Disclaimer: Who has two thumbs and doesn't own the rights to these characters? This gal!
Author's Notes: This chapter contains spoilers up to Season 2, Episode 15, "A Hot Piece of 'A'".
Apologies for the length between updates. While I do have a good portion of this story written, it isn't edited. To make it something I'm proud to put out -and that you'll enjoy- takes time, a resource in short supply on my end. I manage a business, I own a second business, I'm in the process of finding a new home for my novel. This story is a labour of love. While I'd be quite happy to sit and write Paily all day, work that pays the bills has to come first. That said, I'll do my best to put quality updates out as quickly as I can.
On to the good stuff.
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Secondary Note: I've created an eBook style PDF, complete with cover, for 'Season 1' of 'Seven For A Secret'. Season one includes chapters one through fourteen, inclusive. If you'd like to have a copy, head on over to www dot teriasmcklay dot com to download it.
Friday after lunch saw Paige with Sean for their usual training session, a gentle workout in deference to her swim meet after school.
"You going to Hannah's party tonight?" Sean asked, ducking the jab Paige threw at him before he stepped to the side to strike lightly at her ribs. She crouched a little as he struck, tucking her elbows in tight to protect her midsection, the blow glancing off her arm.
"Why the hell would I do that?" Keeping her guard tight to protect her ribs, she stepped in toward his body to negate his reach, a quick jab/cross combo connecting with his cheek.
"Because Emily's going to be there."
"Sean, let it go. She's with Maya." Paige stood, letting her guard drop. "Speaking of ex girlfriends, how did you score an invite to Hannah's, boyfriend's surprise party?"
"Noel. He and Mona are going and they asked if I wanted to tag along with Pru."
"Which means I'll be the only one without a date. That sounds like fun." Her tone indicated otherwise and she shoved her hand under her arm to pull her glove off, wrist watch beeping out the time.
"C'mon, don't think of it like that. You could have a date if you put yourself out there."
"Name one other lesbian in this school whose initials aren't E. F."
Sean shrugged broad shoulders. "Pru said she thinks you and Spencer could get along. I hear she broke up with... Ach."
Paige's flying glove caught him square in the nose, the second she tossed at his crotch, which was unsurprisingly well protected.
"That's not even funny."
Sean grinned, tossing the gloves back to her. "It's kinda funny."
Paige rolled her eyes as she walked to the door, Sean's arm slung companionably across her shoulders.
"C'mon, Paige, you have to actually get out there if you want to get out there."
The words gave her pause, reminding her of Coach Fulton. "If nothing changes, nothing changes. Right?"
"Exactly." His boyish grin nearly split his face as he left her to enter the women's change room. "I'll pick you up at your place at eight. That should give you plenty of time to get changed after your meet." He didn't wait for an answer -obviously worried she'd renege- and ducked into the men's room.
"I'm going to regret this, I just know it."
The rest of the day passed easily, boring classes bleeding quickly into their meet against Lincoln. The competition was one of the few left before qualifiers, Rosewood's standings determined by how many points they scored over the season. It had been a slow start, with Emily quitting and the lack of cohesion they had stuttered in those first few months.
When Emily had returned -bringing cohesion with her- they had made up some points, but it would still be a dogfight to get a decent start position for qualifiers. If Rosewood was in the bottom half, they would face teams who had done better than themselves in the first round of the State Championship. It wouldn't be impossible to win but it certainly wasn't an auspicious start.
The meet ended up as a split day, Varsity taking the win while the Junior Varsity fell short. Piper and Tanya took the heat for it, Morgan focusing her full attention on them during their post meet debrief. While Paige didn't think the girls had performed to their full potential, the cutting comments weren't going to do either of the freshmen any good. She took them aside to soften the criticisms and sent them on their way, ignoring the icy glare Morgan leveled at her as she walked to her office.
"Looks like someone's PMSing," Vicky said, leaning against the locker beside Paige's. Chloe was on the bench beside them, nodding her head in agreement.
"Is she ever not? I think the only time I've seen her crack a smile is when she's making the freshmen cry." Chloe reclined on the bench, evidently comfortable simply relaxing in the change room. "Anyway, Vic and I are hitting the Brew tonight, want to come?"
Paige raised an eyebrow, it was the first social invite she'd gotten from them since they had begun swimming together. Three years ago. How times had changed.
