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(st belt) n. 1. a trick in which a snowboarder reaches across the body and grabs the board while getting air 2. what Hayden needs to fasten, because Nick is about to take her for a ride
At the groan of a door opening, I looked up from my chemistry notebook. I’d been diagramming molecules so I wouldn’t have any homework to actually take home. But as I’d stared at the white paper, it had dissolved into a snowy slalom course. The hydrogen and oxygen atoms had transformed into gates for me to snowboard between. My red pen had traced my path, curving back and forth, swish, swish, swish, down the page. I could almost feel the icy wind on my cheeks and smell the pine trees. I couldn’t wait to get out of school and head for the mountain.
Until I saw it was Nick coming out the door of Ms. Abernathy’s room and into the hall. At six feet tall, he filled the doorway with his model-perfect looks and cocky attitude. He flicked his dark hair out of his eyes with his pinkie, looked down at me, and grinned brilliantly.
My first thought was, Oh no: fuel for the fire. About a month ago, one of my best friends had hooked up with one of Nick’s best friends. Then, a few weeks ago, my other best friend and Nick’s other best friend had gotten together. It was fate. Nick and I were next, right?
Wrong. Everybody in our class remembered that Nick and I had been a couple four years ago, in seventh grade. They gleefully recalled our breakup and the resulting brouhaha. They watched us now for our entertainment value, dying to know whether we’d go out again. Unfortunately for them, they needed to stick to DVDs and Wii to fill up their spare time. Nick and I weren’t going to happen.
My second thought was, Ah, those deep brown eyes.
Maybe snowboarding could wait a little longer, after all.
“Fancy meeting you here, Hoyden.” He closed the door behind him, too hard. He must have gotten in trouble for talking again, and Ms. Abernathy had sent him out in the hall.
Join the club. From my seat against the cement block wall of our high school’s science wing, I gazed up at him—way, way up, because I was on the floor—and tried my best to glare. The first time he’d called me Hoyden, years ago, I’d sneaked a peek in the dictionary to look up what it meant: a noisy girl. Not exactly flattering. Not exactly a lie, either. But I couldn’t let him know I felt flattered that he’d taken the time to look up a word in the dictionary to insult me with. Because that would make me insane, desperate, and in unrequited love.
He slapped his forehead. “Oh, I’m sorry, I meant Hayden. I get confused.” He had a way of saying oh so innocently, like he had no idea he’d insulted me. Sometimes new girls bought his act, at least for their first few weeks at our school. They were taken by the idea of hooking up with Nick Krieger, who occasionally was featured in teen heartthrob magazines as the heir to the Krieger Meats and Meat Products fortune. And Nick obliged these girls—at least for a few dates, until he dumped them.
I knew his pattern all too well. When I’d first moved to Snowfall, Colorado, I had been one of those girls. He’d made me feel like a princess for a whole month. No, better—like a cool, hip teenage girl who dated! The fantasy culminated with one deep kiss shared in the back row of the movie theater with half our English class watching us. It didn’t end well, thus the aforementioned brouhaha.
I blinked the stars out of my eyes. “Fancy seeing you here, Ex.”
He gave me his smile of sexy confidence, dropped his backpack, and sank to the floor beside me. “What do you think of Davis and Liz?”
My heart had absolutely no reason to skip a beat. He was not asking me out. He was asking me my opinion of my friend Liz and his friend Davis as a couple. That did not necessarily mean he was heeding public opinion that he and I were next to get together. Liz and Davis were a legitimate topic of gossip.
I managed to say breezily, “Oh, they’ll get along great until they discuss where to go on a date. Then he’ll insist they go where she wants to go. She’ll insist they go where he wants to go. They’ll end up sitting in her driveway all night, fighting to the death over who can be more thoughtful and polite.”
Nick chuckled, a low rumble in his chest. Because he’d sat down so close to me and our arms were touching, sort of, under layers and layers of clothing, I felt the vibration of his voice. But again, my heart had no reason—repeat, no reason—to skip two beats, or possibly three, just because I’d made Nick laugh. He made everybody feel this good about their stupid jokes, from the most popular girl in our class down to the chick with straight hair and bottle glasses who wore long denim skirts with her Nikes.
“And what’s up with Gavin and Chloe?” he asked next.
