(That's Allie in the picture)
I can’t help grinning as the stylist picks up a brush, dabs it lightly in the foundation container, and starts brushing the dust-like material across Niall’s nose.
“I’ve never seen a guy putting on makeup before,” I say.
The corners of Niall’s mouth twitch, but I can tell he keeps himself from smiling completely so as not to annoy the stylist. She’s already yelled at him twice for smiling and laughing too much when she needed him to hold still so she could style his hair properly.
“How have you done ballet for all those years,” Niall says, barely moving his lips as he speaks, “and never seen a guy put on makeup?”
“Well, I’ve seen plenty of guys wearing makeup. I’ve just never seen them, like, while they’re putting it on.”
“Well, isn’t that lovely.”
“Stop talking,” snaps the stylist, glaring first at Niall and then at me. “I can’t put makeup on you when your mouth is moving!”
“Sorry,” says Niall, but he’s half-grinning again as he glances at me out of the corner of his eye. A smile tugs at the corners of my mouth.
“Are you two causing trouble over there?” calls Louis from across the room, while his stylist digs through a box of makeup products.
“No,” I say. “What about you?”
“I haven’t been yelled at once, thank you very much.”
“Well, you’re a right little angel, aren’t you?” Niall says.
“Stop talking!” snaps the stylist again, with a threatening wave of the foundation brush.
Niall catches my eye just as I start to laugh. He bites his lip to keep from laughing, too.
“I think maybe I’ll go get a snack,” I say, thinking that maybe it’s best if I get out of here for a bit and keep Niall from getting into any more trouble with his stylist. I jump off my chair and head for the tent door—it’s a beachside photoshoot and the people in charge set up a massive white tent for the boys to get changed in and stuff—but before I can take more than two steps, Niall grabs my wrist. His sudden, unexpected touch makes my heart jump violently in my chest.
“Don’t go,” he says.
“Aww, don’t go—”
“Yeah, Allie, don’t go, Niall needs you—”
The boys immediately start sniggering; a few of the stylists have to suppress smiles. My cheeks grow hot and even though Niall’s words make my stomach jump with butterflies, I can’t help wondering what he’s thinking, saying those words so blatantly, making how close we are so obvious. People are bound to notice us more now, and that’s the last thing I need, what with my dad already so on the edge about Niall and everything.
“I’ll be right outside,” I say, giving his hand a gentle squeeze. “Besides, I think your stylist would prefer if I left.”
The stylist says, “Hmpf.”
Niall sighs. “Yeah, okay.”
I walk away slowly, delaying, just by a few seconds, the moment when our hands won’t touch anymore. But then our fingers slide apart, and I walk out of the tent, feeling strangely guilty about leaving him, even though I know he’s only a few feet away, and that neither of us is going anywhere and that I’ll see him again in a few minutes.
The snack table rests between the two massive white changing tents, one for the boys and the other for the models who are also going to be part of the photoshoot. There’s a huge variety of food there—donuts, cookies, potato chips, crackers and cheese, thinly sliced bread, a whole meat tray—but in the end I just get myself a plate of carrot and celery sticks, feeling like if I’m going to cut rehearsal, I might as well stick to Madame Garcia’s diet. I lean against the side of the table, slowly chewing on the crunchy carrot stick, letting the salty wind whip my hair from my face. The skin on my hand still feels warm where Niall touched it.
My phone vibrates loudly. I pull it out of my pocket and find a new message from Sam. A lead weight fills my stomach.
where were you?!? you missed all of rehearsal!
Is it really 3 o’clock already? Time went by so fast. I sigh as I quickly type out my response: i’m out.
well, that’s helpful, Sam texts back.
i’m with niall. at a photoshoot.
oh my gosh. trying not to squeal right now. can you two just date now, or
shut up! what did madame Garcia say when i didn’t show up??
she flipped out.
i told her you were sick. she was ticked but i think she believed me.
you want me to leave you alone now, don’t you?
ahahaha you lovesick puppy
bye. you better be at rehearsal tomorrow.
i will. bye.
