She stomps her foot. “What are you trying to prove? She’s trying to get a rise out of you! Alexa, play ‘You Need To Calm Down’.”
But I have to do this.
When I bring out the chicken and roasted vegetables, Ashley complains hers is cold and asks for a new plate, her water glass needs more ice, her rolls require more butter, and when I bring out the chocolate soufflé, she whines that hers has fallen and can I see if the chef has one that is adequate.
Dillon sits stiff and tense, his jaw popping as I turn around to get a new soufflé. I hear a chair scraping the floor and footsteps behind me. He’s followed me and grabs my elbow. “Jesus, Serena. I’m sorry—”
“Please go back to your table. I’m busy.”
He gets a panicked look on his face. “Serena. No. Stop. Don’t push me away—”
I pull away from him and walk into the kitchen.
My heart thumps so loud I’m sure it’s going to pop out of my chest. Somewhere between the salad and the soufflé, I’ve become a teetering domino, just waiting to fall.
“Most of the hard work is done,” Romy says, her eyes narrowed as she sees me. “Why don’t you take a break?”
I nod jerkily. “Good idea.” I pull off my apron, hand it over to her, and leave the hall. Without a destination in mind, I take the stairs and walk until I’m out of the student center and outside on the sidewalk. The October air is crisp, alive with the feel of autumn. I suck in air, trying to calm down.
Relationships fail when people bring their insecurities to the table and project them as their partner’s flaws. I know this. Overthinking poisons. So, don’t do it! I tell myself. Have a little faith in the guy. Stop twisting scenarios in your head. So what if he doesn’t smell right? Troy probably spritzed him with something. Ashley is provoking you and you’re letting her. He never wanted to be the prize in the stupid contest.
Feeling better, I reapply my lipstick and head back inside.
I reach the hallway that leads to the banquet hall but stop when I hear my name, easing back behind the corner. Peeking around, I see Dillon, Troy, and Sawyer.
“Chantal is barely talking to me,” Troy grumbles. “She only asked me because she needed a date.”
“Where did Serena get off to?” Dillon asks. “She’s upset.”
I back away and hide, my chest rising. I shouldn’t be eavesdropping, but I never was one to pass up an opportunity…
“Romy said she came out here. Do you think she left?” Dillon asks.
Troy says, “What’s up with you and her? You’ve done your challenge with her. You checked it off—”
“Our toughest team is Bama, though. He needs to hang in until then,” Sawyer adds.
I start. Hang in for Bama?
A roaring sound fills my ears as the ramifications of what they’re discussing slams into me. No way. It can’t…
Their voices lower, a flurry of words darting between them. A sick feeling growing in my stomach as I strain to hear, only catching bits and pieces.
“…you rode the unicorn from freshman year…” says Troy.
“…one that got away…” comes from Sawyer.
“Leave it alone…” growls Dillon, the rest of his words tapering off as I hear them open the doors of the banquet hall and head back inside.
Mortification fills me as I put the words together. Is this the bet thing Neil mentioned? A variation of it?
“That was enlightening,” Ashley’s voice says from behind me.
I whip around, my face hot. She must have come from the restrooms.
She adjusts the gold necklace around her throat. “Funny, I wondered what he saw in you. You’re short term, Serena. Once he’s done with this challenge thing, which I confess is news to me, he’ll end it.”
Betrayal claws at me as images tumble through my head. Fixing my car, paintball, the charm, the tryouts… He planned those things? I was the one who got away, so he set out to win me? Nausea roils. My hands clutch my stomach.
“Oh, my. You are upset.” She shrugs. “Didn’t you know that Dillon will do anything for his team? Even you.”
She is a bitch.
Leaving her behind me—she’s so not worth my time—I go back in the room, and a hand grabs mine.
“Serena.” It’s Dillon, his eyes searching my face. Worry brackets his mouth. “There you are. Look, I came and ate the meal. It should be good enough—hey, are you okay?”
I’m barely listening. I pull my hand out of his. “No.”
“You’re upset about Ashley. I had words with her. She’s terrible—”
“Stop,” I say, my voice calm. I’m shoving everything down, locking it away.
“Don’t call me that,” I say louder and feel the murmurs of conversation lull as people notice us. I don’t see Chantal and Bambi walking toward us, but I feel their presence when they arrive on either side of me.