Chapter 76

It had taken Candi more tries than she cared to admit to select her outfit for the party. She’d eventually settled on a forest green top paired with a push-up bra to try and fill it out properly. Gail hadn’t bothered with more than a glance in the closet, of course; she could be as pretty as she needed to be at a moment’s notice. Candi always hated Gail a little bit for that, but she supposed if the roles were reversed, she probably would have done the same. When Walter picked them up, he having been selected as the designated driver, it was no surprise that he was wearing a recently-pressed polo while Cameron sported his standard t-shirt and sneakers. Candi swore that boy would show up to his own wedding underdressed, assuming he ever settled into a relationship in the first place.

They arrived at the house in question about a half hour after it would have been fashionably late. There were plenty of excuses for why, but the truth of it was that they wanted a thick crowd so they could blend in if desired. The party was a scary prospect for most of them, and having a little cover made it easier to cope with. They needn’t have worried: there was certainly no shortage of bodies crammed into the building.

“Glad you could make it,” Thomas said, standing sentry at the door. “Who is your DD?”

Walter raised his hand sheepishly and Thomas slashed an X mark across the back of it before Walter could react.

“I wasn’t aware this was a bar,” Walter mumbled as he stared at his hand.

“Nothing personal, but I don’t know how responsible you typically are. As long as that mark is on, no one will give you any alcohol, but no one will give you grief for not drinking either. The ink was specially created by one of my roommates, Will, so you can try and scrub if you want but it won’t come off for twelve hours. Now, aside from my own enforcement of the designated driver policy, there aren’t many house rules. This is an HCP party, so feel free to use your powers. It’s a safe environment. That said, please refrain from doing any damage to the house. We do have to live here after this is over.”

“Anything else?” Candi asked.

“Kegs are in the garage, liquor is in the kitchen, and there are some snack foods in the dining room. Make yourselves at home and have fun.”

Cameron darted forward in a beeline; not one of his friends had to wonder which location he was going toward. The others ambled in gradually, absorbing the scene before them as they tried to get into a party mood. There were more of their classmates than they’d expected, but fewer than they might have hoped for. Sophomores made up the bulk of the bustling bodies, and though their gazes lingered on the unfamiliar faces, the freshmen didn’t sense any hostility from the older students. After a few minutes of acclimation, they made their way to the kitchen to try a few mixed drinks.

*    *    *

“Younger girls, Vince. Younger girls are heaven’s gift to strapping lads like us: still old enough to be legal, but inexperienced enough to perceive our advanced age as maturity. Herding them all together like this and adding alcohol, why, it’s practically unfair.” Nick took a swig of his cocktail to punctuate the point.

“I still can’t believe you talked me into coming out here,” Vince fussed. “I should be studying.”

“Algebra can wait, my dear boy; you’ll be just as clueless tomorrow as you were today.”

“That’s sort of the problem,” Vince replied. It was a testament to how stressed out school had made him that a red plastic cup filled with beer was clutched in his hand. He’d even managed to drink half of it over the course of the last hour. Roy and the girls were engaged in a flip-cup tournament that was in its final matches, so he and Nick had wandered around to do more meet-and-greets. They’d both been in the tournament as well; however, their team lost in the first round thanks to Vince’s unsteady hands and Nick’s intentional lack of coordination.

“Look, you’re making progress thanks to that study group of yours. Try and relax a little bit. The human mind can only stay cranked up to the max for so long before something fries itself. You need to take breaks; any book on how to cram will tell you the same thing,” Nick assured him. It was actually a little off-putting to see Vince’s nerves frayed. The guy was generally so unflappable that Nick had been starting to wonder if he even could get riled up outside of combat.

“I know, I know,” Vince muttered, taking another sip of his beer. “I just have to do well. If I want to stay in, I mean.”

“It’ll be okay. Just take tonight off and I promise you’ll find a way. The test is still a few weeks off, and if you don’t feel secure by the time it rolls around, I’ll personally oversee your tutoring.”

“Thanks. You’re a good friend, Nick.”

“I do what I can.”

“Excuse me,” said a freshman girl with her blonde hair cut short and spiky. “Could you please pass me some cups?” Another girl stood behind her wearing clothes that looked like they’d been on the floor for a week, and behind her was a boy in glasses trying very hard to look like he wasn’t trying very hard.

“No problem,” Nick said with trademark smirk. He nimbly plucked three cups from the top of the stack and tossed one to each student. “You all enjoying the party?”

“Well, we just got here, but so far it seems fun,” said the blonde.

“It certainly is. I’m Nick, by the way, and the gentleman nursing his beer like Florence Nightingale is Vince.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Candi, these two are Gail and Walter.”

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance. Vince and I will get out of your way so you can cobble together some cocktails, but if you should need anything, please don’t hesitate to ask.” Nick squeezed his way out of the kitchen, followed by Vince who gave them a much more genuine smile coupled with a thumbs up.

“They seemed nice,” Vince commented as the duo made their way to the garage. The tournament was bound to be nearing completion and both required a refill.

“They did, and we seemed aloof yet interesting. I’m telling you, younger girls. That’s where it’s at, my protégé.”

“How am I the protégé? I’ve actually had a girlfriend in college,” Vince pointed out.

“I dated around,” Nick replied. He’d ended things with Bubbles early last summer, when he had yet to decide whether returning to Lander was in his best interests. “Now, let’s go see what other promising prospects have wandered into our den of intoxication.”

“You get wordy when you drink.” Vince finished off the remainder of his beer as they headed into the garage. He had to admit, he did feel a little less stressed about the test. Maybe he’d have one or two more.