Pep talks (pepper jones #4)

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Pep Talks

(Pepper Jones Series, Book #4)



By Ali Dean



Editor: Leanne Rabesa



Cover: Sarah Foster



Chapter 1


“Dude, if you finish everything on your tray, I’ll be super impressed,” Lexi tells me as we settle around a large circular table with the rest of our cross country teammates. “Or totally freaked out. I haven’t decided yet.”

It’s my first meal at Chapman Hall, the cafeteria at University of Colorado at Brockton reserved for athletes only. And there were simply too many choices for dinner; I couldn’t decide. So I’ve chosen some of just about everything. My tray must weigh at least ten pounds.

“Let the girl fuel up, we’ve got triple workouts tomorrow,” Kiki Graves says. She’s co-captain of the cross team along with Sienna Darling, who hosted me for my recruit trip last fall. 

“No worries, guys, you won’t have to roll me outta here. I’m just going to take a little sample of everything,” I explain with a shrug.

“That’s wasteful,” Gina points out. She’s one of my three roommates and I got the impression that she dislikes me from the moment I met her. Well, I guess we met during my recruit trip last year, but I don’t remember her being cold then. Since arriving at the dorm suite early this morning to move in, she hasn’t been especially friendly. I haven’t decided if that’s just her personality, or if there’s something special about me.

“I won’t make it a habit, Gina.” She does make a decent point. “Promise.”

Gina scowls before returning to her salad. Lexi raises her eyebrows and glances at me in question. Like, what did you do to piss her off? Shrugging, I decide to dig into the roast beef first, and discover it’s dry as sandpaper.

Lexi giggles at my expression. “I should’ve warned you to stay away from the meat dishes.” Lexi Morris is a California girl, through and through. Her blonde curly hair is barely contained by a ponytail and she’s rocking a deep summer tan with a spattering of freckles over her nose and cheeks to top it off. We hit it off at the recruit trip last fall and I was beyond thrilled to learn she’d be one of my roommates this year. Gina and Lexi are sophomores, but our fourth roommate is a freshman like me. 

I haven’t gotten a good read on Caroline Hopkins yet. She’s the last one to join the table. There are twelve of us seated around the large circular table, and I suppose we’ll have to divide the team over two tables when the rest of them arrive. There are eighteen total on the roster this year, and the remaining six won’t get here until tomorrow. 

“Ladies, what’s this all about?” a guy asks as he hovers by our table with a tray. “You didn’t save us any seats?”

“Go away, Brax.” Kiki flicks her hand in a shooing gesture. “Girls only at this table tonight. We’rebonding,” she says dryly.

“Where are we supposed to sit?” Brax asks.

Kiki tilts her head, refusing to respond to the question, given that there are plenty of open tables.

Another guy throws an arm around Brax. “There will be plenty of opportunities to flirt with the girls later, man,” he says before steering him to the table where the men’s team is sitting. Brax winks at Lexi as he passes, and she rolls her eyes.

“He’s the ultimate flirt,” she explains.

I’ve heard of Brax Hilton. He’s a junior, and a top runner on the team.  I’ve never met him before, though, and I certainly don’t know anything about his flirting habits.

Sienna glances at me and the other four freshmen at the table: Caroline, Wren Jackson, Erin Tokac, and Kendra Smith. Kendra is the only other freshman from Colorado, and we raced each other a few times in high school. “We usually sit with the guys’ team after practice,” Sienna explains. “I don’t know what it was like for all of you in high school, but at UC, the men’s and women’s teams are pretty close. Sure, we compete separately, but we have the same coach and we support each other.”

I nod along with the other freshmen. It was like that at Brockton Public. While the excitement of my new teammates has provided a welcome distraction, there’s definitely an ache in my chest for my old teammates.  Zoe, Rollie, Omar, Jenny… they were my best friends.  I know they will always be my friends, but it won’t be the same. Zoe left yesterday for Mountain West, two hours away from UC at Brockton. Omar is going to State, which is even farther away in the southwestern corner of the state. And Rollie is going to college in Boston. Jenny is still in Brockton, and it’s hard to believe she’s a junior, anupperclassman, and co-captain of the Brockton Public cross team. It seems like yesterday she was only a freshman.

