The Defining Moment
“Alright, I think all that’s left is graham crackers.”
Nodding quickly, Cassie directed the shopping cart to the aisle where the crackers were located, Kira, Piper, and Caroline close at her heels. In celebration of Lucy’s eighteenth birthday, the kids were throwing her beach bonfire party, which wouldn’t be complete without smores.
Although Cassie loved the combination of chocolate and marshmallows in any form and the whole idea of the party was sweet, she was nervous. All of Lucy’s class was invited, which meant that all of Tyler’s friends would be there as well. It wasn’t as though she was opposed to meeting new people, but she wasn’t sure what the dynamic would be like considering she still had no idea what she and Tyler were to each other.
After all, one date didn’t classify what they were doing as a relationship.
Still, despite the fact that all of the kids were aware that Tyler and Cassie were…hanging out, they didn’t use that information to make her feel uncomfortable in the slightest.
“So do you guys do this a lot?” she asked as Caroline pulled a few boxes of graham crackers off the shelf and tossed them into the cart. “Have bonfires?”
“We used to do it a lot more when we were younger,” Kira replied, nodding towards the end of the aisle to indicate they should proceed towards the checkout. “Like every other weekend, pretty much. It just got harder as we got older and busier. But it was always Lucy’s favorite family tradition, so she’ll love it tonight.”
“It’s sweet of you guys to do this for her,” Cassie smiled softly.
“We can do it again for your birthday, if you want,” Piper offered, beginning to unload their items onto the moving belt when they arrived at the checkout counter.
It didn’t even faze Cassie how casually that offer was agreed upon by the other girls. Despite the fact that she’d only been staying at the Copeland house for a few days, she already felt as if she’d known every member of the family for years. They welcomed her with open arms and large smiles and made her feel completely at home to the point where they were entirely comfortable asking her questions that it usually took people a few months to get up the courage to ask.
“How are things going with Tyler?”
“Good, I guess,” Cassie shrugged as she answered Caroline’s question, helping the girls place items from their shopping cart onto the conveyer belt. “We’ve been on a couple dates and…it’s good.”
“You don’t sound completely convinced,” Piper replied, an amused smile kinking her lips. “You can be honest. Jessa and Lucy aren’t here.”
If she had to fear anyone telling Tyler something she said in confidence, it was Jessamine or Lucy, neither of whom were on the shopping trip because Jessamine, seamstress extraordinaire, was putting the finishing touches on the dress she’d made Lucy for that evening, but that didn’t mean that any of the other girls were particularly trustworthy in that area. Tyler was like their brother, after all, so Cassie couldn’t expect that they would keep secrets from him.
Not that she really had any secrets. She had meant what she said about things being good between them. In the week and a half since break started, they’d gone on exactly two dates: one to the carnival on the pier and one to the park to watch a local band perform. Both dates had gone pretty well, she thought. They’d laughed and held hands and generally enjoyed each other’s company and at the end of the night, he’d walked her to her bedroom door and kissed her goodnight and she’d fallen asleep feeling as though everything was right with the world.
When they hung out with other people, they tended to avoid being too touchy feely, partly because they didn’t want to make things awkward and partly because being affectionate in front of the family made it seem like whatever was going on between them was serious. And therein lay the only problem Cassie had with the entire situation: that she had absolutely no idea where she stood. For all she knew, the nights she didn’t hang out with Tyler, he was off pressing his lips to that of another girl and she had absolutely no right to feel anything about it because they had never officially agreed to labels.
They’d never officially agreed to anything besides ‘seeing where things go’ and now Cassie was seriously regretting her decision to be casual about the whole thing because the not knowing exactly what was going on was driving her crazy.
“I don’t know,” Cassie shrugged, sighing as the cashier rung up their items. “I guess I just wish I knew how he really felt about us or if he was ready to maybe get a little more serious.”
“More serious?” Kira lifted an eyebrow as she pulled her wallet from her purse and selected a credit card. “As in sex? Cause from what I hear, Tyler would be completely down with that.”
