Jasper and Rayna were dancing together, and I wanted nothing more than to sprint onto the dance floor, wedge myself in between their bodies, and claim Jasper for my own.
Which was obviously, hands-down, the worst idea ever.
Clenching my clammy hands into fists, I tried to get it together. I had spent the last half of senior year constantly telling myself how much I totally did not care about Jasper Reyes, and I wasn’t planning on stopping now. But the strength of the jealousy rearing its ugly head within me had me a little worried.
I had no reason for it. None at all. It wasn’t like I wanted to take Rayna’s place in his arms or anything. Not me. Not like I wanted to be the one inhaling his scent, looking into those deep blue-green eyes, swaying to the rhythm of the music with my left hand on his waist while the fingers of my right burrowed into that silky chocolate-brown hair.
Oh, who the hell was I kidding?
My stupid brain didn’t seem to care that I had survived an entire semester of sharing a table with Jasper in art class, stubbornly fighting whatever it was that drew me to him. This was not the time to cave. Not when the school year was almost over, when graduation was just around the corner, when I’d be off to college soon. Good-bye bizarre feelings I really didn’t want to have to deal with. Good riddance too.
Couples moved across the dance floor and blocked my view of Jasper and Rayna, which was convenient because I wasn’t sure I could have managed on my own to tear my eyes from him anytime soon. Taking a deep breath, I used the opportunity to turn away.
An arm looped around my neck. I hadn’t seen it coming, so I wasn’t prepared to be pulled to one side, and stumbled hard. Somebody yelped as my body—and the one I was reflexively holding on to—crashed into a table. There was a sudden, blinding pain in my side.
A helpful bystander made an admirable attempt at keeping me upright. It almost worked. I was dizzy, though, and the room mostly dark, and eventually I gave up trying to keep my balance and slumped heavily onto the floor.
“What the hell, Bry? Are you drunk already?”
I looked up and into the grinning face of Trip, my friend and fellow baseball player. He was leaning over me and studying me closely. Backlit, his dark blond curls looked like some kind of halo, which was about as close as Trip would ever get to being angelic. I glowered up at him. People around us were staring, which made me thoroughly uncomfortable.
“No, I’m not drunk. I was ambushed,” I said. “By a maniac with frizzy hair.”
“Shut up.” He flattened his hair with his hands, self-consciously. “Elle likes it that way,” he defended himself.
“Yeah, I know.” I reached for his hand, and with a combined effort, we managed to get me standing again. “That’s why I have to try to keep your head from exploding.”
His grin broadened.
“Oh, dude, speaking of head, I’ve got something lined up for you.”
“You what?” A feeling of impending doom spread through me. This didn’t sound good.
“Nova Phillips. She’s into you. And according to my sources, really good with her mouth.”
His sources? Since when did Trip have sources?
“It’s prom night. Sucking and fucking is basically a longstanding tradition, and I am not letting you bitch out.”
“I don’t need you to set me up.”
“You haven’t had a girlfriend in a year
, Bry. That’s pathetic. You’ve lost your touch.”
My cheeks heated a little, and I wasn’t even sure why. Not having a girl on my arm every second of the day wasn’t exactly the apocalypse.
“Oh, fuck off,” I grumbled. “I had to get my grades up. You know that.”
“Yeah, yeah, Mr. Academic. That’s over now. I can feel it, bro…tonight you’re getting laid.”
“Hooray,” I responded without enthusiasm. “Can’t wait.”
Trip narrowed his eyes at me in a manner I didn’t like at all. “What’s the problem with getting laid, all of a sudden?”
I really didn’t want him pissed at me for any reason—not on prom night, of all nights—so I thought fast.
“Because, present company excluded, your taste in girls is pretty horrifying.” Elle, Trip’s blonde, petite, and very pretty long-term girlfriend, who had been waiting patiently nearby, giggled at that, but Trip’s expression hadn’t changed. “I mean, do you remember Halloween two years ago? That girl you kept wanting me to hook up with?”
“Which girl?” As expected, he took the bait, frowning in thought. “Oh, shit. That broad in the ridiculous Christmas-tree outfit?”
“That’s the one.”
“She wasn’t so bad, was she?”
“Not if you like a bunch of tinsel stuck in your zipper, half a pine tree inside your shirt, and puke all over your clothes while trying to figure out what to do with the chick who just passed out in your lap.” It really hadn’t been my favorite experience, and I didn’t have the slightest problem using it to distract Trip. Watching his mouth form a silent oh
, I gave him a meaningful look. “I rest my case.”
