Home > Exploring the Rules (The Dating Playbook #4)

Exploring the Rules (The Dating Playbook #4)
Author: Mariah Dietz








Phone charger

Portable charger




I check the last few items off of my list and nervously bite the end of my pen. I know I’m forgetting something—can feel it nagging in the back of my mind.

“You have everything,” Vanessa assures me.

“I feel like I’m forgetting something,” I admit.

She shakes her head. “You’ve been making that list for a month. Trust me. You have everything.” She turns her attention to her phone, likely checking in with Cooper for the hundredth time this morning. She’s jittery with excitement and nerves, and it’s starting to become contagious.

My conviction to be calmer and less ‘high strung’ as my ex, Ricky Benson, so eloquently put it before we broke up last month, has me shoving my list into my purse to keep from checking it a fourth time. Those weren’t my only traits that annoyed Ricky. He hated my list-making and planning, as well as my habit of focusing on laws and rules and regulations—both defined and unwritten, like telling your best friend she has something stuck in her teeth or not stopping in the middle of a busy sidewalk. Rules are important in this world where so many things are blurred, and few things give me as much comfort. Maybe it’s because I’m the oldest—albeit only by seven minutes—or because I’m majoring in astrophysics to be an astronomer, where every law of physics is fundamental—but rules bring me purpose, structure, focus, and a sense of security.

I look down at our bags and panic begins to swell in my chest like a balloon being blown up as I consider how many rules will be stretched and broken this summer as we travel across the country with my best friend and Vanessa’s latest crush, Cooper Sutton.

“This has to be the worst idea ever.” I grip my purse even tighter, trying to ignore the fact my palms are sweating from nerves.

“Chloe.” My sister makes my name four syllables. “We’ve definitely had worse ideas than making a cross country trip with our best friend. Plus, the meteor shower. California. There’s no way we’d have been able to go without Cooper driving us,” Vanessa reminds me again as she toes one of the suitcases, lining it up with the others.

“I know, I know,” I try not to grumble my admission because as much as I’d like to pretend otherwise, she’s right.

At the beginning of summer, we ended our sophomore year at Brighton University in Seattle, Washington by putting most of our things into storage and flew home to Jacksonville, Florida. We’ve spent the past two months lying by the pool, picking up shifts at The Grille that our Uncle Pete owns and where he’s offered us employment since we were sixteen, and finding every excuse to take naps and visit the beach.

It feels like summer just began, and already it’s ending.

That sour note, combined with the fact we’re going to be in a car for long periods with Cooper, who I know Nessie will be flirting with, has tainted the appeal of this trip—even seeing the Perseids meteor shower. We’re watching it from the Aether Observatory in San Francisco, where I was personally invited by their astrology team to come and celebrate and witness the annual event that has become something I look forward to each year like a holiday. The shower leaves trails of bright lights in the sky like fireworks—beautiful and mesmerizing.

My short nails bite into my palms as my thoughts veer back to Nessie and Cooper. Cooper is my best friend aside from Vanessa. Sometimes it feels like Nessie and I are two halves to a whole, but Cooper is like my carbon copy, making him equally easy—sometimes easier—for me to understand. He’s also a nice guy, which is a big change from the guys Nessie generally goes for and the only reason I’m trying to find hope that her feelings are genuine. Well, that and because although he hasn’t outright told me, I know Cooper has been in love with Nessie for the past decade … maybe longer.

Coop and I became instant friends when we were in the third grade. Back then he preferred chess to football and chips to cookies, and unlike most of the guys in our class who were starting to become cruder and grosser as they neared puberty, Cooper was grounded and kind and quiet, and we found solace together in the library and the treehouse Dad built with us over spring break.

Jealousy plays a small factor in my hesitation for them starting a relationship. I’m terrified to consider what might happen when they break up; a harsh thought, but considering Nessie’s longest relationship has been three months, it seems nearly inevitable.

Mom and Dad head toward us, ending my thoughts and making my breath catch in my throat. Mom’s face is red, tears building on her lower lashes. I hug her first. She rubs soothing circles on my back as I make a vow to myself not to cry yet again.

“You guys are going to have the best time,” she says. Her long hair, which is mostly gray, is curled in relaxed waves that tickle my face, but I don’t attempt to pull away or brush them aside. She smells of lavender and honey from the homemade soap we make in large batches each year. I attempt to memorize it all, knowing how much I’ll miss them this fall.

Guilt and regret are like tectonic plates in my chest, hitting and creating a mountain of doubt. I don’t know why I agreed to leave with Nessie nearly three weeks early to travel back to Seattle. I could spend these last weeks with our parents, soaking up more of the Florida sun, taking another trip to Disney World, and enjoying time with my family and friends, but instead, I chose a meteor shower.

Mom pulls back, the gold chain she wears around her neck catching the light of the sun before she hugs Vanessa. Dad engulfs me in a bear hug. I appreciate these moments with him. I’ve watched some dads get weird around their daughters—hugs become side-hugs, and they act like hearing the word tampon or period will scar their manhood. Our dad has immersed himself into the world of being a girl dad and embraces the fact, loving us to the point he learned how to French braid, the names of each Disney Princess, and the value of good chocolate when one of us was having a bad day.

“You guys will remember to text us periodically? And stick together. No drinking or texting while driving. And no picking up any hitchhikers,” Dad says as he pulls back, his eyes red and heavy from lack of sleep. He hasn’t been subtle about his concerns for our trip, which is likely why I’ve kept my concerns mostly to myself until this afternoon. It’s not that his concerns aren’t valid—some of them even match my own—it’s just that hearing his concerns about something that started as my idea makes me wish even more that I could be easygoing.

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