My gut tightened as I watched Ashton Carmichael dance on the coffee table with Sarah Pinkton. He grabbed her ass, and she giggled. Everyone cheered and laughed as they grinded against each other. He took a long swallow of beer from his red plastic party cup and then let it slosh over the sides. I didn’t get it, the whole red-plastic-cup thing, but if there was beer and a keg, red cups always went right along with it.
And Ashton Carmichael, of course. I was pretty sure that in our four years of high school there hadn’t been a party he hadn’t attended…and acted like he was doing now…which people ate up like it was an ice-cream sundae on a hot day.
I couldn’t stand him. I really couldn’t stand Ash.
But he was also my friend…and obviously that made things difficult.
Strange how someone could grate on your every nerve but you also considered them a friend…kind of…sometimes…okay, fine, he was a friend, but he was also annoying as shit.
Still, my eyes stayed firmly entranced by him even while I berated myself for it the whole time. Even while I told myself to ignore him. Like everyone else, I couldn’t look away from Ash, and that truth made me even more frustrated with myself than I was with him.
The beer sloshed over the cup again. He laughed, dropping his head back with a rich, throaty sound. When he looked up, his gaze focused right on me. When I rolled my eyes, the right side of his mouth kicked up in a half grin. He winked at me while he danced with Sarah, and that was my wake-up call to turn away…which I did…only to look back at him a moment later and see Ash still watching me. There was a wrinkle on his forehead, a crease between his eyes as if he was thinking about something.
But then his eyes snapped away, and he jumped down off the table like he was trying to be Patrick Swayze in that movie my mom always went crazy about. He switched from Sarah to Crystal, and no one cared because he wasn’t dating either of them. He just liked attention, to make a big fucking show of everything, and everyone around him got their jollies watching.
Did I mention Ashton Carmichael annoyed the shit out of me? It bore repeating.
And it was time to walk away.
As I headed toward the kitchen, weaving my way through the crowd, a body slammed into me. Shannon, my ex-girlfriend, looked up at me, her eyes sparkling and sort of dopey-looking. Not that Shannon wasn’t smart, because she was. She came in third in our class with me in second and Ash fucking Carmichael in first, but alcohol always made her silly. “I miss you, Beau. Did I tell you how hot you look today?” She reached up and fingered my hair. “Your hair’s soft. It’s the color of chocolate. I really like chocolate.”
Actually, my hair was black, not brown, and I hoped she wasn’t planning on eating it. Regardless, this wasn’t good. She was great, one of my close friends, but I just didn’t feel that way about her. I kind of hated that I didn’t. Shannon was perfect, perfect for me—only I couldn’t make myself see her as more than a friend, and I couldn’t figure out why that was. “Thanks, Shan. You look good too. How much have you had to drink?”
She held up her thumb and forefinger, making an inch. “Just a little bit, Dad.”
I rolled my eyes. Was it such a bad thing to be responsible? Or as other people sometimes called it, boring, but whatever. I didn’t think boring was such a bad thing.
Shannon stumbled into me, then frowned. “I don’t feel so well, Beau.”
“Shit,” I groaned. “Come on. Let’s get you outside.”
I got her to the door just as Holly and Paulina, Shannon’s closest friends, approached. “Thank God you found her, Beau. She slipped away,” Holly said.
“We’re gonna take her home,” Paulina added. She was the designated driver. Anytime anyone partied, Paulina offered to drive people home because she didn’t drink, which was a lifesaver more times than I could count. I wasn’t out there drinking as often as most people I knew, but I did indulge sometimes.
“I’ll walk you guys to the car.”
“Thanks, Beau. You’re the best.” Holly squeezed my shoulder.
We made our way out of Wyatt’s parents’ lake house. They were the wealthiest family in Fever Falls, and Wyatt was Ash’s best friend…not that I wasn’t friends with Wyatt, because I was.
Ash and I hung out in the same social circles—being captain and co-captain of the football team—Ash was captain, of course. Hell, we were even in prom nominations together, which Ash won, not that I’d wanted to. He’d been to my house, and I’d been to his.
Considering we were supposed to be friends, I shouldn’t have hated him, not as much as I did. Sure, he was obnoxious, got everything he wanted, always one-upped me, and would do anything in his power to be the center of attention, but we were chill with each other…outside of the mutual sarcasm and my secret dislike of him.
