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After a while, Mase leans toward Kat. “I think it’s working,” he whispers in her ear, tilting his head toward the bonfire. Adam is standing nearby with Jillian, arms crossed over his broad chest, looking pissed off about something. Is it because Kat’s holding hands with Mase? She feels a flash of satisfaction. She also feels a little shivery at Mase’s warm breath against her ear.
“I’m going to get you that Diet Coke,” Mase says.
“In a minute,” Kat says, and she kisses him. Maybe she should have asked first, but he doesn’t seem to mind; he returns the kiss with interest. One hand lingers on her waist; the other tenderly cups her cheek. For a minute, Kat forgets this is all a ruse, a performance for a watching audience, and she lets herself sink into it.
When they break apart, they smile at each other. Maxwell hollers again. Mase jumps down, takes Kat’s hand, and kisses it gallantly. “I shall return with your caffeine posthaste, milady.”
“Dork,” she laughs.
The moment he’s gone, a group of girls swarms her.
“You and Mase?” Kendall asks.
“You two are so cute together!” Makayla gushes.
“Super cute. I got the best picture. Look!” Gemma adds, holding out her phone. She’s posted an Insta story of Kat and Mase kissing, with the words new couple? written above it.
Kat covers her face with both hands like she’s embarrassed, but beneath her palms and her waterfall of red hair, she’s smirking. This is all going perfectly. Even kids who aren’t at the Penningtons’ party will see.
“Out of the way, best friend coming through!” Pen elbows Gemma aside. She hops up on the tailgate and grabs Kat’s arm. “Are you drunk?”
“What? No!” Kat makes a face. At the end of last summer, she convinced Gram that she was responsible enough to go to a farm party with Bea and Erik and that of course she wouldn’t drink. But she and Pen proceeded to split several cheap strawberry wine coolers. They both got giggly, then spinny and sick, and then they threw up sour pink puddles in a cornfield. It was disgusting. Kat still owes Bea big-time for getting them home and in bed with water and Advil and not ratting them out to Gram. She has vowed never to drink again.
“Then why are you kissing Mase?” Pen says. “You don’t even like Mase.”
“I do too like him,” Kat argues.
Pen raises one arched eyebrow. It is really annoying that she can do that and Kat can’t. “Yesterday you were irate that he got the part instead of Adam.”
“But then I stopped by the Tabby Cat Café to tell him the list was up, and we started talking, and…he’s not so bad.” Kat lets a sly smile spread across her lips. “He’s a good kisser. Is my lipstick all smudged?”
“Your lipstick is fine. It’s your judgment I’m worried about. This is total rebound behavior,” Pen opines.
She’s looking out for Kat, like always, and Kat wishes she could tell her the truth. But she and Mase promised each other that they wouldn’t tell anyone. Kat had argued that they could totally trust Pen, but Mase was clear: if she told a single person, the deal was off. No exceptions. And she understands his concern. If word got out that they were only hooking up to make their exes jealous, they would both look pathetic.
“I thought you wanted me to get over Adam,” Kat points out.
Pen glances over at Adam. “I mean, Mase is definitely an improvement, but…didn’t he and Brandon just break up?”
“So?” Kat hears the snotty tone in her voice, but Pen isn’t cowed by it.
“So, you’re going to be in rehearsal together for the next month, and it’s going to be super awkward for everybody if you wake up tomorrow morning and regret this,” Pen says.
“Or it could be awesome.” Kat smooths her royal-blue romper and then goes for the kill shot, looking at Pen with big sad eyes. “I thought you’d be happy for me.”
“I am.” Pen runs a hand over her buzz cut. “Of course I am, if this is what you really want. I just—”
“Hey.” Mase jumps up on the other side of Kat and hands her a Diet Coke. “Am I interrupting?”
“Yes,” Pen says.
“No.” Kat leans against him. He smells nice. Like chocolate.
Pen sighs. “I’m going to make another s’more. Do you want one?”
“No, thanks. I already had two,” Kat says. Because she knows that saying no will make Pen squinch up her brown eyes and look at her all concerned, the same way Des was looking at her earlier, like she was trying to calculate everything Kat’s eaten in the last week.
