I felt Jace’s hand on my arm as we left the coffee shop. Wren was half a foot in front of us and she turned around just as Jace dropped something into my hand. It was a thin strip of paper. His messy handwriting was scribbled across the front of it.
“What is this?” I asked quietly.
“It’s A.J’s number. The idiot posted his real number online, so it’s his own fault.” Jace whispered into my ear.
He made a motion with his eyes in Wren’s direction. “Don’t tell her I gave you it.”
My mouth formed a small ‘o’. I didn’t know what to say.
Jace continued for me, “Talk to him. Maybe you can get him to drop this whole thing.”
I rubbed the paper in between my fingertips. I tried to ignore the tension that was building my chest.
Wren called out. “What are you two talking about?”
“Talk to Alex…I mean, A.J,” I whispered back. “Jace, I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
“Guys!” Wren moaned. “We’re going to be late!”
I began to hand the piece of paper back to Jace. The last thing I wanted to do was to have another talk with A.J. They weren’t exactly talks, more interrogations.
Jace closed my hand with the paper still inside it. He gave me a serious look and implored, “Think about it, Nora. And while you’re at it, stop treating him like he’s a bomb about to explode in your hands. He’s your childhood friend.”
“He’s changed, Jace,” I argued back.
Too much. I added silently to myself.
“People don’t ever change, Nora,” Jace countered quickly. “Not truly.”
As an anxious Wren began to walk towards us, Jace hugged me goodbye. Over the top of my hair, he whispered, “See you in class, okay?”
“Okay,” I muttered back, feeling suffocated as his tall form locked me in a teddy-bear embrace.
With that, Jace ran towards Wren. I heard him give some excuse as to where I’d be for the next five minutes. Wren protested at first, saying she’d wait with me. But Jace eventually persuaded her to walk to school with him. He promised Wren that they’d wait for me by the school entrance.
As they left, my hands absently rummaged for my phone in my bag.
I dialled the number, then deleted it. Then I dialled it again. My fingers hovered over the keys as I debated deleting the number again or pressing call.
I kicked up a stone on the sidewalk and cursed myself for being so indecisive.
Press the button, Nora. I demanded of myself.
He answered on the first dial.
It was definitely him. I recognised the voice immediately. It was a deep sound; he had a slow drawl, and he elongated every vowel he spoke.
In a blind panic, I hung up the phone.
It took a full three seconds for me to fully process what I had done. I stared at my hand in horror, almost as if it was on fire.
Why on God’s earth had I hung up on him?
And why had I even phoned him in the first place?
I took my hair out of its bun and ran a hand through the messy strands. It was a habit of mine that neither Seth, nor Wren could get me to stop. It was something I did when I was stressed.
I jumped as the phone in my hand buzzed.
Did you call this number?
And then another one.
Do I know you?
My fingers froze over the keys. Then I rang back.
“Who is this?” A.J asked.
The words fell out of my mouth. “If I tell you, will you stop this?”
I was ashamed that my voice was shaking. I tried to casually lean on the door to the coffee shop, hoping that it might make me seem more at ease. It didn’t. I wanted to hang up so badly.
A.J’s laugh was low.
“Yeah, it’s me,” I replied. I started to tug at my hair more and more.
“I wasn’t kidding, you know,” A.J said, “I told you I’d come after you.”
I mean the guy worked out where I lived at the age of seven and then chased me around for most of the summer. In my heart, I knew that when Alex Carter wanted something he normally got it.
“Yeah, I gathered that,” I replied in a dry tone.
I was starting to become more relaxed. It surprised me. I was shy around most people. It took me almost six months to fully open up to Seth. But with A.J, it was simple.
“So are you going to tell me your name yet?” A.J asked jokingly, but I detected a nervousness in his voice. It puzzled me that he wanted to know so badly. What was the big deal?
I scoffed and replied, “Not likely.”
“Shame. I guess there are other ways of finding out,” A.J muttered.
I heard a muffled sound in the background and for the first time I process the fact that he wasn’t alone. He was surrounded by people. From what I could gather he was at school – a carparking lot, perhaps. I heard a few car horns in the background.
“Can you not? My circumstances are,” I paused, trying to work out the best way to phrase this. The last thing I wanted was to accidentally disclose the name of my boyfriend. I sighed and said, “complicated.”
Apparently, this didn’t faze A.J one bit.
“Boyfriend drama?” he asked lightly. “Can’t he handle a bit of competition?”
This guy lived for competition. I’d watched him play. But I’d also watched Seth play too…
“I’d hardly call you competition,” I said, trying to ignore the uneasy feeling that was settling in my stomach. Why did I think that A.J and Seth could compete over girls just as much as they competed over football?
A.J drew in his breath, and for a moment I thought that he might have been hurt by my comment. After a brief pause, he teased. “Oh really? Then what would you call me?”
“Obnoxious,” I replied.
“Don’t you mean handsome, well endowed…?”
I cut him off with the word, “Misogynistic.”
That one did strike a nerve. A.J laughed, then turned serious. “Now that one is just plain unfair. The gender pay gap is a serious affront to modern day society.”