“Okay, okay, whatever.” He took two steps over to the table next to the one we’d crashed into earlier, and grabbed two cups of alcohol-free punch. Pressing one into Elle’s hand, he sipped from the other and then nodded at me.
“Why are you over here anyway? You don’t really want to dance, do you?” He ignored Elle’s pleading look.
I didn’t say anything in response. Trip promptly interpreted my silence to mean whatever he wanted it to mean. He was handy that way.
“Exactly!” He tugged on my arm, trying to lead me farther away from the swaying crowd. “In a few days, you’ll never have to see any of these fucktards again.”
It was like I had fallen onto the table edge all over again. A flash of sharp pain, a sickening lurch in my guts.
Damn it, I hadn’t wanted to think about this. There was no reason for me to care. Nobody on that dance floor mattered to me.
I followed Trip and Elle on autopilot, taking the cup of punch he pressed into my hand. When we had almost reached the exit, I turned once more, telling myself I wasn’t looking for one particular person at all. I was just…glancing, taking in the crowd. Yup. Very interesting crowd, that. Very dancey and all.
I might have gotten away with it if not for the fact that Rayna’s showy, sparkling red dress stood out amid a sea of black and white and pastels. I caught a glimpse of it, and my eyes went that way automatically. She was laughing. Jasper was laughing too, which was something I’d never seen in an entire semester of sitting in class with him. It was impossible to see details in this light, of course, but I was certain his captivating ocean-colored eyes were bright and sparkling just now. His head turned farther in my direction, and I actually tried to look into his eyes, in the near darkness and halfway across the room.
“Bryson!” Trip called, and I caught myself.
Ocean-colored eyes? Bright and sparkling?
What the fuck was I even thinking?
“Who is it?”
“What?” My head whipped around his way.
“Which chick’s got you staring? Must be hot as all hell.”
“Forget it,” I muttered, giving him a halfhearted shrug. God, I just had to make it through this night so I could go to bed and tune all this stuff out, collect myself. To my relief, Trip didn’t dwell on the topic.
“We’re going to the pool. Coming?”
“Give me just a moment, all right?” I requested. “I’m, um, gonna grab my swim stuff. I’ll meet you there.”
Trip gave me another look. He was doing that in spades tonight, which meant that either he was on edge about something, or I was acting like more of an idiot than usual.
“You didn’t drop it off by the pool when you first got here?” he asked, his tone quite clearly implying he thought I was dense.
“No. Forgot. Now fuck off and go swim; I’ll be down there in a few.”
I watched them leave before turning toward a heavy fire door leading to one of the stairwells. One foot already halfway down the first step, I stopped and changed my mind about finding an out-of-the-way bathroom in which to quietly freak out. I desperately wanted a few minutes to just breathe, and in the empty stairwell, for some odd reason, I found that I was in the right place to do it.
My high school, Tannenbrook, wasn’t exactly tiny, and the junior-senior prom was a tradition that had caused a large amount of fights and disagreements in recent history. Even though our class sizes—growing at record speed—had reached the point where hosting the prom at the high school’s largest gym was no longer feasible, the alumni board had done their best to shut down the idea of splitting the event into a senior prom and a junior dance, their misguided interference brought about by reminiscences of their own long-gone teen years. They weren’t the ones who would have to try and dance in a room so full of people you couldn’t find the floor if your life depended on it.
The attempt had been made once, three years earlier, and ended in disaster. After that, parents and administrators had finally set aside their bickering long enough to put their heads together and work out a solution. That was why I now found myself in the local community-slash-fitness-center the city had spent way too much money on less than a decade ago, instead of a dark, crummy gym. It was an unconventional interpretation of a dance, to be sure, but most of my class—including me—didn’t give a damn about convention anyway.
Not everybody had been pleased with the solution, but I had to admit it was kind of nice to be able to go for a swim right in the middle of prom night. And it was definitely a plus that not everyone had to spend the night in the same stupid room dancing to the same stupid music. The stoners, I was certain, had already discovered a spot on the roof or a similarly suitable location to be about their business. Earlier, I’d glimpsed the pep squad putting on a performance in one of the basketball courts. The track team had congregated by the climbing wall. And I had quiet.
I sat down on the stairs, held my head in my hands, and tried to calm the hell down. Here, the music was dampened, which I appreciated because my ears were ringing, and the cold granite beneath me gave me a strange but comforting sense of grounding.
Damn it. This was not going at all the way I had expected it to. I was overwhelmed, desperately fighting against something I didn’t understand. And clearly I was losing.
