“YOU RUINED MY LIFE!” I scream as I burst through the door, not caring that I probably just permanently scarred my vocal cords.
Okay, possibly a bit overdramatic but the severity of the situation needed to be conveyed.
My mother looks at me for a moment—her cell phone plastered to her ear. She covers the mouthpiece, then says, “Hi, sweetheart. What are you talking about?”
“Your stupid book!” I screech and toss a copy of Saving Sadie on the kitchen island. Her newest masterpiece pirouettes across the smooth gray-speckled granite, colliding with the fruit bowl. Two precariously perched oranges roll off the counter and plummet to the floor.
I spin on my heel, march up the stairs and into my bedroom. The slam of my door punctuates my exit. As I flop on the bed, my face buried in the down-filled pillow, I wonder how my life could be destroyed in a matter of mere hours.
This morning when I woke up I was an ordinary teenager, thrilled that it was the last day of school. I was on the verge of becoming an upperclassman. The curtain was at last closing on my lowly sophomoric life. I just had one final day to suffer through then I would no longer be the unworthy bottom of a high school social class system where upperclassmen rule and freshmen and sophomores haven’t earned the right to be cool. Jocks, cheerleaders, and poms are the popular crowd, the top of the hierarchy. If you’re unlucky enough to not only be an underclassman but also not be involved in an acceptably deemed activity then you are basically nonexistent. And that was exactly where I had found myself for the last two years. But that was about to change. I still wasn’t in with the cool kids, and probably never would be, but I was at least about to be an upperclassman, safe from the tyranny.
I only had to survive one final day and then the most amazing summer ever would begin. Teenage Utopia. Relaxing afternoons at the pool, glorious weekends at the lake. Here in Lake Forest, Minnesota, there is an unwritten rite of passage. Juniors and seniors overtake the lake on Sunday afternoons. (Such irony that in the land of 10,000 lakes we only have one nearby to enjoy.) The families frantically pack up their picnics, stuff the floaties in the back of their minivans, and flee the lake before teenagers flood the area, music blaring. To pacify the community the local police make their presence known so all stays innocent. Of course, I’ve only heard the legendary stories of adolescent joviality since I’ve been too inconsequential to enjoy it myself. But that was all on the verge of changing. This morning I had envisioned the promising future ahead of me. What a waste.
My mother knocks on my door, then—not waiting for an invitation—enters, like she owns the place.
“Josie, what’s this all about? Are you rehearsing a scene?” Her tone is somewhere between worry and annoyance.
“No, Mommy Dearest,” my voice muffled by the fluffy pillow. I roll on my side, fresh air filling my lungs. “This is not a problem that can be solved with a big musical production. This is my life and you have completely destroyed it!”
“I can’t go anywhere without being ridiculed and laughed at, that’s what’s wrong. How could you humiliate your own daughter like that?”
She takes a deep breath. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
How can she be so clueless?
“My book? I think I need a little bit more to go on here.”
“Next time you decide to destroy my life can you at least warn me first?”
She sighs, then sits on the edge of my bed. She’s wearing her usual mom clothes, a t-shirt and yoga pants. The woman’s array of yoga pants can rival any sporting goods store’s collection. I’m not sure if she actually ever does any yoga but she’s always well prepared if the mood hits. “Honey, I still don’t know what’s wrong.”
“You mean besides the fact that I can no longer show my face around this town and that you have ruined what was supposed to be the most epic summer ever?”
“What does this have to do with my book?”
“How could you write those things?!”
“Josie, calm down, nothing in the book is about you.”
“But no one knows that! You always include my most embarrassing moments in your books.”
As cool as it seems to have a mom who’s an author, it’s actually a total pain. My mother loves to scatter my unfortunate mishaps throughout her books. It’s not that I’m a total klutz, I mean everyone has moments of ineptitude, right? I’m just lucky enough to have mine set in print for all eternity. Actually, I pride myself on being a pretty graceful dancer. But I have this horribly bad habit of diving headfirst into life without contemplating the outcomes. My classmates in elementary and middle school called these incidents “Josie moments.” The kids were like mini detectives scouring the pages of Mom’s novels in search of them. Her last book included my very dramatic fainting episode during the school choir concert in second grade, and my unfortunate panic attack in the corn maze during the class field trip. Hey, getting lost in miles of towering maize can be extremely traumatizing.
“That’s ridiculous. It’s a fictional novel,” my mom says dismissively. “No one will think it’s about you.”
“You made the lead character a sophomore in high school who’s in the theater club. Of course everyone thinks it’s me!”
“I think you’re overreacting.”
“Then why did I get a hundred texts calling me Jailbait Josie?”
“Oh honey, it’ll blow over,” she says in the same patronizing tone she used when I was five and thought my world was over because I didn’t get the part of the gumdrop in the Nutcracker pageant.
“No, Mom, it won’t blow over. And do you know why I know it won’t? Because today my locker was covered in tampons thanks to you. Not one little metal inch was left showing.”
She cringes a little, then defensively says, “But, those things I wrote never happened to you.”
“It doesn’t matter, the damage is done. No one will listen. They all believe that it was I who lost my bikini top while jumping off the diving board trying to impress a guy and that I am the one who started my period and stained my white skirt while up on stage giving a speech. Thanks, Mom. I’m never going to be able to face any of these people ever again.”
“Come on, honey, let’s go make some popcorn and watch an old movie. That always cheers you up.”
“Mom, seriously, this isn’t some little problem that you can tidy up like in one of your books with some lovely mother-daughter time. You wrote those horrible things and now I have to live with the consequences. My amazing summer has been stolen from me.”
I bury my head back in my pillow. She eventually takes the hint that I don’t want to talk and leaves.
Even now in the safety of my room a wave of nausea sweeps over me as I think back over the horrific events of the day. I can still feel how the curiosity of seeing the enormous crowd gathered in the hallway turned to pity when I realized they were laughing and pointing at some poor, unsuspecting soul’s locker, which quickly turned to panic with the realization that the locker in question was mine and that it was covered in feminine hygiene products.
As I stood there staring in disbelief, the blood throbbing in my head, someone yelled, “Hey, that’s her. That’s Josie DelRio.” I watched as the mob turned toward me like lions about to pounce. The pointing, laughter, and whispers made my knees weaken. How could this be happening? Why was it happening?
Before I could collapse from the sheer force of the mortification, a strong arm yanked me into the bathroom. Thank goodness for best friends.
Liz instructed me to sit on the tile floor, then left to track down some answers. I sat there stunned, wondering what could possibly have sparked the incident. But as the bell rang and the crowd dispersed I heard someone in the hallway say, “If you think that’s bad, wait until you get to Chapter 4.”
And I suddenly knew who was responsible for the collapse of my world. My own mother.
I hole up in my room the rest of the afternoon, trying to calm myself. But a comprehensive check of all forms of communication leaves no doubt—my life is officially over. The repulsive things people are posting sicken me. If this is what social media has come to, I opt for being antisocial.
But seriously, how could people be so cruel? Even if all those things in the book had happened to me why would people be that horrible and exploit my misfortunes? What a stupid question. They don’t care who they hurt, they just want to look cool. I learned long ago most people in that school will do whatever it takes to be accepted and avoid the wrath themselves.
