This excerpt is still going through editing. The final version should be available at the end of August.

Chapter One – Alex

Another year. Another school.

Today was the first day of Alex Parker’s senior year in yet another school, his eighth one in ten years.

“This is so awesome, Alex. You’ll meet all sorts of cool people!” Carrie said, sitting in the passenger seat of Alex’s Wrangler.

Alex sighed. After his mother had announced another move the previous May, he had asked his father, Peter, if he could move back to Greenfield, Texas, and his father had agreed. He had wished Elle, his twin sister, would follow him, but she decided to remain with their mother and move to Florida.

“I can’t wait to meet your friends,” Carrie continued.

Carrie was the thirteen-year-old daughter of Alex’s father’s girlfriend, Susan. His father had begun dating her shortly after the divorce, and Susan and her two children had moved in with him.

“I hope you’ll have a girlfriend soon, too. Promise you’ll try to get a girlfriend quickly,” she said, turning to him, clapping her small hands quickly.

Alex frowned. He wasn’t going to school to meet girls. He had every intention of spending the vast majority of his time studying and getting the best grades he could get. After all, all he wanted was to get into veterinarian school the following year. If he was to achieve his goal, he needed to keep his grades up.

“I d-don’t know about that,” he murmured.

“Oh, come on! You’re handsome, you’re nice, you’re awesome. Why wouldn’t you want a girlfriend?”


“That’s not an answer, Alex. You can’t stay single forever, you know.”

Alex chuckled.

Saying he didn’t want a girlfriend wasn’t the complete truth. The truth was he wasn’t looking, but if the right one came along . . .

“My friends are all excited about this season of cheerleading . . .”

Just like that, Carrie switched the focus of the conversation, and Alex tuned her out. His thoughts drifted to his own school year and the only person he wished to see again.

Olivia Kendall.

He had thought of her often since he decided to move back to Greenfield. He hoped she still lived in town and would be at school. He remembered the little girl who had been upset when he was laughed at in elementary school. He also remembered she was one of the few who had never made fun of him, even pulling him toward another exit so he wouldn’t encounter the bullies. He remembered the feel of her little hand in his on that last day of school. Alex had never liked to be touched, even back then, but touching Olivia had made him all warm and fuzzy inside. She had been so dead set on protecting him. They had made their way to the drop-off area through another door, and she waved at him as his mother drove away. It was the last time he had ever seen her.

How was she now? Was she still as kind as she had been back then?

“Where are you going?” Carrie asked, intruding on his thoughts. “You just passed the entrance.”

“Oh! S-s-sorry,” he said quickly. “I was d-distracted.”

Oh, good, he was stuttering again.

“What were you thinking about, Alex? A girl?” Carrie asked teasingly, as he turned at the next stop to come around the block.

“I’ve been gone t-ten years,” he said slowly, straining to get his stuttering under control. “I don’t know anybody.”

“Well, you’ve lived here before, haven’t you? So there must be a girl you liked back then.”

“I was eight,” he said, rolling his eyes, hoping he wasn’t blushing.

A few minutes later, they pulled in front of Carrie’s school. She got out of his Wrangler and closed the door. She turned around and leaned on the door, her arms folded loosely on the window sill. “You remember how to get to the high school, right? You won’t get lost, will you?” she asked, amusement in her blue eyes, a grin on her pink lips.

“Don’t worry about me,” he said in the typical slow and low speech pattern the speech therapist had taught him so many years ago. “I’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, right.” She left, laughing.

Alex watched her walk toward the school for a moment then drove off.

Thoughts of Olivia came back to him the moment he was on the road again. Of all the kids he had known back then, she was the only one he remembered by name even if he had never said anything to her. He also remembered she had a friend who hadn’t made fun of him either, but he didn’t remember a lot about the other girl since she hadn’t been in his class.

Now he was curious about them.

Would anyone else remember him? Granted, he didn’t look anything like he had when he was eight, but still, the thought made his palms sweaty.

Alex was so lost in his thoughts, he missed the street to the school. With a sigh, he turned around the first chance he had and drove back. This time, he turned at the right place and found an empty parking space in the lot already half full of pickup trucks.

After glancing around at the growing crowd of students, Alex got out of his Wrangler, retrieved his books from the backseat, and looked at the beige brick building. He sighed, shoved his hands in his pockets, then made his way toward the school, not sure if he was ready to be, yet again, the “new kid.”