Our goodbye party a couple of days ago involved too much alcohol and tears. Jenny and Rollie started dating months ago, and they are going to try the long-distance thing. Zoe and one of my childhood friends, Wesley Jamison, casually dated for months before Wes left for Princeton last week. Wes never had a girlfriend before Zoe, but I don’t think either of them considered it anything serious, despite how long it lasted. We all knew Wes would be heading to Princeton after his deferral year was up. 

I’m the lucky one in love, I guess. My boyfriend, Jace Wilder, is a sophomore at UC, and he lives within walking distance. After spending his freshman year in the dorms (which is mandatory), he decided to move off-campus with his teammate Frankie Zimmer.

As though my thoughts have conjured the man himself, I watch Jace Wilder enter Chapman Hall surrounded by an entourage of gigantic football players. In high school, Jace’s six-foot-three frame of solid muscle was a dominating presence, and he’s gotten even stronger and his muscles even bigger since starting college a year ago. His size isn’t especially outstanding compared to his teammates’, but when he breaks away and heads toward our table after catching my eye, it’s hard not to gawk. He’s twice the size of most girls on my team.

Jace ignores the eleven sets of eyes from the other females at my table as he crouches behind me and kisses me on the cheek in greeting. I turn to face him, and he’s giving me a panty-dropping smile. I’m determined not to be the freshman girl who peaces out all the time to be with her boyfriend, but when he flashes me a grin like this, I’m really tempted to ditch my lonely dorm room tonight for his king-size bed off campus.

“How’s the first day going?” he asks quietly.

“You saw me several hours ago, Jace.” I pretend to be annoyed by his attentiveness, but it’s cute. He’s so excited for me to be a college student and he wants me to be happy. “But the first run with my team after you left my dorm room was lovely,” I appease him.

“Should I introduce myself now?” he asks. He almost sounds tentative, and it’s adorable on him. He is an extremely confident young man. And it’s not a false confidence either. It’s what makes him such a good quarterback. It’s how he led UC to the championship finals as a freshman after the team hadn’t even made the playoffs for years.

Before I can pipe up, Lexi, who is sitting beside me, eagerly replies, “Hi Jace Wilder, I’m Lexi Morris, Pepper’s roommate.” She waves and I frown at her.

“Hi Lexi, we already met this morning at the dorm,” Jace reminds her, amusement in his voice.

She shrugs. “I know, dude, but I wanted to make sure you remembered my name. It’s easy to forget the first time around, and me and your girl are gonna be friends so you should most definitely know who I am.” 

As Jace introduces himself to the rest of the table, I get the impression that everyone, even a couple of the freshmen, know who he is already. No one seems particularly shocked that he introduces himself as my boyfriend. It’s old news by now that Jace Wilder is taken, and given how much time I’ve spent with Jace on campus over the past year, it’s no secret that I’m the lucky girl.  And I do feel lucky.

The attention from college girls dwindled when they realized Jace was more interested in football than partying. Though the media didn’t catch wind of all the details behind a catastrophic series of incidents with a girl on the UC soccer team who was obsessed with Jace, there was plenty of gossip around campus. It seems most girls did not want to be called a “Savannah Hawkins” – the girl who attacked me in the name of her so-called love for my boyfriend – and decided to let go of any hope of stealing him away from me. So, in one regard, Savannah did me a favor. I guess. I try to think positively.

Jace finally leaves the table, after introducing himself to every single girl, and I can’t help but notice the glazed look in my teammates’ eyes as they watch him join the football team at the food stations. I don’t blame them.

When Sienna blurts, “Hot damn, Pepper, your boyfriend is dreamy,” I can’t suppress my laughter. Sienna has demonstrated a reserved and serious attitude up until now, and those words coming out of her mouth make me crack up. The rest of the girls join me in laughter, but agree with Sienna’s assessment.

“Right on, Sienna,” Kiki nods emphatically. 

“I’d never seen him up close before,” Trish Getty, a junior, says.

“Well, we can expect to see a lot of that sexy man with our girl Pepper around, so you ladies better learn to keep your tongues in your mouths,” Lexi states.

I dig into the veggie lasagna on my plate, which isn’t bad but can’t compare to my gran’s cooking. I’ve actually gotten used to the effect Jace has on people – women in particular. My friends in high school had the same reaction to him for a long time, and it didn’t entirely dissipate as they got to know him better, but it became manageable.  It’s taken time, but I’ve learned to deal with his celebrity status in Brockton and on campus. For a while there, I never thought I’d get used to it, but it rolls off me pretty easily now.