Depressed, I fall back on my bed and contemplate my mom’s stupid book. What kind of person comes up with this stuff? Who is this woman who gave birth to me? Suddenly it doesn’t seem possible that I could have her genes coursing through my body.
Maybe these parents of mine picked up the wrong baby at the hospital sixteen years ago. Maybe they have unknowingly been raising someone else’s child. It would explain a lot, like how no one in my family seems to understand me or why I’m the only one in this house who can somewhat carry a tune and remember the order of gifts in “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
I picture my real parents, totally rich and chill, right now probably hanging out on their yacht in the Mediterranean, martinis in hand. They’re watching their daughter pondering how she, of nerdy brains and unusually strange sense of humor, could be from their uber cool loins.
Unfortunately my switched-at-birth daydream shatters when I remember how I break out in hives whenever I wear wool, just like my dad. And how my kindergarten photo looks eerily like my mother’s—same crooked smile, big blue eyes, and curly brown hair sticking up in odd places, all Medusa-like. Alas, I guess I’m stuck with the parental units I have. A mom who writes adolescent fiction, loves old movies, her church and of course those yoga pants, and a straight-laced lawyer dad whose idea of fun is finishing the Sunday crossword puzzle.
Eventually my mom knocks on my door.
“Sweetie,” she says tentatively, “Cameron’s here. He’s waiting for you on the front porch.”
Cameron. My boyfriend—for about the last month anyway. Over the last two years, we’ve done every Lake Forest High theater production together. Our Broadway-obsessed drama teacher specializes in musicals. I’m primarily a dancer but sometimes get a minor role. Cameron always gets the leads. Even as a freshman he won the coveted roles. He’s tall, good-looking, and has been blessed with a knee-weakening tenor voice. He’s used his claim to fame to go out with most of the freshman, sophomore, and even a few of the junior theater girls at one time or another. For the longest time I never understood his appeal. Immune to his charms, I recognized him for the conceited and totally full of himself jerk that he is.
That is, until the spring musical, The Music Man. As I was Pick-a-little-ing around the stage, he was singing about seventy-six trombones. He must be a better actor than I realized because somehow I fell under his Professor Harold Hill spell, just like Marian the Librarian. I mean, when he gazed into perky Katie Phillips’ eyes and sang Till There Was You, well, who wouldn’t have melted?
So Cameron and I started going out. Sadly, and embarrassingly difficult to admit, I was always way more attracted to his Professor Harold Hill character than to Cameron Richardson. In real life he never once acted romantic or asked me to meet him at the footbridge or sang a love song—except maybe to his own reflection. Cameron’s ego is as big as his stage presence. But it has been nice to have a “boyfriend,” especially one that can drive.
I know what you’re thinking—because I’ve thought it many times myself. This girl is desperate and pathetic. Shoot me, but frankly since I don’t have my own car, I much prefer being driven to school by a cute guy than by my mom. I live too far from school to walk (unless I want to wake up at the crack of dawn—not likely), but not far enough to take the bus. So yes, I will put up with a lot because there is no way I can show my face climbing out of my mom’s SUV now that I’m sixteen. Total target for humiliation. But truth be told, I’ve been contemplating what to do with Cameron. He doesn’t really fit into my summer visions and now that I don’t need a ride to school, his usefulness is over.
But here he is, at my door, in my hour of need. I may have misjudged my arrogant crooner. He’s actually not the worst boyfriend in the world. Maybe it’s good I haven’t dumped him yet; at least I’ll have someone to hang out with this summer, to shield me from all the haters. I mean, if I overlook his grating narcissistic tendencies, he’s actually not that bad. He could help me brave this storm and he might actually learn to think about more than himself. I guess you find out who really cares for you when your world crumbles to pieces.
I sweep down the stairs, all Scarlett O’Hara–like, and push open the screen door to the front porch. There he stands. Sporting his fedora. Seriously? Sure, a fedora can be cool at a cast party, maybe totally acceptable for a night on the town, and certainly appropriate attire if you’re an original member of the Rat Pack, but not when you’re coming to console your grief-stricken girlfriend who doesn’t need any more attention drawn to her. But the concerned look on his face warms my heart. It’s nice to know he really can think of others. I throw myself in my leading man’s arms, ready to be protected in his strong embrace.
“I’m so glad to see you.” I bury my face in his shoulder, trying not to suffocate in the overwhelming scent of his cologne. Does he bathe in this stuff? “You have no idea how bad my day has been.”
“You think your day was bad?” he says, and takes a giant step away from me. “This whole book thing is really hurting my reputation.”
“Your reputation?” I gape at him. He didn’t really just say that, did he?
“Hey, I have an image to maintain and your embarrassing moments are not helping it.”
“They’re not my embarrassing moments. They’re fiction,” I spit out.
“Either way, it’s too much for me to handle. Maybe when things calm down we can hang out again.”
“Wait a minute. Are you breaking up with me?”
“Hey, it was fun while it lasted, kid,” he says with a wink, then quickly turns and saunters down the walkway toward his car.
My fist clutches a begonia from the planter on the porch. Not thinking things through, I yank it out of its pot, clumps of dirt clinging to its tiny little roots, then throw it at Cameron’s head. My aim, inconsistent as usual, causes the pathetic flying plant to fall short of its intended target; dirt and leaves scatter the sidewalk. Why couldn’t my parents have forced me to stay in sports so I could learn to throw a decent fastball?
I stand on the porch with my hand covered in soil and watch the familiar black sedan pull away, Cameron’s Best of Broadway soundtrack diminishing as he drives past the immaculately manicured lawns of my boring suburban neighborhood. How do you call someone your own age “kid”? What a loser. Worse yet, I can’t believe he broke up with me.
And there you have it—now my mom has even managed to ruin my love life. At the moment the fact that just this morning I was orchestrating how to break up with him is beside the point. I mean is it too much to ask to have a boyfriend who will be there for me?
I plop down on the porch swing. Face it, Josie—life is not a musical, there are no happy endings. My vision blurs from the tears that burn my eyes. This was supposed to be the best summer ever.
Despite my pleas to begin my life of solitude, my parents force me to attend my brother’s evening baseball game. Do they really believe fresh air will dull my pain? The thought of being out in public terrorizes me, so even though I’m wearing a baseball hat and dark sunglasses, I beg my best friend Liz to meet us at the field.
“You’ve got to get out of the house, Josie,” Dad lectures as we pull out of our driveway. “I’m sure this whole situation is just in your imagination.”
“You don’t know how cruel kids at my school can be,” I answer.
“So, they pulled a tasteless prank. It’s over now.”
“Did you actually attend high school?” I ask, plastering myself next to the door to avoid being overtaken by Riley and all his gear.
“Relax, kiddo, most people probably won’t even read your mom’s book.”
“Hey,” she complains.
“Sorry, it’s a great book, dear. I’m just trying to make the point that it’s not like the whole town will tease her.”
“No, just a few hundred of my classmates,” I grumble.
It crosses my mind that the folks may be more understanding if I open up and really express to them how horrific the day was for me instead of hiding behind anger and sarcasm, but sharing my feelings with my parents is just not something I’m very comfortable with.
“Honey,” my mom says sweetly, “if it’s bothering you so much why don’t we pray about it.”
