When Monday came around, Jeff woke up in a bad mood. He was not looking forward to this day. The thought that he would finally meet Kari Williams should have thrilled him, but instead it terrified him. It wasn't that he was particularly shy, not any more at least. Rachael had quickly cured him of that. But he knew that first impressions were always the most important, and he had no idea how he would act when he saw her.
Added to that worry was the thought of spending a couple of hours with her father, Allen. The man was a giant, or so he had seemed in class that year. No doubt he could pick up Jeff and break him over his knee.
Jeff sighed. He had to go through with it, but he didn't have to like it. He took a shower then headed gloomily down to breakfast. Allison was the only one in the kitchen, and she smiled when she saw him. Normally he enjoyed seeing Allison smile, but today he was too distracted.
"Now that won't do," she told him, sliding some pancakes from a pan onto a plate and setting it in front of him. "What would Kari think if she saw you sitting and frowning like that?"
Jeff shrugged. "I don't care."
Allison laughed. "No, I think you're in a bad mood because you do care. Are you nervous?"
"Okay, let me tell you how to act in a way that girls can't resist."
His eyes lit up at that. That sounded helpful. "How?" he asked.
"Be yourself," she replied, and Jeff's hopes sank.
"So I should sit in the corner and read a book in front of her?" he mumbled.
Allison laughed again. "No, you should be funny and charming and friendly and playful. Like I said, just be yourself."
"So you think I'm funny and charming and friendly and playful?"
"I know you go too far sometimes teasing your sister, but just the fact that you like to tease each other is sign that you've got a sense of humor, and you like to play around. Girls like that sort of thing."
"I guess so."
"Do you remember what you said when you first met me?"
"You called your Dad and said there was a mysterious and gorgeous woman to see him. That's the real you, not the guy who sits and reads all day."
"Yeah, but with you it's different."
"I don't know. I guess it's just easy to say things like that with you."
"Thank you, dear. And that's another thing. Never miss an opportunity for a compliment."
"Allison, you're beautiful."
She laughed. "Thanks, but I meant with Kari."
"Just practicing," he replied, but he was starting to feel much better now. Allison had that effect on him.
By the time they left, his spirits had lifted considerably. Maybe it was just the adrenaline rush of finally meeting Kari, or maybe Allison's cheerfulness was contagious. Whatever the reason, he was actually eager to meet her.
Allison drove him to the Williams house. She dropped him off in the driveway, and in nervous excitement he made his way to the front door, then pressed the doorbell.
When the door opened, he found himself staring into the beautiful face of Kari Williams. She had her long, brown hair tied back in a ponytail, a style that he found extremely sexy on her. She had big brown eyes, and a slightly suntanned complexion. Her lips were a little below average in size but had a slight pucker to them even when she wore a neutral expression. It was as if she were at every moment asking for a kiss. But her smile was the type that could turn storm clouds away and brighten up a dark and dreary room.
"Hi, Jeff," she beamed.
This was almost too much. In all the years of school together, he could not recall her ever smiling at him. Heck, for that matter he could not recall her ever speaking to him.
Allison had to get back to the house to finish making breakfast for the rest of the family, so she waved at him and turned her car around to head back home.
"Hi," Jeff replied, trying to sound casual. "It's Kari, right?"
"Right. So how are you doing, Jeff?"
He shrugged. "Okay, I guess. I'll be able to give you a better answer after I've seen your dad's torture chamber."
Kari laughed. If she had never smiled at him, she had certainly never laughed at any joke he had made. His confidence was beginning to grow now that he had broken the ice.
"Don't worry. No one's died in there in at least three weeks," she replied.
Just then her father appeared in the hall. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man with slightly graying hair and a chiseled chin. During school, he had reminded Jeff of a drill sergeant, but he looked quite different out of uniform. With a pair of slacks and a simple button-down shirt, he seemed quite a bit less threatening than in P.E. class.
"So you two know each other?" Allen Williams asked.
"Sure," said Kari.
Jeff's heart leaped in his chest. While her answer was simple enough, there was an implication there that boosted his spirits. It meant that he hadn't been anonymous to her after all. Though certainly not a grand revelation, just the fact that she had known who he was gave him a great thrill.
