Tierney dipped her spoon in a now-melted puddle of ice cream, stirring the chocolate syrup through the vanilla in a perfectly swirled pattern. Jihn was long gone. She’d muttered something about a family dinner at Byron’s -- although Tierney knew the only dinner they were likely to be having was a fresh vat of blood and hardly together -- and then wandered off.
After a few moments of what actually looked to be mild disappointment, Raquel had ordered another sundae and happily retaken her seat in the ice cream parlor.
“You and Jihn seem to be getting awfully chummy lately,” Tierney mentioned, her voice tinged with question. Please explain to me what the sudden switch was, she added silently, because I know it must have been a miracle.
“She’s not so bad,” Raquel hedged. She shrugged, and then grinned up at Tierney. “She even passed the test at the mall the other day.”
Nodding, Raquel broke into a wide smile. “Yeah, the test. I did the same thing to you the first time we went shopping together. Remember the shoe store? That’s how I knew we’d be great friends.”
Tierney nearly groaned. She *did* remember the shoe store and just exactly how much torture that had been. If Raquel had managed to try on another pair of shoes that day, Tierney might actually have killed her. But she’d realized once her newfound friend tried on the pair of neon orange and neon green saddle shoes that it was a joke. And the way Raquel’s face beamed when Tierney rolled her eyes had cinched that theory.
“You didn’t,” she said finally, hoping beyond hope that Raquel had behaved herself. Then again, Raquel said Jihn passed. That had to be a good sign, didn’t it?
“I did,” Raquel confirmed with a stunningly innocent grin.
Sighing, Tierney shook her head. For a few brief seconds, she let herself feel bad for the vampire, especially after experiencing it herself. “Are you *trying* to alienate her?”
Raquel smiled and dipped her spoon into her ice cream. “She handled it like Adrien would have. What about you? You’re not working on alienating Julien, are you?”
Her hand stilled in the middle of its circular motion and Tierney frowned into her bowl. “Why do you insist on making an issue out of this? He’s...”
“He’s what?” Raquel demanded, not wasting a single second in which Tierney could weasel her way out of the question.
Tierney gnawed worriedly on her lower lip. “I don’t know.” She set her spoon down and propped her chin on the palm of her hand. “You know what I hate about guys?”
Ignoring the amused tolerance in Raquel’s voice, she answered in an appropriately vague tone. “They’re like sticks.”
“They’re like *what*?”
Now Tierney grinned, too. It was always fun to catch Raquel off guard. “Sticks,” she repeated. “When you first meet them, you have one simple hunk of personality, kind of like a simple length of wood. But then you accidentally step on it -- er, say something or do something -- and it becomes two pieces, because it’s not simple anymore. With guys, they have different sides. With wood, you have smaller pieces.”
Raquel shoved her ice cream aside, leaning forward to check Tierney’s temperature. “Are you feeling okay? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Yes, it does.” Tierney batted her hand away. “Listen for a second, will you? The longer you spend getting to know them -- the more often you break one of those pieces to find out what’s inside -- the smaller those pieces get. Then you know more and more about them until there’s nothing left but splinters.”
Her friend stared at her. “So?”
Tierney took a deep breath. “So splinters get under your skin.”
“Are you trying to tell me that Julien’s trying to get into your pants?”
“Raquel!” Tierney looked cautiously around the crowded ice cream parlor to make sure no one they knew was there. It appeared safe, so she relaxed. Glaring briefly at her friend, she corrected, “That’s not what I’m saying at all. Julien’s not trying to sleep with me. This isn’t even about him.”
Violet eyes rolled in exaggerated exasperation. “Sure, it’s not, Tier. If it’s not about him, then what’s it about?”
Tierney shrugged and looked away. “Just forget it. There are so many directions for this to go that it’s not even worth it.” She suddenly realized she’d been unconsciously shredding her napkin. Dropping her hands, she forced herself to stop fidgeting.
