Excerpt for Return to Grassland (Where the Grass is Always Greener Book II) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Return to Grassland

Penny Michaels

Copyright 2017 by Smashword



Belle Carpenter

April 2015

“We’re going to need all of these shrubs ripped out and we want new-mature-hydrangeas planted; purple and white, but not stark-white, more of a vanilla-white, and we want the deep- purple.” Mom insists as she marks things off her list. “The bridesmaid dresses are a true eggplant, so we cannot have the lavender. It has to be…”

“The deep purple. Got it.” Hayden says, making a note on his clip board as well.

“Mom, Hayden is the most respected landscaper on the Gulf Coast. He’s doing half the properties in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach now. I think he can handle hydrangeas.” I argue nervously. I hate how she’s always treated Hayden like he was the hired help… I mean technically he is the hired help right this minute, but only because this is his wedding present to me.

“I know how successful Hayden is.” Mom says dismissively. “But this is your wedding dear. I want everything to be perfect.”

I ignore her and turn to Hayden, “You know I loved yours and Georgia’s wedding… behind your house over-looking the bay. It was perfect. That’s when I decided I wanted to get married at home.”

“And even though I had my heart set on the church where you were born and raised, I gave in. We’re doing this your way.” She insists.

I roll my eyes and I can tell Hayden is trying not to laugh. We both know when I pictured a wedding at home it, didn’t include a $100,000 tent with chandeliers and a string-ensemble.

Hayden points down to the clearing in front of the trees. “Okay, you’re setting up the tent there. So, I just need to you to decide where the dance floor is going to be because I think that’s where we’re going to want to plant the ornamental cherry trees?”

“Exactly.” Mom says, clearly surprised that Hayden Nichols has a good idea. “I think that’s everything for now. We’ll meet in a few days once we get the final dimensions on the tent.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

“So, how’s Georgia? Is she still working in Mobile?” Mom asks in the tone that tells me she really doesn’t care, but years of southern breeding demand that she make polite conversation for a requisite few moments.

“Yes. She’s doing great, feeling great. The doctors say there’s no reason for her to stop working until closer to October when the baby comes.”

“Oh mom, you should see her. She’s the most beautiful pregnant woman ever.” I tell her, but I can tell she’s already left the conversation. She makes her final pleasantries and walks back toward the house.

“Hayden I can’t think you enough for doing this. I know working with my mom is no picnic for you. And I’ve never exactly been Georgia’s favorite person.”

“I’d have to disagree with that. I’d say that at one time Georgia considered you one of her closest friends and you’ll always be her family. And Claire and Avery think you’re one of theirs.” He says with a laugh.

“Claire and Avery are the official parents to wayward children. You’ve got to love them for it.” I tease. “But seriously, this means the world to me.”

“You’re my sister. You know I’m going to do whatever I can to make your wedding everything you want it to be.” Hayden argues.

“I know, but why can’t you just be honest?” I say, my thin veneer of calm slipping in the harsh light of Hayden’s silent disapproval.

“What do you want me to say?”

“Just admit that you’re not happy about this wedding.”

“I think you’re rushing things. I think you are letting your mother railroad you into having a wedding and into having this wedding.” He argues, motioning around the property where all her grand plans are going to be put into actions.

“Just admit it Hayden, you’re not happy because I’m not marrying who you’d choose for me.” I reply, shocking even myself when I hear the words come out of my mouth.

“Don’t put this on me. It’s not about who I want you to be with!” Hayden argues, his face revealing just how untrue those words are. “But you’re right! I’d be a whole lot happier if we were planning your wedding with Max!”

September 2005

“Okay, let me see a standing punch-front into a running cartwheel, round-off.” Coach Kingsley orders, ticking it off her list.

I wait my turn as the ninth graders go first followed by me and Sarah Griggs, a seventh-grade phenom. I land it without any trouble and wait for the next commands.

One by one Coach Kingsley calls for a standing back handspring, a running front handspring, a back handspring into a flip-flop, a running double full and a running round-off, back-flip twist. When she’s through, only two ninth graders, Sarah and myself are still standing.

“Okay ladies, good job. Let me see you in your squads. Jenny Abrams, call the stunts. Griggs, I want you to rotate in for Evans as the flyer.” My heart sinks, as Sarah gets the nod to rotate onto the ninth-grade squad. Then she turns and says, “Carpenter, I need to see you in my office.”

We close the door and she says, “Belle, that was a really impressive display of tumbling out there.”

“Thanks. But I took a big hop on one of my flip-flops and Sarah landed it clean.”

“Sarah is exceptional. Unfortunately, Sarah still looks like a seventh grader. You were that little birdlike girl a year ago.” She says with a laugh.

I nod. “Yes, I’ve grown an inch and a half over the summer. My gymnastics coach has pretty well written me off.”

“How tall are you, 5”2’?”

“And a half.”

She smiles again. “Well I don’t think that’s going to present too much of a problem with cheerleading.”

“So why is Sarah flying with the ninth-grade squad right now?” I ask, unable to hide my disappointment.

“Because… I have a varsity flyer who’s carrying a 71-average right now and if after the first 9 weeks she’s dropped to a 69, I will have to have a new flyer on varsity… especially for the playoffs. If that happens, Sarah will have to replace you on the ninth-grade squad. Congratulations, you just got bumped up a level. You’re flying in Cami Evans place and she’s moving to spotter. What do you say?”