"All right, Jeff, why don't we get started? I'll show you my weight room, and you can try out some of the equipment there. Your mother said--"
"Stepmother," Jeff corrected absentmindedly. He didn't like to think of her as his mother, because then it would feel so wrong to fantasize about her.
Mr. Williams didn't push the issue. "All right, your stepmother said that your father's all in favor of getting you in shape, so he's going to set up some equipment in the rec room. Today we'll just go over the machines and have you try them out, see which ones you like the best. Tomorrow we'll start organizing an actual workout routine. What do you say?"
"Can I watch?" asked Kari.
"No, dear," her father replied. "Some people get self-conscious about working out when there's an audience."
"Oh, I don't mind," said Jeff. "She can watch if she wants." Anything that got her to spend time with him was good enough for him!
"Well, if it's okay with Jeff, it's okay with me," said Allen.
Then Jeff spotted another girl sitting on the couch in the living room watching TV. She looked astonishingly like Kari, except younger. She looked to be about Brit's age.
"I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that's your sister," said Jeff.
Kari laughed. "So you can see the family resemblance?"
"Well, you know, it is kind of subtle, but..."
"We have to make sure we clearly label the pictures in our family photo albums, or a few years later we can't tell if it's me or her in the photos. Hey Crystal," Kari said. "Come here for a second."
The girl got up and walked over to them.
"Crystal, this is Jeff. Jeff, Crystal."
"So you've finally managed to bring a boy home with you," Crystal grinned maliciously. "It's about time."
"Shut up!" said Kari, growing red.
Jeff just shrugged. "Little sisters," he commented, and he could see a look of gratitude on Kari's face.
"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Crystal.
"It means you're as much a tease as my sister Britney."
She put her fists on her hips and flashed him a playfully haughty smile. "Oh, you haven't seen anything yet," she said.
"Let's get out of here before she really gets going," Kari said hurriedly, grabbing Jeff's arm and half-dragging him down the hall to the weight room.
It looked every bit as scary as he had expected it to. There were numerous machines that looked like they belonged in a medieval torture chamber. Mr. Williams began to point them out, describing how they worked and in most cases demonstrating. He explained how to change the weight settings for heavier and lighter weights, and suggested that since Jeff was just trying to get into shape instead of building up strength, he should keep with light weight and perform the sets rapidly and without breaks in order to get his heart rate up. As he went over the devices, Jeff began to have less and less apprehension. They seemed simple enough. Kari even showed off some of her favorites, and Jeff found himself enjoying just watching her move. She was the type of girl that he could just watch for hours on end, no matter what she was doing.
Then Mr. Williams had Jeff try a few of them. Some were designed to work the major muscle groups, but others worked muscles that Jeff didn't even know he had. On some of the machines, he even had trouble with the lightest weight settings, to his embarrassment, but Kari explained to him that that was expected; the muscles that those machines were designed to work were usually extremely weak unless specifically trained, but would grow strong surprisingly quickly if he continued to work on them.
The ultimate humiliation, though, came when Kari and he alternated on the bench press, and he discovered that Kari could lift more than he could. But she actually came to his rescue by telling him that she had deliberately worked on her upper body strength to be better at volleyball. Mr. Williams agreed, adding that Kari was at the peak of her potential strength while Jeff was toward the bottom, and since he was a man, he would pass her in just a few weeks of practice. It made for a good, if somewhat embarrassing, goal at least.
"If it turns out that Crystal can bench press more than me though," he said, "I'll kill myself."
As he tried out the various machines, he told Kari's dad the ones he liked. Mr. Williams had a clipboard with him and jotted down notes. An hour later, he said it was time to quit.
"Okay, we've got some ideas here," he said. "Tell you what, Jeff. I'm going to have a talk with your father. He already said he's willing to buy some equipment for you. Maybe later this week the three of us can get together and make some orders on the Internet."
"Fine," said Jeff. Actually, now that he had had a chance to try it, he was actually excited to start working out on a regular basis. There was still plenty of space left over in the rec room, especially if they rearranged some of the chairs, so a few of these machines down there would work out nicely.
