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“Thanks,” Jillian says.
“Are you and Guyliner still together?” Adam asks.
Jillian elbows him right in the gut. “Don’t call him that.”
“I heard Brandon was coming back to town this weekend,” Adam continues.
God, he’s such a shit-stirrer. Kat’s heart plummets, but she tries to look nonchalant. “Yeah, he’s visiting his parents. I think he and Mase might grab coffee.”
“And you’re totally okay with that?” Adam laughs. “You used to freak out when I even talked to another girl, but you’re cool with Mase going out to lunch with his boyfriend? Yeah right.”
“Adam, that’s none of your business,” Jillian says through gritted teeth.
Kat smirks. “His ex-boyfriend. And I don’t mind, because unlike some people, Mase doesn’t have a history of cheating on everyone he’s with.”
She sashays away without looking over her shoulder to see how that landed. Adam wants to stir shit up? Well, two can play at that game. Sorry, Pen. I tried.
“Kat, honey, can you grab more cupcakes from the fridge upstairs?” Miss Lydia calls.
Kat nods. “You’ve got the door?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Miss Lydia grins at her. “Look at you. Between you and Mason, you two could run this place yourselves, couldn’t you?”
Mase has disappeared from behind the counter. Kat frowns. Is he in the back texting Brandon? She can’t complain if he is. He hasn’t taken his lunch break yet, even though it’s almost three o’clock.
She runs upstairs and almost collides with him in the hall, coming out of the staff bathroom. He’s carrying Shadow. “You’re gonna get adopted, buddy! That lady seemed suuuuper nice,” he’s telling the cat, nose to furry black nose.
Kat grins. “Awww. He loves you.”
“He’s my favorite,” Mase says.
“I thought I was your favorite,” she flirts, reaching up and tightening her ponytail. Her shirt rises just a little, revealing the pale skin of her stomach.
Mase’s eyes dart down and then back up to her face. “Kat—” he starts, putting Shadow down gently on Miss Lydia’s desk.
Kat steps closer, her heart racing. “Yes?”
“I’m sorry if I’ve been kind of a dick this week.”
“If?” Kat raises her eyebrows. “Kind of?”
Mase shrugs. “I deserve that. I guess…I’ve been kind of confused about what’s going on with us. It got hard to tell what was real and what was pretend.”
Kat’s heart leaps. She thinks of Ms. Randall’s acting advice: Make strong choices. Be bold, even if you’re wrong.
“This,” she announces, leaning in, “is for real.”
She winds both arms around Mase’s neck, and her mouth moves slowly, sweetly, over his. He tastes like chocolate milk and vanilla buttercream. His hands trace the small of her back, the bare skin above the waistband of her skirt. It’s a small thing, but somehow it makes her heart beat a sharp staccato rhythm against her ribs. She opens her mouth, and his tongue touches hers.
“Mase!” Maxwell shouts from downstairs, and they reluctantly break apart.
Mase runs a hand over his swoopy hair. “I’m going to kill him. He has terrible timing.”
“I guess we should go back downstairs.” Kat sighs, and they clatter down the steps.
“You two! Get over here for a picture,” Pen commands, wielding her Polaroid camera.
Kat hesitates, but Mase grabs her hand and pulls her in front of the chalkboard wall. He wraps one arm around her. She puts both arms around his waist and tilts her head against his. When she’s in flats, they’re the same height.
“You’re so adorable, I want to vomit,” Pen declares. “I’d tell you to smile, but you already look disgustingly happy.”
“Penelope,” Miss Lydia chides. She smiles at Kat. “Where are those cupcakes, dear?”
Busted. Kat looks at Mase, and they both start laughing.
“Were you two upstairs making out? Oh my God, you totally were, weren’t you?” Pen demands.
“No!” They chorus, blushing and grinning at each other.
This is real. It has to be. Kat doesn’t care who’s watching or if nobody is at all.
Pen snaps another picture.
“Stop,” Kat whines. “You’re supposed to take pictures of the customers. And I need to go back upstairs and get the cupcakes.”