Of course. That’s her answer for everything. But you know, I’ve tried it her way and I’ve never really seen any results. For instance, I spent my whole freshman year praying for a good part in one of the shows and to become cool and witty so the “in” crowd would stop picking on me. But when the prayers just kept going unanswered, I kinda stopped bothering to ask. Hey, I get it—the big guy in the sky has way more important things to deal with like famines, plagues, and stuff. I just learned to handle it myself. And I guess that’s what I’ll have to do now.
I turn my attention back to my mom. “By the way, since when do you write young adult books anyway? You’ve always written middle grade chapter books. When you said your next book was being released who knew I had to worry about my friends reading it.”
She turns to look at me, her face crinkled in confusion. “Josie, seriously? I’ve talked about this book for months. Where have you been for the last year and a half?”
“Umm, surviving high school?”
“Josie, you never listen to me.”
“Sorry, but it’s usually not very important. Mom, you’ve really got to check for the non-comprehending blank look before you tell me these things.”
She shakes her head.
“Can’t we have some nice family time, where no one argues?” asks my dad.
“Sure, just one last question: how exactly does one ‘accidentally’ go on a blind date with their cousin?” I ask.
“I love that scene,” snorts Riley. “I mean, how funny would it be to show up to Homecoming with your own cousin.”
“How about we not talk about the book anymore this evening,” suggests Mom, catching the murderous look I shoot my brother.
“Great idea,” my dad agrees. “Tonight we celebrate the end of the school year. It’s going to be a fun evening. Fun, fun, fun.”
“So, what should we do this summer?” my mom asks in an annoyingly ultra perky voice.
“Won’t you be busy touring around with your new masterpiece?” I grumble.
“Yeah, I can’t wait to add more postcards to my collection,” Riley says. His bedroom walls are plastered with the postcards she sends from each of her Midwestern book tour stops. The postcards are never of the beautiful sites or famous landmarks of the cities she visits but are instead of ridiculously obscure and odd attractions, like a three-story mustard bottle, a life-size grizzly bear carved out of chocolate, or the world’s largest ball of string.
“I won’t be traveling all summer,” she says. “We could do something special as a family.”
“Road trip!” yells Riley.
“Oh joy,” I mumble.
“Josie, you can’t sulk all summer. Riley, that’s a great idea. Maybe we could drive to Mount Rushmore,” Mom suggests.
“Or the Wisconsin Dells,” adds Dad. “You guys always love those water parks.”
“Can we go to that weird museum there?” asks Riley. “Nathan told me they have a two-headed cow.”
Excellent. My summer went from weekends at the lake to freaks of nature.
When we arrive at the field I scan the area to check for anyone I know. Luckily there’s no one from my school in sight. My parents settle into their seats on the bleachers near all the other parents. I sit two rows behind them daydreaming of being a turtle, able to hide away in my shell when the world becomes too overwhelming.
“I see you’re coping well from the day’s events,” says Liz when she finally arrives, scrutinizing my attire.
Liz has been my best friend since forever. When she was little her exuberance was contagious. She reminded me of a puppy, a bundle of energy and fun. Hanging out with her always turned into an adventure. Whether we were Amazonian explorers at the park or secret agents in the candy store, there was never a dull moment. But then in middle school, her parents went through a rather messy divorce. That’s when we were introduced to musical theater. Her mom was lonely and dragged us to every show she could find. She could relate to the problems of the protagonists. Cole Porter and Andrew Lloyd Webber became her therapists; the wisdom dispensed in the lyrics of their songs spoke to her. I guess it was more fun and probably cheaper than going to a shrink. Anyway, Liz’s zest for life kind of soured after that, which brought a new edge to her.
“Seriously, your disguise is totally sweet, like an incognito rock star.”
“Here, put these on,” I say, handing her a pair of dark sunglasses and baseball hat.
“Why do I need to hide?” she asks.
“Because it’s obvious it’s me if my sidekick is sitting beside me.”
“I’m your sidekick?”
I know what she’s doing, trying to distract me from the horror that unfolded earlier today. She may be a bit quirky but she’s a good friend.
“My partner in crime, my BFF, my alter ego, what do you prefer?” I ask.
“I just always assumed you were my sidekick, but we can do it your way,” she answers as she dons the lame disguise. “Okay, so if we’re putting on costumes I need to know what our role is.”
“Can’t we just be fans sitting at a ballgame?”
“That’s pretty boring.”
“Then, maybe we’re talent scouts checking out the boys’ athletic abilities.”
“Talent scouts? Maybe for a blooper reel,” Liz says as she watches the boys drop most of the balls thrown to them during warmup. “Do they know they’re actually supposed to catch the balls?”
“Believe it or not they’ve improved a lot. You should’ve seen them last year.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” she says. “Hey, not to get all gushy and all but seriously, how’re you doing?”
I sigh. “Liz, I don’t know what to do. You know how vicious the ‘in’ crowd can be. They have the power to completely destroy people and they’ll never let something this good go. There’s enough embarrassing situations in that book to fuel them for months. And since no one wants to face their fury, you’re basically the only person who will risk being seen with me now. And to make it worse, my parents don’t understand what a big deal it is, and think I’m overreacting. They have no idea how hard we’ve worked to fly under the radar and go unnoticed to avoid those people. I’m not strong enough to face this battle alone. At least I have you,” I say, thankful for the dark sunglasses to hide the tears that well up in my eyes.
“Um, about that—I’ve got something to tell you,” she says, her tone warning me to brace for more bad news.
“What?” I ask wearily.
“Well, my dad wants me to come to his place this summer.”
“You go to Chicago to visit him every summer.”
“Yeah, but for some reason he wants me to come for the whole summer this year instead of the usual week.”
“What?” I furiously try to blink away the tears before they roll down my cheeks.
“I know, I’m sorry. I wish I didn’t have to go.”
That’s it. Final nail in my coffin. I’m all alone. First Cameron dumps me, now Liz is abandoning me. I have no one to hang out with this summer. How am I going to make it through three whole months? I can’t go to the rec center, the pool, the park, or the mall without seeing someone from school. I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do.
Liz looks at me then leans her head on my shoulder. “You could become a crazy cat lady and adopt every stray you find.”
I love her for trying to lighten the mood. “Maybe I’ll just turn into a hermit and stay locked away in my house.”
“You’d make a cute hermit,” she teases. “But seriously, promise me you won’t stick with Cameron just so he can drive you around.”
“You don’t have to worry about that, he dumped me this afternoon.”
She stares at me. “He broke up with you? But we had just put the finishing touches on your break-up monologue.”
“I know, but he beat me to it. Apparently my problems are too embarrassing for him.”
“What a creep. You never should have gone out with him in the first place.”
“You dated him as well,” I remind her.
“Is it my fault he made an incredibly charming Sky Masterson?” Liz fell hard for him last year during Guys and Dolls.
“Well one thing’s for sure, I won’t miss him suddenly breaking out in show tunes,” I say.
“And you no longer have to pay for your dates when he ‘forgets’ to bring his wallet,” adds Liz.
“And I won’t have to avoid walking by shiny surfaces anymore for fear of him trying to catch a glimpse of his reflection,” I say with a giggle, happy to forget my problems, even for a brief moment.
“Oh, I always hated that dumb smirk and head bob he does when other girls walk by,” Liz adds.
“I know,” I agree. “And would it be so much to ask for a guy to open the car door for me?”
