WE TURN OFF University and make our way up the tree-lined Park Boulevard into Balboa Park. Lola sits in the driver’s seat of her new Prius, singing along quietly next to me, her hair tied back with a green and white scarf. Mia is in the backseat, looking up something dance-business-related on her phone.
I’m trying to be cool, bouncing along to the music. But inside, I’m sort of a mess.
Harlow said she’d meet us at the park.
This is the first time we’ll all be together since my phone call with Mia, and since I found out Harlow was upset about me being with Luke. Lola insisted we should take advantage of this shared day off. She insisted what we all needed was girl time. She insisted it wouldn’t be weird.
But let’s be honest: I’m sort of a novice when it comes to intimate girl friendships, and Harlow’s temper is legendary. It’s totally going to be weird.
It’s a perfect day: the sky is blue with only the fluffiest, most innocent clouds overhead. The air is warm in the sun, cool in the shade, and wherever we go it’s heavy with the scent of salt water. I want to believe there isn’t any further drama to be found here but even I, a staunchly anti-drama advocate, can’t imagine we’ll all just pretend that nothing happened.
“Everyone’s okay, right?” Lola says, breaking the silence.
I can’t tell if she’s asking me, or Mia.
“I’m good,” Mia says from the backseat.
“I’m good, too!” I chirp.
I can feel them both look to me. We pull up to a stop sign and the Prius falls so completely silent, I can practically hear the brightness of my answer echoing through the car.
“We’re all best friends, you know,” Lola says, but she waves her hand in a circle, clearly including me. “I think that’s just why Harlow flipped. She’s cool.”
“Good,” I say, grinning over at her and determined to not apologize again. I appreciate the gesture she’s made, of helping me feel as tight in the group as the rest of them, so I try to focus on that instead of pointing out the obvious, that I wasn’t around four, three, or even two years ago when Luke and Mia would have been working through anything. Besides, it’s moot anyway, and the more we talk about Luke, the more it becomes a thing.
It’s so not a thing.
When he’d called me last night, I’d been in the middle of an order and had to double-check that it was actually him on the line, and not some random guy who’d managed to get my name off their receipt . . . though admittedly none of them call me Logan.
Was Luke really calling to ask me out? Luke Right now I’d be terrible at anything more Sutter? Fred watched me with the most amused expression and I had to turn my back to him, because the look of surprise on my face would have been enough to have him questioning me for the rest of the night.
Luke sounded so sincere that, for a moment, I’d been caught off guard. I like Luke—which is actually part of the problem.
So I’d lied, telling him I had to work when I could have simply said I already have plans.
Which I do.
I hate lying.
I’ll call him later, I decide. I’ll admit that I panicked, that I wasn’t prepared for him to call me at work. But I’ll make it clear—without being harsh—that the best he and I can ever hope for is friendship.
We pull into the lot and everyone piles out of the car, stretching limbs and turning faces up into the sun. Balboa Park is an enormous park in the center of urban San Diego. The zoo is one of the best in the world, there are more gardens and museums than can be visited in a single day, but we usually come for the giant stretches of lawn beneath the brilliant blue sky.
We find a shady spot under a towering tree, and spread out a blanket. I slip off my shoes and revel in the cool grass slipping through my toes before I plop down, hoping to shut my brain off for a few hours.
Lola opens the picnic basket and tosses us each a bottle of water before brandishing a small box of cupcakes. “We’re eating dessert first.”
“I do not need a cupcake,” I groan, stretching out on the blanket. “I polished off an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s when I got home from work last night.”
“At Fred’s?” Mia asks, bending to straighten her side of the blanket. Her dark hair is cut shorter again and skims her jawline as she leans forward. It’s a cut most people could never hope to pull off—angular, maybe even a little harsh—but with her delicate features and creamy skin, I’m pretty sure she could be wearing one of those hats with the beer cans on it and still manage to look gorgeous.
Mia is of course lovely, but it’s moments like these where I can really see her and Luke as a couple: beautiful, petite, porcelain-doll Mia, and Abercrombie & Fitch Luke who has better cheekbones than any woman I know.
“I can’t keep track of your schedule,” Lola says, handing me a cupcake anyway.
