Pepped Up and Ready

By: Ali Dean

(Pepper Jones Series, Book #3)

Chapter 1

There’s nothing like sprinting up a hill as fast as you can. Leaning forward and digging your feet into the dirt as you push your body to a point where all conscious thoughts escape your brain. You can’t focus on anything except the burning in your chest and the urgency to reach the top.

It was still dark when I started jogging this morning, and the sky begins to turn from a hazy purple to a blend of red and orange as I reach the sign indicating the highest point on Duncan Peak. I burst past it with a final surge of energy before letting myself fall dramatically to the ground. I roll onto my back and grin, knowing there’s no one in sight to witness my ridiculousness. It’s just me and the mountain.

As my breathing settles and the sky colors change with the rising sun, a heaviness I’m growing accustomed to eases over me, pinning me to the ground. I don’t want to get back up and face it. The weight of impending change.

The boy I’ve grown up with is going to college tomorrow. Jace Wilder is my boyfriend now, but saying “my boyfriend is going to college” just sounds so… trivial. Lots of girls experience that. Two of my best friends, Zoe Burton and Charlie Owens, have been dating for even longer than Jace and I. Yet Charlie heading to college hours away from Brockton simply isn’t as heart-wrenching for them. And I haven’t confided my anxieties to Zoe or Charlie anyway. They wouldn’t understand. Jace is going to the University of Colorado, a ten-minute walk from the apartment I share with my Gran.

Here’s the thing. Jace Wilder is, like, a celebrity in Brockton. He’s expected to be the starting quarterback on the UC football team – yes, as a freshman – and the whole state is looking to him to turn the team’s dismal record around. Now, if Jace was boring or shy or just – not Jace – he might not attract quite as much attention. But he’s not only a leader on the football team; he’s always been the kind of guy other guys – and girls, too – look up to. People want his attention and his approval. I can’t explain it. But I want it too.

Then there’s his physical appearance. Even if that boy had the personality of a rock and the athleticism of – I don’t know, a worm? – even then, heads would turn.

There’s no question that the comfortable relationship we’ve settled into is going to be jostled big time when Jace goes to college. If I thought going from friends to boyfriend-girlfriend was a big change, well, it was somehow way less significant than what we’re now facing.

Rolling back my shoulders and stretching my legs, I stand up to jog back to the campsite. My stomach growls in hopes that breakfast will already be cooking by the time I get there. It’s still early, but odds are that Jace and Wes are awake. Wesley Jamison is Jace’s half-brother – they share a father – but hardly anyone knows this secret family relation. The three of us have been camping with their dad since we were five years old. I learned early on that sleeping in was not an option when camping.

My legs are wobbly when I finally get to the dirt road leading to the campsite. Cars line the road for a quarter mile. The camping trip was meant to be an intimate gathering with a few friends, but it takes a lot of effort to keep any social affair small when Jace Wilder is involved. He doesn’t actually invite people himself. He doesn’t have to. How word spreads so fast about where he’ll be on any particular night is beyond me. But I’ve come to expect it. And it doesn’t bother me like it used to. Jace has proven that when it comes to him and me, the crowds don’t really matter.

“Morning, Pepper Jones,” a familiar voice greets me.

I turn to see Ryan Harding jogging up behind me, a wide grin spread across his face. He’s let his light brown hair grow out a bit, and the tousled strands curl under his ears. As the top male high school distance runner in the country, Ryan’s confident and easy stride indicates he’s more than ready to take on the college running scene this fall.

“I thought I might see you out this morning,” he comments as he syncs his pace with mine.

“Nothing like a sunrise run in the mountains, you know?” He loves to run almost as much as I do.

“It’s the best. I went a little longer than I planned and I’m starved now. Is that bacon I smell?”

“It better be. I was dreaming of it the whole way down from DuncanPeak.”

“You ran all the way up there?” Ryan asks, startled. “That’s, like, a two thousand foot elevation gain, Pepper! You must have been out for hours.”

I glance at my watch. “Yeah, coming up on two hours here.”

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