21 Ronnie

Okay, she admitted that she could get used to living like this: lounging on the diving board in the backyard pool, an ice cold glass of sweet tea by her side, a fruit tray in the cabana, which had been served by the chef, along with real silverware and a fancy mint garnish.

Still, she couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for Will to grow up in a world like this. Then again, since he’d never known anything different, he probably didn’t notice it anymore. As she sunned herself on the diving board, she took in the sight of him standing on the roof of the cabana, getting ready to jump. He’d climbed it like a gymnast, and even from a distance, she could see the muscles flexing in his arms and stomach.

“Hey,” he shouted. “Watch me do a flip.”

“A flip? That’s it? You climb all the way up there and you’re only going to do one flip?”

“What’s wrong with doing a flip?” he demanded.

“I’m just saying that anyone can do one flip,” she taunted. “Even I could do one flip.”

“I’d like to see that.” He sounded skeptical.

“I don’t want to get wet.”

“But I invited you over here to swim!”

“This is how girls like me swim. It’s also known as tanning.”

He laughed. “Actually, it’s probably a good idea you’re getting some sun. I guess the sun doesn’t shine in New York, huh?”

“Are you saying I’m pale?” She frowned.

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s not the word I’d use. I think ‘pasty’ is a bit more accurate.”

“Wow, what a charmer. It makes me wonder what I used to see in you.”

“Used to?”

“Yes, and I must say that if you keep using words like pasty when it comes to describing me, I’m not seeing much of a future for us, either.”

He seemed to evaluate her. “How about if I do two flips? Will you forgive me?”

“Only if you end the flips with a perfect dive. But if two flips and a big clumsy entry is all you can do, I’ll pretend to be amazed, as long as you don’t get me wet.”

He raised an eyebrow before retreating a few steps and then taking one big step to launch himself in the air. He pulled himself into a tight tuck, spun twice, and went into the water arms first and body straight, almost without a ripple.

Now that, she thought, was impressive, if not completely surprising, given the graceful way he moved on the volleyball court. When he surfaced at the edge of the diving board, treading water, she knew he was pleased with himself.

“That was okay,” she said.

“Just okay?”

“I’d give it a four point six.”

“Out of five?”

“Out of ten,” she said.

“That was at least an eight!”

“Of course you think that. That’s why I’m the judge.”

“How do I appeal?” he said, reaching up to latch on to the edge of the board.

“You can’t. It’s official.”

“What if I’m not happy?”

“Then maybe you’ll think twice about using the word pasty.

He laughed and began to pull himself up. Ronnie gripped the diving board.

“Hey… stop… don’t do that…,” she warned.

“You mean… this?” he said, pulling down even harder.

“I told you I don’t want to get wet!” she shrieked.

“And I want you to come swimming with me!” Without warning, he seized her arm and gave a tug. Squealing, she plunged into the water. As soon as she came up for air, he tried to kiss her, but she backed away.

“No!” she cried out, laughing, relishing the briskness of the water and the silky sensation of his skin against hers. “I don’t forgive you!”

As she struggled playfully with him, she noticed Susan watching from the veranda. From the expression on her face, she was definitely not happy.

Later that afternoon, as they were heading back to the beach to check on the turtle nest, they stopped for ice cream. Ronnie walked beside Will, licking her fast-melting ice-cream cone, thinking how amazing it was that they’d kissed for the first time only yesterday. If last night had been almost perfect, then today had been even better. She loved how easily they shifted from serious to lighthearted and that he was as good at teasing her as he was at being teased.

Of course, he had pulled her into the pool, which was why she needed to time her reaction perfectly. It wasn’t that hard since he didn’t know it was coming, but as soon as he raised his own ice-cream cone to his lips, she gave the cone a sharp nudge, smearing ice cream on his face. Giggling, she skipped off around the corner… directly into the arms of Marcus.

Blaze was with him, as were Teddy and Lance.

“Well, isn’t this a nice surprise,” Marcus drawled, tightening his grip.

“Let me go!” she cried, hating the sudden panic in her voice.

“Let her go,” Will added from behind her. His voice was unwavering. Serious. “Now.”

Marcus seemed almost amused. “You should watch where you’re going, Ronnie.”

“Now!” Will demanded, sounding angry, moving into view.

“Take it easy, Richie Rich. She slammed into me-I was just keeping her from falling. And by the way, how’s Scott doing? Has he been playing with any bottle rockets lately?”

To Ronnie’s surprise, Will froze. Smirking, Marcus turned his gaze back to her. He squeezed her arms harder before finally releasing her. As Ronnie took a quick step back, Blaze lit a fireball, her expression nonchalant.

“I’m glad I was able to keep you from stumbling,” Marcus said. “It wouldn’t look good to be all bruised when you go to court on Tuesday, would it? You don’t want the judge to think you’re violent, in addition to being a thief.”

Ronnie could only stare at him, speechless, until Marcus turned away. As they walked off, she saw Blaze toss him the fireball, which he caught with ease and threw back to her.

Seated on the dune outside her house, Will remained quiet as she recounted everything that had happened since she arrived, including the events at the music store. When she finished, she twisted her hands together in her lap.

