Authors: Piper Lawson
If I’m starting to run again in a competitive way, I need to get some better food. My mind’s going through bars, supplements, drinks, and gels as I hear the door close behind her. I make a list in my head since I don’t need to write it down and take a seat at the table, drinking the last of the orange juice from the fridge.
She’s back five minutes later. When she appears in the kitchen it’s with two cups, not one.
It’s sweet and I regret having to do this.
Ariel hands me one of the cups. “Careful, it’s hot. I wasn’t sure what you wanted in it, so I left it...”
Her voice trails off as I take both cups, pop off the lids, then tip them over the sink, my eyes never leaving hers.
Then I hand hers back. She peers into the cup, horror crossing her face. When her slate eyes meet mine it’s like I’ve killed her puppy. “There’re three sips in here! What the heck Chase?”
“Too much caffeine’s bad for running,” I say nonchalantly as I drink the ‘three sips’ left in mine.
“I suppose you’re going to take three quarters of my donut too?” Ariel pulls it out of the bag I didn’t notice and waves it in front of me. When I reach for it, she tries to jerk it away but I’m too quick.
“Nope.” I take the whole thing and chuck it in the trash.
Her jaw is on the floor, and it’s actually pretty entertaining. “What am I going to eat?”
I hand her a banana from the counter but she’s looking at me like I’ve grown a second head.
“This is called a fruit. It’ll get you farther than Boston Cream any day of the week.”
“Want to bet?”
“I thought you wanted this, Hastings,” I say easily. And fuck, I may be an asshole but right now I’m loving the way she narrows her eyes at me. It’s hilarious to find a girl who’s this un-picky about her food. Ash won’t even blow me without knowing the calorie count.
“Chase Owens, you’re the devil,” she mutters.
I grin. Most girls—hell, all girls—either ignore me or just want me to make them scream. And usually I feel the same way about them.
But looking at her, teasing her, gives me a warm, protective feeling. I have to admit it’s a first and it feels pretty great.
“Less talking, more walking, princess. Let’s go,” I say, pushing her toward the door.
We’re running trails again today. I pay attention to everything she’s doing, using a professional eye, not a personal one.
She shoots me a glance. “You’re looking at me. A lot.”
“Yeah. I’m trying to figure out what we can fix. Mechanically. We have two weeks, I want to use every trick in the book.”
Ariel looks back to the trail ahead of her and we continue, her just ahead of me. I’m studying her.
“Your breathing,” I say suddenly. And just as fast I know I’m right.
“Huh?” She pulls up, winded, and turns around.
“It sounds like you’re doing it doggy style in a back alley.”
Her cheeks are already flushed from the run so it’s impossible to tell if she’s embarrassed. “Is that visual really necessary?”
“Nah, but it’s fun trying to piss you off. You’re breathing too shallow. Stop.”
I stand behind her, my hands moving down her sides. “Breathe.” I order. She does. “Open up your chest. You need to get air all the way down here.” I dig my fingers just below her ribs.
“Why are you so touchy?” Ariel demands over her shoulder.
“You don’t know how your body works. I do. Breathe.” She does. “Better. Let’s go.”
We keep going, and she’s trying. But I can tell she’s getting tired.
“There’s a reward up ahead. Three more minutes.”
Ariel’s face tightens.
“You have a running mantra, Hastings? You know, something you say to keep yourself going when it’s hard?” I’m trying to keep her mind off the discomfort.
. Like wings. I like to think my feet are fluttering over the ground. It’s stupid.”
“I like it.”
“You have one?”
I shake my head. “Unless ‘faster, asshole’ counts.”
She bursts into laughter. It gets us through.
Minutes later, we make it to a place where the trees open off the trail. I pull up and she does, too. Bends over her knees, winded.
“See? Totally worth it.” I step to the ledge that opens out over a valley.
Ariel starts asking something but her phone rings. I shoot her a look but her expression dissolves into confusion. “Tess what is it?” Pause. “Seriously? I’ll be right there.”
I can tell something’s wrong before she rings off. Fortunately we’re near the end of the loop, and she explains as we rush back to the truck. “Our apartment’s flooded. A pipe burst or something.”
I drive her to campus, a newer apartment building. “You might want to stay here,” she warns.
“The fuck I will.” I follow her up. She lets herself in and I’m a step behind.
Her roommate is standing in the kitchen near tears. “What’s he doing here?” she sniffs.
“Not now,” I tell her. “What the hell’s going on?”
“I have no idea,” she wails. “I just came home and we had water everywhere!”
I notice the tile on the floor is curling. Water pools at low points in the floor, leaving puddles in the kitchen and living room.
I help the girls lift everything onto furniture, pack away the most important stuff. It takes us an hour.
Ariel calls the building manager, her voice calm. But she’s clearly frustrated. “He says it’ll be a few days to get the damage fixed. We need to stay somewhere else in the meantime.”
“I’ll call Lacey,” Tess says. “Are you calling your dad?”