“Don’t hold your breath,” says Liz. “My mom says the dumb feminists ruined it for the rest of us. Guys are now afraid to open doors for women or give them their seats for fear of being read the riot act. Face it, chivalry is dead.” Ever since the divorce, Liz’s mom is still a little (extremely) bitter.
“Well, maybe that’s why we both fell for Cameron. He plays these characters from back when guys were gentlemen,” I say in defense of our poor judgment.
“Nice try, Josie, but he was playing con men when we fell for him.”
How typical, falling for the bad boys and not the sweet nice guys.
“Shut. Up.” Liz squeals as she clamps onto my arm.
I follow her gaze to the object of her attention. Out on the field is Ryan McNaulty, one of the high school baseball players. Totally cute jock. As he walks toward home plate in tan cargo shorts, a ref’s blue polo shirt, and a backwards baseball cap, I picture him in one of those lame TV movies where the wind blows through the hero’s hair as he enters the scene in slow motion, muscles tensing, smile gleaming.
“He’s one beautiful specimen,” Liz says through a sigh.
“I suppose he’s okay if you like the tall, dark, and handsome look. I mean who wants chiseled cheekbones, perfectly styled hair, and chocolate brown eyes?” I tease.
“For your information, his eyes are green. But what’s he doing here?” she asks.
“A detective you are not. Notice the clothes, Liz, he’s the ump. Usually someone from the high school team is the official for these games.”
“And why have you never told me this? I’d have come more often if I’d known that was the case. Ryan’s extremely hot—although I prefer when he’s in his baseball pants.”
“That’s right, you were one of the official stalkers of the baseball team this year.”
“It’s called school spirit. Whenever I wasn’t at rehearsal I went to their games. What else was I supposed to do since you were always with Cameron? Besides, baseball is our national pastime.”
“But did you ever watch the games or just the guys?” I ask.
“Hey, believe me, if you saw them in their uniforms you wouldn’t judge. I don’t know what special material those baseball pants are made of but it sure makes them look amazing.”
Again she ignores me. “Why do you think they are dubbed the Dream Team? Not because of their baseball skills.”
“The Dream Team?”
“Sure, there’s Heart Attack Jack, Ben the Perfect 10, and Scotty the Hottie.”
“What’s Ryan McNaulty’s nickname?”
“Have you ever noticed when he thinks something’s funny he does this adorable head tilt and crooked grin thing? It makes him look like he’s been caught doing something naughty,” she explains enthusiastically.
I stare at her.
“No criticizing. If you hadn’t spent all your free time with Cameron you could have contributed.”
“Maybe you should focus on someone attainable.”
“Who says jocks aren’t attainable? He was in my chem class and he’s pretty nice,” she says with a nod toward the field.
“Um, have you been to our school? Ryan McNaulty is definitely tier one material, which means he dates other tier one people like cheerleaders or the female varsity athletes.”
“Just because that’s usually how things are done doesn’t mean it always has to be that way. Maybe we can change the status quo.”
“Like any of them even know we’re alive.”
“What, you don’t think they come to see the theater productions?”
“Highly unlikely,” I say as we watch Ryan pull a Keanu Reeves and smoothly matrix-dodge a stray pitch.
“Maybe you can try to get to know some of them this summer when you’re at the lake and I’m trapped in Chicago with my old man,” she says.
“Like Ryan McNaulty would want to chill with me.”
“Well not him, he’s leaving town for the summer, too. I overheard some parents talking at the last game of the season. He was asked to play summer baseball on a farm team out east somewhere. College scouts go check them out or something. It’s apparently a big deal for someone going into their junior year to be invited.”
“Just as well since I’m probably never going to leave the safety of my bedroom this summer.”
“Hey, don’t give up. Any of the Dream Team members will do.”
I roll my eyes. She’s clearly delusional.
“Look! He’s doing it!” Liz says as she thrusts her sharp elbow into my side.
I wince from the stabbing pain but turn toward the field. The little rugrats from Riley’s team surround Ryan. Just as she described, his head cocks to the side and an amused grin graces his perfect face. He is quite alluring, but I prefer to watch Liz’s reaction as she practically melts into a puddle of hormones.
“See, isn’t baseball the greatest sport?”
“I admit, I’ve never appreciated these finer points of the game before,” I tease.
“Well, it’s a good thing I’m here to educate you. You must not focus on the ball but on all the other things going on around the actual game. That’s where the true excitement lies.”
“I really have been missing out.”
We turn our attention back to the game. Riley somehow makes contact with the ball and hits a grounder to second. After his initial shock, he sprints to first base. The shortstop scurries to the ball and throws it toward first in an attempt to get the out, but the first baseman totally misses the ball. Riley keeps running toward second as the ball rolls toward the dugout. Riley glances over his shoulder and continues on to third, where he pauses. The first baseman finally throws the ball toward third but accidently hits the pitcher in the groin, who falls down and squirms around in agony on the mound. Riley scurries toward home plate and dramatically jumps on the base. Ryan calls him safe, then shakes his head in amusement.
During the third inning of the game of seemingly endless walks, my fears come true. Two of the juniors from the pom squad climb up the bleachers, Missy Harper and Brooke Garfield, along with their lax bro boyfriends—of course carrying their lacrosse sticks like security blankets. Missy’s brother plays on Riley’s team but she’s never graced us with her presence before. Why today of all days must she begin being a devoted sister? When Missy and Brooke see us they stop, exchange a glance, then look back at us. So much for our disguises.
I pull my hat down lower and wonder what my chances are of squeezing through the narrow space between the metal sections of the bleachers and dropping to the ground below. Better not try—with my luck I’d get stuck and the Fire Department would be called out to rescue me. Out of the corner of my eye I see the foursome climb up the bleachers and head our way. They sit down right in front of us. A tidal wave of dread crashes over me.
“Oh, Mrs. DelRio. I love your new book.”
I feel like I’m drowning, sinking to the bottom of an ocean, unable to surface for air, the weight of the book pulling me under.
“Why thank you,” answers my mom as she turns around to look at the group.
“Yes, it was very entertaining and quite revealing, don’t you agree, Josie?” asks Missy. She giggles, then whispers something in her boyfriend’s ear. The beefy jock stifles a laugh and looks away.
“And I don’t want you to worry at all about swimming in the lake this summer,” Brooke says to me. “I have this life guard whistle I can bring and we can have random ‘Josie bikini-top checks.’ It would be like our very own public service announcement.”
“See, we got ya covered, girlfriend—pun intended,” adds Missy.
“And we can have everyone bring extra sanitary products for that pesky time of the month. We wouldn’t want any more embarrassing leakages to happen.”
My parents sit there in shock, their mouths frozen open.
“Gee, Brooke,” snaps Liz, “there you go again, proving your IQ and bra size are the same number.”
Brooke turns her wrath on Liz. “You’re just jealous since you’re still shopping in the junior department.”
“Well, enjoy the rest of the game,” says Missy, unable to keep a straight face. “Josie, we personally guarantee it will be a summer to remember.”
The four of them get up and move farther down the bleachers, not even trying to conceal their laughter. My parents look at each other, horror in their eyes, then turn back toward the game, like it’s the most interesting thing in the world.
“You were right, Dad, this is fun. Fun, fun, fun.”
