Authors: Victoria June
"How was work?"
"I can now make any kind of latte."
I glanced over at Jake. His blue eyes were trained on the road and when he looked over my heart blipped. For nineteen years we'd been best friends but one look still sent me soaring.
"Do you think people will like me?" I asked.
"Why wouldn't they?"
I shrugged. "You know how it is."
Jake focused back on the road. In less than fifteen minutes I'd be flung into a situation I hated most: meeting new people. I was beyond shy. I could easily retreat to the most secluded corner of any party or family gathering and remain completely invisible.
"A lot of my friends will be there and I want you to get to know them."
"I will." Or I'd try. People didn't exactly gravitate to me.
Jake's phone trilled. Likely Bianca. She couldn't leave him alone for more than five minutes. It was probably killing her that I was with him, but she had an acting gig – yes, Bianca was an aspiring actor. College was something her parents made her do because, like me, they were rooted firmly in reality, and while Bianca had the looks and determination, acting wasn't exactly a long-term career . . . in Minnesota.
"Bianca?" I asked.
He met her at a frat party. She was his dream girl and he lost his mind when she paid him a little attention. He'd landed one of the hottest girls at Western University and he did everything he could to keep her. She ordered him around, made him run her errands and worst of all, he had to boost her overly-inflated ego.
The first time I'd met her we clashed like two mama bears trying to protect the same cub. She'd graced us with her presence in Pine Falls at Uncle Ron's birthday dinner. I sat on one side of Jake and she sat on the other. We both fawned over him — probably the only time she'd ever done that — passing him his favorite dishes, grabbing his soda of choice and arguing over who would cut his piece of blueberry pie, the pie I'd made.
"How many people are going to be there?"
"Ten, I think."
"Who are they?"
"Guys from a frat, Bianca's friends. One of the guys is a senator's son and Brett, his family owns the cabin. His dad is some big shot lawyer. Filthy rich. Of course their girlfriends will be there too. It'll be fine."
"I'm sure it will be."
Rich kids. Bianca had sucked Jake into this life. It wasn't that Jake and I were the poor kids from the wrong side of the tracks, but we didn't come from senator and big shot lawyer stock. Grandpa and Dad co-owned an antique shop and Jake's parents owned Pine Falls best burger joint. Hardly high rollers.
Jake turned off the main highway and we drove down the tree-lined gravel road until it became more and more remote. We pulled up to a tall iron gate with an intercom. A voice came over the speaker and Jake identified us. The gate creaked opened and the cabins came into focus, one dotting the landscape every mile or so. All were on the lake and larger than any house I'd seen before. Jake had definitely met some very rich friends his first year at Western.
"These people are more loaded than I could have imagined," Jake said and whistled.
"These places are amazing."
"One day, Emma, I'm going to have a place like this."
Knowing Jake, I'd bet on it. His mission since middle school was to be a surgeon, and absolutely nothing was going to take him off course. First an undergraduate degree, followed by med school. Thankfully his shortlist included Western.
"Make sure it has a balcony overlooking the water so I can sit out there and sun myself," I said.
"That and an awesome boat to jet around the water. Maybe do a little fishing."
"Until then, we can dream."
Jake parked his beat-up Honda behind various Mercedes, BMWs and high-end SUVs. I grabbed my backpack and headed up the stone walkway to the front porch steps, all twenty of them. The place was modeled after a log cabin, a ten thousand square foot cabin. The huge bay windows gave us a glimpse inside to its soaring ceilings, massive fireplace and on-trend furniture. My first thought was of the kitchen. I had to see it.
Jake hit the buzzer and we waited. A minute later a guy with short dark hair and chocolaty brown eyes opened the door. He had a few inches on Jake and a stockier build. He looked at me then Jake.
"Hey, Jake, come in," he said, stepping aside.
"Zach, this is my friend Emma. Emma, this is Zach Walker."
"Nice to meet you," I said, extending my hand. He was kind of cute, something I wouldn't normally notice. He had the stubbly face thing going but despite it all, he wasn't my type. Rich and privileged bored me.