“Splinters hurt,” Raquel persisted.
Finally meeting Raquel’s eyes, Tierney’s voice was grim. “I know.”
“Julien’s not going to hurt you,” Raquel said, picking her spoon back up. She took a healthy -- in size, not nutritional content -- bite of peanut butter fudge ice cream. Once she’d swallowed, she continued, “I don’t know what you’re worried about.”
“Nothing,” she murmured, staring into space. Raquel didn’t realize Julien was the last person on her mind. “Nothing at all.”
“Good, then you won’t mind meeting them at the beach,” Raquel chirped, finishing the last bite of her ice cream and dropping the spoon with a clang.
Raquel looked up. “Hello? Julien? My brother? Weren’t we just talking about them?”
Oh, right. Tierney shook her head to clear away lingering thoughts of Dare. Thoughts that seemed to be cropping up without any warning or any reason. Her splinter analogy had very little to do with Adrien’s best friend.
Dare had gotten under her skin, not Julien.
Predator, enemy, soulmate -- whatever he was -- he was a part of her. Maybe one she didn’t welcome, but fate had other ideas. And now he was so deeply entrenched she didn’t know how to break away. She knew he’d followed her to demand she fix whatever she’d done. It was only a matter of time before he tried again.
“Yeah, sure,” she murmured, noticing that Raquel was still staring at her. “Your brother. Julien.” A brief pause. “What about them?”
Raquel rolled her eyes, picking up her gray crocheted purse and rummaging through it. “Your attention span is horrible lately. Are you sure there’s not something going on?”
Pulling out a tube of berry lip balm, Raquel made a noise that was half between a disbelieving snort and amusement. “Well, you’d better tell me if there is. Are you ready to go?” She quickly uncapped the tube and smeared the gloss over her lips while waiting for Tierney’s answer.
Instead of replying, Tierney simply nodded. She picked up her car keys and waited for Raquel to throw the gloss back into her purse. Standing, Raquel tossed her head and walked out of the store, expecting her friend to follow. Tierney gathered up their tray. On the way to the door, she set it on the stand, ignoring the flirtatious looks being sent her way by a large group of junior males. She recognized them, but didn’t know any of them well enough to do more than nod courteously as she passed.
Why were they staring anyway? Self-consciously, she touched the corner of her mouth to make sure no ice cream residue lingered there. One of the guys stood and walked over to intercept her at the door.
“Hey, Tierney,” he said, smiling easily at her.
She grinned back weakly, searching in the depths of her mind for a name to go with the face. “Hi.”
Somehow the expression on his face was malicious instead of friendly, and Tierney couldn’t halt the shiver of unease fluttering through her body. He sidled closer to her, close enough that her apprehension augmented sharply. She shifted just away as much as she could without being rude. Obviously, he didn’t understand the concept of personal space.
“You remember me, don’t you, Tierney?”
Goddess, what a *creep*. The way he was talking made it sound like they were lovers, when she barely even knew the guy. She didn’t even know his name!
“Actually,” she said coolly, turning her most frigid look on him, “I don’t.”
He didn’t look surprised. “Shame. I think we’ll have to get to know each other quite well.” The lascivious, hungry look he swept over her made all too clear his intentions. “You’re not dating Julien, are you? Rumor has it you’re just putting out.”
Her mouth fell open. “Excuse me?”
“No, excuse him,” a second voice interrupted angrily.
The strident male tones stunned Tierney. Not only did she recognize them, but she’d also never heard them raised beyond a polite, quiet response. Squinting up at the figure who’d shouldered his way between them, she fought away a fog of confusion. Britt Jackson? The mute boy in her English class who only spoke if he was spoken to?
He was flushed embarrassed red on every available surface, but he didn’t back down. “Leave her alone.”
“And what are you going to do about it if I don’t?” Amusement stretched across the boy’s face as he eyed Britt, but when he saw the steel fall over Britt’s fine features like a curtain, he backed off. “Whatever, man. She’s not worth it.”
