Chapter One – Lily
“I wonder what would happen if you lost your ability to shield.”
That simple question from Lily’s best friend, Sandra, almost got them killed. As Lily Morgan drove them to school for their band practice in her Mini Cooper, it took all of her limited driving skills to keep them on the narrow suburban road and not in the ditch.
“Let’s not ever mention that again!” Lily’s heart raced at the thought of it.
Sandra Jones was the best friend anybody could dream of. She was also everything Lily was not. She was outgoing, tall, and beautiful with her long, straight blond hair and blue eyes. She always wore the nicest outfits, and guys regularly asked her out on dates. She could have been part of the popular crowd had she wanted to, but she was perfectly content being in the marching band, just like Lily.
Sandra and her family, in addition to Lily’s uncle, Charlie, were the only people alive who knew what Lily could do: she had the ability to feel the emotions of the people around her. The only way for her to function and have a close to normal life was to build mental shields, which prevented the barrage of emotions from continuously assaulting her. Sandra knew how important shielding was to Lily, particularly in an emotion-infested place like high school.
“Just saying. I mean, you’ve been giving me the silent treatment since we left home. I had to find a way to make you talk.”
“Well, that’s not a good subject on a good day.”
“What’s eating you then?”
“My mother, again.”
“I don’t understand. Why don’t you take Charlie up on his offer and move in with him?”
“It’s my house, Sandra. If anything, she should be the one moving out.”
“Not going to happen, not until the courts kick her out. You know that better than I do. She’s not going anywhere.”
Her friend was right, unfortunately.
“Can we move on to another subject?”
“What did she want this time?” Sandra asked instead. “Another party to introduce you to your future husband?”
As Lily nodded, she could easily imagine Sandra rolling her eyes. If she hadn’t been driving, she was sure she would have seen her do exactly that.
“I don’t get it,” Sandra continued. “She’s not even your real mother.”
“I don’t get it either. Why does she keep throwing me at those guys?”
“Beats me. Did you say no?”
Lily remained quiet. She never said no. She still held the hope that if she did exactly what her mother requested, maybe one day she would approve of her.
Hope definitely made people stupid.
“When will you, Lily?” Sandra asked, turning toward her. “You deserve better than this.”
Lily sighed. She had tried to explain it numerous times before, but Sandra never understood. After all, Sandra’s mother loved her and was always so proud of her.
“David said football practice starts today,” Sandra said, changing the subject.
Lily felt her best friend’s eagerness at sharing the news, and she knew what was coming next.
“Malakai will be there.”
Ever since she had admitted to Sandra that she liked the star wide receiver over a year ago, Sandra brought him up every chance she had.
“Why don’t we talk about your love life for a change?” Lily asked.
“Oh, no, we’re so not. Yours is so much more fun.”
It was Lily’s turn to roll her eyes. “So, what else did David say?”
“They should begin practice around nine this morning.”
“They have it so much easier than we do,” Lily said, turning onto the access road that led behind the school.
“You got that one right. If they practiced half as much as we did, they would wear paths in the football field.”
“That’s probably why we practice on hot, steamy asphalt,” Lily said as they arrived in the parking area.
“It sucks, really. Why don’t we get to practice their amount of hours and they, ours?”
“Because what we do is more complicated?” Lily suggested with a smile.
Sandra shrugged and glanced out the window.
“Look at it on the bright side.”
“There is one?” Sandra asked, irony coating her tone.
They were both laughing when Lily pulled into her usual parking spot.
Chapter Two – Malakai
As Malakai Thomas drove to school, his fingers were tapping a rhythm of their own on the steering wheel of his jeep.
Finally, football training was beginning.
He glanced at the clock on the dashboard for the fifth time since he left home; he had forty minutes to make a ten-minute drive to school. He then looked at the speedometer; he was doing forty-five in a thirty-five-mile zone. He willed his foot to relax from the gas pedal as he clearly remembered his father saying over and over again that getting a ticket wouldn’t get anyone to their destination any faster. And the last thing Malakai wanted was to be late on his first day of practice.
A few minutes later, he pulled onto the access road to the back of the school. He parked his jeep in a spot close to the gym entrance, got out, picked up his gym bag, and closed the door. He then looked around for Wes’s Honda Civic.
Malakai was looking forward to seeing his friend and telling him about his good news. He had yet to tell anyone since his father was out of town, again, and he was eager to share.
