“I should never have bought all those clothes,” groaned Natalie, smacking her checkbook against her forehead a few times. “I’m so broke.”
Maggie tossed her auburn hair matter-of-factly. “Oh, come on. It can’t be that bad.”
“Sure it can,” grumbled her friend. “Look at my ledger.”
Maggie caught the checkbook when Natalie tossed it, flipping it open to glance at the balance. “Oh.” She stared blankly, then shrugged, “I guess it can be. But you could just return that stuff.”
“No, I can’t.”
“Already took the tags off?”
“No, I just can’t take ‘em back.” At Maggie’s look, Natalie opened her gray eyes wide and exclaimed, “What? I bought the clothes to look cute in, not so I’d have a reason to go back to the store and stand in the customer service line.”
Maggie rolled her eyes. “You’d think you were hunting or something.”
“This is purely self-defense,” Natalie shot back.
Maggie arched an eyebrow. “Dare I ask – what are you talking about?”
“Jason’s coming back.”
Maggie waited for more, but when nothing was forthcoming she pulled herself up on to the counter of their tiny kitchen and commented, “You say that as if I should recognize the name.”
Natalie, thoroughly distracted from her money troubles, threw up her hands. “You mean you don’t remember that little monster?” She paused and raised an eyebrow reflectively. “Of course, he didn’t harass you as much as he did me.”
“Presumably.” Maggie started rummaging through the nearest cupboard, looking for chips, “Seeing as I still’ve got no clue who you’re talking about.”
“The Thompsons – surely you remember Callie?”
“That rings a bit more of a bell,” agreed Maggie.
“The Thompsons were my parents’ friends. They came to visit every summer. Callie was my age -,”
“That’s right. Didn’t she have that pretty blond hair?” interrupted Maggie. Natalie nodded. “Whatever happened to them?”
Natalie blinked. “Nobody ever told you?” Maggie just looked at her. “They were killed,” Natalie’s voice was soft. “I remember my mom trying to explain why my friend wouldn’t be coming back.” She made a face. “And I distinctly recall being crabby because Jason could.”
Maggie laughed. “How old were you?”
“Six – so was she.” Natalie stared at her hands. “It was so sad. Her parents were killed, too.”
Natalie shook her head. “I don’t know, now that you ask.” She gave her friend a sideways look. “Jason-the-Terror still came to visit every year or two, to see Chris, mostly. I always hated it – always. I can’t believe you’re drawing a blank on this.”
“I forget you have a brother half the time,” Maggie pointed out dryly. “How was I supposed to remember Jason?”
“I forget I have a brother half the time,” Natalie scoffed, a hurt look crossing her face, adding hastily, “I still managed to remember Jason.”
“You say he actually picked on you?”
Natalie rolled her eyes. “Constantly.”
“See, Chris ignored you. So of course you remember the one that actually paid any attention.” Natalie shrugged. “Still, I don’t see what that has to do with new clothes.”
Natalie flipped open her checkbook again, frowning. “Well, he’s gotten back from his mission just about a year ago, and I haven’t seen him for about five. I guess I’m hoping that if I look like a woman…”
“He’ll flirt with you instead of pick on you?”
Natalie made a gagging motion. “Spare me. That’s the last thing I want. It’s more like, if I look like a woman I might feel confident enough to tell him to stick it in his ear instead of crying about it.”
Maggie giggled. “Did he make you cry?”
“A few times,” Natalie admitted. “But enough about that. I don’t go home for summer for another few weeks, and I still have juries between now and then.”
“Ah yes,” agreed Maggie wisely as Natalie stood, flexing her fingers. “Mustn’t let some little twerp come between you and your obsessive practicing.”
Natalie grabbed her keys and her backpack, stopping at the door. “It wouldn’t hurt you to study, too.”
“I’m going to be a karate instructor. This is just to keep my parents happy.”
“You keep telling yourself that.”
“I will,” agreed Maggie, and Natalie shut the door.
Jason lay awake in the motel room bed, unable to sleep. The ceiling was beginning to look all too familiar, and he wondered how many times he could check the clock before the sun came up. Finally, in desperation, he determined to go for a drive and see if the night air could relax him, rolling out of the bed and feeling around the nightstand for his keys.
“What’re you doin’, man?” Troy’s voice inquired from the other bed, the words slurred sleepily.
“Four-walling, bad.” Jason stuffed his feet into his tennis shoes, not bothering to change out of the t-shirt and shorts he slept in. “I’m going for a drive.”
“Four-walling?” Troy waved a hand in Jason’s direction. “Whatever.” He looked up for a moment, his dark hair even more on end than usual, “What’s up?”
Jason shifted on his feet, trying to get his heels the rest of the way into his shoes. “Nothing.”
“Dumb reason to go for a drive,” replied Troy, addressing his pillow more than Jason.
Jason just shrugged, remembering to grab his wallet.
Troy pressed his face into his pillow and muttered shortly, “You’re a crappy liar.”
“If that was true, I’d be dead by now.”
“Whatever. Some side mission?”
Jason ran a hand through his blond hair, scratched his head, then turned to move toward the door. “Can’t sleep, is all.”
“Hmph.” Without lifting his head, Troy fumbled around for his spare pillow, throwing it at Jason with unerring accuracy.
Jason turned and glared at the back of Troy’s head “If you don’t have a good reason for doing that, I’m going to beat you.”
“Waking me,” mumbled Troy. Jason rolled his eyes, deliberately jingling his keys in his hand. Troy sat up, ready to heave the other pillow at him, then changed his mind, laying back down on it and closing his eyes. With a sigh, he rubbed a hand through his hair and offered, “You’re worried about seeing that Natalie chick again.”
“Not true,” growled Jason, staring down Troy’s eyelids defiantly.
Jason cocked his head to the side, jingling the keys again. Troy twitched with annoyance and Jason commented, “Don’t act like you’re all smart.”
“She’s come up every other sentence since we started planning this trip, man.” Troy finally opened his eyes, watching Jason lazily, his violet gaze keen despite the sleep still written on his face. “I’d be a moron to miss it.”
“Well, you are a moron,” shrugged Jason.
“No, I’m nuts. There’s a big difference. You’re nuts, too.”
“No, no. I’m a moron. I admit that.”
Troy let out an exasperated sigh. “Look. You’ve been charming women the world over for years. All you have to do is bat those big blue eyes of yours and she’s won over, okay? Chalk another one up to experience.” He started to roll back over, ready to go back to sleep.
“No.” The flatness of Jason’s answer made Troy pause. “Not this time. It’s not like that.” Jason turned and paced toward the door.
Troy stopped rolling, watching Jason narrowly. “Say again?”
“This isn’t – she’s not that kind of girl.”
Troy nodded slowly, his mouth compressed. “How long have you been in love with her?”
Jason stopped dead, his hand on the door handle.
“Your eloquence’ll get her, if your looks don’t,” suggested Troy.
“As long as I can remember,” Jason finally admitted, staring at the door.
“That sucks. Look, dude, if you can win over that one Russian girl –,” Troy started.
“That wasn’t the same,” Jason interrupted brusquely. “I wasn’t playing for keeps.”
“And you want to?”
“With Natalie? Yes.”
Troy shuddered. “Okay. Still, the same skills apply.”
“Let me put this in small words, Troy, so you can understand,” Jason replied, pivoting to look back at him. “It. Won’t. Work.”
Exasperated, Troy sat up and flicked on the side table lamp and demanded, “Why not?”
Jason threw his hands in the air. “Because she hates me!”
“Oh!” Troy threw his hands in the air mockingly. “Why does she hate you?”
“Because,” mumbled Jason as he ran a hand over his face tiredly, “I used to pick on her.”
“Moron.” Troy finally flung his second pillow at Jason and it bounced off of his unheeding head. “Why’d you do something so stupid?”
“It was either make fun of her or make out with her,” Jason replied darkly
Troy raised an eyebrow. “That’s romantic.”
“This isn’t about looks, Troy.” Troy kept the eyebrow raised and Jason defended, “The last time I saw her, she wasn’t exactly what you’d call pretty. Skinny, pimply, awkward fourteen.”
