CHAPTER ONE

 

I LOWERED MY head and tried turning invisible as I ventured through the crowded hall at Castle Rock High School. Maybe I should have vetoed the makeover my friends gave me. I looked different, but the double-takes shooting my way embarrassed me. Can’t they see I’m uncomfortable with this new style? Don’t they care that I hate their stares? Why aren’t they focusing on themselves as usual?

       “Hey, Cassie. Don't be nervous. You look incredible.” My friend Izzy realized I objected to being watched by the other students. An encouraging smile lit up her dark eyes as she pushed a strand of black curly hair behind her ear. We stopped at her locker and she gave me a quick hug. “I'll see you at lunch, yeah?”

       “Sure,” I said, as my long blonde fringe swung into my eyes. A loose, over-the-shoulder style replaced my usual ponytail, and it loved getting in my face.

       “Just relax and enjoy yourself,” Izzy said. “You're no longer ordinary.” She waved a pencil at me, pretending it was a magic wand. I rolled my eyes at her and headed toward my locker.

       I was shy, hopeless in front of a crowd, and clueless about clothes and makeup. When I told my fashion-conscious friends that I wished to be different, they restyled my clothing, hair, and makeup, while promising it should change my life. I doubted that. The only thing it changed was the attention I received.

       I understood the reaction; my faded jeans, tee-shirt, and sneakers had vanished. A new blouse, trendy jeans, and stiletto boots replaced them. My discomfort showed and, despite the makeup I wore, my embarrassment stained my cheeks. I ducked my head again, but the stares and whispers hounded me to my locker.

       My self-consciousness bewildered my two friends. Gina O'Halloran and Izzy Greenslade had no reason to be shy. I could never compare to their level of attractiveness, or style, but they still offered their friendship. Gina's outgoing personality had tugged me from my shell, but I had miles to go before coping well with everybody looking my way. And Izzy's sweetness meant she was popular at school and kind enough to take me on despite my painful shyness. They had good hearts.

       At that moment, I wished Gina was with me. The students were getting rowdier as a group of jocks messed with several freshmen. I busied myself with my locker and pondered my likelihood of ever coping with the physical torment that teenaged boys preferred. It struck a nerve, so I turned my mind back to my friends as I organized my textbooks for the morning ahead.

       Gina and Izzy were not only my friends, but my social protectors, and my rocks. Without them, I might not have survived from freshman to senior year. They were so different from me, but they accepted me as I was.

       I noted that my stylish shoulder bag was too small for my textbooks and paper binder. I sighed and shoved my pencil case and cellphone into it before gathering the books in my arms. My books used to travel in my backpack but did not have that luxury today. I struggled to keep them balanced as I headed toward my first class.

       The bag’s size was not its only issue. “Darn it, Gina! Izzy! You and your accessories!” The bag slipped from my shoulder. I groaned and hitched it into place. At the same time, I lost my grip on the books. I tried catching them, but they escaped my arms and scattered across the hallway floor.

       Several students laughed. “What a klutz!” emanated from a group of girls who pushed past me. I blushed again and hoped to disappear as I collected my books. My Houdini bag attempted a further escape, and I grabbed at the strap as it slid toward my elbow. I missed. Counting to ten under my breath, I hoped to control my burning cheeks and to stop myself bursting into tears. I wondered why embarrassing things kept happening. I did not need further stares than those my makeover caused.

       “Can I help?” A warm voice interrupted my moment of humiliation, and a pair of sneakers stopped beside my textbook. Before I got the chance to speak, their owner crouched and collected the book.

       My eyes traveled upward. I took in black jeans and a green tee-shirt covered by a dark leather jacket. The jacket was damp from the rainy weather. My eyes skimmed over his solid shoulders and square jaw and paused at his apologetic smile. Then I discovered the most exquisite, forest-green eyes I had ever seen.

       “I—oh...” My words went missing.

       The green eyes sparkled as their owner grinned. He even has dimples—gorgeous! “This is your book, right?” he asked.

       Come on, Cassie! Think! “Oh, yes. I’m not always this clumsy.” I grabbed my bag’s strap and returned it to my shoulder.

       He rose to his feet and offered me his hand. Once I was standing, he dropped my hand, but his eyes never left my face. He handed my book back.

       “Um, thanks.” I smiled and blushed.

       “No problem.” His eyes swept over me, and took in my new outfit, before drifting back to meet my eyes.

       I was unsure whether his attention embarrassed or pleased me. His dark hair sparkled thanks to raindrops which settled as jewels on his head. His eyes shone as he watched me. He was six feet tall and looked well built. He must work out. And he’s gorgeous! I blushed at my thoughts but decided I enjoyed having his eyes on me.

       “Are you okay?” Concern flashed across his handsome face.

       “Oh, yes.” I nodded and straightened my collected books in my arms. “I’m fine now, thank you.”