It took only a moment for him to spot Wes’s car, and the second he did, he wished he hadn’t. Wes was there all right, but so was Zoe, and the two of them were kissing as if they didn’t need to breathe.
Malakai shook his head, looking down at the ground.
To say he didn’t like Zoe St. Claire was an understatement. Wes had been dating the popular rich girl since the previous March, right before spring training began, and Malakai didn’t envy his friend’s relationship one bit. Zoe had a temper and treated everyone like minions, including Wes. Malakai wasn’t even sure whether his friend liked the girl or was more in love with the thought of dating her.
One thing Malakai knew for sure: Zoe did not love Wes. He had figured out a long time ago that Zoe was with Wes because he was the most popular guy in school, and one of the few people who rivaled her own popularity.
As for Malakai, he had yet to meet someone who would make his heart beat faster, and he had promised himself he would never date a girl for her social status. He wanted someone who was kind, intelligent, and interesting, someone he could connect with on a deeper level.
“This doesn’t look good.”
Malakai looked up. David Jones, the team center, had joined him and was now leaning on the jeep, arms crossed. David, now a junior, was so big he had made varsity in his sophomore year, on the second-string offense. Right after the last spring training, Coach had made him part of the starting line, and Malakai had to admit, David was good.
Malakai had gotten to know the center over the summer when they both worked at a local pizza joint. He had been happy to have someone to spend time with since Wes had been all but available. David was funny and easygoing and had become a good friend.
“He’s supposed to be our captain, the example to follow. I’m not sure extreme PDA is something we had in mind when we elected him.”
Malakai could only agree.
“Besides, what the heck does he see in her?”
“If only I knew,” Malakai said, his voice rough. He coughed to clear his throat.
“Yeah. You’re just the first person I’ve talked to in two days.”
“I wish it was the case for me,” David said with a chuckle. “My sister made so much noise when she got up at her insane early hour that we had a fight,” he continued, pointing with his chin toward a group of students who were sitting in the shade under the walkway covering.
Malakai remembered David telling him a few weeks earlier that his sister was in the marching band.
“What does she play again?” Malakai asked.
He wondered if she was the petite brunette with gray eyes he had spotted in freshman year. He had loved hearing her solo the previous year when, after the homecoming game, Coach had made them watch the band perform. As he looked through the band members, he spotted her, sitting next to a tall blond girl.
“In any case, seems like the band dudes are having quite a laugh at Wes’s expense.”
Now that David mentioned it, Malakai saw quite a few members looking in Wes’s direction, pointing and laughing while commenting to one another.
“This has to stop,” David added, pushing away from the jeep and walking purposefully toward the kissing couple.
Malakai followed at a slower pace. Wes would not take kindly to the interruption, but David was right.
“You’ve got quite an audience there, dude,” David said once he reached Wes.
The couple stopped kissing and looked at David, dazed. David pointed toward the band members with his chin.
“Who cares what a bunch of geeks think?” Zoe said with a shrug.
“They might be band members, but they talk to other people, you know,” David said.
“What? Jealous, David?” Zoe said with a raised eyebrow. “Want some, too? Or are you too young for it yet?”
“Hell no! I’m getting enough just by looking at you two!”
Wes glanced at Malakai, his nostrils flaring, his hands gripping Zoe’s shirt with white knuckles. Malakai wasn’t surprised to see the quarterback was furious enough to hit someone.
“We better go,” Malakai said. He knew Wes couldn’t be reasoned with. “We’ll be late for practice.”
“Yeah, right. With half an hour to spare, I doubt that very much,” Zoe said, turning back to Wes and attacking his mouth with hers.
David shrugged and left. After a last glance at Wes, Malakai followed the center, wondering again what had happened to the boy who used to be his best friend.
“I tried,” David said, once they were inside the school, making their way to the gym.
“He’s changed,” Malakai said.
“I wouldn’t know. I didn’t know him very well until training last spring. But why was he chosen as captain? Dude, that just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Malakai shrugged, wondering if Wes would ever return to his old self again.
Chapter Three – Malakai
How could he have been so…stupid?
Three days into training and he found a way to forget to set his alarm clock.
Speeding all the way to school, Malakai cursed a dozen times. It took three minutes less than usual for him to get there, and he took to the side street so fast he had the impression of turning on two wheels.
He hadn’t eaten breakfast. He hadn’t showered. All he had time to do was slip into the first clothes he saw, grab his backpack, which he had prepared the previous night, thankfully, and run like hell in hopes he would make it on time.
