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A Perfect Set

Chapter 1

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My brother hates sand between his toes. He is only twenty-eight, but he’s already a persnickety, fussy old man. My brother is crazy. Sand between your toes is awesome. There should be more songs about sand between your toes, specifically when the sun has set and the sand starts to cool and you dig your feet into it and it’s like your toes have found the cool side of the pillow.

Wow. That was a simile that would never make it to print. I was going to forget I wrote it, even in my head.

But it was still true. I dug my toes down deeper, loving the cool silica slide of a thousand grains of Huntington Beach sand burying my tired feet.

Lou was right to have made me come to this activity. In a few minutes, I might even find the energy to get up off the low stone wall dividing the beach from the parking lot and walk farther out to find the rest of my new ward. But right now, the lingering pink in the sky, the sand, and my view were exactly perfect.

A tall, blond guy with a stellar profile crossed in front of me, maybe twenty yards away. He stopped at the bonfire. Yes.

I double-checked the number of the nearest lifeguard tower. Seventeen. Yep, that was the right fire. I guess the two dozen neatly groomed, glowy-skinned twenty-somethings standing around could have given it away too.

I pushed up from the wall to go join them. I wanted to check out Tall Blond more closely. Firelight made everyone look good, even when they were not so good-looking. And honestly, if the conversation was good, the good-looking part didn’t really matter. But when I wanted only to sit and appreciate a nicely made guy, the looks were all that mattered. Conversation ruined a lot of good-looking guys.

I reached the outer circle and looked for a spot where I could scope out Tall Blond and not look like I was a loser who was there by myself, even though I was a loser there by myself.

Ugh, Lou. Why did she have to be so persuasive?

Louisa didn’t even make particularly good arguments to talk people into stuff. She mostly wore you down so you gave in rather than put up with the nagging, or else she scared you into stuff. Like with consequences. Which explained how she had persuaded me to come to this thing even though she was on a business trip in Dallas and therefore unable to introduce me to all these strangers. She’d left with a clear threat. “If you don’t go to the bonfire tomorrow, I’m going to invite people over to our house specifically to meet you. Mostly boy people. What’s less awkward, Bree?”

I sat down and stared into the flames. Because obviously.

I got enough of a glimpse of Tall Blond to decide he was definitely cute, but unfortunately, he was on the other side of the circle.

I glanced at the people nearest me. The trick to coming to social stuff by yourself was that you had to look like you were waiting for someone so you didn’t reek of desperation strong enough to overpower the smoke. And then—and I hated to say this because, for real, I was all about the girl power—you needed to wait for a guy to come talk to you because they always did and the girls never did.

They did at church. The girls, I meant. They’d come and talk to you there but not at a social thing, not to a new girl. And with only three weeks in Huntington Beach under my belt, none of them at church on Sunday yet, I was definitely a stranger.

I wished either of my two other roommates was here, but both of them worked as servers and were choosing tips over a YSA activity.

Good call.

I wondered how long I had to stay before I could leave and not have Lou launch a find-a-friend project for me in our living room. Ten more minutes? Maybe five . . .

I pulled out my phone to snap a picture of the fire.

Bree: I’m here. So glad you talked me into this.

Even if Lou couldn’t read the sarcasm I had pounded into each of those keystrokes, it should still get her off my back and prove that I had followed through in case she was wondering all the way over there in Texas.

Lou: Yay!

Yeah, Silicon Valley needed to get on that sarcasm font ASAP. There was nothing YAY about this situation.

“If I guess what you’re texting about, will you tell me if I get it right?”

I followed the sound of the deep voice up, up, up to a . . . a . . . I didn’t even know how to explain this guy. Like, if Tony Stark made a clone who was half Thor and half Captain America, it would be this guy. He was even taller than First Tall Blond.

Normally, I didn’t like clichés. They were a professional hazard. And nothing was more prone to clichés than sports journalism; I rooted them out like a honey badger hunting a cobra, but truth be told, if Huntington Beach was going to be a total cliché of tall, blond California guys, I couldn’t get mad about that. And it was hard to tell in the fading light, but it looked like Captain Thor also had a deep, clichéd, pretty, pretty tan.

“Sure. Give me a guess,” I said, smiling up at him.

He flowed down beside me. No, really. Flowed down, like this graceful rearranging of limbs that took him from towering over me to sitting right behind me in an easy downward roll of motion. He smiled. Dark eyes, big smile. I was going to need to investigate this in full light very soon.

“I’m Ace,” he said. “I get three guesses, right? First guess: you were in a Facebook fight about East Coast versus West Coast rap.”

I tried to keep a straight face. “Tupac all the way. Who would even argue about that?”

He nodded. “Good point. Then you just dumped your boyfriend via text.”

“Dumping someone in a text is stone-cold disrespectful.”

“So you didn’t dump him? I’m bummed.”

“Nice fishing.” The bonfire warmed a piece of my jaded dating soul. “I didn’t dump the boyfriend I don’t have.”

“I’m way less bummed.”

“What’s your third guess?”

“I don’t have one. I found out what I needed to know. Except your name. You going to make me guess that too?”

“Bree,” I said. “Hi, Ace.”

“Hi, Bree.”

I liked the way he said it, like he’d said it a thousand times and it was already a habit.