“I better,” she says grimly. “But he’ll want me home.”
I tilt my head, gesturing to her to come with me. She follows me toward the kitchen. Bends her head toward me when I pause out of Tess’ earshot. “Ariel, you have a place to stay if you want it. I mean,” I add under my breath, “you can’t train an hour away.”
She looks up at me, weighing the words. “I barely know you. And I’ve already crashed for two nights in a row.”
I glance around us. “Listen. I have the truck. We can get whatever you need for the next couple of days and take it back with us. We’ll run, you’ll do what you want besides that. It’ll be easy.”
Ariel worries her lip between her teeth. “Well, Ben’s place is further from campus. I tried Larissa, she doesn’t want me at the sorority. And my dad’s is too far to drive every day.”
I watch her work through it. For some reason I can’t examine, I
her to say yes.
Finally, “Alright. Thank you, Chase.” Ariel looks at me like I’ve just done her the world’s biggest favor. Like she’s not used to people doing her favors.
After packing up more of her essentials – a bag of clothes, headphones, school stuff – we drive back to my place thirty minutes later.
“Back to Thelma and Louise.”
“What?” I’m confused.
“Your roommate has a poster of two girls making out on the ceiling over his bed.”
Fuck. Of course Spencer had shit like that. “We can take it down if it bothers you.”
“It’s OK, Chase, I’m not that fragile. But I had to name them to make it less creepy.” She smiles, and damn if it doesn’t light me up.
Before school the next morning I scrawl on a post-it note next to my bed.
Gone all day and working tonight. Run yourself. Start at 9 am sharp. No cheating
The truth is, I need a day away from her. Seeing her all the time is starting to eat at me.
Ariel’s more relaxed around me than she was. In some ways it makes it easier but I find myself wanting to be around her.
Even when we’re not running.
Which is fucked up. I have a job to do and that’s to get both of us back on this team.
I’m about to stick the note on her door. Instead I open it a crack, on impulse.
She’s at Spence’s desk in pyjamas wearing the Beats headphones on that we’d gotten at her apartment yesterday. Ariel’s bopping to whatever music’s on, her hair sticking out in at least three directions. I give myself a minute to smirk before coming up behind her.
She screams and jumps a mile when I tap her on the shoulder. She sets the headphones around her neck and swivels in her chair to fix me with a dark look. The fact that she’s not wearing makeup and is wearing a tank top with lollipops on it makes her about as scary as a Chihuahua.
“C’mon Hastings. You know you want to,” I taunt.
“To swear at me.” I grin.
“I don’t like to swear, Chase.”
I grab the headphones and hold them up to my ears. “Eminem, huh?” I shake my head. “So you like listening to it, just not saying it.”
“Eminem’s a better influence than you are,” she says sweetly, her unmade-up face curving into a smile.
I set the headphones back around her neck. Then point my finger at her. “Don’t forget. You gave me two weeks. I’m the one in your head, princess. The
I stick the post-it to her forehead before retreating out the door.
“What the - Chase!” She shouts from behind me.
I don’t hear anything from her for the next hour so call her at 9:15. She’d given me her cell yesterday in case of emergency. “Where are you?” I demand when she answers.
“Doing the run you set. I’m just past the ditch,” she replies, breathing heavily.
All I can hear is her voice, straining over the effort.
Out of nowhere I’m thinking about what I’d do to make her sound like that.
“Did you leave when I told you?” I ask, pushing the distracting thoughts from my mind.
“You rolling your eyes at me?”
I look at my watch, make a quick calculation.
“Slow down, Hastings.”
“Ugh! When will we start working on speed? Besides, how do you even—“
“Slow. Down. Hastings.” Then I click off.
It’s lunchtime when my phone dings again. I open the picture message, then text her back.
What the hell is this?
I didn’t want you to feel like you missed out on our workout
Ariel had taken a selfie at the end of the trail with some hiker and their dog. Then pasted my head over the dog’s.
I can’t help laughing. I’m still thinking about it when I get into my truck to go to work at Tor’s.
As if by some divine coincidence, he calls when before I put it in gear to say he doesn’t need the help today.
Suddenly I’ve got hours ahead of me and nothing to do.
I stop by the beer store to replace the twelve pack of Spence’s I drained unassisted the week before he left. Before I’d decided to get back on the team and reform my habits. Now I haven’t had so much as a drop.
It’s only been a few days, but still. I can feel part of my old self coming back.
When I let myself in, I hear sounds coming from the TV. I step quietly into the living room. See a blond head just above the back of the couch.
“A Rush Like This?” I name the twenty-year old romantic film. “What’re you watching that for?”
Ariel startles at the sound of my voice for the second time today. She turns around, looking at me over the back of the couch. “I thought you were working tonight.”
I cross to the couch. She’s pale, I realize, frowning. “Got off early. You sick?”
“What’s with the movie?”
“I like it,” she says feebly.
