Authors: Anna Katmore
I wanted to hide behind my book and whine, and yeah, maybe that’s what I actually did, but only after he’d turned away and engaged in the game again. I was listening to his music, I was ogling him, and I certainly was glowing red as a stop sign. Could it get any worse? If only time machines were real. I would go back thirty minutes exactly and never walk up to this bench.
As something touched my shoulder, I jumped right out of my skin, jerking my head around and screeching. The iPod, connected to the headphones in my ears, slid off the seat and landed on the ground before I could grab it.
! With my heart drumming like I was leading a battalion of soldiers, I tossed my book aside and picked up the iPod, quickly checking whether Ethan had seen what I’d done to his stuff. His back was turned to me. I breathed again and pulled the headphones out of my ears, dropping them in my lap together with the iPod. Finally, I faced Lisa, who’d lowered down next to me on the bench.
“Hey,” she said and laughed. “A little skittish today, are we?”
Still fumbling to turn off the music, I made a wry face and got right to the point. “Did you know your boyfriend replaced me?”
For the length of a drawn-out breath, Lisa frowned at me. She shoved a hand through her long brown hair. “Susan, you’re not speaking my language right now.”
Good, she had no idea. Knowing and
telling me would have been a major breach of trust. It didn’t stop me from wailing, though. “He brought in Charlie Brown to play soccer instead of me!”
Pushing up the sleeves of her pink blouse, Lisa laughed again. “He did what?”
“Yellow shirt,” I whined and nodded toward the soccer field. When Lisa spotted Ethan in the middle of a sea of blue jerseys and the truth dawned on her, an
was all she gave me.
. Ryan told him he could take my place because, obviously”—I lifted my eyebrows to a duh-expression—“I’m not good enough to play for the team anymore.”
“Come on, that’s not true and you know it. Ryan loves having you on the team. I’m sure he and the guys can’t wait till your knee is better and you can play again. And until then, why not bring in a temp?” As she glanced at the guys again, a grin that said
girls’ business only
spread across her face. “Also, he’s cute.”
Who cared? It didn’t give him the right to take my place.
“Who is?” Simone’s voice startled us. We both turned around to find her and Allie Silverman behind us, scanning the soccer field with spiked interest. Both of them had hair that reached to the end of their backs, only Simone was a natural Scandinavian blonde with big curls, while Allie’s hair was as black and straight as a raven’s coat. Like Lisa, they were both on the cheerleading team—the team that usually cheered for us soccer players. Only now, they’d cheer for Ethan instead of me.
“The guy who’s dressed like a rotting banana,” I muttered in answer to Simone. “But I guess
is a term that can be argued. I don’t like him. He’s playing my position on Hunter’s team.”
Allie gasped. “Permanently?”
“Temporarily,” Lisa corrected quickly. “Until Susan is fit to play again.”
“Oh, that’s not too bad.” Simone shoved her beautiful curls over one shoulder and snickered. “He’s quite the eye candy. What’s his name?”
Simone was the girlfriend of one of the guys on my team, and the two of them usually stuck together like glue, so her remark made us all chuckle. She’d never—not in a million years—dump Alex Winter for another guy.
“Ethan,” I told her.
“Did you talk to him already?” Allie wanted to know.
“A little. Before practice started. Why?”
“Because he’s looking at you right now,” Allie and Simone said at once with grins in their voices.
“What?” Oh man, shoot me, because I did exactly what you shouldn’t do at such a moment. I whirled around to check. And of course, I met Ethan’s gaze, which was indeed focused on me. While my expression was dull, if not a little surprised, the corners of Charlie Brown’s mouth tilted up before his attention returned to the other players and the ongoing match.
I slapped both hands to my face, groaning with my eyes squeezed shut. “I hate you guys! Now he must think I’m checking him out.”
“Are you?” Lisa giggled.
“No.” Granted, I’d done it before, but this time it was a total accident. I wanted to dig a hole all the way to China to hide in.
