When they arrived at Anna’s house the girls busied themselves getting ready for the party.
They were having a pre-graduation bash since they wouldn't be around long after the momentous day-and because Anna’s dad was not at home her abode was the logical choice.
Anna brushed a hand over a picture of her father as she made her way to her bedroom to change.
As a photojournalist Marty Preston had once spent most of his time in the remote areas of the world, a lifestyle that had abruptly changed when he’d met Anna’s mother Emma. For sixteen years he had stayed local to be with his little family, until three years earlier when an accident had taken Emma’s life and he’d become a shell of the man he once was. In the months following the accident he had tried to be there for Anna, but after awhile it had become apparent that he was more dead than alive. So he’d re-established some old connections and went back to working all over the globe. At sixteen years of age she had been able to care for herself, but it was still hard, she often felt as if she’d lost both parents instead of only one.
It was lucky for her that her mom had been the kind of person who believed that life was not a given and had taught her to expect the unexpected and deal with all that came her way with optimism. "It's all in how we perceive it Anna Banana,” she would say, “if your house burns down you can be devastated by the loss or excited at the prospect of building something new. Personally I strongly believe in the latter, and that my darling is how I expect you to live-with great hope and a sense of possibility, always seeking the light at the end of the tunnel or a glimpse of the sun breaking through the clouds. Because believe me there will be plenty of cloudy days. You can wish the rain would go away, or you can dance in it." And the two of them had danced in the rain often in her young life, both literally and figuratively. She missed her mom desperately but refused to give in to the grief, wanting to honor her life and memory by following her advice. She often wondered if somewhere deep down her mother had known that she would be taken early, if perhaps she’d lived and believed the things she did because of it. She also wondered if her mom would approve of the trip she was taking.
Shortly after her mother’s death she’d learned that the grandparents she had never known had been deliriously wealthy and had left every penny of their vast inheritance to her. George and Karen Tyler had been bluebloods, coming from “old money” and when their only child had decided to marry “beneath” her they’d all but disowned her. Apparently they had completely changed their position once Anna had come into the picture, but right before her second birthday a sailing accident had claimed their lives and a reading of the will had named her their sole heir.
The money had been held in a trust by her mom until her death, then it had transferred to Anna’s father who wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. He had immediately hired a financial manager and the moment Anna turned eighteen it had been transferred to her. Her dad had simply said "It's yours by birthright sweetheart, it's more than enough to keep you living large for the rest of your days. Just try and always keep in mind that money isn't everything. I trust I've trained you well as to the important things in life, I'm sure for you it will only make life sweeter."
After that brief little pep talk he hadn't spoken of it again, and when she'd tried to ask him for advice on spending he'd simply shaken his head and shrugged. The financial manager had a lot to say about it on the other hand, but he was so boring and practical she ended up deciding she would figure things out as she went.
Her first big spending spree had occurred the previous summer when she and the girls had rented an R.V. and toured the country. They had alternately stayed in campsites and fancy hotels making for an incredible experience, and it was during that trip that they had begun planning this one.
She finished dressing and headed back downstairs, hearing Macey’s happy voice coming from the kitchen.
"I have ten CD’s of party music set and ready to go," her friend announced.
"Awesome, Jess is talking to Jim who is picking up the alcohol as we speak," Jenna stated with a grin as Anna walked into the room.
Anna grinned in return. She strongly believed there was something about drinking under the legal age that made it more fun. She also felt if they were to change the age to what it should be (either 18 or when your parents gave the okay) there would be a lot less problems associated with it. She never could understand how a person could be old enough to fight in a war but too young to drink a beer. In Europe it would not be illegal, in fact she’d heard that in places like Ireland you could order a drink if you could see over the bar.
"So what's he getting?" she asked.
"Everything we asked for-a keg of amber, wine coolers for the wimps like Jess, and a variety of bottles of liquor and soda." Jenna dodged Jess as she attempted to smack her for the comment.
Anna laughed, shaking her head. “Okay let's see…I have the table set up for beer pong on the second deck, the hoist deck is set with the stereo, the neighbors are apprised of what's going on and the food just needs to be brought down along with the coolers of ice." She ticked each item off on her fingers.
Her house was located across the street from the lake and they had a two story set of stairs complete with decks leading down to the rocky beach. They also had a deck on top of the boat hoist that her father had ingeniously built at the end of their long dock.
"What about karaoke?" Jess asked.
"Oh yeah baby, that's set up with the stereo," Anna winked at her friend. The girl really loved to sing.
"I can't believe your neighbors don't care that you're having a big party," Jess stated.
"Well my dad talked to them, and as long as everyone who comes either has a D.D. or stays the night, it’s A-OK."
"I'm surprised your parents are okay with this," Marina said to Macey.
Macey smiled her typical mischief smile. "They don’t mind if I drink as long as I'm responsible and I don't get in a car, and since I can walk home from here that’s obviously not an issue."