"I would but I let myself get talked into Hannah's surprise party with Sean and Pru."
"You couldn't pay me to go to that little shindig, Noel Kahn's going." Vicky said his name as though she were spitting out a bad piece of fruit. "Have fun though. If you get the urge to smoke Ben in the face again, be sure and give in."
"I don't think he's going. He and Sean still aren't talking and I doubt Emily or the others would invite him on his own."
Paige was tempted to invite Vicky and Chloe with her to the party, just to have some back up. Her only reticence came from it being Hastings' lakehouse and the last thing she needed was to get into with Hastings over being a party crasher. She waved her goodbyes and headed out to the bike rack.
It was quick work to get home, her Dad watching TV when Paige walked through the door. She sat with him, leaning back into the couch as she watched the Men's 200m Freestyle. It was an Olympic qualifying meet, it would be interesting to see if there would be any upstarts.
"How'd it go?" he asked, attention split between her and the race.
"Freshmen were a little weak but varsity took it home."
"Good, the freshmen have time to improve, it's you guys that need to shine. Any plans for tonight?"
"Yeah, Sean and Pru are going to a party, they invited me to tag along."
"So long as you're…"
"Home by midnight, I know, Dad."
He patted her knee and turned his attention back to the TV, Paige focusing in on it as well. "Tell you what, your mother and I are going out soon. How about I tape it and we watch it together tomorrow?"
"Sounds great. Hey, are you still coming to the gym tomorrow with me and Sean?"
"I am. Maybe I'll show you kids what real boxing looks like."
Paige laughed, standing and dropping a kiss on his cheek before she walked away. "Sure thing, Dad."
He muttered a retort that she couldn't make out as she headed downstairs.
It was a relatively fast change, long hair surprisingly easier to deal with than the cropped cut had been. She pulled it all back in a ponytail, her still growing bangs hanging loose around her ears. Jeans and her new boots were next, the scarf Emily's had given her tied wide at her hip. Tank top, a long sleeve crew neck t-shirt and a canvas jacket completed the look, knit cap tucked into the pocket in case it got cold.
Paige didn't bother with makeup, eyes still sore from the chlorine. At eight o'clock on the nose, the bell upstairs rang and she hurdled the couch, racing up the stairs before her mom got hold of Sean and offered him dinner.
She pulled open the door, surprised to see Pru standing on her porch. "What the hell? You're on time?" Never, in their decade of friendship, had the girl ever been on time.
"It's something new I'm trying. Let's get moving, you wouldn't want you to miss your golden opportunity to drown Spencer in a lake."
"See, if Sean had sold it to me like that, I would have even put up a fight."
"I'm sure eventually he'll get the hang of your neuroses eventually. You ready?"
"Yeah, why? You going to criticize my outfit before we leave?"
Pru took a step back, eyes scanning Paige from top to bottom. "No, actually, not at all. I like it. That scarf is nice, where'd you get it?"
"Just... had it in my closet," Paige hedged, turning to call out to her parents. "Bye, Mom! Bye, Dad!"
Their muted replies were called down the stairs and off they went, piling into Sean's car.
"Hey, how'd you do tonight?" he greeted.
"Well enough to earn this?" Sean passed back a large coffee cup, the smell of cream and sugar wafting to Paige's nose.
"I take it back," Pru said. "Apparently he has gotten the hang of your crazy. Can we go now? Cinderella back there has to be home by midnight."
Paige slapped Sean's shoulder in thanks, reclining in her seat to enjoy her obscenely rich coffee as they drove out of Rosewood. The street lights gave way to dark forest, their headlights almost immediately consumed in the dense fog as they drove. It took nearly half an hour to reach the Hastings' lakehouse, the party well underway by the time they arrived. They slid out of the car, meeting up with Noel and Mona who were on their way in as well.
"Hey there, Paige McCullers."
"Hi, Mona." Paige couldn't figure out why the girl always seemed so happy to see her. It couldn't be completely genuine, they had never been more than acquaintances, mutual victims really. Still, it was better than the sneer Noel was levelling at her so she supposed she should be grateful. Evidently he was still holding a grudge about Ben. Too fucking bad.
The foursome entered the house as one, Paige feeling oddly comfortable despite the busy social setting. She knew a number of people in passing, either from sports or class and she had already wheedled promises out of both Sean and Pru that she was not to be left unattended. Unplanned conversation was bound to take an unfortunate turn.
