Here’s the set-up:
Amazon top 100 bestseller and a teen top 100 bestselling book for 2012 and 2013
At a freshman party she doesn’t remember…Jess Jordan was almost raped.
…Almost. Very nearly. Not quite. Three years later, Jess has managed to make everyone believe she’s better. Over it. Because she is….Almost. Very nearly. Not quite. Unfortunately, until Jess proves she’s back to normal activities, her parents won’t discuss college. So, she lands a summer internship and strikes a deal with hockey jock, Gray Porter: He gets $8,000. She gets a fake boyfriend and a social life. Jess has no idea Gray signed on for reasons other than money. She also never expects to fall in love. But Gray’s amazingly hot, holds her hand all the time, and makes her forget that he’s simply doing his job. It’s like having a real boyfriend.
…Almost. Very nearly. Not quite.Gray Porter is hiding secrets of his own. About Jess Jordan. About why he’s driven to protect her, why he won’t cash her checks, or deny her anything she asks.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
The third Red Bull was a mistake. I should’ve munched some actual food before parking at the interview. But I didn’t. Too nervous.
So now, my stomach is liquid snakes and spinning nails.
I raise the volume on my iPhone and pull one leg past the steering wheel so I can half-curl up next to the door. Not easy in the driver’s seat of a Jeep. But very do-able if you’re short. It’s also surprisingly comfortable if you have the right blanket.
I have the right blanket. Brown, double plush and fleecy. Mine is a gift from my little sister. She’s the only one who knows how often I nap in here. Last February, she thought I’d freeze during my school lunch naps so she bought it for me with her babysitting money. She’s always trying to help me catch up on lost sleep.
Unfortunately, thanks to my breakfast of stupid, no one can help me today. I won’t be catching up on any lost sleep either.Worse, I think I might puke in the parking lot of Geekstuff.com before the interview starts. Maybe during.
Wouldn’t that be epic?
Excuse me, Mr. CEO-Guy-I-Want-To-Impress. Could you hold that question while I BARF BARF BARF?
They’d probably assume I was hung over. Or a drug addict! Which…I suppose, I am. Everyone knows caffeine is a drug, after all. And I’m definitely addicted to it.
My stomach clenches and twists again so hard I want to cry. Instead, I close my eyes and breathe slowly, willing the energy drinks—more importantly that amazing caffeine—to stick. The cool glass against my forehead seems to help and the cramps fade away.
Thank you, God.
I snuggle deeper into the blanket and try to focus on my interview plan. The iPhone is playing classical. Classical works best when I want to visualize end results. Tactics.
Olympic athletes run their moves before they compete too.
I know landing the summer internship at Geekstuff.com is no Olympics. But to me, this interview is the most important competition of my life. Without this job, my future is doomed.
I see myself enter the same room where I beat thirty applicants yesterday.
The CEO asks to see my mock product samples. He’s impressed! I imagine myself smiling and being all social. I mention that I own most of the ‘geek-toys’ department. How I can’t wait to see the inner workings of an online store.
The social part is hardest. All bluff and faking it. But me, owning the products, is complete truth. I love every geek-gadget, toy and t-shirt they sell here—even the Star Wars stuff. There’s no cooler company in the world.
I run through the sales history and the $34.00 price of my favorite product: The Mood Jelly Fish Lamp. I imagine saying: I can’t live without this awesome lamp.
Another truth. I love the lamp. It’s my nightlight.
I’m smiling, accepting the internship—handshake and all—when something slams into my Jeep.
Not with another car—but with a fist or a body! I don’t know what—because my eyes were closed! The Jeep rocks. I whack my knees into the steering wheel while my head hits the window with a dull thunk. When I look up I’m almost nose-to-nose with a guy. A guy who’s peering into the windshield like he wanted to see my reaction to his lame prank!
I recognize him from my school: Gray Porter. Junior—soon to be Senior. Same as me.
And not one of my usual tormentors.
My carefully constructed interview-bun slips. Wisps of curly frizz fall around my shoulders. Perfect.
Feeling overexposed like some caged circus act, I manage to paste on one of my defensive sneers. “What was that about—jerk?” I shout. I know he heard me.
But the guy doesn’t move. He’s just staring. Not even blinking.
So I stare back. It’s all I can do not to blush like a dork. I haven’t been this close to a guy—heck—anyone besides my family, in years. That’s when I notice Gray Porter might own the most stunning, crystal-green eyes on the entire planet.
It takes all my strength to hold the pissed-off expression in place and repeat myself: “I said, what was that about? JERK.”
I try to read his expression. I’m really good at that. He seems alarmed. Or does he look…apologetic? Or high?
Weird. And double-WTF?
I take stock of myself. My heart’s pounding jacked-up-stereo loud, but he can’t hear it through the glass. I check my hands gripped on the steering wheel. Thankfully, they’ve got no signs of visible trembling.
After three years of practice, I’m a master at keeping all body shakes hidden. Even so, he’s got me so rattled I have to work to decide my next move. Why is he still staring? I must need a more scathing expression on my face. I choose fearless scorn—one of my best. Took months to perfect this one. I sneer, and twist my lip.
That got his attention, because he just turned all red. He’s opened his mouth like he’s going to say something.
As if there’s anything to say.
I fire out my dismiss-the-dumbass blinks as fast as I can.
And bam-ba-bam, bam, bam!
He winces and steps back.
Then, like it never happened—or like he’s wised up and is finally afraid of me—the guy executes a 180 to dash across the parking lot. He’s making a beeline for Geekstuff.com’s massive front door.