That said, he turned back to the table where his friends watched avidly. Both Tierney and Britt ignored the snide remarks pouring from his mouth as he sat down. She didn’t even allow herself to think about what a jerk he was, because she was still too surprised that Britt knew how to speak.
“Thank you,” she said quietly, watching as he turned red at her words. The guy gave shyness a whole new meaning.
“I hate that guy,” Britt muttered in return, and glared in his direction. Something told Tierney he wanted to bare his teeth, but she could feel the ironclad restraint pulsing through him. He returned his gaze to her, then sighed. “Come on. Let’s get you out of here.”
She wasn’t sure whether to be grateful or annoyed. He had this attitude about him, like he was responsible for what happened to her now that he’d jumped to her rescue. Which didn’t mean she didn’t appreciate the assistance. While she could defend herself, witch fire in the middle of a crowded ice cream parlor was somewhat hard to explain.
“Thank you,” she finally said, and was surprised to find herself the recipient of a wry and tired grin.
Britt’s gray eyes warmed. They weren’t the cool, pure color of Julien’s eyes, but more of a gray tinged with green. That murky color that came where shadows fell on grass. “I don’t trust him,” he admitted. “I don’t know anyone who’s more of an asshole.”
Dare, Tierney’s mind immediately supplied. But she shouldn’t say that. Britt probably didn’t know him anyway. She silently followed him out the door into the parking lot, but then her curiosity got the better of her. “Why do you hate him so much, if you don’t mind my asking? Who is he?”
The skin drew tight over his sharp cheekbones. “His name is Roy. He used to date my sister. You know Lise, don’t you?”
A slight frown quivered at her lip as she tried to remember if she did, then finally she shook her heard.
Britt barely noticed. He stared into the distance, his light brown hair tousled and falling into his face. “Her name is Analisa. I’m the only one who calls her Lise.” His mouth tightened even further. “He didn’t like the word ‘no.’” Then, seeming to remember himself, he flushed his customary shade of fuchsia.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured. She didn’t know what else to say and he just shrugged, avoiding her eyes. The blaring toot of the horn interrupted any scramble for appropriate words. “That’s Raquel--“
He cut off her apologetic words with a shy grin. “Don’t worry about it,” he mumbled, staring down at his shoes.
“Thank you again,” she said gently. Then she hurried toward her car, where Raquel was leaning across the seat to practically lay on the horn. Wrenching open the door, she snapped, “Stop that, will you?”
Raquel sulkily retreated to her side of the car. “What were you doing in there? Eating another sundae?”
“No, I had a run-in with some guy named Roy. Britt Jackson was kind enough to help me get out of it.”
Disgust flooded her friend’s features. “Roy Kepplinger? He’s an ass. I heard rumors about him and Britt’s sister. What’s her name again?”
“Analisa,” Tierney supplied quietly. “Apparently they aren’t just rumors.”
Raquel shuddered. “I’m not surprised. He’s such a creep.” Her nose wrinkled. “You’re lucky Britt was there. I’m sure he wouldn’t have done anything in a crowded place, but you never know. Are we going to the beach now?”
Tierney nodded and put the car in gear. “I have to stop and get my swimsuit.”
“As long as we get there, I don’t care. I promised Adrien.”
Tierney knew better than to think that was the real reason Raquel wanted to go to the beach. It was much more likely that she wanted them to go so she could get her in some awkward situation with Julien. It wouldn’t be the first time Raquel resorted to underhanded tricks to set Tierney up.
It might, however, be the first time it worked.
The beach was mostly deserted, except for Raquel’s brother, Julien, and twenty-some odd friends who were creating a raucous to rival that of a construction company. Tierney slammed the door to her car shut and adjusted her sunglasses. Her long, silky hair dripped down her back, while shimmering strands played gently in the wind. She felt like a cheesy swimsuit advertisement.
