Better than Perfect


  “Can’t you pretend a little harder?” she asks, then leans in to say, “Cassandra Fordham and her mother have been staring at you since you came downstairs.”

  I unbutton the top two buttons again, then undo a third one for good measure. “Who’s Cassandra Fordham?”

  “Only the most beautiful girl in Texas. She wins beauty pageants, has incredible skin tone, and plays the piano.”

  Skin tone? Beauty pageants? Those attributes don’t hold a candle to a girl who knows how to get down and dirty on the field and in a tent. “Does she play football?”

  “Football?” My grandmother laughs. “Girls don’t play football, Derek. They watch it. And yes, I’m sure Cassandra Fordham is a fan of the game. She’s a Texan, born and raised. Football is in our blood. She’s right there.” She does her best not to make it obvious that she’s pointing to the girl in an off-the-shoulder yellow dress. The yellow rose of Texas.

  My grandmother slips a hand through my elbow and leads me toward Cassandra Fordham. I’m aware that most eyes are on me. Obviously Cassandra has been pegged the most desirable girl in the room. Since I’m the guest of honor, I have the feeling it’s customary that I get first dibs.

  “Mrs. Fordham, Cassandra, I’d like you to meet my grandson, Derek Fitzpatrick,” my grandmother says in an assertive voice.

  Cassandra is model pretty. She’s got a small, perky nose and blue eyes that practically light up when she smiles. She does a small curtsy-type move. “How are you enjoyin’ Texas so far, Derek?”

  “You want the truth?”

  My grandmother subtly elbows me and busts out a fake laugh. “Derek has been entertainin’ me all week. Y’all should see him play tennis. We’ve been playin’ every afternoon after lunch. He’s a natural.”

  I haven’t stepped foot on the tennis court since I’ve been here.

  “I play, too,” Cassandra says in a sweet feminine voice. “Maybe we should play sometime.”

  My grandmother nudges me again. “Of course he will. Right, Derek?”

  “Right.”

  After some more small talk, my grandmother asks Mrs. Fordham her opinion on her new artwork in the living room and leaves me standing beside Cassandra. I feel like I’ve stepped into a time warp. Everyone talks and eats while soft music from a four-string quartet plays in the background. It isn’t long before Cassandra grabs my elbow and starts introducing me to the other girls and guys at the party.

  I get a break when she excuses herself to go to the restroom. I walk in the dining room and grab a bite. As I find a seat at the table, a bunch of girls surround me. I’m not gonna lie—the girls are hot. Texas has some of the prettiest girls I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’ve lived a bunch of places. I briefly wonder how they stay so thin when the food here is rich and fattening. Then I look down and notice that their plates are full of food, but they don’t actually put any of it in their mouths. It’s a scam, if you ask me.

  Ashtyn would pile her plate high and enjoy the food without worrying what the guys here would think. Every day I’ve called her, but she hasn’t answered. This morning I left her a text message telling her to call me. She hasn’t.

  After eating and wandering around talking to a couple of guys about football, their main topic of conversation, Cassandra appears at my side. She spurts impressive football stats like water, but it’s as if she’s been groomed to know about the sport without actually liking it.

  I duck out and sit on one of the cabana chairs, hoping to be left alone. Reading that letter from my mom changes everything. When I read her words, it was like she was talking to me from the grave. She called me her football star. Man, that slashed open a wound that’d been stitched closed for a while now.

  My privacy doesn’t last long, because female hands cover my eyes and Cassandra’s high voice whispers in my ear, “Guess who?”

  Chapter 44

  Ashtyn

  As I walk up to the front entrance of the Worthington mansion with a mission to confront Derek, it suddenly dawns on me that I should have changed. I just threw on a pair of long shorts and my practice jersey, which has grass and mud stains on it from today’s practice.

  I ring the doorbell. A tall man with a grim expression answers the door. “May I help you, miss?”

  I peek inside. The mass of people standing around in dresses and suits emphasizes the fact that I’m underdressed. If I cared, I’d call the cab back and leave. But I don’t care. I’m on a mission, and nobody’s going to stop me. “I need to see Derek Fitzpatrick.”