After practice I leave school and see my mom’s Camry parked outside. I run to it excitedly and fling open the back door, talking enthusiastically before I even take my seat. “I got bumped up to ninth grade squad and Coach Kingsley said that if one of her senior’s grades drop, I’ll move to varsity for the play-offs and she said she’s graduating all of her strongest tumblers, so I will almost definitely get to cheer on varsity next year when I’m a freshman! I get to start tomorrow night at the JV season opener!”

“That’s amazing!” Mom says, putting the car in drive. “So, I guess it’s safe to assume that all those extra tumbling practices you were ‘forced’ to go to over the summer paid off?”

I smile, deciding I’m too happy to let her typically snide comment upset me. She drives by football practice and I strain to catch a glimpse of number77.

I miss when Hayden lived with us. Of course, mom is thrilled to have him gone, though she’d never admit it. I don’t know why she hated him being there so much. Even though dad fussed at him a lot for doing stupid stuff like skipping school or sneaking out to go see Georgia Cooper, he always just took his punishment and went about his business. And he was polite and helped around the house. Other than eating us out of house and home, I will never know what her problem was with him.

“You know you’re going to injure your neck and not be able to cheer tomorrow night if you twist any further trying to see Hayden Nichols.” Mom says with barely veiled contempt.

“I just miss him. I mean, he’s lived with us most of my life and now he’s just gone.” I say sadly.

“He stayed with us because he had nowhere else to go, but now his brother is old enough to take care of him, so he’s gone back to where he belongs. He was a foster child. That’s how it works.” She says coldly.

“But Hayden was different from the others.” I argue.

“Only because he’s the only one you had a crush on.” She replies. “We need to stop by the grocery store.”

“Can I get something to eat? I’m starving.”

She reaches into her handbag and hands me a Ziploc bag. “Here you go.”

“Celery sticks?” I say weakly.

“Dinner is in two hours. And if you want to stay on top of the pyramid then the answer is yes; celery sticks.”

Max

“Stop biting your nails. You’re making me nervous.” I tell Carson as we stand on the other side of the banner, waiting to run out.

“Well I’m already nervous so good.” He replies.

“Why are you nervous? You’re gonna be great.”

“I’m starting at quarterback… for the JV team… for the Grassland Gators. Caleb Sanders is going to graduate and play for LSU and there’s no back-up but me. Everyone is going to be looking at me to see if I can step-up and fill his shoes next year.” He says frantically.

“But you can, so just go with it.” I reason. Carson has been my best friend forever. We met in pre-school and we’ve been friends ever since. When we were in second grade he moved out of the city-limits and changed schools, but we stayed friends because we were on the same peewee team. Then in fifth grade when the coaches started to realize how good he was, his mom made the decision to move back into town, so he could be a Gator. He’s good; like really good. But he’s short on confidence and taking charge doesn’t come naturally to him. Sometimes I think he’d be happier just being in the background.

The crowd is cheering, the pep-band drums are sounding, and the cheerleaders are getting everyone fired up. And then the buzzer sounds, the fight song starts, and we tear through the banner at our first JV game.

And that’s when I see her for the first time; it’s just a glimpse of legs and a red ponytail tumbling down the sideline, but it’s enough to make me trip and almost face-plant during my first run onto the field. “Who’s the new cheerleader?” I ask breathlessly, as Carson and I jog along.

“Are you kidding me? I’m about to make a total ass out of myself and you’re looking at cheerleaders.”

I shrug. “What exactly is the point of playing football if not for the cheerleaders and the Gator Babes?” I tease and then I realize that sounds like something my sister’s boyfriend, Hayden, would say, and I groan inwardly. Maybe Georgia’s right and playing football will invariably turn me into a brutish, Neanderthal who treats girls like disposable property. But I like football and I’m pretty good at it. And this is the only thing I’ve ever done that makes my dad even acknowledge my existence.

Carson looks quickly and says, “I think that’s Belle Carpenter.”

“No way.” I argue, looking again at the curvy, petite redhead with the enormous smile. “No way. Georgia’s boyfriend has lived with the Carpenter’s for years. That’s not Belle.”

Carson gives me a condescending look. “People grow up stud. Come on. We’ve got to go out for the coin toss.”

We win the coin toss and opt to start on defense. As we’re running back to the sidelines I look into the stands and find Georgia clapping proudly. She’s seated with Caleb Sanders and Aimee Asher. The varsity players are encouraged to be at our games as a show of support, but I’m not surprised that Hayden isn’t with Georgia.

“Was your mom able to get off work?” I ask, as we watch the defense take the field.

He shakes his head with tight lips and I don’t ask him to elaborate. His mom is great, but she has to work all the time in order for him to be able to play. As a result, we spend a lot of time taking care of his little sisters. I start to ask who’s got them tonight, but Carson looks like he’s about to puke and he’s turned ghost pale… which is no small event since he’s only half-white to begin with.

The defense holds the other team to only one first down and then the punt receiving team takes the field, and they run the ball back to our 45-yard line.

“Come on QB. It’s do or die time.” I say, popping him on the helmet. We take the field. The center hikes the ball to Carson. I run wide around the defense and down to the other team’s 47-yard line. Carson drops back, passes, and on the first pass of our first JV game, the pass is complete, and I run it in for a touchdown. Gators are up by six, the nerves have vanished, and Carson and I are in the zone.

We go on to win easily with a score of 27 to 6. The cheerleaders all run out to congratulate us and I try to find the one who may-or-may-not be Belle Carpenter. I see that her parents have whisked her away from the others, and I do recognize them as Hayden’s foster parents. I’m contemplating going over to introduce myself when Cami Evans offers me a congratulatory hug that feels anything but platonic. I smile down at her and think; I’ve seen my sister twist herself in knots trying to be good enough for the Carpenters and that was just because of a foster kid. I can’t imagine how hard they’d be on someone who tried to date Belle. And besides, I’m well on my way to being a Gator superstar. I can have anyone I want so why would I waste my time on an 8th grader?

