I decide not to ask any more questions for a while, and she doesn’t continue, so I’m guessing that’s the group in its entirety. It’s Sunday, so when she pulls into the parking lot near the open fields by the science building, it’s fairly empty.
“You ready?” she asks, and I nod. “Don’t be nervous.”
There’s not much point in being nervous yet when I don’t know what I’m up against. And really, how hard can the game be?
WITHIN TEN SECONDS of stepping onto the field, a Frisbee from a nearby game in progress comes sailing toward me, and in its wake is a large sprinting, sweaty guy heading straight toward me. I yelp, throw my hands over my head, and crouch down low. There’s a burst of air over my head, something heavy knocks into my forearms, forcing me onto my knees, and then there’s a loud thump a few feet away from me.
When I lift my arms enough to peek out, I see the guy who’d been running toward me, now flat on his stomach on the other side of my body.
He jumped over me.
Suddenly the uncomplicated and unintimidating game of Frisbee that I’d been picturing gets much more stressful. The guy rolls over onto his back and then hops to his feet. Dylan grabs my arm and tugs me up and away from the game that I’m still in the middle of. As soon as we’re clear, they start up again at full speed. When we approach a group of people seated around a picnic table, I hear a loud voice say, “I vote that one is on Brookes’s team.”
The guy that goes with the voice is tall with broad shoulders. His skin is a warm bronze, and his dark hair is shorn close to his head. His teeth are a brilliant white when he directs his smile at me. And I’m fairly certain he’s just insulted me, despite that grin.
Dylan’s boyfriend punches him in the arm. “Don’t be a dick.”
“I’m not being a dick. I’m just teasing the girl to make her feel like part of the group. It’s part of my welcome strategy. What do you say, beautiful? Do you feel welcome?”
His tone is playful and light, but there’s an intensity to his gaze that unnerves me. I freeze and study him, and I know immediately. “You’re Torres.”
Everyone laughs, and a girl with fiery red hair says, “Somehow she made just your name sound like an insult, Teo. I think she’s going to fit right in.”
Teo. I think back, trying to remember what first name Dylan had mentioned. Mateo?
He lifts a hand to his chest, the left side where his heart is, and shoots me a wounded expression that is like puppy-dog eyes to the tenth power. I’m not sure whether it makes me want to step closer or run in the other direction.
“At least she knows who I am,” he says. “None of you suckers are that important.”
I survey the rest of the group, and slowly try to guess which person goes with which description. The girl with red hair is the most obvious. There’s a tall, attractive guy with an arm looped over her shoulders, and they’re clearly the nucleus of the group.
I point at them. “Dallas and Carson.” The guy I deemed to be Carson raises his eyebrows in surprise. There’s only one other girl present, a petite Asian with dark hair cut and shaped around a pretty face. “You must be Stella.” She smiles and points a finger at the curly-haired guy close to her. She mouths, “Ryan.” I nod and take her hint, pointing him out, too. Next up is the guy I saw naked in my kitchen just a few days ago. That’s one face I’m not going to forget anytime soon. “That’s Silas, which means . . .” I face the last unidentified guy. He’s a large black guy with sculpted muscles and a symmetrical face. I get what Dylan said about him being the hardest to pin down. But he’s looking at me with a calculating expression that reminds me of myself, and I smile. “And you’ve got to be Isaiah Brookes.”
Torres whistles and draws my attention back to him, “How come you know his full name?”
He hops down from where he’s sitting on top of the picnic table and meets me in a few long strides. He loops an arm around my shoulders as if he’s known me for years instead of minutes, and suddenly I’m pressed up close and personal to the hardest body I’ve ever touched in real life. In fact, the closest I’ve ever come to someone this defined is one of those CPR dummies that are made of metal and rubber and plastic.
Torres says, “Forget having her on my team. I want her on my homework. She’s a genius or something.”
“Or she saw a picture of us,” Brookes says, his gaze still assessing.
Torres asks Dylan, “Did you show her our pictures, Captain Planet? I hope you got a good one of me.”
“Actually, I told her you were flashy and shameless. She put together who you were all on her own.”
The laughter that follows Dylan’s announcement is even louder than before, and it lasts for several long seconds. My eyes flit around the group as they laugh, and I try to take in all the dynamics at work, but my thoughts unravel completely when I feel hot breath against my ear, and then what must be lips brushing my skin as Torres asks, “What’s your name?”
It has to be autopilot that has me answering because all my conscious thoughts are too wrapped up in this body that’s crowded too close to mine, and how warm he is, and the faint scent of something citrus-y and woodsy that comes from his skin.
I pause. I still don’t want to be called by my last name.
“Well, just Nell. I’m Mateo.”