He shook my hand and smiled warmly. "Nice to meet you too. Most of the guys went fishing and the girls are baking out on the balcony. Your room is down the hall, two doors from the end on the right hand side. Bianca knows you guys are sharing a room? Because we don't have an extra."
"She knows," Jake said. "Nothing's going on between me and Emma."
"Just making sure. We don't want any trouble from her. We all know how she can be."
We clambered to our room. The first thing I saw was the huge king-sized bed. Jake and I had shared a bed before and it wasn't a big deal for him. For me, on the other hand, I usually spent a restless night wanting to reach out and nuzzle up against him. On the rare occasions we touched, it was like a lightning bolt tearing apart my veins. If nothing else, the thought of sharing a bed with him was the only reason I'd come.
"Let's check out the lake," Jake suggested.
My skin prickled. I was going to meet all these frivolous women who were probably exactly like Bianca. None would like me but pretend to, while talking behind my back the first chance they got. I kept telling myself it was only two days as we walked through the tiled living room and past the stone fireplace to the French doors leading outside.
We stepped out onto the vast balcony that looked over the lake. All the girls, in their tiny bright colored bikinis, stared back at me from behind designer sunglasses. All were sprawled out on pool chairs taking in the last few days of summer sun. The clones had lean, toned and tanned figures and with the exception of one, enormous and presumably fake breasts. I felt tall and gangly in their presence.
"This is Emma, everyone," Jake said. One fake-waved like she actually liked me while the other three muttered hellos and returned to their gossiping. This was going to be a long two days.
Zach reappeared, the only friendly face. "I'm going to marinate the chicken and season the steaks. Does anyone want to help with some sides? A salad at least? Anything?" He sounded exasperated. Not one of the beach bunnies bothered to acknowledge him.
"I don't mind," I volunteered. "I love to cook."
Zach's face lightened. "Thank God! I don't think I can eat store bought potato salad or shitty coleslaw all weekend. Follow me."
The kitchen was only place I felt safe. I surveyed my surroundings. It reminded me of Julian's commercial kitchen. Chrome and stainless steel appliances barely used and all brand new. I fell instantly in love. Zach gave me the rundown of where to find everything and I thought he'd take off to more interesting places, but instead pulled a beer from the fridge and took a seat at one of the bistro chairs, setting the beer down on the granite-topped island.
"You're hanging out with me?" I asked. Uneasiness bubbled in my stomach. I was perfectly happy alone. Didn't he have a Jet Ski or yacht to play around on?
"If I have to go out there and listen to them talk about clothes, shoes and makeup, I'll self-combust."
I stifled a laugh. "Isn't one of them your girlfriend?"
The fuchsia bikini? The fake waver? The one with real breasts? I'd find out later.
"Why didn't you go fishing?"
"I slept in and none of the guys bothered to wake me up."
I opened the huge fridge door and it was packed. For people who didn't cook, I couldn't figure out why they had all this food. I rummaged through the crisper and pulled out some broccoli that I would give a quick steam. I put to one corner a few red and yellow bell peppers and was delighted to find some kalamata olives. There was feta, strawberries and, of course, a tub of potato salad and coleslaw.
"Any regular potatoes? We can barbecue them, but I can pass if you are potatoed out."
"There's a bag of them in the far corner. I'm good with them as long as they don't resemble a potato salad in any way."
I laughed. "I promise."
I peeled potatoes and he continued to watch. Typical rich kid, but I didn't care. I enjoyed his company. "Why do you guys have all this food if no one's making it?"
"Wishful thinking? I thought at least one of the ladies would make an attempt but this weekend seems to be all about tans. That sounds sexist, doesn't it? The thing is I know all these guys, and they're useless in the kitchen."
"Honestly, I'd be happy spending all my time in here."
"If you can cook, I can eat."
I smiled. He was pretty cool so far. "I could make a dessert too, but will the girls eat it?"
Zach's huge eyes opened wider. "Who cares! I'll eat their dessert. What are you making?"
"Jake's a sucker for chocolate cake and I see all the ingredients here. I could add a layer of strawberries. We have tons of strawberries."