  “And who may I ask is calling?”

  “Ashtyn.” When that doesn’t seem to satisfy him I say, “Ashtyn Parker.”

  An older woman with striking blond hair and diamonds around her neck comes to the door and stands beside the guy. She’s wearing a light blue tailored dress with a matching jacket. When I look into her sapphire eyes, I get a jolt of recognition. Those are Derek’s eyes . . . this is Derek’s dying grandmother.

  Except she doesn’t look like she’s dying.

  She looks healthier than most people I know. She eyes my football jersey and purses her lips like she just ate a sour lemon. “Who are you?” she asks in a haughty tone.

  “Ashtyn Parker.” I should have brought my name tag from Elite.

  She tilts her head and focuses on my bare legs. “Miss Parker, my dear. Are you aware that you’re wearing boys’ clothes?”

  Umm. How do I explain to a woman so impeccably dressed that I came here straight from football practice? “I play football. I had practice all day, and didn’t have time to change before I came here. Derek and I drove here together from Illinois.” When she doesn’t look impressed, I add, “His dad is married to my sister.” That might earn me some credibility.

  It doesn’t.

  “My grandson is indisposed at the moment, Miss Parker,” she says. “If it’s not urgent, you can come back another time.”

  She’s trying to intimidate me. It’s working, but I still stand my ground. I have to find out why Derek lied to me.

  “I’m sorry,” I tell her. “I don’t mean any disrespect, but I need to see him now and I’m not about to leave. It is urgent.”

  Derek’s grandma finally opens the door and gestures for me to enter the house. “Follow me,” she says, then orders the guy who opened the door to find her grandson and escort him to the library. She leads me through the crowd of teenage partygoers. This place is huge, like a museum. Some of the girls are staring at me and whispering to their friends.

  I stop dead in my tracks when I catch sight of Derek and some girl through one of the huge windows leading to the massive backyard. She’s got her arms wrapped around him, and my heart feels like it’s being dragged over a cheese grater. It hasn’t even been a week since we were in the tent, about to make love. Knowing that he could quickly hook up with another girl less than a week later makes me nauseous.

  I squeeze my eyes shut and hope the girl is just a stupid figment of my imagination. I wish her to disappear. I should know better than for any of my wishes to come true, because they’ve never come true in the past. I open my eyes and, sure enough, she’s still there.

  “Miss Parker, dear, don’t stare. It’s bad manners,” Derek’s grandmother chides, then takes my elbow and leads me to a room with two couches, bookshelves filled with books, and a huge marble fireplace.

  “I didn’t mean to interrupt your party,” I tell her, trying to tell myself that it doesn’t matter that Derek is with another girl. I have no hold on him. I’m here to confront him, not make him fall in love with me. The fact that I fell hard for him is something totally out of my control and that just sucks for me. I look at his grandmother and hope she can’t see right through me. “It must be hard for you to host so many people in your condition.”

  “Condition?”

  I squirm. “You know, being so sick and all that.”

  “I’m not sick, dear.”

  “You’re not?”

  “No.” The woman sits on
a small couch in the middle of the room with her feet crossed at the ankles. She places her hands neatly in her lap. “Sit down, Miss Parker.”

  I awkwardly take a seat across from her. Do I cross my legs at the ankles? I’m in unfamiliar territory. The woman has an air of authority and superiority about her. She’s eyeing me with keen eyes, as if she’s judging my every move. I cross my gym shoes at the ankles but imagine I look like an idiot.

  “Tell me about the relationship you have with my grandson.”

  “My relationship?” I almost choke on the word.

  “Yes.”

  “I’m, um, not sure what you mean.”

  She leans forward. “I assume, Miss Parker, that since you came here on an ‘urgent’ matter you and Derek are familiar with each other.”