Kat’s been healthy for three years, but she still feels the pull of the disorder, still has to make herself eat on bad days. And she knows Pen and Des, especially, still worry. The weekend after she caught Adam and Jillian kissing, she stayed in her room and cried and refused to come out for meals. But she noticed how Des snuck extra avocado into her sandwiches and poured big puddles of chipotle ranch dressing next to her carrots. She knows Des was afraid it was the start of a relapse. And maybe Kat caught herself wondering whether Adam liked Jillian better because she has a tiny waist and a thigh gap. But logically, Kat knew not eating wasn’t going to get Adam back. He would probably tell her to stop being so dramatic and have a damn cookie.
He is kind of an asshole like that.
As soon as Pen’s out of earshot, Mase leans in to whisper with Kat. “I ran into Zachary and Josh, and they asked what was up with us.” Zachary Harris is Brandon’s best friend; Josh is Zachary’s boyfriend.
“What did you tell them?” Kat whispers back.
“That we’ll see what happens, but you’re super cute and super fun.”
“I am, aren’t I?” Kat takes his hand again. His nails are painted a black. “What did they say?”
“I think they were kind of weirded out that you’re a girl, honestly,” Mase explains. “When I was dating Brandon, a lot of people assumed I was gay. But when I’m dating a girl, it’s like my bi card gets revoked and people assume I’m actually straight.”
“There’s a card?” Kat teases, but it makes her wonder how Mase is feeling about their ruse. Not because she’s a girl, necessarily, but because she’s not Brandon. Two years is a long time to be with one person. It must be weird to kiss someone else. To hold her hand.
To be honest, she hasn’t devoted a whole lot of thought to how this plan affects him.
“Zachary was texting someone when I walked away. I bet it was Brandon.” Mase sounds less happy about it than Kat thought he would.
She glances over at the bonfire and sees Adam with his tongue stuck down Jillian’s throat. One of his arms is wrapped around her, his hand on her skinny ass; his other hand is holding a red cup Kat would bet is full of cheap beer. Ugh. She used to make him chew gum when he was drinking before he kissed her.
Obviously, his jealousy didn’t last long. Maybe he wasn’t jealous at all. Maybe he doesn’t care whether she’s over him.
Maybe he never really cared about her at all.
Kat lets go of Mase’s hand. “Do you still want to do this?” she asks, suddenly unsure. Is lying to everybody, including her best friend, worth it? Is Adam worth any of this?
“Yeah. Definitely,” Mase says. But she doesn’t know him well enough to tell what he’s thinking. He doesn’t take her hand again, and he doesn’t sound so sure anymore either.
Parties are stupid.
This is the first real party Vi has ever been to, but she feels pretty confident in her assessment. Dozens of people—most of them from Kat and Bea and Des’s classes—are clustered around the bonfire; dozens more are tailgating nearby. Country music blasts from the jacked-up speakers of a black pickup parked next to the fire. A keg sits on the ground behind it; coolers of sodas and s’mores fixings rest on the gate. People mill around, laughing and dancing and drinking. Even though they’re on a f
arm in the middle of nowhere, it’s loud and smoky and feels too crowded. There’s no sign of Cece yet, and only a handful of Vi’s classmates are here. Kat ditched Vi shortly after they arrived to hang out with the theater kids.
Even though Vi’s hovering at the back of the crowd, someone still manages to bump into her. Ugh. Personal space, people.
“Sorry,” a guy says. Vi turns to find Chas Carter leering at her. “Hey, aren’t you Bea’s sister?”
She nods. Chas was in Bea’s class. A baseball player. He’s blatantly checking out her long, freckly legs in her short dinosaur-print dress, and Vi can feel herself making a grossed-out expression.
“Want a beer?” he asks.
“No thanks.” She starts to move away, but he puts a hand on her arm.
“Want to hang out? We could take a walk.”
Vi steps back, annoyed. “No thanks.”
“You sure?” he presses. “You don’t look like you’re having any fun.”
