Running was my aphrodisiac. It wasn't something I pursued on a professional level. It wasn't something I was going to college on a scholarship for. I didn't do it for anyone except me, and that was the way it was staying. When I ran, I wasn't super-freaky-smart Bryony, or Bryony-that-sarcastic-bitch, or Bryony-whose-brother's-name-is-carved-on-championship-baseball-trophy-in-the-school-lobby.
When I was scared, angry, confused, worried or stressed, I ran. When I ran, I could get away from all of that for a little while. Almost as if I were literally leaving my problems in the dust. Then I would stop, and everything would catch back up to me.
It was one of those fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk days in late June, about a month and a half after I had received my letter of acceptance to Princeton University, where I planned to major in Comparative Literature. I had gotten up that morning around seven, with the sun just barely grazing a murky purple and blue sky.
It was about nine-thirty now, and the golden sun blazed prominently against a fluorescently blue sky, the kind of color that hurt your eyes when you looked at it. It made me remember why I reeked of sunscreen: my pale skin could barely take it. My black mesh shorts and black tank top stuck to my sweaty skin, and my strawberry-blonde hair was matted to my forehead and neck.
I debated on whether I wanted to take a shower or just jump into the pool, and the latter won out. I slowed my run to a jog, and then a quick walk as I turned the corner and my house came in to view. I sighed in relief. The white Camry was gone, so my father had gone to work, probably dropping my mother off at one of her clubs on the way.
Delia Bennett was notorious for being an important figure in the quiet and cookie cutter community of Princeton, New Jersey, residing on the neighborhood council and involved in several other community-related projects. It was either her way or the wrong way, and that was that.
I went in through the side door and nearly moaned in relief as the air-conditioned atmosphere attacked my overheated skin. I passed by the mudroom and caught sight of myself in the living room mirror and almost laughed.
My face was redder than a tomato, and the smattering of freckles across my nose seemed darker. I kicked off my Nikes, which had seen better days, and walked into the kitchen, my whole body throbbing. I stopped in front of the sink, where the window showcased the backyard. The above-ground pool splayed out against the lawn, sparkling blue waters beckoning sweaty teenage girls forth.
Hydration of a different sort came first. I opened the fridge and, knowing it wasn't the best choice of drink, twisted open the top of the orange juice carton and took a deep swig. Call me unsanitary, but I learned all my bad habits from my brother. I swear.
"If there's one thing I remembered about your mother, it's that she hated when you and Matt did that," a familiar voice sounded, the accompanying chuckle sending my heart into an erratic frenzy.
I spluttered and staggered back from the fridge as the orange juice reversed its track and decided to come out of my nose. I dropped the carton, my eyes watered, and I bolted over to the sink without turning around, knowing only humiliation waited for me.
When I walked into my house this morning, I wasn't even thinking about him, which was saying something.
When I walked into my house this morning, I wasn't expecting to see him.
The guy-the man-I couldn't get out of my head for the past two years. My brother's best friend.
The douche in tinfoil himself.
Darren fucking McFadden.
June, Two Years Previous
At first I thought it was an earthquake and shot up like a rocket in my bed. But when I heard the low grumbling sound again, I relaxed. It was merely my stomach, complaining about its lack of nutritious food for the past few days.
Recently, it had been sleepovers galore with my best friends Hope and Molly. For the next ten minutes, I battled with my belly on whether I would get up from my cozy cocoon of sheets and venture through the quiet house to make something to eat.
In the end, my stomach won out.
I threw back my light blue sheets, alertness accompanying my hunger pains. The glowing numbers of the digital clock on my white wicker nightstand confirmed that it was indeed late; a little after two in the morning. I threw a robe over my tank top, not even bothering to put anything on over my underwear.
It was just me, and my brother and his best friend were out for a night downtown, just recently having returned from college at the University of Illinois.
I walked over to the Kitchen Aid refrigerator and swung the door open. "Ah," I muttered, narrowing my eyes against the blinding fluorescent light. My eyes roved over the contents: assorted fruits, vegetables, milk, lunch meats, breads, condiments, butter, that sort of stuff. After contemplating a few minutes, I grabbed out the bread and a couple lunch meats and cheeses, working at the granite island countertop in the middle of the kitchen, and went for the mayonnaise.
I piled the innards high on a hunk of bread I had sliced in half, slathered on the mayo and topped it off with the second piece of bread. I opened my mouth wide and took a huge bite.
After putting everything away, I flicked on the light above the stove and took a seat at the low kitchen table, contemplating life. I had had a hopeless, unrequited crush on my brother's best friend for as long as I could remember. Probably the day of my eleventh birthday party in May, when Matt had gathered the brilliant idea to hide my favorite Barbie at the top of the massive oak tree in our front lawn.
Then sixteen-year-old Darren, who I had said all of about five stuttering words to in my life, had swept in, playfully decking Matt in the stomach, who had fallen to the ground in hysterical dramatics, much to the delight of eight other ten and eleven year old girls.
Darren had scaled the tree with ease, as if he had been born climbing them, like Tarzan or something, and had swiped the molested doll down from the unmerciful grip of the braches and whatever surely dangerous squirrels were lurking up there.
Then came the best part: in front of all my friends, my brother (now rolling this way and that, groaning, clutching his abdomen), and my parents, he had pressed a smacking kiss to my plump cheek, eliciting several shrieks and catcalls from the girls.
I still blushed and smiled like mad from the memory. From that moment on, I grew to idolize him, and Molly, Hope and I had taken to referring to him as the knight in shining armor.
He was handsome enough to be one, too, with looks that I had never seen before on a boy. His body seemed to be sculpted by the gods, and it only grew better with age. His mother was Filipino and his father was Irish, resulting in a lovely skin tone the color of a rich tan. His hair was thick, silky and black, the kind that begged fingers to run through it.
His lips were perfect, not too thin and not too plump, curved just right. His eyes were shaped like almonds, with a thick fringe of lashes. And when he smiled, they lit up, the gold and green and brown seeming to glow from within. As I got older, I began imagining scenarios between the two of us that would probably have made my brother turn twenty shades of red and bellow that I was never allowed to see Darren again.