"Well, we're done for the day," said Mr. Williams, "unless you want to keep going. Your stepmother isn't expecting Kari for another hour and a half, but we can head back over to your house now if you'd like."
"Well, maybe I could go back over some of my favorites for a few minutes."
"Good! You're getting into it already. I'll tell you what. I've got to do some yard work, but I'll leave Kari here with you. You don't mind, do you Kari?"
"No problem," she said.
"Okay. Just remember to spot him if he wants to use the bench press."
"Spot me?" asked Jeff.
"Yes. Other than the occasional sprained muscle if you're not careful, none of the machines in here are dangerous except the bench press. That's because if your strength goes out on the other machines, all that happens is a loud noise as the weights come crashing down. But on the bench press, all the weight is over your chest. You could collapse your rib cage that way. So you have someone spot you, which means they stand over you ready to catch the weight if it looks like you aren't going to be able to get it back up."
"That makes sense."
"All right. I'll be back in to check on you in half an hour," he said.
Jeff was overjoyed. As Mr. Williams left the room, he found himself alone with Kari for the first time. She offered to show him her routine that she usually did when working out, and he readily agreed. Not only did he want to get an idea of how it was all supposed to fit together, but it also gave him an excuse to just look at her.
She showed him how to alternate sets on one machine with sets on another so as to work different muscle groups while keeping the heart rate up. They took turns on the different machines, though Jeff had to take frequent breaks because he couldn't keep up with someone as fit as she was. She gave him encouraging comments, making him feel much more confident with his shortcomings, telling him that he would get better over time.
They tried the bench press then. Kari went first, and Jeff stood over her, staring down into her beautiful face. Even all sweaty as she was, she still looked gorgeous. Then Jeff took a turn, and found it just as pleasant to stare up into her beautiful face as she stood over him with that encouraging smile.
Afterward, they took a break, resting from the exertion.
"You're not used to working out," commented Kari, noticing him panting.
"No I'm not. Apparently you are, though."
"It's my dad's fault. He's always been big into sports, but he doesn't have any sons to throw a football around with or play basketball with. So he had to make do with what he had. That's what got me started on athletic activities."
"Whatever the cause, I think you turned out great."
Kari laughed. "I think you did too, Jeff," she replied.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"You may not be as physical as me, but you've got plenty of other good qualities. Speaking of which, this is the first chance I've had to thank you," said Kari.
"Thank me? What for?"
"For getting me out of summer school."
"That? Oh, that was my stepmom's idea."
"But you're the one who decided you wanted to help me."
"Oh, yeah, I guess so."
"That incident in the cafeteria was so embarrassing. I wanted to die. Everyone else was laughing at me, but you felt bad enough to do something about it."
"I just don't like to see people cry, that's all."
"Well, that just means you're a decent person, unlike most of the kids in school."
"I suppose so. Besides, it's not the first time I've seen you cry."
"Really?" asked Kari. "What was the other time?"
"Um... maybe I shouldn't mention it. I mean, it might bring up painful memories."
"Just tell me, Jeff."
"Okay. It was at your mother's funeral five years ago."
"Oh, that. Don't worry, Jeff. It doesn't bother me to think about it any more. That was a long time ago. Besides, we all knew it was coming, so she was able to talk to us to prepare us for it."
"It was cancer, wasn't it?"
Kari nodded. "Your dad and my dad were good friends back then, weren't they?" she asked.
"Yep. That's why he made us go to the funeral. I'll tell you what, though, as sad as it was to see you crying, it was the weirdest sight to see a big, scary guy like your dad crying too."
She laughed. "You think he's scary?"
"You think he's not?"
"Oh, Dad's just a big teddy bear. He's the greatest guy in the world if you give him half a chance."
"Yeah, he wasn't half as frightening today as he was in P.E. class this year."
"I guess he doesn't show that other side of himself very often, at least outside of our family, or at funerals."
"I think that was the first time I started noticing you," said Jeff.
"Noticing me?" asked Kari, and Jeff realized he had just made a big mistake.
"I mean... I had never even seen you before that."
"And you've been stalking me ever since," Kari grinned.
"I didn't mean it that way!" he exclaimed, blushing.
"But you have been 'noticing me'?" she asked.