I let out a tight breath, uncurl my aching fingers from the steering wheel and jump out with my bag in tow. I can’t gain any ground. He’s easily over six-feet-huge and that includes some long legs. I’m only five-four. No way I’ll catch him unless I order him to stop. Or run him down like a dog.
Not my style.
I’m all about control, fast smack-downs and keeping people at a distance with my ever-expanding repertoire of rock-solid, back-off expressions. (Expressions laced with eye-snapping sarcasm and disdain, of course.) It’s been a lot of staring-in-the-mirror hard work. But my skills are perfected.
I’ve recently convinced the best therapist in town that I’m well enough to move on to college. I didn’t even have to lie. I simply deleted info, kept the expressions in check, hid my messed up sleep schedule, and POOF: Everyone thinks I’m cured.
What I think is that I’m tired of talking about the things that will never be fixed.
As in me. How I’m almost better. Almost back to normal.
After trying things their way for so long, I got tired of waiting. I’ve made a ton of progress with faking it, that’s for sure. And so far, so good. No, I’m not ‘better’. I’m the same; but none of my pretending seems to make me worse. So it’s kind of working. And there’s been one huge change that works for all of us. My parents and little sister have never been happier.
Them, being happy, is about as close to me being happy as I’ll ever get. It’s enough.
If I can make more progress (Mom’s favorite word) I get to apply to colleges next year. They promised. This means I’ll get my life back, head to the dorms and move out from under the parent microscope. Out of sight, out of mind, right?
I’m going to be what they want this whole year: Just fine.Fine. Fine. Fine.
I stop to catch my breath, trying to decipher why Gray Porter chose today to join the ranks of people who mess with me. He’s never talked to me once—I’d remember. Because I’m sure I’d never forget those amazing green eyes. Who could forget those things?
As I look around the Geekstuff.com parking lot it takes only seconds to realize the visitor side is completely empty—besides my car and his. It must be me against him for the final interview. I suppose he’s trying to start the battle early.
The guy’s taking the front steps two at a time, and I swear he’s talking to himself. I wonder if he might be more of a freak than me. Just in case he decides to look back, I hold my position and stare holes into his obviously new, package-creased, button-down interview shirt as he disappears inside the building.
Good luck you poser—you bully. That’s the only point you’re going to get.
I glance at the time on my iPhone. Five minutes to spare. He’s probably watching me from inside the lobby—or maybe he’s setting up some sort of trip line.
I start forward at an ultra-slow pace. I’m scouring my brain for any school gossip I might be able to use against him. This kid and I run in completely different circles. His circle is popular and cool, and my circle takes me from school to the teacher’s lounge. For excitement, I hit the nearest store with a Red Bull aisle. He goes to parties, and football games and all that other stuff. I never even see this guy in the halls.
The only real memory I have of Gray goes back to the day he helped Jenna Shattuck when she broke her arm.
Major broke her arm.
It’s one of those mythic school tales. Re-told every year to all incoming students. It happened freshman year, second semester. A few days after I’d come back to school from my ‘special months’ at home. Months spent munching bottle after bottle of anti-depressants and almost going off the deep end. Forever.
Everyone swears they saw Jenna fall. I really did.
Back then, I’d been hanging in the bleachers not participating thanks to a doctor’s note. I hadn’t worked out how to hide my emotions yet. Not like I do now.
I did a lot of looking down that year. Shoe staring. Counting tiles. Grossing myself out by analyzing dirt in corners. That kind of stuff.
I wouldn’t talk to anyone, either. Opening my mouth used to make me cry for no reason. Something about feeling air hit the back of my throat set it off. It was humiliating for me and beyond awkward for anyone who came near me, so no one did. I prefer it that way, anyhow.
Jenna tripped and broke her arm during a volleyball game. She fell right in front of my feet. She was hard to miss. Her hand twisted under her, and there’d been lots of snapping. Like someone walking on sticks. When she sat up, her bones had come through the skin in two places near her wrist. Another jutted out higher—above her elbow.
Total freak show. She’d hit an artery.
Jenna never once made a sound. Just blinked and blinked. Blood spattered the gym floor—tons of it—like it was falling from the fire sprinklers, and the teacher screamed so loudly everyone thought she’d been hurt.
No one else moved or made a single sound either. Not for the longest time, including me. Especially me.
Jenna—probably all of us—had been in shock. I know shock. It’s when you can’t process or do anything properly during a messed up situation. Often—after—you might not recall one bit of what happened. Jenna still swears she doesn’t remember falling.
Gray had been the only one to step up. He sort of saved her.
He took Jenna’s face in his hands. Very gently…I do remember that. He tilted her chin toward his so she couldn’t see her arm or any of the blood. He also blocked her view of the teacher, who by that point, had quieted because she’d vomited under the basketball net.
“Look right here. Right at me,” Gray said, signaling someone to run to the office. He wrapped her arm with the sleeve of his hoodie and applied pressure like some sort of first-aid expert.
“Keep your eyes on me, Jenna,” he said. “The nurse is coming. She’s going to get your parents. Just hold on. Stay with me. Eyes on mine. Right here. You’re going to be fine, Jenna. Just fine.”
I shudder as I remember the sound of his voice. He’d been kind. Confident. Worried. Afraid.
Today, after the close-up view of his green eyes, I now understand why Jenna hadn’t moved the whole time.
He’d hypnotized her with those things.
I shake my head and sigh. Gray’s not a bully. He’s the opposite, which is much, much worse. He’s a hero. Hero guys tend to win stuff even if they aren’t qualified.