“You need help?” Mase asks, waggling his eyebrows at her.
How is it possible that she’s missed his silly suggestive eyebrow waggle?
“Mase!” Maxwell shouts. “Stop flirting and get over here.”
“Yeah,” a familiar male voice says. “I need coffee. It was a long-ass drive.”
The smile slides right off Mase’s face. He stares across the room like he’s seen a ghost.
He’s tall and broad shouldered, with floppy dark hair and blue eyes. He’s wearing square hipster glasses and skinny jeans and a short-sleeved blue shirt that shows off the thick muscles of his arms and shoulders. He’s got kind of a Clark Kent vibe. Kat can acknowledge that.
And he’s Mase’s first love. His first everything, he said.
“Cupcakes,” she says, grabbing Pen’s hand and dragging her, stumbling, up the stairs.
“Kat! Hey, slow down,” Pen complains.
“Did you know he was here? Is that why you said we looked happy?” Kat demands.
Did Mase see him too? Is that why he put his arm around her and posed with her and looked at her like—
Like it was real?
No. She saw his face when he heard Brandon’s voice. He hadn’t known.
“You are adorable. And you clearly were upstairs making out,” Pen says. “Why shouldn’t Brandon know he has serious competition?”
Kat starts stacking cupcake cartons on the desk, one on top of the other.
“Oh shit, Kat. You really like him, don’t you?” Pen says.
Kat nods. If she had any doubts before, she doesn’t now. She wanted Adam back because she didn’t want Jillian to have him. Because she didn’t like that he chose someone else over her. She wants Mase because he’s funny and sweet and he hasn’t asked for his cardigan with the leather elbows back and he gives the best shoulder massages and he makes her laugh and he knows her favorite flavor is strawberry and sometimes he sings Hamilton with the lyrics changed to be about the cats and—
“I really do,” she admits.
But when she goes back downstairs, Mase is gone. And so is Brandon.
As Vi lugs the last box of books inside the store, her phone chirps with a text from Cece. She knows it’s from Cece because she’s assigned her texts a special tone. Vi sets the box down and pulls her phone out of her back pocket.
Changing now. You ready?
Vi’s heart races. “Cece’s finishing up next door. Do you need me for anything else?”
Gram looks up from unloading the penultimate box. “No, that’s okay, sweetheart. You’ve been a big help today. You go and enjoy the fireworks.”
“Are you sure? Des was supposed to help close.” Vi peers at Gram. It seems like she gets tired more easily since her surgery, especially when she’s on her feet too much. Like today.
“I’m positive. You shouldn’t miss out on the fireworks because your sister ran off.” Gram tries to smile, but it falls flat.
“Neither should you,” Vi says. Des stormed out midafternoon, right in the middle of her shift, after Gram accused Paige of stealing money from the cash box. She hasn’t been back since. Vi tried texting her and asking what was going on, but Des hasn’t responded.
“I’m too tired to walk down and watch the fireworks anyhow. I’m going to go home, put my feet up, have a glass of rosé, and watch some House Hun
ters. Those people make me so mad, but I love it.” Gram’s blue eyes soften behind her glasses. “You and Cece have been spending an awful lot of time together lately. Anything you want to tell me about that?”
“We’re just friends,” Vi says, too fast. “I think. For now, anyway.” She unpacks some of the books to avoid looking at Gram. She doesn’t want to say too much. Cece’s sexuality isn’t hers to share.
Gram nods, her gray head bobbing. “She’s a sweet girl.”
Vi can’t help the enormous smile that spreads across her face. “She’s the best.”
“Does she know how you feel?” Gram asks.
Vi ducks her head, mortified. Is it that obvious? Can everyone tell? Can Cece tell?
“I haven’t told her,” she hedges.
“Well, you go around looking at her like that, I don’t think she’ll be too shocked,” Gram teases. “Just remember, baby girl, not everybody is as confident as you are. Or as comfortable in their own skin. If she’s still figuring things out, she might need some time.”
“Why does everybody think I’m so confident? I don’t feel confident.” There’s a huge part of her life—her fandom life—that she keeps a total secret.