“Chloe and Gavin are an accident waiting to happen.” I couldn’t understand this mismatch between the class president and the class bad boy, and it was a relief finally to voice my concerns, even if it was to Nick. “They’re both too strong-willed to make it together long. You watch. They’re adorable together now, but before long they’ll have an argument that makes our tween-love Armageddon look like a happy childhood memory.”
Suddenly it occurred to me that I’d said way too much, and Nick would likely repeat this unflattering characterization to Gavin, who would take it right back to Chloe. I really did hold this opinion of Chloe and Gavin’s chances at true love, but I’d never intended to share it! I lost my inhibitions when I looked into Nick’s dark eyes, damn him.
I slid my arm around him conspiratorially—not as titillating as it sounds, because his parka was very puffy—and cooed, “But that’s just between you and me. I know how good you are at keeping secrets.”
He pursed his lips and gazed at me reproachfully for throwing our seventh-grade history in his face, times two. Back then he’d brought our tween-love Armageddon on himself by letting our whole class in on his secret while he kept me in the dark.
Not that I was bitter.
But instead of jabbing back at me, he slipped his arm around me, too. And I was not wearing a puffy parka, only a couple of T-shirts, both of which had ridden up a little in the back. I knew this without looking because I felt the heat of his fingers on my bare skin, above the waistband of my jeans. My face probably turned a few shades redder than my hair.
“Now, Hoyden,” he reprimanded me, “Valentine’s Day is a week from tomorrow. We don’t want to ruin that special day for Gavin and Chloe or Davis and Liz. We should put aside our differences for the sake of the kids.”
I couldn’t help bursting into unladylike laughter.
I expected him to remove his hand from my hip in revulsion at my outburst, but he kept it there. I knew he was only toying with me, I knew this, but I sure did enjoy it. If the principal had walked by just then and sensed what I was thinking, I would have gotten detention.
“Four years is a long time for us to be separated,” he crooned. “We’ve both had a chance to think about what we really want from our relationship.”
This was true. Over the four years since we’d been together, I’d come to the heartbreaking realization that no boy in my school was as hot as Nick, nobody was as much fun, and nobody was nearly as much of an ass. For instance, he’d generated fire-crotch comments about me as I passed his table in the lunchroom yesterday.
Remember when another heir called a certain red-haired actress a fire-crotch on camera? No? Well, I remember. Redheads across America sucked in a collective gasp, because we knew. The jokes boys made to us about Raggedy Ann, the Wendy’s girl, and Pippi Longstocking would finally stop, as we’d always hoped, only to be replaced by something infinitely worse.
So when I heard fire-crotch whispered in the lunchroom, I assumed it was meant for me. Nick was the first suspect I glanced at. His mouth was closed as he listened to the conversation at the lunch table. However, when there was commentary around school about me, Nick was always in the vicinity. He might not have made the comment, but I knew in my heart he was responsible.
Now I chose not to relay my thoughts on our four-year-long trial separation, lest he take his warm hand off my hip. Instead, I played along. “Are you saying you didn’t sign the papers, so our divorce was never finalized?”
“I’m saying maybe we should call off the court proceedings and try a reconciliation.” A strand of his dark hair came untucked from behind his ear, and he jerked his head back to swing the hair out of his eyes. Oooh, I loved it when he did that! I had something of a Nick problem.
His hair fell right back into his eyes. Sometimes when this happened, he followed up the head jerk with the pinkie flick, but not this time. He watched me, waiting for me to say something. Oops. I’d forgotten I was staring at him in awe.
A reconciliation? Probably he was just teasing me, as usual. But what if this was his veiled way of asking me on a date? What if he was feeling me out to see whether I wanted to go with him before he asked me directly? This was how Nick worked. He had to win. He never took a bet that wasn’t a sure thing.
And if he’d been listening to everyone in class prodding him to ask me out, the timing was perfect, if I did say so myself. He was between girlfriends (not that I kept up with his dating status) and therefore free to get together with me. Everett Walsh, my boyfriend of two months, had broken up with me last week because his mama thought I was brazen (no!). Therefore I was free to get together with Nick.
Playing it cool, I relaxed against the wall and gave his poofy parka a squeeze, which he probably couldn’t feel through the padding. With my other hand, I found his fingers in his lap and touched the engraving on his signet ring, which he’d told me back in seventh grade was the Krieger family crest. It depicted bloodthirsty lions and the antlers of the hapless deer they’d attacked and devoured—which seemed apt for our relationship in seventh grade, but not for our relationship now, in eleventh. I was no deer in the headlights. Not anymore. Coyly I said, “I’ll mention it to my lawyer.” Ha!