“You’re really leaving?” Liz asks, her concern radiating through the phone.
“Yep, it’s all set. In fact, I’m at the airport now,” I answer. After saying good-bye to Riley and Dad after mass, Mom and I left for the airport. “I’ve got to get away from here. Besides, with you gone for the summer who would I hang out with?”
“Well, it’s a brilliant idea. Hey! It’s your window.”
“I can’t believe I have to remind you of that great line from Sound of Music. You know, something about when a door closes somewhere, God opens a window. The door closed on your summer here but now a window opens leading to South Carolina.”
“Maybe. I hadn’t thought about it like that.”
“Does your aunt at least have a computer so you can post all your adventures?”
“She has a computer but I’m abstaining from technology for the summer.”
“Yep, that way no one can bug me about the book that shall not be named.”
“No phone calls?”
“Cell phone pics?”
“No, in fact I’m leaving my cell here. It’s useless anyway due to all the prank calls and texts I’ve been getting. Besides, I won’t need it on the beach.”
“How will you survive?”
“I know it’ll be hard but I must quit cold turkey.”
“You’re so brave. But how will we keep in touch?”
“You can write to me.”
“Write you? You mean like letters?”
“I haven’t written a letter since fifth grade and that was to my grandmother. Even she texts now.”
“I have to get away from everything. I need a clean break for a while. Maybe then by the start of the school year everyone will have totally forgotten about me and will be onto someone else’s crisis.”
“Wow. Well, I’ll give it a try. It’s not like I won’t have plenty of free time on my hands, sitting by the pool at my dad’s condo every day while he’s at work. I’m glad you’re getting away. You deserve a better summer than you’d have here.”
“Thanks. Well, so long, my friend.”
I’m afraid I’ll start crying if I finish the rest of our goodbye ritual so quickly end the call and hand Mom my cell phone.
“I’m truly sorry, honey,” she says. We are at the terminal waiting for my plane. Because I’m a minor she was able to come with me through security—yippee. I would have been fine saying our good-byes at the curb when she dropped me off, but no, she had to stay with me the entire way through the airport. “I had no idea my work would affect you like this.”
“I know.” I sigh. Mom and I haven’t exactly had very cordial conversations the last couple of days. Things around the house have remained tense. Doorbell ditchers and brownies left on the porch, most likely laced with laxatives, have taken their toll on our relationship. Thank goodness Aunt Lily came through with an invite to spend the summer with her.
“I’m praying this getaway is what you need.”
“Thanks for letting me go.”
“Don’t you know, I’d do anything for you.” She leans in and gives me a hug, her arms awkwardly wrapped around my stiff upper body.
I know she didn’t mean to ruin my life but the damage is done. Hopefully some time away will chill things out.
“Promise you’ll go to mass while you’re away!” she calls as I make my way down the jetway.
I wave at her in response.
My stuffed-to-the-max duffle bangs into the seats as I make my way down the narrow aisle of the airplane. Afraid the airlines might lose my luggage again, I jammed my bag with several days’ worth of essentials. A repeat of our trip to California when I had to wear the same shorts all week would not be cool. I ignore the angry looks thrown my way. I’ve faced high school bullies; I can handle a few grumpy airline passengers.
As the plane hurtles down the runway and lifts off the ground, I visualize the weight of the world levitating from my soul.
Somewhere between Minnesota and South Carolina the deep reflection of my life begins. There’s nothing like solitude at 30,000 feet to induce self-contemplation.
My high school career has basically been spent trying to go unnoticed, fearful of the upperclassmen. I was singularly focused on not being the brunt of their ridicule and played it safe. So much for that plan. Two years of flying under the radar were wiped away in mere hours thanks to my mom. But now I realize that because of my cautiousness, my life has become extremely boring and predictable. Along the way I lost myself.
Hopefully this summer will be different. This is my chance to reinvent myself. To become cool and confident, or funny and witty, but definitely leave the clumsy, quiet theater girl in the past. It’s time to figure out who I want to be—to discover myself. Who knows, maybe I’m a painter like Lily. After all Mrs. Jones the art teacher could have been wrong and I might actually have an ounce of artistic talent. No matter what, this is my chance for freedom, independence, adventure, and who knows, possibly romance.
I picture myself on the beach in my adorable bikini, laughing with new friends, my hair blowing in the sea breeze while cute British guys longingly watch me. Who cares that my daydream strangely resembles my favorite music video. Anything’s possible.
This summer I’m going to put myself out there, meet new people, try new things. What do I have to lose? My mom won’t be there to record my failings. No one in South Carolina knows me. No one knows my past. I can pretend to be exactly the person I want to be.
The flight continues and my excitement for the new chapter in my life grows.
Aunt Lily is easily found. As if she wouldn’t already stand out in the crowd with her blond bob, tie-dye sundress, and silver Roman gladiator sandals, she starts squealing the moment I walk toward the baggage claim carousel. With her arms waving frantically she rushes through the crowd, oblivious to the glares from the extras in our personal reunion scene.
It’s hard to believe Lily and mom are sisters. Truly one of the great cruelties of life that Lily got all the laid-back cool genes and my mom got stuck with the uptight serious ones. Lily’s whimsically carefree, an artist who paints seascapes for a living and sells them at local gift shops up and down the Atlantic coast. She was never burdened with a husband or kids and lives an enviable life. I’ve always been drawn to her easygoing attitude. Maybe some of it will wear off on me this summer.
“I’m thrilled you’re here, Kitten,” Aunt Lily says, using the nickname she gave me years ago, a reference to some comic she read as a kid. Something about pussycats and someone named Josie—who knows.
With her convertible loaded up, I carefully maneuver into the front seat, nudging the piles of espadrilles and sandals at my feet.
“Oh sorry, no one else usually travels with me.”
“No problem. I’m used to Riley leaving his shoes all over the car. Except his are smelly and disgusting not adorable cute ones that I may have to try to borrow.”
“Anytime, Kitten,” she says. “I can’t wait for you to see Coral Island.”
“I was trying to remember how long you’ve lived there.”
“About six months,” she answers.
“I was surprised you moved, I thought you liked Charleston.”
“I did, but when I began selling my paintings at the store on Coral Island I just fell in love with the place. It was exactly the town I’m always trying to create on canvas. I felt like it had been waiting for me my whole life.”
“Wow, that’s cool. Tell me about it.”
“Well, if I were a tour guide I’d tell you it’s one of the smallest of the Sea Islands off the South Carolina coast, and one of those sweet communities where everyone seems to know each other. There are no bridges to the island. The only way to get there is by boat or ferry. Which means it’s never been overtaken by the tourists that flock to nearby Hilton Head. The population does increase during the summer due to all the vacation homes on the island. But there are no hotels, only a couple bed and breakfasts, which means it stays relatively quiet.”
I close my eyes to picture my summer home away from home.
“But,” Lily continues, “since I’m an artist I must describe it like this: When you board the ferry you know you’re on a grand adventure. The sparkling ocean surrounds a paradise of soft silky sand. It really feels like a journey back in time minutes from modern civilization. The people are warm and caring. It has that unique community feel that small towns tend to have.”
“Mostly. Actually we have something odd going on right now. There’s been a rash of thefts.”
“Oh no. Are there any suspects?”
