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I shower, get dressed, make it all the way to my car, before I realize that I left my cell phone in my apartment. I pat my pockets, check my purse, and glance at the dashboard to see if the Bluetooth symbol is illuminated—it isn’t. I groan audibly as I switch off the ignition and rush back into the cold. It’s mid-March, yet the thermometer has barely reached thirty degrees this week, and with the wind whipping through the air, the “real feel” is in the single digits.
Back inside my apartment I locate my phone on the kitchen counter, still plugged into the charger. As I pick it up, my eyes scan over several notifications, one of which is a text message from Bill.
Bill: Hi, Sweetie. Just got back from the airport with my parents. Reservations are at seven. Are you on your way?
I glance at the clock. It’s five forty-five. I can make it across town with plenty of time to spare—I think. Bill’s perpetually early, as in, if we do not arrive twenty minutes prior to the start of any function—and I do mean any and every function— he panics. He’s chronically early; I’m chronically late. We balance each other out…in theory, anyway.
My thumb swipes the screen, but my fingers are too cold to register the touch, so I drop the phone and blow into my hands in an attempt to warm them up. A minute later, I type a quick message to Bill.
Riley: Omw. Left ten minutes ago.
This is an outright lie; I’m still standing in my kitchen and I would never text and drive. He should know that after nine months of dating, but he simply agrees.
His response is simple. Quick. Efficient. Just like him.
I knock on Bill’s front door thirty minutes later—traffic was heavier and slower than I anticipated. His mother and father are seated on the sofa. It’s not the first time I’m meeting them, but every time they visit I have the feeling I should be walking on eggshells. They’re prim and proper, formal, refined—the exact opposite of me.
“Mr. and Mrs. Lewg.” I smile as I embrace first his father, then his mother, in the world’s most awkward hug. “So good to see you.”
“Lovely to see you, dear.” Mrs. Lewg—Carole, though she’s never told me to call her that—says. “Bill was just telling us he has a special announcement before we leave for dinner.”
“Oh?” I raise my eyebrows as I turn toward Bill. My mind quickly scans over our last few conversations. I can’t remember him talking about any major deal specifically, apart from the new property, but that deal closed weeks ago. All right, okay, I may not pay one hundred percent attention when he blabs on and on about investment properties or the price per square foot of Building A versus Building B, but can you blame me? Commercial real estate is freaking boring. Take it from me, I should know; it’s all Bill ever seems to talk about.
“Riley.” Bill makes no effort to move from in front of the mantle where he stands, but he extends his hand and pulls me toward him. “Can you come here for one second? There’s something I want to ask you. Something I’ve wanted to ask you for a long time.”
The smiling face of my roommate pops to mind and her words bounce around my brain. You’ll be engaged before me. But surely that’s not what this is. We haven’t been together that long. I haven’t even given him a key to my apartment yet. He just met my family.
“Riley Ann Jones.” He takes both my hands, and I will myself to close my mouth, which gapes open in the most unflattering way.
Oh, shit. Oh, no. Fuck. Please don’t let him be asking what I think he’s going to—
“This past year…” —nine months, I automatically correct in my head— “has been the happiest year of my life. You’re everything that I want in a life partner: smart, beautiful, kind, honest…”
I swallow. I’m not so honest.
He drops to one knee, looks up at me with caring brown eyes. “Would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
My gaze darts around the room, heart beating wildly in my chest, not from excitement, but from fear.
His mother smiles at me encouragingly, as Bill cracks open a small, velvet jewelry box. “It was my grandmother’s. It’s been in our family for generations. I asked my mother to bring it in with her.” He waves with his free hand to where his parents sit. “It’s part of the reason why they flew in early.” He smiles again. “So, will you? Will you be my wife?”
Holy fuck. Bill scrunches his nose and I press my lips together, sending another silent prayer heavenward that I didn’t just say fuck in front of his parents. In front of my (potential) future in-laws.
“Kind of waiting on an answer here, Riley.” His voice jokes, but I can see the tension around his eyes.