He’s probably here at this second interview because he pulled off something impressive and cool-headed yesterday, but what? Kitten rescue? Toddler running in front of a bus? The CEO choking on a mini-solar phone charger?
Let’s hope not.
I hadn’t even considered the possibility of losing this internship to someone else.
But what if? What if Gray wins it?
I can’t let that happen. I can’t. I won’t.
I take in a few more long breaths and switch my expression to serene and confident as I hop up the curb leading to the front steps. Confidence beats any other emotion when trying to convince people you’ve got things handled. I need Geekstuff.com to believe I’ve got what it takes, and now I need Gray to believe it too.
How hard could it be to return his lame attempt at a shake down with one of my own? All I can do is what I know. Fake it, stay awake, smile, and see what happens.
The Geekstuff.com people can find out after they hire me they’ve picked the lemon.
As for Gray Porter? He can suck it on the way out.
The stinging in my forehead intensifies to remind me the guy inside the lobby is already one point ahead. I reach up and find a huge, warm lump above my right eye. It’s bad—like a mutant spider bite—and it hurts.
Of course it does. Fine.
He’s two points ahead. I’ll give him two.
I pull more bangs loose so the lump is covered, and I add Gray Porter to my ‘hate list’, right between seashells and parties. I feel instantly stronger. My hate list hasn’t changed in years.
Total proof of progress! If only I could share this one with my mom. But she doesn’t know I like to keep lists. Either way. I’m calling it.
One point for me.
Does she remember? Does she remember me?
“I should’ve left her alone. I can’t learn. I can’t learn,” I say, not even trying to whisper as bile settles at the back of my throat—more with every step Jess Jordan takes in my direction. I couldn’t be happier the lights in the lobby of Geekstuff.com are off. Because it’s Sunday, it appears no one is waiting to greet me for the interview.
To greet us. Me and Jess Jordan.
I cringe, hating the idea of being trapped in this room with her.
I push away the images of the party that changed—no—ruined—both of our lives freshman year.
Does she remember? Does she remember me?
“I did the right thing to wake her up,” I say even louder. As though noise could drown out my questions, hide my cowardice and undo what I did wrong out there in the parking lot. What I didn’t do right at that party years ago…
Goose bumps plaster my arms as I replay the promise I made to this girl’s parents three years ago: Stay out of Jess Jordan’s radar and don’t go near her. Ever. A promise I’d kept faithfully for three years—until today.
Of course I’d kept it. Her psycho mom told me if I approached Jess, the girl would suffer a serious setback. Or a flashback, or… something terrible.
I would have promised anything back then. Hell, I’d offered to do way more, but her parents wouldn’t let me. They only wanted me to stay away from their daughter. I didn’t want to risk Jess suffering any more hurt, so I agreed to never approach her.
Only, crap! I just did way more than approach her. I accidentally scared the hell out of her. Then I blinked at her like a gaping dork. And ran. Let’s not forget that classy move.
My pack’s heavy. Full of mock product ideas required for the second interview today. Mine are hockey pucks in various duct-taped configurations. And, I’m pretty sure they suck, but I didn’t want to show up empty handed. Who knew they’d sound like an exploding bomb when slammed into her Jeep? It’s not like I slam my backpack into random vehicles to test the sound it’s going to make.
She’s stopped walking, and now she’s staring at the front door. Probably planning how she’s going to kill me.
I swallow and scan the room for exit signs.
“If I’d left her there asleep? If I’d walked away…then what?” I mutter, glancing quickly over my shoulder to make sure I’m still alone. I contemplate leaving again, but this makes me angry with myself and unfairly, at her.
I want this internship. I can’t afford to walk away from an $8K payoff and perfect working hours for me.
ME. This is about me! Me. Me. Me.
Not Jess Jordan.
I’d figured Jess had parked behind the dumpsters to pull some sort of surprise attack. At the very least she’d been trying to eye the competition. It’s why I’d shown up early. I’ll admit that. I’d wanted to call her bluff. Let Jess know her car had been spotted.
But then…hell. I saw her. Sleeping away in that Jeep, blanket and all. Acting as though she didn’t have a care in the world. I must have been struck with temporary insanity. That, or a giant alien magnet had drawn me straight out of my car and right to the side of hers.
She’d been so far gone, I’d spent three good minutes peeking over her dash watching her breathe. All that time, I tried to convince myself to leave her there. Jess, missing this interview, should’ve been my personal gift from fate. A gift I well deserved after all the crap I’ve had to eat because of her—that night—that party.
I’d almost had myself talked into bolting, when she’d smiled in her sleep. Held out her hand like she was having a strange dream.
After that, I couldn’t leave her there alone. Wouldn’t.
What went down at that party years ago wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t my fault, either.
But I’m not one to repeat my mistakes—that’s for sure. Maybe I screwed up by freaking her out; but I wasn’t about to leave Jess Jordan needing something from me ever again.
I run my hand through my hair and manage to swallow the tight ball of what feels like dry, scared-dirt lodged at the back of my throat. The nagging questions won’t stop: Does she remember? Does she remember me?
I don’t know why I’m worried about that. From what her parents told me—from my careful non-interactions with her—Jess has no idea who I am. No memory of the night I stopped her from being raped by a senior asshole at a hockey party. The night I chickened out and ran out on her after she’d asked me to stay. God…I’d been such a loser that year.
I’d done my best to make it right after.
After is when the guys on the team beat the crap out of me for blowing the whistle. After is when I quit playing competitive ice hockey when the coach wouldn’t prosecute the player who tried to hurt Jess. After is always too late. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way.