“No. The locals feel it must be someone here for the summer season.”
“Makes sense since the community sounds pretty tight.”
“Probably, but there are some islanders that have fallen on hard times in recent years. We’re still trying to recover after the downturn in the economy.”
“Oh, are you doing okay?” If people aren’t spending as much money, her seascapes might not be selling as well anymore.
“I’ve begun a side business restoring paintings for our wealthy summer residents,” she answers.
“That’s too bad.”
“Actually, I enjoy it. It’s a new challenge, plus I get to meet some fascinating people and see their amazing second homes. I’ve also found, as they get to know me, they are more likely to purchase my paintings,” she says with a wink.
When we reach the ferry dock my excitement builds at the sight of the island surrounded by the enticing ocean. As we begin our crossing to the island, I stare at a brightly colored Ferris wheel, a giant spinning pinwheel anchoring the southern end of the island.
“Is that an amusement park?” I ask in disbelief.
“It’s a small carnival to attract some tourists from the mainland. Their funnel cakes are phenomenal.”
We dock on the west side of the island amid tall sea grasses and sand dunes dotted with driftwood. I fight the urge to abandon my tennis shoes and run through the blanket of sand, letting it sift through my toes. We slowly drive by pastel-colored cottages with white trim that remind me of a box of saltwater taffy, welcoming us to the island. An elderly couple on their front porch swing waves as we go by. Neighbors chat over white picket fences. Children on their bikes try to keep up with us.
We turn on to a beautiful street full of little shops. Striped awnings and lamp posts adorned with overflowing baskets of vibrant flowers line the street. Couples relax at cafe tables and happy families window shop with ice cream cones in hand. Lily’s description of traveling back in time was spot on.
“This is Seaview Boulevard, and that is the Atlantic Ocean.” She points to the vast sea that sweeps into view as we pass the last stores. The sun glitters off the ocean as white boats bob along the docks. A large rocky outcropping juts out into the Atlantic to form a natural barrier cutting the marina off from whatever discovery is around the porous rocks.
With the ocean to our right Lily continues up a hill, the dark cliffs anchoring the incline. At the top of the hill sits a park and a soaring white lighthouse. Squealing children chase one another around the playground while their moms chat on a park bench. The road continues past the lighthouse and winds north to the homes situated on the shore. Aunt Lily turns into the third drive from the lighthouse. Flowering bushes line the long driveway and lead toward a sky blue cottage with wraparound porch, the Atlantic Ocean the backdrop of this postcard-worthy setting.
“Come, I have a friend I want you to meet.”
My suitcase and duffle bang into my legs as I schlep them up the porch steps. Why did I pack so much stuff? Lily flings the front door open, and a blur of fur flies out. A medium-sized chocolate brown dog with white patches nearly knocks me back down the stairs. The tip of her perfectly looped tail is white like it was dipped in paint.
“Oh, she’s adorable!”
“Meet Kahlua, your new best friend for the summer.”
The curly furball bounces around me all Tigger-esque, increasing the difficulty of entering with my giant luggage. I try to follow Aunt Lily down the hall toward the bedrooms. But Kahlua grabs the strap of my bag in her mouth and tugs on my luggage trying to pull me in the opposite direction, toward a living room with overstuffed white marshmallowy furniture. I continue to trail Aunt Lily, pulling Kahlua along. We pass a room with easels stationed on either side of a mammoth window. Paintings in various stages of completion are propped against the walls, drop cloths blanket the hardwood floors. A rainbow of paints and colored pencils burst from the side wall while a table piled with books sits in the middle of the room. Ah, Lily’s studio.
She leads me to the next room, my room for the whole summer. An enticing breeze blows the white gauzy curtains from the open window, billowing out like sails on a boat. The seashell-themed room is filled with the unmistakable scents of ocean and honeysuckle.
We quickly unpack, then curl up in her Adirondack chairs on her back porch. The surf gently tumbles onto the shore. A slight breeze causes the tall grasses off her porch to form a chorus line, swaying and sashaying in unison. She hands me a glass of freshly squeezed lemonade, a lemon slice adorning the rim. Could life get any better?
Maybe I’ll be the girl who sits on this back porch all summer and writes poetry. This view is certainly inspiring. “How do you get anything done around here? I’m pretty sure I’d just veg here and stare at the ocean all day.”
“That’s basically what I do. It’s a good thing I found a way to make money doing it.” Then Lily breaks the euphoric moment with a parental unit talk. “So Kitten, tell me about what’s going on with you and your mom.”
“You mean besides the fact that she’s ruined my life?”
“I know you’re a fabulous actress but are you possibly being a bit over dramatic?”
“No. Have you read the book?”
“Yes, I found it to be a touching and funny portrayal of the situations young women face and the grace that comes from the experiences.”
“You sound like her publisher. Do you remember the part where her lead character has her first stage kiss and gets her braces hooked on the braces of her onstage partner?”
“Of course. You have to admit it was funny.”
“Sure, it’s hilarious, except for the fact that I had an onstage kiss last year with the nastiest boy in school. I mean you can seriously smell him from ten feet away. He has greasy hair, pimples, bad breath, and who knows what kind of bacteria reside in this boy’s mouth. I was extremely worried about catching something from him. When we had our pretend kiss I clamped my mouth shut so tight nothing could possibly penetrate the barrier. When the scene was done I’d run off stage and decontaminate myself. It was awful and until this past week, the most humiliating moment of my life. Well, since the book came out the creep has posted our stupid scene online and updated his status that he’s now famous—immortalized in print.”
I gaze out toward the ocean hoping she will change the subject, now that she can see my side.
“But your friends must know the truth.”
“My boyfriend broke up with me because I was bad for his reputation,” I answer without looking her way.
“You’re better off without him, then.”
“True, but still I needed to get away.”
“All right, if you ever want to talk, though, I’m here for you.”
“See, you get it. Why can’t my mom? Really, the worst part is she doesn’t understand. She thinks it will blow over and I’m overreacting, but these kids never forget. The more people they can intimidate the more powerful they feel.”
“I think she realizes what her book has done to you. That’s why she suggested this visit.”
“It was her idea?” I ask, astonished.
“Yep, and I thought it was brilliant. You must know she never would have written any of that if she thought things would turn out the way they did.”
“But why did she always have to write about my most horrifying moments in the first place? No one would have thought these incidents were about me if she hadn’t written about my mistakes in the past. I mean, does she enjoy exploiting me that way?”
“Maybe you need to ask her.”
“Maybe.” I’m done talking about this, it threatens to destroy my good mood. “Can I take Kahlua on a walk along the beach?”
“Sure, I need to get a few things done anyway. But don’t be too long, I’d like to take you into town for dinner this evening. I want to celebrate you being here.”
“Sounds good,” I say as I head down the porch toward the beach, Kahlua far ahead of me already.
We start down the well-worn path that leads through the tall sea grasses to the narrow strip of beach. Kahlua scurries around the bushes, then in a blur of fur runs out to the ocean splashing in the water as she chases something. I kick my sandals to the side and join her in the cool surf. The wet sand oozes up between my toes, my feet quickly buried. The beach is deserted except for an army of sea gulls marching along the sand on pencil thin legs. Kahlua, dripping with ocean water, spies tiny crabs that skitter sideways across the sand. She pounces along as she tries to catch them.
