Inhaling and exhaling deeply, she placed her hands on her knees to catch her breath, listening to the sounds of her teammates doing the same. They’d ended practice with sprints, as usual, and learned that they weren’t quite as well conditioned as they needed to be.
Still, Caroline loved running. The heart pounding and adrenaline pumping was always the perfect cure to a stressful day and at the end of it, she always felt free, like she could conquer the world.
“Great practice, everyone!” Dalia Rollins, the captain of the team, called out as she watched the girls catch their breath. “Get some rest and we’ll see you tomorrow after school.”
Caroline continued her deep breathing as she slowly walked to the side of the practice field to where her plastic water bottle lay in a pile on the ground with the rest of the team’s, adjusting the elastic hairband she wore to keep her wild curls off her face. Reaching down, she grabbed her water bottle from the pile and brought it to her mouth, using her teeth to pull the top open before wrapping her lips around the slightly chewed up plastic and beginning to sip the water.
As she drank, allowing the cool water to help her breathing slow, she glanced upwards out of habit, and sure enough, there was Brody Peters. Watching her practice had become something of a habit. Originally, he’d started to come out to the practice fields after school because the view of the park just behind from the top of the bleachers was breathtaking and inspiring.
She’d watch him when she wasn’t active on the field, his tongue poking between his plump lips, his eyebrows furrowed in concentration, his cheeks perpetually flushed as he used his trusty pen to sketch in the small, leather bound notebook Justin had bought him for his birthday the year before. All of his uncles were now aware of the fact that he never went anywhere without something to draw on and something to draw with and they loved that he was so creative, so they did their best to encourage his art.
She supposed part of her fascination came from the fact that she could relate to his focus, because it was the same sort of concentration that she used on the field, always keeping her eyes on the ball.
The captain calling out her name as she walked up to the right pulled Caroline’s attention from the boy in the stands and she choked slightly on the water she was drinking, shooting Dalia a sheepish smile as she lowered the plastic water bottle to her side.
“Hey, Dalia,” Caroline breathed out, hoping the team captain hadn’t noticed her Brody centric staring. “What’s up?”
“You looked good out there today,” Dalia smiled sweetly, sucking on her own water bottle. “You’ve gotten so much better since school started.”
“Really?” Caroline’s eyes widened in excitement, her voice coming out a little breathless. “Thanks.”
She’d worked her ass off for the team. Each day, after school, she’d come down to the practice fields as early as possible to practice her penalty shots and dribbling. And, of course, she enlisted the help of her Uncle Justin. He had been her biggest champion regarding her soccer skills, always willing to help her train on weekends and cheering loudly from the stands during all of her games.
“Who knows,” Dalia shot her a secretive smile. “Maybe you’ll be starting a game soon.”
Caroline grinned. As of right now, she would sometimes come on as a substitute late in the second half, but starting a game would be the biggest honor ever and pretty much everything she ever wanted.
“That would be amazing!” Caroline gushed.
Dalia laughed and flattened her fist against the top of her water bottle to squeeze it closed, her dark braided ponytail swinging behind her as she glanced up for a moment and her smile widened before she returned her gaze to her teammate. “Hey, are you going to the dance?”
Caroline was flustered by the sudden change of subject, so it took her a moment to response. The dance being referred to was a midterm semiformal which was scheduled to take place in two weeks. She hadn’t really given much thought to whether or not she would go. It would be nice to spend the evening with her friends, but if she was being entirely honest, the thought of dancing in front of all of her classmates terrified her. Jamie was taking Kira, of course, having asked her with the help of a half dozen cupcakes that Caroline had woken up early one Saturday morning to bake and decorate, and Piper and Jessamine had been trying to persuade her to attend, the Copeland girl even promising to sew Caroline a new dress as an incentive.
“I don’t know,” Caroline shrugged, responding truthfully.
“Well, you should,” Dalia nodded purposefully. “And you should ask someone to go with you as a date.”
Seeing as she was still deciding whether or not to go herself, the idea of bringing a date was nowhere near the vicinity of her train of thought. Blinking rapidly, she gaped for a moment before stammering out a response. “Who would I ask?”
Dalia’s smile widened and she nodded to something behind Caroline, causing the Brewer girl to twist her torso and follow the team captain’s gaze to where Brody was sitting in the bleachers, completely immersed in his drawing. “Him.”
“What?” Caroline was completely dumbfounded. Mostly because she hadn’t realized her interest in Brody had been so obvious.
“Oh, come on,” Dalia laughed, nudging Caroline’s arm lightly with her elbow. “He’s cute and you’re into him. What’s the problem?”
