There's Something About Ari (A Bluewater Bay Story)
Buck Ellis’s future seems pretty damn bright. With a full college scholarship in hand, he’s going to ditch Bluewater Bay and pave the way for his kid brother Charlie to do the same. The only fly in Buck’s ointment is his ten-year addiction to his best friend since second grade, his true love, and his Achilles heel: Ari Valentine, Mr. Least Likely to Succeed.
But then Buck’s mother dies, changing everything, and five years later, his future is still on hold. It’s a struggle to keep food on the table, a roof over their heads, and Charlie on the straight and narrow. Buck can’t afford any temptation, especially in the form of the newly returned, super hot, super confident, super successful television star Ari Valentine.
ADHD poster-child Ari Valentine left for Hollywood and lost everything, including his bad reputation. Then the breakthrough role of his skyrocketing career lands him back in Bluewater Bay, to the stunned disbelief of, well, everyone. But there’s only one person Ari longs to impress—the only person who ever really mattered to him, the person he left behind: Buck Ellis.
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With My Feet on the Ground
The cafeteria doors burst open and a stick-thin boy with streaming black hair hit the playground at top speed. His lime-green light-up sneakers flashed as he dodged the kickball game and zigzagged through jump-ropers. In red cargo pants and a yellow Power Rangers T-shirt, he was colorful and electric and probably every bit as bad for me as the bag of Skittles I’d hidden in my jacket pocket.
He made a beeline for the jungle gym, scampered to the tip-top, then flipped upside down, squinting into the sunshine. His arms dangled like tentacles, one wrist-to-elbow covered in a green cast.
My mother would have had a heart attack if I’d flipped over anything, even with two good arms and a safety net. Not this kid. He swiveled from his bat perch beaming such joy—his small, heart-shaped face mesmerized me.
I kept to my swing, toeing the dirt and popping Skittles one after the other, the bright flavor coating my teeth. If only the candy could give me the courage I needed to say hi. Hi. Hi. Hi.
The pint-sized guy waved like I might miss him. “Hey. Hey! Hi! Hi.” He had a squeaky mouse voice, missing front teeth, and a bruise under his left eye—but he had no problem talking to a stranger. “I’m Ari!”
Ari. The name sounded weird and new and maybe even foreign. Ari. I swallowed the candy and lifted my sticky hand. “I’m Buck.”
His eyes widened. “Buck? Wow. Are you a real cowboy? ’Cuz that’s an awesome name for one.”
I was terrified of horses. And I didn’t think Buck was such a great name since I’d learned it rhymed with something awful—but it impressed Ari, so I kept my answer simple. “It’s short for Buckley.”
What else was there to say? I wasn’t good at talking to other kids because they didn’t talk to me. Not at recess anyway. And not in class unless we were partners for something. Not even at Cub Scouts because I was different. I didn’t know how they knew, or what left me standing on the outside, but I was smart enough to stay out of everyone’s way, because when the other boys did include me, it wasn’t especially nice.
This Ari kid’s face was glowing with excitement, though. “Today’s my first day of school. We were late getting here because the car wouldn’t start and we had to walk, so I haven’t gone to class yet, but Mr. Bennett said that’s okay, ’cuz he’s my teacher.” Ari dangled upside down, chatting like this development in my day was totally routine. I didn’t know what to do, so I watched him hang there, his hair falling from his head in straight black lines. He stuck his tongue through the gap in his smile. “Hey. Wanna see something cool? Watch this.”
He flung high in a wild arc, and his arms pumped until he swung parallel to the ground for a hovering second and then he whipped backward. Then he did it again and my heart skipped, and no, no, no. I didn’t want to watch anything cool. He was going to fall and break his other arm or his neck or something, and the teachers would probably think we’d been fighting.
I chewed my lip, sneaking a look at the grown-ups, but they were lumped in a group on the blacktop, talking. Some of them were even laughing.
I felt sweaty.
He used his small weight to rock higher and higher. “One. Two. Three!”
