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A loud thunk from the viewing area startles me as I flip-flop from the locker room to the pool deck. I glance over to see a boy dropping to the ground from the high top of the bleachers. He's staring at me, not even trying to hide it by sneaking in little peeks the way most boys do when they see girls in bathing suits. As he straightens himself up, he grins, and it's mischievous and cute but makes me très uncomfortable. Boys didn't show off or stare at me at my old school or swim club. They had no reason to. But things are different now, and this guy doesn't take his eyes off me.
The attention makes me feel naked, and not because the only thing covering my body is a thin layer of high-performance microfiber. His gaze is intense, as if my thoughts are appearing over my head in cartoon-like bubbles. I certainly hope they aren't, because the thought that he has a nice butt may have recently passed through my mind.
He lifts his hand, but I pretend not to see and tug my suit down over my own butt. Then in one big movement, I kick off my flip flops, throw down my swim bag, pull on my swim cap, and dive into the pool. After a couple of laps, I hear my name when my head comes up on a stroke.
"Sammy!" Zee's calling.
I stop and tread water and pretend the fluttering in my chest is from swimming too hard.
He points to the end of the pool and performs a little dance movement on the deck. "Let's get it started, huh," he sings, like he's doing a karaoke version of the Black Eyed Peas. "Let's get it started in here!"
I grin, swim to the end, grab my water bottle, and take a sip, glancing off to the viewing area. The boy is still watching. I recognize him from my new school, but it's suddenly less important and less irritating. Still, I bite back an urge to make a face at him.
"Okay. Enough fooling around." Zee grins, and my insides perform a dance similar to the one he just did for me poolside. It's weird having him fill in for my private lesson with Coach Clair while she's away for her sister's wedding. He's only a few months older than me. And hot. But since he's the only guy on the Titans faster than me and Clair's assistants are busy she asked him to do it.
I tell myself I only want to impress him because he's great in the water. But even I know it's a lie. He's yummier than a peppermint mocha with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles.
"Okay. Let's see how you can fly, baby," he calls. "Go for two hundred at eighty-five percent."
After the butterfly set, Zee instructs me to get on the block for a freestyle distance swim. As soon as I'm in position he yells, "Go."
I dive in and streamline through the water, trying to blank out my mind and concentrate on kicking and pulling my arms, but the boy's face pops up as though he's connected to me by some invisible bond. My body drags a little, my concentration thrown off. I struggle to fight off the image and find my zone. Push through. Push. Push. Push.
When my hands touch the end of the pool, Zee is leaning over me with a stopwatch. I stare up, waiting. I've got just over a month before the state meet. And I really want a record in free. Zee understands, the same way I understand his drive in the water. We've got goals and times to beat. It takes hard work.
"Eight seconds off," he says.
Panting, I tug off my cap and throw it at the ledge of the pool. Zee puts out his hand to help pull me out of the water. He lifts me up by the arm like it's nothing.
"Don't look so bummed. You're close. Your kick is strong. And your breathing was good."
"Thanks." Our eyes lock, and I can't help a silly smile. I glance toward the viewing area to hide it. The boy is gone, but my dad is in his place. He catches my eye and points at his watch. It's exactly 5:00. When he picks me up, he's rarely late.
Zee follows my glance. "Sergeant is here, right on time."
I roll my shoulder back and lift my arm to cover my smile. The nickname is fitting, but admitting it would make me kind of a traitor.
"Make sure you stretch out. I'd do it with you, but your dad would probably jump over the railing to take me down." Zee grins and then turns and walks away. "Work on those streamlines, Miss Waxman," he calls loud enough for my dad to hear. As he strides to the coach's poolside locker, the muscles ripple across his bare back. No wonder girls go crazy for him.
Ignoring my dad's impatience, I pull my hamstrings out and extend my arms in the air to stretch out my sides. After a few more stretches, I slip on my flip flops and watch Zee take something from the locker, close the door, and walk back to me. I'm stowing my goggles and swim cap in my bag as he approaches.
"Hold out your hand," he says in a deep, rich voice that sounds like he gargles daily with sexy juice. I glance at my dad, but he's frowning at his BlackBerry. Zee reaches over and tucks a lumpy package into my hand. A bag of Jelly Bellys. My heart does a tiny dance of happiness. Yesterday he'd been messing with me that I had no vices, and I'd admitted an addiction to the jelly beans.
"You deserve them," Zee says. His cheeks redden a little under his dark skin. "You're the most disciplined girl I know."
"Thanks." My belly continues to twirl with delight. From the corner of my eye, I see my dad look up from his phone, frowning.
"Kind of cute too. Like a pit bull puppy." His teasing words make my insides feel like I've been sipping a cup of hot chocolate. Warm and comforted.