When I opened my eyes, thank God, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Samantha Summers—the girl that inhaled cherry lollipops like others inhaled air and who had become my closest friend since she’d moved to Grover Beach only three weeks ago—marched through the gate and strolled over to us. She was tiny and funny and I loved her like a sister. She would back me up against the gossiping hens surrounding me.
Sam sat down Indian-style in the grass in front of us and made a face. “Susan, you look miserable. What did I miss?”
“Ethan,” the other three told her at once.
“Who is Ethan?”
“I’ll tell you if you promise not to turn around and look,” I said before anyone else could point out my replacement to her.
Sam’s face scrunched, and it made her look absurdly intrigued. “Promise.” After I gave her the same story I’d given the others, her face split with a grin. “Okay, now you got me all curious. I
to turn around, Susan, I just
to!” She got all fidgety on the ground.
“No! You can’t. He already noticed us watching him,” I hissed, keeping my gaze determinedly away from the players. If she turned around, I’d pull her back by a fistful of her short, black, messy hair—that was a promise on my end.
“You’re crazy, Susan,” Lisa teased and added, “But there’s no need to turn around, Sam. You’re lucky—he’s coming over here.”
? I froze at her words…gulped…and saw the soccer ball rolling toward us. It stopped right by Sam’s leg. She picked it up and sure enough, Charlie Brown was jogging our way.
“Hiii, Eeethan,” the girls sang out in unison as he took the ball from Sam.
Appalled, I stared into his wicked eyes. When he started to grin,
I wanted to shout at him:
I told them your name, so what?
Only, I couldn’t make my mouth form coherent words because embarrassment had wired my jaw shut.
“Hey, girls,” he greeted the others like a perfect charmer. His gaze landed on my lap. On his iPod still
my lap, to be exact. “You like my music?” He chuckled but didn't give me a chance to answer as he turned around and headed back into the game.
“Thanks a lot!” I spat through gritted teeth at my supposed friends. A moment later, however, I was snickering along with them, because aside from all the embarrassment, the situation
funny. If I were one of them, I’d have acted equally as stupid for sure. I’d just never been at the receiving end before.
Sam leaned back to prop herself on her elbows and stretched her legs out in front of her. She was the smallest of us, all right, but always wearing camo pants and black Doc Martens, she was also the most dangerous-looking of us five—even if her appearance was deceiving. Samantha was the nicest girl I’d ever met. Right now, she let go of a long sigh. “Take it easy, Susan. So he’s playing your position.” She shrugged it off. “It’s only for a while, and he’s cute. It’s really not a drama.”
Yeah, she was right; it wasn’t. And Sam would know a thing or two about dramas herself. Only a week ago her cousin Chloe had almost succeeded in making her parents send Sam back to Egypt, where Sam’s parents still lived. Because her father was a general in the U.S. Army and garrisoned in Cairo for three more months, Samantha had been allowed to move ahead to Grover Beach at the beginning of November to stay with Chloe and her family, so she wouldn’t have to move later, during the school year.
No one could have guessed that Chloe still had a crush on Tony Mitchell, the guy from my soccer team who Sam had hooked up with. It had caused a pretty nasty scene a week ago when Chloe wrecked her car and later almost drowned herself in the sea. We had quite an eventful fall.
Admittedly, none of us had liked Chloe Summers much before. But after what happened, we all looked at her with different eyes now—even though she never looked at any of us, ever. It seemed she felt really bad and sorry about what had happened. And now, knowing all the facts, it wasn’t hard to forgive her, whether she asked for it or not.
On the weird side, none of us had ever seen Tony as radiantly happy as he’d been since the day he and Sam became a couple. He spent every minute of his free time with her, so it didn’t surprise me when he came over to us during timeout. Stopping behind Sam, he bent down and stole a kiss. He did that every so often, and most of the time, he didn’t come alone. Hunter normally couldn’t stay away from Lisa either, but today he kept away.
