Pepped Up Forever

By: Ali Dean


(Pepper Jones Series, Book #5)




Chapter 1


Jace

How did she do it? Pepper never ceased to astonish me. I heaved myself into my Jeep, my trashed muscles aching with the movement, and started the engine. The radio blared a pop song about mad love and I reached to switch the channel on instinct before changing my mind. Pepper probably loved this song. She’d always had a thing for the girly pop singers. As I rolled down the windows and pulled out from the parking spot, I took in the view of Duncan Peak, amazed I was standing on top of it earlier this morning.

Three years ago, Pepper ran that same trail and returned before eight in the morning. It took her two hours and it took me over twice that long. I wasn’t even sure I was up for the drive home, and she went for an ass-kicking hike with me that same day. The girl was seriously strong. In every way. And my mission was to be more like her.

It wasn’t easy.

A lump lodged in my throat when I passed the camping spot we’d stayed at the night before I started college. On that trip, there had been dozens of people. Last night, it was just me sitting at the campfire. Yeah, it was kind of lonely, but I had to start spending more time in my own head if I wanted to deal with my shit. Pepper once told me running was like therapy for her. She thought through everything, felt through everything, when her legs moved up hills and along trails. I was trying the running thing, but my muscles were fucking heavy. I wasn’t all long and lean like she was. Still, when I stood on top of Duncan Peak this morning, my heart racing and my quads burning, I felt closer to Pepper than I had in over a year.

The downhill was the killer though. All the pounding ripped my muscles to pieces. But being out here in the middle of summer, with no distractions, it made me see the beauty in a way I never had before. The world’s beauty was bigger than my pain, more significant than my mom’s failures, and worth living for. I was finally starting to feel again. And shit, it was painful sometimes. Being ditched by my own mother as a little kid and then again as an adult, it was a kind of rejection I didn’t want to endure, wasn’t sure I would come out of it whole. I had, but some days it was a fight to keep living and not hide like I once did. On those days, I leaned on Pepper, even if she didn’t know it. I’d think about what she would do, how she would handle it, and what she would want from me.

Annie had called me about a year after she left Brockton the second time. Well, she’d called a few times over that year, but this was the first time I’d answered. It was what Pepper would have done, I thought. Anyway, Annie told me she’d gone to rehab as a condition of parole, after spending a couple months in jail for possession – I told her good luck, but I didn’t need her in my life anymore. It was the truth, and I didn’t even do it out of spite. I had more important people to spend my time on, myself included. If I was going to work on being real in my relationships, I was going to choose who those relationships were with. And since I couldn’t have one with Pepper the way I wanted, I spent time going back down memory lane, reliving the good times, I guess. It helped me see my old self through a new lens – a perspective that made me cringe at times, but helped me move forward in an odd way, too.

Long-distance running might not be the best training for football, and I was anticipating several days of severe soreness that would set back my workouts. But it was worth it. As I forgave Annie for not loving me like I wished she had, and forgave myself for being an asshole and ruining the best thing in my life, I knew why Pepper loved to run. It had healing power like nothing else.





Pepper

On busy nights like this one, the end of my waitressing shift feels like the end of a long run. My feet ache, and I’m craving a shower and a bed. Most of the tables in my section are already closed out and I’m contemplating taking a bath when I get home, but Ruthie finds me by the computer closing out a tab, and judging by the curious and awestruck expression on her face, I suspect something has come up.

“Did you see the group of guys who came in a few minutes ago?” she asks.

I shake my head and continue punching in numbers.

“I put them in the back booth. I know it’s not your section but one of them specifically asked for you.”

I raise my eyebrows in question, but she just shrugs and grins before spinning around. “Couldn’t say no, Pepper!” she calls as she walks away.

Sighing, I rub my face, wishing the place hadn’t mostly cleared out so I could claim I was too busy to take another table. But I’m in no position to refuse. Ruthie is only a few years older than me, but she is the manager on duty tonight.

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