“Because she works too damn much,” Harlow says, startling me as she seems to appear out of nowhere. She sits down next to me. “Hey, everyone.”
We all return the greeting . . . and when she looks over at me, yeah, it’s weird. Her smile is tight, and mine is probably too wide.
But we’re all committed, apparently. Harlow takes an offered cupcake from Lola and crosses her legs in front of her. “Guess who I just ran into in the parking lot?”
I don’t even bother guessing. Practically everyone I know in San Diego is sitting on this blanket.
Apparently Lola and Mia draw a similar level of blank, because they ask in unison, “Who?”
It clearly takes both of them a few seconds to place him, because Harlow adds, “The UCLA football dude.”
“Ohhhhhh,” they coo in unison again, and based on their reactions, I wish I’d run into him, too.
“Sadly,” Harlow says, licking a little frosting off her finger, “he has not aged too well.”
“Oh, that is sad,” Mia says. “But I guess he was sort of a jerk, and it’s better to see the ex looking like crap than seeing him with someone super hot!”
Mia snaps her mouth shut, throwing Lola a horrified look.
Harlow takes an enormous bite of her cupcake and looks up at the three of us who have gone completely silent. “What?” she asks, mouth full. “Finn is leaving for two weeks and if I’m not getting sex I should at least be getting something with frosting on it.”
Okay, clearly Harlow did not pick up on the weirdness there and apparently assumed we were just horrified that she managed to eat half of a cupcake in a single bite. I can see Mia relax a little across from me.
I would do anything for a reassuring smile from someone today.
“How’s Finn adjusting to the filming?” Lola asks.
“Very few complaints, actually,” Harlow says. “Which is surprising because Finn usually complains about everything. Nonverbally, that is: his chosen medium of expression is typically heavy sighs.”
“Wow, how few things you two have in common,” Mia says, and Harlow throws one of her flip-flops at her.
“Well, I for one am thrilled to be out,” Lola says. “If I had to spend one more second looking at the terrible mock-ups of the site I’m having done, I was going to lose my mind.”
“You’re having a new site built?” Mia asks, and Lola nods.
“Yeah, but so far it’s been disastrous. This guy came really highly recommended, but so far he doesn’t seem to get the art, if that makes sense?”
“I think it makes perfect sense,” I tell her, and everyone looks to me as if they’ve forgotten that I was here. “I could take a look at it, if you wanted?”
Lola looks like someone just offered her a puppy. “You’d do that?”
“Sure, why not?”
“I know how you feel about doing work for people you know,” she says, worrying her bottom lip. “I didn’t want to put you in a position where you had to say no.”
“You’re you, Lola. If I don’t want to do it I’ll just tell you.”
Lola lunges forward to hug me before reaching for her phone. “I’ll forward you the links to everything right now,” she says, giddy.
“So what else have you been up to?” Harlow asks me, somewhat stiffly, stretching miles of tan legs in front of her. “I don’t think I’ve seen you since we all went out.”
I blink, looking up into the tree overhead, at the way the branches crisscross back and forth like a giant jigsaw puzzle. I count off on my fingers, “Skydiving, fighting crime, a little brothel business I’ve been running on the side.”
“Now, a brothel I could get behind because one: Ladies getting paid,” she says. “And two: It’d give you at least marginally better hours than you have now. Plus, you know, penises. Peni? What is a lot of penises? A bushel?”
“A bushel of penises, Whorelow? Really?” Lola says as she drops her phone back in her purse. “But otherwise, preach. She’s even working extra shifts at . . .”
I push up on an elbow, intending to interrupt, but at the same time, Lola moves a little to the right and my breath catches in my throat.
This can’t be happening.
I sit, eyes zeroing in on the two figures across the lawn, a fit twentysomething guy I recognize, and a girl. Of course there’s a girl.
“London? Are you okay?” Lola snaps her fingers in front of my face and I blink back to the conversation. Judging from her expression, I must look like I swallowed a tennis ball.
“Damnit,” I hiss, and hunch down. I’m not sure if I’m trying to hide or find a way to escape, but I’m almost positive that’s Luke across the park and that I am absolutely not supposed to be here. He’s also the last person I want to see when Harlow and Mia are sitting right next to me.
“What is it?” Mia asks before she sees him over Lola’s shoulder, too. “Oh. Oh.”
