Better than Perfect
“That’d be Sugar Pie.”
“Oh, that’s right.” She removes a piece of invisible lint off my suit jacket and takes her time buttoning my shirt back up. “You’re transparent, Derek. Just like your mother was at your age.”
“If you’re thinkin’ what I think you’re thinkin’, you’re wrong.”
“Then you won’t mind that I invited Sugar Pie to stay the night.”
I don’t want Ashtyn anywhere near my grandmother. She’s up to something. Everything the woman does is calculated and deliberate. She’s not just being nice to Ashtyn by inviting her to stay here tonight. I can tell by the gleam in her eye that she wants information out of Ashtyn; information about us. That’s as dangerous as giving secrets to the enemy.
“I’ll drive her back to the dorm,” I tell her.
She waves her hand in the air. “Nonsense. It would be in bad taste to make the poor girl go back to a dorm room with questionable amenities when we have more than enough space right here.”
Oh, hell. It’s useless to argue because it’s obvious I’m not winning this argument. “Where is she?”
“In one of the guest rooms. And I might have given her a dress to wear. She can’t possibly attend one of my parties dressed in that filthy football jersey and shorts. Bless her heart.”
Oh, no. Did she have to pull out the “bless her heart” phrase again? Those words are like a loaded gun in Texas, where that phrase could either be an insult or a term of endearment, depending on the tone or intent.
“Stay out of my business, Grams.”
“And what business is that, Derek?” When I don’t answer, she pats my chest in a patronizing manner. “Don’t call me Grams ever again. You just remember to be a gentleman, like a Worthington host should be.”
“I’m a Fitzpatrick.”
She raises a brow as she starts walking away. “Bless your heart.”
I glance up, wondering if my mother is laughing her ass off right now or cursing the day she wrote that letter to my grandmother.
I start talking to a bunch of guys as I scan the place wondering if Ashtyn will appear anytime soon. For all I know she’s locked herself upstairs and isn’t coming down. This is definitely not her scene, where the girls are overdone and overdressed and the guys put on a smile and a suit. If this were a mud-wrestling match, she’d probably be jumping in the ring right about now.
A streak of white on the staircase catches my eye and I freeze.
It’s Ashtyn, wearing a short white dress that hugs her curves, and bright red stilettos that show off her long legs. I’m frozen in place and can’t take my eyes off her. She catches the attention of my grandmother, who gives her a nod of approval.
“Who is that?” one guy asks.
“Never seen her before,” another says.
A guy who was introduced to me as Oren gives a low whistle. “Damn, she’s hot. I call first dibs.”
Nobody’s getting first dibs on Ashtyn if I have anything to say about it. Without hesitating, I walk over to her. The tops of her creamy white breasts are popping out, no doubt tempting every guy in the place, and those sexy shoes she’s got on are what fantasies are made of. “What’re you wearin’?” I ask in a harsher tone than I intended.
“Oh, you like it?” She twirls around slowly, giving me, and the guys still watching her, a 360-degree view. She almost trips on the heels and grabs my shoulder to steady herself. “Your grandmother let me borrow it. And the shoes, too. How cool are they?”
“I liked you better in the football jersey,” I mumble.
“Because it’s you.”
“Maybe this is me.” She heads for the buffet. “I’m starving. As you know, doing drills all day is hard work.”
“Yeah, I know. Don’t you want to go back to the dorm?”
“Trying to get rid of me?” She absentmindedly takes a gourmet cookie from one of the silver trays and starts eating it.
“No. I’m tryin’ to keep those guys over there from hittin’ on you.”
“Why would you do that?” She takes another bite. And another. And another. She licks frosting off her lips. If her intent is to drive me insane, she’s doing a damn good job of it.
“Because I . . . care about you,” I tell her.
“Oh, please. Those are empty words. I’ve heard those words from my mom, my sister, my dad, and even Landon. They mean nothing to me.”
They mean something to me. “You think I’m bullshittin’ you?”