Gram points to Vi’s tank top, which says Gay Purride and features a rainbow kitten. Kat gave it to her for her fifteenth birthday. “You have always been just exactly yourself, Vi. You are who you are, you stand up for what you believe, and you make no bones about it.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s easy,” Vi argues. “I feel awkward all the time. I always worry about whether I’m saying the right thing. If I’m too quiet or too loud.”
“I don’t imagine it is easy. Especially not in our little town.” Gram reaches out and tweaks one of her red braids. “But you do it anyway. That takes real strength of character, and it makes it easier for other people to be themselves too. I’m proud of you, baby girl. I know your mom would be too.”
“Thank you,” Vi mumbles, blinking back tears.
“Vi!” Cece bursts through the door. “Ready to go see the fireworks?”
“Yeah, just a minute.” Vi goes around the counter and gives Gram a big squeezy hug.
“All right now,” Gram says. She doesn’t look old to Vi anymore. She looks serene and wise and wonderful. “You girls have fun.”
As they join the crowds of people making their way down toward the river, Vi tells Cece how Paige stole the money from the cash box.
“If she really did it—and I think she must have—Des is going to be so hurt,” Vi says. “She and Em have been fighting, and I think she kind of glommed on to Paige as her new best friend. Like, she dyed her hair blue, and she got a tattoo, and I’m pretty sure she’s been smoking weed. Paige is the one who convinced her to sell some of her illustrations. And they’re so good. I’m going to ask her to make me one from Riverdale.”
“Full dark, no stars?” Cece guesses.
Vi smiles and ducks her head. She still isn’t used to talking about fandom in real life. “Maybe. I do love Dark Betty!”
“Me too.” Cece knocks her bare shoulder into Vi’s. “So, where do you want to watch the fireworks from? The park is always so crowded, I was thinking maybe we could go somewhere else.”
“I’m not a huge fan of crowds,” Vi admits. Her mind whirs. Does Cece want to be alone with her? Or does she just find the crowds obnoxious? There are always tons of families with sugared-up, overtired kids camped out in Bishop Park, plus vendors hawking ice cream and cotton candy and glow-in-the-dark necklaces. Bea and Erik will be there, and Kat and Mase, and lots of their classmates.
“Maybe the marina?” Cece suggests. “It’ll be quieter there.”
As the sky turns from dusky blue to inky black, they make their way down to the end of a pier, to the quiet slip of an unoccupied boat. A few docks away, there’s a raucous party, but tucked away between two powerboats. Cece spreads out her picnic blanket, and they lie on the wooden dock, staring up at the sky.
“This is so much nicer than being in the park,” Cece says.
She’s lying so close that her pinky finger brushes against Vi’s. Their shoulders are almost touching. When Vi turns to look at her, their faces are only inches apart. Cece’s lips are full and pink and a little glossy, and the air between them smells like cherries.
Do her lips taste like cherries? Vi would like to find out.
Above them, the first fireworks explode in a shower of red and gold. The partygoers on the sailboat cheer.
“Oh,” Cece says in wonderment. Her pinky hooks over Vi’s.
The fireworks are a colorful, noisy, nonstop succession of blue and green and purple and orange and red and gold. The gold ones crackle and shimmer like shooting stars and then fizz into stardust. It makes Vi brave, remembering her wish from last year. She threads her fingers through Cece’s and then holds still, barely breathing, waiting to see how she responds.
Cece doesn’t pull away.
Vi turns her head. Cece is already looking at her. Their eyes meet for what feels like forever.
Vi props herself up on one elbow and rolls onto her side. Cece mirrors her movements. They are so close, their noses are almost touching. Vi can feel Cece’s warm, cherry breath on her face.
Cece gives her a slow, sunrise smile. She leans forward, and Vi moves the rest of the way, and then their mouths meet. Their noses bump and adjust as they find the right angles. Cece’s lips are soft and a little sticky, and she tastes like Cherry Coke. The kiss is sweet and slow and searching.
