FRUIT CUPS & FLOWERS

Bella set her orange juice down by the vehicle’s tire so she could use both hands to unwrap her breakfast burrito and eat in the sun for a few minutes.

When she noticed the guy on the other side of their gas pump watching her, she gave the man a once over.

Nice shoes. Well-tailored jeans. A tight shirt he was almost pulling off. 

The man’s hungry days were clearly behind him. Now he was one of those golf guys in his mid-thirties who walked around with sunglasses perched up on his brow.

When their eyes caught, he smiled like a guy who didn’t care how old she was and Bella replied by taking an un-sexy bite of her burrito as her hand reached into a pocket and pulled out an iPhone. 


With a burrito in one hand and phone in the other, she missed the password on her first try. She got it on the second, though, and quickly opened Instagram and searched for Whitney’s account -- spotting it instantly this time and pulling up her feed.


The blonde’s last post before coming on this trip was a video with two outfits in the background. The outfit on the left had been Whitney’s outfit the day before.


Wow. The girl had done an outfit check with her fans on what to wear to meet Adam.


That was serious.


Bella quickly scrolled down Whitney’s feed to get a feel for the girl. Her aesthetic seemed to be all about soft tones and clean lines. Very bold and graphic in a pastel kind of way. Now that Bella had seen it, she could probably pick out of a lineup.


Did she like Whitney’s style?


No. 


Soft, sterile-chic wasn’t really Bella’s thing. She preferred things more bold and lived-in —things with a history and a story, not things that look like they were taken fresh out of the packaging.


But to each their own. 

It wasn’t a crime to like watercolors and pastels. And, honestly, it matched up with the fact that Whitney had ordered a fruit cup for breakfast when she could have had anything. 

Seriously, who looked at a diner menu and ordered the fruit cup?

It was a red flag for Bella. 

She didn’t trust people who counted calories on vacation. It was unnatural. Eating was pretty much the #1 reason to travel. If you didn’t eat local, you missed 50% of everything.

It was one of the few things Bella’s parents agreed on and Bella found it to be true, too. 

That meant Fruit-Cup Barbie needed a little more vetting before Bella cleared her to be left unsupervised with Adam. Because anyone who ran on fruit was bound to have moody blood-sugar, and Bella really didn’t want to rescue Adam from any unhinged blondes on this trip.

Yet, based on Whitney’s Instagram profile, the blonde knew what she was about and was good at it. She clearly loved the camera, the camera clearly loved her back, and her fans were active.

All in all, Whitney was doing pretty good for a blonde from the suburbs … and none of her posted pictures showed crazy eyes, so that was good. 

Bella scrolled back up to Whitney’s most recent post to watch the outfit-check vid just as the guy with the sunglasses looked her way again. Then he looked at the phone in her hand and his stoic brow furrowed a bit.

Bella made a point of ignoring the guy’s attention as she took another bite of her breakfast burrito while closing Instagram on the phone.

“Mmm,” she said as a delicious balance of eggs, bacon, potato, sour cream, salsa, guac, and cheese filled her mouth. 

Focusing on the flavor, Bella dropped the phone back in its pocket just as sunglasses guy reached into his pocket and pulled out his iPhone. He checked the time and put the phone back his pocket as Bella sent silent praise to the heavens for the local diner that had made her glorious breakfast burrito.

It was so good. It needed some heat, but Bella was actually enjoying the flavor without hot sauce, too.


Small miracle.


Bella’s dad told her once that America’s national cuisine was diner food. He said that all diner’s were ultimately judged by their breakfast menu, and the Top 5 foods American diners had to get right to survive were: eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, and breakfast potatoes.


Bella agreed.


Her father would totally love this diner. If they came through this town again on the way back, Bella was definitely getting the pancakes and sausage, too. Then she’d down it all like it was Thanksgiving dinner and regret nothing.

Because that’s what normal people did when they traveled. They experienced and indulged. 

They didn’t order fruit cups and buy hand wipes with their allowance. That was just weird. And weird was fine, so long as it was balanced and not subject to sudden mood swings.

For now, however, there was no more to be done. Bella couldn’t grab the phone again because Chad was walking her way like he expected her to answer for something.

As if.

She glared for him to leave her alone, but Chad ignored her pointed look as he sneered for sunglasses guy to get lost instead.


And, wouldn’t you know it, the man put the cap back on his gas tank and walked into the store.


Coward.


Two steps later, Chad was in her face. “He almost caught you, you know.”


Bella rolled her eyes and kept chewing as she reclaimed her orange juice. “Almost is just another way to say it didn’t happen.”


“Not this time,” Chad hissed. “But you’re getting reckless.”


“Reckless?” Bella snapped back before she could help it. “Look who’s talking.”


Okay, where had that come from? She was getting too mad, too quick and needed to bounce. Immediately. 


So she did.


Without a look back, Bella clutched her burrito and her orange juice as she got back on the bus.

 

~o~

 

Chad didn’t watch when Bella walked away. 