Piper and Caroline snorted with laughter and agreement and Cassie blushed bright red as she shook her head, glad to see that the cashier, an elderly man, wasn’t paying attention to the conversation. Though she wasn’t sure why she was so embarrassed. It wasn’t her first rodeo and she was sure that eventually, she probably would end up between the sheets with Tyler. “No, I mean, moving past being casually dating to being exclusive.”
She could tell from the way the other three girls glanced at each other as they placed their bagged groceries back in the cart and headed for the door that they were all thinking the same thing: Tyler didn’t do exclusivity.
And she had known that when she agreed to their arrangement a few weeks earlier and she knew it now, which was why she was so angry at herself for getting into this situation in the first place. At the time, she figured just getting to be around Tyler would be worth it and she didn’t care about all the labels, but the more time they spent together, the more she was realizing that it wouldn’t be long before her feelings for him grew to the point where he would hold her heart in the palm of his hand.
The worst part was that she should have seen it coming. He was exactly the kind of guy she would fall for: sweet and charming and effortlessly cool – after all, it had happened before. And she feared that this would end the same way; that she would become enraptured by him only to have him not feel the same way, to not think of her as anything more than someone who could provide a good time until he got bored or something better came along.
“Look,” Piper said, slipping her arm through Cassie’s as they stepped outside. “You’re probably sick of hearing this, but Tyler’s not really a relationship guy. I mean, I love him like a brother, but he’s left his fair share of broken hearts in his wake. And you might have known that going in and figured it wouldn’t bother you, but now you’re realizing you like him more than you thought you would, am I right?”
“Yeah,” Cassie sighed, watching Kira open the trunk of her red Fiesta so they could load the bags inside. “Which is silly, I know. Because, like you said, I knew where he stood when I agreed so I don’t know why I thought that would change. I don’t know why I thought that maybe things between us would be different.”
“Maybe it’s because you are different.”
It was Kira who spoke, her eyes immediately widening in horror as she shut the trunk door after the bags were loaded, wondering if she could play off her slip of the tongue as something inconsequential. But Cassie, Caroline, and Piper were all staring at her with raised eyebrows and it was Caroline who asked the question that was on all of their minds. “Do you know something we don’t?”
Nodding, she remained silent as she turned to push the empty cart towards a collection area, returning to find the three girls she considered sisters to be staring at her expectantly.
“Okay,” Kira sighed, crossing her arms over her chest and clutching her car keys in her palm. “Let me just preface this by saying that it’s entirely possible that what I’m about to reveal to you was told to my sister in complete confidence, so if Tyler somehow finds out that you guys know, you didn’t hear it from me.”
“We get it: top secret,” Piper replied quickly. “Now spill.”
Despite her initial anxiety about revealing something that she wasn’t supposed to reveal, Kira couldn’t help but lift the corners of her lips into a smile as she directed her gaze to Cassie and spoke. “Tyler hasn’t been with anyone else since he met you.”
Cassie blinked as she processed this information. Her first response had been to say that made sense, seeing as it had only been almost two weeks since their first date, but then she repeated Kira’s statement in her mind a few more times and realized what the older girl actually meant: Tyler hadn’t been with anyone since he met Cassie, which was six weeks ago, before anything between them had actually happened.
“He told Lucy that?” Caroline asked more for confirmation than out of surprise because it made complete sense that Tyler would admit something like that to his best friend.
“Not exactly,” Kira shook her head. “I guess Luce’s lab partner is a girl that Tyler has been friendly with in the past and the girl asked Luce if she knew why Tyler hadn’t been returning her text messages and when Luce went to question Ty about it, he shrugged it off and said that he wasn’t interested and he wasn’t looking.”
“Since when has Tyler Copeland ever been uninterested?” Piper’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.
“Apparently since he met you,” Kira smirked in Cassie’s direction.
“That has to be out of context,” Cassie shook her head, her lips parted in a gape. “Maybe he just meant he wasn’t interested in that particular girl.”
Kira shrugged. “Maybe, but not looking? It’s not like Tyler is constantly on the prowl, but he’s usually at least open to the idea of someone knew.”
Cassie didn’t have time to ask what that meant before Caroline piped up. “I think what she’s trying to say is that you don’t really have anything to worry about because he likes you just as much as you like him.”
