As we paused on the walkway, Emma Christianson brushed by us—tall, blond, angular, high-cheekboned, the image of money and poise, and I lost my nerve.
“Are we actually invited? We’re not walking into some scene where they’ll beat us up or anything, are we?”
Hoop rolled his eyes. “Daaaaamn, Gwenners. You know how these parties are. Spence invited hell near everybody from school—he’s gotta save face since Somers threw that big one earlier. They’re so crazy competitive. Dumbasses. Come on, I’m going to get me a beer and some serious action. Don’t worry, you look fiiiiiine.”
I’d borrowed a dress from Viv, who is considerably smaller than me—everywhere. So it was super-tight. And red. And low-cut.
I was used to parties with only a keg, or just six-packs bobbling around in melting ice in a dingy tub. This one had an entire bar—black-and-white and mirrored in a dizzying way—set up with four blenders churning out margaritas and some sort of pink drink. Spence, in a black T-shirt with a purple lei draped over it, was dumping the last of a bottle of rum into one of the blenders. He watched as we walked in and flashed me his perfect smile, the one that rarely reached his eyes—but it did now. “Whoa-ho, it’s the princess of Castle’s. Whaddya know. Didn’t think you’d show for this one, Gwen.”
Pouring a tall glass of the pink stuff, he reached over, wedged one of those little umbrellas in it, pressed it into my hand.
“I was just going to go for a Coke. Not much of a drinker,”
“Yeah, she’s a freakin’ lightweight,” Hoop confirmed. Then he gave me a friendly pat—on my butt—and slid away, shoulders bobbing to the music.
“Yet here you are.” Spence’s eyebrows lifted.
What I’d told Spence was true. Still, I immediately took a nervous slug of whatever the drink was, nearly choking on a chunk of ice. Spence just sat there while I coughed, sputtered, and eventually got control of myself. I put my glass down and hiked the top of my dress up. He smiled more broadly and gave me a practiced once-over, as though tracing the path of the blush I could feel rising.
They must offer a secret course for these guys on Hayden Hill: Putting Girls Off Balance 101. Well, to hell with it. I turned on my heel and headed toward the door I’d seen Hoop vanish through. Time for me to stick with my own kind.
Hoop had collapsed bonelessly on the couch and was ani-matedly recounting to some girl I didn’t know the story of a marlin he’d once landed off the coast of the island. I recog-nized the story. It was Nic’s marlin.
I drifted from room to room, trying to look as though I knew the house and exactly where I was headed in it. There was a hallway with a series of marble busts, a huge oval mirror, some tall shiny black standing vases with waxy white lilies.
Then a room set up to look like it was outdoors, even though it wasn’t, which contained several cockatoos in cages that reeked as though the newspaper hadn’t been changed in a while. One of the cockatoos hopped up and down as I entered, screeching, “Live bait! Live bait!” I twisted the gold-plated handle of the French doors and headed out onto the terrace. Even Spence’s birds disconcerted me.
It was a huge terrace, like a whole outdoor version of the house. I could dimly make out a figure at the curved end, looking out over all of Stony Bay. I knew who it was just by the way he was leaning on his elbows, by the glint of the hair on his down-tucked head. I wanted so badly to walk up behind him that my right foot nearly tingled, and I was suddenly afraid it would take control, dragging me into a place I knew better than to go. How on earth could I still feel that way? Nice work, Sundance. This swirl of hurt and shame and loss and confusion tightened in my stomach. I bumped back into the terrace-y room, to be greeted by the same creepy cockatoo shrieking, “There’s gold in them thar hills!” I swallowed down the last of my drink, now warm and full of strawberry seeds.
“You didn’t shut the door all the way.” Spence was leaning against the wall by the door. He gestured at the French doors behind me. “The birds need the temperature carefully regu-lated. Very important to my mother. But then, she’s in Mar-bella right now, and what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. So, Gwen Castle, what are you looking for, in here all by yourself?
Got to be a reason you came to this party.”
His eyes were the weirdest yellow-green color, slightly tilted up at the corners. Cat eyes. They’d always seemed to skip over me before, but now they were fixed steadily on my face. When I said nothing in response—since I had no real answer—he raised a thumb slowly to his lips and chewed on his nail, completely without self-consciousness, despite the fact that, now that I was looking, I noticed that all his other nails were bitten to the quick. Then he nodded like he’d come to a decision.
“You need another strawberry daiquiri.” Slipping his arm around my waist, his fingers resting lightly on my hip, he towed me out the door.
“I really don’t need—”
“Come on, Gwen Castle. You haven’t had enough. Not yet.
Besides, you’ve always struck me as a girl who gets an awful lot of ‘not enough.’ That won’t happen tonight.”
We took a different route to the bar than I’d taken before, down a long hallway with red-and-gold flocked wallpaper, hung with dark oil paintings of sea captains who looked as though they were sneering, and uptight round-faced women, presumably their wives.
“Your ancestors?” I ask Spence, searching their faces for his familiar smirk.
“Bought at estate sales. It’s all for show, Castle, right? All about the look of the thing.”
A side door opened and an elderly man emerged, wearing a paisley dressing gown like someone in one of Grandpa Ben’s movies. His thinning hair was ruffled up around his pink ears and he was rubbing one eye like Emory when he’s tired.
“What’s all this noise?” he asked Spence.
“Party, Dads. Remember?”
This was Spence’s dad? He was like eighty— had to be his grandfather.
The man frowned. “I agreed to this?” he asked vaguely.
“You bought the booze,” Spence responded.
The man nodded wearily and disappeared back through the door he’d come out of. He didn’t shut it completely, and Spence reached out and gave it a shove with the flat of his hand until there was an audible click.