With two minutes to spare, he parked his jeep, slipped his bag on his shoulder, and ran to the school. He got to the entrance closest to the gym and pulled on the door handle.
Could things get any worse?
The door was locked. Of course no one was in the corridor to open it for him.
Cursing, Malakai banged on the door once, turned around, and ran to the entrance in the middle of campus.
One minute, thirty seconds. He would never make it on time.
The red brick school was enormous, almost half a mile long, to accommodate the three thousand five hundred students who attended it on a regular school day. It took ten minutes to walk from one end of the school to the other, and that was when the corridors were empty. At top speed, it took Malakai a complete minute to get to the middle door. He yanked it open, barely slowing down, and got inside.
Running inside the school was now his only option to keep the situation from going from bad to worse, but it was against school rules. On a regular day, it would get him in real trouble with Coach, but it was summer. No one would be around to witness his infraction.
How wrong he was.
He was going full speed when he saw her coming out of the girl’s restroom, head down, walking fast.
But it was too late. He couldn’t stop in time.
As he tried to slow down, he collided with the petite brunette, who went flying backward and hit the row of lockers lined along the wall.
As Malakai came to a full stop, his blood turned cold.
“Are you okay?” he asked, going to her.
She wasn’t moving.
Horrified, he looked at her, and his mind was yanked to the past, back to his elementary school years, when he was ten and still lived in England. He had been playing soccer with his friend Robert on the front lawn of his house. It had all happened so fast: his kicking the ball toward the street between two parked cars, Robert and he running to catch it, his mom screaming his name, the car coming, the screeching noise, and the accident—the accident that had killed his friend.
And now, by his action, he had injured someone, again.
“Oh, bloody hell!” he said, kneeling next to the prone figure. “Wake up. Please, please wake up.”
She didn’t. She just lay there in a heap on the floor.
“Oh no,” Malakai said again, his heart racing. “Help!” he called, looking up and down the corridor. But nobody was around. It was summer after all. “Oh no! Oh no! Oh no!”
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It was not the time to panic. He had to do something and do it fast. He couldn’t leave her here. He had to get her help. With his cell phone forgotten on the kitchen counter at home, he couldn’t call anyone.
Through the fury of his racing thoughts, Malakai remembered the trainer would be in his office adjacent to the locker room at this hour, and he would know what to do.
“Hold on,” he murmured.
He reached out and moved her long brown hair away from her very pale face. As a warm shiver ran down his spine, and a strange feeling of rightfulness crossed his heart, he recognized her. She was the clarinetist from the marching band, the cute one he had wanted to know since his freshman year.
Carefully, he put an arm under her shoulders and raised her upper body, setting her head on his shoulder. He then put his other arm behind her knees and got up. She was so light; she barely weighed anything.
In what felt like an eternity, Malakai finally made it to the locker room.
“I need help here,” he called, as he pushed the door open with his back.
“What happened?” Coach asked, quickly making his way to Malakai.
“I…I bumped into her.” Malakai barely recognized his own voice as it was so unusually high. “Is the trainer here?”
“Yes, the infirmary,” Coach answered, opening the door for Malakai. “All of you, to the weight room, now!” the man barked to the remaining players, leaving Malakai with the trainer.
“Trainer Smith,” Malakai called as he walked in.
The trainer turned around. “What happened?”
“I…I bumped into her. I think she hit her head really bad.”
“Put her on the table.”
Gently, Malakai set her down, making sure he didn’t aggravate her condition. She was so pale, so lifeless, Malakai found it hard to breathe.
“I…I didn’t know what to do,” he explained, winded. “I…I didn’t have my phone, and I know you said to never move an injured player but…I didn’t know what else to do.”
“Take a breath, Thomas; you did the right thing,” the trainer said, examining the girl on the table, then turning her on her side.
Malakai noticed the bloodstain on the table where her head had previously rested.
“Now go clean yourself.”
“But, but what about her?”
“I’ll call an ambulance and try to find out who she is,” he answered, walking to his desk and picking up the phone.
“She’s the girl who plays the clarinet solos in the band,” Malakai said. “I don’t know her name.”
“Is she now? Well, Thomas, mind getting one of your teammates so I can send him to the band director?” he asked as he dialed.
“I can go.”
“Not with that blood on your shirt you’re not,” the trainer said, pointing at Malakai’s chest. “Now get me someone and go change,” he said as he held the phone to his ear.