That seemed a little bit too good to be true, but she kept that thought to herself, shooting the girls a small smile before they hopped into the car to head out to the beach. Jessamine and Lucy were catching a ride with the boys, who were on drink duty while the girls took over food duty.
They arrived at their designated beach spot to find the guest of honor chatting happily with her best friend as she arranged the drink options in a cooler and watched him prepare the grill. Cassie felt her heartbeat pick up just a bit at the sight of Tyler, partly because it had a tendency to do that in his presence and partly due to the new information Kira had given her.
She wasn’t entirely sure what to make of all of it. After all, it was entirely possible that Lucy had just misheard her best friend and jumped to the wrong conclusion. All Cassie knew was that she didn’t want to end up feeling entirely idiotic, so she decided not to act on her newfound knowledge and pretend that things between them were as they’d always been: casual. Which meant she had to squash the fluttering she felt in the pit of her stomach at the sight of him standing beside Lucy at the grill, his eyes squinted in concentration as he tended to the charcoal, the fingers on one hand wrapped around the neck of a beer bottle.
Tyler, on the other hand, had been waiting all day to see Cassie. She’d been asleep when he left for swim training that morning and by the time he’d returned home, she’d already left to go to lunch with the girls. He had hoped she would return when Jessamine and Lucy came back to put the finishing touches on the birthday girl’s dress, but Cassie had volunteered for food duty, which meant he wouldn’t get to see her until she arrived at the bonfire.
It was certainly worth the wait, though, because when he looked up from checking the charcoal on the grill to see her making her way down to the beach, her arms laden with plastic bags full of marshmallows and her short curls blowing across her face with the soft breeze, he was pretty sure his heart actually skipped a beat.
“Careful, Ty,” Lucy teased, noticing the way his expression softened upon Cassie’s approach. “Someone might accuse you of being lovestruck.”
His first instinct was to call that statement ridiculous, but the truth was that he’d never been in love, so he had no possible way of knowing how he felt. All he did know was that he liked Cassie, a lot, to the point where he woke up every morning excited at the thought that he’d get to see her. Still, Lucy’s birthday bonfire probably wasn’t the best place to figure out what that meant, so he shot his best friend a glare and stretched his lips into a smile and greeted Cassie the same way he greeted all females: with flirtation.
“Hey, gorgeous,” he grinned, as always, admiring the way her cheeks tinted just a little bit darker. “Long time no see.”
“I know,” she smirked, wondering how she had been able to get that out when all she could think was that it had been way too long since the last time she’d kissed him. “It’s been a whole twenty four hours. How did you survive?”
“Ugh, you guys are sickening,” Piper scrunched her nose in disgust as she dumped her bags full of uncooked burger patties beside Cassie’s bags of marshmallows on the foldable table the boys had managed to stuff into the back of Brody’s Jeep. “Cass, wanna go help me get the bonfire started? It doesn’t look like Jamie and Brody are making much progress.”
Holding in a laugh as she glanced over to where Jamie and Brody had dug a hole in the sand and filled it with sticks but were now staring at it in confusion, Cassie nodded and followed Piper, deciding it was probably best if she didn’t allow herself to become flustered by Tyler so early in the evening.
By the time they’d gotten the fire started and the burgers were beginning to get cooked, the other guests had begun to arrive, which meant Tyler was suddenly extremely occupied. Between making sure everyone was getting their fill to eat and engaging in lively conversations with his friends, Cassie figured that keeping her distance was a good idea. She wasn’t entirely sure what he had told his friends about her, or if he had told them anything at all, and she didn’t want to make the situation awkward by inserting herself into the conversation.
Luckily, everybody else always made sure she was entertained. She met all of Lucy’s friends and was introduced to a few of Caroline and Piper’s who were home for break. She talked to Brody about the piece he was entering in an upcoming art contest and to Caroline about her latest cupcake recipes and it wasn’t until about two hours later, when the sun had set over the water, that she got a moment of peace.
It seemed like the entire world faded away as she became enthralled by the reflection of the moon and the stars on the soft waves.
“Quite the view, huh?”
Blinking a couple times to remove herself from her trance, she turned her head at the sound of the unfamiliar voice to find a tall brunette with piercing blue eyes standing to her right, lifting a half empty beer bottle to his smirking lips.