Ari tucked his knees, letting go of the bar, like he trusted gravity not to face-plant him in the woodchips. I thought I was going to die, but he flipped vertical and stuck a two-footed landing. He grinned goofily and took off, running circles under the jungle gym like a crazy person.
Ari squealed, “My dad taught me how. Wasn’t that the coolest?”
I didn’t even know boys could do a penny drop, because that’s something girls did, but his had looked perfect. More than perfect. Magic. Once I got my breath back, I nodded. Ari was actually the coolest.
“My dad says I have a lot of energy, so he showed me all kinds of tricks. I can teach you too, if you want.”
“I’m not very energetic.”
“That’s okay. I have plenty of energy for both of us.” He laughed and wriggled into the empty swing next to me, having to hop to get his butt in the seat. When his toes didn’t touch the ground, he turned to lay on the swing’s seat, chest down. His feet trailed through the dirt.
I started to understand why he had a broken arm.
Ari said, “I’m in Mr. Bennett’s room.”
“Me too.” Mr. Bennett might sit Ari next to me because I modeled good behavior. That’s what all the teachers said. “Why are you wearing the yellow Power Ranger? That one’s a girl.”
“Yellow’s my favorite color. I don’t care if it’s a girl’s shirt. I like girls. They’re okay. I really like your shirt.” Today was Scout meeting day. I was wearing a blue Cub Scout shirt, like the other boys in my class, and the fabric pulled across my chest. “Are you in Scouts?”
I nodded. “We don’t do much, yet. We’re supposed to go camping. That’s why I joined. My mom just had a baby and she can’t take me camping anymore.” I didn’t mention my dad being sick, because it made my stomach hurt and I’d eaten a lot of candy. I didn’t want to puke in front of the other kids.
Ari twisted on the swing. “Can I come too? To Scouts? And camping? I could go with you. We can be friends, if you want. I like you. We can go together.”
I like you.
Those three words pierced the loneliness and chased away my shyness. I pictured the two of us walking into the Scouts meeting room, side by side. Sharing a tent on the sleepover. Eating marshmallows and reading comic books. Shooting rockets in the backyard like my dad used to do. A friend.
Hope curled inside my belly, and it soothed the hunger that Skittles never eased. I gripped the metal chain with one hand; the other, I wiped on my clean pants. I held my palm above my head, waiting until Ari beamed and slapped me up high with a solid thwack.
Best high five ever.
That’s the day I fell in love with Ari Valentine.
I let the screen door slam and, skirting the backpack, soccer cleats, and skateboard Charlie had abandoned on the porch, settled into my mom’s old glider, cup of coffee in one hand, bowl of Lucky Charms in the other. With an hour to spare before my next shift, there was just enough time to chill. I crossed my sock-covered feet on the railing and watched the slow unveiling of the Olympic mountain range in the distance.
The rain had stopped sometime before dawn, and the chilly morning air held a hint of brine. Mist cushioned the spindly pines that edged our tired neighborhood. Far above the clouds, the sun burned in the east. The last good days of fall were on us because, no lie, it was going to piss rain for the next six months.
Charlie appeared in the doorway, dressed in his usual morning apparel—cutoff, threadbare gray sweats and whatever shirt was in reach of his bed and passed the sniff test. The black wolf howling across today’s T-shirt had taken over every available piece of real estate in Bluewater Bay, including the fronts, backs, and heads of the high school kids.
He was wrist deep in a family-sized sack of Tim’s dill pickle–flavored potato chips, his personal breakfast of champions, and chomping openmouthed, bag crinkling, he nodded toward the house next door. “I see signs of life over there.”
There hadn’t been anyone at Mrs. Allen’s in months. Not since she’d put the house on the market, packed her suitcases, and left for balmy Oregon. “You think it’s intelligent life or what?”
He scoped out the vacant house. “Intelligence unknown.”
“They’re probably lost.” I didn’t bother looking.
Charlie sucked crumbs from his fingers. “The front door is open and a light’s on in the kitchen. Nice car in the driveway. Not lost. I think they’re showing the house.”
