Rush me, p.58
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       Rush Me, p.58

         Part #1 of New York Leopards series by Allison Parr
Page 58

  That evening, we headed over to my friend Zac’s. I could hear David’s frown on the phone when he called to remind me about Sophie’s little party, but I’d promised Thomas I’d attend this shindig three months ago. Besides, Sophie hadn’t gone so far as to actually label this an anniversary party, so I felt in the clear.

  We zoomed along the narrow and bumpy tree-lined streets of Ashbury in Ryan’s little car, Christmas jingles already making their way onto the radio. “So, your friends. Are they all like you?”

  I glanced over and realized his arms were tense as he held the wheel. I probably shouldn’t have found that cute, but I did. “I’m not sure they’re like me, but we all grew up together. So everyone feels incredibly familiar. But they’re all really sweet. And super friendly. ”

  He must have heard the persuading note in my voice, because he glanced at me with raised brows. “Are you worried for me? I’m super friendly too, you know. ”

  “Look at the road. And yes, I know all about how friendly you are when you first meet people. You’re just super polite and not intimidating at all. ”

  “It’s like my super power. ”

  I just looked at him.

  “Too many supers?”

  “Too many. ”

  Zac’s door was open, and so we walked through and down the stairs to the furnished basement. The beige paint, the high ceilings, the framed family portraits were all a time-sink back into my childhood. We entered the carpeted basement, a room filled with movie posters, ping-pong and foosball and an old fashioned Coke machine. People I’d known since kindergarten lounged on couches and sat on unmatched chairs, faces lit up as they laughed and chattered. The door on the far right opened into a mini-kitchen, complete with sink and stocked fridge.

  I knocked on the door frame. “Hi, guys!”

  “Rachael!” my friends chorused, with heartwarming happiness. Madison, the closest of the quartet, threw her arms around me and kissed my cheek. “Hello, love!” Then I spun down the line, hugging meditative Rae and indie Andi and poor balding Kevin. Being with them was as easy as lying alone on my couch. I could have been eight or twelve or eighteen—we’d all done this so many times before.

  “Hey, Rach!” Liz and Zac, our idea-filled power couple greeted me. Liz’s hair might be longer and Zac’s clothes better cut, but other than that nothing had changed. Zac lifted me off the floor in a bear hug, and then set me down next to Thomas, who grinned and enveloped me in his arms.

  I smiled back at him, and then pulled away, spinning back to the door. During the round of hugs Ryan had stood by the entrance, and he looked like he was ready to be tackled any moment. I grabbed his hand and pulled him further into the room, where he dwarfed everyone else by at least three inches and sheer muscle. Andi spit up Coke into her cup. Silence descended.

  I cleared my throat. “Um, this is my boyfriend, Ryan. Carter. Ryan, this is. . . everyone. ”

  Everyone looked dumbfounded.

  “I could go through everyone’s names. ” I spoke a little too quickly, wishing they’d stop gaping like goldfish. “But, uh, there’s so many it might not be that useful. ” Everyone just kept staring, and I started to feel a little irritated with my friends. What happened to the warm environment I’d promised Ryan? I gave Zac a pointed look. “This is Zac’s place. ”

  Zac finally reached out to shake Ryan’s hand. “Hey, man. ”

  Ryan smiled a little tightly. “Hey. ”

  Andi, never known for tact, spoke loudly, as though she was double-checking. “Ryan Carter. The football player. ”

  “Yeah. ” He kept the syllable short, and his eyes sought mine.

  I leaned into him. “He’s also a very talented crayon cartographer, punster, and he makes mean French toast. ” I met Carly and Kate’s eyes and begged them to say something.

  Carly jumped on it. “Just so you know, we’re all Patriots fans here. No hard feelings, right?”

  Everyone laughed, and the tension broke. Soon, people clustered around Ryan, brutally curious about the life of a pro-athlete. More of my friends than I had realized exhibited an unexpected amount of sports knowledge, and one or two actually had Ryan’s passes and plays down game for game.

  Stealth sport fans.

  I waited until his smile had changed from the one he used on fans to a genuine grin, and then I slipped away to the bathroom. Before coming back, I detoured into the kitchen to get us glasses of water. I couldn’t keep a huge grin off my face, and warmth bubbled in my belly. They liked him. They liked my boyfriend.

  I almost giggled.

  Glasses in hand, I headed back for the living room. Thomas blocked the doorway.

  He shook his head. “Wow, Ryan Carter. I never would’ve guessed you’d date a football player. ”

  I grinned up at him. “Me neither. Who would have guessed?” Since we stood leaning in the doorway, I was able to throw a glance over at Ryan, and see him talking animatedly with Zac and Liz and Pierce and Rae.

  “He just doesn’t seem like your type. I mean—football? With that many concussions, the guy can’t use his brain that much. ”

  What the hell? I reined back my angry retort, knowing it wasn’t fair when I’d originally thought the same thing. Still, my words were sharp and terse. “Hey. Injuries aren’t funny. And he’s very smart. ”

  “Okay. ” Then he smirked. “But doesn’t he make you think of the other quarterback we knew? Chris Howell?”

  I smiled, but it didn’t reach my eyes. “Ryan isn’t anything like Chris Howell. Chris slept through half his classes and ended up at business school because he’s obviously going to work at his mom’s company. Ryan’s a pro athlete. ”

  “So he’s like Chris on steroids. ”

  I narrowed my eyes. “Stop it. ”

  He raised his hands. “Okay. I’ll have to take your word on it. ”

  “Yeah, you will. ” I ducked past him shaking my head. Seriously. Of all the people to be irritated by Ryan’s presence, I wouldn’t have expected Thomas to be one of them. He’d had plenty of friends who played sports, and he was generally open-minded.

  “Who was that?” Ryan said when I reached his side again.

  “What? Oh, Thomas. Good friend. ”

  Ryan looked around the room “They all seem to be good friends. ”

  I laughed. “Funny, huh? We were a weirdly close group. ”

  “Seems dumb to have a reunion when you’re still all in touch. ”

  “Hit the nail on the head. But I think that’s why we’re all going. Since we have each other as a buffer, but we’ll still get to watch the other groups without feeling uncomfortable. ”

  “Safety in numbers?”

  I laughed, curling into him, happy to have his solid warmth at my side, and to be here, with some of the people I loved the best in the world. Happy they all got along. “Precisely. ”

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  The former class officers had rented out the entertainment hall of Ashbury Inn, which had also served time hosting the junior prom, the annual Food & Wine weekend, and half a dozen bar and bat mitzvahs. Now, wandering through the ivy-twined trellises twinkling with white Christmas lights, memories sprang to life. On that bridge, overlooking that man-made creek, we had taken our prom pictures, and in that gazebo, I had rocked Madison as she cried after we caught Brian Davidson making out with Michelle Warner. And in there, on the dance floor, I had played Coke and Pepsi for half my thirteenth year.

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New York Leopards