I put my phone back in my pocket and continue eating my food.
“Well, we’ll just switch the order around then,” says an important-looking, well-dressed woman with a short blond bob to her assistant as she walks past me and the snack table. “Call her back and tell her she’s got an hour to get over here if she still wants to keep the job—”
“She said she’s very sick, ma’am,” says the assistant.
“Well, I’m not paying her to be sick, I’m paying her to show up and do her job. Call her now.”
I frown at them and then return my attention to my food. I’ve no idea what they’re talking about, but it isn’t really my business. I take another bite of carrot and watch the waves crash on the sand just a few yards away from me. It’d be so nice to jump in the water and splash around the way I did when I was younger, when my mom was still alive. We used to go to the beach all the time, she and my dad and I; it never mattered which beach it was, as long as there was sand and sun and salty water. When I was especially young, maybe four or five, my mom would play games with me. We’d pretend we were mermaids and we’d swim along the shoreline, picking up seashells and sea glass and sometimes abalone, if we were lucky. We’d pretend we were on the run from the evil Octopus King, the villain of my childhood, and my mom would always tell me, “Just swim, you’re a much faster swimmer than him, he can’t catch you!” I wish I could swim away now, just run off with the fishes and hide among the seaweed, somehow grow gills so I’d never have to come up for air, so I could just explore forever in the one place where my dad couldn’t find me….
I shake my head a little, letting the thoughts of the waves and the memories of my childhood wash away. I quickly swallow my bite of carrot and look at Niall. “Yeah?”
He looks at me with his head tilted slightly to one side. “Sorry, you just looked like you were…lost in thought.”
“Oh, just thinking about stupid stuff,” I say, trying to blink away the lingering image of my mom’s smiling face and focus on what’s happening in the present. Niall’s changed his outfit—he’s wearing khaki shorts now, and a white t-shirt, and he’s barefoot. His hair is spiked up a bit, too; I think it was flatter earlier. I feel myself smile. He’s so good-looking. It’s a miracle he didn’t have a girlfriend when I met him.
Niall takes a step closer to me, wrapping one of his hands around mine, even though I’m still trying to hold my plate of food.
“What kind of stupid stuff?” he asks, gently rubbing his thumb over my fingers.
It strikes me how very close his face is to mine. My heart is pounding so fast I can’t form a coherent thought.
“Niall, I can’t eat when you do that,” I say; it’s a stupid thing to say, but it’s the first thing that pops into my head.
He chuckles. “So you’re putting carrot sticks and celery above me, is that what you’re saying?”
“Yup,” I say, popping the “p.” I pull my finger from his and quickly take a bite of celery. “Yum,” I say as I chew.
Niall shakes his head. “You’re crazy, you know that?”
“You know, I’ve been told that, yeah.”
He laughs just as Liam calls, “Oi, Niall! You coming?”
“Yeah, Niall,” I say jokingly, “go get your picture taken.”
“You know I’m starting to think you don’t actually like me that much,” Niall says, grinning.
“I like you plenty. But go get your picture taken before that photographer kills you,” I say. Over Niall’s shoulder, I can see a photographer and that grouchy well-dressed woman I overheard earlier glaring at the pair of us. Liam, Louis, Harry, and Zayn have already gathered near them, and they keep sniggering and shooting us amused looks.
“He wouldn’t really kill me,” Niall says.
“I don’t know about that,” I mutter, as the photographer’s glare gets more intense. “He’s looking pretty murderous right now.”
Niall chuckles. I take another bite of celery, expecting him to walk away, but instead, he bends forward and pecks me on the cheek.
“Niall!” I say as he pulls away, wearing the biggest, fattest smile ever on his face.
“What?” His smile is so wide I’m having a hard time not smiling back.
“You could at least try to be discreet,” I say. His lips were only on my cheek for half a second, maybe, but I can still feel the skin there burning. If I could see my own face right now, I bet it’d be beet red.