“Showing it?” As much as I liked Mrs. Allen, her old place was about ten minutes shy of a meth lab. The For Sale sign hadn’t attracted any would-be homeowners, despite the reversal of fortune in Bluewater Bay—or maybe because of it.
I checked, and the sleek black car parked by the detached garage was an S series Tesla. I’d never seen one in real life. Most of the Haves here in town drove European luxury cars. “Holy shit, that car is worth more than the entire house. Someone must really be lost.”
“Nope. I’m telling you, something’s going on over there.” Charlie craned around the porch post.
“Anyone who drops nearly a hundred grand on a car you have to plug in is not moving to Fifth Street.”
“It’s not that bad here. I don’t know why you keep saying it is.” Charlie balled the empty chip bag and shot it into the trash can. “I could name twenty people, easy, who would love living on this street. It’s homey.”
“Not Hollywood people, and they’re the only ones with the kind of cash it takes to buy a Tesla.”
“Maybe someone’s scouting a location for a shoot. If they film our place, they’d have to pay us too, right?”
“Maybe.” I sipped coffee. “I wouldn’t count on it.”
“If production staffers drive those cars, sign me up.”
“You better learn to drive first.”
I ate a mouthful of cereal and kept my eye on the shadow poking around Mrs. Allen’s living room. It passed the picture window before disappearing into the dining room. The layout of 183 Fifth Street was a twin to our own happy abode. The front door opened directly onto a staircase. To the left, the living room. The right, a dining room. Back of the house had an eat-in kitchen, a thin pantry, a small bedroom, and a door to the side yard. Upstairs were two undersized bedrooms flanking the only bathroom in the entire house. Simple, small, and dated. Pretty Spartan, all-around, but my mother’s insurance had paid off our house, so we were staying put at least until Charlie graduated from college.
I couldn’t peel my gaze away from the Tesla. “That car doesn’t belong in this neighborhood.”
“I don’t know. Maybe Fifth Street is transitional now. If Mrs. Allen’s house sells, we should definitely list ours.”
“And where would we live?”
“Somewhere. I don’t know.” He shrugged. “We could make a lot of money on this place and find an apartment with a heated pool. No lawn to mow. No leaking roof. No complaining older brother.”
“You just said this place isn’t so bad.” He knew nothing about personal finance. I hadn’t either at that age. And I wouldn’t sell the house because I’d never lived anywhere else. They’d probably bury me in the backyard under my old tree fort. “Pick a side, kid.”
“We can’t stay here forever.”
“That’s what you think.”
He patted his stomach and belched. “Are there any pancakes? I’m starved.”
Charlie consumed and burned a continuous stream of calories, engulfing the equivalent of one half of my paycheck each week. Every time he opened the pantry door and grabbed four cereal bars or an entire box of Waffle Crisp, or three apples and a yogurt, I heard the beep beep of the register scanner tallying up the order. $4.95 beep. $3.50 beep. $6.79 beep beep beep.
A blue Honda Fit turned onto Fifth Street, hooked a right into Mrs. Allen’s driveway, and parked behind the Tesla. My stomach sank. I knew that car and the bombshell behind the wheel all too well. As Charlie had predicted, she did indeed work for the production people.
Chelsea Ray climbed her petite self out of the Honda, and my brother forgot all about furthering his breakfast. “Damn. She is so hot.”
“Take it easy, tiger. Try to be cool and remember, she’s twenty-four. You’re not even on her radar.”
After Chelsea dropped out of college, she and I had worked side by side at the coffee house until five weeks ago, when her dad landed her a “real” job. Officially a production assistant for Wolf’s Landing, she was more like an assistant to an assistant. She still served as much coffee in her new job, but these days she earned four times the money.
Chelsea teetered across the drive to the bungalow’s peeling front porch. Her polka dot dress gave her a retro Minnie Mouse vibe. She fluffed her considerable hair and adjusted her cleavage before knocking on the door—proof there was a dude wandering around inside the Allen house.
