Excerpt: 'Along for the Ride'

Not that I hadn't had crushes. Back at Jackson, there was a guy in my science class, hopeless at equations, who always made my palms sweat whenever we got paired for experiments. And at Perkins Day, I'd awkwardly flirted with Nate Cross, who sat next to me in calculus, but everyone was in love with Nate, so that hardly made me special. It wasn't until Kiffney-Brown, when I met Jason Talbot, that I really thought I might actually have one of those boyfriend kind of stories to tell the next time I got together with my old friends. Jason was smart, good-looking, and seriously on the rebound after his girlfriend at Jackson dumped him for, in his words, "a juvenile delinquent welder with a tattoo." Because of Kiffney-Brown's small seminar size, we spent a fair amount of time together, battling it out for valedictorian, and when he'd asked me to prom I'd been more excited than I ever would have admitted. Until he backed out, citing the "great opportunity" of the ecology conference. "I knew you'd be okay with this," he'd said to me as I nodded, dumbly, hearing this news. "You understand what's really important." Okay, so it wasn't like he called me beautiful. But it was a compliment, in its own way.

It was crowded at Last Chance Café, with a line of people waiting to be seated and two cooks visible through a small kitchen window, racing around as orders piled up on the spindle in front of them. I gave my order to a dark-haired, pretty girl with a lip ring, then took a seat by the window to wait for it. Glancing down the boardwalk, I could see the guys still gathered around the bench: the one who'd talked to me was now sitting down, his arms stretched behind his head, laughing as his short, stocky friend rode a bike back and forth in front of him, doing little hops here and there.

It took a while for the food to be ready, but I soon realized my dad was right. It was worth the wait. I was digging into the onion rings before I even got out the door to the boardwalk, which by then was crowded with families eating ice-cream cones, couples on dates, and tons of little kids running along the sand. In the distance, there was a gorgeous sunset, all oranges and pinks, and I kept my eyes on it as I walked, not even looking over at the bike shop until I was almost past it. The guy was still there, although now he was talking to a tall girl with red hair who was wearing a massive pair of sunglasses.

"Hey," he called out to me, "if you're looking for something to do tonight, there's a bonfire at the Tip. I'll save you a seat."

I glanced over at him. The redhead was now giving me the stink eye, an annoyed look on her face, so I didn't say anything.

"Ah, she's a heartbreaker!" he said, then laughed. I kept walking, now feeling the redhead's gaze boring in somewhere between my shoulder blades. "Just keep it in mind. I'll wait for you."

Back at the house, I found three plates and some silverware, then set the table and put out the food. I was shaking ketchup packets out into a pile when my dad came downstairs.

"I thought I smelled onion rings," he said, rubbing his hands together. "This looks great."

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