Chapter Two – Olivia

Olivia Kendall was putting her notebooks in her bag when she heard a honk outside her window.

“Mom, I’m leaving,” she called out.

“Okay, honey. Have a good day,” her mother answered from the kitchen.

With a smile on her face, Olivia ran out of the back door and onto the side street where Fran, her best friend, had parked her dark-blue Jetta and was waiting for her. Olivia opened the passenger door and climbed in after throwing her bag on the backseat.

“Do explain why you look so happy,” Fran said. “Only you would want to go back to that hellhole for another year.”

Fran had short brown hair and dark brown eyes. She had full lips and a pale, round face. When she smiled, her entire face lit up.

“Stop it, Fran,” Olivia said, laughing. “It’s not that bad.”

It was finally the first day of their senior year. Olivia was looking forward to the play with the drama club where she was, for all practical purposes, guaranteed the lead female role. In her freshman year, she gained quite a noteworthy reputation as an excellent actress when she had stepped in to replace one of the main female characters at the last minute. She had had the leading role ever since.

“Oh, really? Tell me that in a month when you’ll be juggling your shift at the diner, your homework, and your acting career.”

“I never complained before; I’m not likely to start now.”

“That’s because you’re an overachiever.”

“Yeah, right,” Olivia said, rolling her eyes.

That Olivia was an overachiever wasn’t the case, and they both knew it. Olivia was an average student, especially when it came to science. More often than not, Fran scored better than she did in most of their classes.

“Just saying.”

Olivia smiled at her friend as Fran pulled away from the curb.

At a few months short of her eighteenth birthday, Olivia did not yet drive. Her father had always been so critical of young drivers she hadn’t dared ask her parents to get her license. It was a good thing the town was so small, and she could walk practically anywhere.

The school was no exception. It was so close to Olivia’s house she could have walked there in less than ten minutes, but ever since Fran bought her car, there was no more walking for her. Fran had insisted on picking her up so they could have their “morning girl talk.” Olivia didn’t mind as she valued her moments with Fran more than anything in the world.

“So, what’s going on with Carl?” Fran asked. “Some of his friends were talking at the diner last night. Please, tell me you didn’t take him back.”

“No! No way!” Olivia answered with a wince. “I . . . just no,” she added, shaking her head as if to clear it. “He wasn’t with his friends? I’m surprised. I mean, he always wanted to spend his time with them, not me.”

“Finally, she sees the light!”

Fran had told her from the beginning that dating Carl was a bad idea, but of course, Olivia had not to listen to her. Her father had always spoken highly of Carl and, like the good little daughter that she was, Olivia had listened to him.

And lived to regret it.

“Did you tell him?” Fran asked. “I mean his friends were pretty convinced you were still together.”

“Oh, yes! For the last month, it’s all I’ve been telling him, but he doesn’t seem to get it,” Olivia said as they pulled into the school parking lot. “I guess I’ll have to be more assertive. He doesn’t seem to understand ‘You. Me. Over’.”

“Well, that’s pretty clear all right. Wonder what he has between the ears if he doesn’t get that. Sand, I suppose.”

She parked her small car between two monstrous pickup trucks, and they got out.

Olivia closed her door and looked at her friend over the car. “Fran, you need a boyfriend.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ve been thinking of Tyler lately,” Fran said, staring at her fingernails as if they were the most interesting things in the world. “I wonder what he did all summer. I haven’t seen him at all, not a peep, and it’s not like I wasn’t looking, you know.”

Olivia sighed.

Yes, she did know. Every night they had worked together, Fran had looked toward the door every time the bells chimed.

“You know he may not be good news, right?”

“Says the girl who dated Carl. I mean come on. He can’t be worse than him.”

Olivia wanted to kick herself. She did open that door after all, and Fran, her ever perceptive friend, walked right through it.

“I know, I know. You were right. Here! Happy now? I admit it. You. Were. Right.”

“Thank you,” Fran said with a nod in her direction. She walked to the front of the car where Olivia joined her. “It’s good to be me and be right . . . most of the time.”

Olivia playfully slapped her on the arm. “Why don’t you rub it in?”

“It’s my prerogative, as your best friend, to point out the error of your ways.”