“I’m going to go check her out. It. I’m going to check it out.” Charlie flushed, which was never a good look on a ginger. Nosiest of nosy neighbors, he flew down the steps to investigate, texting as he walked.
“Don’t bother her. I’m pretty sure she’s working.”
My words had their usual effect on my kid brother as he shot me a backhanded wave. “It’s good. She thinks I’m adorable.” A grin underlined his voice. “Hey, Chels! You’re out and about early today. That’s a pretty dress. What’s up?”
I simultaneously cringed and marveled at his guts. “Charlie . . .”
Chelsea waved. “Hey, Buck! I’m so glad I caught you both at home. Come greet your new neighbor. He’s moving in next weekend.”
“My new what?” I glanced from the Tesla to the shitty Subaru parked in my own driveway and back to the sloping front porch on Mrs. Allen’s lemon-yellow short sale. “Are you sure you’ve got the right address?”
“Yes. Of course I’m sure. I helped his agent with the closing.”
I thought she meant real estate agent until it dawned on me she meant talent agent. We were going to have Hollywood next door. The street would be overrun with tourists. I’d have to put the bikes away, the skateboards, my paddleboard, and take down the tent. Great.
Chelsea batted her eyes at my brother. “You need to keep this on the down-low though, okay?” She waggled her finger like a scolding kindergarten teacher, a vibe sure to add fuel to his raging teenage hormone level. I’d need the hose soon. “No tweets, Snapchats, texts, Instagrams, Facebook. Nothing. I mean it.”
“Tumblr?” Charlie asked innocently.
“Uh-uh. No. Got it?”
“Cross my heart.” He did exactly that. “This I vow.”
I would have rolled my eyes, but I couldn’t get them past the high-tech vehicle parked in the pitted driveway. “If your guy wants to keep his residence on the DL, he should sell the car.”
“Once he’s moved in, I’m sure he’ll utilize the garage like any good neighbor.” My Subaru received a snotty glance from Miss Ray. Then she dropped the bullshit. “It’s not like he’s got a fire truck covered with flags sitting on the lawn, for crap’s sake. It’s just a car, Buck.”
“Sure it is.” The chick drove a Fit, so I wouldn’t waste my breath on car talk. Why anyone would buy Mrs. Allen’s house, let alone someone who could clearly afford a loftier address, escaped me.
And then the screen door opened, and my question was answered. My heart took a nosedive. I thought for a second I’d lost my mind as our new neighbor filled the doorway, but I only lost hold of my spoon. Milk splashed my pants. I was too busy gaping at the man on the porch to care.
Ari Valentine. He’d come home.
He welcomed Chelsea with his rascally smile and a quick handshake, like five years ago he hadn’t hopped a bus to LA with the money he’d “borrowed” from me on the same goddamn afternoon my mom died.
He sported a neatly trimmed, made-for-TV beard. I bet every whisker was accounted for. It didn’t take a genius to figure out why he’d come back to Bluewater Bay—actor, hello—but what the fuck was he doing here? On my street? In Mrs. Allen’s sorry house? Next door to me. He sure as shit would have recognized the address when he’d signed those papers.
I buttoned up the whirl of emotions before mortifying self-awareness—the very hallmark of every conversation I’d had with Ari since turning fifteen—returned.
Charlie took the steps at full speed and tripped over his gargantuan feet. His brand-new cell phone hit the ground, probably cracking another screen. I didn’t know who said, “No fucking way,” but whoever did took the words right out of my mouth.
My kid brother corralled his newly grown feet and shoved a palm at our neighbor like he was wielding a two-by-four. “Ari? Holy shit. It’s really you? I had no idea you were back. Man. Wow. Wow. You look great.” His voice cracked, and my heart softened a little. “I don’t know if you remember me? I’m Charlie?”
Ari and I used to lock Charlie in a dog crate until he barked to be let out. We fed him sand on more than one occasion, and dressed him as a turd for Halloween after convincing my mother he was a chocolate cookie. Who could forget such a willing victim to all our good-natured abuse?
