The still afternoon air was split by the trill of a school bell, and teenagers eagerly spilled out onto the lawn. They milled around, forming little knots of conversation, the boys in dark sweaters and girls in pleated skirts -- not plaid; they avoided that cliche, at least.
Annabella and Patty breezed past the cliques and anti-cliques without sparing them a glance. Neither of them was interested in playing school politics. When school was over, they wanted to leave school. Seemed like the sensible thing to do.
They stopped at the curb. Annabella scanned the cars, all full of parents waiting to pick up their kids. She was looking for one car in particular, and didn’t see it.
Patty knew which car she was looking for and knew it wasn’t there. “Not getting picked up today?” she said. Her tone was light, but Annabella could see a leer hiding in her eyes. At least once a day, she wondered if telling Patty had been a bad idea. At least twice a day, she was glad someone else knew. If she had to keep the secret locked up inside her, she’d lose it.
“No. It’s good to walk sometimes, right? Keeps the blood flowing.”
“And it means spending some quality time with me,” a voice behind her added. She turned and saw Mike Soranzo approaching. He was wearing his usual toothpaste-commercial smile, artfully gelled hair, and perfectly hipster messenger bag. His school tie was loosened and his sleeves rolled up. He made a deep, flourishing bow and said “Carry your books, m’lady?”
She rolled her eyes. “I’ll call you later, Patty.” Patty waved, suppressing a smirk, and they went their separate ways.
Annabella and Mike walked north, leaving the school behind. The busses and cars thinned out and were replaced with quiet, imposing brick houses. It was a nice neighborhood. Not rich, exactly. Nobody here was a billionaire or anything, but the immaculate lawns were proof that everybody paid a gardener to keep them neat, and every driveway had a luxury sedan or SUV in it.
They talked idly about school gossip, more to fill the silence than out of real interest in their peers’ dramas and tragedies. They had the easy repartee of long-time friends. Annabella thought Mike seemed a little … different. But it was probably nothing.
Annabella’s house sat a quarter mile from the school. Between two huge oaks, it sprawled like an Italian villa. Mike walked Annabella up the stone path, past the car in the driveway -- her brother’s car, not her father’s. Annabella’s stomach flipped. She smoothed her braided hair self-consciously and wondered if her lip gloss was still there.
At the door, she turned to tell Mike goodbye, but the look on his face made her stop. His smile was faltering and his gaze was intense. He wasn’t usually an intense guy. “Is everything okay?” she asked.
“Yeah, yeah, everthing’s fine. I just, uh. I have something for you.”
Ordinarily, Annabella would expect this to be followed by something childish -- a piece of popcorn thrown in her face, a fake spider dropped on her head, that kind of thing. She didn’t think that was going to happen today.
He was reaching into his messenger bag. "I saw this over the weekend, and it made me think of you." He pulled out a small grey box. It had rounded edges and a hinged top. A box from a jewelry store. He offered it to her and smiled hopefully.
Shit. On some level, she’d known this was inevitable. But now? Of all the times he could have chosen? She hesitated, unsure what to do. Running inside seemed a tad immature. Seeing no other choice, she took the box and opened it.
Inside was a heart. It gleamed smooth and golden, and a chain caught the afternoon sun and sparkled. It wasn't a locket or anything -- just a simple heart pendant, an inch or two across. Kind of gaudy, actually, but obviously expensive.
She shook her head and offered it back to him. "I can't accept this."
Smiling, he took the little box and pulled out the necklace. “Sure you can. It's easy. Here, turn around." He gently took her by her shoulders and spun her so her back was against his chest. Anxiety was rising inside her, but she let him lift the chain over her head and swept her long braid aside so he could fasten the clasp at the nape of her neck.
Now that it was on her, she could see that the chain was longer than she'd expected. The pendant fell heavy between her breasts, resting over her sternum.
She turned around to face his hopeful smile.
"Do you like it?"
"It's ... really pretty."
His grin was getting some of its confidence back. "It's for a pretty girl," he said, flicking his glance down to the pendant. Down to her chest. She crossed her arms uncomfortably.
She was going to have to tackle this head-on, while still being delicate. "Look ... you're a great friend, Mike. I like you. Hanging out with you is fun. Easy. But I don't want to give you the wrong idea."
He sighed. "Let me guess. You don't think of me like that. I'm a sweetheart. You see me as a brother."
She looked down. "It's not like that."
"So what is it like?" he snapped, suddenly angry. "You laugh at my jokes. You tell me I’m adorable. I hug you when you're having a bad day. I walk you home from school, like an idiot." He stopped short and carded his fingers through his hair. "Sorry. I didn't mean to get worked up."
She touched him tentatively on the arm. "It's okay. Not a big deal.” She really, really hoped that was true. She forced a smile as she reached for the door knob. “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay? Spitballs in statistics, as usual?”
He forced a smile right back, a cheerful mask to cover his disappointment. "Yeah, sure. I'll pull your pigtails or something."
She wasn’t sure if she could handle watching him walk off dejected, so she went inside quickly and shut the door behind her. She dropped her backpack and stood there for a moment, just breathing, willing the nervous guilt in her stomach to settle and subside. Mike would be fine. She didn’t need to worry about him. She didn’t need to think about him. She didn’t need to think about anything.
Because Giovanni was home, and their father wasn’t.
She closed her eyes, her blood calming. She got very quiet. Carefully, she listened. She listened into the living room and dining room, seldom used rooms at the front of the house. As usual, there was no sound there. She listened into the kitchen and heard nothing. She strained and listened into the family room at the back of the first floor. The TV wasn’t on. She listened up the stairs, searching for some sound, some sign. It was quiet up there, too. Opening her eyes, she frowned. Had he gone for a walk? He knew what time she got home on the days she walked -- the days he didn’t pick her up. Or was he waiting somewhere in the house, still and silent, to surprise her? The thought made her shiver.