It was pretty impossible not to, though. As the years passed by and I grew into myself, developing the kind of boobs that made my father threaten a turtleneck every time I wanted to go out, I tried to flaunt my newfound features around Darren as much as I could without making Matt too suspicious. To my chagrin, Darren couldn't seem to see past the whole my-best-friend's-kid-sister-deal, and my unrequited crush remained, well, unrequited.
I reached down for another bite of my sandwich, but to my surprise, the plate was empty. I glanced up at the clock, and discovered that forty-five minutes had already passed. I rolled my eyes at myself. I really needed to get over Darren, it was pretty pathetic now.
I was sixteen years old, and Tyler Remington, the cute, smart, funny basketball captain was dying to get a date with me. The only problem was, he wasn't Darren.
The whole thing just made me want to walk over to the nearest wall and bang my head against it. I got up and tossed my paper plate in the trash, and went to make my way back upstairs when the front door opened, and Darren and Matt stumbled through.
I jumped at the sudden noise and pulled my robe more tightly around myself.
"Bryyyyyyony," Matt sang, tripping over our father's work shoes and righting himself against the wall. He shoved his reddish-gold hair from his eyes, which were a deep cerulean color, the same as mine. "Me and Darren had sho mush fun!"
"I can see that," I rolled my eyes, fighting a grin at his disheveled appearance.
Darren came in behind him, and my heart lurched. He was obviously pretty gone, but nowhere near as bad as Matt was. He wore a blue button down that he left unbuttoned, a white shirt showing underneath, and the sleeves were rolled up, showing off his toned forearms. Cargo shorts and boat shoes accompanied his getup, and he looked as if he'd just stepped off the pages of Hollister.
Matt and Darren had both been twenty-one for a few weeks now, and they were taking every possible advantage of it…not that they weren't drinking before the specified age.
"Everythingsh shpinning," Matt slurred, giggling.
"I told you…not to hit the gin, man. Fucks you up, man…fucks you up good," Darren replied with difficulty, as if stringing his words together caused him physical pain.
If I had a camera…
Wordlessly, I grabbed the Advil off of the windowsill above the sink and filled a plastic cup with water, no ice. I handed them both to Matt.
"For the headache you're going to have," I said tersely. "Both of you go to bed."
"Is she telling ush what to do?" Matt asked, swiveling around and teetering dangerously to face Darren. He swiped the medicine and water from my hands.
"She is," Darren agreed. "We'll…have to make her regret that…in the morning."
I raised a brow. "The only thing anyone is going to be regretting in the morning is their massive headaches," I said pointedly.
"Meh," Matt replied airily, waving an arm through the air and almost dousing Darren with the full cup. "I'm hitting the sack. And not jusht becaushe you told me to, Bry," he added, and stumbled off down the hallway to his room at the end of the hall.
Darren was staying in the guest bedroom across from him. My parents' and my bedrooms were located upstairs. To my chagrin, mine was the farthest away from Darren's, not that I'd ever have the guts to make a move.
He sat down in the chair that I had just vacated, and rubbed a hand over his bloodshot eyes. "Come sit with me, Bryony," he gestured, the opposite chair his intent. Except he pointed at the sink.
"You should go to bed, too," I suggested flatly.
Darren raised his eyebrows. "I'm not as fucked as your brother," he replied. "Talk to me. What's going on in your life? I feel like I haven't seen you in ages. Stuart says you're still jerking his little brother around, you little tease," he winked.
I willed the butterflies to stop swirling around madly in my stomach. Stuart was Tyler Remington's older brother, and I'd forgotten that he was friends with Matt and Darren.
"I'm not jerking him around," I rolled my eyes, sitting down in the chair across from him. "I'm just not interested, I guess."
"You're interested in somebody, though," he said slowly, the gold in his eyes glinting in the light as he leaned forward. "I know you, Bry. There's no reason not to go for Remington unless there was someone else."
For a second, I panicked. He knew. He knew. I thought I'd been so careful, but really it was just pathetically obvious, and he was probably making fun of me right now, having his own little laugh, thinking that I didn't get it, thinking about how I was just an immature, stupid, inexperienced-
"You're so pretty."
I choked on my spit.
He didn't seem to notice, and once I had my throat under control, I leveled him with a blank stare. "Don't say stuff you don't mean," I said.
Darren returned my deadpan look. "Who says I didn't mean it?"
My heart thundered. I needed to go to bed before I had myself a heart attack. "Well…thank you for the compliment. I think I'll go back to my room now. Don't fall and hit your head on anything on your way to bed." I braced my hand in the middle of the table to level myself up.
Suddenly, Darren's hand reached out and covered mine, and I stilled. "Bryony," he murmured, and his voice came out all choked and hoarse. He stroked his thumb along my knuckles, eliciting little sparks on my skin that reverberated all the way to my heart.
"Yeah?" I whispered.
He stood up, and I was suddenly aware of how tall he was, and how muscular. Say, if he wanted to shove me against a wall and have his wicked way with me, he probably could, and I wouldn't be able to stop him. An image came to my mind, his sweaty body covering mine as he thrust in and out of me, my nails digging into his back, his lips closed around my nipple…
A tiny, barely audible moan slipped out, and my breath caught in my throat. I looked into Darren's eyes, and gulped. They had darkened, and his chest was rising and falling quickly. His grip on my hand had become tighter, and he had most certainly heard it.
His eyes closed briefly, and he let go of my hand. For a moment, I seriously thought he was going to leave, leaving my body humming in all sorts of places I didn't know could hum. Slowly, he took a step forward, and I took one back. The corner of his mouth kicked up, and he took another step. I backed up. We did this until I felt the cool marble counter of the kitchen island biting into my back, even through the layers of clothes.
I looked up at him again, my breathing almost embarrassingly loud. Darren braced his hands on the counter on either side of me, and leaned forward until our noses were almost touching.
"Nowhere to go now," he murmured, and from the way his breath fanned across my face, I knew he had been imbibing in mojitos.
My legs nearly buckled.
"I think Tyler Remington's a twat," Darren announced, lifting one brow.
My eyes widened. "H-He's nice enough."
Darren shook his head. "If I was Tyler Remington, I would have asked you out by now, and let everyone know you were mine."
"You're not Tyler Remington," I reminded him, my heart rate accelerating at his possessive tone.
"You're right," he agreed, his mouth curving into a full-on smile that sent heat shooting straight to my core. "Tyler Remington wouldn't have the balls to do this."