But as we turn and run toward the field house with the cheerleaders running behind us, I can’t help turning around to watch her walk away with her parents. Man, she’s really cute.

Carson

By Monday morning, Caleb Sanders’s car-wreck on Friday night has everyone spinning. At the end of the day we all go to practice, but I get called off the field and into the office.

“Caleb Sanders is out for an unspecified number of games… we could be looking at the end of his high school career, especially if we don’t make it into the play-offs.” Coach Reynolds says sternly. I’ve never sat across from the head-varsity coach before, but it’s proving to be as deeply terrifying as I would have imagined.

“Y... yes sir?” I stammer, my voice barely audible.

“What’s that son?” He says, and I realize that he heard my answer but he’s referencing my quiet response.

“Yes sir.” I say with a little more volume.

“I assume you understand how important Caleb Sanders is to the tradition of Gator football.”

“Yes sir.” I repeat.

“Therefore, we are not only trying to get to the playoffs because it is our job and what is expected of us, but because it is the best chance Caleb Sanders has of getting back on the field and in front of the scouts that have the power to give him a scholarship. Are you with me Jennings?”

“Yes sir.” I say as loud and strong as I’m capable. “And I just want you to know that if you put me in as back-up quarterback on varsity I will know the playbook inside and out and I’m steady if you need me to hold the ball for the place kicker. I’m good at taking notes and analyzing the plays and yardage. I’m ready and I appreciate the opportunity to play… and I know that when Caleb Sanders comes back I’ll move back to JV and I’m fine with that.”

“Well I appreciate that son, but I’m not planning on putting you in at backup quarterback.”

“Oh.” I saw, my voice shrinking again.

“You’re the new first-string quarterback for the Grassland Gators.”

I stare at him, trying not to gape open mouthed. “W…w…why?”

“Why son?”

“Y…y…yes s…sir?” I stammer.

“Well because from what I’ve observed you have a hell of a good arm, better than Langley, and you’re a damn sight faster too so from where I sit you’re the only quarterback we’ve got without Caleb Sanders here. Can you understand that son?”

“Yes sir.” I nod, sitting up taller and straighter under his intimidating gaze.

“So, let’s get to work cause it’s a long way from where you are to Auburn.”

***

“He made me starting-quarterback!” I scream to Max as we break away from the rest of the team and start toward my house.

“No way.” Max gasps before clapping me on the back. “No freaking way! Are you kidding me now? Are you freaking kidding me?”

“No, I’m not kidding you and stop acting like this is a good thing. This is not a good thing. I’m gonna get killed. I’m going in this week… on the road. With Caleb Sanders listening on the radio while I throw away the season and his future!” I say frantically.

“Dude, listen to me and chill out.” Max says, shaking me a little. “The season is blown… everybody knows that. Putting you in is like a Hail-Mary. If someone is going to make the long pass and make something happen this season, your chances are better than Mike Langley. But in reality, they’re putting you in because Mike Langley has no chance in hell of getting this team to the playoffs. You have a sliver of a chance in hell, but more importantly … you’re the superstar for the next three years. You’re the next big thing. And if this year’s in the toilet, the next big thing better be pretty freaking big.”

“Really?” I ask, looking at him quizzically and everything he’s saying makes sense. I’m the better player, but Max understands the game way better than me. He’s also a much stronger leader.

“Yes, and in the meantime… starting-quarterback gets the starting-quarterback ’s Gator Babe.”

“Dena Baker?” I say, feeling my first glimmer of excitement. Dena Baker is built and beautiful and famous for her homemade cow patty cookies.

“Dena Baker.”

Maybe being starting-quarterback isn’t going to be such a bad break after all.

Max

October 2007

“You were A… MAZING!” Addison Macon says, twirling her hair and touching my arm, my shoulder, my arm again to punctuate every word. Everyone is high on our post homecoming victory and I’m no exception.

“More like AMAXING!” Rebekah Moore adds. I don’t even have a clue what that’s supposed to mean, but she and Addison laugh likes it’s really funny and Addison touches me about five more times, so I laugh boisterously too. Carson smiles nervously, but they love it. He’s QB1 and he’s got the whole “humble-aw-shucks” thing down pat. Not that it’s an act, but it works all the same.

“So, we’re going to Maci Ellis’s house for the after party. Will we see you there?” I ask, draping an arm around Addison. She’s 5”9’ with long blonde hair and big boobs and she’s a senior Gator Babe. What more can a sixteen-year-old junior ask for?

Rebekah cozies up to Carson, who makes no move at all, but the sexy brunette with the legs that come from being a cross-country star and the face that goes with being Miss Grassland, Miss Cotton State and Miss Gator City is undaunted as she says, “Oh we’ll totally be there.”

“Well we will totally look for you guys there.” I say, as we head toward the field house where Hayden is waiting to congratulate us. Carson thinks Hayden walks on water, and, why shouldn’t he? When Caleb Sanders went out for the season, Hayden stepped in and dragged Carson all the way to a state-championship as a Freshman. Along the way, I learned to like Hayden better than I once did. He’s been really good to us this last year, helping us with tackling drills and just keeping Carson calm as the pressure mounts with another State Championship in our sights. We only made it to the first round of the play-offs last year with no one on defense who could step into Hayden’s shoes. We’re still a little weak on the defensive side this year, but our offense has been virtually unstoppable; in no small part because Carson is the best QB in the state right now, but I’ve led the region in receptions and receptions run-in for TD’s so I’m doing my part.