“Where’s the fun in that?” he asks, still grinning.
“Niall, come on!”
“I’m coming, I’m coming!” Niall flashes me one last smile, then jogs off to join the boys.
It takes a long time for the heat to leave my cheeks.
* * *
Almost an hour later, I’m sitting by the edge of the white tent, grinning and laughing as I watch the boys do their photoshoot. The whole idea behind the photoshoot is to have a “natural,” “carefree,” and “fun” setting, so the photographer isn’t really telling them what to do at all—he’s just letting them run around the beach and goof as he snaps pictures with his extremely expensive-looking camera. It’s pretty hysterical; I’ve never seen a crazier, sillier group of boys. Even now, as I just sit here, Liam and Zayn pick up Harry and toss him onto the sand a few feet away.
“I’m gonna get you for that!” Harry yells, clambering up from the sand and running after them. Louis and Niall just stand on the side, roaring with laughter.
The photographer snaps a few pictures of Harry chasing down Zayn and Liam, then puts his camera down.
“Alright, alright, I think I’ve got enough,” he says. He looks over to the well-dressed woman again, whom I’ve gathered, from snippets of conversation I’ve overheard in the past hour, is in charge of the whole photoshoot. “Bring out the models for the next bit, then?”
“There’s a problem,” says the woman grimly. “One of the models is sick. I know you wanted to have one model for each boy, but I was wondering if you could manage with only—”
“Four models? No,” says the photographer bluntly. “One model for each boy, or the whole shoot will be thrown off.”
“Well, we don’t have one model for each boy,” says the woman impatiently. “We’ve called every decent modeling agency in the city and there’s nobody else available, not on such short notice.”
“We might as well not have the rest of the shoot at all if we don’t have the fifth model,” insists the photographer. “The balance of the whole thing will be off.”
“Well what do you want me to do? We don’t have a fifth model!”
The photographer glances around the beach, eyes still narrowed in annoyance about the situation.
Then his eyes fall on me, and he half-smiles.
“What about her?” he says, pointing to me.
The boys and the woman turn to look at me. The boys, especially Niall, smile at the suggestion; Louis even elbows Niall in the ribs. But I only raise my eyebrows.
Either they don’t hear me, or they ignore me. The woman tilts her head to one side, her lips puckering as she looks at me.
“I don’t know,” she says, “she’s pretty short. And all the other girls are brunettes.”
“No, no, she’s perfect,” says the photographer eagerly; suddenly he and the woman are circling me like vultures, observing me, scrutinizing me. “Look, she’s the picture of innocence. The camera’ll love her.”
“Um, guys, I don’t—” I say.
“You really think she’ll work for this?” asks the woman, raising her eyebrows skeptically.
The woman doesn’t look like she’s buying it, but she shrugs and throws her arms in the air.
“You’re the photographer,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Just get her through hair and makeup fast, alright? We’ve got a schedule to keep.”
Before I know it, before I can argue, the photographer has pulled me to my feet and is dragging me back to the white tents. We pass the four models on our way there. Not only are they a lot prettier than me—which is intimidating enough—but they’re also wearing short shorts and various kinds of short-sleeved shirts, tank tops and off-the-shoulder things and crop tops. I can’t wear anything like that—unless I want the whole world to see my still very visible bruises.
“Excuse me, but—”
But the photographer just cuts across me again. “Wait right here while I go talk to the stylists real quick, explain what’s going on. Then you can come in, alright?”
He walks in the tent and leaves me standing there, alone.
I’m not alone for long, though. A second later, Niall comes running up, wearing that wide smile again.
“I knew bringing you along was a good idea!” he says.
“Niall,” I say, starting to panic because no one will listen to me, “I can’t do this.”
“What?” The smile slides from his cheeks. “Why?”
“Do you see what they’re wearing?” I ask, pointing to the models, anxiety rising in my chest. “If I wear anything like that, they’ll know!”
Niall bites his lip. “How bad are the bruises?”