Instead of kissing me on the mouth, where I thought he was going, Darren's lips, soft, warm, and slightly wet, landed on the side of my neck. I jolted at the foreign contact, unintentionally pressing my lower region tightly against his. Darren hissed. My eyes widened further. He was so hard, and judging from what I could feel, he had nothing to complain about.
He pulled back a little, his eyes unnaturally sharp and clear for his state. "Easy, Bry," he whispered, gently, just barely running his knuckles over my cheek. "Baby, I've got you."
I let out a breathy sigh and tentatively tilted my neck to the side, offering him an easy access. His lips lowered to my skin again and I melted into him easily this time, but kept my hands clenched to the counter. He pressed more firmly on my neck with his lips as he trailed up and down the column. I moaned each time his tongue flicked out here and there, leaving scorching marks.
As his mouth skimmed along my jaw, I grabbed the back of his head in a burst of boldness, twisting my fingers in his inky black hair. I tugged gently until he looked at me.
"Yes?" Darren asked, his eyes dancing in amusement.
"Can you just kiss me now?" I asked impatiently.
He worked his teeth over his bottom lip. Without warning, his hands left the counter and skimmed down to my waist, and he lifted me up as if I were nothing. I sat on the counter, finally level with him, and my legs instinctively wrapped around his waist, pulling him closer to me. I didn't know where this demanding attitude of mine was coming from, but I also didn't know if this was ever going to happen again, and I planned on taking full advantage of the situation.
Darren swallowed hard, and cupped my face in his hands. His gorgeous, soulful eyes roamed over my face as if memorizing every annoying freckle and dimple. "Damn," he growled, and then pressed his mouth to mine.
One of my hands slid over his shoulder and down his back, and my other cupped the back of his neck, raking my nails lightly across the exposed skin there. He shuddered against me, and my eyes nearly rolled back into my head, because having Darren McFadden's body shudder against you was definitely something to write about.
He nibbled at my lips, tasting first the bottom and then the top, and then his tongue emerged once again, tracing insistently at the straight seam of my mouth.
I immediately surrendered, granting him entry without a second thought. His tongue slid in, and I tasted the sharp flavor of mint and lime, but it seemed like something vital was missing, something…
Fuck it, I couldn't think.
One of his hands left my jaw and trailed down to my shoulder, tugging at my robe. His other hand fell to my waist, where he easily undid the sash of the garment. The robe was off in less than two seconds, discarded somewhere behind him, and the granite was a cold slap to my now-bare thighs and half-exposed bottom.
Darren broke away from me, settling his large, warm, calloused hand on my bare skin. "Jesus, you're not wearing any pants," he said, his voice rough with disuse.
"It's hot," I nearly whined, eager to have his mouth on mine again. With my hand still cupped around his neck, I pulled him towards me.
He reached behind him and caught my wrist, pressing a kiss to the sensitive inner flesh. "Relax, you. I'm not going anywhere. At least, not for a while."
I could barely contain my grin, and with that behind said, his hand dropped back down to my knee, skimming along until the tips of his fingers reached the simple cotton edging of my light pink panties. The sight of his hand there, his skin so dark against mine, was enough to make me dizzy.
"Darren," I murmured, bracing my hand on his forearm.
He looked up at me through hooded eyes and grinned lazily. Without warning, his hand trailed up and over my stomach before stopping to gently cup my breast in his palm. My breath caught, and I clenched my teeth so I wouldn't moan.
Darren pressed his mouth to mine and his tongue traced the seam of my lips again. "No bra, either?" he groaned, and his thumb moved over my already hard nipple. I sucked in a breath and arched into him, coming into contact with his erection, which felt even harder and seemingly bigger than it had been before.
I wanted more of him. With an impatient sound, I slipped the button-down shirt off of his shoulders and threw it to join my discarded robe. Before I could, he stepped back to shuck off his shirt. I'd seen his bare chest many times before, but all the other times, I wasn't half naked and he wasn't kissing me senseless.
I ran my hands over his skin when he stepped back into the space between my legs. It was feverishly hot, stretched over hard, corded muscle. The ridges in his stomach rippled as I trailed my fingertips over him, over the strip of dark hair that bisected his abdomen. Liquid heat shot between my legs at the sight and feel of him, and I pressed my thighs together, but it only made the feeling intensify.
"It feels so good when you touch me," Darren growled in my ear, and his low, rough, lust-clotted voice sent shivers down my spine. He gently nipped the lobe between his teeth, and I gasped. "Be quiet, now, or I'll have to spank you."
The space between my legs throbbed at the sexy threat. "I-I'll try," I replied shakily.
It must have amused him, because he chuckled, the sound seductively low next to my ear. And the next thing I knew, he had pulled the straps of my tank top down, leaving my shoulders bare and the top of it rubbing agonizingly over my nipples. I let out a whimper.
Darren's lips trailed over shoulders, which turned out to be surprisingly sensitive. I arched into him again, pressing my breasts up against his chest.
"God, I love the sounds you make," he said as his mouth and tongue moved over my skin, teeth nipping at the tops of my breasts. "If we were anywhere else, I'd have you screaming."
"Y-You think so?" I said with difficulty, burying my fingers in his hair as his head rested momentarily against my chest.
"Babe, I know so," he replied, and pulled the rest of my tank top down so that it bunched, tube-top like, around my midsection. I made a small noise of protest and covered myself, but he caught my wrists and pinned them at my sides. The dominating pose had me panting, and I gritted my teeth. "Remember what I said about being quiet."
He started with my left breast, kissing the underside of the fleshy mound while I struggled not to scream. I'd never felt anything like this before, and I knew if he stopped now I would just die a slow, painful, melting death. His tongue circled around my nipple, driving me mad, because it wasn't exactly what I wanted, I wanted him to suck-
"Yes," I moaned as his hot, wet, mouth finally closed over me. A pleasant buzzing sound filled my brain, blocking out any attempts to think about anything besides Darren and his wonderful, talented mouth.
His mouth moved over my nipple, alternating between suckling and touching the sensitive point with the tip of his tongue. My hand clenched in his hair harder, and his other hand went to my other breast, pinching and twisting the second nipple until it was as hard as the first. My panties were drenched now, and the friction of rubbing my legs together was unbearable.