“Okay… good game, great looking Gator Babes.” Hayden says, when we reach him. “Please tell me you’re hooking up with them tonight.”

“It’s under consideration.” Carson says.

“Dude, you’re QB1. Get in the game already.” He says, smacking Carson on the shoulder.

I see Aimee Asher hanging back behind him. I don’t get them together at all. Anytime I see them, it’s obvious they don’t even like each other. And I get it that Hayden is still in love with Gigi. God knows she’s still in love with him. But Aimee Asher is gorgeous. She doesn’t deserve to be second best to anyone. But the sad thing is, I get the distinct impression from her that she thinks that’s all she deserves these days.

We talk to Hayden for a few more minutes and then we start for the locker room and I’m already mentally rehearsing my pick-up lines for Addison, when I turn my head and it all goes to hell in a handbasket.

Belle Carpenter is talking to Hayden, all smiley and bubbly and happy. Belle Carpenter with the compact curves, the flaming auburn ponytail and the peaches and cream complexion. Belle Carpenter, the one girl I don’t know if I will ever have the courage to talk to.

“Oh god. Oh no. Please tell me we’re not back to that.” Carson says, dragging me into the locker room.

“What are you talking about?”

“I would take my next paycheck and rent a room for you and slutty Addison Macon if you’d just get the hell over Belle Carpenter.” Carson says infuriatedly.

“I’m not… not over her!” I argue.

“For two years… two years you’ve been after her like a dog with a bone.”

“There’s nothing going on with me and Belle.” I argue.

“Oh, I know that.” He says sarcastically. “I’m well aware that there’s nothing going on with you and Belle. Everyone in the world knows there’s nothing going on between you and Belle. The only person who doesn’t know that nothing’s going on with you and Belle is you!”

I make up my mind to go to the party and close the deal with Addison just to prove Carson wrong… and also maybe I’ll prove to myself that Carson is wrong too.

But we get to the party and Belle’s there and all my well-rehearsed pick-up-lines fly out the window and are replaced with strategic ways to put myself in the Belle’s orbit. I duck behind a fichus tree to avoid Addison and take an offered solo cup, contents unknown. It’s going to be a long night.

Belle

“OMG! Max Cooper is totally eyeballing you.” Sarah says excitedly. I’m just excited to be at a party. Of course, if my parents knew I was here, and not at Sarah’s; I’d be in it deep, but they figure that since Sarah is only a freshman her parents are super strict. What they don’t know is that Sarah’s parents are not super strict as long as they know she’s with me, because I’m Belle Carpenter, president of “Fellowship of Christian Students”, “True Love Waits” and “Students Against Driving Drunk.”

“Please go talk to him. He’s so insanely hot. Just do it for me, so I can stand next to you and live vicariously.” Sarah begs, pointing me in Max’s direction.

She’s right. Max is definitely looking at me over the rim of his solo cop, and I’m not so obtuse to the rest of the world that I’ve never noticed him checking me out before. And she’s right about him being insanely hot. There’s nothing about Max not to like. He’s tall… like if anything ever were to happen between us I’d need a step ladder just to kiss him. He’s all muscled and tanned with close cropped dark hair and a killer smile. And right now, in his number16 jersey, jeans and boots he’s any girls high school football fantasy… any girl but me.

“Max is cute, but he’s not… I don’t know.” I say, with a shrug.

“Oh God, he’s not Hayden Nichols.” She says, and I tense internally because I tell myself that I do a really good job of hiding my feelings for Hayden. Even my mother doesn’t lecture me anymore about my “crush.” But if a nitwit like Sarah can tell it, then who else knows?

“What are you talking about?” I ask irritably.

“Oh, come on. You did everything but shoot daggers straight out of your eyes tonight when he was standing there with Aimee Asher.”

“I did not.” I argue, thinking that Aimee is not the one I’m jealous of. He could care less about her. No, the daggers came out when they were joined by Georgia Cooper and Caleb Sanders. When Hayden and Georgia broke up senior year, I was celebrating right along with all the Gator Babes. I thought now, all I needed was for him to stay with Aimee a couple of more years till I was old enough for him to notice me and I’d be golden. But seeing him tonight with Georgia reminded me of the way he used to look at her; the way I wanted him to look at me. If she snapped he’d be wrapped around her finger before she could say, “Aimee who?” Or “Belle who?” for that matter.

“Isn’t that kind of gross? I mean, he’s practically your brother.” She points out.

“Well that depends on who you ask. My dad would say he was practically my brother. My mom would say he was a stray dog.” I explain, not adding that both of them would roll over and die if they thought anything was actually going to happen between us. “But the point is, he’s not my brother. He’s more like a close family friend… not that it even matters because I’m not interested in him.”

“Well why don’t you prove it?” She replies.

Sarah can be snarky and she’s still not over me getting moved to the varsity squad instead of her.

“How do you want me to prove it?”

“Go hook up with Max Cooper.”

“That is so immature.” I snap. “I’m not doing it.”

“Because he’s not Hayden.” She says, doing everything but making air-kisses.

“Shut up. Someone will hear you.” I say turning to walk away.

She looks ready to cause a scene and I figure the next thing she’s going to do it start in with a chorus of “Hayden and Belle sitting in a tree.” I turn and make a beeline and run smack into Carson Jennings. “He’ll do.” I think.

“Play along with me.” I say, tossing my head like he just said something funny.

“What?” He asks, his eyes wide with surprise.

“Just play along. Act like we’re flirting.” I say, pulling him into a corner.

“Okay my best friend…” He starts, looking like he’s on his way to the guillotine.

