I assumed he didn’t realize who I was. I’d grabbed Mom’s parka on the way out the door, and with the hood tipped up I had all the sex appeal of the Goodyear Blimp.
He hesitated, then kicked his pants and the rest of his dis-carded clothes into a pile farther from the fire.
“Bet on me, Gwen?”
I looked at him. Shivered. Shook my head.
“You should. Nic and Spence are the flashy ones with all the strokes, but I’m all about going the distance. And endurance.”
“I’m not the betting kind.” I took a sip of my cider, breathed in the apple-cinnamon-scented steam, added quietly, “Good luck.”
He opened his mouth as if he wanted to say something, then shook his head and loped off. I tried unsuccessfully not to follow him with my eyes as he strode through the crowd, but . . . Those nice shoulders, the V of his upper body tapering down. I mean, it was purely aesthetic. Who wouldn’t look?
The opening air horn blasted, shrill, ear-splitting. Everyone plunged into the water. Jimmy Pieretti, ever the comedian, was wearing a yellow-and-white polka-dot bikini, although I couldn’t imagine where he found one that fit. Nic got delayed by Vivie’s good-luck kiss. There was a lot of splashing and yelling and swearing.
“Quit your bellyaching and focus!” Coach Reilly bawled through his bullhorn. Through the crowd, I saw Cass dive into the water, then slice through the surf, shoulders and forearms flashing in a fast crawl. Yes, there were chunks of ice. I mar-veled at some people’s school spirit. You couldn’t have made me take that plunge for anything less than world peace or having Emory’s medical expenses paid for life.
I walked down closer to the water, where Vivien was jump-ing up and down with the other cheerleaders.
“Shake it, shake it, Stony Bay. Swim it, swim it, all the way.”
About twenty kids had already lurched back out of the water toward the bonfire. Nic was sticking it out, but he looked crimson with cold. Jimmy Pieretti was evidently going for “Longest Time Underwater” because I could see his enormous legs sticking out in a headstand as the crowd shouted, “Jimbo, Jiiiiiiiiiimbo!” He had to top two hundred fifty pounds, but that wasn’t enough insulation: his toes were blue.
Coach, a bunch of parent volunteers, everyone was watching, but I still found myself counting heads, scanning the water.
By the shore my whole life, I’d grown up knowing what the ocean could give, then take away in a flash.
Where was Cass? He was popular, but no one was chanting his name the way they were for Jimmy or even Hoop, who had dashed out of the water to throw up on Coach Reilly’s shoes.
Where was Cass? Someone could easily have drowned in this noisy, yelling crowd, without anyone noticing.
I ran to the edge of the water, shielded my eyes from the bright sun dazzling off the waves, seeing black spots dancing in front of me. But no blond head. The race had been going on for at least five minutes, maybe more.
“Coach. Coach! Where’s Cass Somers?” I pulled at his sleeve as he raised the bullhorn again, my voice panicky. “Can you see him? Do you have binoculars?”
“Which one of you morons spiked the cider?” Coach bel-lowed. “You guys are disastrous. What the hell!”
I yanked at his sleeve again, and he turned, face ruddy against his thick black hair. “Not now, Gwen.” He tried to sound gen-46
tle. Coach had always been good to me, maybe because my dad’s restaurant donated food and ice cream for the beginning and end-of-year rallies. “Got a public relations disaster here. If the PTO finds out about the cider, we can kiss this fundraiser good-bye.”
“I can’t see Cassidy Somers. He’s in the water somewhere.” I tried to haul Coach with me into the waves, which were HOLY
FROSTBITE frigid. My skin felt like it was being peeled off with a thousand knives carved from ice. Coach remained motion-less, a red-faced Rock of Gibraltar. So I yanked off my parka, tossed it to the sand, waded in up to my knees, my waist, my armpits.
“Gwen! What the hell are you doing?” Vivien shouted. “Are you insane?”
Now everyone was back on shore, except me, in my cling-ing jeans and soggy hoodie, and there was a splash and Cass surfaced right in front of me, eyes wide and blue, hair plas-tered over his forehead, darkened to shifting shades of amber and gold by the water. He gave his head a shake, tossing his hair out of his eyes.
“I . . .” My teeth were chattering. My whole body was trem-bling. Cass too was shuddering so hard, I could feel his legs buck against mine. “I thought you’d drowned.”
He didn’t say anything, just reached out and wrapped an arm around my waist, stumbling as he tried to steer me to shore.
I was shaking and he was breathing hard and fast. I wasn’t sure who was holding up who, but he’d been in the water lon-47
ger and I had the sense that I was towing him. Coach wasn’t even watching us, having headed up to the bonfire to cuss out his wayward team.
“I th-thought you’d drowned,” I repeated when we got to land. Vivien was holding out one of the big quilts from the back of her mom’s car. Cass’s fingers swiped at it, but didn’t close. It was me who grabbed it and shook it open, reaching for his waistband to pull him close to me under the quilt.
Smack against him, I could feel his heart racing.
“Thank you,” he said. “I w-w-wasn’t drowning, but if I had been, that would h-h-have been an awesome rescue. As it was, it was plenty am-m-mazing.” His breath was white in the frigid air but felt warm on my face and now I was conscious that my hands were tight on his cold waist and I was practically thigh to thigh with Cass Somers.
Coach came over at this point. “You aced the distance and length record, Somers. Maybe the personal stupidity one too.”
Cass nodded, game face, neither gratified or abashed. Then he looked over at me. “Can we g-give G-Gwen the Lifeguard of the Year award, Coach? She w-was trying to save me.”
Coach snorted. “All you two need saving from is your own foolishness. Didja even kick off your shoes, Castle?”
I wiggled my wet toes in my hiking boots. “N-no.”
“Glad you’re not on my team,” Coach huffed. “You gotta think on your feet.” He scanned the beach for Mrs. Santos, the school nurse, but she was bent over Hooper, face concerned.
Coach sighed. “Always that guy,” he said. “Scat, kids. The bonfire’s not going to do it for you. Go someplace warm. And lose those sopping clothes, pronto.”