Emily was nowhere to be found, Maya either, which Paige found odd considering Hannah was playing host. She had figured the dazzling duo would be making a grand appearance.
Geeze, she sounded bitter even in her head.
"Hey, you okay?"
"Fine, I'll be right back, I'm going to grab a drink." Paige made her way to the mix table, foregoing the booze. The last thing she needed was to end up drunk and making an ass of herself at a party. She had just finished pouring herself a club soda when she saw Emily walk through the crowd, headed for the kitchen. Something was off in her friend's stride, dark eyes betraying her emotions. Emily was upset. Paige wondered if it might have something to do with the lack of Maya on her arm.
"Stop it, Paige. You're supposed to be playing nice." Self chide complete, Paige found her way back to Sean and Pru who were chatting with a girl she didn't recognize. That was odd, given Rosewood's size, it was uncommon not to at least recognize someone by sight.
Paige moved in to the group, standing between the new girl and Pru.
"Paige, this is Shana. Shana, Paige."
"Hi." Paige gave a little wave which was returned. Pru took over the conversation, as was her usual but began to gradually shuffle over, forcing Paige to move in closer to the newcomer. When it got to the point that they were nearly touching elbows, Paige glared over at her friend, question and irritation written in her eyes.
"Paige, Shana mentioned that her folks were talking about moving to Rosewood this summer." Pru ignored Paige's stare, focusing her attention on Shana.
"Maybe. I hope so. I have got to get out of North Carolina." Shana smiled as she spoke, catching eyes with Paige who barely bit back the urge to tell the girl to run for the hills. Hell had nothing on Rosewood and Shana would do well never to step foot back in town.
As she scanned the room, Paige caught sight of Emily as she walked out of the kitchen. Her friend sidled up to Hastings who looked like she'd gotten strung out on a hot dose of caffeine. Something was definitely up.
"I'm away for a lot of the summer with my parents but Paige stays pretty close to home, maybe she can show you around Rosewood."
Paige looked at Pru as her name registered. "Huh? Yeah, sure," Paige agreed absently, tracking Emily and Hastings as they ran over to the window. Pru kicked her foot, a discreet nod indicating that Paige was meant to be in the middle of a conversation.
"That'd be great, I'd really appreciate it." Shana was focused on Paige now and she wasn't completely sure why or what exactly she had agreed to.
"No problem." She hoped that was somewhat of an appropriate response. Judging by the enthusiastic smile Shana sent her way, it seemed to be.
"I'm going to go get another drink, anyone need a refill?" Shana asked, holding up her empty cup.
"No, I'm good thanks." Paige waved off the offer, turning back to semi focus on Sean and Pru while looking for a now missing Emily and Spencer. A sharp stomp on her foot brought her attention back to her friends. "Ow! Goddamn it, Pru! What was that for?"
"I was setting you up, you idiot. Could you please pretend that someone other than Emily exists for just one second?"
"Setting me up? With who?"
Pru stared at her like she was slow. "Shana, you jackass. She's into you."
"What? Pru, don't be ridiculous." Whatever else Pru had to say was cut off as Emily ran into the house, panic written in her step. Leaving her cup on the table, Paige went to meet the girl, surprised when Emily grabbed her arms to steady herself. "What's wrong?'
"Lucas and Hannah, they went out in the boat, they're not answering. I think something might have happened."
That wasn't good, the pier on the other side of the small lake was definitely within yelling distance. Paige turned to Sean, flagging him over. "Do you have flashlights in your car?"
"We need them, now." Her tone brooked no room for argument and he left his drink with Pru, hurrying out to his car, Paige on his heels. "Em, go back to the lake, keep calling out. I'll meet you down there." Paige and Sean slid to a halt at his car, boots skidding in the loose gravel. He popped open the trunk, pulling out two sturdy flashlights. Paige turned it on and headed for the shore, pushing through trees, brush and the small crowd to get to the beach where a soaked Hannah sat, Emily and Spencer beside her.
"Hannah, what happened?" Caleb asked, looking between his girlfriend and the water. A collective muttering rippled through the crowd as a rowboat, overturned, floated up to the shore. "Where's Lucas?"
"He's... he's still out there." Hannah's words could barely be heard over her chattering.
Shit. This was bad. Paige kicked off her boots and stripped out of her jacket, tossing it to the sand with her long sleeve overshirt.