“I know, I know. Max is great. I’m not interested. Just act like there’s something going on.” I say, pretending to giggle and flip my hair.

“Yeah, but if he sees me he’ll have a come apart.” Carson argues. “And not only do I not want to piss off my best friend, but he’s a big guy. If he decided to hit me I’d be done for.”

“Trust me. The way he’s drinking, he wouldn’t notice if you and I went at it on the coffee table.” I explain, possessively putting my hand on his arm.

“Oh, trust me. He would notice.”

“Fine. Tell him you’re talking him up.” I reason, throwing my head back and laughing giddily.

“Well I could talk him up. He’s a great guy. And he almost never drinks like this. It’s just because he has this big crush on you.”

“Well big crushes are lethal. Trust me. I know.”

“Who’s your big crush on?” He asks, and then shakes his head. “Oh yeah, Hayden. You’re wasting your time there. You know he’s gonna get back together with Georgia.”

“Says who?” I ask, turning angry.

“All you have to have are eyes to know that. He’s crazy about her and she is about him. They’re like… destined.”

“Oh gross.” I snap, turning on my heels and walking away.

Sarah grabs my hand and spins me around. “Oh, that was so much better. I mean, not only is Carson Jennings like the quarterback and C-razy hot, but your parents would totally kill you for even thinking about him.”

“Why? Carson’s a great guy. He makes good grades and he goes to church all the time. And like you say, he is the quarterback.”

“He’s biracial. They would totally die. But you know, that’s what makes him sooo super-hot.”

“That is an awful thing to say. And besides. My dad would be just as upset about something happening with Max Cooper. His sister is Georgia Cooper, who my dad always thought was a bad influence on Hayden.”

“Well that’s ridiculous. I’m sure if anyone in that relationship was the bad influence it was hottie Hayden.” She says, and I want to slap her.

“You know you have a severely limited vocabulary.” I reply smugly.

“What?”

“You use the word hot entirely too often. Hayden, Max and Carson are all very different types of guys. It’s illogical to call them all hot.”

“Okay, then how would you describe them?”

“Okay, Max is really good looking. Carson is completely cute. And Hayden is…” Seriously sexy I think but I say. “Extremely handsome.”

“Gag.” She says, sticking her finger in her mouth and pretending to retch. “So, what happened with Carson?”

“Nothing. He just wasn’t that interesting after all.”

“I’m going to go after him.” She says, turning to find him in the crowded room. Lucky for him, he’s obviously stepped out of the room.

“Why? You never even mentioned him.”

“Well I know, but if you’re not afraid to go there I’m not either. Besides, you know they always go after girls like me.” She says, putting on her lip gloss.

“What do you mean girls like you? You mean blondes? That’s such a stereotype.”

She shrugs. “It doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”

“You know you’re really a bitch.” I snap, breezing passed her, thankful that I saw which direction Carson went, and she didn’t. I find him, trying to get a seriously drunk Max out of the house.

“Hey Carson, can I have a ride home?” I yell, running to catch up to him.

“What?” He asks irritably.

I slip in on the other side of Max and take his other arm. “I asked if you’d take me home?”

“What about him?”

“I’ll help you get him to the car and then you can take me home. He’ll never even know I was there.”

Carson nods and we drag him the rest of the way to Carson’s car… a station wagon with a pink booster-seat in the back.

“Thanks.” I say. “I couldn’t stand another minute in there.”

“Who were you riding home with?”

“Oh, I came with Sarah Griggs. Actually, we rode with her neighbor and her neighbor’s boyfriend. We were supposed to be spending the night at her house, but she was getting on my nerves.” I explain irritably.

“She’s cute.” He says conversationally.

“Oh, do not even look at her. As a matter of fact, never go out with a blonde.” I say angrily.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” He says defensively.

“Uhhh nothing.” I reply, attempting to back track.

“Is that like, one of those jungle fever stereotypes?” He asks and suddenly the sweet-dimpled guy looks more like the fiercely competitive quarterback from the field.

“I’m sorry. Forget I said it.” I plead, attempting to apologize.

He shakes his head and looks away and now I feel like a bitch. “Look, Sarah is just one of those people. There’s always going to be those kinds of people. Don’t let it get to you.”

He’s quiet for a few minutes, but finally says, “You know my mom is a blue-eyed-blonde. My sisters are blue-eyed-blondes. I’ve been raised in a blue-eyed-blonde world, but I look like this.”

“Carson, you’re completely… hot.” I say, borrowing Sarah’s favorite word. “99% of people don’t think that way anymore.”

He shakes his head and sighs before saying, “Oh hell, what do I know? My dad, wherever he’s at, certainly went for the blue-eyed-blonde type.”

I shrug. “At least you’re not hung up on someone who thinks of you as his little sister.”

Carson glances across the front seat at me. “But aren’t you like his little sister? I mean, that’s what he tells us anyway.”

I huff. “I was eight when he came to live with us! I had a crush on him immediately, so no. I am not his sister.” Then I shake my head and cover my eyes. “But if Georgia Cooper’s back in the picture, I might as well be his little brother!”

Carson laughs ruefully and so do I. We pull into my driveway, and he puts the car in park.

“So, are you going to be able to get him into the house when you get home?” I ask.

“Yeah, we’ll manage. And thanks for telling me about Sarah because I really did think she was cute tonight.”

“Anytime.” I say, opening the door.

“Bye Belle.” Max says sleepily from the back seat. “You’re soooooo beautiful. Even your name means… bee-u-tiful.”