“I don’t believe you.” I look back and forth between her and the actress on the screen. “Hey, has anyone ever told you that you look like – “
I see it in her eyes before I finish saying the words. “Mia Cooper was my mom. Don’t make this weird, Chase. It’s always weird when people find out my mom was a celebrity.”
That was the understatement of the year. The woman was a big screen darling who’d already done ten big films before having her career, and life, ended way before her time. I’d forgotten how she died.
“Today’s her birthday. I always watch a movie on her birthday. Dad and Larissa and I used to do it together, but lately…” her voice trails off.
I cross in front of her and sit on the far side of the couch, setting the twelve pack on the table between us.
Ariel reaches over and takes a beer.
“You’re training,” I respond automatically. “Yesterday was practically an off day with your apartment flooding.”
She looks at me blankly. “Chase? I ran this morning. My mom would’ve been fifty today if I hadn’t killed her by being born. If you want this beer back, you’re going to have to fight me for it.”
I lean over and twist the bottle easily out of her hand, despite the fact that she’s hanging on tight. Then I set it on the table out of her reach.
She looks at me like I’m an asshole. But I stand and walk to the kitchen, returning a minute later with a bottle opener. I use it to open the beer on the table and pass it back to her before opening one for myself.
Then without thinking I wrap my arm around her legs, bare between the knee of her cropped yoga pants and her ankle socks, and tug them across mine so she can stretch out.
I turn back to the movie.
Her mom’s character gets on the subway to go to her first day of work in a new job. She catches the eye of a stranger on the train and he smiles back.
She’s stunning, that’s for sure – blond and smiling. Mia is years older in the film than Ariel is now. She has Ariel’s innocence but without the troubles Ariel always seems to carry. I wonder if that’s true. Or if it’s just acting.
“I want to be a screenwriter,” Ariel blurts out to the living room. “I even applied to this big internship and got in. I haven’t told my dad yet.”
I take a swig of my beer. “You want to make romantic fluffy crap like this?”
“You’re making fun of me.”
“No. Maybe the world needs more stuff like this. There’s too much darkness.”
She looks at me, surprised. “I agree.” She pauses, taking a sip of her beer and watching the screen. “You know, romantic fluffy crap is all about the meet cute.”
“Where the hero and heroine meet. Like this part,” Ariel points to the screen, and I see her face brighten even in profile. “She’ll get lost on the subway and he will too. They’re the only two people at the end of the line. Each one pretends they’re not lost and they argue about it. Then they end up going for dinner.”
“And what makes that so great?”
“With a perfect meet cute, there’s tension. Humor. They butt heads. You wonder if it’s coincidence, or if it’s fate.”
“And which is it?”
She shrugs at me. “That’s for the audience to decide.”
I mull it over. “Did we have a meet cute?”
A small smile paints her lips. “You mean in Varis’ office? Doesn’t count.”
“Probably not.” I think for a minute. “The party?”
She shifts, her gaze flicking to me, unreadable. “You were pretty aggressive. Hero’s aren’t usually like that.”
“I guess I’m not much of a hero.”
We watch for a few more minutes silently.
“I pretend I know her this way,” Ariel offers without turning away from the screen. “I used to watch all her movies then pick the best characters and pretend that’s what she was like. I imagine having conversations with her. What she’d say when I came home from school with a good report card, or after a bad date. This one’s one of my favorites.”
I could see how that would be hard. Especially for a little girl growing up in her mom’s shadow. The shadow of someone who’d never be there. The fact that the whole world got to know Mia but her own daughter had only glimpses of someone she was. Not just who she was, someone she’d once pretended to be.
“But your dad was around. At least you were one for two.”
She turns toward me. “What do you mean?”
I shrug, eyes still fixed on the screen. “Just be grateful for what you had. Sometimes getting less of your parents is better.”
“How is that possible?”
“Not all attention is good, princess.” I realize I’m stroking her legs and force my hand to still.
She glances toward my hands. “It’s OK. I’m kind of tight after this morning.”
I nod, and my fingers move to her calves, finding the knots and rubbing them out. I need something to do.
“My dad used to ignore me,” I tell her. “Then for my tenth birthday, he got me a baseball glove and a baseball. I played with my friends for hours until we finally lost the ball. My dad broke my arm for being careless. So I couldn’t play anyway.”
Her eyes are round with pain, empathy. “What did your mom do?”
“Took me to the hospital to get it set. When they asked what happened she said it was an accident.” I sucked in a breath. “For my next birthday, I wished my mom’s pregnancy would go wrong. I used to dream about running away. But when I got a baby brother? I couldn’t leave.”
My eyes drop to the table and I stare through it.
“I’m so sorry, Chase.”
I look up at her for a long second. We share more in that look than we have the whole time we’ve been sitting there. It’s like she gets it. Gets me. Even though I never asked her to.
Finally, unable to take it any longer, my eyes cut back to the screen.
“Shit. Looks like we missed your meet cute.”