"Well... I guess."
For some reason that he couldn't quite fathom, her face lit up in a smile at those words. "So how come we never talk at school then?" she asked.
"Are you kidding? A nerd like me talking to a popular girl like you?"
"If you believe in all those stereotypes. I never did."
"That's easy for a popular girl like you, but not for a nerd like me."
"Have you ever thought that maybe that's the reason I'm popular?"
"So you wouldn't have minded if I just came up and started talking with you, right in front of all your friends?"
"Of course not. I would have felt flattered."
"Yes. Most of the kids at school are too preoccupied with how other people think of them. That's why they organize themselves in their little cliques or groups or things. It's all about their identity. So if someone were to just come up to me out of the blue and start talking with me, I'd take it as a sign that they were more interested in me than in how I thought of them."
"I guess you have a point."
"So now that you've actually met me, you'll talk to me at school, won't you?"
"I don't know," he grinned, feeling a lot better about things now. "As a self-declared nerd, it is my solemn duty to only worship popular girls from afar, never to speak to them. I mean, what would people think of me?"
"Oh, very funny. Well if you're not going to talk to me, I'll have to talk to you instead."
"No! You threaten the very foundation of the established order!"
"Didn't you know? It's my mission in life to destroy the established order. I'm recruiting volunteers for the cause. Do you want to sign up?"
"I don't know. What's in it for me?"
"For starters, you get to be seen in the company of a so-called popular girl."
"Oh. As long as she's pretty."
"Me, you idiot," she grinned, slapping him playfully on the shoulder.
"Well you certainly meet the requirements."
"You think I'm pretty?" she asked.
"Oh, I wouldn't exactly say 'pretty.'"
"I'd say you're more like... oh, about halfway between 'beautiful' and 'gorgeous.'"
Kari laughed. "I never knew you were such a flirt, Jeff."
"If we're going to single-handedly tear down the whole establishment, I need to practice not being shy with popular girls."
"Well you can practice with me any time you want."
"Good. So how's this? I--"
Just then, Mr. Williams appeared in the doorway, and Jeff decided it wasn't a good idea to continue along those lines at the moment. Instead, he said that he had finished working out, so they called it quits for the day. Since they hadn't had a full workout, there was no need for showers, but Mr. Williams said that for future reference, Jeff should come dressed in gym clothes and bring a change of clothes with him. Kari did insist on at least running upstairs to the bathroom to wash her face, since she had broken a sweat, so the two men went into the kitchen to get some lunch. Crystal joined them there, and spent the whole time teasing him about how Kari lacked taste in the boys she brought home. It was all in fun, of course, and Jeff was used to getting the same treatment at home. Crystal was just like Brit!
Kari joined them a few minutes later, and she somehow managed to turn the tables on her little sister, asking her why she didn't have a boyfriend, and making reference to every boy Crystal's age that she could think of. Jeff was in awe. That was an art he had never learned with Brit, how to turn the teasing around like that. Usually his attempts were more vicious and hurtful, and sometimes brought Brit to tears, but when he was honest with himself, it was because she was so much better at teasing than he was that it was the only way he could gain some kind of power over her.
After lunch, Allen, Kari, and Jeff climbed into his car and he drove them back to his house. Allison met them at the door.
"Allen and Kari, I presume?" she greeted.
"Yes, and you must be Allison," replied Allen.
"Right. It's good to meet you two. I hope Jeff wasn't any trouble."
"Not at all. Once we got going, he started getting enthusiastic about it. If you wouldn't mind, will you tell your husband that I would like him to call me? I'd like to have the three of us sit down and decide on some equipment to order for Jeff to use."
"Certainly. Jeff, why don't you take Kari inside? I'd like to talk to her father for a minute."
"Come on, Kari," said Jeff. "I'll show you around."
He led her into the house, where she gazed up at the ceiling in the great hall. "Wow!" she said. "This is great!"
"I like it," Jeff shrugged. "Here, let me show you the rec room." The two of them headed downstairs, where they found Brit sitting on the couch watching TV. She glanced up as soon as they entered the room.
"So this is Kari," said Brit.
"Hi," greeted Kari cheerfully. "What's your name?"
