I froze. “What do you mean?”
She opened her locker door and stopped to smile at me. “Mr. Sweeney came by right after you left the lunch room asking what happened. Jared walked over and said Madoc slipped and fell into a table or a chair…or something.” Jess laughed.
I couldn’t help myself either. It was too ridiculous.
“Slipped and fell into a table? And he believed him? ”
“Well, probably not, but everyone backed him up, so there was little Mr. Sweeney could say about it.” She started shaking her head in disbelief. “And when Madoc finally got back on his feet, he backed up the story, too.”
No, no, no. They did not save my ass!
Caving, I took a seat on the bench in the middle of the aisle and planted my head into my hands.
“What’s wrong? This is good news.” She took a seat next to me and began removing her shoes and socks.
“No, I think I’d rather be in trouble with the Dean than indebted to those jerks.” They wouldn’t have covered for me unless they wanted to administer the punishment themselves.
“Aren’t you applying to Columbia? I don’t think they’re interested in bright, young, scientific minds that have a penchant for assaulting guys. Just saying, anything is probably better than this winding up on your record.”
She rose, finished stripping down, and headed to the shower with her towel. I stayed there a few moments, contemplating her final words. She was right. I had a lot going for me if I could keep my eyes on the ball. My grades were great, I was fluent in French, had a year abroad under my belt and a slew of note-worthy extra-curricular activities. I could survive whatever Jared had up his sleeve.
My first day back at Shelburne Falls High School was more eventful than I would have liked, but I was being noticed in a positive way. I might actually leave my senior year with a few good memories, like homecoming and prom.
Grabbing my towel, I headed for the showers.
The hot water cascaded down my back, giving me the kind of chills you get when you’re cozy and enjoying something completely pleasurable. After the workout Coach gave us, I ended up lounging under the exhilarating pressure of the shower for longer than anyone else. My muscles were exhausted.
After coming out wrapped in my towel, I joined the other girls at the lockers, who were mostly dressed and going to dry their hair.
“Get out. Tatum stays.”
I jerked my head up at the masculine voice and audible gasps. I zoned in on Jared…who was in the girls locker room! I clutched my towel, which was still wrapped around my body, and pulled it tighter as I frantically looked around for Coach.
A chill ran over my body. His eyes were on me as he spoke to everyone else, and it made me disgusted with my sex to see how everyone scurried away, leaving me alone with a boy who had no right to be in here.
“Are you kidding me?” I heaved at him as his advancing steps matched my retreating ones.
“Tatum”—he hadn’t used my nickname Tate since we were kids—“I wanted to make sure I had your attention. Do I have it?” He looked relaxed, his beautiful eyes bore into mine making me feel like there was no one else in the entire world but us.
“Say what you have to say. I’m na**d here, and I’m about to scream. This is going too far, even for you!” I stopped retreating, but my frustration was evident as my voice raised and my breathing quickened. Score one for Jared. He’d surprised me, and now I was completely vulnerable. No lifelines and…no clothes.
I clutched the towel at the top of my br**sts with one hand and hugged myself with the other. All of my important parts were covered, but the towel rode up just under my butt, leaving most of my legs exposed. Jared narrowed his eyes at me before they began to fall downward…and kept going. My mind swirled and my face flushed with heat as he continued checking me out. His intimidation tactics were stellar.
No smirk accompanied his violation. He didn’t eye-fuck me like Madoc did. His roaming gaze was reluctant, as if it was involuntary. His chest heaved slightly, and his breathing got heavier. Tingles covered my body, and another sensation I was a little pissed off about settled between my legs.
After a few moments, his gaze met mine again. The corners of his mouth turned up.
“You sabotaged my party last week. And you assaulted my friend. Twice. Are you actually trying to assert some force in this school, Tatum?”
“I think it’s about time, don’t you?” Surprising myself, I didn’t blink.
“On the contrary,” he said, leaning his shoulder into the lockers and crossing his arms, “I’ve moved on to more interesting pastimes than punking you, believe it or not. It’s been a very peaceful year without your smug, I’m-too-good-for-everyone-else f**king face around these halls.”
His biting tone was old news, but the words cut me, and I clenched my teeth.
I mocked him with fake concern. “What—are you, big, bad Jared—feeling threatened?” What the hell was I doing? I had an out. He was confronting me. I should be trying to talk to him. Why wasn’t I trying to reason with him?
In an instant, he pushed off the lockers and invaded my space. Walking up to me, he placed his hands against the locker doors on both sides of my head with his eyes glaring down at me. I suddenly forgot how to breathe.
“Don’t touch me.” I’d meant to yell, but it came out as a whisper. Even with my eyes to the floor, I could feel the heat of his stare mauling me as he hovered. Every nerve in my body was on alert at his proximity, and every little hair on my skin stood on end.
Jared moved his head from side to side trying to catch my eyes, his lips inches from my face. “If I ever lay my hands on you,” he said low and husky, “you’ll want it.” He brought his lips in even closer. The heat of his breath covered my face. “Do you? Want it, I mean?”
I met his eyes and breathed him in. There was something I was going to say, but I completely forgot it as his scent invaded my brain. I liked it when men wore cologne, but Jared didn’t wear any. Good. Awesome. The jerk just smelled like soap. Yummy, delicious, musky bodywash.