“Walk? You could crawl home from here,” Anna interjected. Macey’s house was located about a hundred yards away on the lake side of the street. "Which is exactly what she’ll be doing if I make her drinks."
"Still, they always seem to treat you like a child," Marina persisted.
Macey waved her hand dismissively, "Nah, they're getting better, I'm graduating after all."
Holly clapped her hands for attention, "Okay girls come on, we have to start bringing the food down."
There was a chorus of "yes ma’am’s," and they got to work.
On their second trip down the stairs Anna found herself being lifted into the air from behind.
"Austin, put me down," she laughed.
"Give me that," he took the cooler from her, "as klutzy as you are I would hate to spend your party at the hospital for a broken leg." He mock played falling down the stairs and she made a face at him. He laughed and waggled his eyebrows before jogging down ahead of her.
"Yo Anna, where can I set up the horseballs?"
Anna turned to see Nate, Austin's closest friend as well as the guy Jess was currently crushing on, calling to her from the top of the stairs.
"The shore is wide enough, just bring the equipment down, you can bury the posts in the rocks," she called back.
She continued down the stairs musing about whether or not the twenty first century version of horseshoes would end up replacing the much older game. Anna personally preferred it because it required a little less accuracy, though she imagined veteran players would turn the nose up at it for the same reason.
The small group quickly finished setting things up as more people began to arrive.
Anna bent down to retrieve a cup and a blush spread over her face as she sensed Austin’s eyes on her. She wasn't the type to be easily offended, but embarrassed? Yeah, every little thing of a potentially sexual nature had her reddening instantly. Annoying, that's what it was. She made a production of straightening stuff out on the table so he wouldn't see her burning face.
"Your ears are all red," he stated.
Busted. "Yeah well, if your eyes had fingers, my bum would be red," she shot back.
He laughed. "I can't help it that my eyes have such good taste."
He was hovering over her shoulder so she pushed back against him. "Personal space, ever heard of it?"
"Okay, all right, you don't have to get all snippy."
"Snippy? Did you seriously say snippy?" She giggled and faced him. He was smiling back, but he had a peculiar expression in his eyes that belied his feelings to be other than light. She shifted uncomfortably hoping this was NOT the moment he chose to bear his heart. He reached around her and grabbed two cups, the look disappearing.
"What's your poison today?"
"Beer, definitely no liquor for me."
"Aww, come on, do you mean to tell me that a little bitty hangover has got you scared?"
"That was no bitty hangover, it was a mongo hangover from hell thank you very much, and it's not fear but self preservation. I would really like to get up tomorrow without puking."
He grinned at her as they headed over to the keg. Nate and a couple of others had beat them to it, so Anna left it to Austin to get her drink. She made her way over to Jess who was making eyes at Nate in a less than subtle manner.
"Obvious much?" Anna whispered, raising a brow. She took Jess by the elbow and led her down the beach.
When they were far enough away Jess burst out, "God, I know, I can't stop staring at him! I never noticed how freakin' cute he was! I want him to kiss me so bad right now."
Anna rolled her eyes, her lips twitching in amusement, "Weren't you just saying that about Brent Regault?"
"Oh yuck, I don't know what I was thinking, he is so gross."
Anna tittered. "Gross? I don't know if I'd go that far, he's kinda cute."
"Yeah, until you kiss him and he slobbers all over your face!"
"Oh, eww, that is gross. So I take it Nate is a good kisser?"
"Yes!" Jess grabbed her arm a little too enthusiastically, "He was so gentle, but forceful at the same time, it's hard to explain, but the way he touched my face, and then he put his hands in my hair, and he tasted like spearmint…”
She gushed on and on and Anna found herself wishing she could feel like that about someone, anyone. Jenna criticized her sister for flitting from one guy to the next, but Anna honestly loved that about her, she was even a little envious. To experience those feelings of excitement over and over, there was magic in that. Someday she was fairly certain Jess would settle down, but right now she was young, so why rush it? It's not as if she was sleeping with these guys, and how long did you have where you could just kiss your partners without it leading to something further?
Jenna walked over, her expression stating an acute desire to slap her sister and Anna put up a hand to stop the acid words before they came. Jenna sighed, snorted, and then grudgingly smiled. It was only Jess that made her react like that, if any of the rest of them were crushing on someone she would find it amusing. Not that Anna didn’t get it. She loved Jess dearly but the girl had a tendency towards mood swings and she harbored no illusions about how difficult they would be to live with.
Austin made his way over to them and handed her a beer. "So what are we pow-wowing about? Wouldn't have anything to do with my buddy over there, hmm?"
Jess pounced on him immediately, "What did he say? Did he tell you about it? Does he like me?"
Austin chuckled, "Easy there cowgirl, yes, he's definitely into you. But he's Nate, not particularly demonstrative in that way."
"Demon-what?" Jess wrinkled her forehead.
Anna laughed loudly at her expression. "He means that he's not the type to talk seriously about it or come over and start quoting love poems to you."