“We’re friends,” Caroline blinked, not even bothering to deny the bit about being into him. Apparently subtlety wasn’t her strong suit. “If I asked him, he’d say yes because we’re friends and he’d too nice and polite to reject me.”
The truth was that Caroline wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted out of her relationship with Brody. Sure, she thought he was utterly adorable, but often times, she wondered if perhaps, they were just too different. Because they were the same age, they’d had playdates as children, but those usually consisted of Caroline kicking around a soccer ball and babbling on about anything under the sun while Brody silently colored in his latest activity book. As they grew up, their respective personalities had remained the same and although they stayed close because they were often in the same classes and studied together, their social lives hardly ever collided, with Caroline spending her free time with the team and Brody preferring to be in the art studio.
Still, Caroline couldn’t help but find him captivating. Perhaps it was because he was so soft spoken that every time he did talk, she listened as though it was the most interesting thing she’d ever heard in her life. Much like her brother, Caroline Brewer could hold a conversation with virtually anyone, and often times became the sole contributor to said conversation, but when it came to Brody Peters, she found she would much rather do the listening.
“Ok,” Dalia shrugged. “But you’ll never really know unless you try, will you? Besides, you can use the dance as a gauge to see how he really feels about you.”
“I guess,” Caroline mumbled, glad her back was currently turned to Brody in case he looked up and saw her bright red cheeks. She wondered what Piper and Jessamine would think of her little crush. As far as she knew, they had no clue, but it was entirely possible that they had deduced her feelings on their own.
Smile wide and bright, Dalia leaned and spoke softly so only Caroline could hear. “Be fearless, Caroline.”
Taking a deep breath, Caroline nodded and decided she didn’t really have anything to lose. Gathering her duffel bag from the side line, she took another gulp from her water bottle and headed towards the bleachers. For once, she was grateful that Jamie had been side tracked by the appearance of his girlfriend after his student government meeting and was most likely in the midst of pressing Kira Saxton against the outside wall of the library on mission to get very well acquainted with her lips.
Brody didn’t notice her coming until she was already halfway up the metal steps. He’d been keeping his gaze laser focused on his sketchbook because he knew if he looked at her once, he wouldn’t be able to stop.
It all happened kind of suddenly. He’d come out to the practice fields to sketch the view of the park and, of course, he’d smiled and waved at Caroline when he noticed her on the field. It wasn’t until about three weeks in that he actually decided to watch her play and from that point on, he’d been utterly fascinated.
It wasn’t because she was pretty, though with her big blue eyes and wild curls and the brightest smile in the universe, Caroline Brewer was certainly a sight to behold. No, Brody’s fascination came the fierceness and passion in her eyes when she played. She always looked like she was doing exactly what she was meant to be doing that fire was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
“Hey, Brody,” she greeted him when she came to a stop beside him, causing him to look up in surprise, his hazel eyes wide as he pushed his black rimmed glasses up his nose.
As usual, his cheeks tinted just a bit redder as he stretched his lips into a smile, raising one hand in a small wave before reaching up to push his sandy blonde curls from his face. “Hey, Caroline. Good practice?”
“Pretty good,” she shrugged. Dropping her duffel bag to the ground, she kept her backpack on as she plopped down on the metal bench beside him, hoping he couldn’t her heart pumping loudly in her chest. She didn’t really have a plan, seeing as the entire idea of asking Brody to be her date to the dance had only just become relevant, but she figured her best bet was to just get it out there before she lost her nerve.
She’d asked boys out before, never really seeing it as a big deal, but she knew this situation was entirely different. Because Brody wasn’t just some boy. He was practically family and she’d known him basically her entire life and she knew that no matter how things turned out, he would always be around. Besides, even if it turned out that her feelings were completely unrequited, he was too much of sweetheart to hold it over her head and would make sure their friendship remained completely intact.
“So,” she said quietly, her coral painted nails scratching lightly against the exposed skin of her thigh just below her athletic shorts. “There’s something I wanted to ask you.”
“What’s up?” He was mesmerized by the way her cheeks were flushed as a result of the exercise and although he outwardly seemed calm, cool, and collected, inwardly, he was a little flustered by how close their knees were.
She hadn’t thought much about how she would phrase her question, mostly because she hadn’t had the time, so she parted her lips and decided to just blurt it out, but before she could, she heard her name being called from down on the field.
Holding in a frustrated sigh, she and Brody both looked down to see Jamie standing beside his girlfriend on the sidelines, his hands shoved into the pockets of his uniform pants as he rocked back and forth on his heels, Kira’s generally messy waves looking messier than usual, confirming Caroline’s suspicions about their recent activity.