Carson and I look at each other and laugh, and I close the door behind me. Then I look in the backseat as they start to pull away. Max is already curled up in the fetal position, holding a stuffed animal, probably belonging to one of Carson’s sisters. As I start toward the house I think to myself, “You know he’s both really good looking and insanely hot.”

December 2007

New Year’s Eve 2007 started out so promising. Cami Evans and Jenny Abrams and I all made an appearance at the parent-approved church party, but Jenny is friends with one of the college girls who’s a chaperone, so she signed us in and turned a blind eye when we left. Our first stop is downtown where we see a ton of people and we’re making the rounds, figuring we’ll end up going on to a non-parent-approved party. And then, there they are; Hayden and Georgia, making out in the middle of Main Street. And me standing there like the dumb fifteen-year-old I am. When Cami and Jenny find me and tell me they’re ready to go to the party, I’m relieved to at least get away from the scene of my humiliation.

We walk in the door and I head straight for the punch, taking a solo cup and helping myself. I hate to feel stupid and I hate to lose and tonight I did both. I look around the room and my eyes fall on Max Cooper. Super-hot Max Cooper who’s crazy about me. Super-hot Max Cooper who could have any girl he wants and yet even now his chocolate brown eyes are following me around the room. It takes a strong girl to keep ignoring those eyes… along with the body they’re attached to, and tonight, I am not a strong girl. I cross the floor and throw my arms around him.

“Happy New Year.” I say enthusiastically.

“Happy New Year. Are you okay?” He asks, giving me a weird look.

“Okay? Are you kidding me? I’m great. It’s New Year’s Eve. Have you tried the punch? It’s really good punch.” I say excitedly.

“Yeah, it’s about 100 proof and you weigh like ninety pounds.”

“Uhuh. I’m almost 5”3’ now and I weigh 102 lbs. My mom says I’m getting fat and they won’t let me be on top of the pyramid next year.” I say, pulling him down so I can talk against his ear. “Is it just me or am I talking really loud?”

“You are talking a little loud. Why don’t we take a walk in the fresh air? How much of this have you had?” He asks, taking away my cup.

“Hey… I want that.” I say.

“We’ll get more later. How much have you had?” He asks sweetly.

“Only a little.” I answer truthfully… I think anyway. “You really are sooo cute. And sooo sweet too. Why don’t you have a girl friend?”

He gives me a bemused smile. “I don’t know. Why don’t you have a boyfriend?”

“Because I’m a stupid girl with a stupid crush… but tonight. I’m crushed no more! I’m making a move.”

“Making a move?” He says, looking suddenly surprised.

“Hmmhmm.” I say, wrapping my arms around him and coming face to chest with him. I giggle helplessly and throw back my head. “I said one time if I ever kissed you I’d need a step ladder and look at me. I do. Can you come down here, so I can kiss you?”

He eagerly obliges and when his lips touch mine I sigh happily inside. I’ve never been kissed before, but super-hot-Max Cooper is really good at it. When he puts his arms around my waist and picks me up I feel as light as a feather… like I’m really floating.

We kiss for a long time and I didn’t even realize that we’d ended up on the chaise lounge until Max pulls away from me. I look up at him and I run my finger over his lips. “You look really cute wearing my lipstick.”

He grins and says, “You look really cute without lipstick… especially when you’re not wearing it because I kissed it off you. But you’re drunk, and I like you a lot. So, I think I should take you home.”

“I can’t go home. If my parents find out I’ve been drinking, they’ll kill me.” I say feeling the first glimmer of reality come back to me.

“Okay, I’ll drive you home and we’ll take the long way and see if we can sober you up. How’s that sound?”

Max

We’ve been driving for an hour, with the windows down. I offered to get coffee, but she says she doesn’t like it. While we’ve driven, we’ve talked… about her having to give up being a competitive gymnast and about me moving in with Avery and Hayden. We’ve talked about school and how she wants to teach elementary PE, which I think is sort of adorable… and how I plan to join the marines and then go to college. She’s talked about her mom and how hard she pushes her… to be thin, to always win, to be “better” than anyone else. She says that her mother won’t hear of anything but that she’ll go to her Alma Mater, Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga. It’s an all-girl Methodist College, and the last place she wants to attend. I surprise myself when I tell her about my dad and how it feels to hate the only parent you have left.

I turn down Bayou Rd toward her house and she reaches across the front seat and takes my hand.

“Don’t take me home yet Max. I’m not ready for tonight to end.” She pleads.

“It’s after 2:00. Your parents think you’re at church.” I argue, searching her face to try to see what she’s feeling. I want so badly to see something there. I wonder if I’m imagining that she’s looking at me differently than she ever has; if I’m seeing what I want to see.

“I know but… I know how to sneak back in without getting caught. I learned it from Hayden.” She says, holding tightly to my hand and twining her fingers through mine. Her hands are tiny compared to mine, but they still seem to fit perfectly.

I laugh. “Yeah, probably sneaking into my house with my sister.”

“Does your sister love him… as much as he loves her?” She asks letting go of my hand but putting her head against my shoulder.

I think that’s sort of an odd question, but I nod. “Yeah. She loves him more than anything.”

She nods and reaches toward the steering wheel, and then she puts her hand on top of mine. “Can we just park here for a while?”

I look at her and her eyes look clear now… but the last thing I want to do is take advantage of her. I’m in love with this girl.

As if reading my thoughts, she says, “I’m not drunk Max. I know what I want.”

“What’s do you want?” I ask nervously.

She leans boldly toward me and says, “Tonight… I want you.”

