“No one drives my car,” Jared clarified to Zack.
“I agree with the Princess here.” Roman jerked his head at Jared. “This is stupid.”
Zack shrugged. “The crowd’s already seen you two race. They want to be entertained. If you two have any interest in settling this score so people can get paid, then you’ll play it my way. Be on the starting line in five minutes or leave.” He started walking away, but stopped and turned. “Oh, and you can ride shotgun if you like…you know, for moral support.” He couldn’t get the last words out without cracking up. He probably expected the poor girls to wind up in tears before finishing the race.
Zack walked off, and whispers broke around the crowd. Roman stalked away, while Jared walked over to us.
“This is bullshit.” He ran his fingers through his hair.
“Hey, man. I could drive for you,” Madoc chimed in. “We’d just have to tell them about our secret relationship.” He hooked his arms over my and Ben’s shoulders playfully, but I shrugged him off.
Jared ignored him. The wheels in his brain were turning as he paced the ground in front of us. He was probably trying to think of a way out of this, but when he stopped and let out a defeated sigh, I knew he was cornered.
I looked over at Roman, who was leading his girlfriend to his car, apparently giving her instructions on a manual transmission.
Oh, boy. My cheeks sucked in as I tried not to laugh.
“Jared, I can’t race for you,” K.C. laughed out. “There’s got to be someone else.”
He looked up to the sky and shook his head. Even though I didn’t want to see his car get trashed, I found the situation amusing. Serves him right.
“There’s only one other person who I’d even slightly trust driving my car.” He raised an eyebrow and turned to lock eyes with me.
All the air left my body. “Me?”
“Her?” Madoc burst out, and Ben and K.C. echoed.
Jared crossed his arms over his chest and approached me like a cop in an interrogation room. “Yeah, you.”
“Me?” I peered up at him like he was crazy. If he thought I’d do him any favors, he was crazy.
“I’m looking at you, aren’t I?” Jared’s snotty tone and condescending stare made me want to say “yes” and then crash the damn car in the hopes he’d be the one to break into tears.
I blew him off and looked at my date. “Ben, can we get an early start to that bonfire? I’m bored here.” Turning around, ignoring Ben’s dumbfounded look, I headed for the edge of the crowd.
A hand hooked me at the crook of my elbow and gently pulled me to a stop. I looked up to see Jared struggling to meet my eyes.
“Can I talk to you?” His voice was hushed, and his demeanor gentle. It had been so long, I’d forgotten how human he could be. Though, it wasn’t enough for me to forget how horrible he’d been, either.
“No,” I spat out the same, flat response he’d given to me weeks ago when I’d asked him to turn down his music.
He took a breath. “You know how hard this is for me.” He looked away and then back again. “I need you,” he sighed, sounding defeated.
I sucked in a breath at those words. He needed me? By the way he breathed through his nose and wouldn’t make eye contact, I knew he was uncomfortable saying those words. Part of me wanted to help him, but the other part of me just wanted to walk away. Where was he when I’d needed him in the past?
I hated myself for, even a moment, considering that I could forgive him for everything after uttering those three simple words. Too little, too late.
“And tomorrow when you don’t need me? Will I be shit under your boot again?” My response was angrier than I’d planned. I resented how easily I found myself caving to him.
“She’ll do it,” K.C. called out over Jared’s shoulder. I hadn’t realized she was standing near us, but when I looked up I noticed Ben and Madoc crashing our conversation, too. My heart sped up again.
“K.C.!” I chastised. “You don’t speak for me. And I’m not doing it!” I directed the last to Jared.
“You want to,” she retorted.
And she was right.
I wanted to drive his car badly. I wanted to show all of these people what I was made of. I wanted to show Jared that I was worth something.
And it was that thought that made me want to walk away. I didn’t have to prove anything to him. I knew my worth, and I didn’t need his approval.
“Perhaps,” I conceded. “But I do have pride. He’s not getting a damn thing from me.”
“Thank you.” Jared cut off K.C. before she had a chance to respond.
“For what?” I shot back.
“For reminding me of what a disappointing, self-serving bitch you are,” Jared gritted through his teeth as he got in my face. Heat rose to my head as I started to feel like words weren’t enough anymore.
My arms went stiff, my finger curling into fists. I was fantasizing about having Jared handcuffed while I punched the crap out of him.
Before I could respond with a snarky comeback, Madoc snapped, “That’s enough. Both of you.” He stepped between us, switching his glare from Jared to me. “Right now, I don’t give a f**k what the history is between you two, but we need asses in that car. People will lose a hell of a lot of money.”
He rolled up his sleeves as if he was going to personally throw us into the car. “Jared? You’re going to lose a lot of money. And Tate? You think everyone treated you badly before? Two-thirds of the people here tonight bet on Jared. When they hear that his first choice turned him down, the rest of your school year will be hell without Jared or me having to lift a finger. Now, the both of you, get in the goddamn car!”
Everyone stood there, shocked. Madoc never made sense, but he succeeded in making me feel immature and childish. A lot of people were counting on Jared’s win, and as much as I hated admitting Madoc was right, he made a valid point.
“He has to ask to me nicely.” I crossed my arms, keeping my expression impassive.