  “I wouldn’t really say that. Most of the time Derek tries to annoy me and I ignore him. That’s of course when we’re not arguing, which we do quite often. He’s a player and manipulator and he has a big ego. He’s got this annoying habit of running his hand through his hair when he’s frustrated. And he practically stole my dog. Did you know he’s obsessed with smoothies? He won’t eat a Skittle or anything with a preservative in it to save his life. It’s not normal—he’s not normal.”

  “Hmm. Interesting.”

  I’m so wound up, I’m not finished with my tirade. “And he lied to me. Did you know he used to play football?”

  Derek’s grandmother nods. “I am aware of that, yes.”

  “Aware of what?” Derek says as he walks in the room. I hadn’t noticed before, but he’s wearing a suit, as if he’s going to a wedding. Or a funeral. He steps back in shock when he realizes that I’m in the room. “Ashtyn, what’re you doin’ here?”

  The past few days I’ve missed seeing his face every day. When the guys were giving me a rough time this week, I thought of his words: You can do this. But the truth slapped me in the face as soon as I looked up at that MVP wall . . . and now he’s standing here in front of me right after he was in the backyard with that girl.

  I can’t think straight. I want to ask about the girl, but just the thought of him with another girl makes my insides tighten and I can’t manage to get the words out. Instead, I focus on the reason I came here in the first place. “You were a fucking prodigy!”

  Derek’s expression is grim. “How’d you find out?”

  I walk up to him and poke a finger into his chest. “Your picture is plastered on the MVP wall at Elite. Ever hear of a Google search? You are such a liar!” My heart is racing when I add, “And I can’t believe you’re hooking up with someone after what happened between us.”

  “Ahem!” Derek’s grandmother clears her throat loudly. “Miss Parker, obviously you have a lot on your mind and would like to hash this out. I’m just not sure this is the proper time or place to have this conversation. Derek, why don’t you invite her to come back tomorrow to discuss football and such.”

  “Now’s fine,” he tells her.

  “Yeah, now’s fine,” I say. “I don’t care what you do or don’t do with girls, Derek. I didn’t come here to talk about anything else but why you lied to me about playing football.”

  “I didn’t lie, Ashtyn.” He doesn’t look the least bit guilty. “Listen, I’m not sayin’ I didn’t leave stuff out.”

  I laugh heartily. “Leave stuff out? Oh, that’s rich. You outright lied. I remember plain as day you said you were an average foot-ball player. Average, my ass.” I huff a few times, trying to gather my wits as I tell myself to stop shaking. “I read that you played varsity as a freshman and led your team to two state championships. Do you know what I’d do to get my team to State? Just about anything, and you know it.”

  “I don’t play anymore. And no matter what you think, I didn’t hook up with anyone else since we were together.”

  Derek’s grandmother steps between us. “May I remind you both there’s a party going on just outside that door. A party that just happens to be in your honor, Derek.”

  “A party that I never asked for, remember?” Derek counters, then says to me, “You want to talk about lyin’, let’s put everythin’ out on the table. You’re not innocent, either. You told me you were okay with a one-night stand. That couldn’t be farther from the truth and you know it.”

  My heart skips a beat. I can’t look at him or respond, because I might be tempted to admit the truth.

  “I don’t want to make this about you and me,” I tell him. “It’s about football. You can’t just stop playing when you’re, like, amazing at it. Actually, some people are amazing at it. You’re . . . how did they describe it? Exceptional. Not only that . . . one article said they’d ‘never seen a young quarterback like Fitzpatrick, who could read players and adjust his strategy during plays like a pro.’”

  He laughs, dismissing the assessment. “They might have exaggerated a little. You sure you came here to talk football? I think you came here because you missed me. Why haven’t you texted me back?”

  “Don’t change the subject. I read at least five articles online. They all say approximately the same thing. You were MVP at Elite. I’ve seen the caliber of the players there. They’re the best of the best, the guys who’ll no doubt be starting in the NFL after college. Play with me, Derek. One last season.”

  “I’m goin’ back to the party.” Derek opens the door, but holds out a hand before leaving. “You want to join me, Sugar Pie?”

  I look down at my football jersey. “I’m not dressed for a party, and you didn’t answer my question.”