Belle

February 2008

“You look tired. Have you been taking your B12 complex?” Mom asks as we stand in the fitting room at Sophie’s and try on another dress. Shopping with my mother is a monthly excursion and one that is always fraught with potential terror, but as we’re shopping for my upcoming 16th Birthday party it’s even worse. Other mothers of soon-to-be sixteen-year-old girls just take them to Mobile or Spanish Fort and drop them off at the mall with their credit card and a spending limit. Not us. Everything has to be tried on and critiqued at length. And if it was normal things that worried her like too much cleavage or too much leg, it would be one thing, but it’s always things like – “that makes your butt look too big” or “that makes your chest look flat” or “your little belly shows in that material” and “that color does nothing for red-heads.” She’s exhausting.

“This one must be cut small.” I say when she zips it and it feels too tight. Although at the moment even my skin feels too tight. I’m three days late and if I don’t start soon, PMS is going to take over and I’ll turn into one of those mutant creatures who terrorize entire towns.

“Perhaps you’re cut too big.” Mom says, and I wait until her eyes no longer meet mine in the mirror to glare at her.

“I’m the same size I’ve been all year. It’s just that time of the month. I’m bloated.”

“You wouldn’t be bloated if you’d drink a 108 oz. of purified water a day and lay off the salt. Those pickles you live on are loaded with salt. You should eat plain cucumbers instead.”

“I’d rather eat food-colored ice cubes!” I scream, ripping the dress off my body.

“Annabelle Joy Carpenter, don’t you dare speak to me like that!” She says, grabbing my arm and digging her fingers into my skin until I have tears in my eyes.

“Yes ma’am.” I whisper, barely able to talk.

“Now clean up this mess and clean up your face and come on. We’re going home, and you can wear something you already own, to your party… Assuming anything you have at home still fits. When you have a new attitude then we’ll talk about new clothes.”

She leaves, and I sink to the floor and I sob uncontrollably and then I stand up to put my clothes on… and when I do I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and that’s when I realize that I do look heavier than normal. And that’s when it hits me that I’m three days late. I’ve never been three days late… even though I’m a gymnast and we tend to be irregular.

I look at myself in the mirror and I feel the world suddenly tilt on its axis. I know nothing is confirmed yet, but it’s just a matter of time before I know I’ll be forced to face the fact that I’m still a week away from my sixteenth birthday, and I’m pregnant.

Hayden

For eight years, I’ve been suffering through these awkward dinners where Jesse Carpenter tries to include me in their family circle. I managed to beg off from the last several invitations, but this is one that I had no choice but to attend. This is Belle’s sweet sixteen party.

I find her across the room between her parents. Her dad is beaming proudly, and her mom is holding onto her like she’s a prize trophy. I have no doubt that Dana Carpenter chose every article of clothing she’s wearing from her demure lilac dress with a big poufy skirt to her complete set of matching pearl jewelry. Belle looks tense and a little sick. I decide I must make a point to try to catch a few minutes with her before I leave, although I’m counting the minutes till I can get out of here. Georgia surprised me this afternoon with news that she’d traded her shift for the weekend and is on her way home. I could have brought her with me tonight, but it’s bad enough for me to have to bear-up under the Carpenter’s scrutiny. I won’t subject Georgia to it till I have to.

I look around the room at the guest and something occurs to me. Besides Belle, I’m the youngest person here. Only the Carpenter’s would throw a sweet sixteen party for someone without inviting any other sixteen-year-olds.

I sit through dinner with all the Carpenter’s guests; all friends of theirs instead of Belle’s. The Asher’s are there and Teddy Gregory and his wife as well as Coach Reynolds and his wife.

Coach talks to me about the upcoming year. He’s counting big on Carson and Max getting them back to state this year. They haven’t won since I was a senior so it’s time to bring the trophy back where it belongs. He laughs about it, but the truth is that everyone knows the Gators win state and a coach who goes too many years without winning state will not remain the Gator coach for long. I respect Coach more than almost anyone I know, and I’d hate to see him leave us. We talk about some prospects on defense and it’s always good to be a part of the game again.

Finally, Mr. Carpenter finds me. I wasn’t exactly avoiding him, but if I could have made it out without seeing him, it wouldn’t have broken my heart. “Hayden, I’m glad you made it. Belle would have been disappointed if you hadn’t.”

“That’s why I wouldn’t have missed it sir. Tell Mrs. Carpenter that dinner was delicious.” I lie. One of the best parts about living here was that there was always plenty to eat. Mr. Carpenter believed in eating and eating well. He always made sure there was plenty at meal time. But whenever there’s an event when his wife takes charge the food becomes small, flavorless and probably healthy.

I look at my watch and it’s after nine. If I leave now I can call Georgia and have her meet me on the boat by ten. I miss Coop all the time, but I know how important school is to her. It’s her dream and, since we got back together at Christmas, I’m committed to making every sacrifice for her to accomplish her goals, even if the sacrifice is time with her. But lately I feel like I’m more committed to her dreams than she is. The truth is, I’m worried about her. When she’s there she’s calling me constantly crying because she’s homesick and when she’s here she can’t seem to enjoy herself because she knows she has to go back.

I start making plans to leave and try to catch a moment alone with the birthday girl. When I finally catch up to her, I take her elbow and guide her to the side. “So, I think I misread my invitation. Was this your sixteenth birthday party or your sixtieth? Did you parents not think you might want to celebrate with some of your actual friends?” I tease.

“I’m so glad to see you.” She says, her eyes clouded with fear. “I have to talk to you.”

“Okay.” I say softly.

“Not here. I can’t take the chance on anyone hearing me.”

“Well where and when?”

She looks around the room. “Surely this party is winding down soon. Can I meet you somewhere when it’s over?”