Seized by sudden inspiration, I trailed my free hand over his bare chest and abdomen before dipping down into the waistband of his cargo shorts to cup him through his boxers. Darren hissed against my skin.
"You're so hard," I breathed, exploring the size and texture of him.
"Seems to be my usual state when I'm around you," he said against my breast, nipping it.
His cock twitched against my palm and I flinched at the unfamiliar sensation, but I was not deterred. After a few more seconds of inexperienced fumbling, I finally found the slit in his underwear and came into contact with a full-on throbbing hard-on. It took me another second to realize Darren had gone completely still. My fingers fluttered over his cock.
"Can I…?" I whispered.
"Please do," he choked out.
I'd read romance novels before, and also from common sense, I had the slightest idea what to do. I closed my hand around him slowly began moving up and down, marveling at his length and width. My fingers couldn't touch.
"Fucking Christ," he ground out, and buried his head in the crook of my neck, kissing it. His hand reached down to close over mine. "A little faster," he whispered, and I complied, our hands moving together over his cock.
The whole thing struck me as so intimate, and my heart opened up to him even more. I wanted what he wanted. I wanted him to feel good, and for me to be the cause of it. I alternated between gently rubbing his tight balls with the pad of my thumb and stroking him hard, fast.
When he started thrusting helplessly against me, his hips moving back and forth, groaning softly, I leant down by his ear and whispered, "Are you going to come for me, Darren?"
And he exploded with a barely-contained cry, hot, sticky fluid coating my palm. I should have been grossed out, but I wasn't, not even close. I blushed.
For several minutes nothing was said. After he caught his breath, I pulled my hand out of his shorts and placed it awkwardly by my side, not touching anything. His eyes remained unnaturally clear and bright, and he clenched his teeth, walking funnily over to the kitchen sink to wet a paper towel.
"Clean your hand," he muttered, not looking at me.
It was then that I began to get a weird feeling, and after cleaning my hand, I quickly pulled my tank top back up to cover my breasts, still wet from his mouth.
He turned to face me then, and all I wanted to do was fall into his arms and have him hold me. What I had experienced-what we both had experienced had been amazing, didn't he realize that? I hopped down from the counter and took a minute to regain my balance, my head still fuzzy and my legs like jelly. "Darren, I-"
"Shit," he said over me. He ran a hand over his face. "Bryony, I-fuck. This was wrong. Damn, that's an understatement. You're sixteen years old. Fuck."
I flinched and my skin heated, and I was sure I was red. When everything was happening, our age difference didn't matter. But now…I could get him into serious trouble, and he was scared I would. I was hurt. How could he think I would do that?
"This can't happen again. Jesus Christ, I'm so sorry," he said, swallowing hard.
It hurt to look at him. Hot humiliation washed over me, and I walked past him and retrieved my robe without looking before turning again and fleeing up the stairs to the safety of my room.
Who the hell had I been kidding?
Because he made out with me, that meant we were suddenly dating?
I flopped onto my bed, in the middle, and curled up into a ball. Gray light filtered in through the open slats in my blinds, and I glanced at the clock. It was almost five o' clock in the morning. I still smelled him as if he were right next to me, and it was then I realized that I hadn't grabbed my robe, but instead his shirt. I brought the garment up to my nose, inhaling the scents of a dive bar but more so him, and to my chagrin, I began to sob.
One thing was for sure. Darren McFadden would never be my knight in shining armor again. He had hurt me more than I myself could comprehend at the time. Because of him, I wouldn't be able to trust in the male sex for a very long time. In a way, though, he ended up making me stronger. Because I could learn how to protect myself so nothing like that could ever happen to me ever again.
A week after Darren McFadden introduced me to his erotic side, I took up running.
~ * ~
Sure, I had seen Darren a couple more times after that little incident, but we'd never said more than three words to each other, and we were always in the company of my parents or brother or other people. He had his own apartment in East Brunswick about a half hour from here. Seeing him now, with my parents out and my brother God-knew-where, in the same place said incident had happened, left me reeling.
After I finished clearing my nasal cavity, I picked up the discarded orange juice carton and tossed it in the trash. My heart was beating in frenzied, irregular patterns and my stomach was in so many knots that it hurt, but on the outside I kept my cool. I wasn't the sixteen-year-old girl he'd left in tears anymore.
"Where's Matt?" I asked shortly, not looking at him.
"I don't even get a hello?" Darren asked mildly, hopping up on the counter as if he were right at home and grinning innocently.
I suppose he was right at home. When he and Matt were in high school, Darren had practically lived here. His mom had left around the time he was twelve, moving to Spain to delve deeper in her art. His father had been an alcoholic from the start, and Darren really hadn't had any parental guidance. He could have become a juvenile delinquent if he had wanted, but he hadn't, and he'd stuck to sports and school and friends, and it made me like him all the more.
I mean, liked. It had made me like him.
Because now I was over him.
He and Matt had just finished college last year, and Matt had pursued physical therapy and Darren was making his way as a clinical nutritionist over at Princeton Primary & Urgent hospital.
"Hi," I muttered.
"I heard that you recently got your acceptance letter to Princeton," he said evenly, ignoring my lame greeting. "Congratulations, but it's not surprising. You're going places."
It shouldn't have, but his praise warmed me from the inside out, and I finally turned to look at him. He sat perched on the counter, his hands braced on either side of him. His posture showed off his tanned, sinewy forearms, and his black t-shirt hugged his defined chest and biceps. A day or two's growth of stubble decorated his square jaw, and his hair was cut the shortest it'd ever been.
But his eyes were the same as ever, beautiful and sparkling and mischievous. They were trained on me now, waiting expectantly.
I snapped out of my drabbles. "Thanks. I appreciate it," I replied. "Matt…?"
Darren cocked his head to the side. "He's grocery out shopping with Sami," he answered, referring to my brother's fiancée, "for your parents' barbeque tomorrow night."
I groaned inwardly. I'd totally forgotten about my parent's barbeque. It was something they did once every year every summer, where they invited the whole town and our house and backyard turned into a zoo. I made a mental note to text Molly and Hope about it as soon as got upstairs, so at least I'd have two sane people in my company.
"Right," I replied. "So how've you been?"
Before he could answer, the sound of someone walking through the front room in some kind of heeled shoes sounded, and a gorgeous brunette entered into the kitchen, immediately gravitating toward Darren's side. My stomach did a back flip, and not the good kind, either.