I squeeze my eyes tight, swallow a deep breath, and nod. “Yes.” My voice is the faintest of whispers. “Yes, I’ll marry you.”
“Wonderful!” his mother exclaims, clapping her hands in front of her chest. Bill pulls himself to his feet and slips the ring onto my left finger. It’s delicate, a solitaire, round-cut stone, light and classy, but it feels like a heavy anchor pulling me down. I’m suffocating. Sinking. Drowning.
Mr. Lewg claps Bill on the back. “Congratulations, son.” They shake hands as though they’re business associates rather than father and son.
Bill locks eyes with me, the megawatt smile that is plastered on every billboard within a thirty-mile radius beams at me. He mouths “I love you,” but all I can do is nod, because there’s only one thought looping through my mind right now, and if I’m not careful, the words will escape and topple the house of cards that I’ve struggled to build this entire year.
Those words are on my mind throughout our indulgent, five-course meal.
They’re there later that night when Bill makes love to me and tells me how happy he is.
And they’re still there long after his breath has slowed and he has fallen asleep. Then, and only then, do I let the devastating truth fall past my lips:
He’s not Jesse.
Two words: Senior year. A tight coil of nerves, equal parts excitement and dread, sits low in my belly. My emotions run the gamut...happiness because I finally made it; sadness because it will all be over too soon; anticipation to see all my friends after a long three months. And Jesse.
I run down the stairs and make a quick stop in the kitchen to grab a banana for breakfast. “’Morning, honey,” my mom calls from near the sink.
“Good morning,” I parrot, voice light and breathless as I glance at the clock on the microwave. Jesse will be here in two minutes.
“You all ready for your first day?” my dad asks, as he walks into the room with my little sister, still half asleep, nestled in his arms.
“As ready as I’ll ever be.” I grab my backpack from the bench alongside the front door and hoist it onto my shoulder.
A car horn blares.
“Jesse’s here,” my mom states, even though it’s unnecessary. Who else would be in our driveway at 7:15 a.m. on a Monday morning?
My dad sneaks in a quick hug. “Bye, kiddo.”
“Good luck, honey.” My mom kisses my cheek.
“Bye, Ry-Ry.” Mikayla leaps into my arms. “Have fun at the big kids’ school.”
I squeeze my arms tighter around her. “And you have fun at the little kids’ school.”
I know that it’s practically mandatory to hate your little sister—or at the very least, be annoyed by said sister—but Mikayla is twelve years younger than me, so there isn’t any of the typical sibling rivalry. And when I do have to babysit her (on the rare occasion), I can’t complain, because who doesn’t like to watch Disney movies (although she was stuck on Zootopia for quite a while) and scarf cookie dough ice cream right from the container? Answer: no one.
The sound of the horn pierces the air again, and I rush toward the door. My entire family follows me out as though they’re sending me off to boot camp for six weeks rather than sending me to school for six hours.
“Bye.” I wave as I toss my bag into the backseat of Jesse’s old Honda Civic. “See ya later.”
“Riley.” Jesse leans over the console and wraps me in his huge arms. The happiness of seeing him is only slightly overshadowed by the fact that my parents and six-year-old sister are watching us. “I’ve missed you.”
I pull back and smooth my hands through my hair. “Couldn’t have missed me that much.” His brows wrinkle in confusion, so I continue. “You got in two days ago?” My voice rises at the end, and he nods in confirmation. “And I’m just seeing you now?” I smile to let him know I’m teasing, although I am a little hurt that I didn’t warrant more than a quick text message indicating he was home. Hell, we’ve been best friends, nearly inseparable, since we were five, and the fact that he was gone for the entire summer visiting his dad meant that we had a lot to catch up on.
He dips his head and scratches the back of his neck. “You know how my mom is. She took the whole weekend off work, and then we went to my grandmother’s house to visit.”
“In West County?” I question, surprised because his grandmother lives almost two hours away from us.
“Yep.” He nods, and then smiles his beautiful smile. The one that is special, only for me. “Don’t worry. I’m all yours now.”
“I sure hope you mean that, because you missed a lot over the summer.”