“Uh, yeah,” she managed to stammer out, a bit caught off guard. “It’s beautiful.”
Nodding, he took another swig of beer, keeping his gaze on the sunset as he spoke. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you at school before.”
His comment wasn’t phrased as a question but she could tell he wanted some sort of explanation as to why she was at a party where pretty much everyone else knew each other.
“I don’t go to your school,” she flashed him a smile, tightening her fingers around the base of her own beer bottle. “I’m Jessamine’s roommate from college.”
“Ah, right,” he nodded, shoving his free hand into the pocket of his green striped board shorts. “Lucy mentioned that you were staying with the Copelands over break. I’m Kyle.”
“Cassie,” she responded softly.
“Good to meet you, Cassie,” he rocked forward on his bare toes. “Are you having a good time? Being the newcomer at a party with a bunch of people who go to school together and have known each other for years can’t be easy.”
“It’s not so bad,” she shrugged. “Everyone’s been pretty friendly so far. Although, I am a little disappointed that I haven’t witnessed any secret handshakes yet.”
Laughing, his eyes twinkled and he parted his lips to respond, but was cut off by a new voice entering the conversation before he got the chance.
“Aiming a little out of your league here, aren’t you, Hamilton?”
She could tell who it was by the way her heart rate quickened, so she didn’t need to turn her gaze towards him, but she did so anyway because she couldn’t help herself; she was drawn to him, like a moth to a flame.
“Tyler,” Kyle grinned, pulling his free hand from his pocket and reaching out in front of Cassie to clasp Tyler’s palm and pull the swimmer into a quick hug. “I’ve been meaning to come say hi to you, man, but you looked pretty intimidating, commanding that grill.”
The truth was that Tyler had felt a little trapped behind the grill. He was bound by his best friend duties to make sure the party went off without a hitch, which meant grilling until every last hamburger patty was used up, at which point he had to ensure all of the ingredients for the smores were available. But the entire time, all he’d thought about was how he could feel Cassie’s presence, even when she was on the other side of the bonfire and how he very much wanted to convince her to sneak off behind some nearby rocks and reacquaint their lips after what had been a torturous number of hours apart. When he’d finally found himself with nothing to do, he’d searched for Cassie, only to see her talking to the captain of the rugby team.
He had no right to be jealous. Technically, whatever he and Cassie were doing was completely casual, which meant that if she wanted to flirt with another guy, he should have no problem with that. But he did. And he couldn’t seem to stop himself from confronting the situation, which was how he ended up standing beside Cassie as she, understandably, shot him extremely confused looks.
Cassie had no idea what was going on. Because she was operating under the assumption that she and Tyler were nonexclusive, because no matter what Lucy interpreted, Cassie didn’t want to jump to conclusions. But if that was the case, then there would be no reason for the flicker of sadness in Tyler’s eyes.
“What can I say,” Tyler replied easily, slinging one arm around Cassie’s shoulders once he’d dropped the handshake. “I’m a multitalented guy.”
The gesture was completely unplanned on his part, though it did feel extremely natural. All he knew was that he’d been dying to wrap his arms around Cassie since he saw her and he didn’t particularly like the way Kyle Hamilton was looking at her, so this was the best solution: to nonverbally tell him that she was off limits while also getting to make physical contact.
“I’m aware,” Kyle laughed, nodding slightly to indicate that he understood what Tyler was conveying.
The only person who had no idea what was going on was Cassie. On one hand, she very much liked being pressed against Tyler’s side and having his arm around her, but on the other, he was sending her very mixed messages about the nature of their relationship
“Well,” Kyle flashed them a grin. “I should probably go say hi to the birthday girl. It was nice to meet you, Cassie. Later, Tyler.”
“Bye,” Cassie called out to his retreating back before furrowing her eyebrows in confusion and turning to look up at Tyler. “What was that?”
“What do you mean?” he replied, lowering his arm to instead place his hands at her hips, playing dumb even though he knew exactly what she was talking about.