No such thing as re-plays or penalty points in real life, no matter how valid and real the fouls might be.
I eye the large, over-stuffed bag Jess has brought along for her interview. I can only imagine the perfect product samples she’s concocted to win this internship. The girl’s loaded, has straight A’s, and adults love her. I can guarantee her product samples won’t be made out of tape, hope and bullshit like mine.
The people who run this place must have fallen for her big-time. But they’d liked me too! Invited me back—like they’d invited her. Yesterday, the CEO, Mr. Foley, told me I have the creativity and motivation Geekstuff.com looks for in an intern.
And hell yes, I do.
Desperation and an empty wallet makes for buckets of creativity and motivation.
I stare, knowing she can’t see me behind this door. I take in her small frown, fair skin, and determined expression. She’s sporting some brown, geek-girl shoes, and her long legs are hidden under the weirdest grey skirt I’ve ever seen. Her strange pioneer/nerd outfits are always a source of school conversations.
Looking at her now, I remember my stupid freshman crush on this girl. How she’d always had this easy smile and quiet laughter. How she also blew me off every time I came near, and how empty and lost her eyes had seemed after she’d come back to school.
I pull in a ragged breath. I think Jess was the lucky one to have her slate wiped clean. Remembering all this time has been hell. As much as she might not know me—as much as I’ve worked to keep myself away from her radar—I’ve been tracking this girl out of the corners of my eyes ever since.
Jess makes it to the landing and pauses. For the second time today, glass is the only thing separating her face from mine. It’s impossible not to notice how beautiful she still is.
A trickle of sweat drips between my shoulders and my knees start this embarrassing quaking thing. Exploding grenade heartbeats kill my chest, reminding me—begging me—to do the right thing. Only, after my backpack move, after staring at her like this, I have no idea what the right thing is supposed to be anymore.
I hold my ground and decide to play it out. It’s not like this same girl can trash my life twice. I’ve already broken the promise I made to her parents. I can’t erase the fact that she’s seen me up close. Way too close. If the girl is going to have some sort of episode or flashback thing—then I suppose I should hang around.
Try to make things right, or call an ambulance—or something.
I step into a darker part of the room, watching as she frowns at her reflection in the door. She pauses to mess with her bangs.
“Besides, I’m staying because I need the money,” I mutter, over and over again.
But I can’t silence the nagging truth: I’m simply too curious to leave. I wonder…I want to know…
Does she remember me at all?
All of my imagined warrior-princess-bravado fades when I’m vanquished by Geekstuff.com’s gigantic door. As I push through, it knocks me forward like a paper doll. It’s all I can do to save myself from tripping flat on my face in the dark lobby. The contents of my bag create a junk and paper waterfall. I manage to maintain my mask of composure by keeping my eyes trained on the
Make-up containers and my precious iPhone have been ejected like bullets. They travel the farthest, coming to a rest at the base of the receptionist’s paisley-shaped, and thankfully, vacated desk.
It’s not lost on me in this air-conditioned battlefield that my breathing sounds embarrassingly erratic next to Gray’s very calm and employable steady intakes of breath.
He’s somewhere on my right.
I glance through my lashes and find his navy blue Converse moving toward the epicenter of my mess. I move in the opposite direction. As he bends to scoop up a few of my things, I’m completely aware that the guy has open access to my interview secrets.
This makes me feel slightly ill and annoyed at myself for losing control of my things.
And of myself. I never lose control of that.
I panic for a moment and look into my bag, relaxing a little when I realize it’s only my makeup and product samples—about twenty bumper-stickers—that have spilled. The résumés and the ridiculous ‘How to Be Normal’ checklist my ever-helpful sister handed me this morning, must still be at the bottom of my bag.
I’m proud of the bumper stickers so…let him look. Maybe they’ll intimidate him.
Because I’m not prepared to have any sort of intelligible smack-down session—a session that must happen soon, I go after the other stuff.
I scoop up my phone and the Sunshine Glow Mineral Powder first. This item has exploded into beige dust-bombs a few times in my bag. I’m happy to find it’s intact and not all over the eggplant-colored carpet. I hate the junk, but it’s the only product that can wipe out the permanent dark circles I have under my eyes from not sleeping at night.
I pick up the blush compact next. It’s necessary because it has the mirror and the freshening pink tones my grey-colored cheeks crave. My lip-gloss, then the red-reducing eye drops are last. I shove the items into my skirt pocket and feel slightly comforted by their presence. I’m not vain or anything; it’s just that without these products I look like the walking dead.
Once I’m sure my expression is solid and calm, I force myself to turn and look at my opponent. Gray’s gathered almost all of my bumper stickers. Instead of looking impressed and floored by my cool product samples, he has the nerve to be sporting a confused expression. He’s also shaking his head.
With a lightning quick glance at me first, he reads one bumper sticker: “Member: BBB. Boys in Books are Better?” He shakes his head again. “I didn’t know you made these bumper stickers. This one’s been on your car since last month.”
I gasp before I can stop myself. “How do you know that?”
“I like cars and I love Jeeps.”
His eyes flit to my face again and his cheeks go all red. This time he’s trying to hold my gaze so I lock onto his for a stare down and don’t respond. Silence always freaks people out.
He shrugs as though he hasn’t noticed and continues, “Your Jeep is the most tricked out vehicle in the whole school.” He waves my bumper sticker in the air. “You slapped this very same chunk of duct tape silliness right onto the paint. They’re called bumper stickers for a reason. They go on the bumper. Although with your chrome package I wouldn’t even do that.”