He puts the car in reverse, and I wave to my family one last time. “What’s your schedule? What period do you have lunch?”
Even though I have my schedule memorized, I still put it up on my phone to double check. “Fifth.”
“Sweet.” He glances my way. “Me, too.”
We pull into the school parking lot not even ten minutes later, and there are people… everywhere. For a moment I’m shocked by how much hasn’t changed.
Teachers and principals like to babble on at the beginning of a new school year with (corny) inspirational messages such as: New year! New you! You can succeed. Make good choices. Blah. Blah. Blah. But nothing ever changes. Not really.
My eyes scan the parking lot. Rachael Trunk, Tori Weether, Heather Plum, and Melissa Riche still roll up in Rachel’s flashy red Jetta. And Phillip McNorg and Bryan Traitor are still drop-dead gorgeous and two of Adams High’s most popular boys. Veronica Tish and Will Feeble are still Star Wars obsessed, with their dark black jeans and matching white Storm Troopers t-shirts. Same cliques, different day.
I rub my sweaty palms on my own denim-clad legs and heave a deep breath. Thirteen years of school. Thirteen first days. You would think I’d be a pro by now…but I’m not. I’m freaking nervous as hell.
Truth: I’m not what you would consider popular. Not by any means. While the reverse is also true—I’m not unpopular—I’m more of a drifter. I earn good grades—it’s not that I’m exceptionally smart, it’s just that I actually try in my classes. A good chunk of my friends are what could be classified as nerds. But I also became good friends with several people from my yearbook class, and they’d be grouped with the artists.
And then there’s Jesse. He’s my saving grace because he is popular. He’s friends with Phillip McNorg and Bryan Traitor. He’s considered the third (and quite possibly the most) popular boy at Adams High. They’re all starters on the school’s varsity basketball team. And just to be clear, basketball is a huge deal, as in, the entire school attends varsity basketball games. There’s a whole student pep squad dubbed “The Pack” that cheers exclusively for Phillip, Bryan, and Jesse, otherwise known as PB & J. The Adams Vikings won the state championship three years in a row. This year will make number four.
“You okay?” Jesse’s hand reaches over the center console and grazes my arm.
I glance at him and nod my head. “Yeah.”
“Yeah?” he questions one more time, and this time I smile to mask my nerves. “You ready to do this?”
My fingers grip the door handle and I answer the same way I did to my dad not even a half hour before. “As I’ll ever be.”
I still remember the blue T-rex t-shirt Jesse was wearing the first day we met. I was heavy into my princess phase (okay, okay, I still think Disney princesses are cool, but that’s beside the point). I was playing in my green turtle sandbox, attempting to replicate Cinderella’s castle. My tools were subpar, at best; I had a half-broken plastic bucket, a rake, and one slim shovel that bent every time I tried digging with it. Of course, I didn’t realize any of this at the time, but I digress.
Jesse walked up my blacktop driveway, dark hair slightly frizzy, vibrant blue eyes striking against his caramel skin.
Personal note: We live in a very small town, and up until that moment, I had never seen someone with a different skin color than my own which was white, not the beautiful porcelain white of China dolls, but more like the color of dried paste.
Jesse was different. Exotic. Beautiful.
Even at my young age, he sparked something inside me, not sexual attraction, of course, but something deeper, as if my spirit sensed a kindred soul, that caused me to want to be near him.
“Hi.” He extended his hand rather formally, but his voice was quite direct for a five year old. “I’m Jesse. Can I play with you?”
I’d barely said “Yes” before he sat down and was digging around the moat I’d created near the two lopsided spires of the castle.
He lifted my cracked, pink bucket. “This is broken.”
“My daddy stepped on it,” I answered, still combing my rake through the sand.
He didn’t say anything else, just lifted the bucket and began packing it full with damp dirt. I’m not sure how much time had passed, but before I knew it, we had constructed a complex structure of ten towers, including a fortress to protect against the flying dragons. I was entirely sure that there were no dragons in my kingdom, but Jesse insisted and I only acquiesced after he assured me it was for the princess’ safety.