Troy let out a shout of laughter. “If this is how you talk about the girl you love, I’d hate to hear how you talk about the girls you hate.” Jason took a deep breath through his nose, clearly trying to pull in patience along with the oxygen. “So she’s a ‘sweet spirit,’ huh?”
Jason tossed his keys up and down a few times, clearly considering throwing them at Troy, then commented, “I don’t know why I told you any of this.”
“Dunno,” Troy shrugged. “But you’re not really a jerk. It’s not like she’s going to hold a grudge forever.”
“Thanks. I feel tons better.”
“That’s ‘cause I’m awesome.” Troy reached across to Jason’s bed with one lanky arm and snatched a pillow, then settled back down into his bed before turning off the light. “Don’t think about it. We’re going to see them all tomorrow, like it or not. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” Jason responded absently, putting the keys down on the sink and making his way slowly back to his bed, the drive forgotten. Troy was right. It had been years. She’d never remember.
That very reassuring thought carried Jason all through the next morning, and was still with him when he rapped on the Montessori’s front door, Troy at his elbow. The door flew open almost immediately, and Jason found himself pulled into a fierce embrace by a woman with short, dark hair and a smile that reminded him of his mother. “Jason, it’s so good to see you!” she cried, giving him an extra squeeze.
“You too –,” Jason began, but was interrupted as her husband, her youngest child, and her dog joined them at the door. There was an explosion of noise as Jason and Troy were carried into the house on a wave of greetings and introductions, all nicely melded together by Sam’s joyful barking.
When the initial commotion had settled, Jason and Troy safely installed on the family couch with food and drinks in hand, Susan glanced around apologetically, touching her dark hair nervously, and commented, “I’m sorry we’re not all here. We tried to get hold of Chris, but…”
“I know,” Jason interrupted, brisk in an attempt to salve her painful embarrassment. “I’ve tried to find him before, too.”
“Thank you,” she replied softly. Then, shaking herself, continued, “As for Natalie, I’m not at all sure where she’s at. I imagine she decided to drop Maggie off before coming home.”
“She finished her juries just yesterday,” explained Aaron, his arm around his wife’s shoulders. “She’s supposed to be back sometime today.”
“She did awesome on her piano,” interrupted Becky, grinning happily from one guest to the other, innocently seeking attention. “She always does great. She says it’s because I help her pick her songs.”
Troy, always happy to pander to a female, even an nine-year-old one, gave her a charming smile and answered, “So it’s really you who’s the genius in the family. It’s nice of you to make your sister look so great.”
Becky giggled. “You don’t know how great she is! You’ve never even met her.”
Troy laughed in return. “Jason—,” he paused when he received a sharp, discreet kick to his leg and concluded, “tells me she’s almost as great as you, so that has to be pretty good.” He cast Jason an annoyingly knowing look.
Jason innocently busied himself by stuffing buffalo wings in his mouth, unfortunately leaving himself unable to interrupt Becky when she said plainly, “Jason can’t think Natalie’s great—he hates her. She said so.”
There was an awkward silence as Susan and Aaron both stifled conspicuous-sounding coughs and Troy became very interested in his soda. Jason, realizing he was covered in buffalo wing sauce, stuck his fingers in his mouth in an attempt to clean them, and Becky looked from person to person, puzzled by the sudden silence.
She didn’t have to worry about it for more than a moment, however. The front door swung open, Sam started barking his head off, and Natalie, dressed to kill, stepped into the living room. “Natalie!” both her parents exclaimed, the sudden upsurge in noise enough to cover Jason’s sudden coughing fit.
“Hey all!” Natalie beamed, hugging her folks, “What’s up?”
Becky, fighting her way forward to throw herself at Natalie, piped up, “We were just telling Troy that Jason hates you, Natalie,” proud that she had spared her sister by explaining the situation so well.
Natalie glanced at Jason. It was a mere moment, but it seemed a like a long, drawn out, frozen-in-time moment to Jason. Here he was, his mouth full of his own fingers, choking to death while everyone discussed how much he hated Natalie, and she walked in looking like… like… well, something gorgeous. His stomach sank right through the floor, and Jason wished it had taken the rest of him with it.
The glance ended. Natalie looked back to Becky, and Jason remembered that he was choking again. Troy leaned over to slap him helpfully on the back, and his muttered, “And you said it wasn’t about her looks,” was covered by Natalie’s airy, “That’s nice, Becky. Come help me unload the car—I have a present for you.”
The distraction worked; Becky was out the door like a shot, Natalie’s parents stepping out on the porch to supervise. Jason would have to remember to carry presents with him in the future, in case of emergency.
He finally managed to swallow some of his drink, the carbonation spurring a few final coughs as he glared at Troy. “Thanks ever so,” he managed, his eyes tearing before he finally got his breath back.
“Welcome,” Troy replied cheerfully, and probably would have continued, expanding on the theme of Natalie’s looks, if the family hadn’t come trooping back in.
Becky dropped the bag she was holding and started unzipping it, Natalie standing over her and ostensibly ignoring the conversation her parents started with the young men. “We haven’t even gotten your luggage inside yet,” Susan said apologetically.
“I’ll help you unload,” offered Aaron.
Jason, finally in control of his breathing faculties, waved his hand dismissively, “Thanks, but we only have overnight bags.”
“Oh?” Susan’s face fell.
“We haven’t seen you in years, Jason,” Aaron translated. “We’d hoped you’d stay awhile.”
“That’s the thing,” Troy spoke up. “We were planning on hanging out for a week or so, but when our boss found out where we’d be, he told us he had a few things that could be done out this way.”
“We’ll be staying all summer,” Jason explained, smiling to see Susan’s face lighten suddenly. “And we will take you up on your offer to stay here, for a few days at least, while we look for an apartment in town.”
“That’s wonderful!” Susan practically squealed. She threw herself on Jason and Troy, hugging them both, “It’ll be like having two sons around all summer! You’ll have to come here for the 4th, of course, and dinner in the evenings and of course just walk in whenever you like…” Becky, loving the commotion, jumped on the boys when she heard the news, squealing not unlike her mother, and Aaron watched with a smile, glad to see Susan so happy.
Natalie continued to dig through her bags, still searching for Becky’s gift, her heart sinking down to somewhere near her kidneys. All summer? Wow, this would be fun.
Jason, watching the back of her head, wondered what she was thinking. She wasn’t glaring actively at him, and he felt hope rising in his chest. It was only the end of April now. Maybe four months would be enough time to undo some of the stupid things he’d done in the past.
Troy, watching them both, sighed, then gave his attention back to Susan. It had been a long time since he’d had a mother of any kind and he was determined to enjoy it, no matter what weird soap operas were going on at the same time.
Jason watched helplessly as Natalie sniffed disdainfully, turned on her heel, and stormed out of the kitchen and down the hallway to her bedroom, Maggie shooting him daggers with her eyes before following. He had managed to be around her for 3 whole minutes before saying something obnoxious. The longest ever. Sheesh.
He realized that Becky and Susan were looking at him, and he shrugged sheepishly before changing the subject: “I’ll just run to the store and get those tortillas you wanted, okay Mom?” He headed out the door, barely waiting for Susan’s directions to drive safely, grabbing Troy away from his work on the riding mower in the garage, and tearing down the driveway in his McLaren faster than was really safe on the gravel.
Susan listened to him leave, sighed ruefully, and turned back to the hamburger meat she had on the stove. Becky resumed unloading the dishwasher. After a moment, though, she stopped, plates in hand, and asked curiously, “Why are boys so mean?”
Susan, keeping her back to her daughter, considered a long moment before answering. “Sometimes, when we don’t know what else to say, it comes out mean and hurtful.”
“Oh.” Becky resumed putting the plates away, then paused again. “Wouldn’t it be better not to say anything?”
“Yes,” agreed Susan promptly. She seasoned the hamburger thoughtfully as Becky started on the silverware. “Sometimes, though, you just want to say something, no matter what it is, and that’s when the mean stuff comes out.”
“Oh,” Becky replied again. She closed the dishwasher and came to stand next to her mother, leaning her elbow on the counter and resting her chin in her hand before saying, “Is it like when those boys were picking on me at school last year?”