"Paige, what are you doing?" Sean grabbed her arm as she made to run down to the water.
"Get that boat turned over and follow me in."
She slipped his grip, running down the embankment to get as much speed as possible to launch herself into the water. It felt like a kick to the gut, the cool water closing around her and she pumped her legs, using her arms to pull her body forward. It was slower than normal, heavy denim jeans a pronounced hindrance as she swam. Emily's yell for her clashed against Sean's bellow for Noel to help him get the boat righted. Paige ignored it all, focusing on her stroke and the water, holding the flashlight to scan for Lucas. This part of the water wasn't deep, she could feel the lake weeds tickling at her feet as she swam.
"Lucas!" Paige stopped, treading water as she flashed the light around, searching for any sign of him. "Lucas! Can you hear me?!" Nothing. Wait, there! "Sean, over here!" A floating shoe passed her and she flashed her light at Sean to show where she was before swimming forward. Her foot brushed against something that didn't feel like weeds and she reached down, trying to search for it with her hands.
"Damn it." Two deep breaths, one to calm herself, the other to fill her lungs and Paige dove, reluctantly opening her eyes in the murky water to search. She shoved at weeds, the beam of her flashlight lost quickly in the darkness. She stayed down until her lungs wouldn't take it any more, surfacing to take another breath before diving back beneath the surface. It was on her third try that she found a box of fireworks, Hannah's name written on the packing label. She had found where Lucas had gone in. If he hadn't made it to shore, he was somewhere nearby.
She surfaced, waving her arms overhead to signal the others. "Sean, over here." Sean and Noel were rowing in tandem, two muscular sets of shoulders flexing as they powered through the water to reach her. "The fireworks are down here, I think this is where he went in."
Sean and Noel yelled collectively, their voices mere murmurs under the water as Paige dove again. She didn't stop her search until she grew dizzy from the exertion, limbs like leaden weights as the cold began to seep deep into her bones.
"Come on, Paige." Sean reached out his hand, his lean over the side very nearly tipping the small boat.
"We can't just leave him out here," Paige argued, holding lightly to the side of the boat as she swept her light along the water.
"It's been almost twenty minutes, Paige. If he's down there..." Noel didn't finish his thought. He didn't need to. Even if Paige had found Lucas in the beginning, it still would have been on the cusp of live recovery.
"Noel's right, you have to get out of that water before you end up with hypothermia."
"I'll get myself in, you and Noel sit on the side to balance it out," she advised, tossing the flashlight into the boat and muscling herself over the edge mostly by sheer force of will. She dropped into the bottom of the boat, tucking her hands under her arms and curling tightly into herself to maintain what warmth she could as Noel rowed them to shore. Sean helped her up, wrapping his arms around her and rubbing her skin to bring blood flow back as her lips chattered.
"What the hell were you thinking? You could have gotten yourself killed!"
"I was…wasn't thh-thhinking, just instinct, I guess." Lights had begun to flash at the top of the hill by the time they got to shore, the red and blue letting them know the police had arrived. Two men were already hauling a small motorized boat down the embankment, setting it in the water and turning on a high wattage spotlight that nearly burned out the back of Paige's eyes.
Noel hopped out of the boat to pull it to shore, going so far as to help lift Paige out of the boat when she found her legs wouldn't do her bidding.
"Thh-think I mm-may have to can cancel boxing tomorrow," she joked as Sean led her up the slope and back to the lakehouse. Emily met them halfway, a heavy blanket in hand that she wrapped around Paige's shoulders.
"Noel, can you grab her clothes? I'll get her up to the house," Sean said. "If you want, I can carry you."
"Ov...over my dead body." Paige retorted, smiling at the relief that flooded Emily's features. Apparently humour in tragic situations wasn't completely inappropriate. Despite her protest, Sean kept one arm around her as they walked, Emily at her side. She wouldn't have admitted it at gunpoint, but it was nice to have his support. She wasn't sure her legs would have made the effort otherwise.
Pru was at the top of the hill, pacing herself into a hole as she spoke with an officer who had managed to corral her.
"I'm good, I'm a popsicle, but I'm good."
"You didn't find anything?" Pru asked, looking past Paige as if she might find some sign of Lucas.
"No, I think I found where he went in." She pointed to the area on the map the officer held out to her. The officer nodded at her, radioing his peers in the boat as he walked off.