Olivia rolled her eyes as they made their way to the little round picnic table with four benches they had occupied the previous year. As they took their seats, Fran looked at the place where their friend Matt usually sat and sighed.

“I wonder where Matt has been. You haven’t heard from him, have you?”

“No,” Olivia answered. “Hopefully, we’ll know soon.”

“What did I miss?”

Olivia felt like someone had put an ice cube down her shirt.


She slowly turned around.

Carl was standing there, grinning down at them.

She had hoped she would be lucky enough not to see him.

As she stared at him, Carl slowly lost his grin. “What’s wrong?”

“Why aren’t you with your friends?” she asked coldly.

“I wanted to see you.”


“I haven’t seen you in a while.”

“We’re not dating anymore.”

“Oli,” he whined. “Come on, give me a chance.”

“Carl, you and I are done.”

How many times did she have to tell him before he’d understand? And how many times did she have to tell him not to call her Oli?

“Carl, over here,” one of Carl’s friends called from down the sidewalk.

“We’re not done,” Carl hissed before turning around and leaving.

“Can he be any thicker?” Fran said once he was out of earshot. Despite her light tone, Fran looked as uneasy as Olivia felt. “That guy gives me the creeps,” she added, wincing.

But Olivia was no longer listening. As she watched Carl leave, she saw another boy make his way toward the school, someone she didn’t recognize. He was tall, maybe a head taller than her, with short light-brown hair and eyes that, from where she was, appeared black. He wore blue jeans and a wine-red T-shirt, which allowed her to see his muscled and tanned arms. They were not bulging like Carl’s; they were just right, like they should be. Olivia wondered where he came from and what grade he was in; he looked too old to be a freshman. She could not help but find him attractive and mysterious, and her heart beat faster at the sight of him.

“Earth to Olivia,” Fran said, snapping her fingers in her line of sight.

“Oh, sorry,” Olivia said, rapidly turning her attention back to her friend.

Mere seconds later, her eyes were drawn back to the approaching figure.

Fran followed Olivia’s gaze. “Wow!” she said.

“I know,” Olivia agreed.

“But where oh where does this specimen come from?” Fran said, an eyebrow raised, reaching her short brown bangs.

“I have no idea,” Olivia said quietly.

“By noon, I’ll know all there is to know about Mr. Mysterious,” Fran said, as the boy walked into the school. “This is definitely worth investigating.”

“Fran, you need a boyfriend,” Olivia repeated with a chuckle.

“Well, maybe I just found one,” she said as she kept staring at the door through which the stranger had disappeared. “Maybe he just walked into the school, and I’ve been waiting for him all my life.”

Turning to her friend, Olivia laughed to hide how much the thought of Fran with the mysterious boy bothered her.

The first bell rang, and Olivia got to her feet. “Where to?” she asked Fran.

“English,” Fran answered with a wince. “You?”

“Math,” she answered. “See you at lunch?”


As Olivia walked to the school, her thoughts wandered back to the tall boy. She had the impression she had met him before, but if she had, she would know who he was. After all, only a thousand students attended her school, and she knew most of them by sight, if not by name.

And she certainly wanted to know this one’s name.


Chapter Three – Alex

She was at school.

Alex recognized her the moment his eyes landed on her.

She was prettier than he remembered. Even if she looked older and had added blond highlights to her brown hair, he would have recognized anywhere that smile that made his heart race. All he wanted was to remain at the school entrance and wait for her to walk by, to see her up close, to talk to her, but he had an appointment to keep.

With a sigh, Alex walked into the school and glanced at the mass of happily reuniting students in the corridor. Alex thought it was funny to see this effervescence since in a town of barely fourteen thousand people, most of the students had spent the summer hanging out with each other.

He looked around and saw the sign for the administration offices a few feet to his right. He made his way to the door and walked in. The office was small and dark with a high counter, behind which sat a plump woman with a friendly smile and a wide blond hairdo, which had been in fashion in the eighties. It also smelled horrible in there: cheap perfume, too much of it. Alex tried hard not to sneeze.

“How can I help you, sweetheart?” the woman asked with a thick Texan drawl.

“I’m Alex P-Parker,” Alex muttered.

“Oh, yes. Mr. Winfield’s waiting for you. You can go in,” she said, pointing with her chin toward a closed door to the left.

