Anna and the french kiss, p.20
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       Anna and the French Kiss, p.20
 

         Part #1 of Anna and the French Kiss series by Stephanie Perkins
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  Étienne lowers his hand from his mouth. His expression is serious, maybe even defensive. “I like your smile.”

  I like yours, too.

  But I don’t have the courage to say it aloud.

  chapter thirty-three

  The front-desk girl smiles when she sees me. “I ’ave package for you!”

  Résidence Lambert’s door opens again, and my friends troop in behind me.The girl hands over a large brown box, and I happily sign for it. “From your mom?” Mer asks. Her cheeks are pink from the cold.

  “Yes!” Today is my birthday. And I know exactly what’s inside. I carry the box eagerly to the lobby sofas and dig for something to open it with. Josh pulls out his room key and slices through the tape.

  “AHH!” he screams.

  Rashmi, Mer, and Étienne peek inside, and I gloat triumphantly.

  “No!” Mer says.

  “Yes,” I say.

  Étienne picks up a slender green box. “Cookies?”

  Josh snatches it from him. “Not just any cookies, my fine English fellow. Thin Mints.” He turns to me. “Can I open this?”

  “Of course!” Every year, my family celebrates my birthday with a feast of Girl Scout cookies instead of cake. The timing is always perfect.

  Rashmi pulls out a box of Lemon Chalet Cremes. “Your mom is the best.”

  “What’s so special about . . . Tagalongs?” Étienne says, inspecting another box.

  “TAGALONGS?” Mer rips them from his hands.

  “They’re only the tastiest morsels on the entire planet,” I explain to Étienne. “They only sell them this time of year. Haven’t you ever had a Girl Scout cookie?”

  “Did someone say Girl Scout cookies?”

  I’m surprised to find Amanda Spitterton-Watts peering over my shoulder. Her eyes bulge when she sees my stash.

  “Girl Scout cookies?” Another face appears behind us, wearing a familiar expression of confusion. It’s Cheeseburger. Amanda curls her lip in disgust and turns back to me.

  “You have to give me a Thin Mint,” she says.

  “Uh, yeah. Sure,” I say. Josh makes a face, but I hand one over anyway. Amanda sinks her teeth into the chocolate wafer and grips Étienne’s arm. She groans with pleasure. He tries to pull away, but her grasp is tight. She licks her lips. I’m amazed she doesn’t have crumbs on her mouth. How does she do that?

  “Have you ever tasted one of these?” she asks him.

  “Yes,” he lies.

  Rashmi snorts.

  There’s a cough behind me, and I find Cheeseburger staring anxiously at my box. I glare at Amanda, the Arm-Toucher, and pull out an entire sleeve of Thin Mints. “Here you go, Cheeseburger.”

  He looks at me in surprise, but then again, that’s how he always looks. “Wow. Thanks, Anna.” Cheeseburger takes the cookies and lumbers toward the stairwell.

  Josh is horrified. “Whyareyougivingawaythecookies?”

  “Seriously.” Mer gives Amanda an irritated glance. “Let’s go someplace private.” She grabs my package and carries it upstairs. Always prepared, she has fresh milk in her mini-fridge. They wish me happy birthday, and we clink glasses. And then we stuff ourselves until bursting.

  “Mmm.” Étienne moans from the floor. “Tagalongs.”

  “Told you,” Mer says, licking chocolaty peanut butter from her rings.

  “Sorry we didn’t get you anything.” Rashmi collapses. “But thanks for sharing.”

  I smile. “I’m happy to.”

  “Actually”—Étienne sits up—“I was planning to give this to you at dinner, but I suppose now is as good a time as any.” He reaches into his backpack.

  “But you hate birthdays!” I say.

  “Don’t thank me yet. And I don’t hate them, I just don’t celebrate my own. Sorry it’s not wrapped.” He hands me a spiral notebook.

  I’m confused. “Um . . . thanks.”

  “It’s left-handed. See?” He flips it the other way. “Your old one is almost filled with notes and film reviews, so I thought you’d need a new one soon.”

  No one ever remembers I’m left-handed. A lump rises in my throat. “It’s perfect.”