Raquel sighed. “So much for peace and quiet.” She threw her magazine back into the car, along with all the other things she’d brought to amuse herself while tanning. After extracting her towel from her bag, she tossed that in, too. She saw Tierney’s curious look. “I just bought that magazine,” she grumbled. “I’m not letting them accidentally ruin it before I have a chance to read it.”
“I don’t think you’re going to have much of a chance to lay out, anyway,” Tierney said. It was far more likely she’d end up drenched in the water if she tried that. Tierney planned on taking a long, solitary walk, away from the antics of the psychopathic athletes she liked to call friends.
Sighing again, Raquel agreed. “It’s doubtful.” She shut the door and slung the towel over her shoulder. “Come on.”
The two girls walked slowly to where the guys were involved in a vicious game of ultimate Frisbee. Instead of stopping, they continued several feet down the beach. As they spread out their towels, Tierney groaned. “I forgot my water. I’ll be right back.” She jogged quickly to her car, unlocking it and retrieving her water. Shutting the door and turning, she found herself face to face with Julien. “Hey.”
He grinned, his dimples wreaking havoc on her senses. “Hey, Tierney.” He didn’t say anything else, just nodded in the direction of the guys and started walking toward them.
She followed, unsure what to say to him. Two weeks ago, she would have hooked her arm through his and teased him about some innocuous incident she’d witnessed at school or at Raquel’s. Somehow that no longer seemed appropriate. “So...”
This time she punched him lightly in the arm, laughing, all awkwardness gone. He was still grinning at her, that innocence shining brightly from his eyes, even while he mocked her. “Don’t make fun of me,” she ordered.
“Never,” he promised solemnly, though they both knew he was lying.
She shook her head, the ends of her hair flying in all directions and stinging across his skin as he walked. “Lies, Julien. It’s all lies.” They passed the guys still battling over the Frisbee, but Julien didn’t stop to join them. His tall frame continued ambling beside her, right over to her towel, where she could see Raquel gloating, despite her pretended oblivion.
Self-consciously, she stripped off her shirt to reveal a shimmery green bikini top. Then, losing the shorts as well, she stretched out on her towel. Julien dropped down beside her. Tierney swore she heard Raquel snicker.
With a sigh, she flopped onto her stomach. Propping her chin on her hand, she directed her attention to Julien. “Tired of Frisbee?” she questioned idly.
He nodded. “We’ve been playing since about ten. I’ve been trying to get them to switch to soccer, but they’re waiting for Mike to get here.”
“Yeah. He had to work until two, so he should be here soon.”
Tierney rolled on her back. “I was going to take a walk, but now I think I might swim.” The unspoken question of whether he wanted to join her hung in the air.
He didn’t miss it. “I’ll come with you.”
Tierney ignored the choked sound Raquel emitted. She stood up, tugging self-consciously at the edge of her swimsuit and wishing she had worn a one-piece. Never mind getting a good tan.
Shoving those thoughts away, she and Julien started toward the water’s edge. Her feet dragged through the sand, letting it seep between her toes. She was careful not to walk too close to him. They reached the damp sand quickly, and Tierney stopped, suddenly uncertain as to whether she wanted to do this.
“It’s going to be cold,” Tierney said logically, eyeing the lapping water with trepidation. She chewed on her lower lip and seriously reconsidered her decision to swim. “I’m not going in.”
He moved a few steps closer, the sun gleaming on his broad shoulders and delineating the curve of his muscles. She could see that clearly with as close as she was, her eyes level with the rippling skin. Goddess, but he was attractive. And it was only after she shook that thought away that she noticed the mischievous glint brightening the sparkling silver eyes.
Warily, she watched his mouth curve into a wicked smile. “Julien, what are you doing?” she asked, suddenly suspicious.
His smile deepened, but he didn’t say anything, instead stepping closer to her, the grace lining his steps almost predatory in its fluidity. She took a step back. Careful not to step into the water -- she knew it would be freezing -- she tensed and prayed he wasn’t doing what she thought he was doing.