Alex walked to it and knocked. He entered when he was invited by a high, nasal voice. The man sitting behind the desk was small with a balding head and brown eyes hidden behind thick but back-in-fashion glasses. He wore a brown suit that was well-kept but from the time when Alex’s father was in high school. The man’s smile was forced, and his shoulders were tight. His hands were joined so tightly, the tips of his fingers were red.

“Mr. Parker, right on time. Take a seat,” he said. He unfolded his hands, grabbed a file from the top of the neat pile on the left, and opened it.

Alex frowned, curious to know what was in the file for it to be half an inch thick.

“I see you’ve been around,” the principal said, glaring at Alex.

Alex waited quietly, not sure what the man wanted with him.

“How many has it been? Six different schools since junior high? Why is that, Mr. Parker?”

“My mother moved a lot,” he answered slowly, trying his best not to stutter.

“Oh, really,” the principal said, putting his elbows on his desk and joining his fingertips. The effect looked ridiculous on him as he was so short, his hands now hid half of his face. “You’re sure it’s the only reason?”

Alex frowned. The principal’s tone and his implying a discipline problem were so far from who Alex was, he could have laughed. But the way the man stared at him stopped him. This guy really believed what he was saying.

“Have you t-talked to my father?” Alex asked.

“Yes, I spoke to Dr. Parker,” he answered, leaning back in his chair and keeping his hands joined in front of him. “Of course, he says you’re a good kid but—”

The door suddenly opened, and a kid who was about as wide as a refrigerator walked in. The boy had short blond hair in a buzz cut, beady brown eyes, and a smile that showed small, even white teeth. He was wearing a red and white school jacket that read “powerlifting” on the sleeve and “Hamilton” on the back.

“Mr. Hamilton,” the principal greeted, standing and offering the newcomer his hand. “How was your summer?”

Alex was struck by the hero-worship in the principal’s eyes. The older man was staring at the kid as if he was the school’s golden boy.

“Good, good,” the newcomer said, then glanced at Alex.

“Oh, don’t mind him, Carl. He’s a new one. Alex, from Georgia,” he said, dismissing Alex with a wave of his hand.

Alex was about to stand and leave when he caught the principal’s eye. The man shook his head, and Alex sat back down.

“Ready for the season? Ready to get us our first state title?” the principal asked, turning a smile in Carl’s direction.

“Yes, sir,” Carl answered smartly. “My dad wants to make sure you’ll drop by Tuesday night. He said it’s time for you guys to resume your card game.”

Alex could have sworn the principal turned a shade lighter, even if his smile never wavered.

“Of course. Tell him it’ll be my pleasure to attend,” he said smoothly.

“Good. Then I’ll leave you to it before I’m late. See you later, sir.”

Carl left, leaving the door open as if it was beneath him to close it. The principal walked around his desk and closed the door, a strained smile on his face. He then made his way back to his chair and sat again.

“That’s a good kid,” he said, pointing toward the door. “He may very well bring us our first state title in powerlifting.”

The principal rolled his chair to his desk and took Alex’s file again. He glanced at it for a moment then looked at Alex.

“Now, kids like you, I’ve seen before. Tell me, how did you manage to keep such a high average?” he asked, putting the file back on the desk.

“Hard work.”

“Hard work, eh? Really? And you expect me to believe that?”


“Well, I don’t. I think you’ve been cheating for a long, long time, and you were lucky enough not to get caught. I, on the other hand, will be watching you. This school is highly rated, and I won’t have a delinquent in my facility.”

Alex was too stunned to say anything. He hadn’t seen this one coming. He had worked hard for his grades; he had never thought someone would question whether or not he deserved them. Clearly, this little man had made up his mind before he even met him.

“You may go now,” he said with a satisfied smile. “The receptionist has your class schedule.”

Alex grabbed his bag and stood.

“Oh, and Mr. Parker, please don’t be late for class.”

Alex opened the door and left it open like Carl had done. This man didn’t deserve the courtesy of him closing it.

The moment he walked out of the principal’s office, the smell hit him again.

“Here you go, sweetheart,” the secretary said, giving him his schedule with a bright smile.

Alex took it and mumbled a “thanks.”

“Now, let me see which locker is yours,” the secretary said, putting on some heavy glasses and turning to the monstrous computer, which looked about ten years old.