  “I know it’s not much—”

  “No. It’s perfect. Thank you.”

  He bites his pinkie nail, and we smile at each other.

  “Aw, St. Clair. That’s sweet,” Josh says.

  Étienne chucks one of Mer’s pillows at his head.

  “So you’ve never explained it to me,” Rashmi says. “What’s the deal with that? The reviews?”

  “Oh.” I tear my gaze from Étienne. “It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do. I like talking about movies. And it’s hard to get into the business—it’s kind of like a lifetime position—so I need all the practice I can get.”

  “Why don’t you want to be a director? Or a screenwriter or an actress or something?” she asks. “No one wants to be a critic, it’s weird.”

  “It’s not weird,” Étienne says. “I think it’s cool.”

  I shrug. “I just like ... expressing my opinion.That possibility of turning someone on to something really great. And, I dunno, I used to talk with this big critic in Atlanta—he lived in my theater’s neighborhood, so he used to go there for screenings— and he once bragged about how there hadn’t been a respectable female film critic since Pauline Kael, because women are too soft. That we’ll give any dumb movie four stars. I want to prove that’s not true.”

  Mer grins. “Of course it’s not true.”

  Étienne props himself up. “I don’t think anyone who knows you would say it’s easy to earn your good review.”

  I look at him, puzzled. “What does that mean?”

  “Yawn,” Josh says, not actually yawning. “So what’s the plan?”

  I wait for Étienne to reply, but he doesn’t. I turn to Josh, distracted. “Huh?”

  “Let’s not sit here all evening. Let’s go out.”

  He doesn’t mean to the movies. I shift uncomfortably. “I like staying in.”

  Josh’s eyes shine. “Anna. Haven’t you ever drunk before?”

  “Of course,” I lie. But a blush destroys my cover. They all scream.

  “How can you have gone half a school year without drinking?” Rashmi asks.

  I squirm. “I just . . . don’t. It still feels illegal.”

  “You’re in France,” Josh says. “You should at least try it.”

  And now they’re all jumping up and down.You’d think they’d just turned of age. “YES! Let’s get Anna drunk!” they say.

  “I don’t know—”

  “Not drunk.” Étienne smiles. He’s the only one still sitting. “Just . . . happy.”

  “Happy birthday drunk,” Josh says.

  “Happy,” Étienne repeats. “Come on, Anna. I know the perfect place to celebrate.”

  And because it’s him, my mouth answers before my brain does. “Okay,” I say.

  We agree to meet later tonight. What was I thinking? I’d much rather stay in and hold a Michel Gondry marathon. I’m ooky with nerves, and it takes ages to find something to wear. My wardrobe isn’t exactly stocked with clothes for barhopping. When I finally come down to the lobby, everyone’s already there, even Étienne. I’m surprised he’s on time for once. His back is to me.

  “All right,” I say. “Let’s get this party started.”

  At the sound of my voice, he turns around. And his head nearly snaps off.

  I’m in a short skirt. It’s the first time I’ve worn one here, but my birthday feels like the appropriate occasion. “Woo, Anna!” Rashmi fake-adjusts her glasses. “Why do you hide those things?”

  Étienne is staring at my legs. I tuck my coat around myself self-consciously, and he startles and bumps into Rashmi.

  Maybe she’s right. Maybe I should wear skirts more often.

  chapter thirty-four

  The band in the club is rocking so hard, screaming guitars and furious drumming and shouting lyrics, I can hardly hear
myself think. All I know is that I feel good. Really good. Why have I never drunk before? I was such an idiot—it’s not a big deal. I totally understand why people drink now. I’m not sure what I’ve been drinking, but I do know it was something fruity. It started out disgusting, but the more I drank, the better it got. Or the less I noticed it. Something like that. Man, I feel weird. Powerful.

  Where is Étienne?

  I scan the dark room, through the thrashing bodies of disillusioned Parisian youth, getting their anger out with a healthy dose of French punk rock. I finally find him leaning against a wall talking to Mer. Why is he talking to her? She laughs and tosses her curly hair. And then she touches his arm.

  Meredith has turned into an Arm-Toucher. I don’t believe it.