Part of it is that I’ve become confident in who I am. I no longer wonder why Jace picked me, or what others think about our relationship. I know I’m good for him. I make him better, and he brings out a strength in me I didn’t know existed. He helps me find a courage and determination that only comes from unconditional love and understanding. We’ve been through a lot together, and we’ve made it.  Against all odds, I won high school cross country nationals last year for the second year in a row.  And I don’t know if I could have done that if I hadn’t built the confidence and strength that’s required to be Jace’s girlfriend. Uncertainty, weakness, self-doubt – these things can’t accompany someone like Jace. He attracts a lot of attention, and it’s not always good attention. I had to learn to deal with it. And I have. It’s made me a better runner, and maybe a better person.

“You are so totally smitten, girl.” Lexi leans in to tease me, and I know I’ve got the dreamy look in my eyes that I just witnessed on my teammates.

“I’m not denying it.” I shrug before moving on to the next entrée – chicken enchiladas.

An hour later, the team is still lounging around the table, though none of us are eating anymore. Some have a cup of coffee or tea, but we’re mostly just hanging out to chat and get to know each other. The other teams in Chapman Hall seem to have the same idea, and I wonder if lingering around like this after a meal is common. It’s the first day of preseason, so maybe it’s an exception. I hope not. I like it. It’s nice getting to know the girls for their personalities instead of their running times.

Kiki is definitely the leader. At least, she’s the more overt leader.  Sienna is quiet, but her presence is a strong one. Gina, I discover, is simply a grumpy person. She isn’t all that nice to anyone, which actually makes me feel better that I haven’t been singled out. Trish and Lexi entertain us with their banter, and I’m reminded they were roommates last year. Caroline doesn’t utter a word throughout the meal, but I can tell she’s listening attentively by the way she watches everyone and smiles at the jokes. I’m curious about her, and resolve to get to know her better.

By the time we get back to the dorms and shower, I’m too exhausted to think about anything but crawling into bed. I’m grateful that my bed is in its own room. Though I have three roommates, it’s a four-bedroom suite – a great layout that is only afforded to varsity athletes. Until this moment, I hadn’t realized what a perk it is be able to go to sleep when I want to, a luxury other freshmen won’t have in their double or triple dorm rooms.

It’s been a day filled with new experiences, and it’s taken all my energy to process. Still, adrenaline runs through me when I turn off the lights and close my eyes. We had an easy group run today, nothing major. But tomorrow is our first real workout, and I’m filled with anticipation. 



Chapter 2


Coach Harding is just as friendly in coach-mode as he is in father-mode. The UC head cross coach is Ryan Harding’s dad, and Ryan Harding was my first boyfriend during cross season my junior year of high school. Coach Harding welcomed us yesterday, but this morning he gives a more formal speech stating the team goals for the season. 

For the women – qualify as a team for Nationals. For the men – top three at Nationals.

The women just missed qualifying as a team last year, though they sent Sienna Darling and a senior who graduated to compete individually. The others didn’t race well enough at Regionals to qualify the entire team, but they only missed by one spot.

Seven runners get to compete at Regionals. Two of our top seven graduated last year, but Coach is confident that with the incoming freshman class and recoveries from injuries, we will be even stronger than last year. Lexi was out with an injury last year, so she’s considered a “redshirt freshman.” She admitted to me that she spent more time surfing than running this summer, but insisted it was only because she didn’t want to reinjure herself. I’m not convinced she meant it though.

With Coach Harding’s pep talk in mind, and the motivation to not only get the team qualified for Nationals, but to race fast enough to be one of the seven girls who gets to go, we’re all fired up for the very first workout. Running practices break down into a few categories: easy/recovery runs, long runs, and “workouts.” Within a workout, there are a lot of subcategories – track, tempo, speed, hills, and various types of intervals. Today, we’re doing an eight-mile tempo run.

When Coach Harding announces the workout, I wonder for a moment if I had misheard. Did he seriously say eight miles? Eight miles is a long run for me. Long runs are meant to be done at an easy pace. Tempo runs are at a fast pace. Not a full-out sprint, as it’s over a few miles, but still faster than comfortable. I’ve never done a tempo run longer than four miles before.