But when he slid another step forward, those hopes came crashing down and her next thought was of escape. She was *not* going in that water without a damned good fight.
He still didn’t answer, but the look on his face reflected his thoughts. Desperation tinged her voice because she *knew*. Her breathing increased and anticipation flowed through her as her body prepared to spin into motion.
She didn’t get the chance. With a sudden feint to the right -- which she predictably tried to dodge -- he swung her into his arms. Her face pressed against his shoulder’s hard warmth, the skin supple and smooth beneath her cheek, and she could smell the intoxicating scent of his skin.
“Julien, put me down!”
Laughter rumbled through his chest, the muscles firm and tempting her to touch, and this time he answered. “You said you wanted to go in.”
“If you drop me, I’ll hurt you,” she promised, suddenly remembering that if she clung to him, he couldn’t put her down. Her hands slipped to wrap around him, her fingers brushing against the bare skin on his neck. She pretended not to notice the way his body briefly tensed. “I’m not kidding.”
His dimples flashed. Clutching her tighter against him, he readjusted his grip until he was holding her so tightly she almost relaxed against him. But she was too aware of his bare skin against hers. “I won’t drop you.”
Thank the goddess, she thought, just a moment before his fingers brushed over the soft skin of her knee and all thoughts flew from her head. It took a moment for her mind to clear.
“You can put me down now,” she said unsteadily.
He laughed again. “In a minute.”
And as that registered, so did the fact that he was striding quite confidently toward the water’s ebbing edge. Suddenly panicked, her fingers dug into the limber muscles and she twisted so that she was nearly flush against him. “You said you weren’t going to throw me in!”
Ducking his head until their foreheads touched, mouths just millimeters apart, he grinned. “I’m not.”
Realization dawned over her. Of course he wasn’t going to throw her in. He was just going to walk straight into the water and it would be cold and she would get wet and--
“Julien, put me down!”
“But you told me not to,” he countered innocently, his gray eyes wide and shining with triumph. A sinful smile curved his mouth. Sinful not because of the emotion behind it, sinful not because of the thoughts running through his head, but sinful because of the many things she suddenly realized he could -- she wanted -- him to do. Oh, dear goddess, this really needed to stop before it got out of hand.
Forcing herself to relax against his chest, she clarified, “Not in the water. Please, just put me down on dry land.”
“Too late,” he sighed regretfully, his voice sending shivers over her skin where his breath brushed, “it’s here or nowhere.”
“You have to move eventually,” she pleaded, aware of the spinning, frigid water washing around his feet. “Why can’t it be in the opposite direction?”
He buried his face in her hair, his body shaking in silent laughter. When he’d calmed himself sufficiently, he asked, “Right or left?”
“You know what I meant!”
Instead of responding, he strode deeper into the cold water. She could tell it affected him from the way his muscles played beneath her hands, from the tensing of his shoulders and the tiny gasp of escaping air. Apparently determined, he didn’t let that stop him.
She started to struggle, twisting in his arms like a fish on dry land -- exactly where she was *not* -- and pushing against him. Ignoring the strength of the arms encasing her. Her thrashing threw him off balance, catching him unaware. She found herself flying backwards with only the empty air and salty water to cushion her fall. A second after the shock of the icy water slammed into her senses, Julien crashed down on top of her and pinned her to the wet sand.
And that wasn’t the worst of it.
They’d landed in an artless sprawl of limbs, legs hopelessly entangled in a weaver’s nightmare, his mouth brushing lightly against hers. Time suspended as they lay there, each trying to drag stunned air into constricting lungs and each not sure whether to move or to stay in this disturbingly suggestive position. Oh, goddess, this wasn’t right!