       He smiled again then walked away. I stood there, gaping, as he left. My heart pounded, and my legs were jelly. I realized my mouth hung open, so I snapped it shut. Those eyes—haunting, yet so warm—stunned me. He was so polite—unlike the other students. And his smile? Wow!

       I realized I had not caught his name just as he disappeared around the corner. “Wait!” My senses returned as fast as they left. I rushed to the corner, to search for him, but he had disappeared.

 

***

 

I reached English class as the bell sounded. I headed toward my seat at the back of the room.

       “Students!” Our teacher, Mrs. Willis, raised her voice and the students’ chatter died away. I looked up at her and stopped breathing when I realized who stood with her. It's the guy who rescued my book! He looked around the classroom as Mrs. Willis spoke. “Please welcome Alexander Grayson who has moved here from,”—she checked the note in her hand—“from Prince Rupert in British Colombia, Canada.” She gestured at the seats, and the room filled with curious whispers. It occurred to me that the only available seat was beside me. His dimples appeared as he approached.

       “Hello, again.” He dropped into the seat beside mine, swung his bag under the desk, and reached in to pull out a folder. “Any other books for me to rescue?”

       I giggled. “No. They’re behaving now.”

       Alexander chuckled, and I melted into my seat at the sound. I opened my textbook but realized Alexander did not have one. Just as I noticed, he leaned closer. “I don’t have my books yet. Do you mind if I share yours?”

       My heart raced in response to his proximity and blood rushed to my face. My words lodged in my throat. I nodded and tried to gather my wits, as I pushed the textbook over to fill the space on the table between us.

       “Thanks.”

       For a moment, our eyes met. His were stunning, as I remembered, but were hazel instead of the rich green I noticed earlier. I gasped, and he flicked his eyes to the textbook between us. Looking at the book, too, I wondered whether I had imagined the change. I decided it was impossible—a trick of the light—and focused on the lesson, instead.

       We worked for a while, but then Alexander leaned toward me again, causing my heart to race once more. “I’m sorry, but I’ve just realized I don’t know your name.”

       I stared at him in surprise. He grinned, and it warmed me as thoroughly as a stroll in the sun. His eyes were green once more—I must have imagined the hazel—and his smile was friendly. I grinned back. “I’m Cassandra Stone,” I said shyly, “but my friends call me Cassie.”

       He sat back in his seat while appraising me. “Cassie.” A thoughtful expression crossed his face, and he gazed at the whiteboard, before turning his attention back to the lesson.

       I drew my eyes away from his gorgeous profile and tried to focus on the textbook. Alexander said nothing else, but as I went to turn the page, he did too. When our hands touched he flinched and pulled his hand away. His reaction was odd when compared with his earlier warmth. To my annoyance, my heart fluttered again, rushing blood to my face in response to his brief touch.

       “I—I’m sorry.” I nodded toward the textbook. “Should I...?”

       Alexander sent a sidelong glance my way before reaching for the book. “Allow me.”

       The rest of the lesson passed in a companionable silence. When the bell rang, disappointment flooded through me when I discovered his next class was Algebra, while mine was Calculus.

       “I guess I’ll see you around school?” I asked.

       He smiled. “Sooner rather than later, I hope!”

 

***

 

By lunch, I was desperate to tell Gina and Izzy about Alexander.

       “Hey!” I joined my friends at our usual table.

       “Hi, Einstein! What’s up?” Gina said, using her nickname for me. She had dubbed me ‘Einstein’ due to my high grades. She was glad I was smart, as I tutored her in classes she struggled with, and she shone at exam time.

       “Not much. There’s only a new guy who started school today.” I gazed through the window to the courtyard, pretending to ignore my friends’ shocked faces. Storm clouds hovered overhead, but it was typical for Castle Rock, Washington.

       “New guy?” Izzy replied first. The curiosity in her voice betrayed her calm facade. Her smile sparkled in her eyes.

       “Well, if you don’t wanna know...” I watched from the corner of my eye and feigned distraction while teasing them.

       “C’mon, Cass! Spill!” Gina insisted. Her green eyes twinkled as she tugged at the end of her long auburn braid.

       “Well... on the way to class, I dropped my books in the hall. Everyone stared at me, but suddenly this gorgeous guy shows up and helps me collect them. Then he talked to me! I was stammering while he was acting so calm. It was totally embarrassing!”

       “What did he say?” Izzy was wide-eyed, and her grin complemented her flawless mocha complexion.

       “He asked if it was my book. Then he gave it to me and walked off, and I didn’t see where he went.”

       “We have to meet him!” Gina looked ready to leap from her chair and hunt for him right away.

       “No! It’s okay! Turns out, he’s in my English class, and the only free seat is beside me!”

       “So, what did you do?” Izzy asked.

       “Well, I tried to concentrate, but he kept asking me questions. And I was blushing the whole time!” My face burned at the memory, so I hid it in my hands.

       “Hey, it’s okay!” Gina said. “Just introduce him to us and—”

       “Oh. Wow!” Izzy’s quiet exclamation made me look up. She had turned her stunned gaze on something behind me. Gina’s face had a similar expression.