Alex, choked by the smell, didn’t want to spend another minute in that office. “I . . . I d-don’t need one.”

“Oh, okay then,” she said, removing her glasses. “If you need anything, just come on by.”

Alex mumbled another “thanks” and walked out of the office as quickly as he could. As the door closed behind him, he leaned on the wall next to it. He took a deep breath to clear his airways of the stench, then glanced down the corridor where another kind of problem presented itself to Alex: How could he cross this sea of students without touching anyone?

Touching people was something Alex found incredibly uncomfortable. Every time he did, he received impressions, feelings, images, and sometimes even thoughts from the person he touched. He didn’t need to touch anyone to get a general but faint feeling from them, but contact was always accompanied by an entire array of images and feelings, which Alex usually found disturbing and an invasion of the person’s privacy.

As a consequence of his power—or curse, depending on how you looked at it—he had come to dread crowds. The more people were around, the more likely he was to touch someone, and the impressions he received from strangers were often overwhelming and strange.

And because of his power, Alex also didn’t like to be touched.

Since he didn’t know where he was going, he didn’t want to wait until the last minute to dash to his classroom. He had no choice: If he wanted to be on time, he would have to face the crowd.

With a sigh, Alex pushed away from the wall and braced himself. He tried as best as he could to stay well away from everybody, but as he avoided some people, he bumped into others.

The first person who bumped into him was a jock wearing the red and white jersey of the football team. Off him, Alex got the images of a party with a significant amount of beer and girls wearing skimpy outfits. The shadow of a smile appeared on Alex’s lips, and he wondered if the boy only had partying on his mind.

The next person he touched was a girl who was holding a stack of books against her chest, trying to get through the throng of people with her head down. She was thinking of reading assignments and exams and had an unhealthy fear of failing, especially chemistry, which she found impossible to comprehend. Alex understood the fear as chemistry was also his weakest subject.

When the third series of images busted into his mind, Alex had no idea whom he had touched as he didn’t feel the contact at all. But the images he received were disturbing. He saw a man in uniform, a cop, facing another man in an open doorway. The cop was holding a small bag of weed with some purple markings. While talking to the man at the door, the cop was pointing toward Alex and shaking the bag. The two men spoke for a while then shook hands. As soon as the door closed, Alex felt an intense fear grip his stomach. As the man turned around, he flinched. The man was livid and yelled at him. Then the images were gone.

His heart pounding, Alex looked around to find whom he had touched, but all he saw were happy students talking with their friends.

The warning bell rang, and everybody began to make their way to their classes. After one last look, Alex turned around and bumped into another person. That person was a grown woman, and she was angry. An image of a man, the cop again, appeared in Alex’s mind. This time, the cop had a self-satisfied grin on his face. They were in a bedroom, and Alex felt only shame and anger from the woman.

Standing there in front of her, it took everything Alex had not to stare at her. He wasn’t sure what he had just seen, but he knew it was deeply personal and wished he hadn’t seen it. “S-s-sorry,” he mumbled as he walked around the woman, keeping his eyes firmly on the ground.

He was still thinking about her when he walked into his math classroom and took a seat in the last row, toward the middle, where he wouldn’t be noticed too much. A few moments later, he saw her, Olivia Kendall, sitting in the front next to the window. Her hair went below her shoulders and was as straight as it had been in elementary school. The color was different, of course. Gone was the dark brown, and the blond highlights brought out her eyes. Her cheeks were round and rosy, and her lips a dark neutral pink.

Smiling still came easily to her, and her whole face lit up when she did. She had grown to be delicate and slim, and Alex imagined if he were to hold her, his arms would encircle her entire body, and her head would reach right under his chin.

Alex’s observation was interrupted when she looked his way, and her blue eyes found his. He quickly glanced away, trying to pretend he hadn’t been staring, but the heat on his face would certainly give him away. He hoped she wouldn’t pay more attention to him so he could look at her again.

How would she feel if he ever touched her? What would he see?

In a way, he was afraid to find out. He knew people changed throughout the years, and maybe the kind girl he had known in elementary school was gone, replaced by another one who was as willing to laugh at a poor boy with a disability as everyone else.


Chapter Four – Olivia

“Carl alert at two o’clock,” Fran said, looking at the book on the table in front of her and pretending to read.