Panicked, fearing he might have gotten the wrong impression, Tierney looked away and inadvertently dragged her mouth lightly over his. His hand had somehow managed to slip beneath her swimsuit when they fell, but his stunned eyes didn’t register anything except surprise. A mistake, perhaps, and one she would have welcomed if she didn’t have a soulmate.
“Well, this is awkward.”
Julien flushed and removed his hand, hastily retreating until his lanky body no longer touched hers. Tierney couldn’t help but wish it hadn’t been an accident, the wistfulness tumbling unsteadily through her, even as she told herself how wrong it all was. Her anger at getting wet was incidental next to the emotions raging through her.
How could she be thinking about Julien when there was Dare? But nevertheless, there it was. That tingling awareness that didn’t dissipate when he moved away, that infiltrated her veins more swiftly than an infectious disease. And, goddess, he was just as dangerous to her senses.
He didn’t look at her, that faint rush of color oddly endearing, and murmured, “Sorry.”
She didn’t know how to respond to that. “I’m not” certainly wasn’t appropriate, even if it did have the ring of truth to it. Two weeks ago, that might have been her response. Now...
Sighing, she shrugged it off. “Don’t worry about it.”
She held her breath at the determination flooding through his voice, at the sudden flash of steel infusing those bright eyes. And while she didn’t know if she dreaded or welcomed the words that would come out of his mouth, she felt relief that she would finally hear him say whatever was hanging between them, suspended in heart wrenching silence.
Say it, she thought, urging him to lay those emotions bare, her hazel eyes guarded and pleading for something he could never give her. Even that realization was washed away in a glimmer of hope. Please just say it.
But those words hovered on his lips just a moment too long.
“What are you two doing?” Raquel demanded, suddenly elbowing her way between them. She frowned first at Tierney, then at Julien. They didn’t look away from each other, their faces betraying what words would not. “Am I the only one forgetting that the water is *freezing*? Are you crazy?”
He finally dropped his gaze from hers, currents flashing through those shadowed irises like quicksilver, and his mouth twisted in disappointment. Clearly agitated, he raked a hand through his dripping hair. Strands clung to his forehead while rivulets of water streaked down the chiseled planes of his cheekbones.
“Depends on your definition,” he muttered.
Tierney didn’t say anything.
Raquel rolled her eyes and grabbed each of them by the wrist. “Come on,” she said, dragging them toward the group clustered in the dry sand. “We’re playing a game.”
“I don’t want to play a game,” Tierney countered, frowning at her friend, silently telling her to let go.
While she mentally thanked her for ruining the moment -- goddess, *what* was she thinking? -- she couldn’t help but wish he’d told her whatever it was so she could get rid of that ridiculous suspicion of Raquel’s. Even the little things he’d always done suddenly seemed questionable. Now that she was looking for it, everything could be interpreted as something other than it was.
Shrugging, Raquel didn’t seem horribly concerned about Tierney’s unwillingness to participate. “Tell that to Adrien. They want even teams.”
Not in the mood to participate in any group activities, Tierney still knew when she was defeated. She could say no to Raquel and sometimes she got away with it, but Adrien was a completely different story. He didn’t understand that word in any of its forms and persistence was his favorite pastime. She was stuck.
As she briefly considered some other method of escape, her eyes brushed Julien’s. The longing on his face made her breath catch in her throat. Naked, unprotected hope that simmered in a sea of shifting silver. Oh, dear goddess, how could she compete with something that pure?
All doubts about Raquel’s interpretation suddenly faded from her mind.
She drew in a quick breath, dropping her eyes from his. It had to be the spell. It *had* to... didn’t it? But he’d asked her to the prom before she was beautiful. He asked her when there was nothing to offer but herself.
Oh, goddess. Lust was one thing, and completely understandable. But... she had a soulmate! She and Julien weren’t meant for each other like she and Dare were! Panicked, she racked her brain for other explanations.
And came up blank.
She heard him sigh and felt a spray of sand against her legs. Raquel was suspiciously silent. Glancing up, she saw her friend frowning darkly at Julien, who looked just like he always did when he was trying to weasel out of something.