He eyed me uneasily, like I was a chemistry lab experiment gone awry and foaming over. But Nick was never truly uneasy. He was just taken aback that I hadn’t fallen at his feet. Then he asked, “What are you doing for winter break?”
Winter break was next week. We lived in a ski resort town. It seemed cruel to lock us up in school the entire winter. They let us out for a week every February, since the base might or might not start to melt by spring break in April.
Was he just making convo, whiling away our last few minutes of incarceration at school, or did he really want to know what I was doing during our days off? Again I got the distinct and astonishing impression that he wanted to ask me out. Perhaps I should notify Ms. Abernathy of a safety hazard in her chemistry classroom. Obviously I had inhaled hallucinatory gas just before she kicked me out.
“I’m boarding with my brother today,” I said, counting on my fingers. “Tomorrow I’m boarding with Liz. Actually, Liz skis rather than boards, but she keeps up with me pretty well. I’m boarding with some friends coming from Aspen on Sunday, the cheerleading squad on Monday—”
Nick laughed. “Basically, anyone who will board with you.”
“I guess I get around,” I agreed. “I’m on the mountain a lot. Most people get tired of boarding after a while, which I do not understand at all. And then on Tuesday, I’ve entered that big snowboarding competition.”
“Really!” He sounded interested and surprised, but his hand underneath my hand let me know he was more interested in throwing me into a hot tizzy than in anything I had to say. He slid his hand, and my hand with it, from his lap and over to my thigh. “You’re going off the jump? Did you get over your fear of heights?”
So he’d been listening to me after all.
My friends knew I’d broken my leg rappelling when I was twelve. That actually led, in a roundabout way, to my family’s move from Tennessee to Colorado. My dad was a nurse, and he got so interested in my physical rehab that he and my mom decided to open a health club. Only they didn’t think they could make it fly in Tennessee. The best place for a privately owned health club specializing in physical rehab was a town with a lot of rich people and broken legs.
Though my own leg had healed by the time we moved, I was still so shell-shocked from my fall that I never would have tried snowboarding if my parents hadn’t made me go with my little brother, Josh, to keep him from killing himself on the mountain. Josh was a big part of the reason I’d gotten pretty good. Any girl would get pretty good trying to keep up with a boy snowboarder three years younger who was half insane.
And that’s how I became the world’s only snowboarder with the ability to land a frontside 900 in the half-pipe and with a crippling fear of heights. Not a good combination if I wanted to compete nationally.
“This competition’s different,” I said. Growing warmer, I watched his fingers massaging the soft denim of my jeans. “For once, the only events are the slalom and the half-pipe. No big air or slopestyle or anything that would involve a jump. Chloe and Liz swore they’d never forgive me if I didn’t enter this one.”
“You’ve got a chance,” Nick assured me. “I’ve seen you around on the slopes. You’re good compared with most of the regulars on the mountain.”
I shrugged—a small, dainty shrug, not a big shrug that would dislodge his hand from my hip and his other hand from my thigh. “Thanks, but I expect some random chick from Aspen to sweep in and kick my ass.” And when that happened, I sure could use someone to comfort me in the agony of defeat, hint hint. But Nick was only toying with me. Nick was only toying with me. I could repeat this mantra a million times in my head, yet no matter how strong my willpower, his fingers rubbing across my jeans threatened to turn me into a nervous gigglefest. Sometimes I wished I were one of those cheerleaders/prom queens/rich socialite snowbunnies who seemed to interest Nick for a day or two at a time. I wondered if any of them had given in to Nick’s fingers rubbing across their jeans, and whether I would too, if he asked.
“Anyway, those are all my plans so far,” I threw in there despite myself. What I meant was: I am free for the rest of the week, hint hint. I wanted to kick myself.
“Are you going to the Poseur concert on Valentine’s Day?” He eased his hand out from under mine and put his on top. His fingers massaged my fingers ever so gently.
Nick was only toying with me. Nick was only toying with me. “That’s everybody’s million-dollar question, isn’t it?” I said. “Or rather, their seventy-two-dollar question. I don’t want to pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Poseur, but tickets are so expensive.” I may have spoken a bit too loudly so he could hear me over my heart, which was no longer skipping beats. It was hammering out a beat faster than Poseur’s drummer.