“Hey, Brody!” Kira called out as Jamie tried to not to smirk at the sight of his sister with the younger Peters twin because he knew Caroline would absolutely murder him otherwise. “Do you need a ride home? Lucy got a ride with Jessa and Ty, so we have space in the car.”
Now that Jamie and Kira were dating, Kira no longer felt the need to borrow her family’s red Ford Fiesta, as she could always count on her boyfriend to offer to give her a ride. So when Lucy didn’t feel like watching Jamie and Kira get mushy in the car, she would ask the Copelands for a ride.
Caroline would totally do the same thing with the Peters twins, but neither of them could drive and she didn’t want to impose on her Uncle Nate, so she was left to sit in the spotless back seat of her brother’s Accord and suppress her upchuck reflex when he leaned over to kiss his girlfriend at every red light. Caroline was happy for Jamie and Kira, mostly because having a girlfriend meant that her brother was perpetually in a good mood, but she could do with a little less of their displays of affection.
“It’s ok,” Brody shook his head, causing his glasses to slide down his nose once more. “My dad’s on his way. I’m just waiting for Piper.”
On the two days a week when the older Peters twin didn’t have a piano lesson, she liked to spend an hour after school in the music room, keeping her skills sharpened because just one day of slacking could be the difference between nailing the piece or not.
“Cool,” Jamie nodded, turning his gaze to his sister. “You good to go, Care?”
“Yeah,” Caroline sighed, feeling like the entire situation had suddenly become a little too crowded. “I’m coming.”
“Wait, what did you want to talk to me about?” Brody asked as she reached down to collect her duffel bag.
“It’s not important,” she shook her head, hitching the strap over her shoulder and standing up. These weren’t the circumstances under which she wanted to ask Brody to the dance. It was bad enough that she could see Dalia glancing up at them every once in a while, but she knew asking Brody such an important question would involve a lot of stammering and blushing on her part and once her brother caught wind of what was going on, she was doomed to be embarrassed because Jamie had no concept of keeping things on the down low. “I’ll see you later.”
“Alright, bye!” Brody smiled sweetly, feeling slightly relieved. He could sense that Caroline wanted to discuss something important and he was grateful that she had decided not to do so with a crowd of people watching.
She shot him a closed lip smile and proceeded down the bleacher steps to meet her brother on the field, deciding that she would have to be fearless some other time.
Box of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies in hand, she shifted her weight from foot to foot as she stood outside the Peters’ door. It had taken her a five-minute pep talk to get the courage to knock and now she was waiting for it to actually swing open.
As she always did to calm her nerves before a big event, she’d woken up early to bake that morning, allowing the scent of the cookies and the fact that she got to lick the spatula clean to help her relax. Her family completely supported this habit because it meant they always got baked goods before her soccer games and because she was often times too nervous to eat them herself, it also meant there was a larger number from which to pick.
Her expression immediately brightened and she stretched her lips into a wide smile as she noticed the door begin to move and although her nerves were amped up at the sight of her Uncle Nathan on the other side, her smile didn’t falter because it was extremely difficult to be anything but happy around Nathan Peters.
“Hi Uncle Nate,” she said a little breathlessly, removing one hand from around the edge of the plastic container holding the cookies to tug at the bottom of her red athletic shorts.
Nathan’s eyebrows raised slightly in surprise because he hadn’t been expecting Jack’s daughter to show up on his front doorstep early on a Saturday morning, but he stepped to the side to gesture for her to enter nonetheless, because his nieces and nephews were always welcome in his home, no matter the hour. “Hey, Care. This is a nice surprise.”
He leaned over to kiss her on the cheek as she walked by, the customary greeting with all his band mates’ kids, and then closed the door before grinning at the sight of the box of cookies. He was aware they probably weren’t for him, but he would never say no to one of Caroline’s sweet treats if she offered. He always figured that if the soccer thing didn’t work out for her, she could make a pretty good living running a bakery of some sort.
“Piper’s not here,” he said, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jeans and rocking back on forth on the balls of his bare feet. Piper’s mother had taken her to a piano lesson that morning and, as had become habit after her Saturday lessons, they were going to get lunch and do some shopping afterwards, which meant the boys were on their own for the day.
Of course, Caroline was completely aware of the situation. Piper was one of her best friends, so of course Caroline knew she wasn’t home, but that was exactly the point. She figured she wouldn’t chicken out of talking to Brody if there were less people around to see it happen. What she hadn’t counted on was seeing her Uncle Nate first, though in retrospect, it was silly for her to assume he wouldn’t be around either.
“I know,” Caroline smiled softly, doing her best to keep her gaze direct and fight off a blush. “I’m actually here to see Brody.”
