CHAPTER THREE

 

AFTER SCHOOL, we girls packed Mom’s station wagon with our camping gear and, when we had everything we needed, Mom hugged me.

       “Take care, sweetie. Make sure you have fun!”

       “I will. Don’t worry.”

       “Okay. I love you.” She kissed my cheek.

       “Love you, Mom. I’ll text you when we arrive, okay?”

       She nodded and hugged me again as a blast of horns sounded. Gina and Izzy ran out to greet our friends. I collected my backpack and followed them but stopped on the porch. A Jeep waited behind Mom’s car, and Tony stood beside it while introducing Gina and Izzy to his friends. A white sedan sat on the roadside. The driver’s door opened, and Alex slid out. He leaned against the car and glanced toward the house. Amaia joined him from the passenger side. Izzy spotted her and called her over to meet Tony’s friends.

       When Alex spotted me his face lit up, and his good looks took my breath away. Will he ever smile without making my breath catch and my knees weak? He strolled to the bottom of the stairs.

       “Hi, Cassie.”

       “Hi.” I returned his grin.

       “Camping, huh?” He raised an eyebrow.

       “Yeah. I really hope my tent stays up, or I’ll be getting super close to nature.” I snapped my mouth shut when I caught myself babbling.

       Alex chuckled and joined me on the porch. He glanced at my backpack—which had slipped from my shoulder while I watched him arrive—before his eyes drifted over me.

       “What’s wrong?” I peered up at him from under my lashes and hoped my blushing was inconspicuous.

       “Nothing.” He shot me a disarming smile. “You look nice.”

       “In these old things?” I shook my head. I wore clothes I did not mind messing up while we set up camp. My well-loved jeans sported ragged hems and a patched knee. My shirt was an old favorite that had seen better days. I wore makeup, and nicer clothes waited in my bag, but at that moment I looked plain.

       Alex grinned in reply to my question. He collected my bag, before I could stop him, and carried it to Mom’s car. Meanwhile, Gina tugged me over to meet Tony’s friends.

       Matthew and Jeremy were both jocks, just like Tony, and their humor-laden interactions made me imagine that the three often got into mischief. Matt’s dark, shaggy hair, and olive complexion, complemented his hazel eyes. Jeremy was taller and more athletic. His white shirt set off his dark skin and short black hair while his pleasant smile made his brown eyes sparkle. Tony's pale blue eyes and strawberry blonde hair suited his handsome face. Despite Tony's six-foot frame being taller than Matt's five-nine, Jeremy overshadowed them both at six-foot-two.

       Soon, our group drove along Spirit Lake Highway, which traversed the fifty-two-mile distance between Castle Rock and Mount St. Helens. Five minutes later, I spotted the turning for Silver Lake Lookout. I led our friends toward the Lake’s edge. The vista changed from dense forest to misty peaks and stunning lakefront, so we stopped for photos.

       “This view is stunning!” Alex sounded impressed.

       “Well, I’m disappointed. Mount St. Helens is an incredible sight if you get a fine day,” I said.

       “Ah well.” Amaia sounded optimistic as she joined us. “Plenty of time to see her!”

       “I hope the weather clears up, so you can take great pictures.” I wished my enthusiasm could drive away the clouds.

       Amaia and Alex exchanged another meaningful glance before looking back at the scenery. I figured I missed something, but Alex did not hint at what that something was. Amaia asked if she could take a picture of Alex and me together. Alex glanced at me, seeking my permission. I nodded. He hesitated for a second before grinning at his sister and wrapping his arm around my shoulder. I grinned too and made a cheesy peace sign for Amaia’s photo.

       When she walked off to snap more pictures of the view, Alex held me in place. I glanced up and our eyes met. We both froze.

       His face, his eyes, and his lips are so close. My gaze shifted from his incredible eyes to his tempting lips. My breath trembled as I inhaled. The enticing aroma of his cologne made me heady. How might he react if I kiss him?

       He released me without warning and strode away. He spoke to Amaia, then hurried to his car. Did I imagine that? I must have. I’m crazy for thinking of Alex that way.

       Disappointment haunted me while driving away from Silver Lake. I tried focusing on the road instead of my thoughts—which fought for my attention—but with little success.

       He’ll never kiss me! We’re only friends—if that. It’s pointless wanting more. But when he held me... Wow! He’s amazing! A regretful sigh passed through me. He’ll never want me that way. No one does. Boys fall for girls similar to Gina, Izzy, and Amaia—stunning girls with so much more to offer.

       “So... what’s happening between you and Alex?” Gina interrupted my self-chastisement.

       “There’s no me and Alex.”

       Gina frowned. “So, what was that at Silver Lake?”

       “What was what?”

       “Him with his arm around you, and you gazing oh-so-romantically into each other’s eyes. I felt the electricity between you from ten feet away.”

       I shrugged. “Amaia wanted a photo.”

       “C’mon Cass! Why don’t you admit you’re into him! It’s so obvious!”

       “I guess it’s not that obvious.” I glared at the road ahead. “And even if I am, he’s way out of my league!”

       Gina raised her hands in surrender. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to upset you. I was only saying...”

       “No. I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s not your fault I’m so frustrated.”

       A cheeky glint appeared in her emerald eyes. “I could drop a few hints?”

       I laughed and shook my head.

       “Maybe something will happen this weekend?” Izzy said.

