Then I proceed to gag so violently that I have to turn around and spit the vile liquid out into the sink behind us. My reaction draws the attention of several people in the room, including Torres, who starts toward me.
I panic and turn away from him, only to meet Stella’s amused smile.
“First time drinking beer?” she asks.
I nod. “It’s awful. Why would anyone drink it?”
“It’s an acquired taste,” Torres says as he steps up beside me. “You get used to it.”
“Why would I want to get used to it? That would be akin to punching myself just to get used to pain.”
He shrugs. “That might make sense for fight club or something like that.”
Stella smacks his arm with the back of her hand. “Dude. First rule.”
He laughs, and they both drink their beer, and I have absolutely no clue what they’re talking about. This. This is why I don’t do parties. Reflexively, I take another sip of my drink, and immediately regret it. Groaning, I force myself to swallow.
Proud of myself, I say, “Hey, I didn’t gag that time.”
It’s Stella who spits her drink out into the sink this time. She gasps, “Oh my God.”
“What? What did I say?”
I look at Torres, and that same blazing look is back in his eyes, and I swear I can feel my blood heating. Surely one sip of beer isn’t enough to heat my skin like his was heated earlier . . . is it? It shouldn’t be possible to actually feel the warm blood rising to the surface, should it? Curious, I lift the long-neck bottle back to my lips for another drink. I make a face, but force myself to take a few swallows. As soon as I pull the bottle away from my lips, Torres snatches the beer right out of my hand.
“Let’s get you something else to drink. Before you kill me.”
“Kill you? How on earth would I kill you?”
“One swallow at a time.”
“Oh God, Torres.” Stella groans, pushing at his shoulder. “You’re terrible.”
“What? It’s the truth!”
He moves past me to the counter, where he grabs a cup and a few bottles. Stella’s eyes meet mine, and she points at Torres’s broad back. “Watch out for that one.”
But despite her warning, she walks away, leaving me alone with him. I stare after her as she heads out of the kitchen. Ryan makes a move to follow her, but she glares, and moves to stand with Brookes by the front door. My eyes search for Dylan and Silas, but they’re no longer in the kitchen.
I gulp, suddenly wishing I had that beer back just so I’d have something to do with my hands. The chaotic atmosphere of the party is even more stressful than Torres’s presence, so I turn and settle for watching him as he mixes. He starts with lemonade, and then adds liquor from a glass bottle that I don’t recognize. He tips in some cranberry juice and two more kinds of liquor.
“What is that?” I ask.
“A Bad Decision.”
“Then why are you making it for me?”
He shoots me a lopsided smile, and I’m forced to acknowledge that maybe the warmth creeping up my neck has far less to do with alcohol than I wish it did. “No, sweetheart. It’s called a Bad Decision. The drink. It’s my own special invention.”
He hands me the cup and I stare at it warily. He moves closer to me, nudging the cup closer to my mouth with his finger.
“Why should I trust you?”
He seems to enjoy my suspicion.
“Always gotta fight me. Just try it. It’s sweet. I guarantee you’ll like it much better than the beer.”
I take a deep breath, think of my list, and then lift the cup to my mouth. The flavor curls over my tongue, tangy and sweet. “I can’t even taste the alcohol,” I say.
He smiles. “That’s why it’s called Bad Decision. Because too many of those will sneak up on you.”
I take another sip, simultaneously watching him lift a beer, my old beer, to his lips. If you’d described the scene to me two weeks ago, my first thought would have been ew, germs. Now . . . it makes my mouth go dry, and I find myself watching his mouth long after he lowers the bottle. I clear my throat and take another sip to wet my inexplicably parched throat. I don’t know why anyone would choose beer over something like this. I tell him, “It’s really good. Thank you.”
He’s looking away from me and out at the party as he says, “For you, Nell, I’ll make as many bad decisions as you want.”
Then his gaze tracks back to mine, and he winks, and I know if I touched my skin now, it would be burning.
Nell blushes, and my throat constricts because she reminds me so damn much of Lina. If I were already buzzing, I might even believe that I was dreaming or hallucinating or something. It’s just so fucking unreal.
From the minute I’d met Lina in sixth grade, I’d been half in love with her. She was smart—smart enough to be the best in every class and to give a thorough tongue-lashing to anyone who tried to mess with her. She had more confidence and control than any pubescent teenager should have, and it was hard not to put her on a pedestal, because she shined so damn bright.
And I was just another Mexican kid. Nothing special. I wasn’t that smart. We didn’t have much money. I was scrawny and entirely uninteresting.
As we got older, she grew into her strong features, started dressing more femininely, and her body filled out in all the right places to match those new clothes. And bam. Just like that, she was the smartest and prettiest girl no matter what room she walked into.
Or she was to me, anyway.