“Jesse!” a woman’s voice called. “Jesse!” It was loud and deep, so unlike the thin, high voice of my mother.
He stood, dusted off his hands and turned back toward the small crack in the fence that divided our properties. A short, heavyset woman rounded the corner and walked into my family’s yard through the gate.
“Jesse Samuel!” the woman scolded. “What did I tell you about staying in our yard?”
“I’m sorry.” He bowed his head, but sneaked a quick glance my way.
She placed a hand over her heart. “You scared me half to death!” Then, if only just realizing I was there, her gaze shifted to me. She had the same striking blue eyes as Jesse and the same warm smile, but her skin was milky white. Like snow.
She turned her head back to Jesse, her voice softening. “You made a friend?”
“I’m Riley Ann,” I offered. “We built a sandcastle for the princess.”
“Wow.” She moved closer to the sandbox. “You two did a very good job.”
Jesse returned her easy smile, immediately setting me at ease.
“Jesse.” She ran her hand over his coarse hair, and my fingers itched to touch it, too. I imagined it would feel grainy, like the sand we’d just been playing in. “Supper is ready. You two can play after dinner if Riley’s parents say it’s okay.”
Jesse’s mom had already turned back toward their yard, but Jesse ran toward me and embraced me in a quick hug. “Bye.”
“Bye, Jesse,” I squeaked, as I watched him slip back through the fence.
That day Jesse Samuel Collins slipped into my yard, but he’s been slipping his way into my heart ever since.
“Not to sound like a dick, Ry, but did you lose weight?” Jesse asks me, as we eat our lunches at one of the long cafeteria tables. A slice of cheese pizza for him and a low-fat strawberry yogurt for myself.
My cheeks flame as his eyes continue to drag over me. “Maybe.” I shrug to downplay how hard I worked at losing those last ten pounds this summer. I was always a bit round. Baby weight my mother had called it. And she was right, for the most part. I had thinned as I grew but those last few pounds were a bitch to get off.
I’d gotten up at 7:00 a.m. every morning for the past three months to go for a two-mile run (I couldn’t manage more than that) before the sun became too hot, and I counted calories daily. Sometimes I questioned why I cared so much—a huge part of me screamed: just eat the damn cake— but then I’d look at girls like Rachel, Heather, Tori, and Melissa, the popular girls, and my willpower would quadruple. Because one of my goals this year? Find a damn boyfriend. I didn’t want to have to hold Jesse to our secret pact to take me to our senior prom because I couldn’t find a date. #Pathetic
“Why?” His brows draw together in confusion, as though he couldn’t quite possibly understand why a seventeen-year-old girl would be worried about her weight. Even though I knew he didn’t understand my plight, I loved that he liked me just as I was, that I could be myself with him and not worry about what I looked like or what I ate.
“Why what?” Heather sets her lunch tray down across from where I sit. She plants herself right alongside Jesse. He may not be my boyfriend, but he’s still mine, and the way she tries to stake her claim annoys me. Heather doesn’t seem to get the message. Or maybe she just doesn’t care.
Jesse’s gaze lingers on mine and I implore him with my eyes not to share our conversation with her, Miss-I-Can-Eat-Whatever-I-Want-And-I’m-Still-A-Size-Zero.
Without missing a beat, he says, “Why does Prob and Stats suck ass?”
I smile, thankful he steered the attention away from me, even though I know math is his strongest subject.
“I have Miss Stocker, too.” Heather touches her fingertips to his arm, and even beneath the fabric of his blue polo, I can see his muscles tense. “Maybe we can study together some time.”
“Maybe.” He casually brushes her hand away. “Ry, are we riding home together? I have practice after school—”
“Already?” Heather cuts in. “But basketball doesn’t start for another…four months?”
Jesse gives me a What the fuck? look, but says, “Pre-season. Coach is riding us hard. Practice makes perfect and all that.” Jesse’s eyes cut to me again. “So, Ry, after school?”
Not giving me a second to answer, Heather continues. Again. “The Varsity Cheer Squad will be at all home basketball games this year. We’ve been practicing our new routine… I can’t wait to show you my new moves.”