I blinked once, then twice. Alright, fair play, Alex. I tried to remember the titles of the books I’d found on his shelves. There were a lot of them; the guy was obviously well read. But seriously, I never pegged the guy who spent most of his year hazing juniors, getting wasted at parties, and generally establishing himself as playboy, to quote feminism.
“Okay, Sarah Laurence,” I sighed. This was too damn confusing, and quite frankly, it was far too early in the morning for this. “What do you want from me?”
“Your name,” A.J replied without hesitation. “I would say your phone number as well, but I already have that. So, just a name will do.”
I launched myself off the door to the coffee shop. Damn. Now I wished I’d gotten Jace’s phone. This was such a dumb idea.
“Your mother would be so proud. What a wonderful young adult you’ve turned out to be,” I drawled.
I was trying to control my breathing. The guy had my phone number. Jesus, how many calls a day was I going to get? My breath hitched. What if Seth recognised the number?
I was going to need to change phones. Maybe even schools. Maybe even counties.
Hey, why settle for counties? May I should just move states. Or better yet, move to Canada.
“Ha! Princess, for all you know, I could have been a nice little church kid,” A. J mocked.
Alex’s mom wasn’t religious, but he did play Jacob once in a school play. For some reason, I always got cast as the donkey.
“Not likely,” I replied, the memories were flooding back and I was trying to keep them at arm’s length. It was too painful to remember the person Alex was before he became A.J.
“How would you know?” A.J replied quietly. For a moment, a brief moment, he seemed suspicious. “And why are you quizzing me on my past anyway?”
Crap on a stick!
I stuttered a response, anything would do. “I just…do you always get what you want?”
“Most of the time,” A.J replied proudly.
“Well, always,” he then corrected.
Why did that not surprise me?
“Nice,” I replied sarcastically. I began kicking up rocks on the sidewalk. I was trying to ignore the strange feeling in my stomach, the one I got right before I was about to take an exam.
“Your name, princess,” A.J asked quietly. It was a voice that told me he was done playing games, that he was done with the banter, and with my attempts to change the subject.
There was something about A.J Lawson that was so simple. He had a focus, a determination. When he wanted an answer, he got it. When he wanted something to be done, it became his life; he became completely committed to achieving it.
It was terrifying really. It felt traitorous for me to admit it, but I could understand why Seth felt so intimidated by him.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I sighed.
A.J replied in a calm voice, “Try me.”
My heartbeat slowed. Something about his voice was putting me at ease.
“What do you plan on doing if I tell you?” I asked, trying to make light of the situation.
“Oh, you know, the usual…” A.J laughed.
“Way to make a girl feel special,” I drawled back.
Apparently this cut A.J’s laughter off. He breathed in deeply and said, “Oh trust me, princess, you’re special alright.”
Nobody had ever called me special before. I mean, I was pretty ordinary. Luke was the one our family always praised; he was talented, smart, and kind. I was Nora Pierce. No one had really paid much attention to me until I started dated Seth. Hell, I didn’t have friends at school until two years ago.
I tried to convince myself that none of what A.J had said mattered. I bet you he said this to most girls. I mean, I’d heard enough stories of heartbreak where A.J Lawson was concerned.
“Seriously though, the Facebook campaign?” I said in a muffled voice. A group of girls from my school passed me by and they waved. “You know those things are supposed to be for saving whales and vaccinating babies in Africa?”
“So?” A.J didn’t seem the least bit bothered.
“Well, don’t you think it’s a little…childish?”
“That hurt my pride, princess.” A.J replied sternly.
I laughed. It was fun to get a rise out of A.J. He was always so serious, so sure of himself. “You have too much of it anyway.”
I could almost feel A.J shrugging into the phone. “Fair.”
It had gone quiet where Alex was. I checked the time on my phone. It was almost time for registration.
I blurted out, “Which reminds me, what have you got against Seth?”
The thought had been troubling me for as long as I had known Seth. I’d begged and begged him to just let the whole rivalry thing go. But Seth had never told me how it all started.
“So you know the asshole?” A. J’s voice lowered, he was silent for a while and I felt him trying to control his breathing. Jesus, did they really did hate one another that much?
Just when I thought he was about to answer me, Alex deflected the conversation. “You wouldn’t happen to go to Crescent, would you?”
“Stop changing the subject,” I snapped.
“Princess…” A. J’s voice went quiet.
“Fine, whatever,” I muttered, I began rummaging in my bag for my timetable. I hadn’t memorised the thing yet, and knowing me, I was likely to still be getting lost in the second week of school.
“You weren’t going to tell me anyway,” I continued, and then, before I could stop myself, I spat out, “You’re just like he said.”
It took me a while to realise that I’d said those words out loud, and to A.J.
I could feel A.J’s anger through the phone. He was like Seth when he got angry. His voice got deeper and his words got slower; each one as heavy as a boulder. “Oh really? And what’s that?”
“A self-centred, arrogant fool,” I replied tightly.
I should have resisted, but I was angry too. I was angry at the fact that Alex Carter had chosen to become this person. This idiot who baited people for fun, played games with girls, and acted like an obnoxious idiot.