Watching Bella walk away was a trap. Always. He'd learned that long ago.


The girl had eyes in the back of her head and always knew when someone was sneaking a peek. The only way not to get caught was to not look, so Chad trained his eyes on the barren tundra in front of him as he imagined all the ways he wanted to knock out the dude driving the Lexus for how he’d been ogling Bella as she batted her eyelashes and borrowed his phone.

One of these days she was going to get caught and--

Chad took a deep breath and backed away from the dark thoughts that nearly had him punching the van. 

Bella was safe and seated on the bus. That meant no one needed to be punched and she couldn’t accuse him of staring at her ass anymore.


It was safe to follow her.

Just to play it safe, Chad avoided looking Bella's direction when he reboarded the bus, but when he saw Kei hanging two space blankets around Adam’s seat two rows behind Bella, he couldn't help but stare.


He didn't know what Kei was going for, but the newly draped cloth looked like a makeshift make-out booth to Chad. 

Chad felt his feet grow still as tried to wrap his head around why everyone seemed to be overcome with the need to bend over backward for Adam.

It was so unfair.

Adam got every little damn thing he wanted. Always. Including this trip, when the timing could not have been worse for Chad. 

Not that anyone else was taking it seriously, but Chad had the actual biggest jump of his life scheduled the day after they got back. He should be practicing for the next two weeks, not sitting on a slow bus eating junk food with people he didn’t want to be with.

Yet he’d had to come. His father had made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, so he hadn’t. 

But the timing had him twitching a bit.

Chad hadn’t gone two weeks without jumping on his bike since he was five. And to take his longest hiatus before the biggest jump of his life?

It felt like a mistake.

Would he be rusty when he got back? Would his flow be off? Would his head be in the game?

Chad wouldn’t know until he got to the top of the jump with cameras rolling, and he didn’t like it. All he knew was that he wished this Gia chick would let his friends abduct him already because no one wanted him here.

Literally, no one.

If Chad left the trip, there would be an actual sigh of collective relief from everyone, and no one would mention missing him without snickering after. 

So why not let his friends abduct him? 

If that happened, then Chad had plausible deniability with his father, along with information that might help keep the deal they'd struck for coming in the first place. Everyone could win!

Chad was busy pleading his case with his father in his head when Bella’s black-painted nails snapped in front of his face twice.

“Yo,” she said, her eyeliner looking extra flawless as her sneer came into view. “Stop staring at her ass, perv.”

Chad blinked back to the present. Had he been staring?

He looked back to whatever had caused his brain to freeze and found he’d actually been staring at the length of Adam’s new special curtains and thinking they were definitely the perfect length for a makeout booth.

And Kei had put them up for Adam. How sweet.


Special curtains for Special Adam. 

So dumb.

The only real question was: How long had Chad been staring at those special curtains with a derp on his face? 

Because he did that a lot. 

Sometimes, he thought he spaced out for a second and it turned out he had a stupid look on his face for ten minutes. Other times, he felt like he tuned out for an hour and it only turned out to be a second. Chad never knew which was which until he saw a clock, or the sun, or if someone took a picture and showed him.

Time was weird, and Chad didn't understand it. All he knew for sure was that Kei was still holding the same massive roll of black tape as when he'd stepped on the bus, and the conversation was right where he left it. So he couldn't have been derped out for long.

“Adam sits next to the window; Whitney sits next to the aisle,” Kei explained to the driver, forcing Chad to bite back a laugh. 

Kei had made the curtains for Adam and Whitney? Specifically?

Man, Adam seriously had everyone fooled. It was kind of amazing, actually.

“Whitney can excuse herself anytime,” Kei explained as Chad took the final steps to his seat. “And Adam won’t feel exposed.”

“Only trapped,” Gia replied, and Chad had to bite his tongue not to interject something snide.

There was no point. He’d just be labeled the bad guy if he did. As always.

It was better to watch and marvel in silence as Kei shrugged and said, “This will work. I dreamed it, so I’m sure.”

The driver rolled her eyes like someone who didn’t have time for dreams but had less time for arguing. She was actually considering whatever insanity Kei was suggesting. And, if that was true, Chad decided two could win at the game Kei was playing.

“Hey, can I hang up my little space blanket, too?” he asked, distinctly not looking at Bella. “I’d like a little privacy.”

The driver glared Kei's way. “See what you’re starting here?”

It wasn’t a no, so Chad grabbed the plastic-wrapped space blanket stowed in the seat pocket in front of him and tore the plastic open.

If Whitney and Adam could have a little nook of privacy, so could he.

“Here’s the deal,” the driver said. “If Adam and Whitney want … this” —she gestured to the makeshift curtains that now blocked off the rear-corner seat as if she hated it as much as Chad did— “then you can all hang a blanket until our next stop. Then all the curtains come down for the rest of the day and we reassess tomorrow, understood?”

In answer, Chad held his hand up for the roll of tape and found himself a little impressed when Kei threw the roll directly into Chad’s waiting hand. 

