Bonfires don’t agree with me.
Tonight’s had potential, but already I’m suffering—crammed in a truck cab next to Blake Thomas. His nearness sparks my nerves. He reeks of arrogance and something else altogether too pleasant.
The truck takes a corner on two wheels jamming Blake’s elbow into my ribs. I shift away, pressing against Nichole on my other side. Even though my best friend is the one who invited Blake, somehow I’m stuck next to him. Apparently justice doesn’t agree with me either.
We fly over a dry creek bed, forcing my stiff body back into Blake’s relaxed one.
I glare at the psycho at the wheel. Kyle always drives too fast and too furious and tonight he’s taking it to the extreme. Two-wheeling around another corner, the bonfire appears in the distance. “There it is,” says Nichole, relief filling her enthusiastic voice.
“Not going fast enough for you, Nic?” Kyle says, a prolonged bad mood filtering past his usual mellow demeanor. We surge forward and Nichole’s hand latches onto my knee. I cringe, bumping against Blake who is, somehow, perfectly at ease stuck between myself and the passenger door of this death trap. He could be lounging in a limo. Which, now that I think of it, seems to be a little more his style.
Leaning around me he says, “I heard you got accepted to Arizona State, Nichole.” I take advantage of her distraction to pry her fingers from my leg. “What are you majoring in?” Blake asks.
“Elementary Ed,” she answers relaxing somewhat. “Kyle is going to Arizona State too. Football scholarship.”
Since future plans are a festering sore spot, Kyle just nods. Before any awkwardness can grow Nichole launches into an animated discussion of her college plans. Blake leans in front of me as they talk and I take full advantage of the opportunity to scrutinize him.
With his passable looks and ample money, Blake’s a sauntering new-guy cliché. Average height and build. Strong jaw line. Wavy dark blonde hair just long enough to show a tendency to curl. Blue eyes. There’s nothing particularly notable about him, but—ever since his transfer two months ago—something has made me pause and take note.
Something I don’t trust.
Flying out of another dry wash, the truck crashes down drawing my attention away from Blake. Kyle dodges a large rock, instead barreling over a huge sagebrush then swerves back onto the road. “Phenom save us all,” Nichole mutters.
“Phenom?” Blake asks, his gravelly voice grating me.
“Better fill him in.” Kyle’s tone is condescending. I’m not sure why he doesn’t like Blake, but—then again—I’m not sure why I so vehemently dislike him either.
Ignoring him, Blake looks past me to Nichole. “It was three years ago,” she starts. I withhold an eye roll. I hate this story, legend, inside joke—whatever it has become. It encompasses so many events I’d rather forget. “Two seniors got completely wasted at a bonfire. Driving out, they accidentally flipped their jeep when they drove off the road. After a while, someone at the bonfire noticed the unmoving lights so—”
“Everyone rushed over,” Kyle cuts in. “We found one guy lying completely unconscious.”
“He was yards away from the jeep,” Nichole continues, her voice as bouncy as the ride. “The other guy was conscious, but had broken his leg. He was lying near the jeep in a total state of shock. Over and over, he kept saying that someone—”
“A girl,” Kyle interrupts.
“Right, a girl,” Nichole’s words are clipped. “A girl had been there.”
“And saved him?” Blake asks.
“Yes!” Nichole squeaks in excitement. “The jeep had landed on top of him and she lifted it so he could pull himself free. At first, everyone figured he was hysterical, plus he was drunk, but on closer inspection…,” she pauses dramatically. “There were drag marks coming from under the jeep to the guy. He really had been pinned. No one ever came forward to admit to it, but it’s a fact the jeep was lifted. By a girl. Someone called her the Phenomenal Phantom and pretty soon that morphed into the Phenom.”
“Lame name if you ask me,” I mumble and wince as we slam into another hole.
“Even so,” Nichole asserts. “She is the protector of us all, the defender of the stupid.” Her light blue eyes narrow severely. “So show some respect.”