  Before I know it, my feet are propelling the rest of my body toward them. The music thrums through my veins. I stumble over some guy’s feet. He curses at me in French, and I mumble an apology as I lurch away. What’s his problem?

  Étienne. I need to talk to Étienne.

  “Hey.” I shout in his face, and he flinches.

  “Jeez, Anna. Are you okay? How much have you had to drink?” Mer asks.

  I wave my hand.Three fingers. Four fingers. Five. Something like that.

  “Dance with me,” I say to Étienne. He’s surprised, but he hands Mer his beer. She fires me a dirty look but I don’t care. He’s more my friend than hers. I grab his hand and pull him onto the floor. The song changes to something even rowdier, and I let it take me over. Étienne follows my body with his eyes. He finds the rhythm, and we move together.

  The room spins around us. His hair is sweaty. My hair is sweaty. I grab him closer, and he doesn’t protest. I writhe down his body to the beat. When I come up, his eyes are closed, his mouth slightly parted.

  We match each other thrust to thrust. The band launches into a new song. Louder and louder. The crowd is in a frenzy. Étienne screams the chorus with the rest of them. I don’t know the words—even if I spoke French, I doubt I could make out the lyrics over the roar—all I know is this band is SO MUCH BETTER than the Penny Dreadfuls. HA!

  We dance until we can’t dance any longer. Until we’re gasping for breath and our clothes are soaked and we can hardly stand up. He leads me to the bar, and I grip onto it with everything left in me. He falls next to me. We’re laughing. I’m crying, I’m laughing so hard.

  A strange girl shouts at us in French.

  “Pardon?” Étienne turns around, and his eyes widen in shock when he sees her. The girl has sleek hair and a hard face. She keeps yelling, and I pick out a few choice swearwords. He replies in French, and I can tell by his stance and tone of voice that he’s defending himself. The girl shouts again, gives him a final sneer, then spins away and pushes her way back through the pulsing mass.

  “What was that about?” I ask.

  “Shite. Shite.”

  “Who was that? What happened?” I lift my hair to get some air on my neck. I’m hot. It’s so hot in here.

  Étienne pats his pockets, panicked. “Fuck. Where’s my phone?”

  I fumble in my purse and pull out my cell. “USE MINE!” I shout over the music.

  He shakes his head. “I can’t use yours. She’ll know. She’ll fucking know.” He pulls at his hair, and before I know it, he’s making his way for the door. I’m on his heels. We burst through the club into the cold night.

  Snowflakes are falling. I don’t believe it. It never snows in Paris! And it’s snowing on my birthday! I stick out my tongue, but I don’t feel them hit. I stick it out farther. He’s still searching frantically for his phone. Finally, he finds it in a coat pocket. He calls someone, but they must not pick up, because he screams.

  I jump backward. “What’s going on?”

  “What’s going on? What’s going on? I’ll tell you what’s going on. That girl in there, the one who wanted to kill me? That’s Ellie’s roommate. And she saw us dancing, and she’s called her, and she’s told her all about it.”

  “So what? We were just dancing. Who cares?”

  “Who cares? Ellie’s freaked out about you as it is! She hates it when we’re together, and now she’ll think something’s going on—”

  “She hates me?” I’m confused.What did I do to her? I haven’t even seen her in months.

  He screams again and kicks the wall, then howls in pain. “FUCK!”

  “Calm down! God, Étienne, what’s with you?”

  He shakes his head, and his expression goes blank. “It wasn’t supposed to end like this.” He runs a hand through his damp hair.

  What was supposed to end? Her or me?

  “It’s been falling apart for so long—”

  Oh my God. Are they breaking up?

  “But I’m just not ready for it,” he finishes.

  My heart hardens to ice. Screw him. Seriously. SCREW. HIM.“Why not, St. Clair? Why aren’t you ready for it?”

  He looks up at me when I say his name. St. Clair, not Étienne. He’s hurt, but I don’t care. He’s St. Clair again. Flirty, friends-with-everyone St. Clair. I HATE him. Before he can answer, I’m stumbling down the sidewalk. I can’t look at him anymore. I’ve been so stupid. I’m such an idiot.

  It’s Toph, all over again.