I have no idea what he’s talking about. What’s a chrome package? Amazingly, the guy doesn’t break my stare despite the ice bullets I’ve slammed into him. Maybe he’s not wearing his glasses, or it’s too dark in here for me to be properly effective. It’s all I can do to keep a straight face and the glower from slipping. I think I’m losing control all over again. This is because I’ve registered two things above and beyond his hypnotic green eyes and rock star hot voice.
1. His perfectly square chin has one of those little divots dead center.
2. He’s taller, and wider across the shoulders than I’d thought.
My heart ramps into some sort of a private hailstorm.
My list won’t stop.
3. His hair is still shower damp. It’s made up of little, ink-black curls—an amazing amount of them.
4. The dumb eyes aren’t simply green. They’re like an exploded rainbow of greens and gold and browns. On closer inspection, he’s…he’s simply overall amazing and…I’ll just say it again: HOLY. HOLY. WOW.
“So…Jess Jordan…cat got your tongue? Do you really believe that bumper sticker? Is that why you put it on your Jeep? That boys in books are truly…better?” He shoots me a small smile.
I have to hide a second gasp of surprise. I can’t believe this perfect-looking dude knows my name as well as my Jeep, and what sticker I’ve put on it!
I shrug. “Yep. I believe it. I’m amazed you can read those. They’ve got some big words, Gray Porter,” I cover, tossing his full name right back at him and layering on the sarcasm while I work to control the tremor threatening my voice. I’m about to go into shake and quake mode. I can’t believe I’ve reached this state—not from a nightmare—but because I find a guy to be stunning?
Or is it because a guy’s said my name?
I need to get myself together enough to make sure Gray understands I’m not here to chat or make friends—no matter how pretty he is! I don’t have enough energy in me today for conversations like this.
“Mind handing my stuff back?” I say in my meanest voice, lowering my eyebrows into attack mode. I head closer, trying very hard not to blink. I also work to keep my shoulders down and my expression bored. Very bored, plus dripping with utter dislike and contempt.
Once again, the guy doesn’t do what I expect.
Instead he meets me in the middle of the room and holds up two more bumper stickers. “I’d rather be in Forks? I shop the HOB? What do these even mean?!”
Time to end this right now. It’s all suddenly too close.
That, or he’s just too darn close to me. I never let anyone enter my bubble, but this guy has almost popped it.
He’s touching all of my stuff and he smells like limes…or something shampoo-soapy. I raise an eyebrow, working to achieve the right tone of intellectual superiority. “If you’ve never read the Twilight books or the Hunger Games series you wouldn’t understand. Not. One. Bit. They are complex stories. Big words. Probably beyond you.”
“Hey, no self-respecting dude would read those books, or admit to reading them.” He laughs.
I don’t answer. Instead, I drop down to create some needed distance while I pick up the remaining slew of bumper stickers still on the floor. I’m horrified to note one of my résumés has escaped. I glance up to see if he’s got any printer paper in his hands.
He doesn’t, thank God.
“So…you’re not going to tell me what they mean? C’mon. What’s the Hob? Why Forks?”
When I stand, I switch to my blatantly rude, you’re-an-idiot tone. This is the one that always pisses off my mom. To be sure he’s not missing my insult this time, I also cross my arms and speak very slowly like I’m speaking to a toddler. “The Hob is from The Hunger Games. It’s the underground market where the characters trade food and information. Forks would be the town in Twilight. The setting. In boy-speak, Forks equals the planet Tatooine for Star Wars. You know—Anakin Skywalker’s childhood home? Or are you not familiar with any global blockbusters? I suppose I could use Sesame Street or Pokémon for a reference—if it would help you understand better?”
Bam. That should seal it. I couldn’t have sounded more like a total bitch.
He nods. “No, I’ve got it. My bedroom was Tatooine for all of third and fourth grade. Boy-speak…that’s funny.” He laughs again, and it sounds warm and—and—not at all offended!
Worse, the laugh has disoriented me all over again. “Oh?” becomes my dorky uncontrolled response. I suddenly have hundreds of questions about how his room might have looked.
“Yeah,” he goes on as though he can read my mind. “I draped my walls with these ugly tan sheets to make the desert lands go on forever. It was more of a fire hazard than anything good.” His gaze is now glued back on my face as though he’s looking for something, waiting for me to do something.
I glance down and fiddle with the zipper on my bag, hoping he hasn’t deciphered that I’m in absolute unfamiliar territory here. By now, even the toughest kids would be running in the other direction. At the very least they’d be pulling the silent treatment on me. Maybe I’ll have to take this on the direct. I could try: There is no reason we need to talk to each other. So let’s just stop. As in. Forever. Don’t talk to me, I won’t talk to you. Deal?
He clears his throat as though he’s signaling my turn, but when I refuse to engage he continues, “Anyhow…Twilight, The Hunger Games. Those books were read by thirty million girls and their moms. Guys who admit to being into romance crap are lying or whipped. Major whipped. How’s that for boy-speak? And those movies? You have to admit they were lame.”
I make the mistake of looking up just then, prepared to blast him for the ‘romance crap’ comment and he stuns me stupid. He’s in the middle of a total—entire face involved—eyes crinkling—happy grin. Grinning and happy at me, I guess?
“Tatooine, huh? So awesome you know Star Wars facts,” he adds nodding. “Do you ever watch the animated stuff?”
Grin. Grin. Grin.
I’m seriously at risk of an old-style faint.
