“Yep.” She patted my arm as we stepped into the clearing. “Good luck with that.”
Dani had been right; the bonfire was ginormous. It was easily as tall and wide as my Jeep and I could feel the heat rolling off of it from twenty feet back. Dozens of people milled around, red cup in hand, mainly congregating close to one of the six kegs stationed around the clearing. As expected, almost the entire high school student body was present and accounted for, although there was a group of young men whose faces weren’t familiar.
I didn’t need two guesses to know who they were. If the flock of girls batting their lashes around them didn’t give it away, that wildness in their eyes did. All smokejumpers I’d come across had it. That wild, adventurous twinkle that never seemed to dim. They came every summer. Some were the same as the year before, but a handful were new faces. I suppose that was part of the appeal of the lifestyle: getting to roam from place to and see some of the most beautiful parts of the country from fifteen hundred feet.
As if parachuting out of low flying aircraft wasn’t extreme enough, the smokejumpers did it close to raging forest fires. If there was an award for most dangerous, deadly, and adrenaline pumping career, smokejumping would have won by a landslide.
“That can’t be Elle Montgomery,” a voice said from off to the side. “At a party? A party with alcohol on private property?”
I elbowed Dani as Derrick Davenport ambled our way. Derrick had played football in high school and was heading to U of W in the fall. Derrick was friends with Logan, not best friends, but close enough to make me sweat.
“And here I thought I was Savannah from South Carolina,” I said, totally hacking up a southern accent. “So much for everyone being too drunk to notice me.” I shot Dani a glare as Derrick stopped in front of us.
“Where’s the Mr.?” Derrick asked, peering over my shoulders.
“He’s out of town for baseball,” I said as another one of the guys who’d been on the football team showed up with two empty red cups in hand.
“Hey, Elle,” he said, looking as surprised as Derrick had to see me here. “Hey, Dani. Pour yourselves a beer and drink up.” He handed us the cups and pointed at the keg beside us. “This is a party, haven’t you heard?”
Dani grabbed my cup and had our cups filled and properly frothed in record time. The girl knew how to work a keg. Handing me one, she tipped her cup and took a drink. If you call upending the entire cup a “drink.”
“What did Logan say when you told him you were coming to the Summer Kick-Off Party at old man Shanigan’s?” Derrick asked.
I took a swig of the beer to stall and made a face. I wasn’t a connoisseur, but I’d had enough sips of it to know this was the cheapest kind. “I didn’t exactly tell Logan I was coming.” Yeah, that sounded bad. “Yet,” I added. “Dani convinced me to come after work and I didn’t get a chance to talk to him.”
Derrick’s expression changed, like he was seeing me in a whole new light.
“Yeah, Logan doesn’t know,” Dani piped in, “so don’t slip and say anything.”
“It’s not a secret,” I said. “I’ll tell him tomorrow when I talk with him. I’m sure he won’t think it’s a big deal.”
“Yes, he will think it’s a big deal and that’s the reason for no, you won’t tell Logan tomorrow.”
I took another drink of my beer, but this wasn’t a dainty sip.
“Damn, Elle Montgomery. At a party and tipping back a beer.” Derrick shook his head, obviously amused. “If I knew you had this edgy side, I wouldn’t have given in so easily when Logan said he was going to ask you to Homecoming our sophomore year. My loss.” He smiled at me as his eyes wandered down my body in a way that made me squirm. “And don’t worry. I’ll take your secret to my grave.”
“It’s not a secret,” I repeated as Dani grabbed my elbow and weaved me through the crowd.
“God,” she said, making a disgusted face, “Derrick Davenport is such a horn-dog. I was going to need a shower if we hung around his filth any longer.”
“I seem to recall you enjoying that horn-dog once or twice last summer,” I teased as I nodded my head at a few familiar faces who called out my name.
“Eww. Please don’t remind me of that. There’s a reason I’m so big into repressing memories, you know?” She stopped in front of a huge tree stump and plopped down. She patted the space beside her. “Room for two.”
“Remind me again why I’m here?” I said as I took a seat.
“Hmm,” Dani said, staring at the group of smokejumpers and their groupies. “Let me get one of them to remind you.” Her smile curved up as her eyes lingered on a few of the blond ones. Dani’s weakness was men, but the blond ones would one day be the death of her.
“Come on, Dani,” I said, waving my beer at them. “You can do so much better than some adrenaline junkie on an ego trip who wouldn’t know commitment if it permanently attached to his pompous ass.”
“Who’s been telling on me again?”
I froze, and if it hadn’t been for Dani’s incessant nudging, I would have stayed that way. I didn’t need to look to the side to know who was standing there. That voice was tattooed into my mind.