"O-kaaay, so what did he say?"
Austin took several gulps of his beer then smiled at her patiently. "I believe his exact words were, ‘Damn that girl is fii-iine’."
By the look on his face Anna knew he had edited that a bit.
Jess smiled broadly. "So what should I do? Should I go over there, or wait for him to come to me?"
"Oh come on Jess, you know it's always better to make them come to you." Holly said as she joined them, getting the gist immediately.
"Yeah but I'm not patient," Jess pouted making them all laugh.
There was a loud chorus of "It's Party Time!!" shouted from the top of the deck stairs and they looked up to see about twenty or so kids making their way down.
"Well, I think it's time to get this party started," Austin stated.
He set about organizing the games and shouted over the noise, "I have two lists for balls and pong, if you wanna play, getcha' names on them!"
"This is gonna be a total blow out," Macey stated as she grabbed Anna's arm and dragged her towards the dock.
"What are we doing!" Anna shouted over the music which had just been turned up.
"We're going on the first boat ride, I formed a list for that earlier!"
"Oh, good thinking!"
She had a decent sized speedboat, it fit ten people comfortably and could get up to 60 mph, which in an open boat was really zipping along.
"I'm driving," Macey announced to the group that had formed.
There were no arguments and they clambered in, Anna making her way up to her favorite seat at the front. She loved the wind hitting her in the face as they skimmed the surface of the water.
Her friend Geordy flopped down next to her smiling widely. "Hey Bo-nana, how's it goin'? Awesome party!"
"Great, and yeah I know!" There were a couple more hours of daylight, and there was already about forty people on the beach. As they pulled away from the hoist she stood and waved to the shore dramatically shouting "Bon Voyage, We'll miss you!"
Geordy grabbed her arm and pulled her down, "You're gonna fall over the side!"
"Nah, I always stand up!"
"And you haven't gone in the drink? You, the world's biggest klutz?"
She slapped at him, "Stop teasing me! Why does everyone say that, I'm not that bad...anymore," she amended.
"Yeah, uh huh, keep telling yourself that."
"I really like the goatee," she said, smoothly changing the subject. He had started growing it a few months ago and it definitely made him look older. Without it his boyish face had him at a perpetual fifteen.
"Thanks, it's pretty chill right?"
They chatted about nothing in particular and twenty minutes later Macey turned the boat back in the direction of the hoist. Anna was in mid-sentence when she looked towards the shore and felt her heart do a stutter step.
Not now, she thought with an inner cringe, and not here. She closed her eyes tightly and looked again. Gone.
"You all right, you look a little pale?" Geordy leaned towards her.
She forced a laugh, "Fine, just had a little vertigo all of a sudden, weird."
Geordy was studying her, eyes narrowed doubtfully.
God what had she looked like? She smiled wider, "Seriously G, I just got a little dizzy for a sec."
"Kay, if you’re sure."
She stood as the boat slowed and drew in a deep breath letting it out in a rush before plastering her face with a smile. She kept the smile fixed as she scanned the shoreline for more signs of them. The shadow men. Trying not to shiver with the thought, she disguised her nervousness by climbing hastily onto the dock.
"Anna, you don't have to get off," Macey yelled to her over the music, "I'm going to keep driving!"
“I want to, but you go ahead, I know you love it!" She shouted back.
Geordy linked his arm through hers and they headed up the dock together.
"Would you get me a refill?" She asked him, pushing her cup in his hand, "I need to use the Ladies'.”
They had rented a port-a-potty for the night in order to keep the party out of her house. It was set up a ways down the beach and she made her way towards it greeting people as she went. Once inside she locked the door and lined the seat sitting heavily. She didn't need to use it, she just needed to clear her head.
The shadow men. She had first seen them shortly after her sixteenth birthday. If they hadn't appeared until after her mom's death she might have attributed it to a trauma induced hallucination, but that wasn't the case. Her first sighting had been at a train station about a month or so before her mother’s accident. There had been two of them, and at first she’d thought her eyes were playing tricks on her. When they were still there after some vigorous rubbing she’d sat staring at them numbly as a chill made its way up her spine.
In both cases they had seemed to be tracking someone. They had no real definite shape, just fluid blackness like a person’s distorted shadow. One had passed so close to her that she could feel its presence, an evil malice filled thing that made her mouth go dry and her skin crawl. She couldn't tell if it knew she was staring since there weren't any features, but the person it was following had seemed terribly agitated. He’d turned to her and said, "What are you looking at?" in such a way it had made her shrink into the bench mumbling "sorry" and "nothing."
Then more had appeared until she thought she might run screaming from the building, at which point she’d mentally shouted “NO MORE, I DON’T WANT TO SEE THEM”, and shut her eyes. That time when she’d re-opened them, they were gone. From then on it was always like that. Any time she spotted them she would squeeze her eyes shut and will them away.
