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"Hi, Mrs. Laney, where's Lexi?" Clare ambled into Laney's Dry Goods Emporium, bringing a gust of crisp October air with her. Her curly brown hair was held back with a tartan headband and she was glowing from the morning's game. Her sophomore year in high school, she was throwing herself wholeheartedly into team sports.
Myrna Laney was rining up a sale. "Did we win?"
Clare pumped her fist. "Whalers four, Wareham a big fat egg!"
"Good for you girls!" Mrs. Moody, who led the community chorus, looked up from signing the charge card. "Only one more game before the tournament, right?"
"Right." Clare held up crossed fingers.
Myrna slipped Patricia Moody's purchase into a bag. "Lexi's just cleaning up the dressing rooms," she told Clare. "Go on back."
At the far end of the store were four dressing rooms. Lexi was there, scooping up discarded clothing and fastening them back onto the hangers. "Hey, Doe." Seeing Clare's face, she said, "Well, I can tell you guys won."
"Victory is sweet!" Clare did a little dance, then picked up a sweater and folded it, helping Lexi. "I really wish you'd try out for the field hockey team."
"Right. Because I'm such a jock."
"I think you could be if you tried."
Gangly Lexi gave her a stare.
"Well," Clare amended, "I think you could be better than you think you are."
"Doesn't matter," Lexi said. "I've got to work here after school and on Saturdays. I don't even have time to watch field hockey. The only time my parents let me off is for the homecoming football game."
"I know." Clare ran her hands down a pair of wool slacks, smoothing them. "It's not fair."
"Oh, Clare, it's fine," Lexi argued amiably. "I'm such a spaz, I don't enjoy sports. Besides, I'm saving money for the class trip to New York."
"New York? I thought you were going with the French class to Paris in the spring."
Lexi slumped against the wall. "Didn't I tell you? That's out. No way can I make enough money for that."
"But I thought the school was paying for part of the trip. What have we been holding the car washes and lotteries for?"
"Mom and Dad got a letter from the school. We still have to come up with a thousand dollars. No way can we raise that."
"That sucks." Clare chewed her lip, thinking. "Well, if you don't go, I won't go."
"You have a chance to go to Paris and you won't take it! That's crazy."
"I won't have any fun if you're not there," Clare said loyally. With a pile of clothing over her arms, she followed Lexi out of the dressing room area back into the store. "Anyway, I don't care about Paris. What I really want is for you to come cheer for us at the Division II tournament in November."
"If the Whalers win next weekend."
"We will. So you have to come to the tournament, okay?" She tugged on Lexi's shirt, doing her best annoying child imitation. "Please, pretty please?"
Lexi laughed. "Go harass my mother. She makes the scheduling decisions."
The bell over the door chimed as Mrs. Moody left. Now that no customers were around, Clare approached Lexi's mother. "Mrs. Laney, can Lexi have Saturday off in two weeks to come to our tournament?"
"I'm already letting Lexi off on Thursday afternoon so she can go to the Cape while you get your braces fitted," Myrna reminded Clare.
"But if we play the Vineyard?" Martha's Vineyard, "the other island," was Nantucket's fiercest rival for all sports.
Myrna gave in. "All right. If you play the Vineyard."
"Yes!" Clare leaned over the counter and hugged Lexi's mother. "You're the best."
"We're having chili tonight," Myrna told her. "And Fred and I were thinking it was time for you two girls to learn to play bridge."
"Because we can't play board games because Adam never stays home on Saturdays now that he's a big fat senior," Lexi called from the other side of the store.
"I'd love to learn bridge!" Clare said. "And I love your chili. I'll bring dessert."
"Something chocolate?" Lexi called.
"You got it. A cake . . . or maybe brownies . . ." Clare waved and headed out into the brilliant autumn day.
Clare ran her tongue over the smooth surface of her teeth as she stood in line to board the Hy-Line fast ferry. She was a senior in high school, and finally, her heinous brace were off! She felt teary and celebratory and kind of shaky. And weirdly lonely.
When she'd first had the braces put on, two years ago, the orthodontist had been on Nantucket, but last year he moved, so she had to make trips off-island for her appointments. Sometimes it was fun. Sometimes Lexi came with her and they went shopping at the Cape Cod Mall. But today was a Saturday, early in October, and Lexi had to help her parents in their store.
Clare looked around the cabin. The wind had risen during the day and the seas were choppy, so she didn't want to sit on the upper deck. Her favorite seat up front was already taken. She dumped her backpack on one of the small round tables and dropped into a chair. It was just beginning to rain, long drops streaking down the ferry windows. The line of passengers coming up the ramp and into the boat moved faster as the rain increased from spatters to a heavy downpour.