She wasn’t entirely sure how to start this conversation, and maybe now wasn’t the best time to have it, but the concerns she’d voiced to the girls earlier in the day had been gnawing at the back of her mind all evening and she was dying to know if Lucy’s assessment of Tyler was true. So she took a deep breath and took a step back, hoping that the distance would help her clear her head.
Tapping the side of her beer bottle against her thigh with one hand, she reached up to play with her heart pendant with the other. “Can we talk for a minute?”
The softness in her voice made his heart ache a little and he wanted to break the tension of the situation, so he laughed as he responded. “Why do I feel like you’re about to break up with me?”
“In order for us to break up, we’d have to actually be dating in the first place.” She lifted her gaze to meet his as she spoke, hoping those words didn’t come out sounding too harsh, but thinking they were a pretty good segue into the conversation she wanted to have.
“Okay…,” he mumbled in confusion, sticking his hands into the pockets of his favorite red board shorts, wondering how the tone of their conversation could have changed so quickly. “What’s going on? Are you alright?”
Exhaling deeply, she kept her voice soft. “I feel like I haven’t been completely honest with you. I like you, Tyler. You know I like you, and that’s why I agreed to do this in the first place.”
“This?” he quirked an eyebrow upwards, digging his toes deeper into the sand.
“This,” she used the beer bottle to gesture between the two of them. “This whole going on dates, hooking up thing we’re doing. I’ve never really been into the whole no strings attached thing, but I agreed because I like you and I wanted to spend more time with you.”
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been this vulnerable with someone and she had never been more terrified in her entire life. He probably had no idea that he held her heart in his palm.
“And that’s a problem?” he asked, because despite the fact that she had confirmed her feelings for him, there was sadness swimming in her eyes.
“Well, yeah,” she sighed. “Because I don’t know if we’re on the same page. And I know it’s only been a couple weeks and we both agreed to this whole ‘seeing what happens’ thing, but it’s driving me nuts that I have no idea if you think about me as much as I think about you.”
“I do,” he interrupted before she could continue on her rant. “I think about you constantly. I haven’t thought about anyone else since I met you.”
To anyone who knew Tyler even a little, that was a pretty shocking statement, but it was true. Three weeks ago, Lucy had asked him why he wasn’t returning Phoebe Hamlin’s text messages and he had told her it was because he wasn’t interested. Lucy had probably thought he meant that he wasn’t interested in Phoebe, but the truth was that he wasn’t interested in any girl that wasn’t Cassie. Considering his history and his reputation, the fact that he’d only kissed one girl over the past six weeks was almost jaw dropping.
Cassie stood frozen in the sand, her lips parted in shock as she processed that statement, realizing that Lucy’s suspicions had been true.
“Wow,” she whispered, blinking slowly. “So…what does that mean?”
“It means,” he took a step forward, removing one hand from his pocket to reach out and tuck a few of her bouncy curls behind her ear. “It means that I like you too and we are on the same page. I’m not seeing anyone else and I don’t want you to see anyone else either.”
If she hadn’t felt warmth spreading to every extremity of her body, she might have thought she was dreaming. “That makes it sound a lot like a relationship.”
He was well aware of what he was implying. But although he was still terrified that he wouldn’t be any good at being in a relationship, he did know that Cassie’s happiness meant a lot to him, so he would do whatever he could to make her smile as much as possible. And if that meant committing to her exclusively, then so be it.
“I’m cool with that,” he shrugged, sounding a lot more nonchalant than he felt.
She blinked rapidly, sure she had misheard. Surely Tyler Copeland, king of the flirts, wasn’t suggesting what she thought he was suggesting. “Tyler…”
“I’m serious, Cass,” he replied softly, lifting his other hand to her cheek and the corners of his lips into a small smile. “I wanna do this. So what do you say? Wanna be my girlfriend?”
Figuring she should agree before she woke up from this dream, she grinned and nodded. “I’d like that.”
“Me too,” he laughed, leaning down to kiss her softly on the lips, smiling against her mouth and soaking in the feeling of her smiling back before reaching for her hand and lacing their fingers together when they pulled apart. “Come on, let me make you a smore.”
He squeezed her hand as he tugged her towards the food table and laughed lightly as she fell into step by his side, already knowing she was going to spend the rest of the evening grinning from ear to ear.