Olivia felt her stomach contract into a knot, making the lunch she had just finished sit uncomfortably. She wished with all her heart Carl would leave her alone, but she couldn’t be that lucky, especially with someone like him. And now, with school back in session, she had become a lot easier to find.

Why had she been stupid enough to date him?

“Oli, hey!” he called as he arrived at her table, standing in the path of the sun.

Olivia clenched her teeth. She hated it when he called her Oli. It wasn’t her name, and even if she had told him countless times, he wasn’t listening.

“Carl,” she said flatly. She didn’t want to talk to him again. Why couldn’t he understand they were over?

She remembered the day she had broken things off, over a month ago. He had been at her house, talking about some movies he had seen and that she had no interest in. She had known for a while he wasn’t all that great of a guy, and the experience of the previous weekend had proved it to her, but she had been too scared to break up with him then.

But that unidirectional conversation, one of many, had been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“Carl, what’s my favorite color?” she had asked, interrupting him.

“Red, why?” he had answered, annoyed.

“That’s your favorite color. What’s mine?”

“I . . . I don’t know,” he had finally admitted with a frown. “Why?”

“This isn’t going to work. You and I, we’re too different. You want a girl who likes red and horror movies, and drinking and partying. I want a guy who knows my favorite color, who knows my favorite band, and who knows my favorite food. You’re not that guy, Carl, and you’ll never be.”

He had looked at her, shocked for a moment, then a fight had ensued. He had left angry. Olivia didn’t dare imagine what would have happened if she hadn’t been home and her mother hadn’t been in the kitchen.

A few days later when he had shown up at her door, she tried to explain to him again why he was not the guy for her. She wanted something else, something different. She wanted to know she was the first thing he thought of in the morning and the last thing he thought of at night.

But Carl wasn’t like that. He never thought of her unless he wanted something, and he wanted her. He had insisted they should be together. To Olivia’s despair, he wasn’t letting go. He never agreed to the breakup, and now, he was coming after her over and over again, which not only annoyed her but also scared her.

“Can I speak to you?” he asked, looking down at her.

“What do you want, Carl?”

“Not here,” he said, looking at Fran.

With a sigh, Olivia stood, followed Carl to the walkway twenty feet away, then stopped. “Speak!” she ordered, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Well, I’ve been thinking; your favorite color is purple,” he said.

It took everything Olivia had not to roll her eyes. They had had the color conversation twice already, as if he believed she would take him back if he figured it out.

Of course she wouldn’t.

And he was wrong, again.

“And I think we should get back together,” he added with his signature smile, the one that charmed most people.

“No, Carl,” she said slowly. “My favorite color is not purple. And no, we’re not getting back together.”

“But Oli . . .” he whined.

Whining? Again? How old did he think he was? Ten?

Olivia thought he sounded ridiculous when he spoke that way.

As he elaborated into an explanation she didn’t want to hear, Olivia let her eyes roam over the courtyard. A few seconds later, her attention was drawn to the tall stranger who had just stepped out of the school a few yards behind Carl. The boy walked down the walkway, and Olivia could not take her eyes off of him.

She had seen him in her math class in first period and in her English class in third, and now that he wasn’t aware of it, she looked at him to her heart’s content. This guy was the most handsome boy she had ever seen, and she just wanted to walk to him and see the color of his eyes. She wanted to know who he was. She inwardly cursed at her teachers for not taking proper roll call and simply sending a signing sheet around.

“Are you even listening to me?”

Startled by the intrusion on her thoughts, Olivia realized her stern expression had softened, and she was putting a strand of her long hair behind her ear. To make matters worse, Carl was now looking behind him to find out what had distracted her.

“You were trying to explain why we should get back together,” she said quickly, hoping Carl would return his focus to her.

As Carl turned around to face her, Olivia saw from the corner of her eyes, the stranger walk down the line of tables, away from her line of sight but very much in Carl’s.

“And the answer is still no,” she said, her stance now rigid again.

“I see. Is it that guy?” Carl asked, pointing with his chin behind her.

“No, Carl, there’s no guy.”

“Yeah, right. You sure looked at him like you wanted a piece of him.”

“So what if I do?” she exploded, throwing her hands in the air. “You and I have been over for a month. Now, get over yourself and leave me alone.”

“It’s not over, Olivia,” he hissed, taking a step toward her, invading her private space.