I begrudgingly snicker at her theatrical flourish and even Kyle smiles.
“You’ll probably hear her mentioned throughout the night,” I warn Blake.
“And why not?” Nichole demands. “It’s a great story.”
“What do you have against this Phenom, Desiree?” Blake asks.
“I just find it all a little hard to swallow,” I lie.
“Really?” Blake obviously doubts my honesty. “I think it’s not only possible, but probable.” Looking sideways he gauges my reaction. I shrug and turn to watch the road.
Kyle hits another rut causing Nic and I to smash our heads on the ceiling. “Sorry girls,” he says unrepentantly.
We’re close enough to recognize figures in the fire light, practically home free when Blake turns to me and says, “So, Desiree Morgan, what are your plans?”
I mentally cringe, and then cringe again because I’m letting Kyle’s opinion ruin my excitement. Nichole flashes me a tense grin while I debate between delicacy and directness.
Before I can decide, Kyle hits the brakes. People bolt out of the way as we skid sideways finally coming to an abrupt stop, the truck facing away from the fire. Shoving the gear shift into park, Kyle leans across the steering wheel looking past me to Blake. “It’s pointless and excessive,” he says. Turning to me, his look hardens. “Honestly, what we think won’t make a difference. She’s decided.”
A large part of me wants to punch him in the nose. Another part would settle for sarcasm and congratulate him on his usage of such big, descriptive words. Yet the smaller, saner part wishes I could be satisfied joining him and Nicole in Arizona.
“Difficult girl, huh?” Blake says in mock sympathy. What an arrogant jerk. I’m finding there’s not a smaller, saner part where he’s concerned.
“Can we get out?” Nichole asks quickly, breaking the tension.
We pile out of the truck. Once clear, Kyle grabs my arm and pulls me to him. “You know you are being difficult, right?” A dark hair falls across his forehead, almost covering his small, piercing brown eyes.
My fists close. “It’s my decision.” I struggle to stay calm. To let him vent. Yes, he’s been my friend forever. Yes, I got accepted to Arizona—as planned. Yes, I turned them down—not as planned. But he needs to get over it—I’m tired of defending my choice and losing patience with these emotional standoffs.
Shaking his head, he releases me and walks away. My fists open.
I glare at the bonfire—it couldn’t disagree with me more if I were burning at the stake.
Turning, I find Nichole perched on the tailgate talking to Blake. As I pitch myself up next to her, a silence falls. I stare past the fire out into the immensity of southern Utah’s desert. Surrounding us is nothing but brush, empty miles, and total darkness.
If only I could go running through it. Being familiar with the area, I know over the rise to our right is a long, narrow valley with a perfect trail. Perfect for going far too fast for far too long. Instead, I’m stuck here sullenly looking into a fire trying to pretend Blake and Nichole didn’t overhear everything between Kyle and I.
“He’ll get over it,” Nichole says. I grunt in reply as heat from the fire seeps into me.
Studying me, Blake shifts to rest his side on the tailgate. “So what’re you bailing on them for?”
“Dezi is going to travel. A lot.” Nichole makes it sound like the adventure I hope for.
Blake’s gaze rests momentarily on Nichole before it fixes on me. Behind him, someone throws a couple more crates on the fire. “Where?”
“Anywhere and everywhere until my money runs out,” I respond dismissively.
“It’s the spontaneity some people have a hard time accepting.” Nichole casually defends me. “But it’ll be awesome. She’ll come back with tons of life experience.” Her dimples flash. “Takes more guts than I have.”
“Or less brains,” I mumble. She elbows me.
With the added fuel, the bonfire grows until I am burning. I scoot back on the tailgate hoping the conversation is over, but Blake’s stare is unending. Evaluating.
It puts me on edge. The last thing I need is someone trying to read me. I meet his eyes defiantly. He observes me a second more, then grins revealing white, even teeth. “Sounds pretty great, but why? Why not do the normal thing? Go to college, get a job, become a responsible adult.”