His next words proved her right.
“Actually, Tierney and I were going to take a walk,” he said, avoiding looking directly at Raquel. He dragged his foot through the sand, then kicked a broken shell out of the way.
Surprised, Tierney opened her mouth to question that statement, but shut it as soon as he looked at her. There was something pleading in those clear gray eyes, something she didn’t have the heart or desire to deny. And despite that, fear rose in her chest. After days of avoiding a conversation with Julien alone, she couldn’t avoid it now without hurting him.
But luckily, Raquel came to her rescue once again.
“Too bad,” she said, and then frowned. “You can take it after we’re done with this game.”
Hoping to diffuse the situation, Tierney tried to keep the relief out of her voice, asking, “What are we playing?”
Still glowering at Julien, Raquel answered, “Soccer. So he should have no problem with it.”
“I *want* to take a walk.”
“Well, *I* want to play soccer.”
As Julien opened his mouth to yell back an angry retort, Tierney hastily intervened. “Children, do you think we could argue later?”
“I am not a child,” Raquel responded, drawing herself up to her full five-foot height.
“Then stop acting like it,” Tierney said dryly. She sighed, reaching out to grab both of them by the wrist and dragging them toward the group of waiting males. “You can fight it out over the soccer ball.”
“I don’t want--“
Raquel smacked him. “Shut up, Julien. It won’t kill you.”
Gripping his wrist tighter, Tierney subtly sidled more firmly between them. “Please, Julien?”
His face softened. “I guess I could play one game.”
Those clear gray eyes warming, he winked at her. Winked! As if they were sharing some private secret Raquel didn’t need to know about. As if... Don’t think about that, Tierney! She abruptly looked away, swallowing the emotions rising in her throat, and dropped his wrist. “Good.”
He sent her an amused glance, stopping in front of Adrien. Raquel elbowed him out of the way. “They’re playing,” she announced, although it was somewhat obvious. “I want to be a captain.”
Bentley Kerslen kicked the soccer ball at her, grinning widely when she dodged it. “Raquel, if you’re going to be a captain, you can’t run from the ball.”
“And you can’t be a captain,” Tim Volante added. He ignored the sulking glare she aimed in his direction. “Julien and Adrien are the captains. We already decided.” Then he bestowed her with a charming grin. “But you can be on my team if you want.”
A flirtatious smile lit Raquel’s face. “Oh, I feel special,” she teased, pushing him playfully. “If I were captain, I’d pick you first.”
Tierney blinked. What an interesting development... Raquel flirted as easily as some people breathed, at least once she’d gotten to know the person well. But she’d never seen Raquel talk to Tim other than the casual hello. She was equally stunned when Tim grabbed her friend and wrestled her to the ground, although he was careful not to hurt her. Most of his efforts involved avoiding Raquel’s flailing limbs.
Her friend came up giggling and gasping for breath. “Your team should lose by default.”
“You’re *on* my team.”
Raquel only laughed harder. Tim grinned, helping to her feet, and almost landed in a pile beside her when she didn’t manage to support herself. She finally took a deep breath and calmed long enough to stand. “I’m ready now.”
“It’s about time,” Adrien muttered, raking a hand through his sun-streaked chestnut hair. “Okay, let’s see -- I’ll take Mike.”
The center of the school’s soccer team silently walked to stand beside Adrien. Folding his arms over his chest, he waited impassively to see the resulting team. While Mike should have been the captain -- he was probably the best of the group, though Julien was a close second -- Adrien and Julien automatically assumed responsibility, and everyone else bowed to their athletic superiority.
“Billy,” Julien said.
Billy Conrad -- a short, wiry boy with flyaway curly hair and a mouth to die for -- shifted to stand behind Julien. He wore his ever-present smirk and leered at Tierney. If she hadn’t known he was harmless, his expression might have startled her.
“Jake,” Adrien countered.
