Home > Be the Girl(5)

Be the Girl(5)
Author: K.A. Tucker

“Howie did the cooking,” Mom admits sheepishly through a sip of red wine. “But usually we ordered in.”

Uncle Merv grunts his disapproval. “Connie always said you worked too hard. I guess that’s a lawyer’s life, though. Too bad. She would have liked having you visit once in a while.”

Mom flinches but recovers quickly. “That’s not our life. Not anymore. Right, Aria?” She reaches out to squeeze my hand.

Uncle Merv’s droopy eyes flitter to the clock on the wall. “It’s past my bedtime.” He groans as he pulls himself out of the chair and hobbles over to the kitchen cupboard. He pulls out a bottle of pills.

The rattling sound sends a ripple of tension through my spine.

“Where did you get those?” Mom’s panicked eyes flash to me.

“Huh? Oh, I asked Heather to pick them up for me. For all these aches and pains I didn’t feel at night when someone wasn’t hiding away my whiskey,” he says, his tone thick with accusation.

There’s a long pause and then Mom asks in a strained voice, “Aria, are you finished dinner?”

“Uh … sure.” I shovel the last two mouthfuls of potatoes in and begin collecting dirty dishes.

Her hand presses against mine, staying it. “I’ll clean up. Why don’t you finish unpacking those boxes in your room?” she says with a forced smile.

I duck out and ever so slowly climb the stairs, my ears perked.

“Merv! That’s aspirin!” my mom whispers. “You can’t be pulling that out in front of Aria like that!”

I can’t hear whatever she whispers next, but I don’t need to. I know the gist of the conversation.

There’s a long moment of silence. “I wasn’t thinking,” Uncle Merv says in a low, grating voice. I doubt he could whisper if his life depended on it. “I’ll hide it away.”

With a resigned sigh, I climb the rest of the way and disappear into my bedroom.

My eyes are closed and rhythmic music pulsates through my earbuds when a knock sounds on my bedroom door.

“Come in!” I hit pause on my playlist.

The door eases open.

“Hey, your mom asked me to—bring these in.”

I bolt upright in bed as a towering guy with wavy chestnut brown hair strolls in, his arms loaded with two cardboard boxes, his lips pressed together firmly as if trying not to laugh.

Cassie trails him, her mouth splitting wide with a grin when she sees me. “Your face is green!” she declares with a bark of laughter.

And burning red beneath this mud mask.

“Why is your face green?”

“It’s just … nothing,” I mumble.

“Is it a face mask?” she presses.

“Yes.”

“Where do you want these?” the guy asks, having the decency to avert his gaze.

“Over there?” I croak, pointing to the shelves by the window, desperate to tunnel beneath my sheets. As if the mask isn’t bad enough, my hair is piled messily on top of my head and I’m wearing an old cotton T-shirt with my former high school’s logo and boxer shorts that, while comfortable beyond compare, are far from cute.

“This is my brother, Emmett. He just got home from the United States,” Cassie introduces proudly as he leans over to set the boxes on the floor, giving me a great view of his muscular arms and the shape of his broad back, straining beneath the weight. “This is Aria with a green face. She likes dogs, just like me, and she hates tomatoes, just like me.” The introduction comes out in one long string of words, using her slightly offbeat inflections.

Emmett eases to his feet. “Hello, Aria with a green face who likes dogs and hates tomatoes.” His smile is wide and broad, and shows off his perfect white teeth and two deep-set dimples in his cheeks. His eyes are a rich, dark brown and they complement his olive-toned skin. His nose is angular and in perfect proportion. His jawline is square and solid, any hint of boyishness gone.

Much like my ragged ensemble, this guy is far from cute.

He’s gorgeous.

I swallow my embarrassment. “Yeah. Hey.”

“Look what Emmett brought me!” Cassie holds up a stuffed animal in a burgundy jersey with a yellow “M” across the front. “His name is Goldy Gopher. He’s a hockey mascot. I love mascots. Do you like mascots?”

“I don’t know? Maybe?” What I do know is that I really don’t want to carry on a conversation about mascots with my hot neighbor and his sister while I look like this.

“So, we’ll … uh …” Emmett casts his thumb toward the door.

“Yeah. Good. I mean …” I shake my head, cringing at myself.

“You have stars!” Cassie’s wide eyes lock on the stickers above my bed.

“Yeah.” More humiliation to add to tonight’s collection. Mom “stumbled upon them” in the wallpaper section at Home Depot. Truthfully, I think she went looking for them. She’s like that when she gets something in her head. I plastered on a fake smile instead of telling her I’m too old for glow-in-the-dark stars.

“I like your room. It looks different.” Cassie’s eyes drift, scanning the space as if memorizing it.

“See you around, Aria.” Emmett ruffles Cassie’s hair on his way past, and then hooks an arm around her shoulders and steers her toward the door. She stiffens. “Come on. Let’s give green-faced Aria some privacy,” he mock-whispers, earning her burst of childlike laughter.

He pulls my door shut, but not before turning back to offer one last devastatingly handsome look, his brown eyes twinkling with amusement.

And in that moment, beneath a cluster of tacky glow-in-the-dark stars, my face green with clay and red with embarrassment, I fall hopelessly in love with the boy next door.

As soon as the door clicks, I flop back into my bed with a groan.

My mom pokes her head into my bedroom at nine on Monday night to find me curled up on the window seat. She smiles. “I knew you’d like that spot.”

I tuck my bookmark into my page. “Did you get hold of the electrician?” My new ceiling fan is sitting in a box in the corner.

“Not yet. It’s a long weekend. But I did speak to the plumber and he’s coming tomorrow afternoon. I’m hoping he can hook up the new washer right away, for the sake of my sanity, and so Uncle Merv can see that laundry machines shouldn’t move halfway across the room when they’re running.” She bites her lip. “You ready for tomorrow?”

I nod toward the new jeans and red top I laid out over my desk chair, as if that’s adequate armor for the first day at a new high school.

“Oh, that is a nice outfit.” My mom smiles as if picturing me in it. “Cassie will come by around eight to get you. And, listen, I told Heather you’d be willing to walk Cassie home after school. Emmett apparently has hockey every day.” She shakes her head, as if the idea of that is unimaginable. “It’s less than fifteen minutes. You’re good with that, right?”

“Sure. I guess.” It’s not like I have anything else to do.

She hesitates. “I was also thinking, Dr. Covey passed along a name of a therapist, not too far from here. About a half hour, I think. I could call and—”

“No, Mom. I’m good. Seriously.”

“But you should keep talking to—”

“No! That means a new doctor and going through it all again. Dr. C. helped me. She was good. I’m good. It’s been more than a year. I want to move on.”

Mom’s brow furrows deeply, as if she wants to push but isn’t sure if she should.

A chorus of shouts sound from outside. “What’s going on out there?” She wanders over to peer out my window.

“Emmett and his dad are playing road hockey.” I assume it’s his dad, anyway. The man is about the same height and he has a similar stride as Emmett, and he’s thrown his arm around Emmett’s shoulders twice since they hauled an enormous hockey net from the garage and set it up under the street lights in the quiet cul-du-sac an hour ago.

“It sounds like he’s the next big thing. Heather said he was scouted by that college a year ago. They only offer scholarships that early if the kid is going to be a star.” Mom watches as Emmett deftly maneuvers around his dad and shoots the puck. It sails into the top left corner. “They’re a nice family, aren’t they?”

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