“Bad.” I pull up my sleeve the tiniest bit, just far enough to expose the edge of one of the vibrant purple-and-black bruises pressed into my skin.
His hands immediately fly to my arm, holding my wrist. I can see him staring at the bruise like he can’t believe it’s really there. His thumb slowly, gently traces the purple outline; the movement reminds me somehow of an eraser rubbing against paper, wiping away a misspelled or misplaced word. He bites his lip again.
“Maybe they’ll let you wear what you have on,” he says. But I can tell he doesn’t really believe that.
“And what if my dad sees the pictures?” I pull my sleeve down again, covering the bruise, but Niall’s hands don’t leave my wrist. “He’ll be so mad.” My insides go cold at the thought.
Niall looks up at me. He looks like a lost puppy, completely out of his element, no clue about what to do.
“We’ll figure this out, Allie,” he says.
My fingers clench around his wrist, wanting to believe that he’ll pull some magical solution from the air and fix this. “How?”
The photographer walks back out of the tent then.
“Go on in, they’re all ready for you,” he says cheerfully. He starts to say something else, but the woman in charge of everything yells to him and he runs over to her, leaving me alone with Niall again.
“I can’t do this,” I say again; I feel my fingers tighten around Niall’s wrist. “I can’t. I have to tell them no.”
Niall chews his lip, staring at me with his blue eyes. I can almost hear the gears in his brain turning.
“Wait here,” he says, suddenly releasing my wrist walking into the tent.
“Niall, what are you doing?” I ask, but he’s already gone.
Minutes pass. I stand awkwardly by the tent door, trying to keep myself from being noticed by the photographer or the woman in charge so they won’t ask why I haven’t gone in the tent yet. The models keep looking over at me and whispering to each other. I nervously pull at my sleeves and try not to make eye contact with them, but I can still feel their gaze on me.
“Niall?” My voice is hesitant as I call his name from the other side of the tent. “What’s going on?”
There’s no answer, but when Niall emerges a few seconds later, he’s smiling.
“Go on in, Allie,” he says.
I fold my arms. “What did you do?”
He folds his arms, too, grinning confidently. “Made everything better.”
I raise my eyebrows. “How?”
I roll my eyes. “You’re so frustrating!”
“You’ll thank me later,” Niall says.
“Yeah, we’ll see about that,” I mumble. His amused laugh rings in my ears as I walk in the tent.
The inside of the models’ tent looks essentially the same as the boys’ tent, with five little hair and makeup stations spaced throughout the tent and several racks of clothing pushed off to one side. Four of the stylists are standing in the corner, snacking on donuts and chatting together; the fifth stylist is sifting through a box of makeup supplies at her styling station. She looks up and smiles when I walk in.
“You’re Allie?” she asks. She’s got wavy red hair and her face is covered in freckles. She could be a model herself, with her dark-wash skinny jeans and flowy white top and perfectly applied makeup and French-tipped nails.
“Yeah,” I say, walking slowly towards her.
“I’m Rachel,” she says, shaking my hand; her grip is surprisingly strong. “Take a seat and we’ll get started, alright?”
I sit down in the chair and fold my hands in my lap, trying to calm the nerves still fluttering through my body. I force myself to sit back in the chair so I won’t look so stiff. I’ve no idea what Niall said to her and I want to act as normal as possible until I figure it out.
“We’ll start by taking off the makeup you’ve already got on,” Rachel says, pulling some cotton balls and a bottle of makeup remover from her makeup box.
My fingers tighten. I think of the bruise under my eye, how the makeup is the only thing keeping it hidden, how it’s inevitable that Rachel will see it.
“Okay,” I say. I can’t help noticing how squeaky my voice sounds.
Rachel dabs a cotton ball in the clear liquid and starts rubbing the cotton ball across my face She starts at my chin and slowly works her way upward, removing every particle of makeup. My heart pounds faster the closer she gets to my eyes.