Malakai looked down at himself. Blood covered most of his shoulder. Quickly, he removed his shirt and balled it into his hands.
“Is she going to be okay?” he asked, his heart still racing as he looked at the prone figure again.
The trainer was now talking on the phone and didn’t answer.
After one last look at the girl, Malakai left the room to get a teammate.
Chapter Four – Malakai
“Thomas! Get your head in the game!” Coach bellowed.
It was afternoon, and the team had moved from the weight room to the practice field.
Malakai’s thoughts kept drifting back to the unconscious musician and the death of his friend so many years ago. Thinking of all this brought back other memories, memories that were best left buried, especially when he was on the field.
“Thomas!” Coach yelled again when Malakai dropped the next pass. “Here! Now!”
Malakai ran to Coach. He was going to get it, and in all honesty, he deserved it.
“Thomas, get your head in the game,” Coach hissed. “Stop thinking about that girl and get your head in it. That’s when we recognize the pros from the amateurs and now you’re showing us all that you’re only an amateur. You’re letting me down, and you’re letting your teammates down,” he said, pointing at his chest, then at the rest of the team on the field.
Malakai snapped up his head, another image better left forgotten flashing in his mind: his mom disappearing shortly after the accident that killed his friend, letting him down when he needed her the most.
“Do you understand me?”
“Yes, sir!” Malakai said loud enough for his teammates to hear.
“Go then. Show us what you’re made of.”
Blood pounding in his ears, Malakai went back to the field and took his position, his eyes fixed on the quarterback. He wouldn’t let his teammates down, and he wouldn’t let that girl down. He promised himself to do right by her and, the moment he was done with practice, he would find her and make sure she was all right.
After the team had spent two hours of running around the field, catching balls, Coach finally called it a day.
“Thomas, a moment,” he called, right after he dismissed the rest of the team.
Malakai, anxious to be on his way, ran to Coach.
“Her name is Elizabeth Morgan. She goes by Lily. She was taken to Memorial Hospital. I thought you would want to pay her a visit,” he said, with the shadow of a smile on his lips.
His eyes wide, Malakai stared at Coach. Did the man have the power to read minds?
“She’s still in the hospital?”
“With an injury like hers?” Coach said with a chuckle. “She’ll be lucky if she doesn’t spend the night there. Go take a shower, make yourself presentable, and go apologize to the young lady.”
“You bet. Oh, and Thomas, one more thing: no more running inside the school. I’m sure you’ve learned your lesson?”
“Yes, sir,” Malakai said, wincing.
“Go now. I think you have somewhere to be.”
Without adding another word, Malakai ran to the school.
Chapter Five – Lily
Lily’s head hurt something fierce.
She had woken up in the hospital an hour earlier, and now she had a hard time thinking straight. She could only feel the suffering and despair of the people in the rooms nearby, and for one reason or another, she could not put her shields up. Every time she tried, nothing happened except more pain.
As her fourth imaginary brick wall crumbled to pieces, she brought her hands to her temples to try to stop the cacophony of emotional noise. She didn’t understand why she had to work so hard at something that had come as naturally as breathing to her.
As she massaged her temples, she felt a familiar presence approaching her room.
“Do tell me what happened to you, kiddo.”
Uncle Charlie had a big smile on his face and a huge bouquet of flowers in his hands. He walked into the room and set the flowers on the rolling table next to her bed.
Lily loved the man. He looked every bit like her father—his identical twin—with his dark hair, bright brown eyes, and easy smile. He was six feet tall and muscular, and he was, overall, a handsome man for his age.
Lily wasn’t surprised the school had called him. During the previous school year, Charlie had become Lily’s emergency contact when the school called her house, and her mother, Beatrice, hadn’t cared enough to remember Lily hadn’t been in school for two days. She had been sick with the flu, and her mother hadn’t called the school to notify them. The entire incident had created a big fuss, and to prevent it from ever happening again, her uncle had taken over the notifications and become her primary contact.
As he turned to her, Lily felt the deep concern coming from him despite his smile.
“Charlie, you don’t need to worry.” She knew her saying so only marginally lessened her uncle’s worries.
“I was told you hit your head.”
“Yeah, but I don’t remember anything. The last thing I remember was going to the bathroom. The next thing, I was waking up here an hour ago. I doubt the doctors really know what happened. If they do, they’re not telling me.”
“Then let me see what I can find out,” Charlie said, kissing her forehead and squeezing her shoulder gently.