They pull back and look at each other. Vi can’t believe this is really happening. I am kissing Cece Pérez. Overhead, the fireworks are exploding in a steady boom boom boom that matches the quick, loud rhythm of her heart. Cece inches closer and rests one hand on the rise of Vi’s hip. Vi leans in, and they kiss, and kiss, and kiss.
It is better than any of her daydreams.
She knots her fingers in Cece’s dark curls, anchoring Cece’s face against hers. Cece opens her mouth, and Vi tentatively explores it with her tongue. She doesn’t know if she’s doing it right. She must be doing okay, she guesses, because Cece presses against her, her fingers tugging on Vi’s belt loop. Their legs tangle together on the blanket.
The partygoers on the boat start hooting and hollering, and Vi and Cece break apart. In a rush of color and noise, the grand finale begins.
Cece sits up. “Come here,” she says with a shy, dimpled grin, and she wraps her arm around Vi, pulling her closer. “You are so amazing, you know that?”
“You are,” Vi says. She rests her head on Cece’s shoulder.
It is better than any wish she ever made.
“Hi, is Paige home?” Des asks.
“Good morning, Des. Come in.” Miss Lydia steps back and gestures her inside.
Des scuffs her red Toms against the wooden floor boards of Miss Lydia’s porch. “I really need to see Paige. Is she here?”
Miss Lydia shakes her brassy head. “She’s not.”
“Do you know where she is?” Des is starting to panic. She hasn’t been able to find Paige anywhere. After she stormed out of Arden, she looked for Paige and Dylan at the farmer’s market to no avail. Des spent hours searching all over town: at the Daily Grind, the thrift store she knows Paige likes, the skate park, the library, even down by the marina. They were supposed to meet up for the fireworks, but Paige and Dylan never showed. Increasingly freaked out, Des drove to the Penningtons’ farm, but neither Dylan’s truck nor Paige’s car was there, and it was too late to knock and risk waking his parents. She drove around town aimlessly for a while after that, listening to the playlist Paige made her, and only went home when she was sure Gram would be in bed. She stayed in her room this morning till Gram left for the store, and then she went straight to Tia Julia’s, where Paige was supposed to be working the br
unch shift. Only, Paige hadn’t shown up, and Mrs. Pérez told her Paige hadn’t called in either.
Going to Miss Lydia’s is the last resort. Des doesn’t want to get Paige in any more trouble, but she doesn’t know what else to do. She really, really does not want to believe Paige stole the money, looked her in the face and smiled, and then skipped town without saying goodbye. But it’s becoming difficult to ignore her growing suspicions.
Miss Lydia plants her hands on her hips. “Honey, I wish I knew. I think she’s gone.”
“Gone?” Des leans back against the slim white column of Miss Lydia’s porch, her mind scrambling desperately for excuses. For ways to make sense of this that do not require believing the worst of Paige. “Where? Did she go visit her mom? Did they work things out?”
“Des, come on. You weren’t born yesterday,” Miss Lydia says sharply. “I love my granddaughter, but she’s not about to go home and apologize. My guess is that she’s probably run off to stay with friends in Baltimore.”
Des stares down at her feet. I can couch surf with some friends in Baltimore if I have to. Maybe I could get a job waitressing over in Fell’s Point. That’d be cool, right? I could hang out with Lola and Grace. Paige had told her what she was going to do. Des hadn’t wanted to hear it.
“Are you absolutely sure she’s gone? Maybe she stayed over at Dylan’s.” Des can’t believe this is happening. She stood up for Paige. She defended her to Gram.
She bites her lip, mortified. She was so sure Paige wouldn’t steal from them. Wouldn’t take the money Des made selling her art for the very first time. She thought their friendship meant more than that. But if Paige left, without saying goodbye, well… It seems like an awfully big coincidence. Too big.
“I stayed late at the café last night, cleaning up after the grand reopening,” Miss Lydia explains. “When I got back, all her things were gone.”
Des twists a blue curl around her finger. “Did she leave a note?”
“No.” Miss Lydia’s mouth is pressed into a thin pink line. “Honey, did she borrow money from you?”
Back to The Last Summer of the Garrett Girls book
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