She slipped up the stairs and looked up and down the hall. All the doors were closed. Was he in his room? The guest room, strictly speaking, but now that he was back from college it was his again.
The door to her room opened smoothly, without a squeak, but when it was open, she saw she didn’t need to sneak. He was there. Sitting on her bed, legs stretched out like he had every right to be there, totally absorbed in a book. A faded t-shirt was tight across his chest and his hair was a disaster. He looked up over his book with raised eyebrows, as if surprised by her arrival. His gaze met hers, and held hers, and just like always, she was immediately and completely gripped by desire.
He knew it, too. But he smiled affectionately, a caricature of a doting brother. “How was school, dear?”
She shrugged out of her jacket and slipped into their usual game. “Very educational. I learned ever so much about frog anatomy and the execution of Charles I.”
“And I’ve no doubt you’ll complete your homework promptly and diligently,” he said, setting his book aside and standing.
Her blood was simmering under her skin. It still took her by surprise how much she wanted him. Desire like this was entirely new -- desire that threatened to overwhelm her, and desire that could actually be fulfilled. That was the real difference. Before, she’d tried to tamp these feelings down, and even when she let them linger and develop into a fully formed fantasy, she’d told herself they’d always be frustrated. Now she could have what she wanted. She could give in totally and let the desire overwhelm her.
But not quite yet. She walked to her mirror and took off her sweater. “Yes, I’ll begin my assignments as soon as possible. I hope you won’t mind if I ask you for help. You’re terribly smart and terribly helpful.”
She reached for the elastic at the end of her braid, but he said, "Let me." He came behind her. She watched him in the mirror and could see that their pantomime was over. He unbound her hair slowly, running his fingers through it as he went, right up to the scalp. When it was loose and full around her shoulders, he lifted a handful to his face and inhaled deeply. "God, you smell good. Is that creepy? I don't care if it's creepy. You smell so fucking good."
She laughed a little -- his foul mouth amused her -- and her breath caught when he dipped his head to her neck and kissed the skin just below her jaw. The spot where he’d first kissed her. Well, kissed her like this. She’d thought it was a mistake, that he’d meant to kiss her cheek and slipped.
His hands came up to her shoulders and reached around to unfasten her blouse. He was watching her in the mirror and his eyes followed his fingers’ progress with the shirt. He was intent on every new inch of skin he exposed with every button. Then all of a sudden, he stopped.
She’d been leaning her head back on his shoulder, letting her eyes close, slipping under. She looked at the mirror again. He was looking at the pendant, which hung between her breasts. It had slipped into her shirt at some point, and he’d only just discovered it.
“That’s pretty,” he said in her ear. “Did Patty give you that?”
There was a new tension in his body, and she could guess where this was going. “No, it wasn’t Patty.” She hesitated, and then realized she shouldn’t have hesitated because the hesitation would just make her look guilty of something. She wasn’t guilty of anything. Really, there was no reason to lie. “Mike gave it to me."
Giovanni snorted softly. “Soranzo? Didn’t he follow you around like a sad puppy in middle school?” She didn’t respond, and he continued in a firmer tone. “Why did he give it to you?”
“He likes me, apparently.” She caught herself fidgeting with the hem of her skirt, and made her hand still. “It was really awkward.”
He held her gaze in the mirror. “What did you do when he told you that he likes you?”
She laughed. “I friendzoned him. Probably scarred him for life.” But Giovanni was still looking at her intently, waiting for her to say more, to reveal something. She found herself smirking. “Are you jealous?”
He spun her around to face him. His eyes were hard and wild and he took her chin in his hand. Then, slowly, he dragged one finger down her throat and down her chest. When his hand reached the pendant, he lifted it. Turned it this way and that, admiring it. And then grasped it firmly and yanked down, snapping the chain. Holding her gaze, he dangled the heart in front of her eyes, and then threw it aside.
She started to smile, but there was nothing playful in his face. The intensity there -- the raw, bloody possession -- was something she had only glimpsed before. Now he was free to turn it on her whenever he wanted.
She loved it.
She took a few steps back, deliberately and slowly, until she was up against her mirrored closet door. She reached up and finished unbuttoning her shirt. She pulled it apart, bearing her simple cotton bra and bare stomach. And in an instant, he was against her. His hands slid around to her naked back and gripped her hard as he crushed her mouth in a kiss.
This was how she liked it: heated and desperate, like they were both in the grips of a natural force they couldn’t control. He forced his knee between her legs and thrust his thigh up against her. She was already so turned on that the touch shocked her and made her gasp. She realized she must be soaked already. She ground against his leg, savoring the friction of his jeans and her panties against her clit.
He brought one hand up to her breast and teased her nipple through her bra. Obligingly, he slipped a hand between them, between his thigh and her pussy. He pressed the pad of his thumb against her clit. He held still, one hand lingering over her nipple and his thumb stimulating her just enough to make her crazy. She started to move against him, but the warning look in his eye made her stop.
"Who else has touched you like this?" he asked.
Her heart was beating wildly in her chest, and she could feel the blood pumping throughout her body, in her cheeks, in her fingers, in her pussy. "No one."
He began moving his thumb. She moaned in gratitude. "No one?” he repeated. “Not some boy at school?” His thumb was speeding up and she was having trouble staying upright. “One you met in the library?” Now his other hand began pinching her nipple. He twisted it and she cried out. “Not the boy who gave you that necklace?"
Dragging her panties aside, he drove a finger inside her. "Nobody," she said as his thumb kept its rhythm on her clit. "Only you. Only you. Only ever you." He kissed her hard, biting her lip, and she came hard, her eyes squeezed shut tight, and she could have sworn her heart stopped.