I hold her face in my hands, like she did to me less than an hour ago. “This might be a formal function to everyone else, but to me it’s a dog and pony show. You want me to pretend to be one of ’em, this is what you get.”
“Can’t you pretend a little harder?” she asks, then leans in to say, “Cassandra Fordham and her mother have been staring at you since you came downstairs.”
I unbutton the top two buttons again, then undo a third one for good measure. “Who’s Cassandra Fordham?”
“Only the most beautiful girl in Texas. She wins beauty pageants, has incredible skin tone, and plays the piano.”
Skin tone? Beauty pageants? Those attributes don’t hold a candle to a girl who knows how to get down and dirty on the field and in a tent. “Does she play football?”
“Football?” My grandmother laughs. “Girls don’t play football, Derek. They watch it. And yes, I’m sure Cassandra Fordham is a fan of the game. She’s a Texan, born and raised. Football is in our blood. She’s right there.” She does her best not to make it obvious that she’s pointing to the girl in an off-the-shoulder yellow dress. The yellow rose of Texas.
My grandmother slips a hand through my elbow and leads me toward Cassandra Fordham. I’m aware that most eyes are on me. Obviously Cassandra has been pegged the most desirable girl in the room. Since I’m the guest of honor, I have the feeling it’s customary that I get first dibs.
“Mrs. Fordham, Cassandra, I’d like you to meet my grandson, Derek Fitzpatrick,” my grandmother says in an assertive voice.
Cassandra is model pretty. She’s got a small, perky nose and blue eyes that practically light up when she smiles. She does a small curtsy-type move. “How are you enjoyin’ Texas so far, Derek?”
“You want the truth?”
My grandmother subtly elbows me and busts out a fake laugh. “Derek has been entertainin’ me all week. Y’all should see him play tennis. We’ve been playin’ every afternoon after lunch. He’s a natural.”
I haven’t stepped foot on the tennis court since I’ve been here.
“I play, too,” Cassandra says in a sweet feminine voice. “Maybe we should play sometime.”
My grandmother nudges me again. “Of course he will. Right, Derek?”
After some more small talk, my grandmother asks Mrs. Fordham her opinion on her new artwork in the living room and leaves me standing beside Cassandra. I feel like I’ve stepped into a time warp. Everyone talks and eats while soft music from a four-string quartet plays in the background. It isn’t long before Cassandra grabs my elbow and starts introducing me to the other girls and guys at the party.
I get a break when she excuses herself to go to the restroom. I walk in the dining room and grab a bite. As I find a seat at the table, a bunch of girls surround me. I’m not gonna lie—the girls are hot. Texas has some of the prettiest girls I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’ve lived a bunch of places. I briefly wonder how they stay so thin when the food here is rich and fattening. Then I look down and notice that their plates are full of food, but they don’t actually put any of it in their mouths. It’s a scam, if you ask me.
Ashtyn would pile her plate high and enjoy the food without worrying what the guys here would think. Every day I’ve called her, but she hasn’t answered. This morning I left her a text message telling her to call me. She hasn’t.
After eating and wandering around talking to a couple of guys about football, their main topic of conversation, Cassandra appears at my side. She spurts impressive football stats like water, but it’s as if she’s been groomed to know about the sport without actually liking it.
I duck out and sit on one of the cabana chairs, hoping to be left alone. Reading that letter from my mom changes everything. When I read her words, it was like she was talking to me from the grave. She called me her football star. Man, that slashed open a wound that’d been stitched closed for a while now.
My privacy doesn’t last long, because female hands cover my eyes and Cassandra’s high voice whispers in my ear, “Guess who?”
As I walk up to the front entrance of the Worthington mansion with a mission to confront Derek, it suddenly dawns on me that I should have changed. I just threw on a pair of long shorts and my practice jersey, which has grass and mud stains on it from today’s practice.
I ring the doorbell. A tall man with a grim expression answers the door. “May I help you, miss?”
I peek inside. The mass of people standing around in dresses and suits emphasizes the fact that I’m underdressed. If I cared, I’d call the cab back and leave. But I don’t care. I’m on a mission, and nobody’s going to stop me. “I need to see Derek Fitzpatrick.”
“And who may I ask is calling?”
“Ashtyn.” When that doesn’t seem to satisfy him I say, “Ashtyn Parker.”
An older woman with striking blond hair and diamonds around her neck comes to the door and stands beside the guy. She’s wearing a light blue tailored dress with a matching jacket. When I look into her sapphire eyes, I get a jolt of recognition. Those are Derek’s eyes . . . this is Derek’s dying grandmother.
Except she doesn’t look like she’s dying.
