He laughed as he turned off the engine. “Are you just saying it to say it again or do you actually have something to say this time?”
“Mostly I’m just saying it because I can, but I do have a question.”
“Are you studying acting?”
“Good. You’re very talented at it.”
He met my eyes. “Thank you.”
“And what about poetry? Your mom named you after a poet. Did you come to appreciate it?”
“Are you nervous about getting out of the car?”
“Unlike you, I am not an actor.” I was afraid I’d ruin his ploy to get back with Eve due to my terrible acting skills.
“No need to be. We’re here as friends, right? No acting involved.”
He reached for the car door handle.
“Wait! Let me fix your hair.”
“Seriously. You want her to want you, right?” I thought he’d leave but instead he turned toward me with a tired look on his face. I quickly grabbed the gel from my purse before he changed his mind. “The key is to only use a little.” The gel was blue and claimed “Super Support,” so I squeezed out a dime-sized drop onto my palm, rubbed my hands together, then pushed them through his hair.
“You actually have really great hair. It just looks like your mom cut it.”
“You don’t even know my mom.”
“Well, any mom.” The front of his hair was drooping a bit so I gave it one last pass then smiled. “There.”
“Your work is done?” he asked.
I met his eyes and realized my styling process had closed the space between us. I backed up. “Yes, she’ll be all over you by the end of the night.”
“Who knew hair was that powerful?” He kept his gaze on me, the one that seemed to search my soul, then a smile spread across his lips. My heart gave a jump that surprised me and I quickly dropped my gaze.
I took my cell phone and lip gloss out of my purse and slipped them into my pocket while he opened his door and got out. By the time I’d tucked my purse with the rest of its contents under the seat, he was on my side of the car opening my door. He gave me a hand out. After he shut and locked the doors, he faced the house and I could see him visibly take a breath, the air flowing into his lungs causing his shoulders to rise and fall.
“Are you nervous?” I asked, a little surprised.
“Maybe. Thanks for coming with me.”
“Okay, here we go.”
“Nothing. I just wanted to say your name.”
He smiled, which was what I was hoping for. He just needed to relax. I knew Bec wanted me here to keep him away from Eve, but who was I to stop him if that’s what he really wanted? He led me up the walk and around the side of the house to a gate that was propped open.
“Oh. Look at that. Your ex-girlfriend’s house backs up to the ocean.” I had known we were close to the beach—I could hear the waves and smell the ocean breeze—but I hadn’t realized we were this close.
“Pretty cool, right?”
The secluded beach was full of people eating, talking, dancing. Hayden scanned the area and I could tell when he saw her because he went still. I followed his gaze and went still myself. It wasn’t that she was drop-dead gorgeous or anything, but just looking at her, I could tell she had more quirk and personality than I’d ever have. Her hair was a shockingly white blond that she wore choppy, one side longer than the other. Mine was brown and boringly all the same length. She was short and curvy while I was tall and lean. She wore a T-shirt that said something on the front I couldn’t read but I was sure it was funny or odd, just like Hayden’s were. They belonged together and after tonight they probably would be back together. He wanted it, and from the way she was now looking at Hayden, her eyes lighting up with joy, it was obvious she wanted it too. Bec was going to kill me.
Eve waved and he nodded.
“I’m just going to take off my sandals. I didn’t realize we’d be on the sand.” Wedges were not right for this. I should’ve worn flip-flops. No wonder Bec had given me that look.
“Can I just put them back in your car?”
“Of course.” He handed me the keys but didn’t offer to walk me.
“Okay, then . . . I guess I’ll see you in a minute.”
I walked back to his car, unbuckled my sandals, and threw them in the backseat. Normally I was so confident walking into a new place. Why did I feel so nervous now? Maybe I shouldn’t have come. All I’d wanted was to see Hayden again, find out his motivations for going to prom with me so I could stop obsessing about it. So that things could go back to normal. I’d done that. But I was here now. I could stay for a little while for Hayden’s sake. We were only twenty minutes from my house. Maybe once Hayden and Eve got back together, I could call my brother or Claire for a ride and head over to the other party.
I followed the path back to the beach. Hayden had moved about twenty feet farther into the party but was now talking to Eve and another guy. I had several options—a food table across the way, a makeshift dance floor, or a group surrounding a bonfire. Or, of course, I could go see how Hayden was faring. I chose that option.
I took two steps in his direction and my foot landed on something sharp. With a quick breath between my teeth, I checked to make sure it wasn’t glass. It was just a piece of a shell and it was only a surface scratch. I brushed off my foot and then joined Hayden.
“So the second I took off my shoes, I stepped on a—”
“Gia,” Hayden interrupted, grabbing my hand and pulling me to his side. I stumbled slightly but he held me firm. “I want you to meet Eve and Ryan.”
“And, guys, this is my girlfriend, Gia.” He slid a hand down my back and gave me a lingering kiss on the cheek after the announcement.
Whoa. What? In the two minutes I’d been gone, something had changed and I wasn’t sure what. I turned on a smile and held out my hand. “Nice to meet you.”
The guy grabbed my hand. “Good to meet you.” When he let go he took Eve’s. Oh. And there it was. Bec was wrong. It was option number one Eve was interested in. She wanted Hayden here to make sure he was still pining over her but she was still very much attached to whoever this guy was.
Eve’s brilliant smile had faded just a bit as she took me in. From this close I could see her T-shirt. It said, I like turtles. I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be funny or if she really did have a thing for turtles.
“You brought someone,” she said. “I didn’t realize you were . . . dating anyone.”
Hayden in all his smoothness said, “I hope that’s okay. The invitation said plus one.”