Her hair was perfectly straight and a deep, beautiful shade of mahogany. It reached her shoulders, and chocolate brown eyes were set in a tanned, classic heart-shaped face. Her skin was perfect, not even a freckle marred it, and her mouth was full and pink. She wore a light yellow sundress and yellow strappy wedges, and she looked like she'd just stepped out of a Macy's spring catalogue. When she caught sight of me, she gave me a warm smile that caught me off guard.
"You must be Bryony," she said, reaching out a hand. "I've heard so much about you from Matt and Darren. My name's Celia; I'm a friend of Sami's."
Darren tensed and looked away from me. "This is my girlfriend."
"Nice to meet you," I replied stiffly, shaking her hand. I needed to get out of there ay-sap. "Um, I should shower," I improvised quickly. "I just came back from a run. See you guys later."
With that, I flew up the staircase and resisted the urge to purposefully stomp up the stairs. As soon as I entered my room, I closed the door and locked it. I had never been more annoyed in my life, and I didn't know whether it was because of Brunette Barbie or that I cared at all.
Damn Sami and her stupid friends.
I had always gotten along really well with Sami; right from the moment that Matt had brought her home for Christmas his sophomore year of college. They had broken up right after their senior year for all of two months, and that was when Matt and Darren had gotten into their heavy drinking phase. When they got back together, Matt cooled off, and had proposed to her a year and a half later.
I walked over to my phone and sent two rapid-fire texts to my friends, begging them to come tomorrow night. I added that Darren was here. That should have been enough ammo to make them come now. Like me, Molly and Hope had never quite gotten over his astonishing looks, even though Hope had been dating her current boyfriend for over a year and Molly went through boys like water.
Yes, I thought he was cute. No, that didn't mean still liked him.
But a panicked image went through my mind, one of me in a pew of a church next to my mother and father, watching as Darren, looking delicious in a three-piece suit, leaned over to kiss Celia's Angelina Jolie-lips-
I let out a high-pitched shriek and kicked the wall nearest to me. Then I doubled over and swore, clutching my sock-clad food. Still muttering obscenities under my breath, I grabbed a towel and headed to the bathroom. A hot shower and twenty minutes of stewing in my problems awaited me.
~ * ~
The next afternoon, I sat wrapped in a towel in a chair in front of my mirror, my hair damp and loose down my back. I carefully applied a coat of mascara. I could hear several voices downstairs; Matt and Sami were with my mom, having picked her up from one of her clubs. My dad was getting of work early and would be here shortly. My stomach flipped a little at Darren's voice greeting my mother warmly, and then turned sour at his introduction of Celia.
"Hey, Mrs. B, it's so good to see you. You haven't aged a day. By the way, this is my girlfriend Celia. We met through Sami."
I slammed the tube of makeup down on my dresser, taking a few deep, calming breaths. I didn't care. It was no big deal. I would meet a ton of guys at Princeton, and bring them home all the time, especially whenever Darren came over for dinner and-
Suddenly, I heard two new voices, yelling greetings at my mother and brother before thundering up the stairs. I smiled to myself. That would be Molly and Hope. Mere seconds later, the slammed open the door and closed it behind them, and immediately flopped onto my bed.
"She's ugly," Hope immediately spat.
"She looks like a man," Molly added.
I knew that they were talking about Celia, and I smiled a little in spite of myself. "She looks like she just stepped off a runway," I said flatly.
Molly tucked her layered honey-colored hair behind her ear, exposing her ersatz innocent brown eyes. She looked like the kind of girl who'd never been kissed in her life, but Chris Campbell, her latest flavor of the week, could tell you a totally different story. "Well, okay, yeah she does-"
Hope elbowed her, her olive-green eyes wide.
"-Ow," Molly shot her a venomous look, "but as I was saying, maybe she totally and completely gorgeous, but you kissed Darren before she even knew he existed. That's got to count for something."
Hope nodded, flipping her dark brown, almost black hair away from her eyes. She looked like a hotter, more modern version of Snow White. "Yeah. You and Darren have history, and you know him better than that whore could ever hope to," she pointed out.
I lifted a shoulder glumly. "Guys, don't worry about it. Darren and I are a thing of the past. I'm pretty sure it was a one-time deal, you know?"
They exchanged glances, and Hope turned to me. "If you say so. So, are you gonna let us make you totally amazingly pretty for tonight?"
"You're going to blow Suzy Sunshine out of the water," Molly agreed, rolling off the bed and making her way over to my closet, where she slid the mirror door open and began rifling through the contents.
Hope joined her, and I rolled my eyes and returned back to my mirror. I wasn't trying to go for anything dramatic or show stopping, so I finished my mascara and skipped the eyeliner. My eyes were big enough without it, but my lashes were so light that mascara was completely necessary. I quickly applied my foundation in even strokes, and gave my eyelids a light dusting of silver eye shadow.
"You know the Remingtons are going to be here, too," I said at them in the mirror.
Molly stopped what she was doing, her eyes wide. Towards the end of junior year, she'd come clean about her huge crush on Tyler, much to my surprise.
"You should make a move," I said pointedly at her.
"No way," she scoffed. "It's obvious he's still got some feelings left over for you."
The truth was, me and Tyler had made out twice after the Darren incident. There had been nothing between us, no spark whatsoever. And then there had been Adam Ackerman and Gavin Cook, but I couldn't find anything with either of them even remotely close to what I had experienced in Darren's arms. Call me a pessimist, but I just gave up after that.
"So maybe you should make him forget all about Bry," Hope grinned.
Molly ignored us. "This," she called over her shoulder, and I swiveled around in my chair.
I nearly groaned. I'd totally forgotten I'd had that shoved into a deep crevice in my closet. It was a deep cerulean jumpsuit, something my fashion-crazy aunt had sent me last spring.
"It goes perfectly with your eyes, and you'd look totally hot," Hope argued before I could even open my mouth. "And if you're that worried about discretion, we can pair it with that adorable white quarter sleeved cardigan I got you from Hollister for your birthday. Although, I don't know why you'd want to hide what your mother gave you," she added, looking down with distaste at her own barely-there chest.
"Come on," Molly whined, and for a moment I thought she would stomp her foot.
"Okay, fine," I murmured, knowing it was no good to argue.