“Chas, get the hell away from her,” Emily snaps, suddenly at Vi’s side. Em is Des’s best friend—or maybe former best friend. Vi isn’t sure what’s going on with them. “She’s fifteen, you creep.”
“All right, all right.” Chas disappears back into the crowd.
“Vi, what are you doing? Where are your sisters? Aren’t you too young for farm parties?”
“Kat came last summer, and I’m not even drinking,” Vi points out.
Em is wearing spectacular pink and purple and teal eye shadow that makes her look like a high-fashion model or an alien. A pretty alien. But still. “Seriously, where are your sisters? They should be watching out for you.”
“I can take care of myself,” Vi says, but she turns in a slow circle, scanning the crowd for redheads. Well, that’s interesting. “Kat’s over there. Kissing your brother.”
“My—Mase?” Em stands on her tiptoes and peers over the crowd. “Oh wow. What’s up with that?”
“I have no idea. I thought Kat was still pining over Adam. There’s Des. Heading down to the river with Paige and Dylan.” Vi scowls. “I told Paige not to smoke cigarettes around Des. She has asthma!”
“That’s not a cigarette, sweetie,” Em says. “What’s the deal with Paige, anyhow? Is she Des’s new best friend or what?”
“She’s Miss Lydia’s granddaughter,” Vi explains. “She’s an art student from Baltimore, and she’s in town for the summer waitressing at Tia Julia’s. That’s all I know. Maybe you should ask Des.”
Em takes a long sip from her red cup. “Des and I aren’t speaking.”
“Well, I’m not getting in the middle of it,” Vi says. “Thanks for looking out for me, but I’m fine. I’m going to go get a Coke.”
“Just Coke!” Em calls after her.
Vi rolls her eyes. She has no intention of drinking. She winds her way through the crowd and grabs a Coke from the cooler. She still doesn’t spot Cece anywhere. It’s been almost an hour. How long will Des want to stay? Since when does Des even like parties? And where did Bea go?
Vi texts Des that she’s going to look for the horses. She did put some baby carrots in her bag, despite Kat’s objections.
The old farmhouse is a white blur in the distance, with a big red barn and a tall grain silo on the far side. Vi heads in that direction. The farther she goes, the quieter it gets, till it’s just crickets chirping and the wind rustling the cornstalks and her flats crunching against the gravel driveway. She uses the flashlight on her phone to light her way. Above her, the moon is a waning crescent, and stars glitter in the dark sky.
Vi can hear the horses whickering to each other before she sees them. As she gets closer to the paddock, she sees two brown horses with spotted white hindquarters and another smaller one that looks like the horse version of a Dalmatian.
She hangs over the wooden fence. “Hi,” she calls. “Hey, horses. Hi.”
Footsteps crunch on the gravel behind her, and Vi spins around, her heart hammering, clutching her phone. Please let it not be creepy Chas. Please let him not have followed me.
“It’s just me,” a girl’s soft voice calls. “Sorry if I scared you.”
Vi’s heart races for entirely different reasons. “Cece! Hi!”
“I saw you walking away right as we got here. I thought you might be coming to see these guys.” Cece points to the two brown horses. “That’s Storm, and that’s Gambit. The black-and-white one is Rogue. Dylan named them when he was really into The X-Men.”
Vi turns off her flashlight and pulls out the Ziploc bag of carrots. “Are we allowed to feed them?”
Cece pulls an identical bag from the pocket of her pink minidress, and they both laugh. Vi thinks her sometimes-Grinchy heart grows three sizes. She and Cece have so much in common; they are clearly destined to be together!
“I came to the party last week with Ben, but from our class was here. It was kind of boring. So I came and talked to the horses before Dylan put them in for the night. Spencer said it’s okay to give them carrots,” Cece explains, leaning over the wooden fence, clicking her tongue. “Hey, Rogue.” The horse’s ears perk up. “Aw, you know your name, don’t you? You want a carrot? Come here, girl.”
Cece came to the party with Ben, but she was bored? Interesting. Vi tries not to read too much into that. She glances over at Cece, but it’s so dark, she can’t read her expression.
“He seems nice,” she says. “Ben, I mean.”