The door behind me—the one I had come in through—opened after an undetermined amount of time. I’d lost track completely, just sitting there staring at my shaking hands. Instead of turning and looking, I froze. Answering anyone’s nosy questions wasn’t on my to-do list right then.
Just go past. Ignore me.
Dread and exhilaration flooded me at the sound of that low, silky voice. I didn’t so much as glance at Jasper, but I knew he was standing there, calm and beautiful and distant. And it was killing me.
“Hi,” I responded tonelessly.
It struck me at that moment that Jasper and I had never had a conversation before. Ever. Oh, sure, there was the occasional “pass me the watercolors” in class, but these requests were always carefully impersonal on both our parts. I only ever listened in on him talking to other people—which was rare enough—as I tried not to let him catch me watching him work.
He was a creator. His mind and hands could turn any raw material, any blank canvas, into something beautiful. I’d seen it happen so many times throughout the past semester. Given his skill, his attention to detail, it had been an exercise in futility to try and keep my eyes away from whatever he worked on.
But we had never talked. And right now that felt like the biggest regret of my life.
He didn’t seem to share said regret. I heard the slight rustle of fabric as he shifted, and then his steps echoed through the stairwell as he slowly walked past me, laid his hand on the handrail, and descended the steps one by one.
I swallowed hard. Suddenly it seemed important to tell Jasper…well, something. Not everything. But I longed to get him to understand that he was not just a random face in the crowd to me. I opened my mouth and tried to find the words, any words, except there didn’t seem to be any that would even come close to saying what I needed them to say.
Jasper reached the bottom of the flight of stairs, turned to go down the next flight, and saw my face when he glanced up. His eyes met mine. The next moment, my entire body thrummed as though I were a church bell and Jasper the clapper that had just struck me and set me to ringing.
“Is something wrong?”
He’d cocked his head. The polite concern written on his face made me want to scream. He was looking at me like I was just some random jock, nothing more, and…oh shit, what if I was? What if he’d long since stopped seeing me as anything but?
“I’m scared,” I blurted out, both because it was the truth and because I would have said anything just then to stop that painful train of thought.
His eyes were still fixated on me. Most likely he was expecting me to elaborate, which would have been the logical thing to do, but I couldn’t. Just couldn’t.
“Oh,” he said eventually. I watched through slightly blurred eyes as he shifted, then took his hand off the rail again. “Do you need help?” He asked the question with a note of hesitation, as though doubting how much help he could be to me, or maybe wondering what sort of bizarre problem he was offering to involve himself in. I wished fervently that I could just say yes and get him to stay just a little while longer, but that was just about the worst idea—
“Yes.” I heard my own voice with incredulity. “Please,” I added to chase away an inexplicable feeling of rudeness.
Very slowly, he nodded and backtracked up the stairs. When he had nearly reached me, he sat, still looking wary and a little confused. I couldn’t blame him.
“So what’s wrong?” he asked, and his stunning eyes met mine again, and suddenly the compulsion to speak hit me like a sledgehammer.
“I think I’m gay.”
There was a moment of complete silence. Then I cringed and hid my hot face in my hands, feeling utterly horrified. “Oh hell
He made a small sound, something like a quiet, breathy “oh.” I couldn’t focus on it at all.
I hadn’t meant to say it. I’d never even thought it, not consciously, as though it wouldn’t be real until I acknowledged it. Stupid, but necessary to my overwhelmed sense of self-preservation. I wasn’t ready to let it be real. Yet there it was.
Jesus. What the fuck would I do now?
“It’s okay, Bryson. It’s all right.” His voice was so ridiculously calm that a small, aggravated, and overly aggressive part of me wanted to smack him.
“It’s not all right.” I still had my face hidden in my hands, so the words came out muffled, and I couldn’t see his reaction. But a second later, he rested his hand lightly on my back.
“But it is. Really. And I’m not going to tell anyone.”
That was nice, but it did nothing to make me feel better. In fact, I was getting worse by the second. There was no way for me to un-realize this. And on top of everything, the simple touch of his warm hand on my back did things to me that I really didn’t want to have to deal with right now.
I stood abruptly, regretting the loss of his touch.
“I need to… I’m sorry, I… Thanks for the…”
Without finishing any of my sentences or giving him a chance to reply, I fled down the stairs. My mind spun like an out-of-control carnival ride.
This is not happening.
I take it back.
Please let me take it back.
For several minutes, while I navigated the stairs and then the ground floor, I was afraid I might throw up. My skin was slick with cold sweat. I wanted to crawl into a hole and never, ever come out again.
Sage C. Holloway