“Covey, I didn’t come here to help her tag you out. I didn’t even know you’d be here. I told you, I don’t give a shit about this game!” He turns to Genevieve. Accusingly he says, “You said you needed to pick something up from your grandma’s friend.”
“I do,” she says. “This is just an amazing coincidence. I guess I win, huh?”
She’s so smug, so sure of herself and her victory over me. “You haven’t tagged me yet.” Should I just make a run for it back inside? Stormy would let me spend the night if I needed to.
Just then, John’s red Mustang convertible comes roaring up through the parking lot. “Hey, guys,” he says, and Peter’s and Gen’s mouths drop. It’s only then that I think of how strange we must look together, John in his World War II uniform with his jaunty little hat, me with my victory roll and my red lipstick.
Peter eyes him. “What are you doing here?”
Blithely John says, “My great-grandmother lives here. Stormy. You may have heard of her. She’s a friend of Lara Jean’s.”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t remember,” I say.
Peter frowns at me, and I know he doesn’t. It’s just like him not to. “What’s with the outfits?” he says, his voice gruff.
“USO party,” John says. “Very exclusive. VIPs only—sorry, guys.” Then he tips his hat at him, which I can tell makes Peter mad, which in turn makes me glad.
“What the hell is a USO party?” Peter asks me.
John stretches his arm out onto the passenger seat luxuriously. “It’s from World War Two.”
“I wasn’t asking you; I was asking her,” Peter snaps. He looks at me, his eyes hard. “Is this a date? Are you on a date with him? And who the hell’s car is this?”
Before I can answer, Genevieve makes a move toward me, which I dodge. I run behind the pillar. “Don’t be such a baby, Lara Jean,” she says. “Just accept that you lose and I win!”
I peek from behind the pillar, and John is giving me a look—a look that says, Get in. Quickly I nod. Then he throws open the passenger door, and I run for it, as fast as I can. I’ve barely got the door closed before he’s driving off, Peter and Gen in our dust.
I turn back to look. Peter is staring after us, his mouth open. He’s jealous, and I’m glad. “Thanks for the save,” I say, still trying to catch my breath. My heart is pounding in my chest so hard.
John is looking straight ahead, a broad smile on his face. “Anytime.”
We stop at a stoplight, and he turns his head and looks at me, and then we’re looking at each other, laughing like crazy, and I’m breathless again.
“Did you see the looks on their faces?” John gasps, dropping his head on the steering wheel.
“It was classic!”
“Like a movie!” He grins at me, jubilant, blue eyes alight.
“Just like a movie,” I agree, leaning my head back against the seat and opening my eyes wide up at the moon, so wide it hurts. I’m in a red Mustang convertible sitting next to a boy in uniform, and the night air feels like cool satin on my skin, and all the stars are out, and I’m happy. The way John is still grinning to himself, I know he is too. We got to play make-believe for the night. Forget Peter and Genevieve. The light turns green, and I throw my arms in the air. “Go fast, Johnny!” I shout, and he guns it and I let out a shriek.
We zoom around for a bit, and at the next stoplight he slows and puts his arm around me, pulling me closer to his side. “Isn’t this how they did it in the fifties?” he asks, one hand on the steering wheel and the other around my shoulders.
My heart rate picks back up again. “Well, technically we’re dressed for the forties—” and then he kisses me. His lips are warm and firm against mine, and my eyes flutter shut.
When he pulls away just a fraction, he looks down at me and says, half serious, half not, “Better than the first time?”
I’m dazed. He’s got some of my lipstick on his face now. I reach up and wipe his mouth. The light turns green; we don’t move; he’s still looking at me. Someone honks a horn behind us. “The light’s green.”
He doesn’t make a move; he’s still looking at me. “Answer first.”
“Better.” John pushes his foot on the gas, and we’re moving again. I’m still breathless. Into the wind I shout, “One day I want to see you make a Model UN speech!”
John laughs. “What? Why?”
“I think it would be something to see. I bet you’d be . . . grand. You know, out of all of us, I think you’ve changed the most.”
“You used to be sort of quiet. In your own head. Now you’re so confident.”
“I still get nervous, Lara Jean.” John has a cowlick, a little piece of hair that won’t stay down; it is stubborn. It’s this piece more than anything else that makes my heart squeeze.
AFTER JOHN DROPS ME OFF at home, I run across the street to pick up Kitty from Ms. Rothschild’s. And she invites me in for a cup of tea. Kitty is asleep on the couch with the TV on low in the background. We settle on the other couch with our cups of Lady Grey, and she asks me how the party went. Maybe it’s because I’m still on a high from the night, or maybe it’s the bobby pins so tight on my head that I feel woozy, or it could be the way her eyes light up with genuine interest as I begin to talk, but I tell her everything. The dance with John, how everyone cheered, Peter and Genevieve, even the kiss.
She starts fanning herself when I tell about the kiss. “When that boy drove up in that uniform—ooh, girl.” She whistles. “It made me feel like a dirty old lady, because I knew him when he was little. But dear God he is handsome!”
I giggle as I pull the bobby pins from the top of my head. She leans forward and helps me along. My cinnamon bun unravels, and my scalp tingles with relief. Is this what it’s like to have a mother? Late-night boy talk over tea?
Ms. Rothschild’s voice gets low and confidential. “Here’s the thing. My one piece of advice to you. You have to let yourself be fully present in every moment. Just be awake for it, do you know what I mean? Go all in and wring every last drop out of the experience.”
“So do you not have any regrets, then? Because you always went all in?” I’m thinking of her divorce, how it was the talk of the neighborhood.