At last, it happens; she rubs the cotton ball over my eyelid and I swear I feel the makeup come away. I watch Rachel’s face for some sort of recognition, but her expression remains unchanged as she throws the cotton ball away, soaks a new one in the makeup remover, and continues wiping my face.
“I used to have bruises like that, too,” Rachel says. Her tone is light, conversational, quiet. She doesn’t even stop what she’s doing as she says it.
I feel my back stiffen. “Really?”
Rachel nods slowly, still brushing the cotton ball across my skin. “My stepdad wasn’t a very nice guy.”
It takes me a few seconds to find words through the powerful relief now coursing through my body. Rachel understands what I’m going through. She won’t tell anyone. She’ll keep my secret safe.
“My dad drinks a lot,” I say. “And he gets mad when he’s drunk.”
Rachel nods. “I get that.” She wipes away the last of my makeup and pulls out some foundation. She gently starts brushing it across my cheeks; the brush bristles are surprisingly soft against my skin. I notice that she spends a little extra time on my eyelid, probably re-erasing the bruise.
“I’ve got the perfect shirt for you to wear,” Rachel says as she brushes the foundation. “Long sleeves, but very flowy, very summery. It’ll look great on you.”
Niall told her about my arms. I exhale slowly, releasing a breath I didn’t even know I was holding in. The anxiety seems to leave my chest along with the air.
“Thank you,” I whisper.
Rachel closes the foundation jar and pulls out some eyeliner, which she slowly begins stenciling on the edge of my eyelid.
“Be sure to thank that boy, too,” she says quietly. “I’ve never seen a boy so worried about a girl before.”
The familiar blush creeps into my cheeks. “Don’t worry, I will.”
Ten, then fifteen, twenty, then thirty minutes pass, and Allie still doesn’t emerge from the tent. I’m not worried or anything, but the photographer and the woman in charge of the shoot are getting pretty impatient.
“We’re on a tight schedule, doesn’t the stylist know that?” snaps the woman to nobody in particular. “How long does it take to put on a little makeup?”
“All the good light’s going to be gone if she doesn’t come out soon,” says the photographer, nervously watching the sky like that’ll make the sun reverse its course.
“This is all a bit melodramatic, isn’t it?” I mutter to Zayn, who’s closest to me. “It’s just one photoshoot.”
Zayn shrugs, rolling his eyes.
“We could start without her,” suggests the woman. “Take a few pictures with just the other girls, and then have her join in later—”
“No, no, I told you, the balance will be off,” snaps the photographer.
“Well, if that girl doesn’t get out here in the next five seconds—”
“Keep your hairnet on,” says a new voice suddenly; I look over and see the red-haired stylist, the one I talked to about Allie, emerging from the tent. She rolls her eyes. “She’s coming now.”
“I told you to be fast,” snaps the woman in charge. “That wasn’t fast.”
The stylist raises her eyebrows. “I went as fast as I wanted to,” she says coolly. “I don’t think you’ll complain when you see how great she looks.”
“Yeah, we’ll see about that,” mutters the woman darkly.
The stylist rolls her eyes again just as Allie walks out of the tent.
My jaw drops, but I quickly close it.
She doesn’t really look that different, I guess, but whatever the stylist did just seems to bring out even more strongly Allie’s natural beauty. There seems to be less makeup overall on her face, though the bruise beneath her eyes is still completely invisible. Her eyelashes are darker, but not cheaply so; her lips are red like the skin of a strawberry. Her blond hair has been released from its usual braid and now hangs about her shoulders in loose curls. The true genius, though, lies in her outfit—dark denim shorts and a white shirt that’s loose enough to still qualify as a summer shirt, despite its long sleeves.
“Whoa,” says Harry.
His comment reminds me of the presence of other people besides Allie and me. I look at the boys and find them all staring at Allie as well.
“Hey, eyes off,” I tell them.
“You’ve got good taste, Niall,” says Louis, clapping me on the shoulder.
“Yeah, I do. So eyes off,” I say again. “Go flirt with the models or something.”