She hadn't told a single soul about them. She'd considered it time after time, telling her dad, telling the girls or Austin, but when she played out the conversation in her head....yeah, she sounded nuts. So she'd half convinced herself they were figments of her over-active imagination. She had never seen them in a group of teens before now, and them being HERE, on her beach was not a good sign. Not a good sign at all. The shadow men, (demons her mind supplied as it always did, and she shut the thought down as she always did) are growing in numbers, she thought grimly. And they were.
In the beginning she had only ever seen them when she'd been in or near a city. Recently she'd seen them in her town. And now they were on her freaking beach, THE BASTARDS!
Oh how she wished she had told her mother about them. She might have been able to make sense of it since she’d believed wholeheartedly in the supernatural. She wouldn't have thought her daughter was crazy. In fact it was the notion that her mom would have not only believed her but even had an explanation for it that kept her from feeling crazy, especially after the airport incident six months earlier.
She had been waiting for her dad to fly in from Tibet and had wandered into the airport bar when she saw him. A guy (HOLY GOD, HIS EYES ARE BLACK) wearing a professional suit, briefcase, and a charming smile, flirting with the bartender. And his eyes were all black, even where the whites should have been. She had turned away from him after the initial shock, praying he hadn’t noticed her, and then someone had touched her shoulder and she’d nearly screamed.
Her dad had turned her around to face him and she’d hugged him tightly, mumbling how much she'd missed him into his coat sleeve. After a minute or so she’d gained courage from his presence and looked at the guy again. Brown eyes, normal, nothing strange about him. And then she had looked away and thought, "I want to see it" and just like an on and off switch they were black again. She had quickly turned it “off” and pulled her dad away.
She knew that what she had witnessed that day was a shadow man possession. What she didn't know was why. Why did she see these things? What was the point, what could she possibly do besides scare herself?
Well at least I would not be suckered into flirting with him like that bartender, she thought with a sigh. She had watched the news for days afterwards, convinced the woman's face would be on it with the headline "Serial Killer On The Loose." But it hadn’t happened and she’d pushed it to the back of her mind.
Someone knocked and she realized she'd been in there awhile. She stood and pushed open the door-Geordy, crap.
"Okay seriously, what's wrong Anna, are you getting sick?"
She took the drink from him and shook her head. "I told you I just got a little dizzy, really it's nothing to worry about, I probably just need to eat something."
He followed her back to the food table, and she started getting irritated. She liked him but he was definitely interested in her a great deal more than she was him, and they didn’t have the kind of friendship to impart confidences, particularly of this nature. She scanned the people for her friends, trying to find a tactful way to ditch him.
Austin came striding over. "'Sup Geordy."
Anna looked from one to the other, mentally rolling her eyes at their silent pissing contest.
"Something's wrong with Anna," Geordy stated.
She shot Geordy a dirty look.
Austin's brows arched. "What do you mean?"
"She got all pale on the boat ride, looked like she'd seen a ghost, fo’ real, then she just spent like ten minutes in the john."
Austin was looking closely at her now and she grabbed his arm pulling him away from Geordy. She leaned up and whispered, "I'll tell you about it later-can you help me ditch him, but nicely?" She knew the request would distract him and it worked like a charm. His chest even seemed to puff out with the “I'm the Winner” thing that guys did.
"Look man," he told Geordy, "she doesn't wanna talk about it. Don't worry, she's in good hands."
A hurt look flashed across Geordy’s face.
"I said nicely," she whispered fiercely. She stepped away from Austin and gave Geordy a quick hug. "I appreciate your concern, but really I'm okay. Don't feel bad, I just don't want to talk about it, I’d rather party like it's 1999," she grinned reassuringly.
"That's cool. Do you wanna be my pong partner?" he asked hopefully.
Austin stepped in between them, "She already has a partner," he stated and steered her away. He looked a little pissed, probably because of the hug, but that was his fault.
"Where are you leading me?"
"Away from him like you asked, remember?"
"Oh yes, I remember the word nicely too."
"So? The guy's hot for you, do you really want him puppy dogging you all night?"
She shook her head, "No, but I don't want to make him feel bad either."
"Okay, so now you're mad at me for not wanting to stomp on his poor little heart."
"I'm not mad, Christ."
"Ohhhh yeah, because you usually swear at me when you're not mad."
"Anna....hey look, it's your girls." They stopped in front of Marina and Jenna. "I'll find you when it's our turn for pong, okay?"
She looked up at him questioningly. He bent down and kissed her forehead, an ‘everything is cool’ gesture, then saluted the girls and took off in the direction of the horseballs game. She followed his progress thinking....thinking what?
"He really is good-looking isn't he." It wasn’t a question, and the surprised looks on the faces of her friends told her she'd spoken aloud.
"Whoa, are you actually considering-"Jenna started.
"You and Austin?" Marina cut in.
She shook her head to clear it. "I don't know. Maybe. I don't know, bleh."
Jenna giggled and started to say something but was interrupted by Jess calling Anna’s name. They turned towards her and saw her standing near the dock waving at them frantically.