“I should never lie,” I mumble to myself. I look around at the blanket, at the food we were just starting to unpack. Lola looks at me in question, so I add, “I told Luke I was doing inventory today and now he’s here.”
“Oh,” Lola says as well, followed by another “Ohhhh,” as she gets what I mean.
Harlow—who up until this point hasn’t been paying attention—follows my gaze before looking back at me. “Why did you tell him you were doing inventory?”
I look at her incredulously for a beat before deciding now is not the time to point out that she shouldn’t be complaining about me making up excuses to not see him since she didn’t seem too thrilled with me seeing him in the first place. “He called and asked me out,” I tell her, and ignore the slow rise of her eyebrows. “It just . . . it wasn’t a good idea, and so I lied.”
“There was your first mistake,” Lola says. “You couldn’t even keep a straight face when I asked if you ate all my Corn Flakes.”
“I didn’t expect him to be here, did I?”
“Well,” Harlow says, “whatever your story is, you’d better get it ready.” She sits up, plastering a calm, oblivious expression on her face and muttering, “Because if that’s Luke, he’s headed this way.”
I’m almost afraid to look, but when I do peek behind me, I see that Harlow is right; Luke is walking toward us, a tall brunette at his side.
I stand, wiping off the butt of my shorts and attempt to meet him halfway. If I’m going to make a fool of myself, I’d rather it be out of earshot.
Unfortunately, he’s faster than I am.
“Logan?” he says, looking at me before leaning to one side to see the girls behind me. He takes in my outfit—cutoffs and a thin white T-shirt, my bare feet—the blanket stretched out on the grass and the basket of food, and it clearly doesn’t take him long to piece together that I’m not just here on a break from inventory duties.
“Hey,” I say, squinting into the sun. I’m hoping my sunglasses are enough to hide the way my eyes keep trying to skim down his body. He’s tan and wearing a yellow T-shirt and loose khaki shorts, and I must have pissed someone off in a previous life because Luke Sutter is possibly the hottest guy I’ve ever known. “Fancy seeing you here.”
He looks confused for a moment before he shakes his head. “I was at the zoo. My sister accosted me and forced me out of the house.”
“He was turning into a weirdo,” the girl cuts in. She’s really pretty, and it takes my brain about two seconds to process what he’s said, that this is his sister. The same one who drags him shopping and makes him buy her tampons, who forced him into child labor in her doll salon and gives him epic amounts of shit. I don’t even know Margot and she’s already one of my favorite people. “So you’re Logan.”
“London,” Luke corrects under his breath and, if anything, her smile grows. She has the same thick dark hair and brown eyes, the same perfect smile that seems to light up her entire face.
“I know, baby brother. Lord knows I’ve heard you talk about her enough. London this and London that. Margot,” she says, pointing to her chest. “Big sister, favorite child.”
“I’ve heard a lot about you, too,” I say. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”
With a hand cupping her entire face, Luke pushes his sister behind him and takes a step toward me. I don’t have to be a genius to know she’s going to pay him back for that later. “You didn’t really have to work, did you?” he says, eyes theatrically wide. And oh, shit, he knew I brushed him off and is now completely relishing having caught me. “Oh my God, is it possible sweet London lied to me about inven—?”
“Why don’t you guys come eat with us?” I blurt, and motion to where everyone is sitting behind me, surely listening to every word. I look over my shoulder and of course they’re all waving. Even Harlow.
I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe I thought he would smile in that way that makes my legs feel less than steady, and insist he didn’t want to impose. Maybe I thought he’d make some sort of scene, having figured out that I lied because I didn’t want to hang out with him.
What I’m not expecting is for him to look back at his sister and nod, heart-stopping smile in place, while he motions for her to lead the way.
Margot doesn’t have to be told twice, already rushing toward the girls. And of course they already know one another. Luke takes a step to join them before he pauses, stooping just enough to bring his face level with my own.
“I’m glad Margot made me leave the house,” he says, and if I didn’t feel bad already, that does the trick. I like giving Luke a hard time. But I don’t want to be a dick to the dick, either.
“You’re too well-groomed to be a hermit, anyway,” I tell him, and his smile widens as he follows me over to the blanket.
