“Really? Is it different?”
“Yes! I can twirl a baton with my elbow.”
“You are kidding.” He eyed me like he really thought I might be kidding. I guess it did sound kind of strange.
“I’m not kidding. You’ll see.” I put my fists on my h*ps and stuck my chest out proudly. “I can juggle three batons.”
“You should be in the circus!”
“I should be, if I were surrounded by a lake of fire.”
“Tell you what,” he said. “You can show me your routines. Then we’re going to find a private place behind a rock or up in a tree or something, and we’re going to make out. Clear?”
My heart was racing. “Clear.”
“And then we can move you to a sidewalk where there are more pedestrians, and you can juggle your batons again. If you collect enough tips, we’ll go to dinner.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Did you say the reason you were single was that you made girls mad? I don’t understand how that could ever happen.” I poked him in the ribs, like a girl who wasn’t afraid to flirt with her boyfriend.
He flinched. “Me neither.”
I patted the tight shirt hiding his hard stomach. “This had better be an athlete’s low-fat dinner.”
“I will make them hold the butter.”
“I like this idea. Oh!”
We both braced ourselves against the seat as the bus rumbled to life and jerked into motion.
“Better go.” Max gave me a quick kiss on the lips. “I love you, Gemma. I’m so glad we’re together. Finally!”
He paused, looking into my eyes to make sure I’d heard him.
I looked up at him and said, “I love you, too.”
His eyes fell to my lips. He put his hand in my big hair and kissed me until the bus bumped into a pothole and he nearly fell down in the aisle.
“More tomorrow,” he promised.
Then he jogged up the aisle, toward the bus driver. As he went, people yelled, “That’s Gemma Van Cleve’s boyfriend!” and “That’s the damn kicker from East!” and threw plastic flip folders and tubes of cork grease at him.
The driver stopped and let Max off the bus. He jumped down the steps and crossed the parking lot. Carter and a group of guys held out their arms and embraced him, slapping him on the back. I watched them walk toward their cars together.
Early Saturday morning I drove my mom to the indoor soccer field to watch the game Max was coaching. I’d mentioned it to her at breakfast and asked if she wanted to come, figuring she’d stay home to work on a charity ball instead. But she’d said yes.
She even folded her hands primly in her lap in the passenger seat of my car, trying very hard not to grab the dashboard in a death grip as she had when she was teaching me to drive. She looked so relaxed that I found the courage to say, “Since we don’t have plans for tomorrow or Labor Day, I thought I might drive over to Hilton Head to see Dad. You know, to thank him for the car.”
She didn’t answer right away. But finally she nodded and said, “You should call him.”
“It’s short notice,” I backtracked. “He might have other plans.”
“He might include you in his plans. You’re his daughter, Gemma.”
I looked over at my mom, hoping she didn’t feel betrayed that I wanted to see him.
But her expression was thoughtful. “Or if it didn’t work out, you could go during your fall break in October, or any weekend in September when you don’t have a band contest.” She sighed, leaned back in the seat, and looked out the open sunroof. “It’s beautiful over there. You’ll love it.”
Inside the soccer dome, the huge field had been divided into two smaller fields for kids’ games. I recognized Max on one of the fields, surrounded by girls with pink bows in their hair and pink socks pulled over their shin guards. I also recognized his parents sitting on bleachers at one end of the field.
I led my mom in that direction, planning all along how I would introduce her to Max’s parents, going over the words in my mind. I didn’t want to screw this up. But when we were still several yards away from them, Max’s mom jumped up and ran across the plastic turf to hug me. “Gemma! I’m so glad you and Max are together now. Did you see his kick last night?” Then she let me go and introduced herself to my mom. She introduced my mom to Max’s dad, and we all sat down together. It was impossible to feel awkward around her. I saw where Max had gotten his personality.
“Biscuit?” she asked, leaning across me to offer my mom a plastic container. “They’re homemade.”
My mom never refused food in a social setting. She rarely refused it at all. She shocked me this time by putting one hand on her belly and shaking her head. “No, thank you. I’m getting back to my healthy weight, starting today.”