“What’s got her all excited?” Marina laughed.
Jenna and Anna shook their heads in unison and the three of them hurried across the beach to find out.
"Guess what?" Jess whispered excitedly when they reached her. "You are NOT going to believe what I just heard!"
"Out with it!" Anna laughed.
She leaned in, her eyes widening dramatically. "Leo is going to ask you on a date!"
Anna blinked. "What, wait, Leo?"
"Yeah, as in Luscious lips Leo, as in Holy Crap he is so freaking hot Leo!"
Leo Giovanni had graduated the year before her and to this day was the most gorgeous guy to ever grace the Halls of Sentinel High. She hadn't even noticed he was here but now that she did, damn. Hot, definitely hot.
"Who told you this?" She asked suspiciously.
"Carrie Wesler, she said she overheard him talking to Bob Billings and he was saying you had the most beautiful eyes he's ever seen, and he's been all over the country, and that he didn't know you well, but you seemed like a sweetheart, and then he said he was going to ask you to dinner and a movie!" She took a breath and clasped her hands together.
She was so excited you would think it was her that he was asking. It was a very endearing trait of hers to always be happy for the good fortune of her friends.
"Okay, he hasn't even talked to me...." Anna trailed off as she watched him coming across the beach towards her.
"Oh my God," Jess gripped her arm hard.
"Sorry, just OMG."
When he reached them he graced Anna with a very slow, very sexy smile and she briefly wondered if he practiced that expression in front of a mirror. Has to, she thought as she stared at him, smiling uncertainly in return. His dark hair fell over his eyes which were golden with flecks of green on a perfectly sculpted face. He was always dressed sleek, his apparel made you think sports car, and his face made you think (angel).
"Great party Anna," he said holding out his hand in greeting.
"Th-thanks." She took his hand. Please do NOT stammer like an idiot, she berated herself.
"Do you play beer pong?"
"Oh, yeah, I love that game, I’m actually pretty good at it." STOP gushing, be cool!
"So...do you wanna be my partner, I'm up next."
"Sure, yeah great. Oh damn, I already told Austin...
"Aww come on, you guys are buds, I'm sure he won't mind, he can find someone else."
She found herself nodding stupidly in agreement as he took her arm to walk her up the stairs. She threw a "Holy shit" look over her shoulder to the girls who were grinning and waving at her.
Austin walked up beside Jenna just in time to see Leo drape his arm around Anna’s shoulders and announce their partnership. His expression went from shock to anger, and if you knew him well enough you could see the hurt mingled in with it.
Jenna watched the facial changes and winced. “She tried to tell him she already had a partner, but he just sort of swept her away," she explained.
"Did he.” He said flatly.
"She's just flattered, every single dimwit girl in school is flattered when he deigns to talk to them, myself included, something about him…" Jenna trailed off thinking she probably wasn't helping.
"Something about him, yeah, he's an arrogant asshole who treats girls like objects.” A muscle ticked in his jaw and he kept his eyes on the pair as he spoke. “Did you know that from his freshmen year on he took bets in September on how many cherries he was going to pop? That’s right, and then as he got older it was more specific, certain girls, the more challenging the better. Then he might keep the girl around awhile, but only until his next conquest. He's a fucking predator." He emphasized the last two words and turned to the girls, his expression dark.
Jess frowned, her previous excitement fading into worry. "So you think he's just trying to get Anna into bed?
Because I heard from Carrie that he wanted to ask her out for dinner and a movie...
"Carrie? Wesler you mean?" Austin barked a laugh. "That little bitch is probably setting her up."
He spun around and took off across the beach to where Leo's friends were gathered, the girls trailing after him at a discreet distance.
"You got a bet going on boys?" Austin lit a cigarette and grinned wolfishly as he put it between his teeth.
"Bet? I don't know what you mean." Rodney tried for an innocent expression and failed miserably.
"Sure you do, come on, what's the stakes, what's the terms?"
"Why, you want in?" This from Kelley who over compensated for his girlie name with a major macho attitude.
"Hey dude, there is no bet." Rodney shot his friend a warning look.
Austin pulled a wad of money from his wallet. "Don’t you like cash?" He held the money up and raised an eyebrow.
"I like cash," Kelley grinned stupidly.
"Don't be an idiot dude, don't you see who followed him over here?" Rodney pointed to where Anna’s friends were gathered several yards away.
"Okay," Austin stuffed the money in his pocket and threw up his hands, "you got me. So how about you tell me what this bet is so I don't beat your asses into the ground." He dropped his arms to his sides and flexed his fingers, his eyes narrowed in hostility. He looked so menacing that every girl on the beach who happened to glance his way developed an instant crush.
Rodney snorted, "You and what army?"
They had attracted some attention at this point and Nate came hurrying over with a couple of their friends.
"What's going on here?"
"Rodney is about to learn firsthand what water boarding is if he doesn't start talking NOW, that's what the fuck is going on," Austin growled.