Ari pulled my brother into a bear hug. “Remember? You were such a pain in the ass. How could I forget?” Ari’s voice had thickened since high school, and while the two of them patted each other on the back and grinned, I picked marshmallow moons and stars off my pants and flicked them over the railing. Unlike my brother, I could control myself.
Ari gave Charlie the once-over. “Jesus. Wow. Holy mackerel. You look exactly like your brother.”
“I wish. He didn’t get cursed with this hair.” Charlie shot me an embarrassed smile, and I braced myself as our new neighbor followed Charlie’s gaze.
He’d been eighteen the last time I saw him in the flesh. Two arrests under his belt, and fighting an addiction to Adderall, he’d barely topped five and a half feet when he skipped town. He’d been a skinny, hyperactive, dyslexic delinquent who quit school just shy of graduation.
Apparently, he’d sprouted in California. Maybe all he’d lacked as a child was sunshine. As I cataloged every difference in him, the changes in my own appearance registered in Ari’s open gaze. I was wearing pajama pants and a sweatshirt. Unshaven, hair standing up, I probably looked like a fucking hobo.
We weren’t the same people, not by appearance, and not by what life had dealt us.
Charlie realized the larger implications of Ari Valentine’s appearance in Bluewater Bay, and he flipped his lid. “Wait. This means . . . Are you on the show now? You’re on Wolf’s Landing? That’s awesome. Congrats, man. I hadn’t heard, and I’m pretty plugged in. I mean I’m even wearing the T-shirt.” Charlie retrieved his phone and frowned at the screen, confirming we’d be stopping by the mall next paycheck. He wheeled on Chelsea. “How long have you known? Why didn’t you tell me? You’re really good at keeping secrets.”
Chelsea sighed. “Well, I did sign a confidentiality clause, so yeah, it’s my job. And not five seconds ago you promised to keep cool, Charlie Ellis.” Her attention swiveled to me, lounging on the glider, my feet still indolently perched on the rail, not a fig to give. If only I could wipe that smug look off her face, because she was enjoying this scene, no matter how professional she claimed to be, or how cool I pretended to act.
Ari was the one to break the tension. He grinned wide and waved like a little kid, hand flapping in the wind. “Hey! Hi! How’s it going, Buck?”
“It’s going.” I mean, what in fuck-all did he think I would say? I missed you, man? Or something poignant? If anyone in the world knew my tolerance for public chitchat was nil, he did. He also knew I’d never willingly leave my perch and go say hello. When had I ever?
Maybe I hadn’t changed so much after all.
Ari left the yellow porch, moving with the same languid confidence I remembered. Every inch the TV star, he screamed package. His jeans were too expensive for the Pacific Northwest, and the shoes would melt in the rain, or land him on his ass in a patch of moss. His haircut must have cost . . . a lot more than mine, and he prowled across the yard like he’d been born part werewolf. No wasted energy. He probably reserved that for the gym.
He looked fan-fucking-tastic.
I wiped my mouth on the back of my sleeve and brushed the last few Lucky Charms from my pants. “Someone’s going to steal your car in this neighborhood, or don’t you remember?”
“How could I forget? It’s my neighborhood now too.” He climbed my porch steps, the railing vibrating under his footfalls, and because social norms dictated I should stand, I did. I was still taller by a scant couple inches
A smile gleamed in Ari’s eyes, and he shook his head as if he couldn’t get over how great it was to be standing on my porch amongst the clutter of our everyday lives. Today. Right now. Right here. Next to me. Ta da. “It’s been so long. Jesus. I don’t even know . . . You look fucking great, Buck. Just. Wow. Great. Better than ever.”
His gaze swept me top to bottom, and bet your ass I looked great. I’d lost twenty-five pounds since high school. Although these days my hair was out of control. “I was going to say the same thing to you. You’re all grown-up.”
Christ, I sounded like the dirty old man of Fifth Street, but Ari didn’t seem to notice. “I had one of those growth spurts they warned my mother about. Five inches in one year. It hurt to sleep at night, and I couldn’t stop eating. I’d never been so hungry in my life.”