“Yes. I saw you with that girl with the yellow dress tonight. Did you tell her you cared about her, too?” She’s so riled up she keeps munching on the cookie as if it’s the last one she’s ever gonna have. When she’s done, she slaps her hands together and wipes off the crumbs. “I think I’ll go over by the staircase and meet new boyfriend prospects. They look like clean-cut, honest boys.”
Her words are meant to slice right through me. “Don’t let the suits fool you,” I tell her.
“Like you fooled me about your football experience?”
Before I can tell her I’m not the answer to her prayers when it comes to recruiting a new quarterback for Fremont, Ashtyn puts her shoulders back. Does she realize it only manages to push her breasts out more? Everyone here is going to get more than an eyeful. She turns her back to me and walks toward the guys, who are still watching her with interest. I follow, not because I think she needs protection . . .
It’s because I sense she’s about to do something really, really stupid.
A crowd of boys are standing together in a huddle in the corner of the room. Their eyes are on me, and I do my best imitation of a runway model as I make my way over to them. I’m not nervous around guys, so why am I feeling agitated and clammy all of a sudden? There’s a tingling, itchy sensation running down my neck. I ignore it, even though it’s driving me nuts.
I put a hand on my hip and smile. “Hey, guys. I’m Ashtyn.”
Two of the guys furrow their brows and immediately walk away. Another guy shoves his hands in his pockets and steps back. “I’m Oren,” he says nervously. His eyes dart from side to side, as if he’s looking for a way to escape.
“I’m, uh, Regan,” the fourth guy says. Regan is totally focused on my chest with his eyes totally bugged out. I’m still clammy, but I’m tempted to point to my face and say, “My face is up here, buddy!”
Oren waves to someone across the room, then mumbles, “My girlfriend is over there. I better go check on her.”
Regan suddenly pulls a phone out of his pocket. “I got a call. Sorry.” But I never heard it ring or vibrate.
I’m standing alone, wondering why I just managed to scare away four guys in less than thirty seconds, when Derek comes up behind me. “Strike out?”
I look and feel sexy in this crazy minidress and shoes, but no boy will talk to me. Besides Derek. I’m trying to make him jealous. How can I do that when four guys sprinted away like I had a disease? I need Jet here. He’d have no problem pretending to flirt with me and would happily make guys think I was a great catch. Or Victor, who’d stand next to me like a bodyguard and make sure nobody sprinted away from me.
I whirl around to face Derek. “Did you come to rub it in my face?” I ask as I rake my nails down my neck and clear the itchiness in my throat.
His eyes are focused on my chest.
“Cowboy, my face is here. Stop staring at my boobs.”
“I’m not lookin’ at your boobs.” He gestures to my chest and says, “You’re havin’ some kind of allergic reaction.”
“No, I’m not,” I say defiantly before clearing my itchy throat again. But . . . I examine my arms. They feel hot and as I look closer I realize they’re red and splotchy. Oh, shit. “Yes, I am.”
The only way I know how to flirt with Derek is to challenge him and beat him at his own game. But it’s practi
cally impossible to argue when you’re in the middle of an allergic reaction.
I look down at my arms, which are tingling and irritated. And my neck . . . it’s like a hundred little mosquitoes bit it at the same time. My throat is really starting to itch now. The most unlady-like noise comes out of my mouth when I attempt to ease the discomfort.
Derek looks panicked. “Seriously, can you breathe?” he asks. “Or should I call 9-1-1 right now?”
“Of course I can breathe. I’m not gonna die, Derek. Just a dose of Benadryl should help.” I back up against the wall behind me and rub my shoulder blades against it.
Derek quickly takes my hand and leads me to his grandmother, but I stumble a few times. I’m not used to walking in high heels.
“Do you have Benadryl?” he asks his grandmother. “I think she’s allergic to something in a cookie she ate.”
“She’s allergic to cookies?” his grandmother asks, her voice full of skepticism.