As Charlie let go of her shoulder, the suffering and misery of the hospital’s patients flooded her senses again. Lily wished she were in the maternity ward as happy feelings were few and far between in her section, and trying as hard as she could, she couldn’t block anything.
She had been massaging her temples for a few moments when she felt her uncle’s presence, and then heard him in the hallway. She looked up and saw him with a man in blue scrubs through the window that overlooked the corridor.
“Well, doctor, if you’re waiting for her mother to show, you may as well keep her for the week,” he said. “I’m her emergency contact, and this paper gives me the authority to take her home.”
Lily perceived how annoyed the doctor was and how worried her uncle was, despite his tone.
“Mr. Morgan, Lily hurt her head rather badly. She has a mild concussion, and we want to keep her for a few more hours to make sure everything’s normal. Then we can discharge her to a responsible parent.”
“Doctor, this paper tells you I’m that person when her mother is unavailable.”
“I’m not supposed to let her go without a parent present.”
“I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to, but in this case, and with this paper, it’s the only way.”
Lily looked away, toward the window overlooking the parking lot.
Charlie was right. Her mother wouldn’t come for her. It was in moments like these Lily wished her father were still alive. He had died at the end of her sophomore year in a car crash on the highway when he was on his way back from Houston. Ever since, her relationship with her mother had deteriorated to a point where it was now exclusively confrontational.
“Don’t worry, kiddo,” her uncle said, entering the room and taking a seat in the chair next to her bed. “You should be out of here in no time.”
Lily felt the concern pouring from Charlie and wondered why her mother never found it in her heart to care for her.
“What was that paper you were talking about?”
“A little trick I did a while back. Don’t worry about it.”
Asking him more questions was not something Lily was willing to do at this time. Her head was already pounding, and she didn’t want to make matters worse by having a verbal match with her uncle.
“I don’t want you to waste your day,” she said instead.
“Nah! Don’t worry, kiddo. I only had boring meetings anyway.”
Lily smiled sadly, thinking again of her uncaring mother. Her uncle had told her multiple times to take control of her life and get rid of what made her unhappy, but that meant her mother; and somehow, Lily couldn’t find it in herself to move out and go live with her uncle like he had asked countless times. After all, the house she lived in was hers. It had been a gift from her grandfather to her father who had, in turn, left it in a trust for her. Most of his investments and life insurance had also gone to her as the sole beneficiary.
Her mother’s inheritance, on the other hand, had been significantly less, and she would have had to find a job and abandon all her charity work if the trust hadn’t allowed her to live in the house until Lily turned eighteen. The court had extended this privilege until it reached its decision concerning the trust, which her mother was contesting. In her mother’s mind, Lily didn’t deserve to receive anything from her father. After all, Lily had been a surrogate child, and it hadn’t been until much later that her mother had officially signed the adoption papers.
Lily’s father had also made sure Charlie—who loved her as much as her father did—was managing her trust, which had irked her mother to no end. Lily was glad of her father’s foresight as she was convinced her mother would have found a way to burn through the money within a year.
A soft knock on the doorframe brought Lily’s attention back to the present, and she looked up. She had been so immersed in the hospital misery, and her own, she hadn’t felt the new, worried presence approach her door. Her jaw dropped when she saw who was standing there, and she quickly tried to comb her hair with her fingers.
“I’ll head to the cafeteria to get something to drink,” her uncle said, standing with an amused smile on his face. “I’ll be back shortly.”
Lily watched her uncle walk around the boy who was still standing in her doorway, looking for all the world like he didn’t know what to do next.
Lily had noticed him during her freshman year while she was waiting in line at the cafeteria. She had bumped into him and apologized profusely. He had only smiled at her, telling her it was okay.
Lily had never been able to forget those green eyes. They had looked so genuine, and when she had touched him, she had felt something she couldn’t quite describe, something profound, something that moved her all the way to her soul. Ever since, she had felt a pull toward the boy, and every time she saw him in the school corridors or on the football field, her heart raced.
But she wasn’t the only one with a crush on him.
Since he joined the varsity team in sophomore year, half the girls in school daydreamed about him, and Lily was a realist. She didn’t think he would ever know who she was, let alone have any kind of relationship with her.
But now he was standing in her doorway, and it took all her willpower not to pinch herself. As she stared, she felt his worries being replaced by nervousness, and he scratched the back of his head, looking around the room.