Shit, Tate! Get a grip.
His hooded stare faltered while I maintained eye contact. “I’m bored,” I finally choked out. “Are you going to tell me what you want or what?”
“You know?” He looked at me curiously. “This new attitude you came back with? It surprised me. You used to be a pretty dull target. All you’d do was run away or cry. Now you’ve got some fight in you. I was prepared to leave you alone this year. But now…,” he trailed off.
“What will you do? Trip me in class? Spill O.J. on my shirt? Spread rumors about me, so I don’t get any dates? Or maybe you’ll up your game to cyberbullying.” Though that was no joke, and I immediately regretted giving him the idea. “Do you really think any of it bugs me anymore? You can’t scare me.”
I should shut up. Why wasn’t I shutting up?
He studied me as I tried to control my temper. Why did he always appear so calm, so unaffected? He never yelled or flew off the handle. His temper was in check, whereas my blood boiled to the point that I felt like I could go another round with Madoc.
My eyes were level with his mouth as he leaned in slowly. One of his arms stretched over my head resting on the lockers to bring his face within an inch from mine. A sexy grin played on his lips, and I had a difficult time looking away from his full mouth.
“Do you think you’re strong enough to take me on?” His slow, soothing whisper caressed my face. If it weren’t for his formidable words, his tone might’ve calmed me…or something.
I should move away, but I wanted to appear confident by standing my ground. I could give back as good as I got. At least I thought I could.
“It’s on.” My stare met his as the raspy challenge left my throat.
“Tatum Brandt!” Shocked out of the strange trance Jared created, I looked up to see Coach and half the team at the end of the row staring at us.
“Coach!” I knew there was something for me to say, but words failed. Horror took root in my brain and held it hostage as I tried to search for an explanation. Jared was leaned into me, speaking intimately. It couldn’t have looked good. A few of the girls had their phones out, and I cringed at the sound of pictures being taken. No!
“There are other places for you two to do this.” Coach spoke to me but then looked to Jared. “Mr. Trent? Leave!” She spoke through her teeth, and the girls around her stood giggling behind their hands. No one looked away.
Jared assaulted me with a smug grin before walking out of the locker room, winking at some salivating girls as he left.
Realization dawned, and my eyes widened. He’d planned this!
“Coach—” I started and pulled the towel tighter around me.
“Ladies,” Coach interrupted me, “get on home. We’ll see you Wednesday. Tate? I’ll see you in my office before you leave. Get dressed.”
“Yes, ma’am.” My pulse thumped in my ears. I’d never been in trouble before, not at school. I dressed quickly and tied my wet hair into a bun before hauling ass to Coach’s office. Only a few minutes had passed, but I guessed those pictures were probably up on the Internet already. I wiped the sweat off my forehead and swallowed down the bile rising in my throat.
Jared had sunk low—really low—this time. I came back to town prepared for another year of aggravations and embarrassments, but it chilled my bones when I realized how our exchange must’ve looked. The rumors before had been just that, but now there were witnesses and evidence to our encounter.
Tomorrow, half the school would have some version of what was happening in those pictures. If I was lucky, the story would be that I’d thrown myself at him. If I was unlucky, the rumor would be more sordid.
Jess exited Coach’s office as I made my way in that direction. “Hey.” She stopped me. “I talked to Coach. She knows Jared ambushed you in there… that he wasn’t invited. I’m sorry I abandoned you like that.”
“Thanks.” Relief flooded me. At least my butt was safe from Coach’s wrath.
“No problem. Just please don’t tell anyone I spoke up for you. If people knew I got Jared in trouble, it wouldn’t be good,” Jess explained.
“Are you scared of him?” Jared had a lot of power around school.
“No.” She shook her head. “Jared’s fine. He can be a jerk if he’s provoked, but he’s never concerned me. Honestly, it seems like you’re the only one he wants to beat down—metaphorically speaking, of course.” Jess’s narrowed eyes made me think she was turning over something in her head.
“Yeah, well. Lucky me.”
“Jared’s important around here, so I don’t want people getting on my case about ratting him out.” Her eyebrows lifted as she waited for my understanding.
I nodded, wondering what the hell Jared did to deserve anyone’s loyalty.
The fishbowl got smaller over the next few days.
Some people heard that Jared and I were in the locker room having sex. Others believed that I’d invited him in an effort to seduce him. A few thought that he’d come in to threaten me after the episode with Madoc. Whatever story people latched onto, I was receiving more stares and hearing more whispers behind my back.
“Hey, Tate. Do you just screw in the locker room or do you do blowjobs as well?” Hannah Forrest, queen bee of the mean girls, shouted to my back while I walked to Calculus. Her drones laughed with her.
I spun around to face them and held my hand to my heart. “And steal all of your business?” I took the time to enjoy their dumbstruck looks before I twisted on my heel and headed to class.
As I disappeared around the corner, the echo of expletives from her and her crew brought a smile to my face. I’d been called a bitch before, and it didn’t hurt the way being called a slut did. Being a bitch could be a survival technique. They get respect. There was no honor in people thinking you were a slut.