I made an effort not to stare at her. I guessed I would be seeing more of her in the gym at our house.
Instead, I stared into the box as Max’s mom showed it to me.
“Biscuit?” she asked.
My stomach growled. I’d eaten only a banana for breakfast and argued with my mother over that. She’d said I would be hungry an hour later, and she was right. I was genuinely hungry.
“Thank you.” I reached into the box and pulled out a biscuit with ham and cheese. It was soft, salty, and full of butter, and it might have been the best thing I had ever put in my mouth.
Or I could have felt that way because I was already thinking happy thoughts. The game had started. Max paced the sidelines, pointing at the field when the girls looked to him for direction. Sometimes during a big play, he put both hands in his hair, showing off those chiseled arms, and accidentally knocked himself in the head with his cast. I loved watching him engrossed in something he cared about. But I looked forward to our afternoon alone.
A familiar flash of blond caught my eye. Carter, wearing a bright yellow referee’s uniform, was running the game on the second field. And on the opposite bleachers, Addison sat watching him. Her mother must have thought Addison couldn’t get into too much trouble at a kids’ soccer game at eight in the morning. Or she’d met Carter and liked him. Either way, I felt happy for Addison.
She waved at me once, and I waved too. Then I turned my attention back to Max.
In the afternoon I was in the middle of a three-turn with a super-high toss, the baton just missing the branches of a poplar, when I saw Max walking toward me through the park. I impressed myself when I was able to catch the baton despite this distraction. I finished the trick by holding the baton and my other arm out gracefully. “Ta-da!”
He grinned, but he didn’t clap for me. He was gripping a bouquet of roses in his casted hand and something else behind his back.
I skipped forward and kissed him hello, consciously trying to slow my heartbeat. I felt totally comfortable around Max, except for that pesky racing pulse.
“For you.” He presented me with the bouquet.
I inhaled the scent of the flowers and smiled. “Thank you! Are these the ones Addison tried to send you? You and Carter are into recycled gifts.”
“No. And I brought you something else. What I should have given you for your birthday.” He brought the monstrosity out from behind his back.
It was not a bear he had built himself. Instead, it was a wildcat he had built himself. It had brown fur, but purple streaked its head, as if Max had gotten into his little sister’s watercolors. The wildcat wore a T-shirt like Carter’s bear, but this one didn’t say I LOVE YOU. It was printed with MARCHING WILDCATS in Max’s sharp handwriting. The wildcat also wore a lot of bracelets and necklaces made of crumpled tinfoil beads.
“With my wrist in a cast,” Max said, “it’s hard for me to do crafts. My sister helped me, in case that wasn’t clear.”
“I love it.” I gave him another kiss. At some point I dropped the wildcat, because he was very bulky, and propped the bouquet against him. Max had all my attention. He deepened the kiss, and I didn’t mind. We were alone in this part of the park.
When we took a breath, I rubbed my nose against his. “I need to tell you something. You’ve said I have a hard time in relationships, so I want to make sure I’m communicating this to you. I don’t know what will happen with you and me. In a few hours when we leave, I could walk across the parking lot to my car and get hit by a bus.”
Max rolled his eyes.
“Okay, okay, don’t do that. This is hard for me. You know, emoting.”
Max kept one hand on my waist and held me close, but he deliberately looked at his watch on the other wrist.
“Okay. What I’m trying to say is . . .” I looked into his beautiful dark eyes.
He winced, bracing for it, like he thought I was about to reveal something terrible that would undo three weeks of maneuvering between us.
“You are a very good boyfriend,” I said in a rush.
He laughed. “I’ve been your boyfriend for about sixteen hours.”
I tapped my finger on my forehead. “In my mind, it’s been longer.”
“Mine too.” He brushed a strand of purple hair out of my eyes. And he kissed me again.
I kissed him back, then opened one eye to look around. We were still alone. I closed my eyes and kissed him harder, pushing my fingers into his thick hair.
After a few more long, hot, tingling minutes, he broke the kiss. Setting his forehead against mine, he looked into my eyes and whispered, “So far, so good.”