       “I doubt it—”

       “You never know,” Gina said. “Just don’t give up on him, okay? I’ve never seen you this interested in a guy, before, and he’s a sweetheart.”

       “And he’s hot, too!” Izzy reminded me—not that I needed reminding.

       I blushed. Gina sighed and turned up the radio.

       Soon we reached Kid Valley—the home of Bigfoot. We pulled up at the North Fork Survivor’s Gift Shop and wandered around, checking out the buried A-Frame house and the massive Bigfoot statue guarding the site. Everyone, except Alex and me, crowded around the base of the statue. I stepped back and pulled my camera out to take a photo of them. I snapped a few then turned to catch Alex on the display screen of the camera. He stood a short distance away, staring up at the Bigfoot statue, looking thoughtful. I got a quick photo of him.

       Amaia joined me. “Hey, Cassie. Can I take a picture of you with the statue?”

       “Sure.” I shrugged and handed my camera to her. I joined Gina and Izzy and we pulled random funny poses. I swore that Bigfoot was getting in on the act, too, with his cheeky grin adding to the comedy of our poses.

       Alex grinned as he enjoyed our antics. He spoke to Amaia, who nodded before taking further photos. He joined the other guys who were studying the buried A-Frame. This was a new house when Mount St. Helens erupted in the 1980s, causing a river of mud to flow through the neighborhood. Two-hundred tons of silt, mud, ash, and water inundated the house. Mudflows also raised the ground level, and now the roof appeared to protrude from the ground. It was an unusual sight.

       When we tired of making Bigfoot grin, we joined the boys at the mud-filled house. It was amazingly intact, but water filled the lower level and obstructed our entry. So, we visited the shop and giggled at the Bigfoot paraphernalia. Two of the guys bought Bigfoot tee-shirts, while we tried on hats and examined the massive Bigfoot sighting map. Then we left to continue our journey.

       We drove deeper into the densely forested valleys and hills which led up the mountain, and we soon reached our destination. After raising our tents, I went to check out the campground—alone—and collect my thoughts.

       After I tried putting my tent together and the canvas collapsed around me, Alex had helped me raise my tent. While I appreciated his help, my lack of experience with camping frustrated me. Could I look any more stupid? I used to be the smartest in our group! But since the Graysons arrived, I’m brainless—especially when Alex turns his gorgeous eyes, and smile, on me. I frowned. And they’re smarter than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s so strange.

       I wished Alex said more about himself. Despite his friendly manner, and help with the tent, I still knew nothing about him. I can’t just ask him about his interests. Let alone the weird historic details I've uncovered. He’ll think I’m a total stalker. I bet he finds me weird enough because I can’t string two sentences together around him.

       I entered the bathroom block and examined my reflection with a critical eye. To my surprise, I did not appear as flustered as I was. As I re-tied my blonde ponytail, I considered how I enjoyed Alex’s arm around me at the Lake. I’m reading more into what happened than I should. Will I figure Alex out this weekend? My blue-green eyes stared back at me while I contemplated that. Unlikely. I splashed water on my face and hoped it might shake my black mood. I glanced back at the mirror and jumped when Amaia appeared behind me.

       “Amaia! You scared me!”

       “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. You looked upset earlier. Is everything okay?”

       I nodded. “I’m just not used to this outdoors stuff.”

       Amaia giggled. It was a pleasant, musical sound, which made me happier. “I never thought I’d enjoy camping myself,” she admitted, “but the more you do it, the easier it gets. Trust me!”

       A strong emotion passed through me. Now, sure I could trust her, I said, “Can I ask you a question?” She nodded. “Has anyone ever confused you and you can’t figure out what they want?”

       She frowned. Even her frown was stunning. “I understand what you mean. I have felt that way. But it doesn’t happen often because I find it easy to relate to people.” She shrugged and gave me an apologetic smile.

       “What I wouldn’t give to have what you have.”

       “It’s not as great as it sounds. I’d love to meet somebody who makes me work to understand them.”

       We both fell silent.

       “We’d better get back,” I said. Did she realize it was Alex I was asking about?

       Upon our return to the campsite, we found the others were busy in our absence. They had set up a fold-out table and eight beach chairs. Alex watched us arrive and exchanged a glance with Amaia. He looked worried. I hurried to my tent before he asked what was wrong. How can I explain my thoughts to him?

       I up-ended my camping cot bag. The piping clanged as it hit the ground. I grimaced. That racket will confirm my hopelessness at this camping thing. I tried figuring out how the cot frame fitted together, but I struggled in the limited light from the afternoon fading to evening.

       My tent zipper opened, and a light appeared. “Need a hand?” asked a warm, familiar voice.

       I smiled, despite my frustration, as Alex folded his six-foot frame into the smaller space of my tent. He attached a flashlight to the loop at the apex of the tent, then sat and surveyed the mess of poles and fabric between us.

       “I thought this might be easier to assemble than the tent,” I commented, “but I was wrong.”

        The corners of his mouth turned up and his dimples appeared. He collected the pieces and assembled the cot. After the frame came together, he clipped the canvas sheet in place. I smiled at him as I added my sleeping bag.

       “Thanks,” I said.

       “You’re welcome,” he replied. “Everyone’s gone to the dining hall for dinner, but Amaia and I waited for you. Shall we go now?” he asked.

       “Absolutely.” I grabbed my jacket from my bag and followed him from the tent.

***

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