Better than Perfect


  The girl is a master at avoiding the subject. “I mean, seriously, who wears sunglasses when they kiss a girl?”

  “Who I date and how I kiss is really none of your business.”

  Damn. I shake my head and step closer. “You know when a guy is bullshittin’ you, don’t ya?”

  She gives an impatient eye roll. “You should know, right?”

  “Absolutely.” I’m standing in front of her now. I lift her chin with my thumb and forefinger until our eyes lock. Damn, she’s beautiful. Every time I catch her looking at me, it’s hard to look away. Now isn’t any different. “A guy is bullshittin’ you when he doesn’t look you in the eye,” I say.

  She breaks eye contact. “Stop.”

  “Stop what?”

  “Making me question my relationship with Landon. I can do that without your help, thank you very much.” She swats my hand away and storms into the house.

  That was interesting. I’m about to go after her when my cell rings. It’s Ashtyn’s friend Bree.

  “Hey,” Bree says when I answer. “I was just wondering if you wanted to go out Saturday night?”

  “Saturday?”

  “I think it would be cool if we got to know each other better. You know, because you’ll need someone to show you the ropes at school. Ashtyn’s kind of preoccupied with Landon and football. I can fill in the gaps.”

  The gaps. There’s so many fucking gaps in my life it’s comical. I’ve got to start making changes right now, because if I keep going on the same path I’m liable to go insane.

  “Yeah,” I tell her, knowing I’ve got to fill in those gaps sooner rather than later. Avoiding Ashtyn is what I need to do to keep me sane. “Sounds great.”

  Chapter 16

  Ashtyn

  Parties in Fremont are legendary, especially when they’re at Jet’s house. His dads are out of town for the weekend, so he’s throwing the first bash of the summer. Landon picked me up. I’m determined to make things right between us.

  Landon takes my hand as we walk through the door. Jet is sitting in the living room playing a drinking game he made up called Fact or BS. I’ve played it before. One thing about playing Fact or BS—someone is going to be completely wasted by the end of the night.

  Jet motions for us to join them. It’s obvious they started playing a while ago, because Jet’s eyes are bloodshot and Vic is smiling like he doesn’t have a care in the world. Vic hardly ever smiles. He’s always brooding and pissed that his dad runs his life.

  Jet moves over so we can sit next to him. “Yo, Ashtyn. Fact or BS . . .”

  “I’m not playing, Jet,” I say. The last time we played, Jet got so drunk he started puking all over the place. We thought he had alcohol poisoning.

  “C’mon, Capt’n, don’t be such a party pooper. Fact or BS . . . Monika and I hooked up in seventh grade.”

  I look over at Monika and Trey. She’s sitting on his lap with her arms wrapped around his neck.

  That’s an easy one. “That’d be bullshit.”

  “That’s right,” Monika says proudly. “I’m not into pasty white guys. I like my men as dark as I like my chocolate. Right, baby?”

  Trey kisses her. “That’s right.”

  “That’s just because you’ve never been with a pasty white guy,” Jet says jokingly, making Trey roll his eyes and Monika laugh.

  Jet takes a shot as a bunch of girls from school walk in. Including Bree, who’s wearing a black off-the-shoulder minidress that barely covers her . . .

  “Damn! Bree is definitely looking for some action tonight,” Jet says under his breath and gives a low whistle.

  Derek walks in. Bree looks back at him and smiles, then takes his elbow and leads him to sit with us.

  “Hey, guys!” she says, completely excited to have Derek as her date. I don’t miss the stares from everyone else interested in finding out more about the new guy on her arm. Derek didn’t tell me he was coming here tonight. He was holed up in his room and hadn’t given me a clue that he was going out with Bree.

  “Derek’s a Fact or BS virgin,” Landon says. “I think we need to de-virginize him.”

  Jet nods in agreement.

  “I don’t think so,” I protest.

  “We’re playing a little drinking game we call Fact or BS. You up for it, Derek?” Landon asks, ignoring me.

  I nudge my boyfriend and give him an angry glare. “Landon, don’t.”

