“What does it look like I am doing?” Alyssa replies. “I am talking to Eveline, or at least I was until you so rudely interrupted us. Why do you ask? Have I broken some new rule you forgot to mention alongside the billions of others you issued when we got here?”
Axel glowers down at me once I finally turn to face him. “It’s time for us to go, Alyssa. I promised mom I would have you home no later than one.”
She brushes past her fuming brother, turning to smile as she does. “It was nice talking to you, Eveline, we should do it again sometime.”
“Or you could never do it again because, you know, engaging in conversations with her has been known to kill a brain cell or twenty,” Axel adds on, even though we both know she wasn’t asking for his opinion.
“That sounds like a great idea to me,” I reply, taking pleasure in watching the muscles in his jaw tighten as his anger builds. “I’ve seen you sitting outside during lunch. Next time, come find me.”
Alyssa nods, smiling as she bounds of towards the cabin and I cock my head to the side, smiling victoriously at one very pissed off Axel.
“Stay the hell away from my sister,” he warns.
The familiar twinge of indignation, the one that seems incessant when he is around, rears its ugly head. “Or what?”
“Alyssa is a good person and she doesn’t need to get caught up in your bullshit drama.” He takes a step towards me, his stance screaming of the same need to intimidate me as it did that day in the nurse’s office. “She’s had it hard enough with you inviting her to join you for lunch so that you and your friends can poke fun at her and take advantage of her like the others did. She is too trusting, she doesn’t realize when she is being used.”
Stories of Alyssa’s odd mannerisms began to circulate shortly after she enrolled, the news spreading quickly. Lillian had home-schooled her for years prior but finally allowed her to join the rest of us at McCall high the end of her sophomore year, leaving her to fend on her own while Axel was still off wherever he had been.
I don’t know if it was the lack of peer to peer interaction or her genuinely sweet nature but Alyssa was completely naive to how horrendous teenage girls could be, leaving her to fall victim to the cruelest of them. A group of girls took her under their wing and she had followed them like an eager puppy, jumping when they told her to and doing as they instructed.
The entire thing went south during a prank involving a white shirt, a bucket of water, a pink bra, and every social media outlet available. Alyssa was labeled ‘easy’ and ‘slutty’ for the pictures that went viral, even though she had not been a willing participant in them being taken.
I half expected her to resume homeschooling after that but, the following day, she returned to school with her head held high.
It’s kind of admirable, actually.
“You know I had nothing to do with that, right? Not only do I have no idea who those girls were, but I am also not that kind of person,” I retort, refusing to back down even though he is now looming over me. “In fact, stop talking to me like you know a damn thing about me because you don’t know shit, Axel. Stop making stupid assumptions based off the even stupider shit you might have heard about me. You do realize that doing that makes you no better than the people you are constantly bashing, right?”
“No, it doesn’t because I a-”
“Because you what? You don’t know me, which means all those little insults you throw around come from shit you assume or shit you heard. Either way, you’re wrong. In fact, now that I think about it, you’re worse than the people you are putting down because both you and your sister have been victimized by those catty bitches, yet you still choose to get your information about me from them. You are hypocrite of the worst kind.”
“Well if you weren’t out here trying to talk her into doing something stupid then what you were you doing?”
“I came over to tell her to get away from the waves before she got sucked in.”
Confusion lights up his face. “What waves?”
“Those waves!” I point towards the now calm water. “Okay, so there were waves when I came over here and I’ve read tons of stories about people drowning and I just wanted to give her a warning. I figured it wasn’t safe for her to be standing so close at night because, if she fell in, it would be hard as hell to find her.”
“Fine, then thank you!”
“If you are thanking me, then why does it still sound like you are threatening me?”
Axel cracks a smile, my anger faltering for a moment when he shrugs. “I don’t know. If you were really out here to tell her to be careful then, thank you.”
A stiff breeze rushes past us, slamming into my back, and I stumble forward. My hands land on something firm and it takes me a minute to realize that that something firm is, in fact, Axel’s chest.
He inhales sharply and I do the same but, since we are about as close as two people can be without literally being on top of each other, all I get is a big whiff of Axel’s scent and, oh my god, he smells amazing. He has an earthy smell to him, like leaves after it rains or freshly cut grass.
Odd but strangely amazing.
I take a chance and peer upwards, watching as the wind blows dark strands of hair around his face. Right now he looks softer, less rugged and on the defense. He scowl vanishes and, even though it is dark, I swear it looks like he is trying not to smile.
The fact that I am currently drooling over how gorgeous Axel Browning looks up close and personal is ridiculous and I know it, but I just can’t stop myself. He was semi-threatening me two minutes ago and now all I can think about is how warm he feels.
Is this seriously happening? Is that his hand on your back? Why hasn’t he shoved you away? He looked like he wanted to douse himself in bleach when you leaned against him on the way to the nurse’s office but now his hand is moving down your back and to your hip? How can you want to throat punch someone while also thinking about how absolutely those full lips might feel against yours?