Noticing, Lisa pouted at Tony. “Why isn’t Ryan coming over?”
“He’s scared.” Tony chuckled. “After the thing with Ethan, he’s afraid Miller will bite his head off.”
“Ha, ha,” I said. But there was a grain of truth in that joke. I flashed a tight-lipped smile across the field at Ryan. Catching my gaze, he rubbed his neck and laughed out loud, knowing that Tony had just ratted him out.
With only a short time left for practice, Tony headed back to score another goal against Ryan’s team. Watching the two of them out on the field was always a delight. Hard to say which of them was the better player. Since it was Ryan’s final year at Grover Beach High, I often wondered if he would nominate Tony for captain of the team when it was time for him to leave. But that was still a few months off and no one talked about it just yet.
Practice ended at quarter to four, and my friends immediately fanned out to their guys on the field. Being seventeen and still as single as could be, I stayed put and shoved my book into my backpack. It was then that I saw Ethan walking toward me and my mouth dried out. Why? Because he’d taken off his shirt and was wiping his face with it. Before he shook it out and put it back on, I got an exclusive glimpse at his rock-hard abs and shapely chest. I was pretty sure the real Charlie Brown didn’t look anything close to this beneath his yellow shirt.
Determined not to get caught staring again, I quickly turned my head away and rose from the bench. The backpack was already on my shoulders and I was about to walk off in the opposite direction when Ethan called out to me, “Hey, Susan, can you wait up a minute?”
Startled, I pivoted to him. He loped over and stopped so close to me that a whiff of his sweat caught me square in the face. Luckily he’d put on enough deodorant that it didn’t smell bad at all. Maybe it was just his shower gel, I couldn’t tell. In any case, it smelled manly and…
Still slightly out of breath from practice, he sat down and glanced up at me. His cheeks were red and he’d tossed his ball cap aside, displaying a disheveled thatch of blond hair. He resembled a little boy, which was quite a cute look. It suited him.
“What’s up?” I asked, feeling a bit awkward because of my previous gawking. Hopefully that wasn’t the reason he wanted to talk to me. I’d put his iPod back on the bench without a scratch, too.
When Ethan reached out for my hand and pulled me down next to him, I didn’t protest. “I need to talk to you about my joining the team,” he said.
“You stole my place, end of story,” I answered, a little sullen now. “What more is there to talk about?”
He grimaced and released my wrist. “Hunter says I can stay, if you say I can.”
“Oh.” My gaze skated over the soccer field to find Hunter with Lisa some sixty feet away. When I lifted my eyebrows, he started to walk toward us, but Lisa quickly grabbed his arm and said something to him that made him stop and smile. She cast me a brilliant grin, gave me two very unsubtle thumbs-up, and dragged Ryan away to the parking lot. I rolled my eyes. Did she think she was Grover Beach’s new matchmaker all of a sudden?
It was a miracle Ethan hadn’t seen them sneaking off. He was still gazing at me. “So what do you think? Do I make a worthy player for the Bay Sharks?” His voice sounded awfully hopeful.
Dropping my gaze to the ground, I coughed to get rid of the annoying dryness in my throat. “How would I know?” I mumbled. “It’s not like I watched you play today.”
For a few seconds, Ethan just stared at me. The feeling was aggravating. As I turned to him again, the corners of his mouth tilted up in a slow grin and he drawled the word, “Liar.”
The heat of embarrassment rose in my body and here I was, once again wishing for a time machine. Since that wasn’t going to happen, all I could do was laugh. I don’t know why, it just burst out of me, and rather hysterically, too. I sounded like a hyena. Yeah, that was sexy Susan Miller at her best.
But sexy or not, the anger and tension from the past hour slipped away from me. I could look Charlie Brown straight in the eye and didn’t even blush. “Okay, you’re right. I did check you out, but I had to see what Hunter came up with to replace me. And”—while we were at it—“the thing with the girls before was totally stupid, but I’m not saying sorry for that.”