The kid might look like an escapee from an Asian fairyland but definitely didn’t throw like a girl. Part of Chad wanted to pretend that meant Kei wasn’t a girl, but there was also no Adam’s apple to speak of and the dainty curve of Kei’s corseted waist and hips that got Chad to eject when it came to speculating any further.

Because, deep down, Chad didn’t care.

In the end, Kei wasn’t his type no matter what was under those weird-ass clothes. Chad’s type was a bold-ass bitch who could back him into a wall with the sheer force of her fiery gaze, not fairies who dressed like it was Princess Day every day.

Pass, Chad thought as he taped his blanket up to block the only direction that mattered.

Bella’s.

If she was so interested in not looking at him, she shouldn’t mind being blocked one bit.

Sure, she liked to pretend not to look, but Bella watched everything with her peripheral vision, and she hadn’t been looking directly at him the entire trip.

It made Chad nervous. And excited. His neck was sweating for some reason and all he wanted was to do was block her out for a few hours.

Newly sold on this whole curtain business, Chad doubled-down on taping the blanket to the ceiling before tossing the roll of tape back Kei’s direction.

“Thanks,” he said. And he meant it.

Kei’s chin dipped in a silent you’re welcome, as Chad slipped behind his newly hung curtain and took a deep breath.

Ah. Much better. He could literally feel Bella’s death glare bouncing off the blanket and took great comfort in knowing that the single piece of fabric was probably going to drive her crazy for the next three hours. Her unspoken, impotent rage felt like a free gift from the universe apologizing for the fact he had to be here to begin with.

And Chad accepted the gift. No apologies. If Special Adam could have his own makeout booth to do what he wanted in, then Chad could, too.

Reaching down for his backpack, Chad reached for his tablet to watch some vids he’d downloaded for the trip.


He’d volunteered to judge a competition, which meant watching over 3,000 submissions and picking a fave. It was more than Chad had thought he was signing up for when he’d agreed to it, but what was done was done and he had seven boring days on the road to get through them and make his decision. He could do it.

Yet when his hand reached where his tablet was supposed to be, Chad found himself gripping a pad of paper instead of metal.

Confused, he opened the zipper all the way and found himself gripping a sketchpad with three mechanical pencils clipped to it. One pink, one green, one blue.


Had his mom packed it for him? Because he'd made a point to leave all such things home.

The tablet he'd been going for was where it was supposed to be—tucked behind the sketch pad—but Chad didn’t reach for it a second time. 

He wanted to draw. 

Pulling the sketchpad out of his backpack, Chad unclipped the pink and green pencils and tossed them back in his bag for later. He was notorious for losing pens and pencils and would probably lose this blue one before the next stop. He had no idea how but had come to expect it.


Writing utensils just always magically disappeared around him, somehow. 

Taking the blue pencil in hand, Chad clicked on the eraser until the lead came into view, then he started drawing what he always drew when he was warming up: Bella’s logo.

It wasn’t Chad’s fault that Bella’s Wyld Rose logo was the perfect challenge-level to get his brain going when he started sketching. It was a fun design to never draw the same way twice.

Testing the pencil’s tip, Chad squiggled out a wyld rose and found the grade of the tip better than he expected. Nice.

Next, he started drawing his logo, but got bored with it after making the tire and moved on to letting his mind wander while his hand drew whatever it wanted to.

Which turned out to be Bella -- although he was careful not to draw her face, so no one would know it was her. Then he went on autopilot again until he reached her butt and decided not to draw it for the same reasons he didn't draw her face: it was too recognizable and he'd draw heat if anyone say he drew it well or got it wrong.

It was really a no-win situation and Chad found it was better to leave the details blank and not give anyone anything to accuse him with … even though he did just draw a tube of Bella's lip balm being touched by his figure's middle finger, which was Bella’s signature finger. 

But, whatever. He forced himself not to care as he let himself stop thinking for five minutes.

Or what felt like five minutes.

Before he knew it, the driver took her foot off the gas and the vehicle started slowing like they were getting off an exit, or something.

Already?

Chad glanced out the window, surprised to find the sun high in the sky like it might be noon already.

Man, where did the time go?

He looked down at the sketch he’d apparently been working on for hours and saw a page that needed to be burned immediately.

 
 

Not only had he drawn Bella’s logo twice, but he’d also put their logos together and made her wyld rose look like a dandelion. It was an upgrade for his logo, but not really for hers.


The concept needed more work.


But even more embarrassing than his logo mashup was his portrait of her. True, He hadn’t drawn Bella’s face or her butt, but then he’d dressed the figure in Bella’s signature hoodie. It was obviously her, which made it just as obvious that he’d clearly had a stroke and tapped out when trying to draw her from the waist down. 


Yep. This page was going in the trash. Immediately.

Careful to be quiet, Chad tore the page from the sketchbook, folded it several times, and tucked it in his pocket for disposal.

Then he returned the mystery sketchbook back in his backpack and got busy looking bored as they parked in front of their next gas station.

It was time for second breakfast and he was definitely hungry.

 

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