  “I answered it. You comin’ or not?”

  He walks out of the room when I don’t join him, leaving me alone with his grandmother. “Well, that was . . . entertaining, to say the least,” she says.

  “I’m sorry to have bothered you.” Feeling like I just lost a glimmer of light in my pathetic life, I pull out my cell. “I’ll call a cab and be out of here in—”

  His grandmother pulls the phone out of my hand and turns it off. “You should stay.”

  “Excuse me?”

  She hands the phone back to me. “I’ve decided that you should stay here for the night. Attend the party and see what the night has to offer.”

  “I’m not exactly dressed for a party and it’s obvious I’ve bothered you enough.”

  “It’s a shame I didn’t host a costume party.” She grabs the edge of my grass-stained jersey with the tips of her thumb and forefinger. “Didn’t your mother teach you to look in the mirror before you leave the house?”

  “My mother left when I was ten. She didn’t teach me much.”

  “And your father?”

  I shrug. “He’s kind of in his own world.”

  “I see. Well, you might as well get over the fact that you’re not going back to that football camp tonight. I’ll have Harold drive you back first thing tomorrow morning.” She walks to the door and clears her throat. “Take a shower and make yourself decent. A neighbor of mine owns a boutique in town. She’ll bring over something acceptable for you to wear.”

  Derek’s grandmother leads me upstairs to a bedroom with an attached private bathroom. She tells me to hurry and wash up. I get the distinct impression that I better not disobey her. I don’t want to attend the party, but she doesn’t seem to care about my opinion. All I want to do is convince Derek to play for Fremont, but that doesn’t look like it’s about to happen.

  After a quick shower, I call Coach Bennett and inform him I’ll be back in the morning for practice. I hang up and notice a short, white strapless cocktail dress neatly spread out on the bed. How did Derek’s grandmother get it so fast? On the floor is a pair of red stilettos. The whole outfit looks expensive and elegant. I step closer and notice the dress still has the tags on it.

  Reaching out, I turn over the price tag. The dress is seven hundred dollars. I’ll bet everything in my closet adds up to seven hundred dollars, and I don’t even own a pair of stilettos. There’s no way I can wear a dress that expensive, or shoes with heels thi
s high.

  I touch the silky fabric of the dress. I’ve never felt anything so soft in my life and wonder what it would feel like against my skin. Dropping my towel, I hold the material up to my body and look at myself in the mirror. Bolstered by the fact that nobody is watching, I unzip the garment and squeeze into it. I imagine being a princess and having this dress as one of many in my vast wardrobe of designer clothes.

  I look in the mirror and hardly recognize myself. The dress hugs my curves and my breasts press against the material so they’re pushed up and give me more cleavage than I usually have. It makes me feel sexy and, dare I think it, powerful.

  Derek accused me of being here because I missed him. The truth is, I’ve thought about him too much. Thoughts of him have invaded my mind. I wish they’d go away. Every time I need encouragement, I think of his words. Every time I feel alone, I think of when we kissed and he smiled at me.

  Prodigy quarterback.

  Derek could save our team. He said he doesn’t play anymore. Did he even contemplate picking up a ball again? If I had the power to make him fall in love with me, would he change his mind and join the Fremont team? I look at myself in the mirror, then slip on the stilettos.

  There’s only one way to find out.

  Chapter 45

  Derek

  My grandmother, who’s been flitting around like a butterfly, is suddenly ignoring me. I’ve tried to get her attention three times since I left her and Ashtyn in the library. I know Ashtyn hasn’t left because I’ve had my eye on the front door the entire time.

  I finally run into my grandmother when she rounds the corner on the way to the dining room. “Where is she?” I ask.

  My grandmother puts her hand to her chest. “You startled me. Don’t sneak up on an old lady like that. You could’ve caused a heart attack.”

  “Your heart’s fine. Where’s Ashtyn?”

  “You mean that poor girl who dresses like a boy?”

  I nod. “Uh-huh.”

  “The one you called Sugar Cake?”