"Pru, I've got some spare workout gear in my trunk, grab it, it'll be dry at least."
"It better be clean, Ackard. I'll freeze to death before I put on your dirty jockies," Paige countered. "Em, how's Hannah?"
"She's okay, terrified and freezing, but okay. Spencer's looking after her so let's get you taken care of"
Paige nodded, leaning more on Sean than she would have liked as her soaked jeans sucked at her body. She left a sizeable puddle on Hasting's floor as she walked in, Emily guiding them to one of the bedrooms. A pleasant wall of warmth hit Paige, the girls had obviously kicked on the rooms' radiator.
"I'll get towels." Emily disappeared leaving Sean and Paige to stand rather awkwardly in the unfamiliar room.
"If you think I'm stripping in front of you..."
"Never crossed my mind. Scout's honour."
Pru and Emily returned at the same time, one with an arm full of towels, the other with an oversized set of Rosewood Sharks sweats.
"I have to go back and finish talking to the cops. Here." Pru unceremoniously dumped the sweats in Emily's arms. Paige's eyes widened, realization kicking in just as Pru bodily dragged Sean from the room, closing the door behind her.
"That was about as subtle as a car crash. Em, just leave it on the bed, I can manage."
"Why? So you can tell your dad you not only had to save a drowning kid but cracked your head open at our party? I don't think so, McCullers, I value my life. Strip."
Paige didn't have it in her to argue the order, more concerned with getting out of the wet clothes than propriety at this point. Leave it to her to be a smartass and wear her tightest jeans. It was a wrestle to her get shirt off, Emily finally grabbing hold of the hem while Paige used her body weight to drag herself out. The jeans were next, a small jump and hip wiggle doing little to dislodge tight denim. "And Pru wonders why I don't wear these stupid things."
"Here, let me." Emily knelt down, grabbing Paige's waistband to help her shimmy loose. She did her best to block the somewhat salacious position out of her mind, surprised that despite the adrenaline, the exhaustion, the near hypothermia, her body had no choice but to respond to Emily's touch.
When Paige was free of the jeans, she wrapped herself in a towel, drying off as best she could before taking the offered sweat pants and quickly exchanging them for soaked underwear. She did the same for the hoodie, forced to roll up both sleeves and waistband simply to keep from being swallowed by the large clothing.
"I didn't realize how ginormous he is. I feel like the Michelin man," Paige complained, though the feel of warm, dry fleece on her body was heaven itself.
"If it keeps you warm, that's all that matters. Sit down, I'll dry your hair."
"Em, I got it. It's fine, really. Go check on Hannah."
"Damn it, McCullers! For once in your life would just let someone take care of you for a change?"
The flare of anger surprised her and Paige immediately complied and sat on the bed, unwilling to upset Emily further. She reached out, taking Emily's hand and gave it tug, eyes meeting those of her friend. "I swear to you, I'm okay. Please don't worry."
Emily gave her a reluctant nod, silently wrapping the comforter around Paige before she knelt behind her to towel her hair dry. Paige knew she probably shouldn't enjoy the attention as much as she did, Emily's gentle ministrations as much a comfort as the warmth. It didn't take long, Emily neatly retying her ponytail and tossing the wet towel to the floor. Arms circled her in a tight hug from behind, Emily resting her chin on Paige's shoulder. Turning, Paige raised an eyebrow.
"You scared the hell out of me tonight."
Paige swallowed, unaccustomed to the raw emotion in Emily's eyes. She snuck a hand out from the warmth of the covers, lacing her fingers with that of her friend. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to."
"You could have drowned out there, looking for... him."
"You have met me, right, Fields? I'm a state record setting superhero. I'm not going to die drowning in a freaking puddle." She turned, just slightly, lips ghosting against Emily's temple. "I promise."
"I've already lost someone I ...cared about once, Paige. I can't do it again."
"Emily, I..." The knock on the door barely warned them that someone was coming in, Paige abruptly standing to put distance between them. She didn't want anyone getting the wrong idea. Didn't want anything getting back to Maya that might hurt Emily. It was only Hastings who gave Paige her usual suspicious once over before turning her attention to Emily.
"The police want to talk to us."
"Cause that's not getting old," Emily muttered, pushing herself off the bed. "You're sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine, Em. Go."
Paige waited until they were gone, leaning on the wall only to rap her head against yellowed wallpaper. "Stupid, stupid, stupid."