Julien frowned. “Now, wait a--“
“Your turn,” Adrien interrupted smoothly. Beaming innocently, he reached to pull Tierney to his side. With a helpless shrug, she complied. She usually ended up on Julien’s team, but whatever worked.
The scowl darkened for just a second. “Tim,” he snapped.
“Then you get Raquel, too,” Adrien responded, his eyes lighting with humor. Raquel played the stereotypical girl like an Academy-award winning actress, except her hysterics were generally real. Because she was Adrien’s sister, they put up with it when the girls decided to join the game. “They’re a pair.”
Julien didn’t argue. He would have ended up with Raquel anyway. The girls never played on the same team, because it resulted in much bitching by each and every guy. Most of them considered Raquel a handicap anyway. He nodded.
“And I’ll take Santino, too, since you got two players instead of just Tim.”
While he didn’t look happy about this development, Julien simply moved on to his next choice. “I get Rick.”
The names fired between them like a sizzling white current jumping between two conductors, until only two boys were left. “And I’ll take Ben, which means Randy’s on your team,” Adrien finished.
Nodding, Julien motioned his team down the beach, his teammates following loudly and raucously behind. Raquel and Tim trailed behind them all. Meanwhile, Adrien’s team gathered closer, forming a protective circle around Tierney.
“Okay,” Adrien said, glancing over the group. “Mike and Santino, you’re strikers, and, Jake, you play sweeper. I want Ben, Tierney, and Cale playing fullback. Tier, you take center. I’ll finish up front line. Grant, you’re goalie.”
Jake playfully ruffled her hair. “Now, don’t go all girly on us,” he teased, the dimples in his cheeks deepening to precise creases. He draped an impersonal arm around her shoulders and pointed at the other team. “You see him?”
Dismayed, Tierney realized he was pointing at Julien. “Yes,” she answered noncommittally, trying desperately not to show any reaction.
He grinned at her, noting how completely still she’d gone. “You need to keep him away from there.” His arm gestured in the opposite direction, where their goal would eventually be. “He’s probably going to play sweeper, and you know what? You’re going to be his new best friend.” He started to withdraw his arm, squeezing her neck muscles in encouragement.
Great. She scowled briefly at Ben, who grinned and winked at her. No doubt they all thought she should have no problem with this. After all, didn’t rumor say something was going on between them, anyway? She would love to know how that had gotten started, so she could hex the person who’d bothered to open his or her mouth.
She let Cale sweep her along the sand to jutting sandstone formation. The two rocks were placed oddly, like two forsaken towers on an abandoned moor. They served their purpose and Tierney rarely let herself think about how they came to be so far from the water and alienated from the rest.
Positioning herself in front of them, she half-listened to Grant’s recommendations. With the exception of Adrien and a few others, most people here were on the school’s soccer team and knew the others’ playing style so well that tips were unnecessary. And all Tierney had to do was watch Julien.
If there hadn’t been the threat of physical contact, she wasn’t sure she would have minded. But... the last thing she needed was him on top of her again. Talk about giving the wrong impression. Add in that she was wearing nothing but a bikini, and things got that much more interesting.
Shaking her head and smiling at the comments thrown to her by her temporary teammates, she noticed Tim and Raquel standing awfully close on their half of the “field.” She watched them curiously as Raquel smacked Tim on the arm, mock offense playing on her face. In turn, he grinned and tickled her until she was howling with laughter.
Blinking, she shifted her gaze to Adrien, who had called her name. “Yeah?”
“Are you ready?”
She nodded absently, turning her attention back to Raquel and Tim for just a second. They had separated, but were still bestowing each other with flirtatious looks every few seconds. Alec momentarily blocked her view. When he moved, she saw the two of them back together again, heads tucked close and whispering conspiratorially. Raquel looked up and waved innocently.
Tierney was left wondering whether Tim was Raquel’s mystery date, a moment before the soccer ball came flying at her head.