"It's nice to meet you. How old are you, Brit?"
"I'm twelve," she replied.
"You know, I've got a sister your age. I think you'd like her. Maybe I'll bring her along next time."
"Thanks. You're very nice." Then with a malicious grin, she added, "No wonder Jeff is madly in love with you."
Jeff felt he wanted to die. He had been so happy all day in Kari's presence, and now, suddenly, his bratty sister had spoiled it in an instant.
"Brit!" he shouted, moving toward her.
Then he felt a hand on his arm, which stopped him. He glanced over and realized that it was Kari's. Her touch, though a simple gesture, was thrilling enough to put all thoughts aside of pounding on Brit.
"Don't worry," Kari said with a smile. "Remember, I know what it's like to be teased about every boy I like, or even every boy I happen to be alone with for a few minutes. You've met my sister Crystal, after all. Sounds like Brit's the same way."
Jeff felt overwhelming gratitude toward her. She was taking this extremely good-naturedly, and, thankfully, she didn't ask him whether it was true or not.
"Yeah, she is," he said. "She can be such a pain sometimes." Feeling his confidence building once again, he decided to be a little daring. "So..." he said, "do you have a boyfriend right now?"
Kari glanced over at Brit for a moment, then back at him. "Better not say in front of her. Here." She leaned in close, and for one exhilarating moment, he thought she was going to kiss him. But she maneuvered her face to the side of his head and brought her lips close to his ear. It wasn't what he had hoped, but just being this near her was tremendously exciting.
"I haven't had a boyfriend since second grade," she whispered in his ear.
Then she drew back, and laughed. "So what do you think about that?"
"Wow!" he joked. "I had no idea anyone's love life could be so extensive! You'll have to give me all the sordid details some time." They both laughed at that.
"What did you say to him?" Britney demanded.
"Never you mind," said Kari.
Allison came down the stairs then, a couple of large books and a binder full of papers in her hands. "So Kari," she said, "are you ready to get started?"
"I suppose," Kari replied, unenthusiastically.
"Good. Jeff, why don't you and Brit go upstairs? I've got a sample test that I'd like to give Kari just to see where her strong and weak points are, and the last thing she needs is to have someone looking over her shoulder making her feel self-conscious."
"So make Kari go upstairs instead," said Brit. "I was here first."
"No dear. I'd like a relaxing atmosphere for the test, and I think the rec room would be perfect. Would you do that for me Brit, please?"
"Oh, all right."
"Is it all right if I stay, Kari?" asked Jeff.
"I don't think that would be a good idea," Allison told him. "Not unless you want to take the test too."
"Okay," he said.
"Really?" asked Kari.
"I've got nothing better to do," he shrugged. "To tell you the truth, I could use a little extra help in math myself."
"But you're on vacation, and this is too much like school."
"Knowing Allison, I suspect it won't feel anything like school at all."
"It's up to you, Kari," Allison said. "If it bothers you, I'm sure Jeff would be happy to leave us alone."
"Oh, it doesn't bother me," Kari smiled. "In fact, with him here I won't feel quite so intimidated."
"It's settled then. I think I printed out an extra copy of the test in case you needed it."
Brit headed upstairs, and Jeff and Kari sat down on the couches. Allison went over to the closet and retrieved a couple of TV trays for them to do their work on. She handed them the four-page test and pencils.
"You can take all the time you need," Allison said. "There's no time limit, so don't race. Jeff, we already know you got better grades in math last year than Kari did, so don't be too competitive; I'm sure Kari wouldn't appreciate that."
As soon as they began the test, Allison went over and sat down in a chair in the other side of the room, booting up her laptop.
Most of the questions on the test weren't that hard, except for a few that he recognized as trigonometry, which he hadn't learned at all yet. There were also some geometry questions involving formal proofs that he had never really been good at, but the rest was basic algebra.
Jeff finished the test in about forty-five minutes, and Allison suggested he go upstairs until Kari finished, since it wouldn't do to have him sitting there making her feel self-conscious. He headed up the stairs, where he found Brit sitting on the couch.
"You were down there a long time," she said. "Of course, I'm not surprised, since you got a chance to be alone with both the girls you've been lusting after for years."