Susan nodded. “Yes, dear. Very similar.” She shooed her child away with her spoon so she could get at the vegetables she had chopped earlier. “Finished unloading? Then run along and do your homework.”
“Okay, sure mom.” Becky headed toward the living room, intent on her backpack, pausing just long enough to say, “Mom, I don’t think Jason meant to be mean.”
Susan gave the vegetables a good long look, pushed them into the frying pan, and said, “No, dear. I agree.”
Jason watched Troy as he paced energetically around the small kitchen. Besides making him dizzy, it also worried him — once Troy got an idea in his head, it was hard to shake it loose. “I don’t think that’s such a great idea, Troy,” he commented off-handedly.
“Sure it is,” Troy stopped his pacing long enough to fix a glare on Jason before resuming. “You want to get the girl, right?”
Jason leaned his chair back and let his head thud against the thin walls of the apartment. “Right.”
“Don’t put holes in the wall,” admonished Troy unnecessarily. “It’s a rental.” Jason rolled his eyes. Troy ignored him and continued, “So obviously what you’re doing right now is not working, with a capital NOT.” Jason grunted, studying the ceiling as if it were fascinating. “Problem is, it’s habit.” He stopped pacing and put his fists to his hips, “So you just need to let someone else tell you what to do for awhile, until you break the habit.”
“ ‘Someone’ being you, I guess,” Jason said, letting the chair come down to the floor with a thud and folding his hands on the table in front of him. “That’s where I come up against the ‘maybe this isn’t a good idea’ thing.”
Troy shook his head pityingly. “Who else is going to do it? Maggie, maybe?” Jason scoffed. “Exactly. She can’t be in the same room with you without smoke coming out of her ears.”
“Another reason it’s hard to behave myself,” Jason defended.
“And I don’t think you want to ask her family.” Jason’s snort answered in the negative. “Fine. Me, then. I’ll text you when you’re about to do something stupid.”
“Might not be fast enough,” Jason replied, turning the idea over in his head against his better judgment.
“It’ll work. Trust me. If that fails, there’s always kicking you in the shin. Or throwing something at you. Or hitting you in the face.” Jason glared at him. “Hey, whatever it takes, right?” Troy replied, holding up his hands innocently.
Jason considered his fingernails for a long moment. “Guess I don’t have a lot of choice. It’s been six weeks and I still can’t seem to remember even my worst pick-up lines when she’s around.”
Troy laughed. “Too bad I can’t bottle that effect and take it with us when we go looking for dates.”
Jason shrugged. “Well, if your plan works, maybe you won’t have to worry about me competing anyway.”
Troy considered this for a bare moment, slightly disturbed at the thought, but discarded it and parked himself at the table. “Fine, then. We have some planning to do.”
“I’m telling you, he’s up to something,” Natalie insisted, peering between the slats of her blinds to watch Jason and Troy hitting a baseball around with Becky.
“He’s gonna catch you watching him and think you like him,” Maggie informed her lazily from her reclined position on Natalie’s bed. Natalie let the slats slap together as she backed away and sat down, leaning against the wall opposite to Maggie. “So he’s managed to be kind to you for a few days in a row—,”
“—okay, a week.” Maggie snickered, “Truly an accomplishment.” Natalie rolled her eyes. “What’s to be uneasy about?” enquired Maggie. “Enjoy the break.”
Natalie hesitated before replying, “I dunno. I might start liking him —,”
“Liking him?” demanded Maggie, sitting bolt upright and eyeing Natalie suspiciously.
“Heavens, no!” Natalie exclaimed, throwing her hands up in a warding gesture. “Just saying, he can be really, really nice — almost sweet.”
“Yeah, when he’s not being a complete jerk.”
Natalie nodded miserably. “How much longer does this summer have to go on?”
Maggie shrugged, relaxing again, “It’s just a week to the 4th of July — halfway mark.” Natalie sighed. “Anyway, who cares? Just because he’s here doesn’t mean you have to talk to him.” She shook her head at the ceiling. “Would’ve helped if you hadn’t made friends with that Troy kid.”
“Kid,” snorted Natalie. “He’s older than you. And he’s nice, in a one-big-pickup-line kind of way.” Maggie raised a shoulder and lowered it disinterestedly. “Well, I like him. And I won’t stop being friends with him just because of that dodo brain, Jason Thompson,” Natalie continued fiercely. “But enough about him. Are we still going to the nail place this afternoon?”
Maggie sat up lazily. “If we must,” she sighed, hauling herself to her feet and heading toward the door.
“We must,” replied Natalie severely, grabbing her purse and peering at her hands. “My nails are so short all the rest of the year for classes, I want to enjoy them while I can.”
“I always keep mine short.”
“You should keep them long. Use them to scratch people during sparring matches.”
Maggie eyed her hands with renewed interest. “That’s an idea. It’s illegal, but you never know.”
Natalie laughed, herding Maggie out the door. “Right. You never know. Maybe the boys’ contract work is really secret agent stuff and we’re all in danger of dying at any moment. And you and your long nails will come to the rescue.”
Maggie just smiled and repeated, “Hey, you never know.”
Natalie, packing ice down in the ice cream maker, watched out the kitchen window as Jason flirted with a girl from the young adult group, offering to push her on the tree swing.
Another bag of ice hit the counter next to her with a thud and Natalie jumped, making Troy laugh. “Sorry,” he said, patting her shoulder. “Didn’t mean to startle you.” He glanced out the window without appearing to do so, then added casually, “Why the sigh?”
Natalie, realizing that not only had she sighed but that she was staring, turned her attention to the new ice bag with vigor. “Oh… just… wondering,” she answered lamely, ripping the plastic with more force then necessary.
Troy quirked a dark eyebrow at her, watching her ram ice into the ice cream maker with undue force. “Wondering?”
“Yeah…” Natalie caught herself trying to glance out the window again and deliberately turned to grab the rock salt. Deciding she had sounded too wistful, she quickly added, “Wondering if I ought to warn that girl what Jason’s really like.”
She laughed lightly, ignoring Troy as he deliberately peered out the window. He smirked, then leaned back again. “Well, that’s just Jason for you. He’s had so many girlfriends, you know. It’s like a habit. He’s always trying to add another to the list.”
Natalie laughed again, ignoring the resentful thought that she must be awfully special to be off the girlfriend list, then. She narrowed her eyes at the salt for a moment, then turned to Tory again and answered him teasingly, “And you’re not always on the prowl?”
Troy laughed with her. “Whaddaya think, Nat? Care to join my collection?”
“Not today, thanks,” demurred Natalie, finished up with the ice. “Take that back downstairs to the big freezer, huh?”
“Oh, sure,” grumbled Troy, picking up the bag of ice once again. “Break my heart then make me do the heavy labor. I see how it is.”
Natalie, watching him go, just shook her head. He was something else. Maybe, now that Jason was being nicer to her, she’d see why a guy like Troy was such a pal of his. And, the flitting thought suggested, she’d see why that girl outside looked so supremely triumphant to have Jason’s attention all to herself.
Natalie snorted aloud. Right. And maybe she’d join Troy’s collection, after all.
Jason eyed the barbecue lighters regretfully.
“What?” demanded Troy, coming up behind him with a handful of unlit punks.
“Just thinking — it’d be really easy to gimmick one of these so it would only stay lit for a second.”
Troy laughed. “That would be funny. Too bad you swore off playing jokes on Natalie – not that I wouldn’t beat you if you tried it.” He took one of the lighters in hand and added thoughtfully, “And not that there aren’t plenty of other people here to play a joke on.” He held it back out to Jason. “Do it. Give it to Maggie.”
“Oh, no,” replied Jason, taking a step away from the lighter. “I’m already in her black book — quite possibly her black hole book. I’m not going to make her look stupid in front of her whole family.”
“Not to mention Natalie’s,” grinned Troy. “And her young adult group.” He held the lighter up in front of his eyes. “Oh, hey. I see what you mean. It would be easy.” Jason snatched at it; Troy kept it from him effortlessly. Within moments, the gimmick was done and he handed it back. Jason took it apprehensively.