"I think it's a great plan. I'll even help you."
"That would be nice." And totally weird.
I combined the ingredients and Zach mixed it all together while I tackled the strawberry filling followed by some chocolate icing. The entire hour we worked on my cake, the girls came in to grab more coolers but nothing else. Becca, who I did confirm as the fuchsia bikini girl, did give me a glare, but didn't bother to find out what her boyfriend was doing with me. Guess she didn't feel too threatened.
"My mom doesn't cook or bake," Zach said, licking the spatula. "Louisa does it all."
"Is she the housekeeper?" I took the cake batter from him before he put the spatula back in and poured the contents into two greased cake pans.
"Yes. She's been with us since I was a kid. Mom and Dad are in Washington most of the year, so Louisa is like a second mom."
I tilted my head. "You're the senator's son?"
"That would be me," he said, taking the bowl back, tilting it, ringing a finger around the sides and licking up what remained. I had the cake in the oven and now worked on the main meal. First chopping onions and cutting up potatoes, then steaming broccoli.
"Does everyone kiss your ass?"
"I don't think so."
"But you've probably always been one of the cool kids."
"Mostly because I'm cool," he said with a wink.
"You're pretty normal. How come?"
He laughed flashing his perfect white teeth. "What does that mean?"
"You aren't stuck up."
"I think I'm pretty easy going. I don't judge. My parents taught me that much."
"It's a good quality to have."
He went to the fridge and grabbed another beer. "Want one?" he asked.
"Sure, why not."
We took a break for a few minutes and enjoyed our beers. Even though I was underage, Dad and I often sat outside on the front porch on hot afternoons drinking a cool one. We'd talk sports, hockey mostly since Dad was a star forward in high school. Then we'd move on to football and tennis. Sometimes Uncle Ron and Jake would join in and the four of us would debate everything from player salaries to stats. I must have been a man in my previous life.
"So you and Jake are childhood friends?"
"Have you and Bianca been friends for a long time?"
He took a gulp of beer and grunted. "I wouldn't call her a friend. We hang out with the same people, but that's about it."
"Oh," I said casually. I had to play it safe not knowing exactly where he stood with her.
He smirked. "Come on, she's a bitch. We can both admit it. Not sure what Jake sees in her other than the body."
His placid expression appeared sincere. Either he was an excellent actor or he hated the wench as much as I did. "I think that's all he sees."
"And you two never hooked up?"
"No. He's like my brother."
Zach scrutinized me, his eyes fixing on mine. "How long have you liked him?"
My cheeks burned. How could he tell? It was like I was an open book to him. "What are you talking about?" I set down my beer and started chopping peppers with my back to Zach.
"It's obvious to me, but I'm not sure it's obvious to an asswipe like Jake."
"Whatever you say. I'm on barbecue duty," he said, changing the subject. "When should I fire up the grill?"
"My potatoes take about half hour."
He looked outside one of the huge windows. "The guys are back. I'm sure they're starved."
A crowd had formed on the balcony but neither of us went to greet them. Zach barely acknowledged them. Instead, he focused on me.
"What are we going to do with the broccoli?"
"Other than manning a barbecue, I can't cook a thing. Maybe if I learn some tips from a seasoned chef like yourself, I may be able to feed myself a little better. Add a few vegetables into my diet instead of the usual munching on carrots thing that I do."
"We could do something simple with the broccoli. I like to keep it healthy for my dad and my grandpa."
"Your mom not in the picture?"
I grimaced. The thought of her . . . I was not going there. "Nope, and my grandma died a few years ago. Back to the broccoli," I said before he could get onto the subject of where my mother was. "I like to make a simple vinaigrette of olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper and fresh garlic cloves. Do you think everyone here will like garlic? Jake loves it."
"You mean the princesses? Who cares. Go for it."
"I mince the garlic, but only dress the broccoli right before serving otherwise it will discolor it," I added, like I was on a cooking show and needed to give Zach a tutorial.
"Sounds delicious, for broccoli anyway. Where's your mom?"