At the end of the line shuffled a tiny old woman, so uncoordinated it seemed she took two steps back for every step she took forward. Old Mrs. Gill, one of the island's more eccentric characters. A cranky, suspicious old hermit, she lived by herself in a spooky old falling-apart house just outside town, the same house she'd grown up in and never left. Clare remembered when she was in seventh grade, when she went with a church group singing Christmas carols. At Mrs. Gill's house, instead of offering them hot chocolate or cookies, the old nutcase had switched on the porch light and yelled at them to leave before she called the cops. Clare had seen her around town occasionally since then and felt sorry for her, the way age was bending the old woman's back and curving her hands into claws. Elementary school kids made up songs about hershe really was the island's hag. She had even begun to grow a mustache and a bit of a beard. And she was getting meaner and meaner. If you said hello to her on the street, she'd just snarl.
But now Clare wondered if she should go help her up the ramp. She rose from her seat. Then she saw Jesse Gray say something to the boat attendant and run out into the rain.
Jesse Gray, wow. He was the handsomest, coolest, sexiest guy in the senior class. She knew he'd slept with half the girls in high school, and a lot of older women, too. He was just awesome. Clare almost fainted whenever he nodded at her in the hallway.
Now there he was, putting his arm around old Mrs. Gill and ushering her patiently up the ramp. The rain darkened Jesse's blue jeans and plastered his Red Sox T-shirt against his chest. Lucky old Mrs. Gill!
When they finally made it into the dry harbor of the cabin, Mrs. Gill wrenched her arm away from Jesse. "Get your hands off me, young man!" she snapped. "I don't need your help!"
Heads turned. You could tell right away who was an islander and who wasn't. The tourists looked puzzled, but the islanders rolled their eyes. Some of them gave Jesse a thumbs-up.
Mrs. Gill sidled over to a bench and plopped down. Immediately she began to dig around in the enormous plastic bag she carried with her everywhere.
Jesse watched to be sure she was settled, then looked around the cabin.
His eyes met Clare's.
Clare smiled back.
"Hey, Clare." Jesse ambled over. "What's up?" He dropped into the chair opposite her.
Omigod omigod, Clare thought. He knew her name! Part of her was so overwhelmed by his presence she wanted to squeal. Jesse Gray coming over to talk to her?
Snap out of it, Clare told herself. "I just got my braces off."
"Let me see," Jesse said, leaning forward.
Nervously, she showed him her teeth.
"Awesome. You've got a great smile."
"Thanks." Her heart was triple-timing in her chest. "Why were you off-island?"
"My truck. Had to take it to the Jeep place for an overhaul."
Clare grinned. Jesse's truck, a 1975 Chevy pickup, was famous in town. "It must cost a lot to keep it going."
"You have no idea. My whole life's devoted to that old gal. I've had to work after school and on weekends down at Don Allen Auto. I have the social life of a piece of wood."
"That's not what I've heard," Clare said, surprising herself with the flirtation in her tone. Without even thinking about it, she'd relaxed back into her chair with her arms crossed behind her neck, unconsciously sticking out her breasts. Flushing, she changed positions, digging around in her backpack for her water bottle, even though she wasn't thirsty.
"Don't believe everything you hear," Jesse told her. Raindrops dripped down from his hair onto his face and chest.
Clare pulled a sweatshirt from her backpack. "You're soaked. Put this on."
"Well, thanks, Mom," Jesse said with a grin.
Then he raised his arms and drew off his wet T-shirt, exposing his muscular chest. Blond hair lightly matted his skin and longer hair furred his armpit. He slid Clare's sweatshirt over his head. Jesse was slender and not much taller than Clare, still the sweatshirt was ridiculously tight.
He noticed Clare staring. "What do you think?"
Her throat had gone dry. "About what?"
He held up his arms as if he were a model. "A fashion statement?"
"More like a fashion cry for help."
They both laughed.
"Want some hot chocolate?" Jesse asked.
Clare nodded. "Sure." As Jesse walked to the snack bar, the ferry left the harbor for the open waters of the Sound. Jesse was going to sit with her for the whole trip! Clare, she ordered herself, you are not allowed to act like a geek.
Jesse returned with two paper cups of hot chocolate. They lifted the lids. Steam rolled up into the air.
"So," Jesse said, "are you contributing anything to the school literary review?"
"Nope. Literature's not my talent, even though my dad teaches English."
"Are you artistic?"
So Jesse knew about her family. Jesse was aware of her.
She shook her head. "Can't draw, either." She leaned forward. "You know what I can do? I can cook, and I love to cook."
"You'll have to show me sometime," Jesse said.
And something about the way he looked at her, his blue eyes so warm on her face, his whole presence focused on her, made her say, "Sure. I'd like to do that." And she wasn't even afraid when she said the words. She was ready.