“I don’t either,” Bethanne murmured. “But it’s important that you maintain a connection with your dad. Your relationship with Grant has nothing to do with Tiffany—or me.”
After the party, she had an overwhelming urge to talk to Paul, but she waited until Andrew and Annie were out for the night. They were attending a rock concert at Key Arena—some rapper whose lyrics Bethanne couldn’t make out. From what she knew of rappers, that was probably for the best.
Paul answered on the second ring. “I was going to give you a call,” he said. He sounded genuinely pleased to hear from her.
“Would you like to come over for dinner?” She wanted to see him although she didn’t intend to cook. “I’m going to order pizza.”
“Perfect. I’ll rent a movie,” he said, then hesitated. “Now tell me what’s wrong.”
“How do you know something’s wrong?”
“I can hear it in your voice.”
“Bethanne, you’re avoiding the subject.”
“You might want to wait until you get here.”
“No,” he insisted, “tell me now.”
She sighed. Grant hadn’t had the courage to tell her; instead he’d done it through their daughter. Even then, Annie had been the one to phone him, otherwise none of them would’ve known until after the fact.
“Tonight, while we’re eating pizza and watching a DVD, Grant and Tiffany will be in Vegas. Three guesses why.”
“They’re getting married.”
Paul didn’t comment for a long moment. “I’ll bring the wine.”
“Make it a big bottle,” she said.
Courtney arrived for her orientation class at Washington High School early on Monday, August 15. She’d already received her class assignments, and according to Annie, she’d failed miserably in choosing her electives. She was doomed to become a social outcast if what Annie said was true.
She spent the morning at the high school. The purpose of the orientation was to ensure, among other things, that she’d be familiar enough with the building to make her way from class to class on the first day of school. The summer was almost over, and Courtney prayed the year would pass just as quickly.
At noon, once she was finished with orientation, she headed home. Grams had volunteered to drive her, but Courtney had refused, taking her bike instead. It was parked behind the building, close to the football field. When she went to retrieve it, she noticed the football team practicing. She stopped and decided to watch for a few minutes. Annie had boasted that Andrew played quarterback, although it was hard to recognize him beneath all that equipment.
The three of them had gone out for pizza that one night, but Andrew didn’t stay with Annie and Courtney long. Very soon after they’d arrived at the restaurant, Andrew had run into a group of his friends and abandoned the girls. Not that it really mattered…She’d seen him a few times since, mostly at Annie’s place, but she doubted she’d said a dozen words to him.
Sitting in the stands, Courtney saw Andrew throw a pass deep into the end zone. The receiver leaped into the air and miraculously came down with the football. Excited to have scored the touchdown, Andrew raced to the end of the field and threw his arms around the receiver.
A whistle blew and the team formed a huddle around their coach. After a couple of minutes, all the players sent up a cheer and trotted toward the locker room.
Andrew had removed his helmet and was talking to a friend when he glanced up into the stands. He must have seen her because he stared as if trying to determine whether this was someone he knew.
Courtney felt uncomfortably conspicuous. She waved and stood up to leave.
Andrew started toward the chain-link fence, obviously intending to speak to her. Embarrassed now, Courtney walked down the steep concrete steps and met him at the fence.
“I didn’t recognize you at first,” he said.
“I wasn’t sure that was you, either.” Courtney smiled, happy just to see him. She hoped he’d notice the fact that she’d lost weight—almost fifteen pounds. She was beginning to discern a difference in how her clothes fit.
“They had orientation for new students this morning,” she explained, nervously pointing at the building behind her. She had to make clear to Andrew that she hadn’t come down here because of him. She liked him—okay, really liked him—but she didn’t want him knowing it.
“Yeah, the school always does that.”
“My bicycle’s back here.”
He nodded, apparently disinterested. “Have you got your class assignments yet?”
Courtney told him what she remembered.
“I’m in second period Honors English,” he said.
“You are?” This was good news as far as Courtney was concerned. She’d know at least one person in that class. To hear Annie talk, she’d gotten the very dregs of the elective courses.
Another player shouted at Andrew, and he looked over his shoulder. “Be there in a minute,” he shouted back.
“You’d better go,” she said.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Listen, I haven’t had a chance to tell you, but I’m grateful you called me that night about Annie. She’s feeling a lot better since she started hangin’ with you.”
“Thanks. I needed a friend, too.”
They exchanged goodbyes and see-you-laters. As Andrew walked away, a blond girl raced onto the field. She gave a loud shriek, and when Andrew turned, she leaped into his arms, wrapping her legs around his waist. Although Andrew was sweaty and hot from practice and still in his uniform, she planted an openmouthed kiss on his lips. Naturally, the girl was thin and beautiful.