“Someone’s protective,” says Louis with a laugh; the other boys chuckle and exchange grins with each other, but make no other comments.
“Alright, everyone over here,” calls the photographer to the group at large.
The boys and I gather around him in a little semi circle; so do Allie and the models. Allie’s standing across from me. I have to work very hard to keep my attention on the photographer’s instructions, and not on her.
“Right, so remember, this is supposed to be fun. Nothing forced, nothing canned, nothing scripted. Pretend you’re just spending the day at the beach with friends,” says the photographer. He picks up his heavy camera from a small table set up nearby. “Go nuts!”
Louis immediately taps the nearest model on the shoulder.
“Tag, you’re it!” he yells as he runs off.
The model rolls her eyes and runs after him. The photographer follows them from a distance, snapping photos as quick as he can.
Harry, Zayn, Liam, and the other three models slowly walk off to the beach; they try to stay out of the game of tag but the model tags Harry next and then somehow all of them end up in the game as well. I hang back, walking with Allie. She shoves her hands in the pockets of her shorts as she walks and I wish I could just reach out and take her hand and hold it, like we’re sitting in the backseat of the car again, listening to Louis and the boys argue about whether or not that constitutes PDA. But I remember Allie’s words about being discreet, and I force myself to put my hands in my pockets, too.
“You look nice,” I tell her. “Nice” isn’t quite strong enough a word, but I don’t know how else to say it without making myself sound like an idiot.
Spots of pink appear high in Allie’s cheeks. “Thanks.” Then she grins. “Lipstick’s too bright, though. Not my thing.”
I grin. “Like that shirt I made you try on at the store?”
She laughs. “Yes, exactly like that.”
Now we’re walking along the stretch of sand where the waves crash against the shore. Wordlessly, we walk parallel to the water along the sand, letting the waves lap our feet. The water is cool, but in the heat, it feels good. I glance at Allie. Her hands are still in her pockets.
“I used to come to the beach a lot,” she says. She looks at the ground as she speaks, following the path of her feet along the wet sand. “With my parents.”
I think of how I saw her standing by the snack table earlier, just watching the waves, that distant look in her eyes, the pain transparent through her irises again. She must’ve been thinking about her mom.
“My mom was a really good swimmer,” Allie says. “She could swim for hours and hours and hours on end….”
She pulls her hand out of her pocket to brush her hair out of her eyes. As her hand falls back down, I throw all caution to the wind and take it, entwining my fingers firmly with hers. This is a photoshoot, after all. I’m allowed to do stuff like this without people getting suspicious, right?
Allie looks at me, biting her lip.
“It’s a photoshoot, isn’t it?” I say. “We can chalk it up to acting.”
She bites her lips some more. Then she sighs, curling her fingers tighter around mine.
“It’s a good thing I like you,” she says.
I chuckle and pull her closer to me, so we’re shoulder-to-shoulder. She doesn’t argue, but leans her head against my shoulder. I can’t help noticing how well her head fits there, how perfectly matched her height is to mine. Like our bodies were made to fit with each other this way.
Allie sighs, burying her head a little deeper into my shoulder. A wave laps our feet again.
“This is nice,” she says.
“Mmmm,” I say. Nice doesn’t even begin to cover it. But I’m feeling too relaxed to elaborate much more.
I can feel Allie’s eyes on me. “Thanks for talking to the stylist,” she says quietly.
I look at her. Her eyes are so bright, and so close to mine. It takes me a second to remember what I was going to say.
“Anything for you,” I say.
She smiles, and my heart jumps in my chest.
“Oi! Niall and Allie! Quit being boring!”
Allie stops walking. I stop, too, but I don’t let go of her hand.
“We’re trying to have a conversation,” I yell at Harry.
“Well, the photographer thinks you’re being boring,” he yells back, shrugging. Then Liam throws a handful of sand at him and he runs off, trying to get him back.
I look at Allie. She shrugs.