“You,” I said, lucky I was able to get one word out. While I couldn’t say Cole looked better now than he had earlier, because the wet hair and body thing really worked for him, he did still manage to make me feel things I shouldn’t be feeling in his dark jeans, green jacket, and knowing expression.
“Me,” he replied, grinning at me. Even in the dark, those green-blue eyes of his glowed. Taking a couple steps closer, he motioned at me. “You.”
I laughed a couple notes, but given I was nervous as all heck, I sounded more like a dying animal than a laughing girl. “Me.”
Of course when Cole laughed, he sounded all swoony and sexy.
“Okay,” Dani said, staring at Cole like someone had just decided to reincarnate a God and put him in a sinner’s body. “Who is you? Or who is me?” she said. “I’m so damn confused.”
“This is Cole,” I said. “Cole Carson.”
I saw a familiar gleam in Dani’s eyes. The one that said and I can get him into my bed how?
“You were listening,” Cole said. “I didn’t think you were doing much else other than staring.” His smile curved higher on one side.
“You know him?” From Dani’s tone, I knew I’d just gotten twenty extra cool points.
“We met earlier today,” I said.
“While we were both swimming at the same place,” Cole added, stuffing his hand in his pocket. “Naked.”
Dani’s eyes popped. She was a worldly girl—it took something especially shocking to get those jaded eyes of hers to pop.
“What Cole forgot to mention was that he was on Grandma M’s private property and I had no idea he was even there.”
“Wait.” Dani shook her head. “You swim nak*d?”
World views were being shifted.
“Oh, yes,” Cole said, popping his brows, “Elle swims nak*d.”
He’d seen me nak*d, but hearing him say my name was intimate in a way I hadn’t anticipated. “How did you find out my name?”
“A bunch of people were talking about this Elle Montgomery girl who didn’t have a rebellious bone in her body showing up a few minutes ago. Of course, once I saw the girl all those fingers were pointing at, I knew they were wrong. How could a girl who swims nak*d and flirts with equally nak*d strangers not have a rebellious bone in that fine, fine body?”
“I was not flirting with you,” I said, not really sure if I had or hadn’t been. I wasn’t even sure how to flirt in a calculated, alluring way, so if I was flirting with Cole as he says I was, that meant it had all come naturally.
Which was possibly the most troubling piece of trivia I’d been made aware of all week.
Dani managed to peel her eyes off of Cole and studied me for a few seconds. She had always been able to see right through my lies, and it was obvious that that was what she was seeing through now.
“I’m going to go mingle,” she said, standing up. “Let you two pick up where you left off.”
“We don’t need to pick anything up,” I said.
Dani leaned close to whisper in my ear. “If you still feel that way in ten minutes, come get me. I’d be more than happy to pick up anything of his.”
“You’re disgusting,” I hissed after her.
Her response was a wink as she beelined towards the growing group of smokejumpers and their entourage.
“So you really weren’t flirting with me this afternoon?” Cole asked as he took a seat beside me. With him pressed up against me, the stump seemed a lot smaller than when Dani’d been next to me.
“I really wasn’t,” I replied, checking my nose to make sure it wasn’t growing.
“Wow. I think my ego just took a serious nosedive,” he said, making a hurt face.
Darn. Even when he was faking insult, Cole’s face did things to my insides no face that wasn’t my boyfriend’s should do.
“From where I’m sitting, it looks like you’ve got plenty to spare,” I said, smiling into my cup as I took a sip of beer. I liked this edgier, wittier Elle. I never talked this way to Logan.
Cole’s eyes shifted to my mouth for one second before they flashed to mine. “And from where I was swimming, it looked like you’ve got plenty to spare, too.”
If I wasn’t already flushing from him glancing at my lips, now I was. Although flushing might have been understating it.
“Oh, shit,” he said, as his eyebrows came together. “You’re embarrassed. Actually, judging from that shade of red, I’d say you’re more along the lines of mortified.” I liked the way he studied my face, like he was really looking at me and seeing who I was. I hated the way he studied my face for the same reason. “I’m sorry, Elle. I assumed the girl who skinny dipped and tossed witty remarks at me this afternoon wouldn’t be easily embarrassed.” For the first time, Cole’s face and words seemed genuine. “I’m a dick. Forgiven?”
Ah, crap. He said it, so now I was imagining his. Just when you think you’ve got nowhere else to go on the red scale. . .
“Okay, changing the subject before you pass out from red poisoning,” he said, smirking at me just enough to let me know he knew what I was thinking. Or picturing. “So if the high class keggers in the back woods aren’t normally your scene, what is?”
“It’s nowhere near as exciting as parachuting into forest fires,” I said, liking the way Cole’s arm felt against mine. I shouldn’t like the way it felt. “In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite of daring, exciting, and adventurous.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Cole said. “Because it’s no secret that girls who skinny dip are not in any way, on any planet, boring.”