Rogue trots over, her dark tail twitching back and forth. Cece stretches out her hand. Rogue takes the baby carrot and chomps it in her giant teeth.
“Gambit! Storm! You gonna let Rogue get all the carrots?” The other horses look up from grazing and plod over. Cece looks at Vi. “You want to feed them? They’re really gentle.”
Vi steps up to the fence and stretches out her hand. “Hey, Gambit.” The horse’s mouth tickles her palm, but he doesn’t nip her. Tentatively, Vi pets his soft brown nose. Rogue and Storm nudge each other, competing for carrots from Cece.
“Ben is great. He’s my best friend,” Cece says.
“You guys have been dating for a while, right?” Vi asks.
“Hey, girl. You remember me?” Cece coos as she feeds Storm. She’s quiet for a minute. “Actually, we’re not dating anymore. We broke up a couple weeks ago. We’re still best friends, though.”
“Oh.” Vi wants to ask why they broke up, if Cece’s still in love with him, if Cece was ever in love with him, but that is completely none of her business.
“Yeah. He lives right down the street, and our parents are friends, so we grew up together. Then, you know, for a while it’s weird to be friends with boys because they have cooties.” Cece laughs. “Last year, he was having trouble in English, so I tutored him, and we became friends again. We started eating lunch together and walking home together when he didn’t have soccer, and people assumed we were together together. And then it was like, why not? It’s what everybody expects. Our parents were really excited about it.”
That doesn’t exactly sound like a passionate romance to Vi. “Were you excited?” she asks, then grimaces. “I’m sorry. That’s none of my business!”
“It’s okay.” Cece doesn’t look at Vi. “That’s a good question, actually. I was. I thought I was. For a while, anyhow.” She pets Rogue’s dappled nose. “I should have been, right? He’s the cute boy down the block. He’s super nice, he treated me well, and my parents loved him. It was like something out of a romance novel.”
Except the boy-next-door story isn’t the kind of romance Cece reads.
“I love him, but we’re better off as friends,” Cece continues, her voice a little firmer. Her curtain of wavy dark hair falls across her face, so Vi can’t see her profile anymore. “Breaking up was a mutual decision.”
Vi wonders if that’s really true. How could anyone in the whole world be around Cece and not feel spark
s? She’s gorgeous, she’s kind, she loves animals and books and—
Vi wants to reach out and tuck Cece’s hair behind the soft brown seashell of her ear. She wants to be able to see her face, to read something true in her dark eyes and in the way her pink mouth shapes her words. They are standing so close, their elbows are almost touching. The horses are crunching carrots and nudging their noses against the girls, and the crickets are singing love songs in the trees. It smells like horse and murky river water and Cece’s cherry lip gloss. It feels as close to a perfect moment as Vi might ever get.
“I haven’t told my parents we broke up yet. Please don’t say anything to anybody, okay?” Cece lets out a sad little chuckle. “That must seem silly to you.”
“No, it doesn’t. Why would you say that?” Vi asks.
“You’re so confident.” Cece turns to face her, leaning her shoulder against the wooden fence, and Vi has to work to keep herself from gasping. Confident? She feels like the most awkward girl in the world at least seventy-five percent of the time. “You sit by yourself at lunch and read, and you wear feminist T-shirts and Pride T-shirts and that dress—I love that dress, by the way—and you speak up in class even if you disagree with the teacher. You don’t care what anybody thinks of you.”
I care what you think.
Vi doesn’t say that. “I do care,” she explains. “But I’ve always been the weird kid. The one who didn’t talk for almost a whole year back in kindergarten. The one who saw her parents die. After that—I mean, yeah, on some level, who cares if somebody calls me a geek or a loser or…or a dyke?”
Cece’s hand balls into a fist against the fence. “Who called you that?”
Vi doesn’t have to ask which slur Cece means. “Liam. He asked me out in seventh grade, and I said no. Nobody knew that I was gay—I didn’t even know for sure—he said it ’cause he was embarrassed I wouldn’t go out with him. But it felt like he slapped me right across the face.”
Back to The Last Summer of the Garrett Girls book
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