“No, keep it separate from the others,” Troy exclaimed when Jason started gathering all the lighters up.
Jason hastily did as he was told, not entirely certain he had gotten it right, but Troy’s laugh distracted him.
“I dunno, man,” Jason said with a doubtful shake of his head. “Girls travel in packs. Natalie might not take to this too kindly, and she’s only just started talking to me without checking for the nearest exit.” He fingered the lighter he held separate, almost put it down.
Troy grabbed his hand and shoved the lighter back at him. “Naw, come on. I’ll just tell her it was my idea if she gets upset.”
Jason wondered, just for a second, if Natalie would believe that. She had a pretty high opinion of Troy, and not such a good one of him.
He hesitated a moment too long and Becky chose that moment to stick her head around the open door. “Hey, we need those things out here. The ice cream’s gone and we want fireworks.”
She disappeared back outside, and the boys trailed after her, Troy complaining loudly, “Hey, I wanted ice cream! Rude.” Jason just rolled his eyes and followed, lighters in hand. He’d worry about the gimmick later. Besides, you couldn’t go wrong with fireworks.
The moment the lighters appeared, so did a crowd. Troy and Jason patiently lighted punks and handed them to the not-so-patient younger kids before letting them loose to do sparklers. The second wave arrived; the older crowd of the young adult church group grabbed for the good lighters and Jason had a hard time making sure Maggie got the right one.
At least, he was pretty sure it was the right lighter.
Regardless, he had kept one of the best lighters for himself, and once the crowd had dissipated he turned to recover the mortars from where he’d hid them. Only, when he came up with the box of mortars, he came face to face with a smiling Natalie. His insides turned into mush at the excited light in her gray eyes and he started chanting to himself Say nothing stupid.
“Can I have a lighter?” she asked, glancing down at his hands. Her mouth fell just a touch at the corners. “Oh. Looks like you’re out.”
Jason stumbled over his tongue for a moment, too eager to assure her she could have his, and she gave him an odd look before he managed an intelligible, “No, you can have this one.”
Her smile returned, a little uncertain. “Are you sure?” He nodded. “Thanks!”
She turned to go. “Wait,” he called, holding out the launch tube and the first of the mortar shells to her when she looked back. “You wanna set off the first one?”
“Are you sure?” she repeated, her eyes gleaming eagerly. Such a little pyro, Jason thought fondly as he nodded. Her “Thanks!” was even more enthusiastic this time as she took the mortar and the launch tube from him and started jogging to the far end of the driveway.
Troy noticed Natalie heading down with the mortars and hollered a general warning to clear the area. Everyone headed back to the porch, ready to watch the good fireworks, patiently waiting their turn to launch. Natalie looked a little flushed, Jason thought. Probably a little unnerved by suddenly being the center of attention. Mentally, he commended himself for giving her his lighter, certain that this would ensure that the process would go smoothly.
Natalie bent to light the mortar, and Troy — always glad for an excuse to be loud — hollered “Fire in the hole!” as she hightailed it away from the mortar before it could take off.
Only, it didn’t. “Gotta keep the lighter there a bit longer, Natalie,” Maggie called from her spot just behind Jason, making him jump. Having that girl standing right behind him made him nervous.
Natalie nodded, looking sheepish, then went back and tried again. Only she couldn’t get the lighter to stay lit. After half a dozen attempts, the whole crowd was shouting helpful advice, and Jason was exchanging an increasingly panicked look with Troy. He had given Maggie the gimmicked lighter, right? He looked over his shoulder to meet gazes with Maggie, who was debating going to help Natalie, and asked as casually as he could, “Maggie, how’s your lighter working?”
Maggie’s eyes narrowed. “Fine. Set off quite a few things with it. Why?”
“Aw, crap,” he muttered.
Maggie looked from him to her now completely flustered and embarrassed best friend in complete disbelief and exclaimed, “You did not even — !”
Jason was now thoroughly wishing he hadn’t. He grabbed the lighter from Maggie’s hands and, ignoring her snarls, hurried down the driveway to Natalie’s side. “Here,” he said gruffly, holding the lighter out to her. “Try this one.”
Natalie, her wavy hair only partially hiding the red in her cheeks and the sweat beading on her brow, waved him away. “No, I can do it. I’ll get it. Just give me another second.” She held her lighter in front of her face, then banged it furiously against her hand, trying to ignore the talk from the porch. “This dumb thing — if I can just get it working right —”
“You can’t,” said Jason bluntly, still holding the other lighter out to her. At her insulted expression he explained, “Troy and I gimmicked it. So it’s not you. It just won’t work.”
He trailed off as her face crumpled into a look he was all too familiar with seeing. She dropped the lighter and he snatched it before it hit the ground, wanting to try and explain again, but she cut him off. Looking up at him accusingly, her eyes welling with tears as she blinked rapidly, she whispered fiercely, “Just the same as always” before turning and walking away, brushing past Troy, who was headed their direction, as if he weren’t even there.
“Here,” said Jason, slapping the good lighter into Troy’s hands, shoving the gimmicked one in his back pocket. “Light the mortars.”
Without giving Troy a chance to answer, Jason plowed after Natalie. Maggie, watching them go, decided to stay out of it. She had no idea what was going on, but maybe Natalie would finally tell the blond idiot to jerk off.
Natalie knew she was going to cry. It was ridiculous and she was doing her best to prevent it, but there it was. She hated being made a spectacle of. She stopped just around the side of the house and leaned back against the cool siding, burying her face in her hands. Ugh. Just when she started trusting him a little, he had to go and do this to her.
Ugh, ugh, ugh.
“Natalie?” The tentative question brought her head up just in time to see Jason reaching for her.
She jerked back, sliding away from him, closer to the back of the house. “What?” she demanded, refusing to meet his eyes.
“I — I just wanted… I mean…” She looked at him then, surprised to see he had moved much closer than she had thought he would have dared. She felt her lip quivering and did her best to still it, trying to look poised and only succeeding in looking injured.
“Why do you have to look like that?” Jason demanded fiercely, but his hands on her shoulders were gentle.
“Like what?” Natalie tried to sound defiant, but defiance and the sniffles of barely-held tears rarely mix well.
Jason’s voice dropped, “Like you used to when I wouldn’t let you climb trees with us.” He tucked her hair behind her ear. “Don’t look like that, Tassa. Please?”
Natalie’s eyelids fluttered as she blinked against more tears, backing slowly away from him yet again, his hands starting to slide off of her shoulders. “I just wanted -,”
“I know.” Jason’s hands didn’t fall away, merely grasped her wrists instead. “But you… you should never have to look like that.”
Natalie’s heart began to pound against her ribs, her breath coming short; she told herself that it was anger. Rage. She was furious with him. Yeah, that was it. But his expression was so… tender. Kind. Could she really be mad at a face like that?
Jason sighed – or maybe it was her name; could it have been? – then leaned down and gently kissed her.
Natalie closed her eyes, not kissing him back. Just standing. Her mind was a blank; nothing would process until he pulled away and fixed those brilliantly blue eyes on her, asking her if this was all right.
Unbidden, Troy’s off-handed comment returned to flash obnoxiously across her mind. He’s had so many girlfriends – he’s always trying to add another to the list.
“No,” Natalie whispered. Not her. She wouldn’t fall victim to this joke, at least. She wrenched her wrists away from his yielding grasp and spoke in a harsh voice she hardly recognized as her own, “Very funny, Thompson. Next time, just – just…” Nothing would come, and the tears had started again for reasons Natalie couldn’t fathom. She shook her head, turned on her heel, and walked rapidly away.
Jason watched her go, folding his arms and biting the inside of his cheek. A firework exploded overhead, and the delighted cries of Becky seemed strangely warped into something far more melancholy. The field was lost – what more could he do?
With a shake of his head, Jason pulled the barbecue lighter out of his back pocket and started to fix the gimmick, jogging back to the others hollering, “Don’t set off all the good ones, Troy. I only want one.”