I move down the coast, mystically drawn toward the towering lighthouse, the gleaming white pinnacle having the opposite effect of its intended purpose. I’ve seen lighthouses before, on Lake Superior, but nothing as elegant and majestic as this one.
A sign kindly informs me I’m in Shipwreck Cove. The beach’s semicircle shape is surrounded by tall black cliffs; a wooden staircase leads up to the lighthouse. My eyes follow the large outcropping of unique rocks that juts out into the ocean at the southern end of the cove. I assume the town and marina must be on the other side of the natural barrier.
On the beach is a small raft. I had totally missed seeing it, mesmerized by the lighthouse. A figure comes into sight, carrying things to load onto the little boat. I expect an old fisherman, wrinkled by years in the sun, but my heart pleasantly skips a beat as I focus on the totally hot, buff guy with dark wavy hair. He looks slightly older than me, probably a college guy. And lucky for me, his shirt is nowhere in sight, showing off a tanned and muscular chest.
I sink into the warm sand a respectable distance away. Kahlua charges into the water after a seagull while I enjoy this new unexpected view. I have all summer to watch the waves but who knows how long the hunk will be around.
Maybe my new image will be the carefree beach chick with the killer tan. Although I’ll have to overcome my boredom of laying out. But if this is what the guys on Coral Island are like, I may have to reassess my priorities. This place is amazing, it’s impossible not to feel alive and free and that it really is possible to get away from the damage of that blasted book.
We pull up to the marina where Poseidon’s, which, according to the front sign, is the premier seafood restaurant on the island, is located. I pluck a flower from one of the bushes outside and after a thorough inspection to make sure no bee lurks inside this time, tuck it behind my ear. A hostess greets us, a pink streak of hair amidst her blond bob, which totally works for her, not at all beauty-school-dropout-ish. I follow her and her little sailor dress through the nautical-themed restaurant. We follow her past a rusty anchor, the worn wooden steering wheel from a boat, and other artifacts artfully displayed throughout the dining room. The tables fan out from an enormous circular aquarium in the center of the room, filled with vibrant tropical fish and coral. Along the walls are several paintings that I’m pretty sure are Aunt Lily’s.
We are led out to a table on the deck where the steel drums of live Caribbean music intertwine with the laughter of happy guests. The tropical feel continues when the waiter brings us a basket of bread and drinks with pineapple and little umbrellas on the edge of the glass.
“Lily darling,” says a well-dressed gentleman as he leans in and kisses her cheek. The resemblance to a certain British spy is uncanny. He looks just like the actor who plays the newer rugged version.
“Josie, this is my friend Tom Mullins. He’s the owner of this superb restaurant.”
“Oh, hi,” I say as I shake the man’s very tanned hand. I guess Mr. Mullins to be about my parents’ age. But I’m pretty sure if my dad ever tried to wear a white linen suit and salmon-colored button-down shirt he’d look like he was going to a lame ’70s costume party.
“Tom, this is my niece Josie. She’ll be staying with me this summer.”
“Wonderful, we can always use more lovely ladies around here. What do you plan to do while here on Coral Island?”
“Mostly just relax, but who knows. Maybe a summer of adventure awaits me. I could try to solve the town’s ongoing mystery.”
“I told her about the thefts,” explains Lily.
“Oh, you shouldn’t bother yourself with our problems, just enjoy yourself,” Mr. Mullins says with a smile.
“At least it would give her something to do besides sit on the beach and stare at cute boys,” Lily counters.
“I see nothing wrong with staring at cute guys all summer. But I must admit I do love a good mystery,” I answer.
“Well, if you get tired of investigating you could come out on one of my new tours. I’m taking advantage of our rich local history and have begun snorkeling and scuba excursions to the shipwreck.”
“Shipwreck?” I ask.
“Yes, the pirate ship.”
“Lily, how could you not have told your niece about our fascinating history?”
I reach for a breadstick to nibble on while Mr. Mullins continues his story.
“Out by the outcropping of rocks in the cove is a sunken pirate ship, thus the name Shipwreck Cove. It was actually a little cockboat, probably a scout team sent from the larger ship to check out the area. The cove is so secluded we presume they thought it was a safe landing spot. But the ocean’s current can be rough along here and most likely caused the little dingy to crash into the rocks and sink.”
“However,” Lily interjects, “legend has it that the little boat wasn’t just a scout vessel but was in fact loaded with treasure to bury on the island.”
“No treasure has ever been found, but when people hear the story they naturally want to explore. I’m happy to provide them the opportunity. We take tourists out to visit the wreck and make a whole day of it: provide lunch, items to dive for, and food to entice the fish. We even have a few helmets for underwater walking. The crew takes pictures with our digital underwater cameras that the guests can purchase back in town. Who wouldn’t want a record of their pirate adventure? My nephew Byron oversees that side of the business while I stay focused here at the restaurant.”
“Wow, that sounds like fun,” I answer and take another bite of my breadstick.
“Hey, I’ve got someone I’d like you both to meet,” says Mr. Mullins. He gestures to someone to come over.
Time stands still as I watch the hunky stranger from the beach approach. There is no way to mistake him even if he does have his shirt on now. Darn. His flawlessly perfect dark Spanish features are breathtaking. I no longer know how to chew and have somehow lost the ability to swallow. All I can do is watch dumbfounded with a chunk of bread still in my mouth as he walks up to our table. At least if I choke I will die happy.
“Niko Consuelos, I’d like you to meet Lily and her lovely niece Josie.”
Niko smiles, deep dimples forming on his cheeks. He takes Lily’s hand but instead of shaking it he leans over and kisses it. Oh my. He looks at me with velvety brown eyes, then takes my hand and says, “My pleasure to meet you, Josie.” Although in his sexy Spanish accent it comes out “Jozay.”
Mesmerized by the beauty that is Niko, I can’t take my eyes off him. Boys in Lake Forest, Minnesota, do not look like this.
“Niko is helping me with the pirate ship tours this summer,” Mr. Mullins says. At least I think that’s what he says—I suddenly have a hard time concentrating on the words coming from Mr. Mullins’ mouth.
I force myself to swallow so I don’t spit food all over this Latin hottie. “I saw you out at the cove this afternoon.”
Niko nods. “I usually am with the small raft in the afternoon. I restock and clean from the tourists of the morning.”
“Why don’t you just have the tourists help with that? Then you wouldn’t have to go out twice,” suggests Aunt Lily.
“Oh, Lily darling,” says Tom, “you may be a talented artist but you’re far too practical for the business world. We don’t want our guests to have to do any work. The more luxurious the experience the more they will share the news of our services.”
“Tom, you are the quintessential entrepreneur.” Lily laughs.
“Always thinking,” Mr. Mullins agrees. “So, Niko, what brings you here this evening?” he asks my Latin prince.
“My familia,” Niko answers in that sultry accent.
Mr. Mullins nods, then turns to us to explain. “Niko’s cousins are my Latin band that you are enjoying this evening. They’re another find of mine. I had the privilege of hearing them during my last vacation and knew I needed them here for the summer. They spend nine months of the year on a cruise ship entertaining the passengers, then have three months off, when the cruise books other bands. I convinced them to come work here for the summer,” he says very proudly. “When they heard of my snorkeling and scuba idea they suggested their cousin Niko to me. Things couldn’t be more perfect.”