The sand stirred on my other side, and First Tall Blond sat down. His profile had promised good things. His chiseled face delivered.

“Hey, dude,” he said with a nod at Ace.

“Dude.” Ace returned the nod.

Neither of them spoke again. I glanced at Ace to see if he was going to pick up the conversational ball, but he was staring into the fire.

“Uh, hi?” I said to Tall Blond Number One. “I’m Bree.”

“Kade,” he said.

That was it. No “Nice to meet you,” no follow-up questions.

Ace cleared his throat. “So, Bree, you new here? I don’t think I’ve seen you before.”

“I moved down a month ago, but I keep having to go out of town, so this is the first time I’ve been at a ward thing.”

“Don’t judge us by this lame bonfire,” he said. “There’s some all right people in the ward.”

I didn’t think the bonfire was lame at all, but Kade spoke up before I could say anything. “It’s a pretty good ward. The people are nice. It’s hard to tell who’s new sometimes, especially during the summer because a lot of new people show up and then they’re gone again in August. But if people know you’re an actual move-in, they’ll be friendly.”

“That’s a lot of words, bro.”

Ace’s tone had been teasing, but the air around Kade . . . tightened, even though I hadn’t sensed him move a muscle. “I talk when there’s someone worth talking to.”

Forget the Pacific Ocean splashing against the shore fifty yards behind us; these guys were in an undertow right on the sand, and I wanted out. Before I could find the right excuse to get up, Kade spoke again. “You’re not from California, are you?”

I looked over at him, my eyebrows climbing. Everyone assumed I was from California because I looked like a classic California blonde myself. I even had blue eyes, for pity’s sake. “I’m not. How’d you guess? Is it because I haven’t said dude yet?”

He smiled and nodded at my short-sleeved blue T-shirt. “No sweatshirt. New people don’t realize how cold the beach gets at night.”

Suddenly, I did. The front of me was pretty toasty because it faced the fire, but my back had cooled fast since dark purple had scrubbed out the rest of the sunset. I wrapped my arms around my legs and shivered. Power of suggestion, much? Geez. I wiggled my toes. “I thought I was blending in with my flip-flops.”

“Kade’s right for once,” Ace said. “If you’d thrashed those things and shown up with a sweatshirt, no one would have noticed you’re the new girl.”

“I would have,” Kade said. He said it quietly, not like he was picking a fight, but this time it was Ace who stiffened. Another awkward pause ensued.

Ace broke it this time. “So where are you from, and more importantly, how long are you here?”

“Montana, and indefinitely. I moved into the rooster house.” The cozy beach cottage had a rusty rooster weathervane perched on the roof, and its coveted spots had been filled by LDS girls for years.

“Oh yeah? I didn’t know they had any openings.”

“Louisa Gibson is getting married in three months,” I said. “They’re squeezing me in then I’m taking over her lease when she moves out.”

“Cool girls,” he said. “I haven’t been over in a while. I need to fix that.”

Ace was confident and clearly had lots of practice with flirting, but that could describe me too. I liked cute boys. I liked to go out with cute boys. I’d learned how to get them to ask me out, and maybe I’d like Ace to ask me out. It didn’t feel right to invite him over when I was sofa surfing there, but I wouldn’t be upset if he showed up on his own.

Before I could decide how to play it, Kade spoke. “Natalie comes to practice a lot.”

“Natalie Clearfield?” She was one of Lou’s roommates. Well, and one of mine now too, I guess. We hadn’t had much time to gel. I’d roomed with Lou for three summers at EFY and had kept in touch in between, but I hadn’t had that “click” moment with the other two girls in the house yet. “What practice?”

“I play beach volleyball. Professionally.” He said it like he expected some reaction, and he got one, but probably not the one he’d hoped for. Athletes were not my favorite. Pro athletes and their giant egos were my least favorite.

“He’s kind of a big deal,” Ace said, and his voice was mocking.

Kade only shrugged. “So they tell me.”

Ugh. I got too much of this at my job to want to deal with it now. “Sounds cool,” I said, already standing up. I’d put in enough time to keep Lou off my back. “You’re right about the newbie sweatshirt mistake. I’m too cold to stick around, but maybe I’ll catch you guys Sunday.”

Ace looked like I’d splashed seawater in his face, but he lifted his hand in a short wave as I backed away from the fire. I didn’t spare a glance for Pro Kade.

I’d barely gotten halfway across the sand to the parking lot when Kade jogged up beside me. “Hey, Bree. I don’t know what your schedule is, but I train most mornings on the sand courts over there if you want to come by sometime.” He pointed to the other side of the pier. I’d seen the nets on my morning runs.

“That’s sweet, but sports aren’t my thing.” Such a lie. Sports were almost my only thing. Athletes who bragged about being athletes weren’t.

“Whoa, okay. Sorry,” he said and shoved his hands into the pockets of his shorts before he turned around and walked off. I wasn’t sorry to see him go. Even though Ace was hot, Kade would have been more my speed, kind of how my girlfriends drooled over super buff Channing Tatum while I held out for slim, quiet Ryan Gosling. But Ryan Gosling would be 75 percent less attractive the second he was like, “I’m awesome because I’m a movie star.”

That was the problem with pro athletes. All but a very, very few believed their own hype. And when a guy believed his own hype, I never could.

See you never, dude.


Purchase Perfect Set on Amazon.