an email from Mathias.
From: "Mathias Carter"
To: "Ella Parker"
Subject: You're Welcome ;)
I interviewed Zach last week. Just thought you might benefit from a little diplomacy training. I assume you failed miserably, so I attached the transcript here. Enjoy, and try to not throw your laptop out the window.
Ella stared at the screen, dumbfounded. Suddenly, all of her anger came flooding back. How dare Mathias assume she would fail? How dare he send her to talk to Zach when he knew what an ass he was?
She hated to admit it, but the conversation with Zach had rattled her. She knew she had been out of line in suggesting that he was only at Claremont because he could run, but his jibe about her father had struck a chord. She knew it was untrue, and she knew she was smart, but she knew what people thought. But more importantly, Zach was somehow the only person who knew that it bothered her that people thought it.
The irony was that both she and Zach were at the top of the class. Literally. One homework assignment was all the shifted the balance from one to the other. Ella could not remember a time when she and Zach weren't at each other's throats.
"Ella? Are you home?"
Her mother's voice snapped her out of her reverie. "Yeah I'm in my room, Mom. Homework."
"The Perrys are coming for dinner tonight, six o'clock. Clean up."
Ella almost slammed her head against her desk. Zach's younger sister Sarah was the best friend of her own sister, Bryn. They had been inseparable since kindergarten, and consequently, their parents had become so as well. But now, after that catastrophic interview, she had to face Zach. Again. And she had to play nice.
By six, the house had been thoroughly scrubbed and polished. When the doorbell rang, Bryn shrieked loudly and ran for the door. Ella laughed. Her excitement about Sarah's arrival was eclipsed by her excitement for Zach's. The nine-year-old harbored a crush so obvious that even Sarah had noticed it.
Ella took a deep breath, bracing herself, and put on what she hoped was a gracious smile. She walked downstairs and smiled widely at the Perrys.
"Hi Mr. and Mrs. Perry! How are you?"
As she greeted the adults, she saw Zach talking animatedly with Sarah and Bryn. Damn him, she thought. He was always so good with the kids.
Her parents pulled away the Perrys, and she glanced over at Zach again. He was sitting with the girls on the couch in the living room, but he was looking right at her.
"You look nice, Parker," he said with a ghost of a smile. His eyes slowly looked her up and down and up again, meeting her eyes in a challenge.
She fought the urge to shrink away under his scrutiny, and instead returned the inspection.
"Wish I could say the same, Perry," Ella said carelessly.
He chuckled quietly. "Your eyes are saying it for you."
Her eyes narrowed, but she kept her mouth shut.
Soon, Ella's parents ushered everyone into the dining room. Zach slipped into the seat next to Ella wordlessly, and she tensed. Judging from the slight upturn of his lips, he had noticed.
"So Zach, what colleges are you looking at? Anything local?" asked Ella's father.
"Well I'm really hoping for Stanford, but we'll see. The rest are out on the East Coast pretty much," Zach said easily.
Ella's father looked surprised. "Ella's top choice is Stanford too! You could both end up there if you're lucky."
Zach smiled winningly. "If we both get in, that really would be awesome."
Ella almost laughed at the obvious sarcasm underlying his voice. "If only," she said wistfully, derision lacing her words. Zach's lips quirked up in a lopsided smile, indicating that he had not failed to notice her tone. She ignored him.
The rest of the dinner went smoothly, and Ella simply held her tongue and smiled while Zach spoke to the parents comfortably. She had always hated how he could charm anyone so comfortably. Once the families finished eating, Sarah and Bryn began to get restless. As soon as they began to fling peas at each other with their spoons, Ella's parents jumped in.
"Ella, why don't you and Zach watch a movie in the basement with the girls? I'm sure they'd love the company," Ella's mom suggested.
"I don't know if I can—"
"I've actually got so much homework—"
"Zach you have to!" squealed Bryn loudly. "I want you to watch with us! Elle, tell him!"
Ella glared at her sister, hoping she could shame her into relenting. Zach, oblivious to this, scooped Bryn into his lap and smiled. "Well I can only come if Elle wants me to," he said convincingly, his pout perfectly tailored to tug at Bryn's heartstrings.
"Ella. Zach, you should come if you want to," Ella bit out more tersely than she would have liked.
"Elle! That's not good enough! Ask nicely!" Bryn insisted. Ella ground her teeth, and then put on what she hoped was a winning smile.
"Zach, would you please join us? Both Bryn and I would really appreciate it if you did," she said sweetly.
"Well in that case I'd love to. Only because you asked so nicely," he said with a hint of a smirk. Sarah, who had stayed quiet during this whole exchange finally tugged on Ella's sleeve.
"You guys fight too much. Can we just go now?"
Ella led everyone down the stairs, and quickly popped in the first movie that Sarah handed to her. Sarah and Bryn quickly settled into the blankets on one couch, leaving Ella to sit on the other with Zach. Ella quickly dimmed the lights and sat, being sure to sit as far to her own side as possible.
"Scared of cooties, Parker?" Of course he had noticed. Why would she have ever thought he wouldn't?
"More like STDs. Who knows what you've managed to catch?" she whispered back.
"You flatter me. You think I'm that attractive?"
Ella blinked at the non sequitur. "What?"
"Well to have STDs I would have had to have slept with quite a few women…"
"You're disgusting," she said incredulously.
"It's pronounced dazzling."
"Do you have an answer for everything?"
"You didn't disagree."
"Well, I disagree now."
Ella bit back the words. She knew that by answering him she was only egging him on, and perhaps silence was the only way to shut him up. Realizing this, she simply stopped talking and looked forward at the TV screen. From the corner of her peripheral vision, she could see his smug smile. Ignoring him, she tried to forget he was next to her.
"So is it true that you're dating Mathias?"
Ella snapped to attention.
"Mathias Carter. Our mutual friend. School paper?" Zach said slowly, teasingly.
"I know. Dating him?"
"Crystal said you were dating."
"She was one of the girls in my—what was it?—oh yes, harem."
Ella burst out laughing. "She's blonde, she's got legs for miles, she has no intelligence to speak of, and her name is Crystal?"
Zach tilted his head with an amused expression, but his smile didn't quite meet his eyes.
"You didn't answer the question."
Ella, sensing that her lack of response was frustrating him for some reason, decided to be evasive.
"We're close," she said vaguely.
"That's a no, then." Zach settled back into the couch comfortably, with a self-satisfied expression on his face.
"What?" Ella was perplexed.
"You're being vague to bait me. Nice try. If you were really dating him, you would be red by now."
"Oh is that so? Fine, I guess I'm just an open book then?"
"Now you're just going to be stubborn to prove I don't know you as well as I actually do. Which is stupid, because it doesn't matter what you prove so long as I actually know you or not."
"Whatever," Ella said petulantly. Zach smiled, then stood suddenly. Ella looked at him in confusion.
"I have to leave early. Practice in the morning," he said quietly.
"Oh. Okay. Bye," Ella said quickly, turning her attention back to the TV and trying to ignore her sudden annoyance at him for leaving their conversation so abruptly.
As he walked towards the bottom of the staircase, he turned back towards her slowly.
"I'm glad, for the record," he said.
"Glad?" she asked.
His eyes compelled hers, and he looked directly at her. "That you're not dating him."
And then, before she could even process what he had said, he was gone. And she tried to ignore the fact that her annoyance had turned into heat pooling in her stomach.