“What?” Jared blurted out.
“He has to say ‘please,’” I repeated for K.C., Madoc and Ben, not willing to address Jared after he’d just insulted me.
The others stood staring at Jared and me as if they were waiting to see which bomb would go off first. Jared shook his head with a bitter smile on his face and finally took a deep breath before responding.
“Tatum.” His voice was calm, but the underlying bitterness was there. “Would you ride with me, please?”
I eyed him for a moment, appreciating this rare show of humbleness, even if it was forced, before I held out my hand. “Keys?”
Jared dropped them in my hand.
As I bit the corner of my mouth to stifle a smile, I ran up onto the track with Jared following behind. I saw Roman hopping out of his car, having backed it into place behind the starting line for his girlfriend. I jogged up to Jared’s car, and the clusters of people around the track erupted in whispers and whistles at seeing me head for the driver’s side.
Jared climbed into the passenger’s seat, and I slammed my door shut after sinking into the cool leather. The impressive car was almost entirely black on the inside, and I immediately felt chills on my arms. Jared’s car sang of its power with its cave-like feel: cool, dark, and animalistic.
Turning the key, I backed into position as the crowd departed to the sidelines. The vibration through my thighs made my center tingle, and I immediately looked over to Jared, who was watching me.
His elbow propped next to his window, he leaned his head on his hand and peered at me with a mixture of curiosity and amusement. I wondered what he thought of me behind his wheel.
“You’re smiling,” he pointed out, almost as an accusation.
I stroked the steering wheel without meeting his eyes. “Don’t ruin this for me by talking, please.”
Jared cleared his throat and continued anyway. “So, your dad taught us both how to drive sticks, and the Bronco is a manual, so I’m assuming you don’t have any questions about that part, right?”
“None.” My pulse was hammering through my fingertips.
“Good. The turns are tight. Tighter than they look. The idea is to get there first, or fall behind to go after. Don’t try to make a left with Roman’s car, got it?”
I nodded. My eyes stared straight ahead, ready to get going as my foot anxiously tapped.
“At each left, let off the gas before you turn, and then accelerate after you’ve straightened out. If you feel like you need apply the brake on the turn then do it but as minimally as possible. Don’t accelerate until you’ve rounded the turn. You’ll spin out.”
I nodded again.
“Hit the gas in between turns. On the last leg, hit it hard.” His voice was commanding.
“Jared, I got it.” I looked over to him. “I can do this.”
He didn’t look like he believed me, but he stopped anyway. “Buckle up.”
Following his order, I glanced over to my left and saw Roman barking orders at his girlfriend while she nodded nervously. Zack walked between the two cars to take his position up front. Thankfully, it appeared he would send us on our way instead of the slutty jailbait from before.
As I looked out the front windshield, keeping my eye on Zack, I noticed what Jared had hung on his rearview mirror. I reached out and grabbed the oval shaped piece of clay, secured by a light green ribbon. Heat crept up on my neck, and my throat tightened.
It was the Mother’s Day necklace I’d made for my mom after she’d died.
Jared and I had made fossils of our fingerprints one year to give to our moms. Using air dry clay, we made a thumbprint and hung the small oval piece from a ribbon, making a necklace. He gave his to his mom, and I had put mine on my mom’s grave. The next time I’d visited her, the necklace was gone. I figured it was lost or the weather had worn it away.
Turns out it was stolen. I looked to Jared, partly puzzled and partly angry.
“Good luck charm,” he offered, not meeting my eyes. “I took it a couple of days after you left it there. I thought it would be stolen or ruined. Kind of had it with me ever since.”
Letting it go, I looked out the window and tried to even out my breathing. I guess I was glad it still existed. But it was my mom’s, and he had no right to take it.
But he still had it? Even after everything. Why?
I made a mental note to get it back after the race.
“Are.We.Ready?” Zack’s voice startled me as he shouted to the crowd. They screamed through their beer drenched excitement.
Jared tuned the iPod to Bullet for My Valentine’s Waking the Demon. I gripped the steering wheel, using the music to clear my head and zone in.
“Ready?” Zack called out and I revved my engine, seeing Roman’s girl jump to rev her engine immediately after.
“Set?” Jared put one hand on the dash while turning up the music with the other.
“Go!” Zack dropped his arms.
Slamming on the gas, I peeled over the dirt road and took off. As the music filled the moment, my hands pushed against the steering wheel, so that my back dug into the seat. With my arms full of tension, I focused on the road ahead.
Shit! The car had a lot of power.
“The first turn comes up fast,” Jared warned. I didn’t know if the other car was next to me or behind me. All I knew was that it wasn’t in front of me, and I didn’t care about anything else. I would race this car without any opponent.
My thighs, dampened with sweat, grated across the seat as I lifted my leg to push in the clutch. I lightly applied the brakes in preparation for rounding the corner. As I let off the brake and made the first turn, the rear started to slide. I quickly steered to the right as the car slid left, to keep from skidding out. Dust clouded the track, and my heart was pounding. I stepped down on the clutch and shifted back into third gear. As my speed picked up and I shifted immediately into fourth, I caught sight of the other car in my rearview mirror.