And then, he tells us the pace we start with on the first mile. My jaw drops and I have to make an effort to shut it. Tempo runs usually get faster as you go. The pace for the first mile of an eight, yes eight, mile run, is generally the pace I end a tempo run with. For the first time in my life, I’m scared of a workout. I actually don’t know if I’ll make it to the end. I really don’t think it’s possible for me to continue getting faster each mile, as Coach Harding explains that we should aim to do just that.

We load into large vans to drive to a road where we’ll begin the run.  The boys are dropped off even farther from campus. They are doing a ten-mile tempo run. Some of the other girls on the team, especially the other freshmen, look nervous, and it makes me feel better that I’m not alone. 

All of us stay together for the first few miles, with some of the stronger upperclassmen leading and trading off each mile to set the pace. Coach Harding assigned who would lead each mile until mile six. After that, I guess it’s just whoever is still hanging in there. 

All of the freshmen have taken positions in the back of the group, because none of us were assigned a mile to lead. Their labored breathing around me at mile four signals that I’m not the only one who’s never done an eight-mile tempo run. All five of us were the top runners in our respective high school programs. I’m probably not the only one who is running a workout with girls for the first time in years. I usually ran with the boys at Brockton Public. As we hit the fifth mile, and the pace picks up again, I realize I might be dropped by girls for the first time ever in workout. 

I knew college was a different level, but knowing it and experiencing it are totally different. The team begins to break up during the fifth mile, and I understand why no one was assigned to lead the pace for mile six. Once some of the upperclassmen ahead of us ease up, realizing they can’t hold this pace for three more miles, some of the freshmen beside me slow down as well. They didn’t want to be the first ones to give up. I’m okay, for now, and I pass those who are slowing down in order to keep up with Trish and Gina, who are setting the pace.

Caroline remains at my side until we hit the last mile. By then, it’s only me, Trish, Sienna, and Kiki. In the past, tempo has meant a controlled effort. But right now, I’ve got to put it all out there to hang with these girls, and I’m pretty sure they are too. It feels like this workout is a test. To see where we all are. Where we stand. And none of us want to back off. We’re teammates but right now we’re competitors. We’re pushing each other, and it’s something I’ve never experienced in practice before. When the three girls leave me in their wake, it’s not the same feeling I would have in a race if I was dropped. I’m not losing. In fact, I’m thrilled to have teammates, female teammates, who are faster and stronger than me.

It leaves me with something to work toward. And as soon as they finish, panting and wiped, they gather enough energy to cheer in the rest of the girls on the team. Lexi isn’t too far behind, which is impressive for someone who surfed all summer, and Caroline is right with her.

By the time we hit the locker rooms, I remember that Kiki said we had triple workouts today. She must have been mistaken. There’s no way we can be expected to run again after that. I’m more wiped than I am after a race.

Thankfully, while wearemeeting two more times, they aren’t nearly as demanding as the morning tempo run. We get a tour of the weight room, but we don’t actually lift weights, and then we all go to a yoga class. I’m already familiar with the weight room, since Brockton Public athletes get access to UC facilities, but I’ve never actually been to a yoga class. My former high school teammate, Claire Padilla, used to have yoga DVDs we’d follow sometimes, but the class is way more intense that what I’ve done before.

When we hit Chapman Hall for dinner, I’m dead on my feet but excited to see Jace. We haven’t made any plans to see each other, and I know he wants me to be able to spend time with the girls on the team. To my dismay, Jace isn’t at the cafeteria with the rest of his teammates. I swallow my disappointment and join the cross table. Tonight, the guys’ team is intermingled with the girls, and there are three different tables to choose from. 

Lexi beckons me to a seat beside her, and I find myself sitting between her and my ex-boyfriend.

“Hey, Ryan.” My voice is uncertain. We haven’t exchanged even a hello since I joined his team yesterday.

“Hi, Pepper.” Ryan’s greeting is reserved, not as welcoming as he typically is. 

