~ Chapter 1~
I sat at the lab table directly behind Ali Philips and Brody Nash. My jaw clenched as I listened to them beg Mrs. Dolgen to let them be lab partners. Were they dating? The thought made my stomach sink to the floor. So much had changed since I’d last been in Haldeen, almost three years ago now.
I looked around the room without making eye contact with anyone. Immediately, I noticed Shelby Blake. My heart ached with guilt at the thought of poor Ali fending for herself against the likes of Shelby. Although, if Ali was in fact dating Brody, then I had to assume Shelby was leaving Ali alone. Everyone always bowed to Brody and what he wanted. He was the type of guy every other guy wanted to be friends with and every girl wanted to date. I just never thought Ali would be one of those girls.
My gaze settled back on Ali. Her golden blonde hair stopped in the middle of her back. When I’d left, her hair had been short, a pixie cut she’d called it. I definitely liked it better now. Her long, tanned legs were showcased by the denim skirt that hugged her hips. A fitted, short-sleeved shirt clung to her torso, and brown cowboy boots came up to the bottom of her calves. I let my gaze rake up her body and down again, lingering on the spot where the hem of her skirt met her bare legs. She shifted, leaned forward on the lab table, and I fought to stifle a groan.
“I must be going blind. Is that Levi Corbin I see sitting back there?”
I looked toward the sound of my name. Jimmie Allen walked toward me. He hadn’t changed a bit since I’d last seen him. His large head was still covered with jet black hair, and his eyes were still a size too small for his face.
“Hey Jimmie,” I said. And then, all at once, all eyes were on me. Perfect.
“Mr. Vincent, you’re late. Please take a seat and stop disrupting my class,” Mrs. Dolgen said.
“Yes, ma’am.” Jimmie Allen took the seat next to me. “So, what dragged you back to little ‘ole Haldeen?”
“Stuff.” I shifted my gaze back to Ali, hoping Jimmie Allen would get the hint I didn’t want to talk. She had turned around. One hand was propped on the lab table and the other on her cocked hip. Against my better instincts, I met her stare and swallowed the lump in my throat. “Hey, Al.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. She was stunning. Al had gone and grown up on me. She turned around without saying anything, and I knew she was angry. I couldn’t blame her.
Mrs. Dolgen closed the classroom door and cleared her throat. She wrote an equation on the board and then turned to face the class. “Page two seventy of your lab books, problems seven through fifteen.”
A collective groan rippled through the room.
“I could give you a few more problems to work on if you’d like.” The room quieted, and the only sound was of Mrs. Dolgen’s heels clicking against the tiled floor as she made her way toward the back of the room. “Mr. Corbin, please come get a book.”
I stood and retrieved the lab book Mrs. Dolgen held out to me. When I turned to go back to my seat, I caught Ali staring at me. I smiled, hoping maybe she would finally talk to me, but she quickly averted her gaze. I sat down next to Jimmie Allen, opened the book, and looked over the assigned problems.
“Shut up.” Ali giggled and bumped her hip against Brody’s.
The sound of her laugh drew my attention, and I scowled at the sight of them whispering, of Brody putting his arm around Ali’s waist and drawing her closer to him.
“I’ll do the first half of these if you want to do the second half,” Jimmie Allen said.
I tore my gaze from Ali and gave my attention to the task at hand, but concentration was difficult when every so often, she would laugh. And I swore if Brody touched her one more time…
“Brody, don’t you dare!” Ali said.
“Ali and Brody, do we have a problem?” Mrs. Dolgen’s shrill voice cut through the room.
“No, ma’am,” they chimed in unison.
“Good. Let’s keep it that way.”
I refocused my attention back on the problems in front of me and breezed through them rather easily, but my thoughts once again drifted to Ali. I had to talk to her, try to make her understand. If she would just let me apologize, things could go back to the way they used to be.
“So, Levi,” Brody turned to face me, “is Tucker back, too?”
What kind of dumbass question was that? “Of course he is.” I noticed the way Ali hung her head, and her shoulders slumped. Talk about an odd reaction. I thought for sure she’d be happy to see us again.
The bell rang, and Ali was out of the room before I could even close my book. I rushed out after her, but by the time I made my way into the hallway, it was crowded and hard to find her. When I finally did spot her, I didn’t waste any time going to her.