  “What?” Landon gestures to Derek. “You want to play, don’t you? I mean, if you don’t think you can handle it . . .”

  “Hit me with it,” Derek says without hesitation as if Landon is challenging his manhood.

  “Here are the rules,” Landon says. “First, you have to take a shot. They’re only spiked Jell-O shots. Then you have to answer without thinking.”

  Derek nods. He has no clue the shot has more vodka than Jell-O.

  “I sling a question at you,” Landon explains further. “Then you sling a question at me. For every answer you think is a fact, you take another shot. For every answer that you hesitate on, you take another shot. If you think my answer is BS, you say ‘BS’—and if you’re right, you don’t have to take another shot. I can challenge you on the BS call, and the group takes a vote. Majority rules.”

  “Fair enough,” Derek says, not the least bit intimidated. I don’t tell him that usually you only have to drink if you hesitate, and you don’t have to take a shot beforehand, but Landon seems to be making up his own rules tonight.

  Two bucks going head-to-head isn’t going to end well. I need to stop this game before it starts. “Landon, don’t do this.”

  “It’s cool, Ash,” Derek says. “I got this.”

  Bree weaves her arm through Derek’s. “Let them play, Ash. Don’t be a party pooper.”

  I should get up and refuse to watch the disaster about to happen, but Landon has one arm wrapped around my waist and urges me to stay.

  Derek and Landon each down a shot. I predict they’re both going to have one hell of a hangover in the morning and I’m not happy.

  Landon clears his throat. “Fact or BS. You trim your ball sac.”

  Derek doesn’t break eye contact with Landon as he picks up a shot glass and downs it in one gulp.

  Derek leans forward. “You hate that Ashtyn got voted captain.”

  “BS.”

  Derek shakes his head at Landon’s answer. “You’re lyin’. I call BS on your BS.”

  “That’s not part of the game. Fact or BS, you hate living in Fremont.”

  Derek takes another shot, then fires his own question. “Everyone thinks you’re a dick.”

  Landon takes a shot.

  “Fact or BS . . . you’ve jerked off to thoughts of my girlfriend.”

  “Landon!” I cry.

  “What?” Landon puts his hands up, like he’s completely innocent. “We’re just playing a game.”

  Derek doesn’t answer or look at me.

  “I’ll bet that’s fact,” Trey mumbles under his breath.

  “You want to go there?” Derek asks Landon, all fired up now. “You really want to get personal like that?”

  “Yeah, let’s go there.”

  Derek downs another shot. “You’re fucking around with some chick behind Ashtyn’s back.”

  What’s going on? This is completely screwed up, and I’m caught in the middle. Landon is pissed and rushes to his feet. Derek did not just say what I think he just said. It’s a complete lie but now everyone is looking at us.

  “Stop!” I yell, but nobody’s listening. I give Jet and Vic pleading looks, but Vic is out of it and Jet is too amused to stop this.

  “Take a shot,” Derek says, seemingly content with himself. “You hesitated.”

  Landon narrows his eyes as he picks up the shot glass and downs it, then slams the glass on the table. Landon does not like being bested, and there’s about to be a showdown.

  “Ashtyn’s mine, you know,” Landon says.

  “That’s what you thin
k,” Derek shoots back. “You’re not the one shackin’ up with her every night.”

  Derek swallows. And glances at me. His lies feel like a hard slap in the face. My face feels hot and the rest of my body feels numb. He didn’t just say that.

  I push past him and run out of the house.

  Chapter 17

  Derek

  “Ashtyn, wait!” I call out as I leave the house and rush after her.

  She’s walking down the street.

  “My life isn’t a game, Derek.”

  “I didn’t say it was.” I feel the slight slur of my words as the alcohol hits my system. My thoughts are clear for the moment, though. If anyone’s not thinking clearly, it’s Ashtyn. She’d even left her jacket behind, but I grabbed it. “What are you blamin’ me for? Landon made me play the stupid game. It didn’t even make sense.”

  “I’m blaming both of you for coming up with the stupid questions and both of you for making people think about whether or not Landon’s cheating on me or if you and I are getting it on. If you can’t keep your ego in check, stay home.”

