While I tried to ignore the vibe of Jared’s presence, I found myself unable to keep from looking for him. I’d seen him chatting with his friends, and the last time I looked, Piper had her face buried in his neck. She looked trashy in her short, tight black dress and heels. Who wore heals to the beach? Not even a real beach, either, but a rocky and muddy lakeshore.
To my delight, he looked about as interested in her as he would a plate of parsnips. I stole enough glances to see him try to throw her off a few times. She finally took the hint and stalked off in a pout.
Jared caught my eyes more than once, but I broke contact immediately every time. The images of the other night mixed with his penetrating, smoky stare created a throbbing need deep inside of me.
I let out a rough sigh. It’s definitely time to get out of here.
Glancing at my watch, I met Ben on his way back from the keg. “Hey, I really need to go now. I have that race tomorrow,” I reminded him.
Ben’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “Oh, come on. It’s only eleven-thirty.”
The whining was a shock, and I was definitely turned off.
“We can stay for a little while longer,” he said.
“Sorry, Ben. That’s why I offered to drive myself instead. I really do have to go.” With my best apologetic smile, I stood my ground. I wasn’t afraid of what he thought, because I knew that this was probably our last date. The spark wasn’t there, and aside from the racing, I would’ve been happier staying at home with a book tonight.
“Let’s just stay for another half an hour.” He tried shoving his beer at me as if getting me drunk was the answer, but he ended up swaying to the side and had to latch onto my arm for support.
“You’re not okay to drive,” I pointed out. “I can drop you at home, and you can pick up your car at my house tomorrow.”
“No, no.” Ben held up his hands. “I’ll cut myself off now and sober up. We’ll be on our way soon.”
“Well, you shouldn’t drive. Not at all.” I averted my eyes, my aggravation building
“I can take care of myself, Tate,” Ben asserted. “If you want to leave now, then you’ll have to find another ride. If you want to leave with me, I’ll be ready in a while.”
What?! How long is “a while?”
This was getting ridiculous, and my patience was spent. He’d said we could leave by 11:30, and I’d taken him at his word.
Ben pulled at my arm to lead me back to the bonfire, but I yanked it free and stalked away. He didn’t say another word, so I assumed he kept going without me.
I needed to get home, and Ben was no longer my ride. Was this the scene I’d been itching to be a part of? Ben and his friends were about as interesting as cornflakes, the girls had no other interests beside shopping and makeup, and the guys here gave me the urge to sanitize my eyeballs after seeing the way they looked at me.
After a quick sweep of the area, I ascertained that K.C. was already gone. I dug my phone out of my purse and dialed her anyway. No answer.
Looking around for the cross-country teammate I’d spotted earlier, I noticed that she, too, was nowhere in sight. The only other option was to call my grandma, who I dreaded waking up at this hour, but she’d at least be happy to know I’d called for a safe ride.
I twisted my lips up in disappointment when my Grandma didn’t answer her phone, either. That wasn’t unusual, since she often forgot to take her phone to bed. And thanks to the convenience of cell phones, we’d disconnected our hard line years ago.
My only options at this point were to wait for Ben and convince him to let me drive or hike it to the parking lot and ask someone I knew for a ride.
Ben could go piss up a tree.
I trekked over the rocks and into the woods for the short traipse to the clearing near the road where everyone parked.
With no flashlight available, I used my cell phone screen as a light to guide my way. It was a straight shot, but the path was littered with sticks and stumps. Trees had already begun losing their leaves, but the rain we’d received this fall kept everything moist and pliable. Droplets splattered my ankles as I stomped on wet foliage, and a few bare branches poked at my skin, stinging me.
“Well, look what I found.”
I jumped, startled out of the quiet that had just surrounded me. Looking up, I cringed at the sight of Nate Deitrich…who was eye-fucking me as usual.
It looked like he was coming from where I was trying to go, and now he blocked my way. “It’s fate, Tate.” His sing-song voice rhymed.
“Get out of my way, Nate.” I approached him slowly, but he didn’t budge. I tried to go around him, but his hands shot out to grab my waist, and he pulled me to him. My muscles tightened, and my hands curled into fists.
“Shh,” Nate implored as I tried to push myself away. His breathing echoed in my ear, and he reeked of alcohol. “Tate, I’ve wanted you for so long. You know that. How about you put me out of my misery, and let me to take you home?” His nose was in my hair, and his hands dropped to my ass. I stiffened.
“Stop it,” I ordered and tried to bring my knee up between his legs. But it seemed he already anticipated that move, because his legs were too close together.
Nate shook with laughter. Kneading my ass, he whispered, “Oh, I know you’re tricks, Tate. Stop fighting it. I could take you on the ground right now if I wanted to.”
His lips crushed down on mine, and the acidic taste of vomit rose in my throat.
I bit down on his bottom lip, hard enough for my bottom teeth to feel my top teeth through the skin. He growled and released me, pawing at his mouth to check for blood.
Grabbing the pepper spray out of my purse that my dad insisted I keep there, I shot for his eyes. He screamed and stumbled backwards as his hands covered his face. I finally brought my knee up between his legs, and watched him crumple to the ground, grabbing the strap of my tank top as he fell.
Run! Just run! I screamed to myself.