Nick nodded. “Especially if you’re buying two because you want to ask someone to go with you.”
I gaped at him. I know I did. He watched me with dark, supposedly serious eyes while I gaped at him in shock. Was he laughing at me inside?
We both started as the door burst open. Ms. Abernathy glowered down at us with her fists on her hips. “Miss O’Malley. Mr. Krieger. When I send you into the hall for talking, you do not talk in the hall!”
“Oh,” Nick said in his innocent voice.
I was deathly afraid I would laugh at this if I opened my mouth. I absolutely could not allow myself to fall in love with Nick all over again. But it was downright impossible to avoid. He bent his head until Ms. Abernathy couldn’t see his face, and he winked at me.
Saved by the bell! We all three jumped as the signal rang close above our heads. On a normal day the class would have flowed politely around Ms. Abernathy standing in the doorway. They might even have waited until she moved. But this bell let us out of school for winter break. Ms. Abernathy got caught in the current of students pouring out of her classroom and down the hall. If she floated as far as the next wing, maybe a history teacher would throw her a rope and tow her to safety.
Chloe and Liz shoved their way out of the room and glanced around the crowded hall until they saw me against the wall on the floor. Clearly they were dying to know whether I’d survived being sent out in the hall with my ex. Both of them focused on the space between me and Nick. I looked down in confusion, wondering what they were staring at.
Nick was still holding my hand.
I tried to pull my hand away. He squeezed even tighter. I turned to him with my eyes wide. What in the world was he thinking? After the insults Nick and I had thrown at each other in public over the years, we would have been the laughingstock of the school if we really fell for each other.
And now he was holding my hand in public!
He wouldn’t look at me, though I pulled hard to free myself from his grasp. He just squeezed my hand and grinned up at the gathering crowd like he didn’t care who saw us.
Which was everyone. Davis sauntered out of the classroom and slid his arm around Liz. Unlike the train wreck that was Chloe and Gavin as a couple, Liz and Davis were the two kindest people I knew. They deserved each other, in a good way. But even Davis had a comment as he casually glanced down at Nick and me and did a double take at our hands. “That’s something you don’t see every day,” he understated to Liz. “Usually at about this time, Nick is going around the lab, collecting whatever particulate has dropped out of the solution so he can throw it at Hayden.”
“We didn’t do an experiment today, just diagrammed molecules. Nothing to throw,” Nick said in a reasonable tone, as if he and I were not sitting on the floor, surrounded by a two-deep crowd of our classmates. They had all filed out of chemistry class and joined the circle, peeking over one another’s shoulders to see what Nick and I were up to this time.
Then Gavin exploded out of the classroom, and I knew Nick and I were in trouble. He whacked into Chloe so hard, he would have knocked her off her feet if he hadn’t grabbed her at the same time. Over her squeals, he yelled at Nick, “I knew it!” while pointing at our hands.
“Oooooh,” said the crowd, shifting closer around us, totally forgetting they were supposed to be going home for winter break. If Davis, Liz, Gavin, and Chloe hadn’t made up the front row, the rest of the class would have overrun us like zombies.
“I was just shaking Hayden’s hand, wishing her luck in the snowboarding competition Tuesday.” Nick stood, still gripping my hand, pulling me up with him.
“See you tonight,” Davis mouthed in Liz’s ear. Then he turned to Nick and said, “Come on. I’ll fill you in on what Ms. Abernathy said after you got ejected from the game.” Of course Nick didn’t give a damn what Ms. Abernathy said in the last ten minutes of class before winter break. But that was Davis, always smoothing things over.
Nick finally let go of my hand. “See you around, Hoyden.” He pinned me with one last dark look and a curious smile. Then he and Davis made their way through the crowd, shoving some of the more obnoxious gawking boys, who elbowed them back.
But a few folks still stared at me: Liz, Chloe, and worst of all, Gavin. One corner of his mouth turned up in a mischievous grin. Gavin was tall, muscular, and Japanese, with even longer hair than Nick. I would have thought he was adorable if I didn’t want to kill him most of the time for constantly goading Nick and me about each other. I certainly understood what Chloe saw in him, even though he drove her crazy too.
Gavin turned to her. “Give me some gum.”