"He thinks they made a bet about Anna," Jess jumped in and pointed to where Anna and Leo were playing pong.
"I don't think it, I fucking know it!" He broke and rushed Rodney, taking him down to the beach as Nate and the others held Rodney's friends at bay.
Austin raised his fist, calculating his best shot.
"Okay, fuck, yeah we made a stupid bet, but I don't know why you're going after me, it's Leo that's trying to fuck her man, he thinks he can get her in bed if not by the end of tonight then the end of the week, Jesus, get off me!"
Austin climbed to his feet and turned towards the deck stairs. A number of people had crowded around them in an attempt to find out what was going on and he forced his way past them. He looked up at the second deck and locked eyes with Leo who was watching the beach intently. He started in his direction and when he reached the stairs he took them two at a time.
Anna intercepted him placing her hands on his chest, "What are you doing, what's going on?"
He ignored her, staring hard at Leo. "Leave. Now."
"Why?” Leo’s expression was all innocence. “What did those douche bags say? Don't listen to them...
Austin picked Anna up and placed her behind him then stalked towards Leo who threw his hands in the air.
"Come on man, what's your problem?”
In a movement almost too fast to follow Austin's fist caught Leo on the jaw line with a resounding crack and sent him flying into the stairs behind him.
Leo scrambled up a few steps holding his face as Austin advanced with his arm cocked back for another shot.
"All right, shit, I'm going, I'm going!"
Austin halted with his fist in the air and Leo turned and ran up the stairs, skating a glance over his shoulder to make sure he wasn’t being followed. When he reached the top he hollered for his posse before disappearing from view.
Anna, who had watched the scene unfold in startled confusion, finally recovered and turned on Austin. "Please tell me what the HELL that was about! Jealousy? So another guy can't talk to me or flirt with me because you're jealous? Do I have to warn every guy I meet that my best friend might beat them up if they stand too close?" She heard her voice rising and couldn't seem to stop even when she noted the flash of hurt in his eyes.
He didn’t reply, just stared at her with an unreadable expression. He shook his head and took a breath before turning and jogging back down the stairs.
She watched as he leapt off the last couple of steps feeling a sudden wave of dizziness. She had drunk the equivalent of two beers in ten minutes and the alcohol chose that moment to dive-bomb her head. She sat on a chair trying to get a hold of her runaway emotions. Come on light weight, she scolded, you've only had four beers total. But she knew that wasn't really it.
Jenna and Marina sat down next to her. "He made a bet about you," Jenna said quietly.
She looked at her questioningly.
"Leo bet his friends he'd have you either tonight or by the end of the week, and when I say have you I mean have you."
Anna snorted. That would most definitely not have happened. As flattered as she initially was from his interest, within a few minutes of listening to him talk she knew he was not for her. Which was partially why she was upset, it was frustrating to not be able to give in to just a little bit of crushing. What would be the big deal if she made out with a guy that she knew was not in her future?
She winced, realizing she had just shouted at her knight in shining armor. "How did he find out?" she asked sheepishly.
"I guess Leo's pretty famous for making bets like that, so when he saw him with you...well he made the jackass’s friends 'fess up." Jenna patted her arm then gave her an earnest look. "I know that we can't force our feelings, but seriously Anna, you might want to consider it. He looked extremely hot taking Rodney down!"
"Yeah he did," Marina agreed, "manly."
Anna smiled a little. "I know, he looked pretty hot taking out Leo too.” Her smile faded and she blew out a puff of air in frustration. “I don't know what's wrong with me. It’s just that we've been friends for so long and I know that if we don't make it as a couple our friendship will be over...and that really sucks."
"I hate to break it to you sweetie, but I have a feeling your friendship will end eventually no matter what," Jenna told her.
"He wants to be with you, and the friend thing is definitely wearing him out. So you're either going to give the relationship thing a try....or he's going to let you go. Don't ask how I know, I can just....see it."
Anna didn’t question further, Jenna had an uncanny way of knowing things like that. "Okay, understood, but I can't decide right now. I want to drink some more, and have some fun. Beer pong partner?"
Jenna nodded and as they set up their cups Anna heard the sound of a motor and turned to watch Macey pull the boat into the hoist. The sun was setting and she could just make out her friend waving up to them through the glare. She waved back and scanned the beach locating Austin who was lounging in the center of a crowd of people. She could tell they were talking about the fight from his repeated slaps on the back.
She watched as a girl from her graduating class, Gina Rollins, walked up to him and looped an arm through his, leaning up to whisper in his ear. Anna stiffened as she felt her very own first taste of jealousy. Suddenly she realized it had been a long time since she'd seen him with a girl who was not among her friends. And she definitely didn't like it.
"Anna, get your head in the game!" Jenna waved a hand in front of her face and she forced her attention back to the table, but her gaze kept getting pulled back to Gina's form draped all over Austin.
They lost the game, big surprise, and she continued watching the beach. The fact that she didn’t like the shallow little backstabber was not helping. "Who invited her," She mumbled irritably.