He approaches Mia first, crouching beside her to say something close to her ear. I have no idea what he’s whispering, but I sense Harlow watching them like a hawk, monitoring Mia’s reaction. Mia nods, smiling as she listens, and then twists to give him a brief hug.
I hear him murmur a quiet, “I’m really sorry.”
“Don’t be. I’m just glad you’re doing so well,” she says, and smiles again when he gives her a chaste kiss on the cheek.
The mood seems to ease a little after this. Even Harlow allows herself a tiny smile at him as everyone shifts over to make room on the blanket, with the enormous picnic lunch in the middle. Luke sits cross-legged beside Lola, and of course it ends up that I take my seat directly between Luke and Margot.
My heart is in my throat. I feel like I’m in a fishbowl, every movement being cataloged and analyzed. Am I sitting too close to him? Acting too familiar? Do I look like I’ve seen him naked? Like I’m imagining it now?
The food is passed around and Margot and the girls jump into easy conversation while Luke and I keep our eyes pinned on the picnic blanket.
When I finally have my nerves under control and look up, Lola catches my eye and smiles a little in reassurance. In her expression, I read the You two are adorable look there. And she’s right: he is fucking adorable. It surprises me how happy I am to see him, but also how much it suddenly sucks that I can’t really enjoy it without pissing off someone really important to me. For her part, Harlow doesn’t seem to be too worried about it; she’s not even looking at us.
“So let me get this straight.” Margot blinks from Luke to me as she unwraps a sandwich. “London said she had to work so she didn’t have to hang out with you?” She is clearly delighted.
One side of Luke’s mouth turns up as he slides his eyes to me. “Apparently.”
It is obvious to me that it would never occur to Margot or Luke that this would be at all weird, and it makes me like them both, just a little bit more.
“Okay, okay,” Margot says, moving to her knees to pull her phone from her back pocket. “Just let me put this in my calendar.” She starts typing. “ ‘The day . . . the tables were turned . . . on my dear, sweet brother . . . and a girl made up a work story . . . so she didn’t have to spend time with him.’ ” She taps her screen once more as if saving it, and smiles. “There. Noted.”
“Don’t forget to send a group text,” he tells her. “Wouldn’t want to leave Mom and Grams out of the loop.”
She turns her phone to face him. “Oh, the group window is already open.”
Luke shrugs good-naturedly and takes a bite out of his sandwich. “I’m man enough to take this.”
I glance over at Mia and see she’s grinning ear to ear. “At least this time your shame was not captured on film.”
“Oh my God, I forgot about that Homecoming!” Harlow says.
“You think I was ashamed of that?” Luke asks, leaning closer to me. So close that our arms touch from shoulder to elbow.
He’s including me.
He’s making it clear he’s here for me.
He’s saying something to me, and he’s saying something to Mia and all her friends: that is our history. This is my now.
My heart trips over itself, but falls down down down inside my chest when I feel Harlow’s gaze on my face.
I look over to her, redirecting her stern attention. “Okay, what happened at Homecoming?” I ask.
Mia is already laughing, and the sound diffuses the tiny slip of tension that—thankfully—Luke and Margot have yet to notice. “So it’s halftime. Keep in mind, this is our senior year, so the boys give exactly zero shits about good behavior at this point. Everyone’s up in the stands waiting for the drill team to come out, and this group of naked guys wearing masks burst out onto the field.”
I glance at Luke, and realize I’ve been unconsciously leaning just a tiny bit into him. He smells clean, and warm. I smell his soap, and remember how different it was on my own skin. He’s blushing, high along his cheekbones, visible even beneath his tan. He looks like he’s barely keeping himself from laughing, too.
Margot nods. “The local newspaper was there—about two thousand parents with zoom lenses, too—and it was like wagging penis—camera flash—ass—camera flash. Our aunt recognized his butt from the photos Grams sent out to the entire family.” She can barely get the last word out before she falls over, giggling.
“Oh my God,” I say to him. “What were you thinking?”
“Look,” Luke says, gesturing down the length of his body. “Sometimes you just can’t keep the beast contained, okay?”
There’s a collective groan and now everyone has completely lost it, Lola laughing so hard she looks like she can barely breathe. “He had to do community service at the senior center and spent the summer having his butt pinched by old ladies who’d already seen it in the newspaper.”