My neck and cheeks are volcano-hot. My entire chest swarms with an uncontrollable butterfly attack. Butterfly riot. Butterfly massacre.
Person slaughtered: Me.
Method used: Dimple.
The guy has a dimple. Of course he does. To match the Hollywood chin divot. To make the lump on my forehead pound even harder.
Points for Gray Porter: 3,000,000-bajallion, trillion to the millionth power.
Say something, Jess. Say anything.
And just when I’m about to think of what I should say next, my mouth goes into whacked overdrive like I’m possessed. “The graphic art in Clone Wars is my favorite,” I say. “I love how they drew the characters. You know—how everything looks so angular and—”
My words tangle and freeze when my brain finally arrives to shut it down.
Say something but NOT THAT, you psycho!
“Clone Wars. Love it, do I? Yesss.” He’s actually responded in a Yoda voice!
His eyes are kind, sparkling with laughter and still, all too green. Yoda green!
Am I losing my touch? Why won’t this guy act like everyone else?
I want to giggle and smile back at him. It takes every ounce of my strength to tamp that urge away and revert to glaring. At a loss, I turn away to shove all of my product samples into my bag as a grey-haired, oompa-loompa looking guy stumbles through a door behind the reception area.
“Good, good. You’re both here,” the man says, pausing to right his glasses. “I was worried you’d have wandered off.”
“No sir, Mr. Foley. Not a chance. Nice to see you again.” Gray steps forward and shakes the man’s hand.
My heart feels like cards have just been shuffled under it. I recognize my instant disadvantage. How does Gray already know Mr. Foley, the CEO!?
I reach up to make sure my bun is holding and take a couple steps in their direction while I staple on a confident smile of my own.
Mr. Foley saves me by speaking first. “You must be Jessica Jordan.” He shakes my hand. “I heard you had quite an interview yesterday. My product development manager says you’re fantastic. She hasn’t been this fired up about new products since we put unbreakable Plexiglas on the Dragon-Fire Sword replicas! Can’t wait to get a look at your geek-girl book bumper stickers. I hope you brought them back.”
I shoot Gray a smug smile. “Of course. It’s an honor to finally meet you, Mr. Foley.”
“Yes. Good,” Mr. Foley says. He seems to be observing me.
I hope he approves of my carefully chosen Geekstuff.com outfit: the Ultimate Long-Safari-Skirt. Color: Puce. Sale price: $42.95.
I’ve combined it with the Peter Pan Office Shirt. Color: Bright-White. Price: $34.00. An item that has never been marked up or down for the past two years. A point I can’t wait to bring up during my interview.
Mr. Foley’s smile and small nod shows he’s recognized that I’m not only an interviewee, but a valued customer, as well.
Let my points roll in. Fifty—zillion for me. Take that, Porter!
“Do you two know each other?” Mr. Foley gestures between us.
“Oh yes,” Gray says in what sounds like a sarcastic tone.
“No.” I blast Gray with a look. He better cut the games, now.
“So you do, or, you don’t?” Mr. Foley asks again, scratching the top of his balding head.
“Sort of,” I say.
“Yeah…that’s what I meant,” Gray says. He breaks my gaze and flushes.
“We’re in the same school,” I add.
“Good. That makes what I have to tell you less awkward.” Mr. Foley smiles.
I have to force myself not to roll my eyes.
If this morning gets any more awkward, I could easily self-combust.
Mr. Foley continues, “Our order fulfillment servers went down and I’m helping Q.A. review a temporary hack. It’s why I’m so late. Might take awhile before I can get to the interviews. Can you hold here until the fire’s out?”
“No problem.” I nod, hoping my expression is a perfect mix of concern and absolute hire-me, NOT HIM, sparkle.
I risk another glance at Gray and note he seems supremely uncomfortable about the new plan. We’ve sort of exhausted all bizarre topics possible. I’m guessing he’s not looking forward to the next round of being alone with me.
Hanging with him is not at the top of my list either, but I’m not going to let anyone know that with a crappy poker-face. If Mr. Foley notices Gray’s reaction, I’ll simply gain another point for my side.
I shoot Gray a taunting, deadly smile as I continue, “I have all day, Mr. Foley. Please take your time.”
“Yeah, as long as you need,” Gray says.
Gray responds to my challenge with a head-shake and an odd half-smile. The guy is whacked, that has to be it.
“Are we the only people expected for the final interview?” Gray asks. He’s turned his back on me. I think he’s trying to block my view of Mr. Foley with his giant…giant self!
“Yes. You two are the best of the bunch. Wish I had the budget to keep you both. This is not going to be an easy decision.” Mr. Foley sighs and removes his glasses to polish them on his shirt.
I step around Gray so I can be in Mr. Foley’s view, but Gray beats me to the conversation again. “Is there anything we can do to help? Maybe extra hands are needed?” He sounds infuriatingly competent.
“Yes. Can I help too?” I ask, but I know I sound unoriginal—like I’m copying.
Because I am! I can’t believe I underestimated Gray this much.
I’m hardly able to hold my placid smile steady through my gritted teeth, but Mr. Foley doesn’t seem to notice.
Because he’s not looking at me! He’s busy smiling at Gray as though they shared some sort of private joke at yesterday’s interview.
As though Gray Porter had gone home for dinner, met his wife and saved his dog from drowning!
For a consolation prize, my soon to be NOT BOSS tosses me a nod as he directly answers Gray’s question, not mine. “Might take you up on that, son. Sorry about this. It won’t be too long, just hang tight and I’ll be back.” He gives us one last, apologetic glance and a small wave before darting through the door.