I can tell Lexi is studying us, trying to understand what’s going on.  She knows that Ryan Harding was my boyfriend at one point. Last fall, after Ryan broke up with his girlfriend at the time, he started spending more time with me. One on one time. Plus, rumors were flying that he broke up with Lisa Delany because he still had feelings for me. Jace didn’t like us spending time together. He wasn’t a jerk about it, but I knew it wasn’t cool for Ryan to be hanging around me like he was, whether or not he wanted more than friendship. When I told Ryan that it was probably best we maintain some space, given I had a boyfriend and he was my ex, he took it to an extreme. He’s barely acknowledged my existence since. I don’t know what I expected. I suppose I hoped we’d maintain a friendly acquaintance, but I guess that’s not so easy.

Now that we’re going to be seeing each other again on a regular basis, we need to figure out how it’s going to be between us. I don’t want to ignore each other. It feels so cold. We aren’t enemies and we shouldn’t act like it.

“How was your tempo run today?” I ask him. Talking about running is safe.

“Not bad,” he responds dismissively. Okay then. So that’s how it’s going to be.

Brax Hilton pipes in from across the table. “Harding and I battled it out that last mile. You put up a good fight, man,” he says, raising his glass, “but you can’t take me yet. Maybe someday,” he taunts. 

Ryan chuckles.  “You know I just let you win, Brax.  You get all moody when you don’t. I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”

Guys can tease each other like this but girl teammates can’t. Girls are too sensitive, I guess. I envy guys sometimes for how easily things roll off their backs. Of course, guys can be sensitive sometimes too, I’m reminded, as Ryan continues to ignore me throughout dinner.

Lexi tells me, “You know, Coach Harding had us do that same tempo run on the first day last year, and I guess the year before that too.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah, I did it last year before I got injured, and got my ass kicked.  Don’t worry though, not all of our workouts are that brutal. It’s just a chance to gauge where everyone’s at going in to the season. You did awesome, dude,” she reassures me, punching me lightly on the shoulder. It’s what I suspected, then.

“Workouts will be a lot harder than what you were used to at Brockton Public,” Ryan adds. Despite acting like he was ignoring me, he was listening to our conversation.

“Oh? Should I be worried?” It sounded like a warning, but Ryan’s tone is hard for me to read now. Usually he’s so simple and easy to interpret. 

“You’ll just need to be honest with yourself about what you can handle. You don’t want to get injured again.” He says all this without looking at me and then returns to his sandwich. Again, I can’t tell if he’s trying to be nice and helpful, or if he intended that comment as a dig. 

I study him for a moment. He’s let his hair grow out to nearly chin length, but at the moment, it’s pulled back with what appears to be a cut-out shirt sleeve. It’s an edgy look. Maybe even a little hipster. He’s changed. And not just physically.

Thoughts of Ryan, and how I’m going to deal with him as my teammate, are forgotten when Jace knocks on our dorm suite door later that night. Gina answers, and when I hear his voice I poke my head out of my bedroom door. Gina is stuttering, and the standoffish attitude she’s displayed since I met her has dropped. When Jace sees me he grins, and it’s all I can do not to drag him into my room and slam the door on my roommates. It’s only been a day, but I missed him.

Jace steps around Gina and approaches me. “Are you going to invite me in?” he asks, and I don’t miss the intent behind his question. 

Glancing briefly behind him, I shoot Gina a small smile and then I do tug him into my bedroom and shut the door behind me.

This is the first time I’ve had him alone in my new room, and a feisty possessiveness comes over me. I place my hand on his chest and push him back onto my bed. He watches me with hooded eyes and curiosity. 

I tap my chin thoughtfully. “I’ve been waiting all day to get you alone.”

“Oh?” Jace is already breathing heavily, and I know he’s been waiting all day for this as well.

“Yup.” I nod knowingly. “I think you should take this off,” I say suggestively, tugging at his cotton tee shirt.

Without a word he pulls it over his head and tosses it aside. Boldly, I slip my hands beneath the waistband of his sweatpants and boxer briefs, and tug the material hard. And just like that, the most beautifully sculpted man is resting sans clothing on my bed. 

After a moment watching him, just appreciating the sight, Jace draws my attention back to his face. “I’m starting to feel a little self-conscious here, Pepper,” he says.

“You don’t look very self-conscious,” I reply, my eyes drifting back to the center of his body.  “Proud and alert are more accurate adjectives, don’t you think?”