I shooed them out while I changed, and ignored Molly's crack about my "adorable modesty". When I had finished, I assessed myself in my full-length mirror. The shorts came down to the middle of my thighs, and the billowy connecting top had a sweetheart neckline that just barely contained my boobs. It was different, it was bold, and I'd always been too scared to wear it. I glared at my chest. In all honesty, I would trade them for a smaller chest in a heartbeat. Trust me; they weren't all they were cracked up to be.
I slipped the white cardigan over the jumpsuit, and to my surprise, it had a better effect than I had even hoped for. It was flirty without being too slutty, cute without being too juvenile. I pulled on my white strappy gladiator sandals. "I'm done!" I called out.
"Hair," Hope said as she walked in.
Molly forced me back down into the chair. "Alright, so I'm thinking we'll put it up," she said. "We want something that will keep the attention on your outfit, and not all of this overbearing ginger hair."
"It's strawberry-blonde," I snapped defensively.
"More strawberry than blonde," Hope muttered, and I gave her the finger in the mirror. She stuck her tongue out at me.
Twenty more minutes later, Molly had pulled my obnoxiously wavy hair back into a sleek ponytail, the end of it just grazing the small of my back.
"You guys are kind of amazing," I said, impressed with my reflection.
"We know," they replied in unison.
I glanced at the time and nearly blanched. The guests would be here in a half-hour, maybe less. It was a wonder my mother hadn't been screaming for the three of us. I took a breath. I wasn't looking pretty for Darren, I was doing this for myself.
I repeated the mantra in my head all the way down the stairs, even as Molly and Hope chattered excitedly behind me. Maybe if I kept repeating it, it would become true.
~ * ~
Tables were set up everywhere in the backyard with summer-patterned tablecloths and ornately carved fruit centerpieces. The fences, garage, and porch were strung out with multicolored lights that would look prettier once the sun began to set. The lawn had been manicured, and the emerald grass was soft under numerous toddlers' bare feet.
Older kids splashed around in the pool, and boys tried to untie the girls' tops. Ah, pre-pubescent males, I thought, and smiled to myself as I sipped my non-alcoholic Piña Colada and reclined in my chair in the middle of my friends.
My mother sat in one corner of the yard, surrounded by all of her gossip-y friends, and my father was located in the opposite with all of his business contacts, discussing the latest golf tournament. Several other small groups were holding court, and other adults milled around after their kids, making sure they didn't destroy anything. The thick, smoky smell of barbequed ribs, potato and macaroni salads, and various condiments rent the air. Eighties music warbled from the speakers on the garage.
Sami and Celia were sitting on a bench a few feet away from Darren and Matt, giggling, their heads bent together conspiratorially.
"He just gets hotter every time we see him," Hope marveled, watching with interest as Darren bent over to pick up a football that Matt had thrown too far for him. Tyler and Stuart Remington were with them.
"Stop checking out his ass, you have a boyfriend!" Molly said, leaning over me to chastise her.
"I can look!" she replied defensively.
"Who wouldn't?" I sighed.
"Why don't you stop bitching at me and go talk to Tyler?" Hope said.
Molly immediately shut her mouth.
I rolled my eyes and stood up. "Hi, Tyler!" I shouted loudly over the roaring din, waving my arms wildly.
The guys ceased their game of catch and looked over at the three of us. Darren scowled as Tyler's face split into an expressive grin. He tossed his light brown hair out of his brownish eyes and waved back.
"What are you doing?" Molly hissed. "I hate you. Sit down."
But I ignored her, smiling at Tyler and beckoning him over with my hand as Hope tried unsuccessfully to stifle her giggle. Darren's scowl deepened further as Tyler tossed the ball to him and jogged over to us. Inside, I smiled. Good.
"Hey, Bry," he said warmly as he walked up the steps and stood in front of us, towering from his impressive height. He was lither rather than muscular, with long, lanky limbs. But instead of appearing awkward, he carried himself with a grace that was slightly odd for a teenage guy, but attractive nonetheless. He nodded at Hope and smiled at Molly, his eyes lingering longer on her than me and Hope combined. She grinned back at him stupidly. "How has your guys' summer been?"
The four of us chatted for a few minutes before me and Hope made up a lame excuse about filling up our drinks. "But Bry, yours is full?" Molly looked confused.
Hope's eyes widened and her hand lashed out, abruptly knocking my cup out of my hand. The smoothie oozed out of the fallen cup by Tyler's feet. He looked down at the mess, perplexed.
"Not anymore," I said brightly, and pulled Hope with me into the house, into the kitchen.
We stayed there for a few minutes, savoring the coolly air-conditioned atmosphere as we re-made our drinks. And then Darren walked in with a perspiring glass of water, beads of sweat dotting his forehead. He smiled when he caught sight of us, and I almost fainted. He wore tan cargo shorts and a deep green shirt that brought out his eyes.
"Bryony," he nodded. "You look really beau-nice," he said, his eyes skimming over my outfit before lingering…hungrily?...on mine. Before I could analyze his little stumble, he turned towards my friend. "Hope, right?"
She giggled like a kid on laughing gas. "Yeah," she beamed. "That's my name! That is most definitely, one hundred percent my name. All mine."
I looked up at the ceiling.
"Right," he said slowly.
Hope coughed. "Um, bathroom," she said, and sped out of the kitchen.
I scowled after her before turning to Darren. "So I never got to congratulate you on your new girlfriend," I said coolly, leaning against the counter, knowing that it put my cleavage on ample display. "You guys make a really nice couple."
"Yeah, she's pretty much perfect," he muttered to himself more than me. He set his glass down on the counter. "Finally decide to give Remington a chance after all this time?"
I wrinkled my nose. "Not at all. I'm trying to set him up with Molly."
For some reason, he seemed to relax. "Oh. Right. Yeah. I'm sure they'll get on fine," he said lamely. He walked around the kitchen island until he was a few feet away from me, and I tensed, quickly shrinking out of my obvious pose and taking a defensive step back. He came to a halt and sighed. "Why does it have to be like this between us, Bryony?"
"I never wanted it to be," I replied through clenched teeth.
He swallowed. "I really want-"
Before he could finish his sentence, someone stepped into the house through the back door, letting in the sounds of the party. Celia called his name in a sing-song voice, and I let out a breath.