It’s official, I need to have my head examined.
Axel reaches forward, brushing away the strand of hair that has blown in front of my face. He tucks it behind my ear, his hand sweeping down the side of my neck. “Eveline?”
“Yes?” I stutter, his grip on my hip tightening as I find myself trapped in the oddly intense way he is staring at me.
All the iciness has drained from his eyes and they grow darker as he glances down at how tightly pressed against him I now am.
My phone shrieks to life in my pocket, my ringtone blaring loudly, and I take a step back, releasing the breath that I didn’t know I was holding.
I am not one hundred percent certain why what was happening a second ago was happening, but I do know where it was headed. What is even crazier about the whole thing is that, even though we have insulted each other during every interaction we have had, I was going to let it happen.
Something about the idea of kissing Axel had seemed so damn appealing.
“Hello?” I answer unsteadily, turning my back to him so that he can’t see how much my hands are shaking.
“Where are you?” Curtis shouts over the music blasting in the background. “I’ve been looking for you.”
“Not that it is any of your business, but I am out back.”
“I was getting ready to leave and I wanted to make sure you didn’t need a ride home. Everyone here seems way too wasted to be driving anywhere, especially Kat. I got her a ride home with Janelle since they are headed that way but that leaves you without one. Want a ride?”
“Yes. I mean, no. Shit, yes, I need a ride home. I’m coming now. I’ll meet you by your car.” I hang up before he has a chance to say anything more, looking over at Axel as he shoves his hands into his jacket pockets.
He stares out across the water thoughtfully, chewing on his lower lip as he does. The stoicism on his face has not yet returned and, as tempted as I am to see if I can pick up where we left off, I know it is best if we don’t. Things are not that way between us and I know it won’t be long until we are hurling insults at each other again.
Hardly ever am I at a loss for words but, since I currently am, I opt for heading back to where the car is parked instead of standing next to him struggling to find the words to say about what just happened.
Curtis is nowhere in sight when I arrive at his car and so I shoot him a quick text, demanding he show up quickly before I say ‘screw it’ and walk home.
“Goodnight, Eveline!” Alyssa calls to me as she climbs into the passenger’s side of her brother’s Jeep.
Axel closes the door behind her, rounding the back of his car so that he is standing in front of me.
I let out a heavy sigh. “What now? Think of something else to accuse me of? Or was there something horrible you think about me that you forgot to mention earlier?”
“Thank you.” He kicks idly at the ground as he scratched the back of his head. “Alyssa confirmed what you said about the whole waves thing. She said you two were talking about your friend Katrena before I interrupted and that you were nothing but pleasant to her. I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions like I did. You’re right, I’m no better than those bitches at school and I might have been an ass for no reason.”
I feign shock. “You? An asshole? For no reason? Never! Why would you ever dare to think such a thing? Next time, instead of accusing me of something I didn’t do, maybe try being a decent person for ten seconds? It’s not like it’s going to kill you.”
“It might.” He smiles. My stomach does somersaults for that smile. “Maybe we should han-”
“Everything okay here?” Curtis butts in, throwing an unnecessarily possessive arm over my shoulder. “Is he bothering you, Ev?”
“Everything is fine, we were just talking,” Axel answers.
Curtis raises an accusatory brow. “You sure about that? The way I hear it, the last time you two spoke it didn’t go so well.”
“Well, that depends on what your idea of ‘going well’ is.” Axel smiles and I can tell from the devious glint of it that he is not going to make this conversation easy on Curtis. “I like to think of that day as a bonding moment, the start of a beautiful friendship.”
My nails dig into my palms as I tighten my hands into fists at my side. This testosterone-fueled pissing match is not something that I have the patience for tonight.
Curtis laughs in disbelief. “A bonding moment? Seriously, Browning? Do you have any idea what calling her ‘Evie’ did to her?”
My stomach plummets into my feet, the air around us growing heavier.
“Do you? Her dad used to call her that when he wo-”
“That’s enough!” I cut him off, glaring over my shoulder at the guy getting ready to expose my darkest secret just to win an argument. “Curtis, you are about to cross a line you damn-well know doesn’t need crossing. Axel wasn’t bother me and, even if he was, it would have been none of your business seeing as we are not technically together right now. Shit, even if we were, I am capable of taking care of myself. Now, take my home before I change my mind and ask Axel to do it.”
Curtis storms away, climbing into his car while muttering something under his breath. He slams the door shut, revving the engine as loud as it can get which, being a Prius, isn’t much.
“Well, glad to see you’ve got some bite to you,” Alex chuckles, climbing into his car. He pauses, gazing down at me through wind-tossed hair and, good lord, the smile he gives me makes my knees a bit weak. “Goodnight, Eveline.”