I believed it. He’d been the smallest kid in first grade, and smallest in the ninth—by a long shot. When we were thirteen, his mother, in one of her rare lucid moments, dragged him by ferry to the growth clinic in Seattle. To be “evaluated.” They’d measured, poked, and x-rayed him, and finally, the doctors declared him to be a “late bloomer”—officially. Then they’d sent her a bill for two thousand dollars, and Ari hadn’t grown any taller.
“Charlie’s going through that bottomless pit thing now, actually.” I nodded toward the Allen house where my brother continued to ply his charm on Chelsea. “So, right next door, huh?”
“Yeah. I thought I’d surprise you.” What did he even mean? “It’s awesome, isn’t it? We’re neighbors. I always loved these houses with their view of the mountains and the covered porches, and Mrs. Allen’s place felt like the right fit. Small. Close to the center of town. I can walk everywhere.” The peeling monstrosity practically glowed in the dark, but to a kid from the worst part of town, her house had probably seemed like a mansion. “It’s next door to people I like. And the house is yellow. My favorite. I won’t have to change the paint.”
He chuckled. Fucking chuckled. And his laugh was real and rough, and his lips were full, and his teeth blinding. I felt utterly out of my depth as all the secret feelings I’d capped from high school threatened to spill over the lid.
Back then, I’d died small deaths every time he looked at me, or talked to me, or slept on the floor of my bedroom, or borrowed a fucking pen. God. He made me cold. He made me hot. Sweaty. Sick. Happy. Sad. Horny. Ashamed. Sad. The whole fucking enchilada. Squared. It hadn’t made sense then, because I’d been so afraid, so terrified of making a fatal error and losing him forever. I hadn’t made sense then. I’d reached the point when we were sixteen that I couldn’t be in the same room with him.
And in the long run, it hadn’t mattered. He’d left anyway. It took me years to get over that loss. I couldn’t let this new and improved Ari, with his stubbly beard and white teeth and warm laugh and charming Hollywood self, under my skin again.
Nope. Not gonna.
Oblivious to the war raging inside me, Ari leaned against the railing, eyeballing the sporting equipment strewn across our porch, and prattled on. “It is really good to be back in town and to see you again. Man. We should go kayaking. Maybe take a hike before the rain sets in.” He crossed his arms across his considerable chest and sighed at the mountains. “The view from this porch is still breathtaking. I bet it never gets old.”
He was the breathtaking one, with the Olympian mountain range serving as a perfect backdrop.
I palmed my coffee cup, simply to keep my hand steady, and held my voice firm. “What are you doing here, Ari? Really?”
“Officially? I’m working. Unofficially? I’ve come home.” His smile didn’t change, but his tone did. “I want to be home. It’s time. How are you doing?”
“If you wanted to ask me what’s up, you could have messaged me on Facebook. You didn’t have to buy a house.”
“I’m not big on social media. It’s a little creepy.”
Really? And moving next door to me isn’t? Ari missed my look of complete astonishment as he craned to see into our living room—speaking of creepy—almost like he hoped to be asked inside or something.
Charlie pounded up the steps, Chelsea sauntering breezily behind him in her heeled shoes, and I checked on the time. The morning really needed to skip ahead.
My brother swiveled on bare feet, left, right, like he didn’t know which way to turn. “I invited them for coffee,” he said to me.
I ground my teeth, but held the smile. “That’s neighborly of you. God knows there’s always plenty of coffee in this house. You can serve on the porch.”
Chelsea’s expression was priceless. Less than eager to have coffee on the porch with a sixteen-year-old and a barista, she sighed until she realized Ari looked pleased as fucking punch. I was in Chelsea’s camp all the way.
I made a big display of checking the time. “So, yeah, welcome back to Fifth Street, Ari.” He murmured something happy as I held Chelsea’s gaze. “Enjoy the coffee, Chels. I’m late for work.”