Courtney turned away to find a second girl almost directly behind her.
“Oh. Hi,” she said, giving Courtney a look that would have frozen motor oil.
“Hi.” Despite the chilly greeting, Courtney felt this was her opportunity to make friends. “I’m Courtney Pulanski.”
“Shelly Johnson. I’m with Melanie.”
It seemed Melanie was the one with a lip lock on Andrew.
“I’m a friend of Andrew and Annie’s,” she said, hoping this would smooth the way for her. They were basically the only teenagers she knew. She’d met a lot of people since she’d arrived in Seattle, but most of them collected social security. Bethanne and Lydia were two exceptions, but Bethanne was probably close to her father’s age, and Lydia had to be at least thirty.
“Yeah,” Shelly said with the same lack of welcome. “I’ve heard about you.”
This was interesting. “Really?”
Courtney thought giving the other girl some background might warm her reception. “I recently moved here from Chicago.”
“Will you be going to this school?”
Courtney nodded. “It’s my senior year.”
“Same as Andrew,” she said, and her gaze narrowed suspiciously, as if she was trying to read Courtney’s intentions toward Annie’s brother.
Courtney wanted it understood that she didn’t consider herself competition for Melanie. “I’m actually more Annie’s friend than Andrew’s,” she murmured.
“Uh-huh. Just so you know, Mel and Andrew have been dating for a year. Mel’s the head cheerleader and she’ll probably be Homecoming Queen. It’s perfect because Andrew’s for sure gonna be King.”
“Perfect,” Courtney echoed. It was all so perfectly perfect. She didn’t understand how she could be deemed a threat to this perfect romance.
As soon as she could, Courtney left and biked back to her grandmother’s. She felt a surprising sense of energy as she rode, although she was definitely out of sorts.
“I have your lunch ready,” Grams told her when she walked into the kitchen. A bowl of soup waited on the table, along with a tray of sliced carrots and celery.
“I’m not hungry,” Courtney snapped, stomping toward her bedroom.
“Courtney Pulanski, there’s no need to get snippy with me,” her grandmother said sternly.
Courtney was instantly contrite. “I’m sorry, Grams.”
Courtney shook her head, not knowing what to say. She could hardly even put words to what she felt. It was that familiar ache of loneliness, that sense of not fitting in. She missed her friends and her family and her old high school. More than anything in the world, she just wanted to go home.
“Maybe you’re tired?” her grandmother suggested.
A nap was her grandmother’s solution to just about every problem. That or a bowel movement. Rather than respond, Courtney continued up the stairs to her room.
Once inside, she closed the door and logged onto the Internet. Her spirits lifted immediately when she saw an e-mail from her father. He sounded well, which was a huge relief. She felt a constant, nagging worry about him. She’d heard far too many stories about kidnappings in South America to be comfortable with her dad working there. She answered his e-mail right away and described the orientation class, exaggerating her enthusiasm for the start of school. Courtney didn’t want her father to be concerned about her, didn’t want to add to the burdens he already carried.
After reading her other mail—from Julianna and two of her Chicago friends—she lay down on her bed and stared up at the ceiling, assessing her chances for success this year. At the moment everything seemed bleak.
It was the way Melanie had looked at her, Courtney decided. Andrew’s girlfriend had given her the eye as she claimed possession of Andrew. She viewed Courtney as an unknown and unwelcome threat. Funny how much you could derive from a single look.
Shelly, the friend, didn’t even pretend to be friendly. Their entire conversation had been an attempt to gain information so she could assure the perfect “Mel” that Courtney was a nobody.
Courtney did wonder why Annie had never mentioned Melanie. Maybe she didn’t like her brother’s girlfriend. Or maybe it simply hadn’t occurred to her.
“Do you want me to bring you your lunch?” her grandmother shouted from the foot of the stairs.
Courtney reluctantly slid off the bed and stepped out into the hallway. “Grams, I told you, I’m not hungry.” And the last thing she wanted was for her grandmother to climb the stairs. Vera had made her feelings about that quite clear.
“You should eat something.”
“I will later.”
Her grandmother’s face darkened. “I’m worried about you.”
“I’m all right.”
“Did someone upset you?”
Courtney slowly came down the stairs, her hand on the railing. “It doesn’t matter.”
Her grandmother looked as if she didn’t believe her.
“Maybe I’ll have some soup, after all,” Courtney said, and Grams brightened.
“I want to hear about your classes.” She bustled into the kitchen, with Courtney following.
They sat at the table and chatted while Courtney ate her tomato soup and carrot sticks.