“I agree.” I sigh as I stare at the exotic man in front of me.
“Niko, you should take young Josie out on the boat one day.”
“I would love that,” I blurt out, not caring how desperate I may sound.
“I would enjoy to spend a day with you,” answers totally hot Niko. His stunning smile flashes at me.
My cheeks burn as I smile back. Sadly he says his good-byes, then turns and saunters away. My heart flip-flops in my chest. Maybe I could be the girl with the sizzling summer romance. And playing the part of my leading man would be Niko.
“Now that could keep me out of trouble.”
Lily and Mr. Mullins laugh.
“Oh, did I just say that out loud?”
Mr. Mullins winks at me, then excuses himself to greet other patrons.
“Well, that was nice of Niko to agree to take you out on the boat,” says Aunt Lily as our food arrives.
Her amused look reveals she sees right through my thin veil of nonchalance. I mumble an agreement then dive into my crab legs, and enjoy the Latin stylings of Niko’s relatives.
A few minutes later the pink-haired hostess walks through the doors from the restaurant to the porch leading a family across the large deck. People around us stop their conversations and turn to watch the most adorable family in the world walk past the tables. They are straight out of a preppy clothing catalogue. The three little kids, all with bobbing blond curls, follow their parents in a perfectly straight line. The two little girls are dressed in matching gingham sundresses and the young boy in a button-down shirt, made of the same material, tucked into navy blue shorts, like a mini Von Trapp family.
But as precious as they are, they’re not what catches my eye. A tall guy joins the group. Although I can only see his backside, he’s got that lean muscular frame of an athlete. And the way he helps one of the little girls climb into her seat as they settle in at their table is sweet.
I sip on my virgin piña colada, thrilled to have hit the hot guy lottery in this town. This is going to be an epic summer after all. Bolstered by the sultry music and the warm breeze I try to catch the cute guy’s eye as he settles into his seat. I’m struck, though, by how much he looks like Ryan McNaulty, or McNaughty as Liz dubbed him, with the same light brown hair gelled up in the front and classic good looks. He must feel my gaze bore into him because he looks up from the menu and our eyes meet. He smiles and I do a double take. He not only looks like Ryan, he looks exactly like Ryan. I can’t help but stare.
Then he does it. He cocks his head to the side and his mouth forms that McNaulty signature lopsided grin. My stomach drops. No. It can’t be. I quickly look away. Oh no, there’s no denying it, it is Ryan McNaulty.
I quickly hide behind the dessert menu. How is this possible? Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the states, in this whole big country he has to end up here on Coral Island? No freakin’ way. What’s he doing here?
This was supposed to be my summer away from all things Lake Forest. How can I possibly get away when some jock from home is here? The jerks back home will never forget about me if Ryan supplies them with summer updates and leverage that they can use against me.
“Are you okay?” Lily asks.
“Just end my suffering and shoot me now.” I put down the menu and slouch in defeat, my optimism and posture dissolving at the same time.
“Josie, again with the drama?”
“That guy over there goes to my school.” I feel like crying but tell myself not to panic because under normal circumstances he really shouldn’t know who I am since he’s a jock and I’m a theater geek.
“Which one?” she asks as she turns in her seat to search for him.
“The tall one with the light brown hair sitting with the picture perfect family.”
“Why don’t you go over and say hi?”
“Are you kidding? I came here to get away from home. Besides I’m hoping he doesn’t know who I am.”
But when he excuses himself to the cute family I know that stupid book continues to ruin my life. Unbelievable. As a hunter stalks his prey, he starts to walk toward us. I can’t comprehend the horror that is unfolding. By the time he reaches our table I’m seething. With nowhere to hide I brace myself for what he might say.
“Hi, Josie. What’re you doing here?”
To hear him actually say my name is a shock to my system.
“Um, hi, Ryan. This is my aunt, Lily Baker. I’m staying with her this summer.”
“Hi, Ms. Baker,” he says as he shakes her hand.
“Aunt Lily, this is Ryan McNaughty.”
They both look at me with raised eyebrows.
Oh no, did I just say that?
“I mean McNaulty. Sorry. What’re you doing here?” I ask, quickly changing the subject.
“Playing baseball for the Pirates.”
“Oh, that’s great. Good for you,” says Aunt Lily.
“There’s a baseball team on this island?” I ask.
“No, the Pirates are over on the mainland,” explains Aunt Lily. “The local colleges have a summer scouting program. People around here love baseball. We’ll have to come see some of your games.”
The glare I shoot her would have made Riley whimper, but she doesn’t seem to notice.
“What a small world, for the both of you to be here this summer,” Aunt Lily gushes.
“Yeah, it must be fate,” Ryan answers with a grin.
More likely bad karma coming back to bite me for my past mistakes.
The two of them chat about the family he is staying with, the Martins, and Lily suggests some things he simply must do while he’s in town. I turn my attention to my piña colada in an attempt to appear unfazed by his presence, but I suck too hard through the straw and suffer a brain freeze.
Ryan’s eyebrows furrow watching me attempt to not distort my face or bang my head on the table while I wait for the stabbing pain to subside. While he plays nice with Aunt Lily I anticipate the inevitable comment about the book, some slam on me that he will think is incredibly original and amusing. Sorry to break it to ya, McNaughty, I’ve already heard it all.
“Well, I hope to see you later,” he politely says to us when he and Aunt Lily finish talking.
“Nice to meet you, Ryan,” says Lily answers as he walks back to his table.
That’s it? No belittling comment to ridicule me in front of Aunt Lily? What’s the matter, big man on campus? Not quick enough to come up with some dis on the fly?
I finish my dinner in silence, so angry that not even the cool Latin music or the thought of Niko the Amazing can lift my spirits. I can’t believe I have to worry about the diabolical book’s fallout even here. And now my big summer of reinvention will be known by everyone back home thanks to Ryan McNaulty. Why can’t anything ever go my way?
What’s up, buttercup? I thought I’d write sooner but I have been quite busy here in Paradise. Busy relaxing. In fact, I’m writing this letter while on the beach—with Niko, this super hot Latin guy I met. Too bad I’ve given up technology or I could send you a pic of him. Believe me, him shirtless is a sight to behold.
I have to confess, I haven’t actually spoken with him much. He works a lot, bringing tour groups to the beach to snorkel and scuba dive. But since I’m on the beach every day, we see each other often and have this totally flirty relationship going on. And when we smile at each other, I feel this deep connection. When we first met he promised to take me out for a boat ride, hopefully that will happen soon. I’ll keep you posted!
Don’t worry (I can already hear your lecture), I’m not being all stalker-chickish. There are plenty of reasons to be on the beach every day: to work on my tan, to walk Lily’s dog, to collect sea shells, to write letters, to contemplate the meaning of life, etc.
There is one glitch in my whole getting-away-from-it-all plan though. Ryan McNaulty is here. Yes, you read that correctly. Can you believe it? South Carolina is where he’s playing baseball for the summer. I seriously have the worst luck. But I’ve only seen him once so far. And I don’t expect to be bothered by him because when I ran into him I totally put him in his place and made it clear he was not going to ruin my summer. Besides he’ll probably be busy catching pop flies or whatever baseball guys do. Hope you’re having fun at your dad’s.