"Bye, Darren," I said, and pushed past him. That little contact set my nerves afire, and to my chagrin, hot tears sprung to my eyes. I forced a smile at Celia as I passed her, and returned outside, where Tyler had taken my empty seat, and he and Molly were talking and staring into each other's eyes.
Of course I was happy for her, but something about the scene made me want to puke.
~ * ~
Later that night, when most of the guests including Molly and Hope had gone home, I stumbled into the house, weary with exhaustion. The good news was that Molly and Tyler had a date for next Saturday, and Matt and Sami had finally set a date for their wedding. The bad news was that my chest was definitely sunburned and I hadn't seen Darren since our awkward run-in in the kitchen.
I hadn't seen Celia either, and that meant that they were probably together, doing all sorts of things that I could only dream about doing with Darren now.
On that depressing thought, I headed down the dark hallway, intent upon going up to my bedroom and crashing for the rest of the night. But when I passed the guest bedroom and heard hissing, angry voices, I paused and listened. Don't look at me like that; I got it from my mother! I immediately recognized Darren's voice, though I couldn't make out his words until I pressed my ear shamelessly against the door.
"…don't know what you're talking about. Are you nuts?"
And then Celia's voice, hysterically shrill and clotted with tears. "Don't play that game with me, Darren, just don't. I see the way you look at her, when you think no one's looking. And when Stuart's brother went over by her, you looked like you wanted to ring his goddamn neck!"
"No! Don't sit here and tell me that nothing's going on. I could tell right from the moment I met her, something happened between the two of you. I don't know when, I don't know how, and I don't want to. What I want to know is whether or not you're over her."
My skin heated, and I had no doubt about who they were talking about. Guiltily, I backed away from the door. I was too overcome with a sick feeling to experience any joy or triumph. All in all, the only thing Celia had ever done to me was date Darren, and I couldn't exactly blame her for that. This whole situation was fucked up bad.
I made my way to my room and fell on my bed, but now I was too wired to sleep. I listened to the sounds of the night through my open window, the crickets and the wind whispering through the trees. I heard my parents say goodbye to the lasts of the guests, and Matt and Sami cooing obnoxiously at each other from downstairs. Slowly, I drifted into a light sleep.
~ * ~
Hours later, I woke to the sound of light footfalls on the roof. It was either Matt or Darren, or both. They always used to go up there during their sleepovers, and talk about getting drunk and girls and school and sports, and my ten-going-on-eleven year old self would yell at them to be quiet so I could get some sleep.
I stretched out and groaned, eventually deciding to go and investigate. I was still in the outfit from the party and my hair was an absolutely mess, and I unwound the band from my hair so that it fell down wildly to my back. The staircase to the attic was down, and the window inside the attic was open.
I slipped out of the frame and hoisted myself up, walking in bare feet along the flat shingles of the house. It was only Darren, and his back was to me. The sky was a deep blue-black, with a lighter cornflower color off in the way distance. I saw his body tense as I sat down next to him, our legs dangling off the side of the house.
"Hey," I said softly, and looked out over the neighborhood.
"Be careful," he said shortly.
I rolled my eyes. "No, I intended on jumping off. I'm just relaxing beforehand."
To my surprise, he let out a low chuckle, but then sobered up. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair, and the gesture made me realize how exhausted he looked.
"Have you slept?" I asked.
"Nah. Celia left."
I swallowed. "I'm sorry, Darren." And I really was. But… "Are you?"
He seemed taken aback by the question, and he looked at me with raised eyebrows. "I…honestly? I think I knew that it was never going to work out. She's the suburban house with a white picket fence and nine kids kind of girl," he said.
I shuddered. "Those are the worst." We shared a real laugh now, and I could barely keep myself from smiling like a loon. "Darren?"
He looked down at me. "Yes, Bry?"
"I…um, I've never seen your apartment before. I get the whole bachelor pad thing, but we've been," I coughed, "friends for long enough now that I think I at least deserve a tour."
His mouth tightened into a straight line, and I thought for a minute he was going to say no, and I would have gotten up without another word and have walked back to my bedroom in defeat. But after a few more seconds of heavy silence, he nodded slowly. "Yeah, maybe sometime next week? I mean, I just need a little time to think about…stuff, but then you can swing by."
I sighed in relief. "Alright, perfect. Um. Okay. I'm going back to bed. Don't stay up too much longer," I added sternly.
He chuckled. "Yes, Bryony."
On a moment's impulse, I leaned over and pressed my lips to his cheek. "Sweet dreams, Darren."
"You, too," he replied hoarsely, his eyes a fraction wider than they had been a moment ago.
I went back to bed feeling more relaxed than I had in ages.
~ * ~
Next week on a Friday, I found myself traveling along the highway toward East Brunswick, my palms slick with sweat. It made gripping the steering wheel difficult, which only added to my anxiety.
I hadn't wanted to make it too obvious, so I'd only worn a comfy pair of black cotton shorts, black flip flops, and my purple school softball t-shirt. I'd put on a little foundation and had forced my hair, still slightly damp from my shower, into a thick braid that hung over my shoulder and reached my waist. Just before I'd left the house, I'd rubbed my favorite Victoria's Secret lotion on every visible part of my body.
Twenty minutes later I had parked in the garage and entered the door to the building, which the doorman opened with an exaggerated flourish. I gave him a nod and smiled. I clutched the small piece of paper in my hand, the one that had been opened the folded so many times during the past six days that the writing on it was barely discernible.
4B. Darren's apartment number.
I wiped my sweaty palms on my back pockets once again, slipped he piece of paper back into my wallet and knocked on the door twice, my keys jangling in my other hand as it shook nervously.
The door swept open, and my jaw almost hit the floor. There was Darren, dressed only in a pair of black basketball shorts. I swallowed with difficulty as he smiled at me and motioned for me to enter with his hand. "Welcome to my humble abode, Miss Bennett," he drawled.
I smirked at him as I stepped over the threshold. "I didn't expect it to be so…clean," I remarked as I took in the space
It was modest, but the dark hardwood floors were polished to a gleam. The kitchen, with a tiny refrigerator and several appliances, sparkled and smelled of citrus. It was connected to the entertainment room, where a thick shaggy blue rug covered most of the floor. A black leather couch rested opposite from the large flatscreen TV, and a bookcase with various health books was pushed up against the wall.