I knew the reason Alex Carter had left our hometown. I knew. But at the same time, this didn’t excuse the person he’d grown up to become.
Instead of laughing it off, as he normally did, A.J’s voice turned serious. “People aren’t always what they seem, princess.”
For a moment, his words sounded genuine.
“Then why do I have a feeling you’ve changed a lot since growing up?”
I couldn’t help it, but I was desperate for answers. I wanted to know what happened in the years when I hadn’t been a part of his life. Alex Carter had grown up without me. He’d left without saying goodbye. And for seven long years, I’d been trying to find him again, just to make sure he was okay.
“And you really think that Seth, the Golden Boy, is that much better than me?” A.J scoffed. “Sweetheart, I have to live with the guy, and trust me, he’s no angel.”
He’s no angel.
My fist clenched and unclenched.
It was only now that I remembered: A.J was there that night. Alex was the one who told Seth that he had to tell me what he’d done.
Alex Carter was the one who caught Seth in the act.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I was defensive. Seth may have made a mistake, but he was still my boyfriend. And I loved him. Really, I did.
A.J deadpanned. “I think I’m allowed to call my own step-brother a dick if I want to.”
Both of us were getting more and more annoyed with one another.
My voice raised an octave as a spat out, “Well maybe you should take a look in the mirror every now and then. You might be surprised at what you find.”
“Oh trust me, princess. I know exactly what I see in the mirror,” A. J said tightly.
I threw my hands up in the air. Having a conversation with him was like trying to communicate with someone under water. It was impossible and infuriating. “Who am I kidding? of course you do. How many hours a day do you spend in front of it again? Please remind me.”
“Your name, princess.”
I laughed bitterly, and then said something I had never said to anyone before. “Maybe you should earn it.”
Oh, God, that was so cringe. How was he not laughing right now?
“And how exactly do you propose I do that?” Alex asked.
Was he serious? He really wanted to know?
I sighed and started to tug at my hair again. I was already late for first period and Wren was going to demand I tell her why.
“Start by being a better person,” I replied. I thrust my timetable back into my bag and began the walk to school.
Somehow, A.J sensed that I was in a hurry. In a menacing voice, he replied, “If you hang up right now…”
“I have school, A.J,” I said tightly. What did he expect me to do? Ditch just so I could talk to him? Trust me, Finding Alex Carter was important, but he wasn’t that important.
“About that,” A.J said lightly, “which school is it, exactly?”
I rolled my eyes. It was the same questions over and over. He was like an ocean wave running over a rock again and again and again.
“Don’t even try. Can’t you just drop it?”
“Not a chance, princess.”
I tried to stop myself from tearing my hair out.
“You don’t even know me.” I protested.
“But I feel like I do,” A.J countered.
I feel like I do.
That was strange. I didn’t exactly feel like I was Eleanor Pierce anymore. The girl had been fiery, crazy, and not to mention a tomboy.
Now that I came to think about it, Eleanor Pierce had grown up a long time ago. So why was I criticizing Alex for doing the same?
We were both different people now. Maybe I needed to let this go.
“Ha! What a line,” I replied.
“I’ll make you a bet,” Alex continued.
I shouldn’t have even replied, but A.J was asking me to challenge him, just like he had all those years ago.
And I wanted to be challenged.
“What kind of a bet?” I asked curiously.
“If I work out who you are by the end of the week, I get one date. Only one…”
I made a sound at the back of my throat. “A.J, I already said…”
A.J spoke quickly, “I know, I know. But circumstances can change. It doesn’t even have to be a date.”
Don’t reply, Nora. Don’t reply.
“And if you don’t?” I closed my eyes and prayed that the line would somehow go dead.
What had I just agreed to?
“I drop this whole thing.”
“Deal.” I said it without hesitation.
I could avoid A.J for an entire week. How hard could it be? And then this whole thing would just be put to rest.
“Deal,” A. J laughed, and said, “You’re going to lose, you know.”
I laughed again. For the first time in years, I actually believed that I was capable of beating someone. “Not likely. I always win against…”
Against you, Alex.
I stopped myself mid-sentence. The words had almost slipped out of my mouth without thinking.
“Against what?” A. J’s voice was quiet. He was pressing me for answers, “Against?”
I racked my brain for an answer until I finally settled with, “Against guys like you.”
The seriousness in A. J’s voice disappeared, and he laughed. “Sure, princess. Keep telling yourself that. Oh, and by the way, have fun at school today.”
I froze as Crescent school came into view.
“What have you done?”
It wasn’t too late to turn around and go home, was it? But then I’d have to explain this all to my parents. My mom might too eccentric for her own good, but the one thing she didn’t like was skipping school.
“Oh nothing,” A.J sighed dramatically, “just a few tokens of my affection.”
“I’m going to kill you.”
“In order to do that, princess, you have to come face to face with me.”
“And then, maybe even lips to lips…”
“I’m hanging up.”
It was like talking to a brick wall. The guy just kept hammering and hammering home the same points.
“I’ll be seeing you soon, princess,” A.J said. The level of determination in his voice scared me. I’d never met somebody who was so self-assured.
“In your dreams, asshole,” I countered, but the line had already gone dead.