Olivia took a step back in response.

“You and I are not over.” He took a last look at her, his features distorted into something that made Olivia recoil, then after plastering a smile on his face, he turned around and walked away.

Olivia sighed, closing her eyes for a moment. She took a deep breath to calm her frayed nerves.

Why had she been stupid enough to consider dating this guy?

She remembered how attentive and fun he had been when she helped him in English at the end of the previous year, and she remembered how highly her father had spoken of him. She had believed Carl was a nice enough guy underneath the roughness he displayed at school.

But he wasn’t.

She should have listened to Fran when her best friend told her she was being ridiculous, that Carl was a self-centered jock, who only thought about partying and what was best for him.

Of course, Fran had been right.

Carl was only looking out for Carl, and now Olivia realized he had been attentive and fun only to get ahead of the other guys, as a way to get in her pants.

With another sigh, she walked back to the table she shared with Fran. Matt, whom she hadn’t seen all summer, had now joined them.

“Lovely,” Fran said, as Olivia sat on the bench to her right. “He’s an idiot.”

“Yeah,” Olivia said, not in the mood to add more.

“What happened?” Matt asked, concerned.

“He’s bugging her, that’s what!” Fran exploded. “I knew he was trouble from the beginning.”

“Yes, Fran, you were right,” Olivia conceded for the second time that day.

Fran nodded at her, her mouth working as if she wanted to say something more.

“Yes, Fran, you told me so,” Olivia added with a small smile that didn’t reach her eyes.

Olivia knew her friend was worried when she only nodded in response.

“Jocks,” Matt said, shaking his head. “All in the arms and nothing in the brain.”

“They can’t all be that bad,” Olivia said.

Fran rolled her eyes.

“So, Matt, where have you been all summer?” Olivia asked, turning to her friend, hoping to close the Carl conversation.

Olivia and Fran had met Matt in their freshman year when he had moved to town. Both girls considered him to be the brother they never had.

“Yeah, that’s right! You just packed and left. You didn’t even text,” Fran said.

“I was in Washington. I went to a camp for seniors who want to pursue a career in law. I learned a lot,” he answered with a grin.

“Washington? As in DC?” Fran asked.

“Yeah. It was a lot of fun. I got the chance to visit the Smithsonian.”

“And you didn’t have phone reception in DC?”

Matt chuckled. “I missed you too, Fran.”

Fran rolled her eyes again.

“I see we have a new student in school,” Matt said, glancing over his shoulder at the table a few yards away.

“Yes, the new guy,” Fran said slowly, looking up. “Who’s now sitting at a table right in front of us, pretending to read. I know I said I would know all about him by lunchtime, but I couldn’t find anything.”

Fran suddenly sat straighter, and Olivia glanced toward the stranger’s table. Tyler had joined him and was offering him his hand. His hesitation at shaking Tyler’s hand had Olivia frown.

“What about you, Matt? Do you know anything?” Fran asked, leaning forward so her words wouldn’t be overheard.

Olivia glanced at her friends then leaned forward too.

“Well, no, not really, not that I’ve looked, mind you. However, I couldn’t help but notice that the entire female population of the school is talking about him.”

Fran and Olivia looked at one another and smiled.

“And you’re no exception, it seems.”

“Oh, come on, Matt,” Fran exclaimed, throwing her hands in the air. “He’s worth talking about. He’s new and drop-dead gorgeous.”

“I don’t know about gorgeous,” Matt said slowly. “But he’s new.”

“He’s in my math and English classes,” Olivia said.

“Really?” Fran turned to her. “I don’t have him in any of my classes yet . . . But wait a minute. Do you think he’s a senior then?”

“Maybe,” Olivia said, remembering the quiet boy at the back of the classroom.

He reminded her of another quiet boy she used to know in elementary school, one she had protected, one who had disappeared the next year.

“Well, we won’t find more about him by sitting here,” Matt said, standing. “As your council representative, I’ll see what I can find.”

“Matt, you’re the best,” Fran said.

“Of course I am.”

With that, he grabbed his backpack and walked to the school. Olivia watched him leave, hoping he would eventually get himself a nice girl who would know how to appreciate him.