With a growl, Jace tugs me onto the bed with him, and it doesn’t take long before we’ve made my new bedroom our own. After spending plenty of time at Jace’s dorm last school year, I’m used to staying quiet. No need to make my new roommates uncomfortable. Just knowing Jace is in here with me probably has them in a tizzy already. 

Afterward, we lie under the covers, and I’m overwhelmed with a deep exhaustion that is thoroughly satisfying. I love the way my body feels after a hard workout, and with the yoga on top of it, my muscles are beat but loose. With Jace’s warm body beside me, I know I’ll sleep well. College is looking pretty great so far.



Chapter 3


“Where were you at dinner last night?” I ask groggily the next morning. Jace is shuffling around the room, looking for his clothes.  I’d forgotten to ask him this question last night.

“Dinner with Mom,” he tells me as he pulls on his sweatpants. 

I take a moment to admire his chest and abs before he pulls his tee shirt over his head. The football team is meeting for practice even earlier than the cross team. It’s still dark outside, and I’m happy I get to stay in bed another hour.

“How’s Annie?” I ask on a yawn. Annie had abandoned Jace when he was a toddler but returned over a year ago. She was young and addicted to drugs when she left, and apparently hasn’t touched drugs since she returned. For a long time, I didn’t trust her. But she’s been a good mom to Jace since she came back, and I don’t think he can help loving her. 

I know that deep down, Jace always dreamed she’d come back, apologize for leaving, and make up for it. So far, she has done just that.

“She’s good. Seeing a guy, actually.” Jace’s brows furrow when he says this. 

“Yeah? Have you met him?”

“I’m supposed to meet him tonight. Do you want to come?”

“Of course,” I agree. I’m not keen on missing dinners with the team during preseason, but this is a big deal. Annie hasn’t dated anyone since she moved back to Brockton. At least, no one she’s told Jace about. It must be pretty serious if she wants to introduce the guy to her son. 

“She seems pretty into him,” Jace says with a shrug, but I can see through his effort at nonchalance.  He’s worried.  I don’t know if that’s because he’s worried the guy isn’t good enough for Annie, or if he’s worried she’ll stop caring as much about her relationship with her son. 

Jace leans over to kiss me goodbye before heading out. We haven’t made plans for when we’ll see each other next, but now that we’re both students at UC, I don’t need to worry. We’re busy with practices, but we’ll definitely see each other soon.

Before I can fall back asleep, Lexi pops her head into my room.

“Morning, sunshine,” she greets me.

“It’s not morning yet, go away,” I half-heartedly protest.

“Oh please, I saw your boy leaving just now so I know I didn’t wake you.” Lexi sits on the edge of my bed.

“So much for going back to sleep,” I grumble as I prop myself up on my elbow. “What are you doing up?”

She winks at me. “Woke up early from my sleepover. Wanna grab some breakfast? That way we’ll have time to digest before running.”

“Wait. Back up. Sleepover?”

“Yeah,” she says on a sigh. “Brax Hilton. We messed around a few times last spring and I guess we’re doing it again.”

“Oh, that’s cool. He seems like a good guy,” I comment, because I’m not sure how to read the situation. It doesn’t sound like she’s in love with him, but she did just have a sleepover. I’ll never understand casual hookups.

Lexi laughs. “Brax is sweet, and sure, I guess he’s a good guy, but he’s a total flirt.”

“You’re okay with that?” I wonder.

“Oh yeah, I knew what he was all about the first time we made out.  He’s not the kind of guy who’s looking for a girlfriend. And to be honest, I’m not looking for a boyfriend either. Freedom and independence in college and all that,” she says with a wave of her hand.

“Hey, I feel plenty free and independent with my boyfriend,” I point out.

“Puh-lease, you two are a total exception. Anyone who looks at you two can see you’re crazy about each other. But most people don’t have that, and it’s not worth having a serious relationship in college for some lukewarm feelings, you know? I had a boyfriend in high school, so I’m not opposed to the whole monogamy thing. Now’s just not the time for it. Unless I find me a Jace Wilder to looooooove,” she teases, pushing me lightly on the shoulder so I fall back onto my pillow.  “Get dressed, girl, I’m starved.”