Jenna followed her gaze. "Smart boy."
"You heard me. A little taste of your own medicine. Now I suggest, since the game is over..." she paused to let the double meaning sink in, "you go down there and stake your claim."
Anna hesitated, taking a deep breath, before heading down the stairs to change her life. Dramatic, yes, but that's how it felt.
She made her way over to where Austin was seated and nearly lost her nerve as she stopped in front of the campfire. The disgusting girl (pretty, yes she was pretty, but only on the outside) was in his lap and she sucked in a breath as he glanced up at her. He was extremely handsome by firelight. She mouthed “I’m sorry” and he nodded briefly before returning his attention to the kid sitting next to him. Damn, he was going to make her beg for it.
She sat down on the rocks and picked up a stick to poke at the fire. She imagined it getting nice and red and "accidentally" touching Gina's leg which was currently rubbing up and down on Austin's.
"So Anna," Gina spoke up in her fake sweet voice, "how did it feel to be the object of Leo's bet you poor thing."
Anna rolled her eyes. "Since there is no possible way he would have won that bet, despite what little faith some of my friends seem to have in me, ‘poor thing’ is a little much."
"Oh come on," Big Mouth pushed, "tell me you weren't eating right out of his hand before this guy," she patted Austin's leg, "saved the day."
"Hmm, let's see…halfway between ‘Last week I got so drunk I fucking puked in my neighbor's bird bath’ -and-‘I got some wicked stuff last night, I couldn't even tie my shoes I was so zooted’- I pretty much decided his looks can only make up for so much. So, that would be a No, no hand-eating for me."
She snuck a look at Austin, who was watching her intently. Dropping the stick in the fire, she pulled herself to her feet. "Can I talk to you?" Please don't say no, please don't…
He didn't answer right away, and she felt her stomach tighten. If he humiliated her in front of Gina she was pretty sure it would be the end of them. "Austin," she said quietly. "Please."
He lightly pushed Gina, who pouted but got to her feet. "I'll keep your seat warm," she sang as he walked over to Anna.
She grabbed his hand and led him farther down the beach, past the potty, around the large bush that hung out over the lake, and stopped at the crumbling stone fort. No one at the party had discovered it yet for which she was exceedingly grateful. She let go of his hand and looked out over the water.
"So what is it?" He asked. He turned her to face him and she chewed on her lip not knowing how to proceed. He started to say something else, but she stopped him by reaching up and touching his cheek. She searched his eyes which were narrowed in temporary confusion and watched as they gradually widened in understanding.
“I…” she got no further. Austin took his opportunity and leaned down, pressing his lips on hers. She wrapped her arms around his neck pulling him closer and he backed her up into the stone wall. His tongue darted into her mouth and she tentatively touched it with her own which seemed to set off fireworks for him. Next thing she knew he was lifting her up and wrapping her legs around his waist, sandwiching her between his body and the wall. It felt amazing to be this close to him, especially since the slide of his tongue was distracting her from thinking.
"Wha-whoa, what have we got here?" Geordy. Of course.
They broke the kiss but Austin kept her where she was, like he was afraid if he let her down she'd run away. Which...her heart was racing so hard she might have done just that.
"Do you need something?" Austin cocked a brow at Geordy.
"Nah, I'm cool. So the two of you, huh? I guess everyone saw that coming." He was slurring a bit and holding a bottle of J.D.
Austin raised his brows, his expression clearly stating his irritation with the interruption, but Geordy wasn't reading facial expressions in his current state.
"Well, maybe not everyone," he slurred, "’cause, see I thought you guys would just stay buddies, you know, and like I really like her, Anna I really like you, it's true." He took a long drink from his bottle and Anna could feel Austin taking a deep breath, getting ready to put her down.
She gripped his arms. "He's really drunk, I don't want you to hurt him, he's harmless.”
He rolled his eyes at her and turned to the swaying Geordy. "Look G, I'm sorry she's not interested in you that way, but we're kind of in the middle of something, so can we talk about it later?"
"Oh. Yeah, sure, I mean, who cares how I'm feeling anyway, right?" He staggered and tripped over a rock landing in the lake.
"Shit," Austin said. He put her down and strode over. He frowned down at the capsized Geordy for a second before grabbing his arm and pulling him up. Geordy yanked back landing himself right back in the water.
"Dude, I'm just helping you up."
"I don't want your help. I want her help." He pointed at Anna.
"Anna, no." Austin gave her a meaningful look and turned back to Geordy. "You're wasted numb nuts, so either you accept my help gracefully or I throw your dumb ass over my shoulder and toss you in the boathouse. Your choice." He held out a hand again and Geordy took it, grumbling under his breath.
Once on his feet he wobbled a bit but somehow managed to make it back around the bush.
"Where were we?" Austin started to pick her up again but Geordy had attracted attention and they were interrupted by a loud group.