I scratch my arms, trying to relieve the itchiness. “I’m allergic to purple.”
“The caterer put a W on the cookies in purple. It’s a regal color.”
“Regal?” Derek shakes his head. “We’re not royalty.”
“Exactly. So at the last minute I told her to change it to yellow, so she put yellow frosting over the purple frosting to mask it.” His grandmother has a worried look on her face as she quickly tells Derek where to find the Benadryl.
“Come on,” he says, moving me through the crowd as I try not to scratch my neck even though it’s itching like crazy.
I stumble again. “Derek, wait. I can’t walk fast in these heels.”
I give a little squeak of surprise when one of his arms slides under my knees and the other supports my back as he picks me up. Normally I’d order him to put me down, but I’m too agitated and uncomfortable to be strong right now. I wrap my arms around his neck and lean into him. I’m suddenly surrounded by the scent of his cologne and I breathe it in.
“You smell like a guy,” I mumble into the crook of his neck.
“You don’t,” he says back. “You smell like flowers.”
“I think it’s the soap your grandmother had in the shower. It was pink, with little pieces of flowers in it. It was like bathing in a bouquet of roses.”
I don’t know how he manages to carry me up the entire staircase without stumbling or stalling, but he does it. Is he aware that everyone is pointing at us? If he is, he obviously doesn’t care.
We reach the huge master bedroom, and he nudges open the door with his foot. The place is huge, with a sitting room next to the bedroom and a bathroom beyond that. Expensive paintings are scattered on the walls and the carpeting looks plush, like you can sink your toes into it. Derek sets me down in the bathroom and rummages through his grandmother’s medicine cabinet.
“Stop scratchin’,” he orders, taking my hand and holding it at my side.
“I can’t help it. I swear that’s the last time I eat a cookie.”
“You should have gone for the fruit.” He finds the Benadryl box and hands me two pills. “Here, take these.” After I down the pills with water from the sink, Derek crosses his arms on his chest. “If your condition doesn’t improve within a half hour, I’m takin’ you to the hospital.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“That’s what you said the night we hooked up, and look at where we are now.”
I glance at the walls. “We’re in your grandmother’s bathroom.”
“I’m not being literal. Stop scratchin’, Ashtyn. You’re makin’ marks all over your body.”
I try my hardest to ignore the itching sensation, but that’s like trying to ignore the boy standing in front of me—practically impossible.
My breath hitches when he takes my hands and holds them behind my back. “Stop! You’ll make yourself bleed.”
He’s keeping a small distance between us, but why? Did all his feelings for me fade once he dropped me off at Elite? I need to fight to get those feelings to the surface, to remind him how amazing it was when we were in the tent.
My thoughts are all confused, and the itching doesn’t help matters. I’m supposed to be mad at Derek for lying to me about his football experience and at the same time I’m determined to make him fall for me in an attempt to make him play football again. My real feelings are pushed aside right now, because if I acknowledge them, it’ll break me apart inside.
I know Derek likes me, but just how much? He’s desperate to keep his distance and doesn’t want to admit that we had something more than just a casual hookup—something that I know can grow to be more than that.
I squirm in his grasp. “I’m still itchy.”
He glances down at my neck and chest. “Be patient and let the Benadryl work,” he says.
“I’m not a patient person.” I moan in frustration.
“I know.” He releases my hands. “Here, let me help. You’ve already done enough damage . . . there’s scratch marks all over your neck. People are gonna think someone assaulted you.”
“The only thing to alleviate an itch is to scratch it.”
“Yeah, and the only thing to make your skin more irritated is to rake it with your damn nails. If you promise to stay still, I’ll help you.”
“What are you gonna do?”
“Keep your hands to your side and trust me.”
Trust. There’s that ugly word again. “Seriously, my skin itches. You wouldn’t understand because you’re not having an allergic reaction to purple frosting.”
“Shh. You talk too much. Close your eyes.”
“It wasn’t meant to be a compliment.”