I could still hear the music thumping as we got farther away from the house. The driveway would have been dark if not for the new lights Wyatt’s family had put in. Too much artificial lighting in the middle of the woods was so fucking strange to me. It took away the nature in nature, if that made sense.
When we got to Paulina’s car, she opened the passenger door, and I helped Shannon inside. As I bent over to click her seat belt into place, her mouth moved in close to my ear. “My parents are gone… You could come home with me. I know we’re not together anymore, but…just one more time?”
My muscles tensed up. “You’re drunk, Shan. I’m not going home with you when you’re drunk.” I wouldn’t go home with her anyway. It would just confuse an already fucked-up situation. But I knew I probably should want to go home with her, even if it wasn’t to have sex with her. Oh, and I probably should have enjoyed having sex with her more than I had. She was beautiful, smart, kind…and staying in Fever Falls like me.
Staying… I was staying. My gut clenched.
“Good night, Shan.” I kissed her forehead and pulled back. Once I had the door closed, I asked, “Are you guys staying with her? I don’t think she should be alone tonight.”
“Yeah, we’re sleeping over,” Holly replied. “Thanks for the help.”
I watched the three of them drive away. As I walked back to the house, I realized the party was the last place I wanted to be. Still, I had friends with me and couldn’t bail on them. They’d give me shit about being a spoilsport, not acknowledging they all had stuff to celebrate and I didn’t. Not really. My high school diploma didn’t mean as much when my future was right there in town, living in the same house with my mom and my little brother, Kenny.
Stopping by my car, I grabbed a flashlight. Instead of going into the house, I walked around back to the path leading to the lake. It was darker back there, the lake out of view of the house. The dock belonged to Wyatt’s family. We’d taken the boat from it numerous times, so I knew the way.
The wood creaked beneath my feet until I reached the edge of the dock, where I sat down. I could still hear the light thump of music in the distance, but it was nice to be away, to breathe for a minute.
This fucking sucked. I’d graduated high school today, but I was pouting by the lake instead of partying with my friends…because I didn’t feel like celebrating…because my dream wasn’t coming true.
“Playing hide-and-seek by yourself?”
I startled at the sound of Ash’s voice behind me. Because of course Ash would show up. Why wouldn’t he? I’d obviously pissed off the karma gods.
“Well, I’ll play with you, and look, I found you. Freeze.” Ash touched my shoulder.
“You mixed up hide-and-seek and freeze tag.”
“I’m too drunk to care about details.” He sat down beside me. I could smell the slight tinge of sweat on his skin from the dancing, mixed with something else I couldn’t name…and wasn’t sure why I wanted to.
“You know, you’re entirely too serious for your own good, Beau. Loosen up and live a little. We graduated high school today!” He put an arm around me and shook me. “Ugh. I stink. Sorry.”
Damn him for almost making me grin. “Yeah, you do.”
“You’re always so cheery. Such a fun guy to be around. Bubbly Beau, that’s what I should call you.”
“Gee, thanks, Ash.”
“Seriously, Cranky Campbell, what gives?”
Which was it? Bubbly Beau, or Cranky Campbell, which was the name he typically called me.
“I hate it when you call me that, and I’m only pissy when you’re around.” Kind of…most of the time. Ugh. Why did Ash get to me so much?
“I guess that makes sense. It must be hard being around someone as kick-ass as me.”
I rolled my eyes. The thing was, I thought he was probably serious. Ash didn’t lack confidence in the least, which I respected and despised at the same time. “You’re not helping.”
“Dude, seriously. Be happy. You’re as close to perfection as you can get.”
Because I was always number two? “And you’re perfection, right?”
Ash winked at me. “Obviously.”
I turned away from him and looked out at the lake—the reflection of the moon on the water and how the shadows from the trees danced against it. With every fiber of my being, I wanted to be as happy as Ash was, wanted something to celebrate like he had.
“I’m sorry,” he said after a few minutes.
“For what?” I replied, not looking at him.
“I don’t know…everything?” He nudged me with his arm. “How’s Kenny?”
I tensed up slightly at the mention of my brother’s name. It wasn’t as if he’d said anything wrong, but I was highly protective where Kenny was concerned. “He’s doing well.”