"Hey guys, what's doin'?" Nate was among them along with Jess who was attached to his hand and giggling.
"Are we interrupting something?" Jess asked waggling her eyebrows suggestively.
"No!" Anna jumped in. Austin looked down at her and gave a brief nod before striding away.
"Wait, where are you going?" She followed him making a grab for his arm.
He stopped and glared down at her, his pale green eyes narrowed, "Away from you."
"But I didn't mean it like that!"
"Then what exactly did you mean?" he demanded.
"I just didn't want to be teased, okay? It was a big moment for me, and I didn't want Jess to ruin it with…" she hand gestured in frustration, the right words eluding her.
He shook his head, folding his arms across his broad chest. "It’s inevitable that the girls will tease you."
She sighed dramatically, "I know, I know, but just not right then. Can we go upstairs or something?"
The anger faded from his expression replaced with something else, something that made her stomach flutter. His eyes traveled her body and her face flamed making him laugh. He grabbed her hand and pulled her through the throng of people and up the stairs, not stopping until they'd reached her back porch.
She unlocked the door and he practically pushed her through it, lifting her and heading to the couch. She wanted to tell him to slow down, but his mouth captured her words and she forgot everything including her name when he landed her on the cushions and pinned her beneath him. She started to think he should be heavy, but lost the thought as his hand traveled up and down her thigh.
He kissed her softly for a moment before increasing the pressure and then his lips traveled down her neck sending little shock waves of pleasure down her skin. One particular spot felt so good she barely suppressed a moan. He had one hand cradling the back of her head while the other traveled from her thigh and up the side of her body, making its way under her shirt. When she felt it skim the bottom of her bra she jumped, logic breaking through the runaway hormones.
"Austin, too fast,” she said in a small voice.
His hand stilled and he lifted off her to look at her face. He was breathing heavily and he closed his eyes for a minute. "Sorry, I know, you're right. It’s just, I've wanted you for so long..."
"And now you have me, so we can take it slow, right?"
"Do I? Do I have you?" He searched her face.
She smiled at him and ran a finger along his jaw line. "Let's just say it wasn't easy to tell you to stop."
His expression went from earnest to teasing. "Oh no?"
"What you were doing felt good."
A purely masculine smile formed on his lips. "How good?"
"You're making me blush again."
He laughed. "Like that's hard."
She giggled and he kissed her chin then sat up and pulled her into his lap, cupping her face. "I've dreamt about this moment, I know that sounds ridiculously corny, but it's true."
She was seated sideways on his legs and she looked down at her hands.
"It's okay, I know you haven't, but tell me what changed your mind." He stroked his fingers down her cheek and she shivered a little.
"I guess...Leo kept putting his hand on my butt and it made me want to slap him…"
Austin tensed. "I should not have let him walk away," he growled.
"I'm not finished."
He nodded for her to go on with narrowed eyes.
"And then his conversation was so immature and stupid…and I just kept thinking about you, comparing him to you. And he, who is supposed to be this ideal in our tiny circle of the world, fell short. Way short."
"Then why did you react like that, when I hit him? You wanted to slap him but you yelled at me for punching him?" he raised a brow.
"Because just before you came up the stairs I realized I might want something more with you, and it was a Huge realization, and I was overwhelmed, and I didn't understand what was going on...I don't know, I'm really sorry. What you did was awesome and I love you for it, even without knowing your reasons I would have known there was a reason, but I was startled....and then I saw Gina hanging on you, and I actually wanted to hurt her!"
He grinned and she smacked her hand against his shoulder. "You were trying to make me jealous," she accused.
"Maybe," he agreed, still smiling.
"I'm scared though." She looked down at her hands.
"Of losing you as my friend."
He frowned. "You think we won't be friends if we're dating?"
"I think that we're young. And things happen...
He grabbed her wrists. "Stop. Don't do that, don't peer into the non-existent crystal ball. We might not work out, that's true, but if we don't try then we'll never know. I know it bugs you when the girls tell you not to think so much, but seriously Anna, sometimes you just have to go with the flow instead of analyzing everything."
She looked away from him, and he swore under his breath before wrapping his arms around her and kissing her again. When she tried to pull away he gently but firmly kept her there until she gave in and kissed him back.
He broke the kiss and took hold of her arms holding her away from him. "Do you like this?"
She nodded, swallowing hard.
"Then do me a favor, and just go with it. Pretend there is no future, that every day is your potential last, and just…
"Okay," she broke in, "okay. Let's go back to the party now, because I think too much alone time with you could be hazardous."
He laughed, "Hazardous?"
She narrowed her eyes. Live in the moment, huh? She smiled slyly and placed her hand on his erection. "I've heard blue balls can be a very painful condition." She jumped up quickly and ran for the door.
He caught her just outside making her squeal as he whirled her up into his arms. “That was very bad little girl, I think you should be sent to your room. With me in it."
"Ha ha, nice try. Put me down."
He dropped her on her feet and wrapped his arm around her waist.