But no. I leaned over him as he let out wails of pain. “Why are the guys at our school such dicks?!”
One hand covering his eyes and the other hand clutching his crotch.
“Shit! You f**king bitch!” Nate groaned as he tried to open his eyes.
“Tatum!” Jared’s voice boomed behind me, and my shoulders jerked before spinning around. Eyes furiously jetting between Nate and me, Jared looked as rigid as a lion before the pounce. He let out shallow breathes between his lips, and his hands were tight fists. I saw his eyes dart to my shoulder where the strap of my top lay flopped forward where it had ripped.
“Did he hurt you?” Jared asked evenly, but his lips were tight, and his eyes were murderous.
“He tried.” I covered my shoulder where my skin was exposed. “I’m fine.” My voice was curt. The last thing I wanted tonight was to play the damsel in distress for Jared.
Peeling off his black button up, Jared tossed it to me as he headed my way. “Put this on. Now.”
Catching the shirt as it hit me in the face, part of me wanted to throw it right back at him. Although Jared and I had found common ground during the race, it didn’t mean that I wanted or needed his help.
However, I was exposed, cold, and in no mood to draw attention to myself. Slipping on the shirt, the heat from Jared’s body warmed my arms and chest. The cuffs fell below my hands, and when I brought them up to let the warmth cover my cold cheeks, I could smell his man scent. The hybrid musk and tire smell almost made my lungs burst as I tried to take deeper breaths of the aroma.
“You have a poor, f**king memory, Dietrich. What did I tell you?” Jared bent down to growl in Nate’s face. He grabbed a handful of Nate’s shirt at his chest and hauled him upright before delivering a strong blow to Nate’s stomach.
My eyes damn-near bulged at Jared’s attack. The guttural punch reminded me of molding clay. Nate’s figure bent with the hit, and he wouldn’t be the same for a while. His wheezing, as he tried to catch his breath, sounded like a cross between a smoker and a zombie’s gurgling.
Jared used his left hand to clamp Nate around the neck as he backed him up to a tree. With his right fist he delivered blow after blow to Nate’s face. My knees started to cave as I watched Jared squeeze Nate’s neck until his knuckles were white.
He kept punching until blood dripped from Nate’s eye and nose.
When he didn’t show any signs of stopping, I stepped forward. “Stop. Jared, stop!” I called out, my firm voice carrying over Nate’s grunts and gasps.
Jared ceased his assault but immediately yanked Nate by the crook of his elbow and threw him to the ground. “This isn’t over,” he assured the bloodied, crumpled mess on the ground.
What was he doing?
Turning to face me, Jared’s chest rose and fell heavily with his breathing. The exertion made his body seem weighed down as his shoulders slumped, but his eyes were still vicious. He looked at me with a mixture of weariness and fury.
“I’m taking you home.” He turned to walk for the lot, not even seeing if I’d follow.
Take me home?! Yeah, so he could feel like the big hero?
Letting Jared feel like he’d dug me out of a situation I had control of cut my pride. Screw that.
“No thanks. I have a ride,” I spit out the lie before I let him do me any favors.
“Your ride,” Jared turned to look at me with disgust, “is drunk. Now, unless you’d like to wake up your poor grandmother to come out into the middle of nowhere to get you after your date gets drunk, and you almost get raped—which I’m sure will do wonders for your father trusting you to be alone, by the way—then you’ll get in the goddamn car, Tate.”
And he turned to walk away, knowing I’d follow him.
The click signaling that the car doors had been unlocked sounded, and I climbed into Jared’s warm car, the passenger side this time. My hands were shaking from my encounter with Nate, so I struggled as I tried to take off Jared’s shirt.
“Leave it on.” He didn’t even spare me a glance before turning the ignition.
I hesitated. His anger was visible as the muscles in his jaw clenched. “But I’m not cold anymore.”
“And I can’t look at your ripped shirt right now.”
I shrugged the shirt back over my shoulders, put my belt on, and slammed into the back of the seat as he peeled out of the parking lot.
What the hell was his problem?
Was he mad at me or Nate? Obviously, Jared didn’t want to see me hurt—not physically, anyway. But why was he being so curt with me?
The car fishtailed slightly as it left the gravel lot and pulled onto the paved road of the highway. Jared weighed down on the gas and shifted forcefully as we picked up speed. No music played, and he didn’t speak.
The highway was deserted except for the haunting trees that loomed over us on the sides. Judging by how quickly everything flew past my window, Jared was way over the speed limit.
Peeking at him through the corner of my eye, I saw that he was seething. He licked his lips and took several heavy breaths, while he tightened and retightened his grip on the steering wheel.
“What’s your problem?” I grabbed the bull by the horns and asked.
“My problem?” He raised his eyebrows as if I’d just asked the dumbest question. “You come to the bonfire with that idiot Ben Jamison, who can’t stay sober enough to drive you home, and then you traipse off into the woods, in the dark, and get groped by Dietrich. Maybe you’re the one with the problem.” His voice was low but bitter and spiteful.
He was mad at me? Oh, hell no.
I turned in my seat and looked straight at him. “If you recall, I had the situation under control.” I tried to keep my voice calm. “Whatever favor you think you were doing me only satisfied your own anger. Leave me out of it.”