"Shut up, Brit!" he snapped. "For your information, all I did was take a math test."
"You would actually take a math test out of choice? You must be in love."
"Shut up, Brit!" he said again.
"So now that you've seen Allison and Kari together, which one do you like best?" she taunted.
"Shut up, Brit!" he said again. Then he forced himself to adopt a calmer tone. "You realize, I know where you sleep. Maybe I'll go outside and collect a jar full of ants, and dump it out on your face tonight after you're asleep."
"I'll lock my door," she countered.
"I'll pick the lock."
"I'll tell Dad."
"Tell him what? He won't believe you until it's too late, and any punishment he gives me will be worth it. Let's see. Where would I find an empty jar?" He got up and headed into the kitchen.
Brit followed him, grabbing him by the arm. "Jeff, don't," she pleaded.
"I think there are some jars in the pantry," he said, ignoring her.
He looked down at her, surprised to see fear in her eyes.
Jeff burst out laughing. "You believed me?" he taunted. "How stupid can you get?"
Her fear turned to anger. "You're a big jerk!" she snapped, then went back to the front room and sat down on the couch.
Once again he had overdone it. Now she would be in a bad mood for the rest of the day, and that wouldn't be pleasant with Kari around to see it. He followed her into the front room.
"Okay, I'm sorry," he told her. "I shouldn't have scared you like that, and I shouldn't have called you stupid. I was just mad because you teased me about Kari."
"Okay, fine, you're sorry. Now go away."
Then he had a wicked idea. "Wait a minute," he said. "I'm not through. I didn't say I wasn't going to punish you. You still have it coming."
"What are you going to do?" she asked, her eyes going wide.
"Well for starters, this!" He immediately thrust his fingers into her side and began to tickle her. She squealed and laughed, fighting him off.
A moment later, they heard footsteps on the stairs, and Allison appeared there. Immediately Jeff stopped attacking his sister.
"What's going on here?" asked Allison, walking over to them.
"Nothing," said Jeff.
"He was tickling me!" Brit accused.
"Oh he was, was he?" she asked. "Jeff, is this true?"
"Well, she deserved it."
"Whether that's true or not, Kari's trying to take a test downstairs. The last thing she needs is a bunch of noise going on up above her." She put a hand on Jeff's shoulder. "Now Jeff, you're the only one who had a choice in the matter."
Brit stuck her tongue out at him.
"So I'm afraid you're the one who has to be punished," Allison continued.
"But--" Jeff began to protest, but she didn't give him a chance to answer. She immediately caught him in a full-nelson headlock, immobilizing him.
"Time for revenge, Brit," she grinned.
His little sister wasted no time, but sprang forward and began to tickle him the same way he had tickled her. He couldn't hold back the laughter as she tormented him with the sensation; he was actually just as ticklish as Brit.
Kari appeared at the top of the stairs a minute later. "What's going on here?" she asked.
"I caught Jeff tormenting his sister," Allison explained. "Come help us punish him."
Kari grinned and began to walk over.
"No!" Jeff exclaimed in both fear and delight. Three against one was unfair; on the other hand, any kind of physical horseplay with Kari sounded fun, even if it meant being tickled by her.
She attacked him mercilessly, digging her fingers into his sides and below his arms. All he could do was push with his feet to try to keep away from her. As it turned out, that strategy worked in the end, because Allison suddenly lost her balance and had to release him to keep from falling over. That didn't work out quite so nicely for Jeff, because he fell backward. Since he had pinned Kari's hands under his arms trying to keep her fingers away from his armpits, he took her with him, and a second later he found himself flat on his back with Kari lying on top of him. They stared at each other for a moment in shock.
"Ooh, look at the lovebirds!" Brit giggled.
"Shut up!" Jeff and Kari both told her at the same time, then they broke down laughing. Kari got up off of him and rose to her feet, then reached down and helped him up.
"Sorry about that," she said.
"Oh, that's okay," he smiled. "It wasn't your fault. Just tell me one thing."
"Are you ticklish too?" He tickled her sides, and she suddenly yelped and jumped back, a grin on her face.
"Apparently so," he said. "So now that I know your secret, how about we call a truce?"
