I didn’t tell him that my stepsister Kylie was a skilled skateboarder, and I’d known how to pop-shove it like a pro since I was ten. Pretending ignorance, I listened as he explained the how-to. When I got a running start before jumping on to the board and pumping it even faster, he looked startled. With a practised flick of my foot, I flipped the board, landed it smoothly and glided by him wearing a cocky grin of my own.
As he walked up, I stepped off the board and popped it up and into my hand to give it back. Placing his hand atop mine instead of taking the board, he pushed right into my personal space, eyes bright. ‘That was awesome,’ he said. ‘And so freakin’ hot. It makes me want to, like, kiss you or something.’
‘Okay,’ I said, heart pounding from the physical exertion, the anticipation of my first kiss, or both. If he was surprised by my instant acquiescence, he didn’t show it. Instead, he stepped closer, bracketed my waist with his hands and leaned to give me a kiss that was more like several small kisses in a row, each one better than the last.
I didn’t know then that he was experiencing his first kiss too. And his second. And his third.
The further I get from Reid, the more anxious I am. I don’t know any of these people, and I don’t know this roguish boy guiding me through the crowd with his hand at my lower back, either. I know he’s Reid’s best friend, but any time Reid tries to describe their relationship, he ends up shaking his head and shrugging. ‘You’ll see when you meet him. He’s just … John.’
So far, I’ve concluded that John is a habitual flirt and a shameless celebrity suck-up, and his language is as atrocious as Reid’s was (or more likely as atrocious as Reid’s is – I have no delusions that I’ve changed him, only that he attempts to abide by my limits when he’s around me). Judging by tonight’s spate of accolades concerning my education and social service record, John is also determined to get on my good side. Or elevate me to sainthood by the end of the night.
I clear my throat to correct the erroneous statement he’s just made to a couple of girls lounging on his sofa – girls who are now appraising me curiously, as if I have extra limbs or a blue skin tone.
‘I’m not actually a missionary.’
He frowns. ‘But Reid said you went to Puerto Rico or Brazil to hand out shoes or bibles or something.’
‘Uh … I went to Ecuador to work as a volunteer music teacher at a mission school –’
‘Mission school. Right. So you’re like, a missionary.’
Oh my word. I take a breath. ‘Well, no – missionaries usually accept long term or even lifelong assignments; they’re dedicated to doing evangelical work as well as practical objectives like establishing schools or hospitals –’
‘But you just said you were helping run a school in Panama.’
I sigh, recalling Ana Diaz, my programme director in Quito who fights a daily, year-round battle against poverty, crime and uneducated parents who can’t imagine anything better for their children – who send them out to shine shoes or pickpocket or anything that might put food on the family’s table that night.
‘She said Ecuador,’ one of the girls says, scrutinizing my face. Like all the other girls here, she’s dressed casually, but something about the way the fabrics drape over her says money. Her eyes are dark and alert. I’m certain she can tell that I’m completely out of my element.
John shrugs. ‘Po-tae-to, po-tah-to.’
She rolls her eyes and mutters, ‘Idiot.’ John feigns an insulted gasp, voicing his unconcern over her opinion wordlessly. Ignoring him, she asks, ‘So, you’re Reid’s girlfriend?’
My heart flips over at the word and I nod, absorbing the disbelief in her crooked brow and swiftly repeated head-to-toe inspection.
‘I’m sorry, it’s just – you seem really … not his type.’
I flush and John turns me, saying, ‘No need to be a bitch, Jo –’
‘No.’ She leans forward. ‘I mean, she’s totally unlike his last girlfriend.’
John stops, turning back to her. ‘I know you don’t know Emma Pierce.’
‘Not her. The first one.’ Her lip angles in a sneer of disgust. ‘Brooke Cameron.’
My mouth falls open. Brooke Cameron – the beautiful star of Life’s a Beach with whom Kayla and Aimee have a love-and-hate-from-afar relationship. The girl who played Caroline in Reid’s last movie. She was once his girlfriend?
‘Jesus, that flaming disaster was like a hundred years ago. And you remember it?’ John laughs. ‘Obsessed much?’
‘Fuck you, John,’ Jo says, surging up, eyes flashing, drink sloshing on to her hand. ‘I’m not the one content to be his man-whore sidekick. No offence,’ she tosses at me.
‘Uh …’ I glance over my shoulder, looking for Reid and fighting claustrophobia.
‘God, okay you two – that’s enough.’ The other girl pipes up, her voice as tiny as she is. She stands, hands on hips, glowering up at John. ‘I thought you were going to be nice.’
He pulls her in close with his opposite arm. ‘Maybe you should keep your roommate on a leash, Bianca. Or muzzled.’
‘John!’ She shoves him in the chest half-heartedly, the attraction between them obvious.
‘C’mon, Bianca.’ Jo stomps towards the bar setup in the corner.
Bianca heaves a groan, shakes her head and follows her friend.
Watching them go, lips flattened, John mumbles, ‘Well, that was nasty.’