Why the hell was he visiting her in the hospital for? How in the world did he even know she was here to begin with?
Suspicious, Lily extended her sense deeper and didn’t find any bad intentions coming from him. In fact, behind his nervousness, she felt only shyness and guilt.
“Hi,” he finally said, looking at her, then at the floor in front of him.
Lily thought Malakai was one of the most gorgeous boys in school, and right now he was totally adorable. He had wide shoulders and muscled arms under a school T-shirt. He had a narrow waist and muscled legs covered with faded jeans. He had a round face with full lips, and his light-brown curly hair was cut short. Lily envied him his golden complexion, which she heard he had inherited from his father, who was biracial. He had a nice smile and even white teeth.
“I…I came to apologize,” he said, keeping his eyes firmly on the floor.
Not knowing what he meant, Lily frowned. Quickly, he glanced at her, then looked to the side.
“You don’t remember, do you?”
“Remember what exactly?”
“I was running inside the school this morning, and I ran into you. That’s why you hit your head and ended up in the hospital,” he explained quietly in a slightly accented tone, looking down at the bed.
Lily was puzzled. She couldn’t understand why he felt so guilty. She thought he was overreacting, and his deep emotions were beyond the scope and severity of his actions.
“I’m sorry you had to miss practice. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen,” he said, now looking at her.
His eyes were utterly mesmerizing, the green so deep Lily thought she saw the sea in them.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m fine.”
Malakai smiled shyly. “I…I brought you this,” he said, walking into the room and offering her a bag.
Lily opened it and retrieved a Smithsonian magazine.
“If what Coach told me is right, you might need the distraction,” he explained, his shyness slowly slipping away.
“Thank you,” Lily said with a sincere smile.
An uncomfortable silence settled between them. It was the first time Malakai had ever had a conversation with her, and Lily was dying for him to stay.
“I reckon I should–” Malakai began, scratching the back of his head again and looking around the room.
“How was practice?” Lily asked, interrupting him.
Malakai stopped scratching and looked up at her, the shadow of a smile on his lips.
“Good,” he answered, taking the seat her uncle had just vacated. “Coach chewed my head off, but overall, it was a good practice…once I got my head back into it.”
Lily smiled. She loved to hear him speak. His voice was low and pleasant, and he spoke softly. If she had to venture a guess, she would think his accent was British.
“You like football a lot, don’t you?”
It was a stupid question, Lily knew, but she was desperate for him to keep on talking. For a reason she could not explain, having him near her muted the feelings of the rest of the hospital.
“Yeah,” he answered with a grin. “I was offered a full ride to the University of South Texas for next year. I accepted it last Friday.”
His last comment was accompanied by a lot of conflicting emotions, which had Lily thoroughly confused. She was curious to know why he was at the same time proud, happy, disappointed, and sad about the offer.
“Congratulations,” she said with a warm smile.
“How is your solo coming?” he asked.
“Good,” she answered, surprised he knew about it. “It’s a lot more complicated than last year, and I still have to perfect it, but I’ll be ready when we present our exhibition shows and competitions. It’s a shame you never get to hear us, really.”
“Yeah. I liked seeing you march last year. Coach made us watch you after the homecoming game.”
Now that he was talking, Lily discovered Malakai had a lot to say, not only about football but also about the Smithsonian, which he read avidly, and cooking. They were still talking so intently an hour later that Lily was startled by her uncle’s return. All she felt was Malakai’s excitement as he spoke, and she never realized her uncle was nearby.
As Malakai took his leave, Lily felt his hesitancy. She didn’t want to see him go either. His presence was comforting, and once he left, she realized the likelihood of talking to him again was pretty slim. After all, she was a band girl and he was a football player and the two just didn’t mix.
But maybe, just maybe…
Her heart pinched as he walked out of her room, and Lily wondered if she would be lucky enough to ever spend time with him again.
Chapter Six – Lily
It was close to nine o’clock when the hospital finally released Lily, and Charlie dropped her off at home.
“I still think you should move in with me,” her uncle repeated as he pulled in front of her house. She opened her mouth to answer him, but he raised his hand to interrupt her. “At least, think about it, okay?”
After a few seconds of hesitation, she nodded. “Thank you for the ride home, Charlie,” she said, opening the car door.
“You’re quite welcome, kiddo.”