My defensiveness morphs into aggravation. “Guess we just have different definitions of responsible and, most likely, normal.”
Sensing my mood, Nichole makes some excuse and leaves. Blake leans across the space between us, the fire reflecting in his eyes. “Our definitions are probably a lot closer than you think, Dez,” he says with an intimacy that makes me twitch. Nobody calls me Dez. I’ve never liked that nickname.
“You know, Thomas.” I emphasize my use of his last name—Thomas suits him better anyway. “I don’t think I like you.”
Never breaking eye contact, he laughs quietly. “I know,” he says. “But you will.”
“See that’s why,” I say and point at him. Noticing how close we’ve gotten, I abruptly lean back. “You’re cocky.”
A spark pops loudly in the fire. “I call it confidence.”
“An unhealthy amount of confidence,” I retort.
“Well.” He smiles good-naturedly. “I think the real reason for your aversion is that I’m like you.”
“Really, how so?” As infuriating as he is, I’m curious to see what he thinks he knows about me.
Leaning back and looking away he begins, “Well, we’re generally likable, confident—maybe even cocky—intelligent, entertaining, obstinate, good-looking, commanding, open—most of the time, but fiercely protective of the secrets we do have.” He gives me a side-ways look, his face half shadow in the firelight. “Perceptive, powerful.”
His spot on description leaves me strangely violated. “Shall I continue?” he asks.
I tamp down the panic brought on by his psychoanalysis. There’s no way he knows. He’s just messing with me. Keeping a blank face, I pull my legs up to casually cross my arms over the tops of my knees. “Your list is interesting,” I say in an even voice. “But wrong.”
Blake chuckles. “Well, maybe you could help me out with that.”
“Don’t see much of a reason to.”
“It’ll be mutually beneficial,” he states. I give him a questioning glance. “I’ll get some insight into you and you can, in turn, try to figure me out.” I’m surprised by his persistent interest, more so that he sensed my tiny curiosity about him. Seeing me hesitate, he sighs and—dropping all pretense—admits, “That’s why Nichole invited me tonight. See, I want to learn more about horses and work on my riding and I heard you gave lessons. I’ll make it worth your time—fifty dollars a lesson.”
Well, that’s unexpected. Not the price, I know he’s got money to burn. Literally. Probably enough to fuel the bonfire. Still he’s not my typical client. He offers me an engaging grin.
No, he’s definitely not some horse-crazy twelve-year-old girl. In the flickering orange light of the bonfire, I try to shake off my bewilderment. So this is why Nic invited him. Sweet, supportive girl and her good intentions strike again. I drum my fingers on my knees. I really don’t like this guy. He suspects something, or wants something, or something. The whole keeping your enemies close philosophy comes to mind. I could stifle his suspicions. If he has any, my logic intercedes. The money would be a perk too, a big perk.
“Quite a bit of hesitation there, Desiree. You don’t have to answer right now, think about it some if you want.” Blake sounds indifferent, but when I look over at him I catch a flash of tension crossing his face. Noticing my scrutiny, he quickly gives a crooked smile.
I look away, thinking… If I wasn’t trying to hide something this would be a no brainer. I’m the one acting weird. “I’ll do it,” I agree. “If only in the hope of seeing you humbled and ignorant. How about after school starting next week?”
“Next week sounds good,” he responds smugly. “Until then I’ll work on decreasing my intelligence and pride.”
“You do that.” He grins and I catch myself almost smiling back. This guy’s blasted, contagious likability is a challenge. “You’ll pay up front?” I demand.
“Of course, and don’t worry. I’m good for it—and many other things—though you may find it hard to believe.” He winks.
“I do,” I say with mock solemnity.
Beaming, Blake pushes off the tailgate. “This is going to be enlightening.” His blue eyes flash a delayed warning. “Very, very enlightening.”
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