I stare him down, but then as the itching gets worse I give in and wait patiently for his remedy.
I suck in a breath when he traces my neck in slow, rhythmic circles with the tips of his fingers, making my skin tingle instead of itch. I throw my head back and keep my eyes closed, giving him full access. “You remind me of a cat right now,” he says in a low voice.
He traces my jawline, the outline of my neck, my chest . . . dipping lightly inside the top of my cleavage peeking out of the dress before venturing back up again. His fingers are like a caress and I’m getting light-headed and dizzy, so I reach out and grab on to him.
The sensual touch of his fingers is sending little jolts of electricity through my veins.
“Mmm . . .,” I moan.
His fingers linger over my shoulders before repeating the process all over again. “You’re enjoyin’ this too much, Sugar Pie.”
“That’s right, so keep doing it, Cowboy.”
His laugh is deep and hearty, just like him. “Yes, ma’am,” he says in a heavy southern accent. After a while I can feel the soft sensation of his fingers being replaced by his soft, warm lips. His breath soothes my skin as the itching subsides.
My insides turn into liquid fire as I pull him closer.
“What are you two doing?” his grandmother’s voice booms from the doorway.
I whip my head up and lose my balance, but Derek catches me solidly in his arms. How are we going to explain this one? It’s not like the woman is blind. I had my eyes closed, but his grandmother didn’t. There’s no escaping the fact that Derek’s lips were on my neck and I was urging him closer.
“I was helpin’ her,” Derek explains.
“Uh-huh,” his grandmother replies unconvincingly. She narrows her eyes as she holds out her finger. She wags it at both of us. “I wasn’t born yesterday. I know there’s some hanky-panky goin’ on between you two. Come now, Derek. A bunch of guests are fixin’ to leave. You’re the guest of honor and need to say your good-byes. You can finish helping Ashtyn later.”
Derek checks the blotches on my arms and chest to make sure they’re fading. “You want to join me downstairs or stay up here?”
The itching subsides some. I look in the mirror and cringe. My skin is still all bl
otchy. This night isn’t how I imagined it going down. I was ready to play dirty, but I didn’t imagine it would be like this. “Maybe I should just go back to the dorm.”
“No.” Derek shakes his head. “You’ll stay here tonight. I’ll drive you back to Elite in the mornin’. Okay?”
I walk to my designated room while Derek and his grandmother spend the next hour saying good-bye to the guests. My hockey jersey and shorts have been cleaned and are lying on my bed. I hang up the dress, then put on my jersey and slip under the down comforter. I feel like I’m sleeping on a marshmallow mattress, it’s so soft. It cocoons me as I sink into it and turn on the TV.
Derek’s grandmother is the first one to knock. She walks in the room looking elegant and totally put-together even after hosting a party with at least seventy-five to a hundred people. Not a hair is out of place.
I must look like a mess. “Thank you for letting me borrow the dress. It’s beautiful.”
“Don’t thank me. It’s yours to keep.”
“Yes, you can and yes, you will. Don’t argue with an old, stubborn lady like me. You won’t win.” She leans over me to check my neck. “How’s the itching?”
“I think it’s all better,” I tell her.
Satisfied that I’m not still having a reaction to the purple cookie frosting, she sits in a chair next to the bed. She puts her hands in her lap and looks at me with those Derek-lookalike eyes. “So . . . I know something is going on between you and my grandson. Care to tell me what it is?”
I turn off the TV and give her my full attention. “Umm . . . I’m not sure, actually. Maybe you should ask Derek.”
“What did he say?”
“My grandson is not cooperative when it comes to sharing details about his life, bless his heart.”
“That’s because you’ll use it against me,” Derek chimes in as he appears in the room. His suit is gone and is replaced with sweatpants and a T-shirt, looking more like the Derek I know.
He walks to the foot of the bed and gestures to my neck. “How you doin’?”
I lift my head up to show him my chest. “Better. It’s gone except for a few scratch marks.”