Lily closed the passenger door and, waving her hand, watched her uncle drive away. As soon as he was out of sight, Lily lost her smile and sighed. She was tired, and her head was pounding again. All she wanted was to take a hot shower and remove the blood from her hair. To think Malakai had seen her this way…
Overall, she had been lucky in her bad luck. The cut hadn’t been deep, and she hadn’t needed stitches. However, the lump on her head was rather spectacular, and just frowning made her head ache.
She unlocked the front door, hoping her mother wasn’t there, but in the next instant she knew she wouldn’t be so lucky.
Beatrice was everything Lily was not. She was cultured, usually dressed as if she were about to attend the most important meeting in the world, and often wore high heels that Lily would never in her life dare to wear for fear she would break an ankle. Her mother’s makeup was always smartly applied, and her blond hair was always tied in an impeccable ponytail. She was the perfect picture of elegance, and she usually sported an inviting smile, which looked warm and sincere, but in reality, was anything but.
She was a stunning woman, but her beauty didn’t run deep.
Her mother was the reason she had become so good at shielding. Over the years, Beatrice’s feelings toward her had gone from cold and distant to angry and hateful, and Lily had had no other choice but to adapt. Stronger shields were the only way for her to protect herself from all her mother’s madness. Lily had in fact become so good at it that she could pretty much go through her day like a regular high school student, barely feeling people unless she touched them.
Lily opened the door and saw Beatrice standing in the living room next to the white couch, talking with a well-dressed man. They were drinking wine from delicate crystal glasses. Beatrice obviously liked the man, and Lily felt the man’s attraction to her mother in return.
As Lily walked in, their discussion stopped, and they turned to her. Beatrice’s venom at the interruption was so strong it left a bad taste in Lily’s mouth.
“Elizabeth, dear, where have you been?”
No one—no one except Beatrice, that was—called her Elizabeth. Her father had called her Lily since she was a toddler, and she had gone by that name ever since.
“Why do you call me Lily, Daddy?” she had asked when she was five years old.
“Because you’re the most beautiful little girl in the world, and you’re the flower of my life,” he had said.
However, Beatrice, despite multiple requests, insisted on calling her by her full name, which Lily hated. “Elizabeth is a proper name for a young lady. Lily is for a little girl with no manners and no means,” she had said.
Lily was convinced her mother called her Elizabeth just to spite her.
Despite the warm smile Beatrice was now giving her, Lily felt her mother wanted her anywhere but home, and Lily did what she usually did when she was in her mother’s presence: She slammed her shields into place…or tried to. She knew it hadn’t worked when a wave of pure annoyance washed over her, the wave so intense Lily took an involuntary step back.
“Are you well?” Beatrice asked, showing all appearance of concern.
From the man, curiosity.
Lily should not have felt it. Her weakest shield should have stopped it. Like at the hospital earlier, she felt everything.
She heard the blood pound in her ears. What was wrong with her? Then the realization hit her, and Lily’s heart began to race. Her shielding abilities had not come back.
She lightly touched the bump on her head. Again, she tried to slam her shields in place but to no avail. It was simply not working, and she was rapidly getting a headache, which made her stomach queasy.
“Oh, I spent the entire day at the hospital with a head injury,” she answered with a smile of her own, despite her racing heart and pounding head.
Lily had become quite good at showing a facade of pleasantness, even when she didn’t feel it. It was a requirement if one were to survive living with Beatrice. Not only did Beatrice pride herself on appearing cool and composed, she also liked to prey on others and use their weaknesses to her own advantage.
“And how was your day, Beatrice?” Lily continued just as pleasantly.
“Oh, marvelous,” she answered, waving her hand in a dismissing gesture.
The man looked at Beatrice with a raised eyebrow; Lily knew he was seeing her mother for who she really was, and Lily took an instant liking to him. This man was man enough not to be completely bedazzled by Beatrice’s charms.
“Would you care to join us?” Beatrice asked, even if it was the last thing she wanted.
“No, thank you. I have a prior engagement with a hot shower.”
“Oh, shame. Have a good night.”
Beatrice promptly turned around and smiled at the man who was now frowning openly.
“Thank you,” Lily said, losing her smile and turning toward the stairway.
She had reached the top of the stairs and was out of sight when the man spoke.
“Beatrice, she just told you she spent the day in the hospital with a head injury, and you pretended nothing happened.”
Lily had felt his puzzlement and offense all the way up the stairs.
“Of course she hasn’t. Don’t be fooled by her; she’s a compulsive liar.”
“Oh really? How do you explain the blood in her hair, on the side of her neck, and on the back of her shirt?”