"I was hoping you would say that."
"Good. Now, I wonder if between the two of us we have enough firepower to take on both Allison and Brit?"
"You can try," Allison said with a prideful grin. "But it's only fair to warn you, if you do, I'll show no mercy. And by the way, I've never lost a battle."
Jeff and Kari glanced at each other. "Maybe a cease-fire is in order," Kari said.
"So do I," said Allison.
"So do I," said Brit.
"Good," Allison said. "So Kari, does this mean you're finished with your test?"
"Yes I am."
"All right. That's all for today then. I'll grade them tonight, and tomorrow we'll start to make plans for the rest of the summer. So I can drive you home now if you want, or you can stay here for a couple more hours."
"Well, there's really no rush," said Kari, to Jeff's delight. The fact that she preferred to stay here meant that at the very least, her attitude toward him was positive rather than neutral.
"Okay. Jeff, why don't you and Kari go back downstairs and shoot some pool or play some ping-pong?"
"I'm really not that good at either or those," said Kari.
"Perfect!" laughed Jeff. "Maybe now I can finally piece together my shattered ego after you've proven yourself better than I am at everything else today."
Kari giggled, but she apparently enjoyed the compliment. "Don't worry. As soon as you see my math test score, you won't have any problem with your ego. But as long as you promise not to laugh at me, ping-pong sounds fun."
They headed downstairs and played for a couple of hours. At first, Kari couldn't manage to hit anything, but Jeff was very patient with her, and soon she began to gain a little skill and self-confidence. By the end of the session, she was playing quite competitively, although that was partly because Jeff went easy on her.
They were having so much fun that they didn't realize how long they had been playing until Allison came downstairs and announced that it was time to drive Kari home. Jeff saw her to the door, and then Allison and Kari headed out to the car, which left Jeff and Brit alone together.
Although Jeff was in a good mood, he still had unfinished business with his sister. After her teasing, she deserved to be punished, and now she was going to get it.
"You've been a bad girl," he told her with a wicked grin. Her eyes grew wide with horror, but she had a smile on her lips. She knew what was coming.
Immediately she squealed in terror, half-laughing, and turned to run out of the room. Jeff chased her up the stairs, and she hurried into her own room, trying to slam the door behind her. Jeff was too fast.
"No!" she shouted, still giggling.
Jeff pounced, grabbing her and throwing her on the bed. He thrust his fingers under her armpits and tickled her. She laughed until she started crying, but he wouldn't let up.
Somehow she managed to get her legs up between them and thrust her knees into his stomach to push him away. He stumbled and fell on the floor. While he was down, she tried to make a dash for freedom, but he caught her around the waist. Standing once again, he threw her onto the bed.
This time he climbed on top of her, pinning her down. He pulled both of her arms up and at an angle to the side so that she was completely helpless.
"Say the words!" he demanded. This was a game he had invented when she was younger. She had been bratty back then also, and after she had been particularly nasty, he loved to torture her like this.
"No!" she insisted, sticking her tongue out at him.
"Say them!" he repeated.
"Oh, all right! Now I'm completely at your mercy. You can do anything you want to me, and I can't stop you. My body is yours to play with." It was kind of humiliating, but that was the point.
Sometimes when he got her like this he tickled her mercilessly. Sometimes he even tied her up, with the pieces of rope that she had sitting on the headboard of her bed. He didn't know why she kept them there when she knew what they would be used for. Maybe she had a masochistic streak and liked this game more than she admitted.
Today, though, he wasn't in the mood to do anything really sadistic to her. After all, despite Brit's teasing, she hadn't really spoiled the day. It had turned out rather well, in fact.
"Say you're sorry," was all he demanded.
"I'm sorry," she repeated.
He released her and sat up. She rose to a sitting position as well, panting and out of breath after the ordeal.
Then she threw her arms around his neck and lay her head on his shoulder. "I really am sorry, Jeff," she said.
He could never stay mad at her for long, especially when she was this affectionate. He put his arm around her waist. "Promise you won't tease me about Kari again?" he asked gently.
"All right. It's settled then."
"So you're not mad at me any more?" she asked, though it was with a playful, rather than meek, tone.