7. fins and fury

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I've always been competitive, a little too naked in going after what I want, a little too eager to prove myself

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I've always been competitive, a little too naked in going after what I want, a little too eager to prove myself. Traits that, in a boy, would have been encouraged. Desirable, even. My parents were always proud of me, but I could sense a hint of their embarrassment when our friends and relatives would make one of their comments. The kind of thing we had to let go, not retaliate against. The kind of comments about my bald-faced drive and perseverance that prickled under my skin, tensed Mom's mouth with the effort it took to be polite.

With Ian, I've met my match. My ambition is rivaled only by his own, and he gives as good as he gets. I never feel as me as I do when we're throwing down. I never feel as real as I do when we're nose to nose, arguing a point, trying to get the upper hand.

The trip is silent, contemplative. The air between us thrums with raw energy that I'm dying to unleash. Sneaking glances at him, I can't read his face. Is he trying to throw me off with his blankness? Is this another game? I settle into my seat, shoulders stiff. The ground beneath me isn't solid, with known boundaries and precedents. It's new and uncharted. Exhilarating. Terrifying.

We park a few houses down from the birthday girl's. It's another one of Poppy's rules: Do nothing to break the suspension of disbelief.

Seeing a princess step out of a Toyota tends to have that kind of effect.

I curl my fingers around the door handle, ready to leave, but Ian doesn't make a move. The keys are still in the ignition, like he's thinking about taking off. He stares straight ahead at the parade of parents and children walking up to the house. He's still. Too still.

I don't want to ask, but I feel my resolve weaken with every second we spend in silence. "Are you okay?"

"No."

His honesty takes me aback. No one actually ever says No. I don't know what to do with that. My stomach tightens. Oh, this is bad. What if he freaks out and can't play his part? What do I do?

"Can we just sit here for a minute?" Ian asks, still not looking at me. He doesn't release the death grip he has on the keys.

"Sure." I sink against the passenger seat.

We're a few minutes early. It'll be fine. He just needs a minute to get in Prince Eric's mindset and work up the courage to face twenty hyper, sugar fueled children.

I glance out the window. Most people who hired us for their Princess Party were well-off, and judging by the houses in this neighborhood, the Kleins are no exception.

Almost all the houses on this street are two-story brick or stone, with manicured lawns and fresh coats of paint. It's the kind of street where people pay other people to mow their lawns for them, to take care of the koi in the fishpond, to clean their houses.

A woman wearing an oversize T-shirt with the cleaning company's name on the back slips out the front door of one house before going next door and ringing the bell. While waiting on the stoop, she stretches her arms over her head, scanning the street. She smiles when she sees our pink car, raising her hand.

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