As I pull on some sweats and sneakers, it dawns on me that Lexi has made herself my new best friend. Because only best friends show up and sit on each other’s beds at the crack of dawn, chatting about sleepovers. And I’m okay with that. Lexi reminds me of my other best girlfriend, Zoe. For starters, they both have way too much energy first thing in the morning. A small wave of nostalgia hits me thinking that Zoe is now relegated to my high school bestie, and we’ll both have new college besties. She’s not being replaced, not exactly, but the loss of seeing her every day still tugs at me. There’s a grief and mourning process involved in this college transition that no one warned me about. Sure, I’m still in Brockton, my hometown, but my life is changing rapidly, and I’m leaving the old one behind.

When we load our trays at the cafeteria and head toward the tables I’ve come to recognize as the cross country team’s section, we see Brax, Ryan, and another guy I recognize from the cross team are already there.

“What’s up, guys?” Lexi places her tray down, not even looking at Brax. He watches her as he takes a sip of coffee.

“Yo, Pepper Jones, I’m Zeb,” the one guy I haven’t met puts his hand out and introduces himself.

“Nice to meet you,” I say with a smile. 

“Heard you rocked the tempo run, well done,” Zeb says on a nod. 

“Uh, thanks.” I’m not used to team gossip about workouts.  But I get the feeling the tempo run is an initiation of sorts on the UC team.

“Thanks for the alarm clock at five AM, Lexi,” Ryan says with a knowing smirk.

Lexi sputters on her orange juice when his comment sinks in. She glances at Brax, her cheeks reddening. Brax doesn’t seem fazed. He just grins and takes another sip of coffee.

“Let’s try to keep the moaning under wraps before seven AM going forward, cool?” Ryan adds.

Lexi responds by punching him on the shoulder, and Ryan winces.

Zeb laughs. “I guess the sex noises don’t drift down to the first floor. I only got the springs squeaking.”

“Oh my gawd.” Lexi covers her face with her hands.  “No one ever told me the yellow house has paper-thin walls.”

Brax turns to me. “The yellow house has been the guys’ cross house for years. Eight of us live there.”

“Eight cross guys in one house, huh?” I grasp the opportunity to change the subject, because it’s probably making me almost as uncomfortable as Lexi. I’m not used to talking about sex so openly like this. “No drama?”

“Drama? Nah, guys don’t do drama. A hell of a lot of stinky laundry though,” Brax says.

“I can only imagine,” I murmur.

If Lexi was trying to keep her fling – or whatever it is – with Brax quiet, she failed. I’m sure the whole cross team, guys and girls, will know by the end of the day. 

“So, you guys going to the Sig Beta-Theta Kapp party tonight?”  Lexi asks, and we all laugh, knowing she’s making an effort to talk about anything other than what goes on at the yellow house.

Brax takes the bait. “You know we’ll all be there, Lexi. Officially it’s just Theta Kapp hosting, though. You know about what went down with Sig Beta, right?”

We nod. Sigma Beta fraternity was put on probation last year when it was discovered that the president, Gage Fitzgerald, was selling not only steroids, but also a wide variety of recreational drugs. But Gage was only a small piece of a wider corruption problem for Sig Beta. The fraternity was suspended for the entire school year nationwide when an investigation revealed that drug dealing and other illegal activity was taking place in the Sig Beta fraternity on other college campuses, too.

I don’t know the whole story, but Gage Fitzgerald’s downfall seems to have been the first of a domino effect for Sig Beta.

“Water theme this year. Should be interesting,” Brax adds.

“Water theme? What does that even mean?” Lexi asks.

“Slip ‘n’ slides, hot tubs, bikinis,” Zeb says dreamily. “Lotsof bikinis.”

“Don’t get too excited, Zebulon,” Lexi enunciates his full name, “we all know the Theta Kapp girls go for the big muscular men. No offense, guys,” she adds.

“What? I’ve got guns. And you know I’ve got a rocking six-pack. Some of the baseball and football dudes are all chub.”

As the guys continue to joke about the various teams and athlete body types, I remember hearing about this party last year.  Apparently it’s tradition for the “hottest” frat and sorority on campus to host a party during preseason for all the athletes on campus.  Most varsity athletes don’t have time to be part of the Greek system, but the houses want to get the athletes coming to their parties. Maybe Jace and I will make an appearance after dinner with his mom. 