She looks healthier than most people I know. She eyes my football jersey and purses her lips like she just ate a sour lemon. “Who are you?” she asks in a haughty tone.
“Ashtyn Parker.” I should have brought my name tag from Elite.
She tilts her head and focuses on my bare legs. “Miss Parker, my dear. Are you aware that you’re wearing boys’ clothes?”
Umm. How do I explain to a woman so impeccably dressed that I came here straight from football practice? “I play football. I had practice all day, and didn’t have time to change before I came here. Derek and I drove here together from Illinois.” When she doesn’t look impressed, I add, “His dad is married to my sister.” That might earn me some credibility.
“My grandson is indisposed at the moment, Miss Parker,” she says. “If it’s not urgent, you can come back another time.”
She’s trying to intimidate me. It’s working, but I still stand my ground. I have to find out why Derek lied to me.
“I’m sorry,” I tell her. “I don’t mean any disrespect, but I need to see him now and I’m not about to leave. It is urgent.”
Derek’s grandma finally opens the door and gestures for me to enter the house. “Follow me,” she says, then orders the guy who opened the door to find her grandson and escort him to the library. She leads me through the crowd of teenage partygoers. This place is huge, like a museum. Some of the girls are staring at me and whispering to their friends.
I stop dead in my tracks when I catch sight of Derek and some girl through one of the huge windows leading to the massive backyard. She’s got her arms wrapped around him, and my heart feels like it’s being dragged over a cheese grater. It hasn’t even been a week since we were in the tent, about to make love. Knowing that he could quickly hook up with another girl less than a week later makes me nauseous.
I squeeze my eyes shut and hope the girl is just a stupid figment of my imagination. I wish her to disappear. I should know better than for any of my wishes to come true, because they’ve never come true in the past. I open my eyes and, sure enough, she’s still there.
“Miss Parker, dear, don’t stare. It’s bad manners,” Derek’s grandmother chides, then takes my elbow and leads me to a room with two couches, bookshelves filled with books, and a huge marble fireplace.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt your party,” I tell her, trying to tell myself that it doesn’t matter that Derek is with another girl. I have no hold on him. I’m here to confront him, not make him fall in love with me. The fact that I fell hard for him is something totally out of my control and that just sucks for me. I look at his grandmother and hope she can’t see right through me. “It must be hard for you to host so many people in your condition.”
I squirm. “You know, being so sick and all that.”
“I’m not sick, dear.”
“No.” The woman sits on a small couch in the middle of the room with her feet crossed at the ankles. She places her hands neatly in her lap. “Sit down, Miss Parker.”
I awkwardly take a seat across from her. Do I cross my legs at the ankles? I’m in unfamiliar territory. The woman has an air of authority and superiority about her. She’s eyeing me with keen eyes, as if she’s judging my every move. I cross my gym shoes at the ankles but imagine I look like an idiot.
“Tell me about the relationship you have with my grandson.”
“My relationship?” I almost choke on the word.
“I’m, um, not sure what you mean.”
She leans forward. “I assume, Miss Parker, that since you came here on an ‘urgent’ matter you and Derek are familiar with each other.”
“I wouldn’t really say that. Most of the time Derek tries to annoy me and I ignore him. That’s of course when we’re not arguing, which we do quite often. He’s a player and manipulator and he has a big ego. He’s got this annoying habit of running his hand through his hair when he’s frustrated. And he practically stole my dog. Did you know he’s obsessed with smoothies? He won’t eat a Skittle or anything with a preservative in it to save his life. It’s not normal—he’s not normal.”
I’m so wound up, I’m not finished with my tirade. “And he lied to me. Did you know he used to play football?”
Derek’s grandmother nods. “I am aware of that, yes.”
“Aware of what?” Derek says as he walks in the room. I hadn’t noticed before, but he’s wearing a suit, as if he’s going to a wedding. Or a funeral. He steps back in shock when he realizes that I’m in the room. “Ashtyn, what’re you doin’ here?”
The past few days I’ve missed seeing his face every day. When the guys were giving me a rough time this week, I thought of his words: You can do this. But the truth slapped me in the face as soon as I looked up at that MVP wall . . . and now he’s standing here in front of me right after he was in the backyard with that girl.
I can’t think straight. I want to ask about the girl, but just the thought of him with another girl makes my insides tighten and I can’t manage to get the words out. Instead, I focus on the reason I came here in the first place. “You were a fucking prodigy!”
Derek’s expression is grim. “How’d you find out?”
I walk up to him and poke a finger into his chest. “Your picture is plastered on the MVP wall at Elite. Ever hear of a Google search? You are such a liar!” My heart is racing when I add, “And I can’t believe you’re hooking up with someone after what happened between us.”