Nathan had a feeling that was the case. Ever since he’d first noticed Caroline’s tendency to blush profusely in Brody’s presence, he had wondered how long it would be before she would actually act on her feelings. Brody was much too shy and probably much too oblivious to make the make the first move or even be aware that Caroline had any sort of feelings towards him in the first place, but Caroline had never been one to settle. If there was anything she ever wanted in regards to soccer, she worked hard for it, putting in hours of practice until she’d honed and mastered her skills. So it made sense that this approach applied to other aspects of her life as well.
“Of course,” Nathan nodded, “I think he’s in the garage.”
The Peters had converted the garage they never used because they kept their cars parked on the driveway into a studio space for Brody. The younger Peters twin enjoyed all kinds of art and when he got bored with ink sketches in his notebook, he’d direct his energy into a different form, often times spray painting. As a result, the walls of the garage were covered with spray painted murals with a few contributions from Kira Saxton, who had no artistic skill, but just enjoyed graffiti art because it felt like a form of vandalism. Brody loved spraying the walls because he felt as though he had no limits and it allowed him to get all of the emotions out there that he never felt he was brave enough express verbally.
Nathan wasn’t worried about leaving Caroline and Brody alone because he knew neither one of them would do anything inappropriate, but being the parent in the situation meant he felt he had an obligation to say something before he allowed the two fifteen year olds to be closed into the garage together. Parting his lips, he racked his brain for something wise to say, but was unable to do because Caroline spoke softly first.
“You know, don’t you?”
She didn’t need to see the small nod of his head to know his response. Once her father became aware of her little crush, she knew it would only be a matter of time before the rest of her uncles found out. The band as a whole was pretty horrible at keeping things from each other.
“It’s alright, Caroline,” Nathan assured her, reaching out to grab her shoulder and squeeze it supportively. “You don’t have to feel weird about it. It’s perfectly normal.”
“It’s not that,” she shook her head. She had no problem with having feelings for Brody, her troubles came from the fact that everybody in her social circle seemed to know about them. Everyone except Brody, that is. “He’s like, the only person who has no clue.”
What neither of them realized was that just because Brody didn’t comment on his surroundings didn’t mean he wasn’t acutely aware of what was going on. He found it flattering and exciting and emboldening that Caroline liked him more than platonically and he wanted to tell her that he felt the same way, but he didn’t want to embarrass her by saying it publicly, so he was waiting for an opportunity to do so in private, when the chances of either of them being humiliated was much lower.
“Yeah,” Nathan chuckled, deciding not to comment that he thought it was a good possibility that Brody had the potential to return Caroline’s feelings. There were some things that she needed to discover on her own. “Well, I suppose you have the chance to change that.”
“I suppose I do.” She smiled at him softly, grateful that he was being so cool about the situation. Stepping forward, she wrapped her arms around his middle because she wasn’t tall enough to reach his neck comfortably, the plastic Tupperware container pressed gently to his back as she squeezed him tight. It took Nathan a few moments to understand what was happening, but he gladly hugged her back, smiling when she whispered, “Thanks, Uncle Nate,” into his ear.
“Good luck,” he grinned, squeezing her tight once more before letting her go and nodding towards the door down the hall which opened into the garage.
With one last grateful smile, Caroline tapped her nails, now painted her favorite shade of neon pink for good luck, against the plastic container in her hands as she walked towards the inside garage door and knocked firmly on the white wood. Nathan watched her for a moment, standing up straight and breathing deeply as she stared at the closed door, before deciding that he should make himself scare and retreating to the kitchen to find a pre-lunch snack.
Brody’s muffled voice called out about ten seconds after the knock, telling her to hold on a minute and she imagined that he was closing his spray paint cans and taking off the protective mask he wore over his mouth and nose to keep from breathing in the aerosol fumes. After about thirty seconds, the door swung open and Brody’s eyebrows shot up in surprise at the sight of Caroline, thinking that his already pleasant morning had just gotten about ten times better.
“Hey Care,” he grinned, opening the door wider and stepping aside to allow her to enter his workspace, his soft voice echoing through the garage. “This is a nice surprise.”
“Yeah,” she smiled brightly, feeling her adrenaline pumping through her veins as though she was about to take a potentially game winning penalty shot. “Well, I didn’t get to finish talking to you about that thing I wanted to talk to you about at school the other day, so I figured I’d come over and talk to you now and here, I brought some cookies.”
He was grinning like an idiot, partly because he found her rambling adorable and partly because he knew it was a nervous habit and he often felt like he never knew what to say, so it was nice to know that Caroline Brewer, who could probably hold a conversation with a brick wall, sometimes found herself stumbling over her words as well.