  I’m not going to let her off that easy. “I already told you I didn’t ask to come to Chicago, Sugar Pie. I got suckered into it, just like I got suckered into playin’ your boyfriend’s stupid little game.”

  “I told you not to play, but no! Your ego got in the way of your brain and those shaved balls of yours.”

  “I didn’t say I shaved them. I trim.”

  She looks at me as if I’m nuts. “Same difference. You were supposed to stay out of my life, while I stayed out of yours. That was the deal, but you keep breaking it.”

  “How the hell was I supposed to know he’d ask me a question about you? What’s the problem, anyway? Give me a fuckin’ break. Reality check, Ashtyn. I’m a teenage guy with raging hormones who hasn’t had a lot of action lately . . . I admit I jerk off. I’m sorry I got caught up in your boyfriend’s game of who’s got the bigger dick.”

  “You’re insane, Derek Fitzpatrick. Certifiably insane.”

  Drunk is more like it.

  “I can’t believe you and Landon have somehow managed to involve me in your little game of one-upping each other,” she continues. “You know people are going to gossip now, don’t you?”

  I rake my hand through my hair and wish I wasn’t having this conversation. “I don’t really give a shit what the people in this town think.”

  Landon comes out of the house with a bunch of people following him. “Ashtyn, come here.”

  Ashtyn looks at me as if I’m the enemy. “Just so you know, you’re my least favorite nephew,” she says through clenched teeth, then walks over to Monika. “Take me home,” she pleads to her friend.

  After she gets into Monika’s car, music from inside the house reminds me that the party is still going strong. And Bree is probably wondering why I didn’t call BS on Landon’s stupid comment about me jerking off while thoughts of Ashtyn race through my brain. I walk through the maze of people until I reach Bree.

  “Can we talk?”

  Bree puts her hand on my cheek. “You’re so cute. If you’re going to apologize, don’t. I know you were just bullshitting to get Landon off your case. I think you succeeded.”

  “Thanks.”

  She kisses me on the lips. “My pleasure.”

  We stay at the party a little while longer, but soon I’m so wasted all I want to do is sleep it off. At some point Bree wants to leave and we get a ride from someone who didn’t have one too many Jell-O shots. As I walk in the house, I know I’ve got to straighten things out with Ashtyn.

  She made it clear that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with me, so why can’t I erase her from my head? What did I think, just because I feel a connection to her that she’d feel the same way or believe that her boyfriend is unfaithful?

  That’s a joke. It’s actually a good thing Ashtyn resents my presence in her life, because if she didn’t we could really complicate our already complicated lives. I’m eternally thankful the front door is unlocked, but my luck is short-lived. Brandi’s still awake. She’s standing in front of the computer, taking a video of herself. It’s kind of weird that she’s got her shirt pulled up to show off her growing stomach.

  “I’m home.” I walk past the office, trying to hide any hint that I’ve been drinking.

  “Hey, Derek. I’m recording how big my stomach is every day. I figure when your dad gets home he’ll want to see the progress.” She rubs her bare belly, which is something I definitely didn’t have to see. “I miss him tons. Come record a message for your dad.”

  I wave into the camera and hope he won’t notice I’m wasted when he watches it. “Hey, Dad. Hope you’re accomplishing whatever you need to in the middle of the ocean. Peace.”

  It sucks having my dad so far away, especially knowing I can’t talk to him. When he’s away I feel like he’s an acquaintance, someone on the fringes of my life but not actually in it.

  Before I leave the office, Brandi says, “How much did you drink tonight?”

  “A lot.”

  “I smelled it on you the second you stepped close.” She pulls down her shirt to cover her belly. “Okay. Well, I guess I should, you know, tell you that it’s probably not a good idea to drink when you’re underage.”

  “Did you do it?”

  She nods. “Yes. I’m probably not one to preach about the benefits of staying away from high school parties. Just . . . don’t go overboard, okay? Or don’t do it at all, which is probably what I’m supposed to say. If your dad knew, I’m sure he wouldn’t be happy—”

  “Tell him if you want.” At this point, what’s he gonna do? It’s not like he can ground me or take my car away. He’s not here to enforce any kind of rules. Nobody is.