The invitation said plus one? And here she looked like she was in shock that he had actually brought someone.
“Right. It did. I know how close you and your sister are so I thought . . . But yes, of course it’s fine. Come get something to eat. I’m sure you want to catch up with some people you haven’t talked to in a while. Everyone is here.”
“Yes, I’d love for Gia to meet everyone. You ready, hon?”
I took his offered hand and squeezed it. “Yes.” We started to walk away then I turned back. “Oh, and thanks for inviting us, Eve. This looks amazing. Happy graduation.” She nodded me a thanks and then walked the other way.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Hayden mumbled under his breath as we walked toward a long table full of food by the patio of the house.
“Don’t be. I owe you.”
We stopped in front of the table and I stared at the food spread before us. “Are you hungry?”
His gaze was on the ocean in the distance, his jaw tight. It seemed as though he hadn’t heard my question at all.
I put my hand on his back. “You okay?” I didn’t know why I asked him that; it was obvious he wasn’t. He had come here tonight thinking his ex-girlfriend had invited him because she wanted to get back together with him and he had just found out she hadn’t.
“What? Yes, food. Let’s eat. Are you hungry?”
“We can leave. We don’t have to stay.”
“We’re staying.” He said it like I had dared him not to and he was rising to the challenge.
“Okay. We’re staying. You have other friends here, right?”
“Then let’s have fun.”
We each filled a plate with food and then found two empty seats at a round table. He greeted several people then scooted his chair extra close to mine. While he ate with one hand, his other was always resting on the back of my chair, or on my shoulder, or playing with the ends of my hair. I knew it was for show and I had to keep telling myself that as chills radiated down my spine every time he touched me.
“Where have you been? I haven’t seen you at school lately,” a guy from across the table asked.
I was grateful for the distraction because Hayden moved both elbows to the table and leaned forward as he spoke. “I’ve been around. Busy with graduation stuff.”
Busy being a recluse, according to Bec.
“Well, it’s good to see you. Where are you going to school next semester?”
“San Luis. You?”
“Me too.” The guy looked at me then. “You put up with this guy, huh?”
“You don’t go to school with us, do you?”
I started to say no, but Hayden beat me to the answer. “She goes to Bec’s new school. We met through her.”
In a way, I guess we kind of did. He was dropping Bec off for prom. I dragged him in to be my date.
“Cool,” the guy said, then he stood, gave a head nod, and walked away carrying his empty plate.
Hayden pointed at the olives I had picked off my pizza. “What’s going on there?”
“I’m not an olive fan.”
“There were other options without olives.”
“I like the flavor the olives leave on the pizza. I just don’t like the texture of the olive itself.”
He laughed then popped one of my discarded olives into his mouth. “Weirdo.”
“I like weird. Normal is so boring.”
“Right.” The problem was that I was the very definition of normal. He’d probably just learned the most interesting thing there was to know about me. I was not Eve. Not that it mattered.
I looked around and realized we were the only two sitting at the table now, leaving plenty of room for when Eve and her boyfriend wandered over and joined us.
“I’m so glad you came,” she said again when she sat down with her own food in the chair right next to Hayden. So close she could put her hand on his knee when she talked. And she did. It was obvious Hayden had been trying to make her jealous and it was obvious it was working. Maybe he’d get his wish by the end of the night after all.
“I didn’t think you would,” she continued. Her hand finally came off his leg. I wondered if my death glare had anything to do with it. She had no right to waltz around messing with Hayden’s head. He may have wanted her back, but Bec was right. This girl was bad news. I was suddenly on board with Bec’s plan of keeping this girl far away from Hayden. I leaned my shoulder against his.
“Why didn’t you think I’d come?” Hayden asked, meeting her stare. I was proud of the way he didn’t react, just gave her a look that seemed innocent.
“I should’ve known you would,” she said. “You’re such a nice guy. Isn’t he a nice guy, Mia?”
“Her name is Gia,” Hayden said.
“It’s fine, babe,” I said to him. Then I looked at her. “I never get mad when people hear my name wrong because I think to myself, Maybe they have hearing issues, excess earwax or something.”
Hayden coughed once and I could tell it was to keep himself from laughing. “You might want to get that checked out, Eve.”
Eve’s expression had gone ten degrees cooler. “I don’t have wax in my ears. Sometimes you just mumble, Hayden. Like last year in the school play when the whole audience thought you said, ‘I want to kill you,’ when you were supposed to say, ‘I want to kiss you.’”
Hayden, who had been pretty stoic since we came, cracked a smile. “Well, my line was better anyway.”
“I know. Why wouldn’t Sky want to kill Sarah, right?” She laughed.
Ryan looked as lost in this conversation as I was. Great—inside jokes.
“Kill me, baby,” Eve said in what sounded like a New York accent.
I was willing to kill her if that’s what she was asking. Hayden didn’t seem like he was on board with that plan, though, his smile still lingering. Ryan put his arm around Eve and Hayden moved back an inch, his face going hard again. I grabbed his hand and he turned to me. He brushed a kiss to my cheek so I closed my eyes.
When I opened them he said, “I want to dance with you,” using that husky voice he sometimes did.
I let him take me to the makeshift dance floor across the sand. I let him wrap my arms up around his neck and then rest his hands on my hips. For one moment I forgot we had an audience and it was for them that we were performing this show. He made me forget I had come here to try to get him out of my head.
He leaned down and I thought he was going to whisper something sweet in my ear when he said, “You’re a better actor than you give yourself credit for.”
Those words jolted my thoughts back into the right place. “I am, aren’t I?”