Becky sat on the front porch, watching the guys light the last of the fireworks down at the end of the driveway. She was tired, and smelled like smoke, but it had been a fun evening. Glancing out over the grass, she frowned slightly. There was Natalie, sitting out on a blanket and talking to Maggie, her back to the fireworks. Becky had noticed that she hadn’t spoken to Jason since her lighter wouldn’t work. And Jason kept looking at Natalie when he thought no one would see.
Something would have to be done.
The next afternoon, Jason sat in the small kitchen of his apartment once again, working his way through a bag of cheesy chips. Troy had decided to get some work done this afternoon and wasn’t around to advise him about Natalie. Not that Jason was sure he wanted to listen to any more of Troy’s ideas.
Although, he conceded, the first one had actually been pretty good. It was that second one that Jason should’ve ignored.
He was just considering adding pickles to his afternoon snack when his cell phone rang, the ring tone indicating it was the Montessoris calling. For a moment, he considered ignoring it — a dinner invitation, while nice, wasn’t something he wanted until he figured out what to do about Natalie — but decided he should at least have the courtesy to answer.
“Yeah?” he queried, tucking the phone against his cheek and reaching for a paper towel.
“Jason?” came Becky’s young voice.
“Becky?” Jason replied in surprise. “Whaddaya need, kiddo?”
“Um… well… the thing is… uh…” Becky giggled nervously. “I thought you promised to … uh… to take me to get some ice cream. Um… today.”
Jason stared at the paper towel, perplexedly trying to remember saying any such thing. He didn’t. But then, Natalie had occupied most of his thoughts the last 24 hours. “Oh, right!” he said, trying to sound enthusiastic. “You’re right. I’ll be over in just a bit, okay?”
“Um… okay,” replied Becky, her voice sounding small and excited.
“Just… be ready. Come out and meet me at the car, all right? And make sure you tell your mom where you’re going.”
“Okay,” replied Becky, and Jason could just imagine her nodding happily, her sleek ponytail swinging as she rocked up and down on her toes. She was a good kid. “See you in a minute.”
“Yup,” agreed Jason. “Bye.”
“Bye,” Becky said, then hung up, her expression supremely satisfied. She hurried away to get her shoes, calling out, “Mom! Jason wants to take me to get some ice cream!” as she scampered down the stairs.
She was waiting at the window when Jason pulled up, the McLaren dusty from the back roads, and she bolted out the door to meet him. Susan waved from the door, and Jason acknowledged her with a raised hand before leaning over to open the door for Becky. “Hey, shortie,” he greeted her cheerfully, quickly warming up to the idea of not being alone with his thoughts all afternoon. “Where to?”
Becky named a popular local ice cream parlor, and they were off. Becky chattered on and on about this and that, and Jason encouraged her. He wondered occasionally how long she could go on, as she continued talking all through the decision, ordering, and most of the eating process. But overall he was content not to have to try too hard.
As they finished up their ice cream, however, Becky fell silent and began stirring her spoon around in the chocolatey slop left in her dish. Jason watched her for a minute, then asked with only a hint of sarcasm, “Trying to think of something else to talk about?”
Becky shook her head, not looking up. She stopped stirring long enough to grab a napkin from the table’s napkin dispenser and wipe up a stray splatter of chocolate, then picked up her spoon and resumed stirring. Another silent moment, then she took a deep breath and blurted, “My mom says that when boys pick on you, it means they like you.”
For a moment, Jason knew utter panic. That was all he needed, for Becky to think his or Troy’s teasing meant that they liked her. If Maggie heard, no one would ever find the pieces, never mind the bodies. “It can,” he said cautiously, then added with a forced laugh, “Why, someone I need to beat up for you for picking on you too much?”
Becky met his laughing gaze with serious hazel eyes. “No. I—I just thought… Um…” She took another deep breath and blurted again: “You pick on Natalie. A lot. So I thought maybe you liked her. So I thought… I thought I should tell you…” She watched his face slowly turning red and wondered if that was a good or a bad sign. She chose to take it as a good thing and finished, “I thought I should tell you that she’s grown up and she doesn’t like being picked on. You probably should try to get her to like you some other way.”
Jason was now grateful that Becky had waited until he was done eating, else he would have choked. Not her crush, and that was good news, but his own crush was hardly a better subject.
“You do like her, right?” asked Becky worriedly. “I wouldn’t tell her,” she added comfortingly. Jason didn’t have the heart to lie to her innocent interest, so he nodded. “For a long time, I guess,” Becky continued. Jason nodded again, praying silently that he wasn’t this transparent to everyone else. “So… yeah. You should be nice to her.”
“Right. And how would you suggest I do that?” Jason again tried very hard not to be sarcastic. This time he failed miserably.
Fortunately, Becky completely missed the sarcasm. Eagerly, she plunked her purse down on the table, searching into the depths and emerging with a purple, sparkly notebook and a pen with some kind of fluffy, feathered top. Looking at it made Jason want to sneeze.
“Here’s what I was thinking,” Becky said as she flipped the notebook open, passing pages marked with dire warnings of DO NOT READ and others covered with hearts and secret confessions. Jason was tempted to grab it and, taunting her, distract the child from her goal.
He hesitated too long, not really able to be that mean, and she stopped flipping. “Right here.” She pointed the feathery tip of her pen at the list as she read it off.
“First, flowers. All girls like flowers, especially Natalie.” She looked up at him, and for a moment he was back in second grade, being told not to run in the halls. “Roses. Red ones, ‘cause boys never buy her flowers.” She looked down again. “Chocolate would also be good. And fancy dinners because she likes to dress up.” Jason maintained a polite listening face, trying not to stare at the giant Jason Loves Natalie slogan at the top of the page. “She likes music, duh, so you should play your guitar and maybe sing to her. At her window, because that’s romantic. Or you could borrow a horse and rescue her from something.” She paused for a moment, looking vaguely at the ceiling, her chin propped on her fists and the purple feathers drooping toward the table, “Can’t think of anything she needs to be saved from, though.”
Jason sighed, resting his chin on his own fists, and she brought her eyes down to meet his. “Becky, your list is great.” She grinned at him, pleased. “The thing is, I’ve thought of most of those things — not all,” he amended as her face fell. “The horse thing is… awesome. But listen, we have a different problem.” Becky did her best to give him a wise look and came off looking like she smelled something rotten. Jason failed to keep the amused grin off his face and covered it with his palm before speaking around it, “The problem is that Natalie thinks I hate her. She told you that herself.” Becky tried to interrupt, but Jason held up a hand and finished, “So whatever I do, she’ll think I’m just trying to make fun of her again.”
Becky contemplated this for a long moment, a scowl wrinkling her elfin features. “That’s right. I didn’t think about that.” She sat back in her seat, tapping the fingers of one hand on the table and brushing her chin with her pen while she thought. Jason let her, crumpling napkins and stuffing them into his empty ice cream cup while trying to come up with a plausible exit strategy. “Got it!” Becky crowed suddenly, pounding both hands on the table so hard she almost flew off her seat. “You have to apologize!”
Jason stared at her for a long minute, and Becky stared back, her grin stretching from one side of her face to the other. “Becky, I dunno. I tried to apologize before—”
“Well, but she was still all upset and stuff,” Becky said dismissively. “That won’t work. Go find her when she’s not angry and just tell her — well, tell her you’re sorry. That you were being silly because you liked her and you want to buy her ice cream or something and maybe hold her hand and maybe…”
The girl stopped, giggling, and Jason didn’t stop himself from rolling his eyes this time. “Come on,” he said, grabbing their garbage. “I should get you home.”
Becky pinned his hand to the table with the feathery end of her pen, glaring up at him. “Seriously, Thompson,” she said, imitating Troy. “Do it.”
Jason sighed. “It’s just not that easy, short stack.”
Becky stared up at him, her hazel eyes almost as thickly fringed as her sister’s, and Jason felt his heart lurch at the possibility that it really was that simple. “I’ll think about it,” he promised, trying to move his hand.
Becky moved the pen with it, not breaking eye contact. “Think about it now.” She paused, blinked. “Done yet?”
