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Keep Away From The Heat
Author: Amelia James

Prologue

 

 

“Ta-da! I did it. The gold medal is mine!”

Dash Ryder rolled his eyes and applauded along with the crowd of parents and students while Simone Leveque danced on top of the award dais as if she’d won Olympic gold. Principal Stark grabbed a bullhorn and announced the victors. “The bronze medal goes to junior Erin Larsen. The silver to sophomore Keshia Williams.”

“That’s my baby!” Keshia’s mom, Regina, shouted so close to Dash’s ear that he jumped and scooted aside a couple of feet.

“And the winner of the Lincoln High School heptathlon, sophomore Simone Leveque.”

Simone squealed and bounced while the principal attempted to drape the medal around her neck, drawing laughter from the spectators. He gave up and handed it to her. She stepped forward and held the gleaming gold above her head, smiling bigger and brighter than the relentless afternoon sun.

Malcolm Ryder, Dash’s older brother, exaggerated his applause and whistled through his teeth. “That girl is a spotlight whore.”

“Stop hating her.” Dash cuffed him upside the head. “And if you call her a whore again, I’ll hit you so hard you’ll be blinking out your asshole.”

“You used to stand up for me like that.” He almost pouted.

“Don’t be a pussy, Mal.”

“Mad Dash Ryder—hero of Lincoln High. Balls-out, badass protector of the innocent.”

“Shut up.” Dash huffed at the nickname someone had given him. His short fuse had become legendary, but he couldn’t recall how he’d earned the badass label.

Only Simone knew it was all bullshit. Just like he knew her “ta-da!” was just for show.

Simone beamed, still claiming the winner’s podium, and held her medal next to her face while the yearbook photographer snapped pictures. Then she grabbed her cousin, Keshia, and the two girls posed together.

Dash shook his head. “I’ll never forget the first time I heard her yell ‘ta-da’ way back in seventh grade. I stiffen when I hear it now.”

Mal snorted. “Yeah, in your pants.”

“What?” Dash adjusted himself.

“Don’t tell me you’re not screwing her.”

“No! I mean…no, I haven’t screwed her.” But lately he’d given the idea some thought, especially in the shower. “She’s my friend.”

“Friend you get wood for.”

“I’m fifteen. I get wood for everything.” Fortunately, his dad had explained that fact of life a few years ago.

“But especially for dark chocolate.”

“I can’t stand chocolate.” His protest died as he realized what Mal meant.

“You love her.” Mal mocked him with the whiny tone of a six-year-old.

“I like her a hell of a lot more than I like you.”

Mal’s snicker turned into a sneer and he stomped off as their oldest brother, Wyatt, strolled over, shaking his head at their bickering.

Dash turned and made a few rude hand signals. “Why is he such an asshole?”

Wyatt smiled and signed back. “I think he misses you.”

“Misses me?” Dash spotted the cochlear implant processor hiding in Wyatt’s long hair and gave up signing. “He sees me all the time.”

“True, but you guys were close.”

“And now you and I are. I grew up. He didn’t.” Mal’s grade-school taunt stuck in Dash’s brain. “Do you think I love Simone?”

Wyatt laughed and finger spelled ‘duh.’ “But I’m surprised you stuck with her this long. The rest of our friends got tired of her…” He made a sign Dash couldn’t remember.

“Just talk to me.”

Wyatt grimaced and forced the words out. “The rest of our friends got tired of her antics a long time ago.”

He sighed and tried to imagine his life without his best friend. He would’ve missed out on learning to talk to Wyatt, would never have found a voice for the pretty words in his head. And he wouldn’t have endured their classic argument about Rolling Stones lyrics, just one of many fights that defined their friendship. “Maybe I should move on.” Why did I say that out loud?

“No one would blame you.”

“She would.” He shuddered as the potential argument rattled around his brain.

Simone made her way through the crowd toward Dash, taking bows and shaking hands at every opportunity, even some that weren’t presented to her. She threw her arms around Wyatt and hugged him tight, nearly pulling him over. He smiled and patted her on the back.

Mal and the others might’ve called her an attention whore, but Dash preferred to think of her as a magnet, drawing people to her and, in his case, making them stick. Could he pull free from her irresistible force?

“Congratulations, baby. I’m so proud of you.” Regina grabbed Keshia and nearly snapped the poor girl’s neck in a fierce hug.

Simone shared her aunt’s enthusiasm and clapped Keshia on the shoulder. “You were so great! You flew right by me in the one-hundred-yard dash.”

Keshia faced Simone with a stiff smile while Regina crossed her arms and sniffed. “Yeah, but you managed to grab all the glory,” Keshia said. “Again.”

Regina rolled her eyes. “Isn’t that the truth.”

The air around the three women practically froze, crackling and snapping while Dash held his breath. He’d never really seen Simone with her family before. Her uncle, Tramon, spent most of his time at work, so Regina came to as many of their four kids’ events as possible. Simone often participated in the same things, but none of them paid much attention to her, no matter how hard she tried to get it.

“Okay, thanks.” Simone withdrew, shoulders slumped and smile dimmed, dragging her feet in the grass as she walked toward Dash. Regina sighed and her entire body sagged as she reached for her niece, but her grasp fell short. She shook her head and resumed praising her daughter.

Wyatt tapped Dash on the shoulder and waved goodbye.

Simone moved beside Dash and rested her cheek against him. Her shiny black hair spilled down his arm, and he wound a stray curl around his fingers.

“You were amazing,” he said, and his heart confirmed the statement when the sparkle returned to her eyes.

She polished the medal with her sweat-soaked shirt. “I wish Mom could see this.”

“She’d be proud of you.” He’d never met her mom, Valerie, but on a snow day in eighth grade, they’d been playing Nintendo games at his house when Simone told him why she lived with her aunt and uncle. Her dad had run off with another woman, but instead of moping, her mom went to beauty school and started her own hair salon. She ran a successful business for several years until she got hit by a drunk driver on the way home. Valerie’s sister, Regina, sold the salon and brought Simone home with her.

“I know.”

He glanced back at Keshia soaking in the shower of her mom’s compliments. “I don’t get why your aunt isn’t.”

Simone shrugged. “She’s got her own kids to deal with. I’m used to it.”

She’s used to it. A spotlight hit Dash’s befuddled brain and revealed the truth of Simone’s life. She got no love at home, so she clung to him, the only person who’d never been fooled by her attention-seeking antics.

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