I cautiously approached where she stood at her locker. I reached out to touch her, but thought better of it and clenched my hand into a fist, dropping it to my side. “Hey, Al, got a minute?”
She spun around and faced me, anger blazing behind her blue eyes. “I’m sorry, do I know you?”
Ouch, that was harsh. “I guess I deserved that.”
Ali looked away, refusing to acknowledge my presence.
“Look, Al, I’m real sorry. Can you please let me explain?” My heart thundered in my ears. I had no idea what I’d do if she didn’t let me explain.
“I’ve been waiting two years. This had best be good.” She clutched her books to her chest and tapped her foot, the rhythm of her impatience spurring me on.
I took a deep, shaky breath and licked my lips. “Dad wouldn’t let us visit. He said he didn’t want to worry about cleaning up after our trouble making ways.”
“And your Momma wouldn’t let you use the phone? Or did you just forget how?”
I cringed. Had she always been this feisty? “I have no excuse for that.” I shoved my hands in my pockets so I wouldn’t be tempted to touch her and stared at the ground. “I’m sorry, Al.” God, I was royally messing this up.
“And what’s Tucker’s excuse?” She shifted her weight, her eyebrows drawing together in a scowl.
“He doesn’t have one either.”
“I gotta get to class.” She turned her back on me again and proceeded to walk away.
She stopped cold and stood there with her head down and her back still to me. Everything felt like it was in slow motion, the sounds of students going to class dulled to a barely audible hum. I’d never called her Ali before. For as long as I’d known her, she had always been just Al, one of the boys. But now, standing there, staring at the back of her, she was no longer one of the boys. It was a hard truth for me to swallow, but one I couldn’t deny. Slowly, she lifted her head and continued to walk away. I watched until she disappeared into the crowd.
Well, that hadn’t gone as I’d hoped. I’d give her some time to adjust to the shock of seeing me, and then I’d try to talk to her again. She couldn’t stay mad at me forever, could she? I checked my schedule and realized my next class was English Lit. It wasn’t my favorite, but if I got lucky, Ali would be in class with me again.
I made my way toward room one sixteen. The room was full when I arrived, and the only empty seat was next to Shelby Blake. She was the last person I wanted to spend an hour and forty-five minutes with. Just the sight of her sleek black hair, dark eyes, and oblong face made me sick. She was single handedly responsible for so much trouble and drama. I looked around to make sure I hadn’t missed another empty seat. No such luck. I sighed and took the seat beside her.
“Hey there, Levi.” Shelby turned in her seat and crossed her legs.
“Your return is the talk of the school ya know?”
“Yup.” Did she think I didn’t know? Or that I cared? There was only one thing on my mind: Ali. I had to make things right with her. Even though I’d missed her every minute of every day I’d been in California, I had liked living there. Ali was the only reason returning to Haldeen was bearable. And now she wouldn’t even speak to me.
“So, why did y’all come back?” Shelby snapped her gum.
“I noticed Ali ain’t talking to you. That’s a switch.” She blew a large bubble and popped it loudly.
I really just wanted her to shut up. Then a thought struck me. If Ali wouldn’t talk to me, Shelby would. “Is she dating Brody Nash?”
Shelby flung her head back and laughed. “No, but it ain’t for a lack of trying on Brody’s part. That boy has been chasing her since the day she dumped him.”
Relief washed through me until the rest of Shelby’s answer settled in my mind. So, Ali and Brody had dated, but no longer were. Interesting. Why had Ali broken up with Brody? The question was on the tip of my tongue, but I didn’t want to talk to Shelby any longer. I knew how she operated. I’d ask a few innocent questions, and she’d twist my words around and start a nasty rumor. She’d done it to Ali more than once, and I wasn’t about to give her an opportunity to do it again.
“I heard she hooked up with Jimmie Allen over spring break, though.”
I glared at Shelby. Ali and Jimmie Allen? Was Shelby lying? I didn’t know if she was telling the truth or not, but on the slim chance she was being honest, I was going to make a point to have a chat with Jimmie Allen. The second bell rang, and I sighed with relief. At least I wouldn’t have to listen to Shelby run her mouth anymore.
Copyright 2015, Kara Leigh Miller
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