An explosive laugh burst out of Jason’s chest and he shook his head, thinking quickly. Confession was the one plan he hadn’t come up with and rejected yet, he supposed. And right off the cuff, he couldn’t think of any reason why it was doomed to fail any more than any other plan. Might even work.
Either way, he wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore.
“Yes,” he said finally. Becky eyed him suspiciously. “And okay, I’ll apologize.”
Becky pulled the pen away, snapping the book shut with an imperious, “Try flowers after that, okay?”
Jason nodded as he finished gathering garbage. “Thanks, squirt.”
“Notta squirt,” Becky mumbled as she tried to lick the last chocolate off of the spoon she’d saved before Jason had trashed it. She swallowed and grinned at him, tossing the spoon into the can, “I’m right.”
“I don’t suppose you’re about to try and push this off onto me, are you?” Maggie inquired, looking down at the still-warm casserole dish in her lap.
Natalie sighed, resting her arms on the steering wheel of her car as she stared up at the apartment complex rising around her. “Eh,” she hedged, pausing to scratch her nose. Even without looking at her, she saw Maggie raise her eyesbrows. “Yes,” she admitted gustily. “It’s not like it was my idea to bring them the leftovers, anyway.”
“I know,” Maggie replied sympathetically. “Your mom seems to think they’re not even capable of opening a cereal box to feed themselves.”
Natalie looked at her, expression hopeful. “You’ll run it up to them, then?”
Maggie shrugged. “Sure.”
“Without chewing anyone out, right?”
Maggie laughed. “Oh, take all the fun out of it.”
Natalie grinned at Maggie, thanking herself for being brilliant enough not to tell Maggie about Jason’s stolen kiss the day before. If she had, the casserole delivery would’ve inevitably ended with crockery breaking over someone’s head.
Maggie unlatched the car door, then pushed it open with her shoulder, wiggling carefully out of the car so as not to upset the casserole dish in her hands. She paused, stuck her head back in the car and said, “Hey, I’m not sure where they are. Walk me over to the building at least?”
With Natalie’s help, Maggie found the correct building post-haste and, Natalie having promised not to go anywhere, headed up to the third floor apartment of Natalie’s antagonists. She reached the door, knocked, then waited. No one came. Maggie sighed; Susan had called before sending the girls off on their errand and the boys knew full well that food was coming. Of course, Maggie would just as soon leave the dish on the porch and let the food go bad before they found it, but she supposed Susan wouldn’t be happy with that. So instead, muttering to herself about the annoyance of long fingernails on slick door handles, Maggie balanced the casserole dish with one hand and grappled the door open with the other.
“Hey,” she hollered as she pushed it open with her foot, “I’ve got food. Come and get…”
She trailed off. Troy was there, after all, standing several feet away and directly in front of her. It was, apparently, his company who had kept him from answering the door as promptly as might be polite. Given how preoccupied he appeared, Maggie decided not to waste any more of his time.
“Here,” she said casually, tossing the casserole dish to the man standing closest to Troy. The man immediately dropped the gun he had been holding in Troy’s face to block the casserole dish from beaning him in the head. Maggie didn’t wait to see if he succeeded, instead dropping to a crouch and sweeping the legs out from under a second assailant, handily sending him toppling into the third assailant, whose gun fired wildly in response, plaster raining down from the ceiling, the sound almost drowning out the cacophony of shattering crockery.
“Aw, man, you broke Mom M’s best casserole dish,” Troy complained. Maggie didn’t bother to look up, focusing instead on finishing her pile-drive into the solar plexus of the man whose legs she had attacked. She succeeded, only to find herself grasped by the wrist. She glared up into the face of the owner of the misfired gun. He growled something, tossed her wrist to the side and grasped at her face.
“I’m certain that was unprintable,” Maggie told him matter-of-factly, deftly dodging his grasp and bringing her hand around with a raking motion across his eyes.
The assailant howled in pain, arching backwards and away from her, and Maggie took a moment to eye her manicure. Not bad. Not bad at all.
“Let’s split,” came the sudden order from behind her. Maggie turned to see the first gun holder, his lip bloodied and jaw turning dark, dragging himself out the door.
“Hey, we weren’t—” Maggie was interrupted by the prone man beneath her, who suddenly shoved her away, rolled to his feet like a drunken elephant, and sprinted clumsily for the door, the final assailant on his heels, still clutching at his right eye.
“You all right?” Troy was behind her suddenly, helping her up.
“Fine, fine,” Maggie shrugged him off, popping to her feet without trouble. “Follow them?”
Troy waved his hand, brushing the matter away. “Who, them? Nah. Don’t need to concern ourselves with it.”
“You’re lying,” Maggie replied flatly. She gave Troy just enough time to look surprised and not a little annoyed before she turned to go. “You won’t stop them? I will.”
Troy reached out for her, grasping her by the shoulder. “Listen, Maggie, I appreciate the help but you can’t let the adrenaline carry you away.”
Maggie glared at him, then at his hand, then back at him. “Well, I suppose if it’s you who’s on the wrong side of the law, rather than them…”
Troy offered her a thin smile, and Maggie jerked away, breaking into a run as she hit the doorway — just in time to hear the ear-piercing shriek rolling up at them from the parking lot. Maggie made an immediate turn, bringing her to the railing on the landing just in time to see Natalie disappearing into a minivan, the door closing far too quickly behind her. Troy hauled up short behind her, then hopped up on top of the railing. Before Maggie could even register what was happening, Troy had leapt from the railing, hit the ground, and was running to the rapidly retreating minivan. Before he could get there, Jason rocketed out of nowhere, slamming into the minivan door and trying to wrench it open. The minivan just picked up speed, careening around the corner so quickly that Jason couldn’t do anything but drop, rolling across the pavement and ending back on his feet just as Troy reached him. Troy started talking immediately as Jason started sprinting back across the parking lot, Troy on his heels.
Maggie finally shook herself out of her shock as they reached the McLaren, sitting unattended, its engine idling, and yelled, “Hey! Hey, wait!”
Before she could even turn to run down the stairs, Troy hollered back, “Can’t. Dinner date. Tell Mom we’re sorry about the dish.” The boys slammed into the car. “Don’t worry about Natalie. We’ll have her back in time for curfew.”
Troy’s assurance was almost drowned as Jason revved the engine, speeding away smoothly as Maggie pounded down the last few stairs and ran into the parking space where the minivan had been. She stopped there, breathing heavily as her chest constricted. She put her hands on her knees, forcing herself to breathe deeply, closing her eyes for a long moment. “Stupid girl,” she finally muttered, opening her eyes and standing up straight. “She has the car keys.”
Natalie slammed into the floor of the minivan, half-trampled beneath a scrambling of booted feet, half-deafened by squealing tires as everyone tried to find a seat and the car took off.
“What’d you bring her for?” the driver demanded, squinting out the windshield into the setting sun, swerving wildly onto the shortest route to the highway.
“Hostage,” grunted the man who’d grabbed her, his boot on her ribcage pinning her on her side.
“Stupid,” snorted someone from the backseat. “Now they’re just going to follow us.”
“They’ve been closing in for days,” came a short reply from the front passenger’s seat. “Now we have something to negotiate with.”
“Pretty sure the government has a policy on negotiations,” muttered Backseat again.
“Shut. Up,” snarled the driver, turning onto the highway’s on ramp with enough speed to tip the van dangerously to the side. “Driving.”
There was silence, broken only by nervous shuffling and Natalie’s breath coming harsh in her own ears. This was ridiculous. Kidnapped, and with a boot crushing the air right out of her. Not the way she’d planned to spend her night. Minus the boot, sure…
Natalie stifled a hysterical giggle at her own flitting thoughts, then ordered herself to be serious. What did one do when one had been kidnapped? There were at least 4 full-grown men in this minivan and she wasn’t Maggie, so fighting was a no-go. They were careening down the highway at ridiculous speeds, so attempting to wrench a door open and jump would end painfully one way or the other.
Her face had ended up unceremoniously stuffed under the middle bench seat, and from where she lay she could see all the way to the back door of the minivan. Nothing useful there except another pair of booted feet. Cautiously, she turned her head the other way and got no reaction. Okay, must be ignoring her. Good. Right? Not that moving her head was remotely useful. Stuck as she was, even wrenching her head as far as it would go all she could see was the edge of the seat and a sliver of the roof. With a sigh, Natalie settled her head back to the floor, examining the bars that held the seats in place. Maybe something could be done with those?