He cuts his eyes to her, and I see it there, just for a moment, a look of uncontrolled lust as her words sink in, the innuendo clear. Then his voice takes on a harsher tone, a tone I recognize from the many times I’ve witnessed him giving a girl the brush-off. “Maybe some other time.”
Heather, bless her little heart, still doesn’t let her smile slip. “Okay.”
“So, Ry.” He turns back to me as he crumples his plate and gathers my trash. “See you around four?”
I try to convince myself that I’m not pathetic. I try to convince myself that there are plenty of teenagers who don’t have their own car to drive. Getting a ride with Jesse is a far better option than sitting on a cramped school bus for nearly forty minutes, when the drive to school barely takes ten from my house. I may not be popular, but even I have my standards; taking the school bus is so middle school.
But as I amble into the gym nearly an hour after the last bell, I can’t help but wonder if things are ever going to change for me. I was really convinced that if I lost those last few pounds, a whole new world of opportunity would open up for me. That I’d be more confident. More comfortable in my own skin. More like Heather “Hoe Bag” Plum.
Okay, okay, I know calling her a hoe bag isn’t nice. We women should stick together and all that jazz… But I know for a fact that she blew PB & J (not all at once, obviously) within a week of them winning the state championship last year. And really, was it truly an insult if I simply thought it in my head?
I’m pondering all this as she sidles up to Jesse, her short, pleated cheerleading skirt barely covering her Spanx-clad ass. I snort at my assessment. Heather Plum doesn’t need Spanx; her body is flawless.
“Penny for your thoughts.” Tod Daniels’ deep voice startles me, and I drop the three library books I’d been clutching at my chest in a death grip.
“Shit,” I mumble, as I bend to pick up the books. He bends, too, and our heads nearly collide, but at the last second I amble back, nearly falling on my butt. Real smooth, Riley.
He picks up the book nearest his feet. “Fahrenheit 51.” He taps the cover. “Good book.”
My eyes widen in surprise. “You’ve read it?”
“Yeah. Hancock’s class. Last year.”
I nod because I don’t know what else to say. I had Mr. Toliver, so I can’t even commiserate over the teacher. “That’s good.”
He smirks at me in a way that makes my stomach tingle. “Can you keep a secret, Riley?”
I nod, dumbfounded as to why he’s even talking to me. We had PE together last year for an entire semester, and not once did he acknowledge me. I’m actually surprised he knows my name.
An easy smile stretches across his face, and he leans in close. So close that I think he may kiss me, which is ridiculous, but my heart starts beating loudly in my chest anyway. He angles his head slightly as his lips hover over my ear. “I didn’t read it. But SparkNotes count for something, right?”
A nervous giggle escapes my mouth, but I’m spared from responding when Jesse approaches. He’s drenched in sweat, so teenage boy, so familiar, that a huge, genuine smile lights up my face. “Tod.” Jesse pounds Tod’s fist. “What’s up?” Then to me, “You ready, Ry?”
“Yep.” I grab my bag off the bleachers and turn toward the exit. “Bye,” I call over my shoulder to Tod.
Tod’s voice washes over me. “Hey.” Jesse and I both stop walking as Tod jogs toward us. “You forgot this.” He hands me the book he picked up.
“Thanks,” I mumble, as I add it to my stack.
But before I can turn away, Tod says, “Phillip’s having a party this Saturday. You know, a little back-to-school celebration. There’s going to be a keg and music and…” His voice trails off. “You’re gonna be there, right?”
My mouth gapes open. Holy shit, is Tod Daniels inviting me to a party? “Umm…” I hesitate, stalling for time. I answer “Yes” just as Jesse says “No.” Jesse and I exchange a look, his eyebrows raised in incredulity, my own eyes round and wide and so fucking nervous.
“Come on, Ry.” Jesse loops his arm around my shoulders. “We gotta go.”
“Okay.” I let him lead me, but my eyes cast back over to where Tod still stands, smiling at us. At me. I can’t resist calling over my shoulder, “See you Saturday.”