Chapter Five – Alex

The moment Alex walked out of the school for lunch, he saw her standing thirty feet away. Her arms were crossed over her chest, her stance severe, and her cheeks flushed as she stared at Carl. The contrast between the two was impressive. She was all small and tiny, her expression completely closed off, while he was big and beefy, and his expression all smiles.

Even if Alex wasn’t as good as his sister in feeling people when he wasn’t touching them, he felt Olivia’s annoyance halfway across the yard. And her loathing for the big guy was palpable.

While Alex was very aware of her as if she were a compass to his north, he tried his best not to stare at her. As he made his way to an empty picnic table a few tables down from where Olivia was standing, he wondered what was with these two. It was obvious they had history, and it wasn’t pretty.

Once sitting, he searched his bag and retrieved a novel from the mandatory English reading list. He flipped the book open, then before concentrating on the words, he glanced at Olivia’s back.

What would he see if he built enough courage to touch her?

Even angry, she was as pretty as ever.

“You and I have been over for a month, Carl. Now, get over yourself and leave me alone,” she said loud enough for Alex to hear.

The powerlifter took a step toward her, and she recoiled.

Alex frowned.

He didn’t like that; he didn’t like it at all.

The way the powerlifter was looking down at her, hissing at her . . . Alex couldn’t hear what he said, but he sure didn’t like the way Carl was towering over her, threatening, his big finger pointing at her.

A few moments later, Carl took a step back, planted a smile on his face, and left. The moment the powerlifter’s back was turned, Alex saw Olivia’s shoulders sag. He wondered what Carl had said to her, but his thoughts were interrupted when someone appeared in front of him, blocking his view.

The newcomer had short spiky brown hair and quite a few piercings in his ears. He had dark brown eyes and a sinister grin on his face. He was wearing clothes that were sturdy but looked right out of a thrift shop.

“Olivia Kendall and Carl Hamilton. Quite the couple at the end of last year. Wonder what broke them up,” the boy said, glancing behind him at Carl’s departing back, then at Olivia. “Hi, I’m Tyler.” He turned around and offered Alex his hand.

Alex hesitated a moment. He didn’t want to shake the other boy’s hand but not doing so would be rude. “Alex,” he said, taking the offered hand.

He got an image of open land and a farmhouse. As he looked up, a young woman with blond hair and blue eyes, about their age, walked toward him with a toddler in her arms. She was smiling warmly at him.

Alex released the hand, feeling like he had pried into something that was none of his business.

“I was the new kid last year. I guess not anymore. So, what’s your story? Well, you know what, don’t answer that. It’s none of my business,” Tyler said.

He took a seat across from Alex and grabbed a beat-up brown bag from his backpack. He retrieved a sandwich half squashed by a binder and unwrapped it.

“It’s okay,” Alex said, quietly. “I d-don’t mind. I was in G-Georgia last year.”

Alex looked at Olivia again. She was now sitting with her friends, the same girl who had been with her that morning, and another guy who was dressed like he was spending the day in an office and not at school. Tyler followed the direction of his glance while taking a bite of his sandwich.

“You know, Carl’s been in the face of every guy who’s come anywhere near her ever since I’ve known him,” Tyler said, shaking his head. “And let me tell you something: You don’t want to be on that one’s bad side.”

Alex nodded to show he was listening.

“You know, this school isn’t so bad when you get used to it,” Tyler continued, changing the subject. He took another bite of his sandwich, then retrieved a can of Coke with a dent on the side from his lunch bag.

“But you p-preferred your old school,” Alex said after the boy talked for ten minutes about his sophomore year at his previous school.

“Don’t we all,” he said, popping the lid of his can.

The liquid fizzed, and Tyler brought the can to his mouth to prevent the mess.

Alex shrugged. He never was anywhere long enough to get attached to anything. Getting attached only meant getting hurt when he had to leave, as he knew too well.

As he ate, Tyler talked, and the more he did, the more Alex liked the guy. He was livelier than Alex could ever dream of being, and when he asked questions, he didn’t expect Alex to answer, which suited Alex just fine.

“Well, dude, I’ve got to go now. I’ll see you around,” Tyler said, crumpling his empty lunch bag and standing.

Alex nodded and watched him leave. A moment later, Olivia and her friend stood and stepped into the school. As he stood and looked at her, Alex’s hand burned at the thought of walking over and touching her. But he couldn’t build enough courage to do it.