“Hey,” Backseat spoke suddenly, distracting her, “is that a McLaren?”
“A what?” replied the owner of the boot on Natalie’s ribcage, shifting so that his foot ground upward into her shoulder.
“A McLaren.” Greeted by silence, Backseat sighed, “The MP4-12C?”
Boots turned all the way around to look out the back window, his foot lifting off of Natalie for a minute. She sighed with relief, then sucked in a breath. Her cell phone. It was in her pocket. “Where?” Boots demanded.
“Just coming up. The gray with orange accents.” Natalie darted her hand to her jeans pocket, fumbled around for a moment, snatched the phone out and pulled it up next to her face, under the seat. “It’s from McLaren, the Mercedes/McLaren Formula 1 –,”
“Oh, that,” grunted Boots as he turned around and firmly planted his boot back on Natalie’s ribs. She did her best to cover the sudden squeal at the pressure, turning the phone’s screen on with shaking hands and frantically turning the sound and vibrate notifications off. “It’s not like it’s a ‘Stang or something, man.”
Backseat’s reply was a put-upon sigh. “Really? A Mustang over the 12C? You have no idea—,”
“Shut up,” Passenger’s Seat reminded them. “We don’t seem to have anyone following us, but he’s still driving.”
“Only interesting car I’ve seen since we came out here,” mumbled Backseat as he put his feet up on the seat in front of him, “and it’s already passed us.”
Natalie silently let out the breath she’d been holding. The phone wouldn’t go off now. The question was whom to contact, and when. None of the men were likely to see her texting, except possibly Passenger Seat, if he looked around. She had to assume that she wouldn’t be able to get off more than one or two texts. She shuddered to think what would happen if she got caught.
“Uh, dude, you just passed the minivan,” Troy spoke for the first time since Jason had started driving. He hadn’t objected when Jason had gone around the long way in the first place, the McLaren having no trouble making up the lost ground. Passing might be a bit of overkill though.
“Yeah, I know,” Jason replied distractedly, glancing around. “After all that effort to take the long way so they wouldn’t notice us, it seems like a bad idea to sit on their tail.”
“Hm,” agreed Troy. “Plan?”
“Sure, yeah. Stop them.”
“Right. Good. How?”
“Open to suggestions.”
Troy folded his arms, considering as Jason changed lanes. “I got nothing. I guess we could wait till they get somewhere and try the classic ‘rescue the girl from the bad guy’s lair’ schtick.”
“Too done,” Jason disagreed, his hands gripping the wheel convulsively. “We’re better than that.”
Troy considered the rear view mirror for a second. “How ‘bout trapping them in a road block?”
Jason glanced in the rear view as well, his mouth slanting into a thin smile when he saw the semi-truck right behind them. “Hm. Possibility.”
“Give us some time to think, anyway,” Troy agreed, not flinching when Jason suddenly cut back across the lanes, missing the minivan’s bumper by less than a foot as it came speeding up the left lane. Jason waited only a moment, then braked gently, forcing the minivan to slow its pace until it was even with the semi.
“Right,” answered Jason, chewing the inside of his cheek. “Think fast.”
“What the—,” the driver swore suddenly, slamming on the brakes. “Idiot!”
“It’s that McDonald car from earlier,” commented Boots. Natalie turned her phone’s screen on. They were distracted. This was as good a chance as any.
“McLaren,” corrected Backseat, his feet dropping to the floor so quickly it made Natalie flinch. The seat above her creaked as he leaned forward. “Gorgeous.”
She’d debated for a long time who to text, and now all she could do was pray she’d made the right choice. She had to hit the “send” button several times before the text went, her sweaty fingers leaving trails on the screen.
“Waste of a car, driving at that speed,” grumbled Boots.
The driver swore again, slamming the steering wheel with a fist. “Now we’re stuck.”
“The semi’ll slow down in a few minutes here when we hit the interchange,” soothed Passenger Seat. “We can slide around then. Keep cool.”
Troy’s pocket beeped at him. “Probably can’t just shoot out the driver,” he suggested as he slid his phone out.
“No,” Jason ground his teeth around the answer. “We don’t know where Natalie is. A wreck could kill her.”
Troy blinked at his phone. “I’ve got a text.”
“Not the time, Troy.”
“It says, ‘Troy, this is really weird but I’ve been kidnapped.’”
“Natalie?” The car swerved a bit as Jason tried to look at the phone. “Ask her where she is. Where she is in the car.”
“I am. Eyes on the road, man.”
Natalie kept brushing her finger across the screen, scrolling her texts up and down to keep the screen from turning off. “You know,” commented Backseat thoughtfully, “you really don’t see a car like that around often. ‘Specially not an area like this.”
“Shut up about the car,” growled the driver. “It’s in the way. That’s enough.”
A text popped up. Natalie held her breath for a moment, then let it out slowly, confused. Not the time to wonder, though. On the floor, she typed her reply. Between the front and middle seats.
“Tell her to hang on,” Jason responded immediately when Troy read out the text. He glanced back in the rearview mirror, then ahead again. This was the last straight stretch before the interchange.
“Sure. Text sent.” Troy raised an eyebrow in Jason’s direction. “Plan?”
“Stop them,” Jason repeated calmly. He plied the brakes gently, bringing his rear bumper almost in contact with the minivan inching up anxiously behind him. Then, before the other driver had time to react, he put his foot down.
Natalie read Troy’s text with puzzlement. Then the driver swore and she dropped the phone and grasped for the nearest cross bar. She didn’t reach it before the car jerked and she was forced up against the driver’s seat. The next moments were confusion, noise, shouting, squealing. A jolt and a thud. More squealing and swearing. A rough stop, momentary silence.
The door at her feet slid open; Natalie froze. Then a familiar voice: “I win. I’d leave those guns where they are if I were you.” The door by her head was opening now, her head that was spinning. Someone grasped her by the shoulders, hauled her forcibly out of the car. Banged her knee on the way out but didn’t pause for the pain, just wrapped an arm around her shoulders and hauled her away from the minivan. Didn’t stop until she’d been dragged off to the middle of the grassy median, well north of the two cars stopped in the left lane. Finally deposited her on her feet but didn’t give her the time to catch her balance before turning her around and gripping her shoulders.
Jason. It was Jason. Ooooh, of course. Figured. She realized he was speaking to her, and decided to tune in since he looked distinctly unhappy. “Are you okay?” he demanded roughly, squeezing her shoulders.
Natalie stared at him for a moment, then shook her head quickly to clear it and replied. “Yeah. Fine. I mean, I’m fine. I’m good.”
“Thank the Lord,” he breathed. All at once, his arms were around her, reassuring and smothering and positively male. “I thought I’d lost you. I thought you’d gone before I had a chance to tell you I loved you.”
Natalie stiffened, but Jason didn’t notice as he released her. “Listen, stay here –,”
“Dude!” Troy yelled from over by the cars. “Seriously? Not really the time.”
Jason sighed, looked back at her one more time. In spite of herself, Natalie felt the tears welling up in her eyes. Stupid eyes, always getting so emotional. Jason gripped her arm, leaned in and kissed her fiercely, then released her and jogged away, pulling out a sidearm as he went.
Natalie sank into the grass, hugging herself and shivering slightly to the sound of sirens in the distance. The crisp breeze carried Troy’s teasing words to her: “Can’t believe you bashed up the McLaren for a girl.”
Jason’s reply was just as clear, “Do it again in a heartbeat.”
Natalie sat on the bed in the ER patient cubicle, her hands in her lap, waiting for the nurse to return with her discharge papers. Not that she’d needed the check-over, really, but Jason hadn’t given her much of a choice. Once the police had shown up, thanks to a call from Maggie, she’d been taken to the police station to give a statement, then bundled unceremoniously into another police car, this time with Jason driving, and taken straight to the hospital.