  She shakes her head. “How about if I leave it up to you to tell him?”

  “Cool.” Life is back to the normal state of abnormality in a matter of seconds. Before I leave I turn back to Brandi. “You know where Ashtyn is?”

  “Yeah. She’s upstairs sleeping. Is everything okay between you two?”

  I rub the back of my neck. “I don’t know.”

  “You want some advice?” Before I can tell her to keep her opinions to herself, she puts her hands up and exclaims, “My sister lives hard and loves hard. It’s in her nature, just like me.”

  I think for a minute, which is pretty tough to do when I’m this buzzed. “Thanks, Brandi.”

  Brandi smiles proudly. “You’re welcome. Good night, Derek.”

  “’Night.”

  When I was younger, my mom used to lie in bed with me and we’d make up stories. She’d start a sentence, and I’d finish it. “There once was a boy named . . .” she’d start and I’d insert, “Derek.” Then she’d continue, “One day, Derek wanted to go to . . .” and I’d insert whatever place I wanted and together we’d come up with a wild adventure. Every night she came into my room, and every night we’d continue the ritual. When I got too old for those stories, she’d give me advice about girls, school, football, and anything else that I wanted to talk about.

  Brandi is totally unlike my mom, so I miss her all the more. I just want to be able to talk to my mom one more time, see her smile at me one more time, create one of our mom-son stories one more time. I’d do anything to ask her what to do about Ashtyn, because she’d probably have the answer.

  I guess I’m on my own to figure it all out.

  I strip down to my boxers, curse my trimmed balls, and go upstairs to brush my teeth. On my way out of the bathroom, I remember that I forgot to give Ashtyn the jacket she’d left at the party. After going downstairs and grabbing it from my room, I stand in front of her door. I’d knock softly, but I’m afraid Falkor will start barking like a mad dog and wake Julian in the room next to hers.

  “Ashtyn,” I say quietly. The door is slightly ajar. I push the door open further and peek inside.

  Falkor is sleeping at the foot of her bed, a guardian to his princess. I walk in with the sole purp
ose of putting her jacket on her desk chair, but when I glance at Ashtyn lying in bed with her eyes open just staring at me, I freeze.

  “Go away,” she says bitterly.

  I hold up the jacket. “You left this at the party. You could pretend to be grateful and say thank you.”

  “Sorry. Thank you so very much for bringing back my jacket,” she says sarcastically. “Now please put it down, then please go away.”

  I drape her jacket over the chair. She wants to hate me so much, but why? Suddenly it dawns on me. “I think you like me.” The words are out before I can take them back.

  “Really?”

  “Yep. When you’re ready to admit it, let me know.”

  Chapter 18

  Ashtyn

  The greatest part about having close friends is that they know everything about your life.

  The worst part about having close friends is that they know everything about your life.

  Monika comes over in the morning with two lattes in hand. She hands me one while she sits on the edge of my bed and takes small sips from the other.

  “Want to talk about it?”

  I take a sip of the hot liquid and sigh. “Talk about what? The fact that Landon and I aren’t getting along, or the fact that Derek Fitzpatrick is the bane of my existence?”

  “Bane of your existence? That’s harsh, especially for you. Normally you’re the one supporting the guys. You’re like the goto BFF for guys, Ashtyn. You get guys. What’s the problem with Derek?”

  I slide the covers off. “He brings out the worst in me.”

  “Why is that?”

  I shrug. “I don’t know. He doesn’t take anything seriously. Oh, except what he eats. Did I tell you he’s obsessed with eating healthy?” I throw my hands up. “He won’t even touch a Skittle. And he leaves the toilet seat up on purpose—just to annoy me. I almost fell in the other day.” I’m getting fired up just thinking about how much Derek has infused his way into my life. I pace while I drink the latte.

  “He’s gotten to you.”

  “Tell me about it.” I look at Monika sideways and know what’s going on in her head. My best friend thinks she’s got a knack for interpreting people and situations. “Don’t overanalyze this.”