I want to scream.
Mr. Foley just called my only competition for this internship, son.
It’s apparent I’ve lost the job. I eye the tense set of Gray’s back and wonder what’s bugging him. Can he not tell? He’s Mr. Foley’s golden boy.
Gray’s paced across the room to the farthest point away from me. I’ve heard him mutter the word “crap” like six times. As if he’s the one who needs to freak out right now.
I consider the possibility that he’s been pretending to be relaxed around me but can no longer hide the fact that I’ve finally broken through. Made him back off and fear me like he should.
Good. Let’s hope that’s the case.
I can’t leave here without this job.
Maybe I can push him harder—convince him to leave. If he’s too stupid to know he’s the chosen one, I’m not going to bring it up. I mean to imply the opposite.
I let out a long, attention-getting sigh and fold my arms to re-muster my smug confidence while swallowing the lump of fear lodged in the back of my throat.
“So…do you want to confess anything to me? Come clean? We seem to have lots of time.”
He sucks in a breath as though my comment startled him.
“I—what—d—do you mean?”
Yes. He stuttered!
I’m back on, and I’m kicking off round two. This time, I know all of his tricks: dimples, divots, smiles, and cute eye-crinkle things. Bring it on.
When he turns, I could swear he’s gone completely pale and my confidence builds. I go for another sigh—the dismissive, bored one. The one that used to make the therapist say, “I think we’re done for today, Jessica.”
I dig in again. “You know you don’t belong here. You aren’t even a geek. I think you should tell me why you thought it appropriate to fling yourself all over my car. Were you trying to scare me?”
“I didn’t think and I—” He flushes, still stuttering, “I—”
“Just say it; you were trying to make me bomb the interview. I’m not an idiot. Scaring me off is the only way you’ll get this job, and I think you know it.” I stroll to the purple couch, place my bag on the glass oval coffee table, and take a seat as though I own the place. “Decent, but failed attempt. You won’t be getting any second chances.”
“You were the one pulling the park-and-hide trick, not me,” he says, all hints of his previous stutter are now erased. “In case you didn’t notice, the spot where you chose to park is hidden by dumpsters. Come clean on that, because it looked like you were playing your own game out there.”
I’m beginning to suspect this guy is as good at hiding his true feelings as I am. I know I had him sweating it just seconds ago, but now he’s turned it back on me. I’m not about to admit that I arrive early to everything so I can take a nap first. I go for a half-truth. “I parked in the shade to hang out. Behind the dumpsters is the only shady spot in the whole lot. Last I’d heard, parking in the shade is not a game, or a crime. But stalking and attacking innocent people are felonies.”
“Christ! I noticed your car, and I noticed you in it—snoring away. I also noticed you weren’t going to wake up. You’re lucky I took the trouble to give you a little assist. You owe me. You could have missed this whole interview.”
I move into full-fight mode. “Oh, I owe you, do I? FYI. I wasn’t asleep, you moron. I was resting. Listening to my iPod. Thanks to you, I’ve got bruises on my knees and a lump the size of Texas on my forehead. If you’re looking for some kind of payback for what you did—well, you caused more damage than a herd of buffalo. You owe me—like plastic surgery or something!” I point at the lump.
“I’m sorry, okay? I did not intend to scare you.” He stalks toward me so quickly that I don’t have time to move or read his expression—as if I could.
He squats low and moves my bangs aside to survey the lump. I’m staring at the way his beige interview pants have tightened over his thighs—the way his shirt stretches over his biceps. Then, I stop breathing altogether.
When I look up I read only sincere concern and apology in his expression. Not sure what to do with a guy this close to me, I decide to keep holding my breath until I count the gold flecks in each of his irises—five times two is ten total. Slowly, I risk one slow breath through my nose. And then another.
“It’s pretty bad—needs ice,” he says, jolting me back onto the planet by running his thumb lightly over the lump. I gasp, trying to hide the goose bumps that are running up the back of my neck. “Sorry. Is it really painful?”
“Yes—no, I don’t know. Sort of.” I blink, annoyed by my epic choice of one syllable words.
“I see lots of head bumps with the kids I coach at the rink. This one looks okay, but if you feel nauseous you might need to visit the ER.”
“Not a chance—but again—a nice attempt to get rid of me.”
He smiles as his eyes scan my whole face. “You’re funny. Anyone ever told you that?”
I feel a strange flutter at the base of my throat and more growing deep inside my chest.
Holy. This has to be more butterflies. Terrible butterflies. My lungs tighten, twisting as if they’ve imploded. I work to swallow. I’m suddenly afraid rainbow-winged insects are about to shoot out of my mouth and hit him in the nose.
“I didn’t mean to scare you in the parking lot. Swear,” he goes on, oblivious to the fact that I’m losing my mind. His gaze bores deeper into mine. “I’m sorry. Really, sorry. I messed up. Jess…I swear I thought you needed me to wake you up.”
I think I love and somehow hate the way Gray has just said my name. Like he knows me.
Like we’re friends when we’re anything but.
I swallow and stare at his chin divot because I’m terrified to look anywhere else. My therapist told me if I was ever surprised by someone—a guy—approaching me—touching me—that anything could happen.
Anything as in: me—going berserk.
But I didn’t. And I’m not going to!
As awkward as this moment is, I’m intrigued with the possibilities of what this could mean. Gray Porter holding up my bangs while I memorize the depth of his chin divot ranks at the top of my things-that-have-overly-surprised me list! I don’t really have such a list. But when I get home, I’m making one.