Liz and I dodged out of the way as Gavin backed Chloe against the lockers and shoved both his hands into the front pockets of her jeans. You might think the class president would find a way to stop this sort of manhandling, but actually she didn’t seem to mind too much.
By now the crowd had dispersed. Nick and Davis were walking down the hall together, getting smaller and smaller until I couldn’t see them anymore past a knot of freshman girls squealing about the Poseur concert and how they were working extra shifts at the souvenir shop to pay for the expensive tickets. Go home, people. I resisted the urge to stand on my tiptoes for one more peek at Nick. If I didn’t run into him on the slopes, this might be the last I saw of him for ten whole days.
“I don’t have any gum!” Chloe squealed through fits of giggling, trying to push Gavin off. “Gavin!” She finally shoved him away.
He jogged down the hall to catch up with Nick and Davis, holding the paper-wrapped of gum aloft triumphantly.
“That was my last piece!” Chloe called.
I never would have admitted that Gavin’s gum theft made me jealous. Nick was bad for me, I knew. He was the last person on earth I wanted to steal my gum. Still, I stepped to one side so I could see him behind the Poseur fangirls. I watched him turn with Gavin and Davis and disappear down the stairs, and I couldn’t help but feel like a little kid on Halloween night, standing in the doorway in my witch costume with my plastic cauldron for trick-or-treat candy, watching the rain come down. Such sweet promise, and now I was out of luck. Damn.
Chloe stared after the boys too. I assumed she really wanted that gum. Then she looked at me. “Oh my God, did Nick ask you out? It sounded like he was asking you out, but we couldn’t quite tell. Ms. Abernathy finally came to check on you because the whole first row got up from their desks and pressed their ears to the door.”
I answered honestly. “For a second there, I thought he was going to ask me out.”
“But he didn’t?” Liz wailed.
To hide my disappointment, I bent down to stuff my chemistry notebook into my backpack as I shook my head.
“At least you got a see you around,” Chloe pointed out. “Normally if he bothered to say good-bye to you at all, he would do it by popping your bra.”
“True,” I acknowledged. And then I realized what was going on here. Chloe and Liz had been hinting that I should go out with Nick now that they were dating Nick’s friends, but at the moment they seemed even more eager and giddy about it than usual. I straightened, folded my arms across my chest, and glared at Chloe and then Liz. “Please do not tell me you put Nick up to asking me to the Poseur concert.”
Chloe stared right back at me. But Liz, the weakest link, glanced nervously at Chloe like they were busted.
“Come on now.” I stamped one foot. “Even y’all aren’t going to the Poseur concert with Gavin and Davis. It’s too expensive.”
“Nick has more money than God,” Chloe pointed out.
I turned on Liz. “You really want me to go out with him after I told you he made that fire-crotch comment about me?” Liz was all about people being respectful of one another. We were in school with teenage boys and this was asking a lot, I know.
“That did sound disrespectful,” she admitted. “Are you sure he didn’t mean it in a friendly way?”
Incredible. Even Liz’s sense of chivalry and honor was crushed under the juggernaut called Wouldn’t It Be Cute/Ironic If Nick and Hayden Dated Again.
“What if he did ask you out?” Liz bounced excitedly, and her dark curls bounced with her. “Oh my God, what if you saw him on the slopes over the break and he asked you to the Poseur concert? What would you say?”
I considered this. Part of me wanted to think Nick had changed in the past four years. I would jump at the chance to go out with the boy I’d made up in my head. In real life Nick was adorable, funny, and smart, but in my fantasies he had the additional fictional component of honestly wanting to go out with me.
Another part of me remembered his dis four years ago as freshly as if it were yesterday. When I recalled that awful night, the image of Honest Nick dissolved, even from my imagination. That Nick was too good to be true. I couldn’t say yes to Nick, because I was scared to death he would hurt me again.
“It doesn’t matter,” I declared, “because he’s not going to ask me out. If he really liked me, he wouldn’t have treated me the way he did back in the day. So stop trying to throw us together.”
“Okay,” Liz and Chloe said in unison. Again, too eager, too giddy. The three of us turned and made our own way down the hall. We discussed how low Poseur tickets would have to go before we sprung for them, but the subject had changed too easily. I was left with the nagging feeling that, despite their promise, they were not through playing Cupid with me and Nick.
© 2009 Jennifer Echols