“There was no blood, Robert,” she said, laughing.
When Lily felt his dismay, she thought he was way too decent for Beatrice. She wondered whether he had kids of his own, kids he actually cared about and loved.
“I think I should go,” he said slowly. “I have to work tomorrow.”
With a small smile, Lily walked away. It wouldn’t do for Beatrice to see her if the man put his words into actions. It was a nasty thought, but Lily felt a sense of sweet justice. Beatrice didn’t give a hoot about her, and maybe now she would know how it felt to be given the cold shoulder herself.
Lily had just finished showering and was trying to comb her hair when the doorbell rang. A few moments later, Sandra walked into her room without knocking.
It was not the first time Sandra had shown up at her house right on cue. Sandra, who lived across the street, had confided to Lily a long time ago that she used the lights in Lily’s bedroom and bathroom as an indication Lily was home and available.
“What happened to you?” Sandra asked, sitting on the bed and putting a bundle next to her. “No one would say, and I had your phone.”
How Lily envied her friend’s height. She could easily sit on Lily’s bed while Lily, from her five foot one, had to jump on it.
Lily looked at the bundle and, in addition to her phone, found her clarinet and her music book.
“I was run over by Malakai Thomas,” she answered.
The curiosity pouring from Sandra made Lily want to spill out everything in one winded sentence.
“You’ve got to explain that one to me. Malakai Thomas? The drop-dead-gorgeous-you’ve-had-a-crush-on-since-freshman-year Malakai Thomas?”
“Well, I don’t remember what happened, really,” Lily said lightly. She paused for effect. “Malakai told me when he visited me in the hospital.”
Sandra’s jaw dropped. “Okay! Now I want the full story.”
“There’s nothing to it,” Lily said, grabbing her phone from the bed. She swiped the screen and searched for any missed calls or texts before putting it on the nightstand.
“I’m still waiting for my story,” Sandra said after a few moments of silence, her tone implying she would have tapped her foot if she were standing.
Lily repeated what Malakai had told her about the accident.
“So, what else happened?” Sandra prompted when Lily wouldn’t add more. “I mean, Malakai visited you in the hospital, right? What did you talk about?”
Curiosity was killing her friend, but mentioning the hospital reminded Lily of the precarious situation she now found herself in.
“I…I can’t shield anymore,” she dropped instead of answering. At the thought of it, her heartbeat picked up again.
“That could be a problem. Do you think it’s a result of your head?”
“Maybe. What am I going to do if it doesn’t come back?” Lily had a knot in her stomach just voicing the possibility.
“We’ll figure it out,” Sandra said with a firm nod. “We always do.”
Somehow, Lily wondered if Sandra was right.
“Okay, now do tell me what else,” Sandra said, grinning at her.
“Not a whole lot really.”
She couldn’t get excited about Malakai’s visit anymore. She was too worried about her shields, but she told her friend what they discussed regardless.
“Wow! That’s a lot for you to say ‘not a whole lot really.’ So, did you guys exchange phone numbers or something?”
“No,” Lily said, glancing at her phone on the table next to her.
“Any plans to see each other again?”
“No,” Lily said, wincing. “I may like him and all, but I don’t think he likes me back. I mean, I’m me, clarinetist, band geek, not very interesting and all, and he’s him, star wide receiver, popular, drop-dead gorgeous and all. What would he want with someone like me? Besides, football players aren’t into band girls.”
“You shouldn’t say that,” Sandra sadly said. “You’re more than that. Not all the guys want to date girls like Zoe, you know.”
Lily chuckled. Neither of them liked Zoe St. Claire, who considered band members as second-class citizens. Lily was glad for the cheerleaders that Zoe wasn’t one of them; she would have certainly given them quite a bad name.
“You know what? Maybe we could do a makeover for you, you know, something simple, but something that would make you look really good.”
“Sandra, I don’t know,” Lily said, hesitating.
“Of course you do,” Sandra said, standing up and walking to her. “You want Malakai to notice you, no? Maybe we should try something with your hair. Not something severe like when we have band practice, but something casual you could wear when we’re at school. It would be a nice change from the way you keep it down and about,” she said, grabbing Lily’s chin and moving her head to the right and left. “You know, you have the most gorgeous eyes in the world, them being so gray and all. We should find a way to show them off, too. I’m sure Malakai would find them intriguing.”
Lily sighed. Sandra on a fashion mission was unstoppable.