“And that’s all of it. As for the shoplifting I did back in New York, I don’t even know why I took that stuff. It wasn’t like I needed it. It was just something to do because my friends were doing it. When I went to court, I admitted everything because I knew I was wrong and that I wasn’t ever going to do it again. And I didn’t-not there, and not here. But unless the charges are dropped or Blaze admits what she did, I’m not only going to get in big trouble here, but I’m going to be in trouble back home, too. I know it sounds crazy and I’m sure you don’t believe me, but I swear I’m not lying.”

He covered her clasped hands with his own. “I believe you,” he said. “And trust me-nothing surprises me about Marcus. He’s been crazy since he was a kid. My sister had him in a class and she told me that the teacher once found a dead rat in her drawer. Everyone knew who did it, even the principal, but they couldn’t prove anything, you know? And he’s still up to his usual tricks, but now he has Teddy and Lance to do his bidding. I’ve heard some scary things about him. But Galadriel… she used to be the nicest girl. I’ve known her since I was a little kid, and I don’t know what’s been going on with her lately. I know her mom and dad got divorced, and I heard she took it really hard. I don’t know what she sees in Marcus, though, or why she’s so intent on ruining her life. I used to feel bad for her, but what she’s doing to you is wrong.”

Ronnie suddenly felt tired. “I have to go to court next week.”

“Do you want me to come?”

“No. I don’t want you to see me standing in front of the judge.”

“It doesn’t matter-”

“It will if your mom finds out. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t like me.”

“Why do you say that?”

Because I saw the way she was looking at me earlier, she could have said. “It’s just a feeling.”

“Everyone feels like that when they first meet her,” he assured her. “Like I said, once you get to know her, she’ll loosen up.”

Ronnie wasn’t so sure. Behind her, the sun was dropping, turning the sky a bright shade of orange. “What’s going on with Scott and Marcus?” she asked.

Will stiffened. “What do you mean?”

“Do you remember that night at the festival? After he did his show, Marcus seemed all hyped up about something, so I tried to keep my distance from him. It was like he was scanning the crowd, and when he spotted Scott, he got this… weird look on his face, like he found what he needed. Next thing I know, he had balled up his cup of French fries and hurled it at him.”

“I was there, too, remember?”

“But remember what he said? It was odd. He asked if Scott was going to shoot a bottle rocket at him. And when he said almost the same thing to you just a little while ago, you sort of froze.”

Will looked away. “It’s nothing,” he insisted, squeezing her hands. “And I wouldn’t have let anything happen to you.” He leaned back, propping himself on his elbows. “May I ask you a question? Totally different subject?”

Ronnie lifted an eyebrow, unsatisfied by his answer but deciding to let it go.

“Why is there a piano behind a plywood wall at your house?” When she seemed surprised, he shrugged. “You can see it through the window, and the plywood wall doesn’t exactly match the rest of the interior.”

It was Ronnie’s turn to look away. She disengaged her hands and buried them in the sand. “I told my dad that I didn’t want to see the piano anymore, so he put up the wall.”

Will blinked. “You hate the piano that much?”

“Yes,” she answered.

“Because your dad was your teacher?” She looked up in surprise as Will went on. “He used to teach at Juilliard, right? It only makes sense that he’d teach you to play. And I’d be willing to bet that you were great at it, if only because you have to love something before you can hate it.”

For a grease monkey slash volleyball player, he was pretty perceptive. Ronnie dug her fingers deeper into the sand, where the layers felt cool and heavy.

“He taught me to play from the time I was able to walk. I played for hours, seven days a week, for years. We even did some composing together. It’s what we shared, you know? It was something for just the two of us, and when he moved out of the apartment… I felt like he hadn’t only betrayed the family. I felt like he’d betrayed me personally, and I was just so angry about all of it that I swore I’d never play or write another song again. So when I first got down here and saw the piano and heard him playing it every time I was around, I couldn’t help feeling that he was trying to pretend that what he’d done didn’t matter. Like he thought we could just start over. But we couldn’t. You can’t undo the past.”

“You seemed friendly with him the other night,” Will observed.

Ronnie slowly pulled her hands from the sand. “Yeah, we’ve been getting along better in the last few days. But that doesn’t mean I want to play again,” she said.

“It’s not my business, but if you were that good, then you’re only hurting yourself. It’s a gift, right? And who knows? Maybe you could go to Juilliard.”

“I know I could. They still write me. They’ve promised me they’ll make room if I change my mind.” She felt a surge of irritation.

“Then why don’t you go?”

“Does it matter that much to you?” She glared at him. “That I’m not just who you thought I was? That I have some special talent? Does that make me good enough for you?”

“Not at all,” he said. “You’re still the person I thought you were. From the first moment we met. And there’s no way you could ever be a better fit for me.”

As soon as he’d said it, she felt ashamed of her outburst. She heard the sincerity in his tone and knew he meant what he’d said.

She reminded herself that they’d known each other for only a few days, and yet… he was kind and smart and she already knew he loved her. As if sensing her thoughts, he sat up and scooted closer. Leaning in, he kissed her softly on lips, and she was suddenly certain that she wanted nothing more than to spend hours and hours wrapped in his arms, just like this.

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