"Aww. You just compared me to a vicious dog."
I don't tell him I'll be analyzing the significance of the jelly beans and his comment for the next week. I don't tell him it's pretty much the first present I've ever gotten from a boy. Well, except in tenth grade, when a new boy at school who hadn't heard the gay rumors about me asked me out.
When I was thirteen, a girl on another swim team told everyone she saw me making out with a girl in the locker room. She was mad because I'd beaten her record for Washington state. It was a total lie, but it got around my school and the boys embellished it. Since I was shy around boys, everyone chose to believe it.
But this boy hadn't heard yet. His name was Pete, and he was sweet and had dark skin, beautiful teeth, and a flirty personality. I'd tripped over him at my locker on his first day. He asked me on a date and brought me a flower. I still have it pressed into a book.
He'd been so cool, handling my scowling dad with a couple of well-played jokes. He took me for pizza and laser tag. While we were hiding out in the dark from vicious five-year-olds on laser-shooting missions, he'd kissed me.
The next day, when kids from school heard we went out, he'd been teased relentlessly for trying to convert the lesbian. He never asked me out again. Soon after that he started hanging out with Emma Henderson. Far as I knew, they were still together.
"Pit bulls are actually really cute and sweet when bred properly." Zee's eyes stay on me as I grab my swim bag, slide the jelly beans into a pouch, and sling the bag over my shoulder.
"I'm not even going to try to figure out if you actually thought that was a compliment," I say.
"It was." His grin disarms me, and I look down at the chipping blue polish on my toes.
"So. Clair's back tomorrow," he adds.
I glance up, but before I can mask any tell-tale signs of disappointment, his eyes twinkle knowingly. My insides melt faster than a Slurpee on a sunny day.
"Aw. You will miss our private time together," he says with the ease of someone who medaled in teasing.
I hide a smile and start toward the locker rooms. "I doubt that," I call over my shoulder, aware that he's probably checking out my glutes. Thank goodness for dry land training. I faux-glare at him, and he lifts his shoulder innocently and grins, even though he's clearly busted.
I waggle a finger in the air. "You're one of the first things I was warned about."
"I'm not nearly as bad as Clair makes me out to be," he protests.
"Clair didn't say a word about you. I got my warnings from writing on the girls' locker room walls." Too bad my heart and my hormones are ignoring the warnings, real or not.
It both horrifies and amuses me that I turn into an amateur flirt around him. But he's so easy to talk to. He opens his mouth and looks a little panicked until a snorty laugh bursts out of me. God. Can I be any less sexy?
"I'm only kidding, Zee."
From the deck, Dad waves and points at his watch again, subtle as a two-foot shark fin, so I hurry to the locker room. After a quick shower, I sit for a moment on the bench outside my locker with my towel wrapped around me. Public swimming doesn't start for another hour, so I'm all alone with empty lockers. I slide out the package of jelly beans Zee gave me, rip the plastic off the corner with my teeth, and down a handful, enjoying the explosion of flavors. It's hard to wipe a smile off my face, even though it's silly. Girls swarm Zee. Candy doesn't mean he's going to ask me to be his girlfriend. We have a special connection because of water.
Finally I drop my towel, along with thoughts of him, and pull on clothes, tugging my team hoodie over my head. I step over to the mirror, brush out my hair, and pull it back into an elastic, all except the thin, long braid knotted into my grown-out bangs. The thin braid I dyed almost white with a home hair color kit usually dangles down in my eyes. It's held at the end by tiny colored elastics. The braid is the only thing on me that isn't completely boring. Dad doesn't love it, but it's less permanent than the shoulder tattoo of the American flag I keep begging for. He says I can get that when I make it to the Olympics. Ha ha. Chlorine and winning are what my dad sees for me and my future.
When I head out the doors, Dad's pacing outside the locker room. He's on the phone and so immersed in the call, he doesn't hear me approach. My cell makes a cheering sound, my setting for an incoming text, but I ignore it for a moment.
"She doesn't need to know, and that's final," he barks into the phone. The hair on my arms stands up, and he looks up and clears his throat. "Sam is done in the locker room," he says to the cell phone. "I'll talk to you later." He clicks the phone off and puts it in his pocket, watching me the entire time.
The only person he usually talks to that way is his sister. My Aunt Allie.
"Who was that?" I ask.
"No one." He waves a hand in the air, dismissing my question. "Let's go."
It's obvious he's keeping something from me. As usual. "Whatever," I mumble, but he ignores me.
"How was practice?"
It's obvious he's not listening, and I'm tempted to say something rude to see if he notices. But of course I don't. As we head to the exit, I glance at the text that came in. A flock of nervous butterflies takes flight in my belly.
My night may have just got a lot more interesting.