The sound of tires on gravel comes from behind Alec. We both let go of each other’s hand, and turn to see who’s pulling in. It’s a different car than they had the last two years, but I remember Nathaniel telling me a couple months ago that his dad was having a mid-life crisis and bought a new car. I get what he’s saying now when I see the bright red convertible pull in.
Alec and I stand side-by-side watching the car. I don’t know what he’s thinking, but I know where my eyes are. The top is down and Nathaniel’s brown hair is windblown in the back. Brandon is sitting beside him, which shocks me. Nathaniel told me he wasn’t coming. He’s eighteen and off to college next year. With Sadie being gone, him not coming made sense.
A little pang hits me when I think about my sister and my mom, but then my eyes are drawn to Nathaniel again and seeing him sends a wave of happiness, which eclipses the pain.
Nathaniel gets out of the car and turns, his eyes meeting mine. My heart jumps, dances, and then my feet are moving. I don’t let myself think about it, I just run to him. I knew I missed him, but didn’t realize how much until I saw his playful grin.
He holds out his arms and I jump into them. As we hug and the first thing I think of is, whoa, his body feels firmer, and then I think he feels taller, too.
“Hey, Star Girl,” he whispers against my ear, and I can’t help, but think of that last night before he left. I little stab of jealousy pierces me as I wonder if he did any of that with Hailey or Monica, but I try to push it aside because he’s here and that’s what matters.
Nathaniel is holding me by my waist. My feet are off the ground and I wonder if he can feel my heart going crazy. And then I think about my br**sts pressed against his chest and the fact that they’ve grown over the last year.
My cheeks flush, which makes me remember the fact that we’re not alone. His parents are here and Brandon is looking at me over the car and I left Alec behind me. I don’t even want to think about Dad seeing us. It’s just a hug, but I know he doesn’t get my friendship with Nathaniel.
“Sorry,” I say as I slide out of Nathaniel’s arms. His eyebrows crease together and my stomach flips. I’ve seen him over the computer all year. At least once a week, but it doesn’t change that fact that I want to stare at him. Study all the ways he’s changed and how much older he looks.
He’s always been cute to me, but now he looks more like a man.
“Look at you! You’ve grown so much!” Nathaniel’s mom says. She’s hardly spoken a word to me in the past couple years, but maybe that’s because she’s never seen me attack her son before.
“Thank you, Mrs. Chase.”
“You don’t have to call her that,” Nathaniel says as his mom offers, “Please, call me Judy.”
“Oh…okay. Thank you, Judy.”
Alec is the only person my age that doesn’t call my dad Mr. Gates.
Everyone except Nathaniel and I start talking and moving toward the trunk, discussing bags and keys and everything else. When Alec joins us, I’m afraid to look at him and see the disappointment there. I did nothing wrong. Nathaniel’s my friend.
My friend who I’ve been in love with for two years.
“Sorry we were late. Everything in the world went wrong.” Nathaniel moves forward like he’s going to reach for me, but then lets his hand fall again.
“It’s okay.” Stop staring, stop staring, stop staring.
“It’s good to see you, Star Girl.” And then his hand really does come forward. He pushes a piece of hair behind my ear, making me tremble. It feels so different than it would have last year, deliberately sexy, and briefly I wonder just how much practice he’s had.
“Are you planning on helping us or what, man?” Brandon says and Nathaniel drops his hand.
“I need to get back to work anyway,” I tell him. “Will I see you tonight?”
Nathaniel winks at me. Winks. I don’t remember him ever doing that before. Then he whispers. “I’m yours every night for the rest of the summer.”
I know he means it playfully—that he means it as a good thing, but I can’t help the sadness that sprouts from the buried roots inside me. The summer just began, and I already dread him leaving.
We have a huge turnout for the summer bash. Part of me can’t help but wonder if it’s because the locals feel sorry for us. They all know Dad’s diagnosis. They also know Mom left him soon after. It was the one thing to push her over the edge, I think. One more thing she couldn’t handle.
Because it’s so busy, I don’t have time to do a lot of visiting. Dad needs me more than ever now and it seems like every two seconds he’s calling me away for something. Alec helps too, of course, but like always he’s into being around everyone else. He keeps making his way back to the group of people from school, which Brandon and Nathaniel are hanging out with.
It was a big deal when Danielle found out Nathaniel was coming back. Last year she wanted him to swim with her and the year before she was into him at the drive-ins. I kind of wanted to lie to her. Or ban her from the bash. Anything, because I know she likes him, but I have to keep reminding myself that Nathaniel isn’t mine.
“I’m yours every night for the rest of the summer.”
Bands of silky heat wrap around me at the memory of those words.
I jump, even though I immediately recognize the voice. “I was just thinking about you.” I turn to look at him, but then wondered if I should have said that or not. What if he wonders what I was thinking?