“I can’t believe I forgot about that,” Margot says, and reaches up to swipe away a few tears. “Oh my God, I’m crying.”
“My sides,” Harlow says, leaning forward to catch her breath.
“I do what I can,” Luke says. He looks completely unfazed by all of this as he takes a giant bite of his sandwich and I can’t help but be impressed. It also occurs to me that I haven’t seen him look at his phone once, and I wonder if that has anything to do with his sister being with him.
Finally recovered, Harlow turns her attention to Luke. “So now that that’s out of the way,” she says, and dabs at the mascara just under her eyes. “What have you been doing with yourself?” I hold my breath, but exhale quietly when she says only, “I heard you were going to law school?”
“Hopefully,” he says. Luke explains that he’s a law clerk—Margot cuts in to brag that he works for the biggest transactional law firm in San Diego County—and that he barely has time to use the bathroom without taking files into the stall with him. He’s hoping to attend law school in the fall. “My mommy and sister made sure I mailed off my applications,” he says with a grin aimed at his sister, “so we’ll see what happens.”
Harlow points her water bottle at him. “That is such a coincidence because you know Mia’s husband is an attorney.”
“Subtle, Harlow,” Lola says, and puts another cupcake in her hand. “Why don’t you shove this in your mouth for a while?”
“What?” she says, but takes the second cupcake nonetheless. “It’s an interesting bit of trivia, don’t you think?”
“I know this,” Luke says, “because I ran into him on campus the other day and went up to talk to him. He seems like a great guy.”
Everyone goes still, except Luke, who casually takes another bite of his sandwich, and Mia, who seems to already know this story.
“He is,” Mia says, smiling at him with such gratitude it makes my throat go tight in relief for both of them.
Lola hands out more cupcakes to everyone and the others continue to catch up, talking about Harlow’s mom’s recovery from a double mastectomy and chemo, Margot’s teaching job, about Finn and Ansel, and, of course, about Luke, when he turns to me, leaning in.
“You owe me, you know,” he says, and I feel my brows disappear into my hair.
“I owe you?”
“Calm down there, Zurich. I don’t mean like that. I mean that you lied to me and just gave my sister enough ammunition to last her through the summer.”
“Hey, don’t look at me,” I say, unable to hold in my smile. “It’s not my fault you offer up so much amazing material. You’re a comedic gold mine.”
“And yet you ignore the fact that you lied.” His brows draw down, but even so, he can’t remove the smile from his eyes. “That wasn’t very nice.”
He has a point. “You’re right, but in my defense I was just trying to keep your expectations manageable. I didn’t want you to think there was anything between us that could lead to—”
He holds up a hand to stop me. “We’re not doing that. I know.” Surprisingly, he glances at Harlow and then back to me. Maybe he catches more than he’s letting on? “And I get it. But even you have to admit that this—hanging out?—doesn’t completely suck, right?”
“Way to set the bar high there, superstar.”
He laughs. “You know what I mean.”
I pick at the wrapper of my cupcake. “It doesn’t suck,” I admit.
“You just said I was right. I’m sort of mortified by how happy that makes me.” He leans in again, nodding to Margot. “Don’t tell my sister.”
“Your secret is safe with me.”
Luke reaches for a piece of my cupcake and I let him, watching as he tears off a chunk and pops it into his mouth. A smear of white frosting colors his bottom lip, and he flicks out the tip of his tongue, licking it off. He watches me watching him with a knowing smirk.
I swallow, and can only hope it’s not as loud as I imagine. Lola—who by all accounts is totally engaged in the other conversation—covertly squeezes my hand on the blanket behind Luke’s back. She is such an enabler.
I clear my throat, and busy myself wiping imaginary crumbs from my shorts. “So what have you been up to?”
“Let’s see . . . I texted you”—he says with a teasing smile—“feel free to answer those anytime. Practiced up on my video games, did some laundry, hung out at my mom’s house, and jerked off a few times.” He pauses and his brows come together. “Absolutely not in that order.”
I cough out a laugh. “I was going to say . . .”
“Uh, yeah. Let’s rebrand that conversation and edit out that last part.” He reaches for another piece of cupcake, and I hold it out for him.