I have no urge to scratch out his eyes, or cry or—well—do anything my therapist said I might do.
The only urge I’m resisting right now is the one to stare at his lips—and that is beyond strange. I force myself to meet his gaze again, determined to test this feeling—or lack of feeling—a little more.
When nothing happens after another long examination of his beautiful eyes—not counting my increased heart rate and the half-panicked look crossing his face (and who can blame him for that? I’m acting like a freak with all the staring) I have to squelch a smile and twist my expression into what I hope has me back to my rock-solid-annoyed-mask.
He drops my bangs and sits back on his heels. “So…apology accepted?”
“Mmmh,” and a small nod are all I can manage because I don’t want to let on that I’m bursting with excitement. I’m way more cured than I’d thought. That, or Gray and I are somehow the human personifications of positive and negative forces. Like we are Yin and Yang, or oil and vinegar! Maybe we cancel each other out by default. It’s pretty obvious he doesn’t react to me like he should. And, not counting the butterfly feeling which seems pretty easy to hide, I don’t react to him in a crazy way at all.
Eat that, Dr. Brodie, and hello progress!
I point at his backpack to get his attention off me and back onto the interview. “Show me what products you brought to impress Mr. Foley. You saw mine. It’s only fair.”
He takes the bag into his lap and holds on tight as he stands and heads back to the receptionist’s desk. “It’s not my fault that you dropped your stuff. I can’t—won’t—show you what’s in this bag. Sorry.”
“Always sorry, aren’t you? Sorry. Sorry. Sorry,” I tease, meeting his gaze.
Whatever I’ve said has made Gray’s face turn bright red. He quickly turns away.
This is a good thing because after all this concentrated progress, I’m getting hit with a major wave of dizziness. I dig my hands into the couch to hold myself steady and try to evaluate if the feeling is still the butterfly thing—or if it’s coming directly from me, myself, and messed up I.
It only takes a second to realize it’s the latter. I’ve become so dizzy, I feel as though I might faint. The Red Bulls have worn off and it’s going to be awhile before I can catch a nap.
Exhaustion and the fog that comes with it settles in, adding to my light-headedness. Gray Porter as my opponent is replaced by the need to win against a bigger villain: my body’s endless craving for sleep. A low pounding swells inside my head. Great. Crashing with an audience is never good.
“You look sort of pale.” He sounds far away like he’s speaking through water.
“Small headache, no thanks to you and the lump,” I quip, rubbing my temples and trying to breathe deeply. I don’t want him to realize I’m at a weak point so I strive to keep the conversation going. “You’re right though…it’s not your fault I dropped my stuff…it’s mine. Totally my fault.”
I hear him pacing the far side of the room. I scan the ceiling, find the air conditioning vent and scoot under it before he can turn back. Cold air always helps. After a few moments I’m freezing, but I can process again. I pinch my sides as hard as I can, a tactic that will work for a while. Unfortunately, even under an icy blast, couches have a way of becoming too comfortable when I feel like this. The sleep demon wants a deposit. There’s no way I can beat it much longer.
I close my eyes and pray I can think of a plan.
Pray harder for Mr. Foley to hurry.
I lean against the receptionist’s desk and take in Jess’s closed eyes, crossed arms and drastically changed, pale face. She’s doing some sort of strange yoga-type breathing. I wonder if the lump on her head is worse than she says. Maybe she has a
I’m convinced she doesn’t remember me.
Not at all. I would venture a guess that she’s better. No nervous breakdown so far. The girl seems perfectly normal. Prickly yes—but she’s also smart, funny and, yeah, as normal as I am. She gave no sign that she knew anything about me beyond my name. And hell, I was surprised to learn she knew that.
I spot some papers lodged behind the large potted tree near the door. I wander over to investigate if they’re hers.
Dead on. It’s a pile of school transcripts and some copies of her résumé. I read through her endless list of accomplishments.
“Why are you here for this job?” I ask softly.
“Please. This internship is perfect for me and you know it. I’ve been on the interview list since junior year.” She opens her eyes and hits me with a serious, cold stare. “Did your parents get you a last minute interview? You weren’t on the list I saw.”
I think she’s trying to be mean and make me nervous, but the sassiness she’d had earlier is missing from her voice. It’s like the fight’s gone out of her.
The fight’s gone out of me too. So I tell her the truth. “My parents are dead. I live with my grandmother. My college advisor made some phone calls and got me in last minute.”
Her eyes widen. “Holy. Guess it’s my turn for sorry. Truly—I didn’t know.”
“It happened when I was a baby. I only remember Gran as my mom, so…yeah. It’s just…my life, you know? No need to apologize for what’s been great.” I flop down on the couch beside her. “I need this internship so my grandmother won’t have to pay my college tuition. Job pays $8K total for only a few weeks work. I’m also hoping Geekstuff.com will allow me to work during the holidays and weekends next year. I can save a ton if I get started this summer. Plus, they have an amazing scholarship to School of Mines.”
“Oh? Cool. My Dad works there,” she says, pushing her face toward the vent in the ceiling. “Hmmm. $8K, huh? I forgot about the money. I’d work here for free if they’d let me.”
“I’m all about the money. Can’t afford to forget that so…” I pause, fascinated with the way the vent’s blowing cotton candy looking curls around her temples.
“So—what?” She quirks a brow, shooting me a weird glance.
“So—no matter how great your geeky outfit looks, and despite your Star Wars lore, your awesome bumper stickers, and your flipping perfect résumé, I have to roll the dice. Just in case. No hard feelings, okay?”