“Good. Your friend won’t stop hitting on me. I kept hoping you would come save me.”
A burn of jealousy scalds me that she gets to flirt with him while I’m working, but I try to ignore it. There’s a difference in his voice. He talks to me in a way he didn’t before. This flirtatious edge that he must have practiced a lot since last year. “You’re a flirt now. Oh God. Say it isn’t so. Who stole my best friend?”
I turn and pretend to walk away, but Nathaniel’s hands on my waist stop me. “Hey. I’m not—”
“Charlie Rae! The oil is running low on the torches.” Dad’s voice is firm and I wonder if he really needs me as much as he wants me to think. Or if he just doesn’t want me around Nathaniel.
“I’ll help you.” Nathaniel lets go of me and I don’t argue with him. If Dad’s going to keep me busy all night, I’m going to let Nathaniel stay with me as long as he wants. I deserve that much. It’s just the summer. All I really think about are my summers with him.
We fill the tiki torches, and then fix a strand of lights that fell down. After that, the trash bags need to be replaced. I feel guilty for not telling Nathaniel to go hang out with everyone else. I give so much to everyone else that I want to grab onto whatever time I can have with him. It’s the one thing I get that’s for me.
Only once does Alec come over and offer to help, which partially makes me mad, but also doesn’t. It’s nice not to feel like I’m letting him down, but it also sucks that he seems to hate Nathaniel an awful lot, but only when it suits him.
Before I know it, the party is winding down and people are leaving. Once our friends are gone, Alec and Brandon find their way over to us and Alec starts cleaning up like he would have any other time.
“What do you need me to do?” Brandon asks.
Umm, what? I don’t think Brandon has offered to help me with anything or even talked to me much in all the time I’ve known him. He must see that knowledge on my face because he adds, “What? I help.”
“Yeah f**king right.” Nathaniel laughs.
“You don’t have to help. It’s not your job. You’re on vacation.” I don’t do pity real well and that’s the only thing I can think of for him to hang around like this. Nathaniel must have told him everything that happened and obviously he knows Sadie isn’t here.
“Doesn’t matter.” He shrugs. “You guys are all out here so what else am I going to do?”
“Don’t argue with free help,” Nathaniel adds before bending to put his mouth close to my ear. “The sooner we get done, the faster we can disappear.”
Disappear. With Nathaniel. How much would I really love to disappear from this place? To leave and go where I want and do what I want without having my past and my family crumble apart. Family? I can’t even say that. It’s only Dad.
“You kids go on and head in. You don’t have to help. Charlie, Alec, and I have it.” Dad places one hand on my shoulder and one on Alec’s. Misplaced guilt suddenly slithers down my spine. I feel bad standing here, with link between Alec and I when Nathaniel is standing right there, and I shouldn’t.
“We don’t mind—”
“It’s not right,” Dad cuts Nathaniel off. “You guys have better things to do.”
But I don’t. Never me.
“The Village isn’t your responsibility.”
But it’s mine, even though I didn’t ask for it.
“Yes, sir.” Brandon tells him. Nathaniel doesn’t say anything to him at all, but he eyes my dad. I have no idea if Dad notices, if anyone who didn’t know Nathaniel like I do could read his face. She has things she wants to do, too. It isn’t her responsibility, his look says. If it’s possible for me to fall more in love with Nathaniel Chase, this is the second I do it.
“Come on, bro. Let’s go.” Brandon claps a hand down on Nathaniel and in that moment, I envy their relationship. Most of the time they’re picking on and fighting with each other, but right now, I see that they would do anything for one another. I wish I had that with Sadie. Turning, they start to walk away, but don’t get very far before Nathaniel stops and looks back at me. “I’ll see you soon, Charlotte.”
And just like that, he disappears into the night.
I want nothing more than to go with him.
Nathaniel is standing outside my window when I crawl out. I almost scream, but he puts a finger to his lips as if to say “shh.” He takes my hand and we walk around the side of the house to the stretch of beach by the lake before taking the path we’ve walked together so many times. He has a duffle bag in his hand, and I can’t help but wonder what’s in it.
Does he expect a repeat of our last night together?
Do I want one? Risking a quick glance at his tall frame and the rougher jaw than he used to have, I admit that I do. I want just about anything I can have with Nathaniel Chase.
We’re quiet when we get to our spot. I open my backpack and lay the blanket out, still wondering what he has in his. Nathaniel opens his backpack and pulls out another bag, this one long and slim.
“I got you something, Star Girl.”
I love the nickname. Love it so much. He’s started saying it more since last year. Almost every email or instant message.
“You shouldn’t have,” I say, because I can tell by the shape of the bag, what it is. “It’s too much. I could never…” I shake my head. I could never get him something like that.