As it turns out, both of us can really use the distraction of a party after the dinner. Lance, Annie’s boyfriend, is sleazy. We meet at a pizza joint, and he’s in a suit, having come straight from work. His hair is slicked back and I notice a fancy watch on his wrist when he shakes our hands. I don’t have anything against fancy watches, but the bling on his is a bit much.

Lance spends most of the evening talking about himself, without asking Jace, Annie, or me any questions. He doesn’t even try to get to know his girlfriend’s son. Lance is a venture capitalist, but I zone out when he launches into a more detailed description of his job.  He gives me the creeps and I can’t understand why Annie is with him.  Annie’s pretty easy-going, and dresses in casual, comfortable clothes.  She works at the library, and seems content living a simple life. I totally don’t see the attraction between these two.

By the time Jace and I are back in his Jeep, we’re both tense. 

“I’m not going to lie, Jace. Red flags are flying all over the place with that dude.”  There’s no point in denying it. And I want Jace to open up about this. He’s gotten a lot better about talking things through instead of burying them, but it usually takes some prompting.

Jace grips the steering wheel and shakes his head. “What the hell is my mom doing with that fucker?” The rage in his voice startles me. Whoa. “She looks at him like he’s some angel, and he’s a fucking sleazeball.”  When Jace slams his hand on the wheel in emphasis, I place a calming hand on his thigh.

“I’m sure Annie will figure that out. She seems like a smart woman.”

Jace laughs darkly.  “My mom’s past tells me she’s not the best judge of character.”

“What do you mean?” She was a drug addict, but that doesn’t reflect on her relationship choices, does it? After all, she was with Jim Wilder, Jace’s dad, who’s great.

“It was a boyfriend who got her into hard drugs in the first place,” Jace says coldly, but I know it’s not directed at me. “And it was always boyfriends who kept her from getting sober. She’s tired now, from destroying her body all those years, but she was beautiful once.  And she looked for love in the wrong places.” Jace’s assessment doesn’t surprise me. There’s little doubt his mother was gorgeous. She still is, though she looks older than her years. She must have spoken with Jace about her past, and I don’t like that she blamed boyfriends for her drug use. 

“Are you going to tell her what you think of Lance?” I ask.

“She’ll know without me saying anything that I don’t like the guy. If I need to say more, I will. But I can’t stop her from seeing the fucker. I’m not her mother. She’s mine.”

Still, I know this is going to eat at Jace. His relationship with his mom doesn’t need any complications. It’s complicated enough on its own.

I’d mentioned the party to Jace earlier, telling him I wanted to at least stop in and say hi to my teammates. He didn’t seem enthused about going before the dinner, but now he’s driving directly to the frat. 

I’ve never been to a frat party as a college student. I showed up at a couple last year with Jace, but I was only there for him then. He’d go briefly to say hello and appease his teammates, who gave him a hard time for rarely going out with them. But now, I have my own teammates at the party, and I wonder how that will play out. Will Jace hang with the cross team? Will I hang with the football players? Will we all hang together?

When both of us are approached and dragged in opposite directions, I’m not given much of an opportunity to contemplate the best approach to the social dynamics.  Kiki spots me from across the lawn and beelines in my direction. She’s wearing tiny cotton shorts and a string bikini top and carrying a bottle of vodka. I’m not sure what I expected from my team captain, but this wasn’t it. 

“Pepper! Where have you been?” She doesn’t sound accusatory, just perplexed as to my whereabouts. Before I can respond, she’s tugging me toward a makeshift bar where jello shots await. When I glance behind me, Jace is already surrounded by people. Oh well, it’s probably for the best I hang with my teammates for now anyway. He’s extra intimidating when he’s in a bad mood and I don’t want him scaring off my new friends.

Kiki doesn’t pressure me when I decline jello shots, but she does scold me for my lack of appropriate attire. “That’s a cute dress, Pepper, but where’s your bathing suit?”

Glancing around, I realize I’m the only girl out here not wearing a bikini.  I’d considered throwing one in my bag when we left for dinner earlier, just in case, but I didn’t think everyone would actually wear bathing suits.

When Lexi approaches, she immediately joins Kiki in scolding me.  “We even got Caroline to wear a bikini top!” Lexi beams, apparently proud of her ability to coerce our shy roommate into wearing something outside her comfort zone.

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