“That’s good. I’m glad to hear it.”
There was another pause. I didn’t know what to say. It was strange that Ash was there with me instead of in the house partying, dancing, and making everyone smile. It was even more strange that he would bring up Kenny. Most of my friends didn’t. They were cool to him and everything, but they never just asked me about my brother.
“It’s so cool. He’s always so happy.”
My muscles went rigid at Ash’s words. “No, he’s not,” I snapped. It was a stereotype that many people had about those with Downs…that they were always happy as though they didn’t know better. And yeah, Kenny was happy a lot but he got mad and sad too. He felt things just like the rest of us only sometimes his emotions were much bigger, he was more expressive than most people. Kenny didn’t guard his emotions.
“Did I say something wrong?”
I shrugged, not wanting to talk to him about it.
“You’re going to Fever Falls Community College, right? That’s what Wyatt said.”
My initial reflex was to ask him why he and Wyatt had been talking about me, but instead, I held it in, letting my bitterness eat away at my insides. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
I didn’t want to hear about Ash leaving for USC, about all the things he would do that I wouldn’t.
“Shit. I’m sorry. I… You’re a good brother, Beau.”
My eyes snapped to his. How did he know I was staying because of Kenny? I sure as shit hadn’t told him that. I’d known Ashton Carmichael all my life, and he’d never said anything like that to me.
I stared, dumbfounded. My mouth even hung open, and the only reason I knew was because Ash chuckled, then reached over, hooked his finger under my chin, and closed it. My body started misfiring, going haywire at his touch, though I couldn’t figure out why. I hated Ash, but now goose bumps were dancing up and down my arms and my pulse sped up.
I didn’t turn away, couldn’t, and he didn’t either. Then his tongue sneaked out and traced his bottom lip, and holy fuck did Ashton Carmichael have nice lips. Whoa, where did that come from?
It clicked with me that he was closer, then closer again. My breathing picked up, and my brain malfunctioned even more because I didn’t pull away, sit back, or ask him what in the fuck he was doing. Instead, I waited as he leaned in, felt the heat from his touch, realized that vanilla was the scent that clung to him, felt the electric current zipping from Ash to me when his lips pressed against mine.
Ashton fucking Carmichael was kissing me.
Ash was a guy.
And I liked it.
Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!
His tongue sneaked out again, pushed into my mouth, and…fuck, was I moaning? Jesus, I was. What in the hell was wrong with me? My fingers tingled as I reached up and held on to the back of Ash’s head. His hair was wet with sweat, but I didn’t care. He tasted so damn good. It didn’t even matter anymore that sweat mixed with his vanilla, just the dance of his tongue and the way kissing him made me dizzy.
“Ash,” I whispered when his mouth teased its way down my neck.
My words shocked him into action, or at least I assume they did, because Ash jerked away as though I’d burned him. Which of course made me do the same, only I fucked up again and jerked too far, toppling off the end of the dock and into the water.
“Oh shit,” Ash said as he reached for me, and I’m not going to lie, for a brief moment I considered ducking under the water and hiding—drowning be damned.
I didn’t want to die, though, so I let him pull me up, and we stood staring at each other, me in sopping wet jeans and a tee and Ashton fucking Carmichael looking gorgeous as ever.
Holy fuck. I thought Ash, with his blue eyes and tousled brown hair, was gorgeous. Had I always thought he was gorgeous?
“Whew. I’m really fucking drunk. It just hit me how drunk I am.” He swayed for emphasis.
A frown pulled at my lips.
“You’re sober, though, aren’t you?” he asked, making heat and anger shoot through me. Was he going to blame this on me? Tell people I sober-kissed him and excuse himself because he was drunk?
I opened my mouth to reply, but Ash cut me off. “Catch you later, Cranky Campbell.” Then he turned around and jogged away.
It took me a moment to realize I’d raised my hand, that I was touching my lips, thinking of Ash’s there. In that second, it hit me why I couldn’t feel for Shan the way I wanted to, why I’d never been as interested in girls and sex as my friends. That kiss with Ash did things to my body I didn’t think possible. Made me feel alive, like I was flying and floating and shit, and I was pretty sure my dick had been hard before I hit the water.
I was gay and had a crush on my nemesis.
Fucking karma gods struck again.