No pictures adorned the walls, which were painted a neutral yellow, and there were two other doors opposite each other. One was the bathroom. The other…
My stomach roiled.
…would be his bedroom.
"Nothing special," he commented dryly, coming up behind me. I jumped a little. "You can just toss your stuff on the counter." Heat was emanating from his body, his bare skin, but I tried to ignore it.
I complied, placing my wallet, phone, and keys on the Formica countertop nearest to me. "I don't know. I'm digging the seventies rug," I said, inclining my head towards said object.
He grinned back at me. "It was the only thing I liked back at my dad's house. He let me take it," he shrugged. He walked over to one of the doors and motioned for me to follow along. Just as I suspected, one of them did happen to be his bedroom.
Abruptly, I inhaled deeply, recognizing the scent. It was exactly Darren: spicy cinnamon with hints of natural musk and mint. It never failed to make my head woozy. I inhaled deeply again, and he looked at my strangely.
"Are you all right?" he asked, arching a brow.
I coughed. "Yeah," I waved my hand dismissively. "Of course. My nose just itched."
I looked away from him quickly so I wouldn't blush and give myself away. The dark hardwood floors reached all the way into his bedroom. To the left, a tiny, cramped bathroom rested. An oak wardrobe dresser with a mirror stood against the left wall, and a wide desk covered in about a dozen books open to various places, writing utensils and balled-up pieces of paper clattered it. His bed took up most of the room, queen-sized. From what I could see, the sheets were beige, and they looked almost satiny. The duvet was darker beige, suede material.
The walls were a stormy blue, which was actually more soothing than it sounded. A lamp without a shade stood atop a nightstand, with a book by a Dr. David Dinkha lay closed with a page marker. Black framed reading glasses rested next to it.
"This is where all the action happens," he whispered, and I turned to look at him. He'd sat down in the swivel chair, turning from side to side and waggling his eyebrows suggestively. He smirked when he caught my look. "Kidding, just kidding!"
"Of course," I frowned. "I like it," I added. "It's definitely you."
He cleared his throat. "You're the first girl that's been here. I mean, besides your mom, when your parents and Matt were helping me move in. But that doesn't really count."
Warm color suffused my cheeks, and he definitely didn't miss it. I raised my eyebrows. "You've seriously never ever brought a girl here?"
Darren placed a hand over his heart. "I swear."
I kicked off my flip flops and hopped up on his bed as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and tucked my legs into my body until I was sitting Indian-style. "Well, I'm honored," I replied, mock formally. I stopped smiling when I saw the funny expression on his face. "Darren?"
"Bry, I have something to confess."
My stomach dropped a little. "What?" I asked softly.
"Do you remember that night?"
Even though he didn't clarify, I knew exactly which night he was referring to, and I laughed inside. Did I remember? Ha! Yes, Darren, of course I remember. That Night changed my life forever. You ruined any chance of me being with another guy, because what happened between us That Night was perfect, it was all perfect, until you pushed me away.
Since then, I've gone over That Night more than a million times in my head, and I've thought of what I could have done differently, anything that could have made you stay. After That Night, a little piece of my heart chipped off every time I saw you. It took me up until last Saturday to realize that I was never going to get over you, because I love you, I love you so much and that's never going to change.
But I didn't say any of that. All I choked out was, "Sure."
He swallowed hard and leaned forward, placing his elbows on his knees. He clasped his hands in front of him. "I really wasn't drunk that night. I was designated driver for all of my and Matt's friends. I knew exactly what I was doing when I kissed you. A year before that, I knew I was falling for you. I told myself that it was crazy, that you were so young and innocent and Matt would kill me if he had even the slightest inkling of what went through my head every time you walked into the same room as me. But I couldn't help it. Jesus, I still can't." His voice was raw with emotion, and the look in his eyes was desolate.
My body filled with an airy feeling, and I felt all of my problems slipping away, one by one. I knew exactly what I was asking for when I held my hand out to him. "Come here," I whispered.
He sat up quickly and leaned back in the chair. "Bryony, you don't know what you're saying."
I gave him a little smile. "The thing is, Darren, I've never been so sure of anything in my life."
He stood up slowly and walked over, and came to stand in front of me. I looked down and noticed that his hands were shaking, bad. I took them in mine and pulled him onto the bed with me, until we were both sitting Indian-style on it, facing each other.
Darren reached out and trailed a finger down my cheek, and I closed my eyes and took in a breath at the sensation. He kept going until he went down my neck, my shoulder, and then out towards my arm, where he descended until he was level with the end of my braid. Gently, he slipped the band out of my hair, and I watched him slowly unravel the stands.
"I've always loved your hair," he said, and his voice was thick and husky with desire.
I wrinkled my nose. "You're kidding. It's horrible."
He shook his head firmly. "Not at all," he murmured, concentrating on his task.
When it was all unwound, he trailed his fingers through it, and my eyelids drooped. And then he backed away before repositioning himself on all fours, a predatory gleam in his eyes. Before I could even let out an indignant shriek, he knocked me against the mattress so I was lying flat on my back. Darren braced himself, his forearms on either side of my head and his knees on either side of mine.
"I need you so bad," he groaned, and lightly kissed my mouth.
I gave him an answering moan and shifted restlessly under him. "The feeling's mutual. Hurry up."
Darren laughed lowly. "Not a chance. I've waited two years for this. Now that I finally have you, I'm taking my time."
His words melted my heart a little bit.
He kissed my forehead, and then my cheeks and eyes and nose, and my body tingled with joy. I slid my arms over his shoulders and around his neck, loving the feeling of his hot, bare skin. At last, he leaned into me and pressed his mouth against mine again, and our lips moved sensually across each other's. He moved to my top lip, kissing it gently, and then my bottom one, sucking it and pulling it into his mouth a little. I let out a little moan, but when his tongue emerged to slide against my bottom lip, I didn't open my mouth.
He did it a second time, more insistently, and I retorted by digging my heels into his buttocks and rocking so that our cores ground into each other. I smiled against his mouth when I felt his erection twitch and swell.
"You little tease," Darren groaned, lifting his head. "Are you trying to kill me?"
"Not at all," I replied innocently. And while I had him off guard, I easily rolled us over so that I was on top of him. I sat low on his stomach and felt his cock poking my behind. It was quite an i