She shoved the plastic container towards him and he took it gratefully because he knew he would be a fool to turn down her baked goods and noted that they were chocolate chip, his favorite. Needing a moment to gather her thoughts, she averted her gaze from Brody’s smile to take a look around the room. It had been a few weeks since she’d been in the Peters’ garage, the last time being during an extended family dinner, the place where all the Vertical Limit children gathered to chill together before and after meals while their parents hung out in the kitchen or den.
Since her last visit, he’d added a few murals to the walls, which were an ever changing project and he often sprayed over existing work depending on his changes in moods. His latest addition was an abstract swirl of colors using blues and blacks and reds. She’d be the first to admit that she wasn’t always sure what his art meant or symbolized, but she thought all of his work was beautiful and stirring and perhaps someday he’d tell her his inspiration. If he did, she would find it ironic that the piece she was currently staring at had come to mind as he’d watched her rest on the sidelines at practice, her cheeks flushed and eyes wide with excitement, black curls bouncing in her sweat dampened ponytail.
“So what’s up?” he asked, placing the cookie box on the table he used to sketch out his ideas before painting them on the walls, pushing up his glasses before shoving his hands into the navy blue basketball shorts he was wearing. The gray t-shirt on top and beat up sneakers on his feet completed the outfit he generally wore in the studio.
She supposed didn’t really have a choice but to answer the question and she was glad they were alone because she wasn’t entirely sure she’d have the guts to do it if there were onlookers.
“So you know the dance?” she spoke slowly, gradually allowing her gaze to find his once more, their locked stares causing both their heart rates to increase. “I was kinda wondering if maybe you wanted to go with me?”
Brody’s smile widened and he felt his cheeks heat with a flush as he chuckled to himself, his words coming out brightly and happily. “I was gonna ask you that question at dinner tomorrow night.”
The band and their families made a habit of gathering for dinner one Sunday a month and this month’s dinner was scheduled to be held at the Brewer house the following evening. Brody had every intention of working up enough courage to ask Caroline to the dance by then, but it seemed she had beaten him to the punch.
“Really?” she asked, her eyes wide and her response coming out a tad soft because she was having a little trouble breathing. “You were?”
“Well, yeah,” he shrugged, trying to come off casual, though his cheeks were reddening even further and he kept pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose despite the fact that they weren’t falling down. “It would be cool, you know? If we could spend some more time together.”
There was probably a more poetic way to express his desires, but Brody had never been particularly good with words. Unlike Jamie Brewer, who could sway anyone to his cause by speaking to them for five minutes or even his twin who could move people to tears with her piano playing, Brody didn’t have the gift of knowing exactly what to say or do. His best expression came through his art, and although he wasn’t quite ready to bear that part of his soul to Caroline, he did want her to know that her presence made his world, and just the world in general, so much brighter.
His response was all she could have hoped for from this visit, so she nodded quickly and grinned as she stepped forward, throwing her arms around his middle because he’d inherited his father’s height and she couldn’t reach his neck either. Unlike his father, however, there was no hesitation before he wrapped his arms around her shoulders and swayed her lightly as they hugged.
“Thanks,” she smiled softly, brushing back a stray curl from her face as she took once step backwards, her heart pounding partly because of the physical contact and partly because the entire situation had turned out better than she had imagined it would.
“It’s my pleasure,” he grinned back, answering honestly. He wasn’t sure what inspired his next actions, but he was buzzed from the idea of getting to hang out with Caroline and their future plans, so before he could talk himself out of it, he leaned forward and pressed a soft kiss to her cheek, blushing profusely as he pulled away, hoping it hadn’t scared her off.
“Sorry!” his eyes widened in horror.
“It’s alright,” she giggled, wondering how such a simple touch could make her feel as though she’d been electrocuted. Chewing on her bottom lip, she looked up at him from beneath her eyelashes, suddenly emboldened by his display of affection. “But you missed my lips.”
As she prayed that she hadn’t entirely misread the situation, he blinked rapidly behind his glasses, the realization that she had just given him permission to kiss her properly – something he’d only fantasized about as he watched her practice from the bleachers – washed over him in tidal waves. He decided that if he was dreaming, he might as well make the most of it while it lasted and took one step forward until their noses were touching before leaning in and kissing her softly.
His hands settled lightly at her waist and she flattened her palms against his paint stained t-shirt as she returned the pressure. He smiled against her lips as he realized she tasted of chocolate chip cookie dough from licking the batter while she was baking that morning and as they kissed in his garage with the smell of fresh paint lingering in the air, she couldn’t help but think that perhaps being fearless had paid off after all.