After the game a bunch of the team decided to meet up at The Village Inn for a post game celebration. The place had people filled to the rafters. Once they got their spots, Michael ordered. He didn’t mind that the place smelled of greasy burgers and body odor. Because more importantly, the diner also reeked of a win, and against their biggest rivals, Central High. 

“Hawke, man, that was an awesome throw,” Davids said, pounding Michael on the back.

“Yeah, Mikey. I’m sure the scout from U of U saw and will be calling.”  Phillips tossed the football at him. “Is that where you wanna go?”

He shook his head. Truthfully, he wanted to go much further away. “Not sure.”

He’d played okay, certainly not his best. Michael shouldn’t have let yesterday’s breakup with Cheverly or the fight with his mom get to him like he did. Stealing that bottle of bourbon and going drinking—not his best pre-game show. Then he’d met that chick and her boy toy . . . What sort of weirdness had the dude been wearing anyway? 

He dodged around his feelings of ending it all. It hadn’t been one of his brightest moments. When he’d returned home, he tucked the gun between the mattresses. Mostly he worked hard to forget about the voice that’d shouted inside his head. The word:  Coward! He’d searched for someone, so sure an actual person had said the word. But no one else was around.  

Now that some time had passed, he wondered if he’d heard the word at all. He decided he didn’t care. The whole morning had been bizarre and he wanted to forget about it.

After changing clothes, Michael had sucked it up and finished out the school day, a little tipsy. By the start of the first quarter of their game that night, he’d been sober—overly so. But that was for the best. He played well and his team won their game. Go Bisons. Blah. Blah. Blah . . .  

       “Hey, who’s that with Vinny?” Phillips punched Michael on the arm, bringing him back to the noisy diner. He looked in the direction of Phillips finger and saw—her.

Venus.

 “Kinda bony, but I’d do her.” Phillips always knew how to get right to the crude. 

Her soft lips pressed against his had tasted like warm apple cider. Even with mud in her hair, she’d been beautiful. And her angry, blue eyes. Amazing. The way she’d stood up to him—proud and furious. Those strange boots and her lack of clothing. Her frail hands slim, but firm.

“I’d stay away. She’s a total hag,” Michael said to the guys.

“What, you met her already?” Davids asked. “Figures.” He and the other guys were still staring though. It was hard not to.

She radiated . . . what?

Beauty? Sure.

Vitality? Definitely!

Michael struggled to find the right word.

Perfection. 

Even the light seemed brighter around her silhouette, like it’d been drawn to her essence and wanted to shine its brightest, for her. As he watched, the disgust inside him grew. And the fact that she knew Vinny? That only added to his need to take Vinny down. Idle threats weren’t his thing. He intended to punish Vinny, but he hadn’t figured out how yet. As if he’d heard Michael, Vinny looked over. Anger flashed across his face, but quickly vanished. He nodded. Michael returned it. Davids, probably thinking Vinny nodded at him, waved back.

“Hey,” he hollered. 

Vinny leaned over and spoke to Venus. She grinned, which irritated Michael. Then she looked over. Those eyes. He almost turned away when she smiled—at him. Okay, in his general direction. He wasn’t sure, but, to him, she appeared unhappy. The smile forced. Michael understood, if that were the case.

Regardless, the smile lit her entire face and took his breath away. He sucked in, lowering his eyes to his fisted hands, the knuckles white. What’s wrong with me?

“Hey, Hawke, you want some?” Phillips sat next to Michael in their booth. He held a chrome flask of liquid courage in his hands. Michael took it and lowered his head, covering his face with his letterman jacket, throwing back a giant swig.

Feel the burn.

 “Dude, save some for us.”

Handing it back, Michael said, “Thanks.” He snuck a glance back at Venus. She’d picked up a menu and appeared to be engrossed.

A waitress named Sarah dropped off his food, giving him a sexy smile. He smiled back, glad for a momentary distraction. When she left, he put a large bite of burger in his mouth. Phillips offered him another drink. He helped himself to more and then some more.

By the time his food was gone and the flask emptied, Michael had a good buzz going. 

“Party at AnnaBeth’s tonight,” Davids said, his words slurred. “You in?” 

“You know it!” No way he wanted to give up his buzz. He wondered if Venus would be going, which irked him. He knew Vinny usually never missed a party. He couldn’t help but give a quick glance in her direction again. This time, to his shocked dismay, Cheverly sat in the booth, next to Venus and across from the guy who’d been wearing those weird clothes. Though they’d split up, Chev sitting with Vinny annoyed him.

Chev peeked his way, her face sad. He watched her try to smile. Michael knew that look. Chev wanted to talk. He grinned back, which pissed him off. He’d decided he hated her. Hated Venus. Hated everyone! “I’m outta here. See you at the party.” Michael paid and bolted into the windy night.

It hadn’t snowed yet, but it would any day now. 

As he walked to his car, he heard light footfalls following. When he turned, there stood Cheverly, her midnight hair blowing everywhere.

“What do you want?” he snarled. 

“We need to talk. Can I drive?” The words came out tentative, but he knew she wouldn’t take no for an answer. He’d been drinking, and Michael knew she didn’t like it. Chev never participated. It’d been an attribute he secretly admired about her, even though everyone else called her a prude.

“You know I won’t let anyone drive Red but me.” Most of the anger had fizzled out of him. Michael figured he should let Chev drive. Red was his baby. A 1968 completely restored Corvette. He adored his car—bathed her, rubbed her down, glossed her, changed her—you name it, he did it.

“Don’t be a donkey-butt. You’re drunk. You want her wrecked?”

“Fine,” he grumbled and tossed Chev the keys. The alcohol had smoothed the edges and he wasn’t in the mood to argue.

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