“Everything’s boring compared to that,” she says, jerking her head at the ensuing chase between Liam and Harry.
I laugh. “True, very true.” I see the photographer snap a few pictures of the chase, then glance at us. He really doesn’t look happy with us. “Maybe we should do something a little more interesting,” I say.
“Like what? Throw sand at each other?”
“Nah, I think Liam and Harry have that covered.”
“True. But I’m fresh out of interesting ideas, I’m afraid.”
I grin at the sarcasm in her voice. It does sound a bit stupid, I guess, forcing ourselves to do something “interesting” just so someone can take a few pictures for a magazine spread. But it comes with the job. And since Management’s bound to get even more ticked at me when they find out about the stunt I’m pulling with Allie, I figure I should probably just stick to the rules for now.
“We could go swimming,” I say.
Allie raises her eyebrows. “In a white shirt? Yeah, that’s a brilliant idea.”
“Wow. Harsh,” I say, pretending to be offended. But I grin anyway.
“We could play tag with Louis,” Allie says, “but I think he’d just tease us again.”
“What, you don’t want to be teased?”
“Can’t see why not,” I say. I elbow Allie in the stomach, just trying to bug her, but she bursts into a fit of giggles the second I touch her and quickly jumps away from me. I raise my eyebrows at her.
“Sorry,” she says. “I’m just super ticklish.”
I start to grin again. “Oh really?”
She spots the smile on my face. “Niall, don’t you dare.”
I tickle her stomach, just for a second. “Don’t I dare what?”
Allie has to bite her lip to keep from giggling. “You know very well what.”
“Allie, I really don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say. I tickle her stomach again, longer this time. She pushes my hand away and jumps back again.
“I’m serious,” she says, still trying not to laugh. “Don’t.”
I’m laughing now, too. “Or what?”
“Or I’ll—I don’t know yet, but it’ll be bad.”
I laugh again. “Oh, I’m scared now.”
“Yeah, you better be.”
She straightens up, maybe thinking that I’m going to leave her alone. But I take advantage of her momentary weakness and dive, tickling her stomach as much as I possibly can.
“Niall!” Allie’s laughing so hard she’s gasping for air.
I tickle her some more. “What?”
She pushes my hands away and starts running, bolting as fast as she can to the other side of the beach. I run after her, and even though she’s shorter than me, she’s fast, and I have to put in everything I’ve got to try to keep up with her.
“Run, Allie!” the boys scream as we bolt past. “Run!”
Allie starts to slow down. My breath is heavy in my ears but I force myself to keep up my pace for just a few more seconds. Then, at last, I catch up to her. I throw my arms around her waist and pull her close to me. She tries to wiggle away, but I just pull her closer.
“Gotcha,” I whisper in her ear.
She stops wiggling. “Jerk,” she says, but when she turns around and looks at me, she’s smiling.
At the sight of her smile, my heart seems to skip a beat at the same moment my stomach does a back flip. She really is pretty. Beautiful, even. And her lips are right there, only centimeters from mine….
Allie’s smile gets a little wider; my stomach does another back flip. “Niall, what are you thinking about?” she asks.
I look right into her blue eyes. “Honestly?”
“How badly I want to kiss you right now.”
Her whole face goes bright pink, and for some reason, that makes my heart skip another beat.
“Well, that would be a little obvious, wouldn’t it?” she says. She starts to pull away from me, maybe thinking that we’re pushing it, standing so close for so long. We probably are. I don’t care, at first, but I remember the bruises on Allie’s arms. I let her go, slowly.
“Just tell me you want to kiss me too,” I say.
Allie’s face gets as red as a cherry. “Maybe.”
“Okay, fine. A lot.” She looks over at the group. They’re watching us. “We should go paly tag with them,” she says, starting to walk away.
“Wait.” I grab her hand. “Promise me I’ll get that kiss sometime?”
She squeezes my hand and rolls her eyes. “Duh.”
For the rest of the photoshoot, I can’t stop smiling.