  He calls after me, but I keep moving forward. One foot in front of the other. I’m focusing so hard on my steps that I bump into a streetlamp. I curse and kick it. Again and again and again and suddenly St. Clair is pulling me back, pulling me away from it, and I’m kicking and screaming and I’m so tired and I just want to go HOME.

  “Anna. Anna!”

  “What’s happening?” someone asks. Meredith and Rashmi and Josh surround us. When did they get here? How long have they been watching us?

  “It’s all right,” St. Clair says. “She’s just a little drunk—”

  “I am NOT DRUNK.”

  “Anna, you’re drunk, and I’m drunk, and this is ridiculous. Let’s just go home.”

  “I don’t want to go home with you!”

  “What the hell has gotten into you?”

  “What’s gotten into me? You’ve got a lot of nerve asking that.” I stagger toward Rashmi. She steadies me while giving Josh an appalled look. “Just tell me one thing, St. Clair. I just want to know one thing.”

  He stares at me. Furious. Confused.

  I pause to steady my voice. “Why are you still with her?”

  Silence.

  “Fine. Don’t answer me. And you know what? Don’t call me either. We’re done. Bonne nuit.”

  I’m already stomping away when he replies.

  “Because I don’t want to be alone right now.” His voice echoes through the night.

  I turn around to face him one last time. “You weren’t alone, asshole.”

  chapter thirty-five

  Wow, Anna.You are such a mean drunk.”

  I pull the covers over my head. Rashmi is on the phone. My head is killing me.

  “How much did you and St. Clair drink last night?”

  Étienne. What happened last night? I remember the club. I remember the music and—Was there dancing? I think there was dancing—and, oh yeah, some girl was yelling at us, and then we went outside and . . . oh no.

  Oh no, oh no, oh no.

  I sit up quickly and ohmyfreakinggod my head is THROBBING. I close my eyes to shut out the painful light, and slowly, slowly sink back down into bed.

  “You guys practically had sex on the dance floor.”

  We did?

  I open my eyes again and regret it immediately. “I think I have the flu,” I croak. I’m thirsty. My mouth is dry. Disgusting. It tastes like the bottom of Captain Jack’s cage.

  “More like a hangover.You should have some water. But not too much, you might puke again.”

  “Again?”

  “Look in your sink.”

  I groan. “I’d rather not.”

  “Josh and I practically carried you home. You should be thanking me.”

  “Thanks.” I am
so not in the mood for Rashmi right now. “Is Étienne okay?”

  “Haven’t seen him. He went to Ellie’s last night.”

  Just when I thought I couldn’t feel any worse. I twist the corners of my pillow. “Did I, uh, say anything weird to him last night?”

  “Apart from acting like a jealous girlfriend and saying you never wanted to speak to him again? No. Nothing weird at all.” I moan as she recounts the night for me blow by blow. “Listen,” she says when she finishes, “what’s the deal with you two?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “You know what I mean.You two are inseparable.”

  “Except when he’s with his girlfriend.”

  “Right. So what’s the deal?”

  I groan again. “I don’t know.”

  “Have you guys . . . you know . . . done anything?”

  “No!”

  “But you like him. And he likes you, too.”

  I stop choking my pillow. “You think?”

  “Please. The boy gets a boner every time you walk in the room.”

  My eyes pop back open. Does she mean that figuratively or has she actually seen something? No. Focus, Anna. “So why—”

  “Why is he still with Ellie? He told you last night. He’s lonely, or at least he’s scared of being lonely. Josh says with all of this stuff with his mom, he’s been too freaked out to change anything else in his life.”

  So Meredith was right. Étienne is afraid of change. Why haven’t I talked about this with Rashmi before? It seems obvious now. Of course she has inside information, because Étienne talks to Josh, and Josh talks to Rashmi.

  “You really think he likes me?” I can’t help it.

  She sighs. “Anna. He teases you all the time. It’s classic boy-pulling-girl’s-pigtail syndrome. And whenever anyone else even remotely does it, he always takes your side and tells them to shove it.”

  “Huh.”

  She pauses. “You really like him, don’t you?”

  I’m struggling not to cry. “No. It’s not like that.”

 
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