“Thanks,” he says.
I glance over at his sister, who seems deep in conversation with the girls. “It’s really great how much time you spend with your family.”
“Did you know my room at home still looks exactly like it did when I was sixteen?”
He nods. “Most of my friends’ parents have turned theirs into a den or a sewing room or something, but nothing has changed. My awkward adolescence has been preserved like an archeological dig.”
“I can’t tell if that’s terrifying or intriguing,” I tell him.
“My bed is in the same place, the posters on the wall, even the corkboard I made in shop when I was in eighth grade is still there, complete with friendship bracelets, concert tickets, and dance photos. I think there’s even the condom wrapper I used when I lost my virginity,” he says, narrowing his eyes like he’s trying to remember. As if it just occurs to him what that would mean, he glances quickly over to Mia, his cheeks coloring again.
“Wow, that’s . . . nostalgic.” It’s a little weird to hear him talk about this, if I’m being honest. My family life is nothing like his.
He shakes his head. “I’m sure my mom doesn’t even know it’s there. I didn’t even realize until I was looking for a phone number last summer and found it tucked between a Tower of Terror Fastpass from 2009 and a ticket stub from a Tom Petty concert.”
“That’s sort of amazing,” I say, picking at a blade of grass. “I’d been gone less than a month and my mom had my room turned into a craft cave.”
“I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t go home,” he says quietly. “Like, I go back there and I’m twelve years old again. I can lie on my bed and look up at the pages I tore out of the 2002 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition—Yamila Diaz-Rahi was on the cover, just in case you were wondering—the poster of a Lamborghini I swore I’d own by the time I was eighteen,” he says with a roll of his eyes. “And I can just be dumb and pretend like nothing else matters.”
“I think I’m jealous of your cool room.”
“Let’s make a deal,” he says, and licks a smear of frosting from his thumb. “I’ll let you hang out in my room when real life blows, provided you let me feel you up at least once while you’re there. Twelve-year-old me would be really impressed with that.”
“And they say chivalry is dead.”
“Dear God, you would get along with my Grams. I’m actually a little afraid of what would happen with you, my sister, my mom, and her all in one room. Frankly, I don’t think I’m man enough to handle it.”
I’m just about to tell Luke that that sounds like a bet I’d be willing to take, when he casually reaches for his phone.
Though it’s clearly been on silent, the screen is alive with notifications. I have no idea when he checked it last, but he’s been with us a good twenty minutes. There have to be at least a dozen alerts there. I feel myself frown and I’m not even sure why.
“So what are you guys up to after this?” he asks, and I wonder if he even notices how he carries on a conversation while scrolling through the screen, practiced eyes flicking down and then back up again.
“Actually,” I say, and push myself to my knees, “I should probably get going.”
“You have to go?” he says, and immediately tosses his phone to the blanket. He looks disappointed and I have to knock down my tiny, thrilled reaction.
Harlow meets my eyes and—despite the weirdness between us and the cool distance I still catch in her eyes—I’m reminded again why she’s one of my favorite people in the world. It’s like a bat signal must have gone off above my head because within seconds she’s up, looking at her watch and giving some excuse about why we have to leave.
Mia follows suit, helping Lola load up the basket and fold the blanket.
“So when will we all see each other again?” Margot says to the girls, getting out her own phone to check her calendar. They make plans and Luke pulls me over to the side.
“Are you working tomorrow?” he asks.
I consider lying, but decide there’s really no point. I like Luke, I want to be friends with Luke. Harlow can’t really have a problem with it, and aside from that, what he does with whoever is on his phone or otherwise is none of my business. “Yeah,” I tell him, adding, “at Fred’s.”
“My liver’s had a break, so maybe I’ll stop by.”
He can be so cute when he wants to, it’s really annoying. “I’ll be there. Be sure and bring lots of dollar bills. That car isn’t going to pay for itself.”
“You can always start stripping,” he says, and then Margot is there, cutting in front of him.
“It was really great to meet you. Anytime you want to help me drive this guy to drink, just call me.” She surprises me by pulling me into a hug and I hug her back, meeting Luke’s eyes over her shoulder.
“It’s becoming my new favorite pastime,” I tell her. “Maybe we can start a club.”