       “Hi, Cassie.”

       My stomach became a puddle. “Alexander!” I turned in my chair to face him.

       “I prefer Alex.” A wry smile appeared.

       “Do you want to sit with us, Alex?”

       “Sure!” His eyes held mine. In one fluid motion, he pulled out his chair, took a seat, placed his lunch on the table and nudged his bag under his seat with his foot.

       Gina cleared her throat. “Cassie? Are you going to introduce us?”

       “Oh...” I glanced at my friends. They were grinning. “Gina. Izzy. This is Alex Grayson.”

       Izzy’s smile lit up again as she turned to Alex. “Hi, Alex. Nice to meet you. Welcome to Castle Rock.”

       “I’m sure Cassie’s helped you feel very welcome,” Gina added.

       I cringed. Gina grinned at my reaction. Alex laughed, and it warmed me right to my fingertips. I wondered if he was affecting my friends in the same way.

       Gina’s new boyfriend, Tony Worthington, joined us and Gina whisked a chair over for him from the next table. “Hi, Tony!” Izzy and I chorused as he took his seat and Gina blushed.

       My friends made Alex welcome at our table. I was sorry to hear the bell ring as I did not want to leave. After directing Alex to his next class, I left with the girls. I paused at the cafeteria door, unable to stop myself looking back at him. I blushed, again, when he met my eyes, and I ducked my head—but not before he smiled.

 

***

 

After surviving relentless teasing by my friends during Gym, I escaped to Chemistry. As I headed to my seat, I searched through my bag for my mysteriously absent pen. I stopped short when I bumped into someone. A warm chuckle sounded.

       “Searching for something?” Alex held my pen, and his eyes shone with merriment. I stepped back, with my heart racing. Wow! He smells good!

       “How did you—Where was—” I stammered.

       “You left it at the table at lunch.”

       “Oh! Thanks.” I took the pen from him then headed to my seat.

       Alex sat across the aisle from me, next to a cheerleader named Natalie. She kept chatting with him, even after our teacher insisted that she work quietly. The final bell rang sooner than I expected, and I gathered my books one at a time. Curiosity overwhelmed me. Why did Natalie need to keep chatting with Alex? Their conversation appeared innocent, but the way she gazed at him—while twisting her hair and playing with her necklace—made my chest ache. I was glad when she left.

       A smile played on Alex’s lips as he turned my way. I looked away from him and focused on shoving my paperwork into my tiny bag. I had no right to it, but jealousy coursed through me, regardless.

       “Cassie?”

       “What?” I glared at my bag.

       Alex did not respond and, assuming he was collecting his bag, I glanced at him. To my surprise, he was leaning against his desk, watching me. “What did I do?” He frowned. “You’re upset.”

       “No, I’m not. Why would you say that?” I jammed my textbook into my bag harder than was necessary. Get a grip, Cassie!

       “I think the lady doth protest too much,” he said.

       I closed my eyes and counted to ten, to calm my emotions. Seven was as far as I got. A sensation under my chin made me open my eyes. Alex stood before me, with his finger hooked beneath my chin. Our eyes met, and I stopped counting. His incredible scent overwhelmed me and my heart did weird things in my chest. His eyes are stunning. My gaze traveled over the shape of his cheek to his lips. How might they feel pressed against mine?

       “I never want to hurt you.” His voice broke into my thoughts. My eyes flicked back to his and this time I did not imagine his eyes changing from forest-green through hazel to black, in seconds. “Never!” A growl escaped him.

       The spell holding me shattered. I gasped and backed away. His eyes were stormy as he spun away and slammed his hand onto the desk. Both it and I jumped.

       “Alex?” I said in a gentle tone.

       One hand rested on the desk; the other clenched at his side. He shut his eyes and his jaw tensed, but otherwise, he was eerily still. Soon the fierceness on his face transformed to serenity. I reached out to touch him but, as my fingers brushed his sleeve, he said, “Don’t. Please.”

       I drew my hand away. “I didn’t mean to upset you. Natalie’s flirting with you made me jealous. Please don’t be mad.”

       “I’m not mad.” A smile tweaked the corner of his mouth and he shot me a sidelong glance. “I’m just sorry I frightened you.”

       “I wasn’t frightened.”

       “You’re a terrible liar.” He looked around the room. “We’d better get out of here.”

       We met Izzy, Gina, and Tony in the car park. Izzy unlocked my green Mazda 2 while Gina said goodbye to Tony. I turned to Alex.

       “One day you need to explain your mood swings,” I said.

       “I could say the same for you.” He chuckled, and the sound thrilled me.

       I raised my eyebrows. “But I’ve already explained myself.”

       Alex was about to reply, but Gina interrupted him. “We’d better go!”

       I turned back to Alex. He leaned in with a smile and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Cassandra Stone.”

       My breath caught again but, as he moved away, I managed to reply. “I’ll be counting on it.”

 

***

 

© 2018 - Evie Asterwyn

 

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