She swung her legs a little as she waited, glad to be out of the hospital gown and back in her own clothes, grateful for the quiet moment to process everything that had happened. Not that there was that much to process, she supposed. A short ride in a minivan, a few texts. A couple of huge bruises on her back and one on her knee.
Natalie gave a tremendous sigh and flopped back onto the bed, closing her eyes. She didn’t even know what to think about that. He’d seemed genuine, just like he had yesterday. Wow, yesterday. That seemed like a long time ago, now.
“Hey, they told me you were all right.”
The edge of panic and the fact that it was Jason’s voice brought Natalie shooting upright so quickly she collided with his chest. “Fine. I’m fine,” she managed as she tried to disentangle herself from his steadying hands. “Really, totally fine. Just fine. Just resting my eyes. I’m fine.”
She waved him off, clamping her mouth shut against more babbling, and he finally took a step back. He stared at her for a moment, as if trying to decide whether he believed her or not. When it looked like he might speak, though, Natalie jumped in with the first thing that came to mind rather than let him come off with more confusion for her. “So… what was up with that?”
“Up with what now?”
“The minivan guys. Wearing boots, all of them. Hiking club?”
She offered a pretty sad attempt at a laugh, and Jason humored her with a smile, shoving his hands in his pockets. “That. Yeah, not so much. Work stuff. Um… Troy had a meeting with them that didn’t… go … as planned, so…”
Natalie did laugh now. “Jason Thompson, fumbling for words.” He started to defend himself, but Natalie just brushed it off. “I’m gonna go with, this is something I don’t want to know about.”
Jason let out a slight sigh of relief. “No. Probably not. Not now, anyway.”
He was looking at her again, an intensity in those blue eyes that made her want to hide. She broke eye contact first, looking down at her lap and mumbling, “Sorry about your car, by the way. The guys in the minivan made it sound like it was a nice one. I mean, I knew it was a nice one or whatever. But something about McDonald’s and Formula 1…”
Jason laughed, settling down on the bed next to her so their shoulders were touching. “No big deal. It’s technically a work car, so they’ll replace it.”
Natalie scratched her nose. “Now I’m tempted to ask all over again.” She shook her head, then glanced up at him, only to find she couldn’t look away from those eyes. “I won’t, though,” she managed with a nervous laugh, brushing her hair back over her shoulder. He just watched her. The silence stretched for a moment, then Natalie blurted, “Are you going to kiss me again?”
Jason blinked. “If you want me to, I’m game.” Then he rolled his eyes at himself, leaning back on his hands. “I should apologize for that, I guess.” He looked at her, then turned his stare on the ceiling. “The thing is, you make me say things. I mean, you have this weird… I can’t seem to keep my mouth shut around you. Stuff just kind of… comes out.” Natalie folded her arms across her lap, not looking at him. “That’s why I always picked on you, you know.”
Natalie scoffed. “What, because I’m so pick on-able that the truth just kept falling out of your mouth?”
“No.” Natalie turned to look at him, but he was still staring at the ceiling. “I’ve loved you for… years. Just years. Picking on you was a habit that kept me from spilling what I was really thinking.” He finally rolled his head to the right to lock eyes with her again. “I’m tired of it, though. You don’t deserve it, and I hate hurting you. So for now you’re just going to have to put up with the actual truth, I guess.”
Natalie was staring, that adorable deer-in-the-headlights look she got when she was unsure all over her face. Adorable, but not exactly what he would’ve liked to see.
With a sigh, Jason got to his feet. Not that he had expected any different. Just kind of… hoped. “Listen, I’ll go find the nurse and see about your discharge papers so I can take you home.” He offered her a crooked grin, one that Natalie recognized as a cover for unhappy feelings. “Maggie’s probably—,”
“I do like you, you know.” Natalie felt the color flooding her cheeks, and the change in his expression made it worse. “I – I mean… I just mean that I don’t dislike you. I think you’re a fathead sometimes, but you’re nice sometimes and – and Becky likes you and so do all the girls at church.”
She frowned momentarily, but kept on talking, “They like you a lot. Too much. In fact, Troy says you collect girlfriends and –,”
Jason burst out laughing, a long, full laugh that stopped Natalie dead and had her blinking her long-lashed eyes at him in confusion. “I’m sorry,” Jason managed after a moment. “The look on your face – I didn’t mean to piss you off by having girlfriends.”
Natalie frowned furiously, “I don’t care if you have a million girlfriends, Jason Thompson, I just—!”
Jason held his hands palm up in a gesture of peace, looking amused but contrite. “Sorry. Sorry, seriously. Teasing you will be a hard habit to break. You look so cute when you wrinkle your nose at me.” Natalie stuck her tongue out at him, but couldn’t quite conjure any real anger. “Truth is, Troy’s right. I’ve dated dozens of girls over the years. Several at a time, just for a few dates, you know?”
Natalie shrugged uncomfortably and Jason folded his arms. “I was trying to get over you.” Natalie felt herself blushing again, once again trapped by his gaze. Darn those gorgeous eyes. “But I never found anyone I could even begin to like as much as you – forget loving them.” He held out a hand to her. “Come on, hop down. I really should take you home.”
Natalie took his hand and stood slowly, giving him a strange look. “Are you seriously going to spend the rest of the summer spouting these story-book perfect confessions and expect me to just treat them like you asked me how the weather is?”
Jason squeezed her hand, dropped it, and shrugged. “Frankly, I don’t see any other way to handle this. You scared the schiznick out of me, getting kidnapped like that. I’m not going anywhere until I have to. I’m not going to let you out of my sight unless I have to. And if I talk, it’s coming out.” He paused and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I suppose I could follow you around all silent and sphinx-like. Maggie would love that.”
Natalie slugged his shoulder. “Or you could, I dunno, treat me like a normal girl and ask me out.” Jason looked down at her with a raised eyebrow. “Oh, come on, Jason.” That blush was creeping up yet again, darn it. This time, though, she at least refused to stammer. “I said I like you. Isn’t that… a good start?” Jason was closing the distance between them again, and it was unnerving. “Maybe?”
“I agree completely,” he said solemnly. “But if you’re going to say nice things to me—,” he interrupted himself to kiss her gently, then pulled back to study her face. “You’re going to get kissed.”
Natalie cocked her head to the side. “Even if I say no to the kissing?”
Jason leaned in again. “Are you saying no?”
“No.” It came out breathless and squeaky, and his answer was to wrap his arms around her and kiss the way he’d wanted to for years.
This left Natalie lightheaded enough that she didn’t even think to be embarrassed when the nurse finally did reappear with her discharge papers. Jason turned her around by the shoulders to accept the papers, made all the appropriate responses, then steered her out of the patient room before Natalie turned and glared at him accusingly, “You’re laughing at me. I can sense it.”
Jason shook his head, a wide grin on his face. “Nope. Cross my heart, darling. Just happy.”
Natalie shook her head at him, stepping away from his hands and opening the building doors so they could head out to the parking lot. “Don’t get too cocky with that ‘darling’ thing, boy. You haven’t convinced me yet.”
Jason reached out and squeezed her elbow. “I know. But I’ll take it.”
Maggie, sitting on the floor of Natalie’s room late that night, gave an exaggerated sigh and a shake of her curly hair when Natalie finished telling her story. “I give you a week, ten days at the outside, before you’re a big pile of Jason-loving mush.” Her mouth twisted in disgust. “The little jerk.”
Natalie, laying back on her pillows, just laughed at Maggie. “You’re probably right. If he can behave himself.”
Maggie snorted. “That’s the problem. He will.” She propped her chin in her hands and rolled her eyes. “I hate to say it, but after watching the soppy way he followed you around tonight, I have to believe him.” She blew out a breath, then tacked on a mischievous smile. “I do like watching him worship the ground you walk on. Heaven knows you deserve it.”
Natalie contemplated the ceiling. “I dunno about that.” She rolled over and sat herself up to grin at Maggie, “But I’m certainly enjoying it.”
Maggie groaned. “Not even a week. Five days.”
Natalie rolled back onto her pillows. “T-minus five days to loving Jason-the-Terror.” She hugged herself and smiled. “Doesn’t sound so bad, after all.”