“I’ve got…” I begin to make my excuses, but then I look at her face and I know there’s something really wrong with her. “What’s going on Belle?”

She looks around to make sure we’re alone and then she blurts out. “I’m pregnant. I got drunk on New Year’s Eve and I lost my virginity and I got pregnant.”

Belle

“I'm sorry it’s so late but I couldn't get away till now.” I explain, sitting on the boat deck beside him. There are a million reasons that motivated me to tell Hayden about my pregnancy and none of them have anything to do with the crush that got me into this mess. The truth is, I’m terrified and Hayden is the one person from my childhood who never made me feel like his feelings for me were based on my “good behavior.” I guess therein lies the reason for the crush in the first place.

He shakes his head and says, “You have to tell him Belle.”

“Why? It's not about him. It was one night! One stupid meaningless time!” I say tearfully, and I can’t believe I’m telling Hayden that I had a meaningless night; with Max Cooper of all people.

“Okay first of all, I'm not so sure he would say it was a stupid meaningless night. And second he has a right to know just because.”

I wish there could have been some way to keep Hayden from knowing it was Max’s, but upon hearing the news, he immediately turned into a big brother on the verge of going vigilante on the person who had “robbed” his little sister of her virginity. It’s just one more rung on the ladder to my complete and total humiliation as a human being.

“But there won't be anything to know if I can just get $600.” I say desperately.

“Belle this isn't about the money. This is the biggest decision you'll ever make in your life. You need to talk to someone... what about Coop?”

I want to hit him for even suggesting it. “She's the last person I should talk to.”

“Fine then someone else. Mrs. Asher...”

“She’d tell my parents. Anyone from school will tell my parents. And Georgia...”

“I know. Georgia would tell Max.” He says, and for the first time the fear creeps in that his loyalty to her will outweigh my trust of him and he’ll feel he has to tell her. And of course, she’ll have to tell Max.

“Max is a good guy, but I got myself into this and I don’t want to ruin his life too. Besides... I hardly even know him.” The look of shock and disappointment on Hayden’s face should hurt more than it does, but the truth is, it only mirrors what I feel for myself every time I think of this.

“Belle... I'm the last person on earth who can say one word about bad choices in relationships, but seriously, this isn't you. What happened?”

I start crying and bury my face in my hand. “It's so stupid. it's the most pathetic thing ever. I mean, just the thought of hearing it out loud is almost too much.”

“You don't have to tell me but if you want to... I promise not to think you're stupid.”

“It was you and Georgia. That night I saw y’all at New Year's Eve... downtown, holding hands and kissing...it was so obvious how you felt about her, about each other...”

He stares at me for a moment and then wraps his arms around me and as I sob against his shoulder the last remaining remnants of my feelings for him disappear and I see what everyone else has always known; I really am like a little sister to him. “Hayden I'm so scared. I don't want to do this. I don't believe in this. But my parents will kill me. I cannot have a baby.”

“We'll figure this out. If you decide to have an abortion or if you want to keep it; either way. You don't have to go through it alone. Whatever you decide I'm with you. You know how much you mean to me.”

“Oh, my God.” We turn at the sound of Coop’s voice and I hardly have time to process what is happening until Hayden is chasing after her. I want to go after her too, but the reality is that there’s no way out of this for Hayden other than for Georgia to know the truth, and as bad is this is, the only thing worse will be for everyone to know about it; especially Max.

Carson

I feel like my life is hanging on by a thread right now. My mom is getting serious with Avery. Avery is trying to act like my dad; which is made stranger by the fact that I have no idea how a dad is supposed to act. Hayden and Georgia broke up so he’s all mopey and weird, and then there’s Max. I can’t help thinking that something must have really happened between him and Belle Carpenter at New Year’s Eve because he’s been in some sort of tailspin since then. He started out walking on clouds, but as the weeks have gone by he’s gotten more depressed. I don’t know how much more of this I can stand. I mean, this has got to stop.

I’m in the library, trying to work on my research paper, but my mind keeps wandering back to my problems. I blame on the book I’m using and decide to pick another. I start down the aisle toward the biography section but see Belle at the antiquated card catalog and decide to make a bold mood.

“Okay I’ve had it.” I say angrily, grabbing Belle’s arm and pulling her toward the back of the library.

“What?” Belle asks, her face showing shocked concern. “What are you talking about?”

“Max… Max is my best friend. And I don’t know what happened between you two at New Year’s, but he’s unglued. So… either you should tell him once and for all that you hate him or go and make out with him or something, but you’ve got to fix him because I need my best friend back!” I say angrily.

“What do you mean you don’t know what happened between us at New Year’s. What makes you think anything happened?” She says angrily and then her eyes fill with tears. “He told you, didn’t he? I thought he was a nice guy.”

I let go of her arm and jump back like someone who’s been burned. Surely, she can’t mean what it sounds like she means. “Oh God. He didn’t tell me anything.”

“What?”

“He didn’t tell me anything. I just know he’s upset. So, what happened? I don’t mean… what happened? I mean, since something obviously did happen, why is he so miserable?”

“Because it was a huge mistake. He called me like a hundred times afterwards and I kept ignoring him and then when he wouldn’t take the hint, I told him the truth. That it was stupid, and it didn’t mean anything, and I wanted him to leave me alone.” She says tearfully. “So, there you go. I didn’t tell him I hated him, but he’s got to know that this is over. It meant nothing and it’s never ever going to happen again!”

I stare at her… at her pale face, sleep deprived eyes and worried frown and I realize something. If it was just a mistake to her, something meaningless that’s never going to happen again, why does she look like this? Max looks like this because he’s in love with her, and he thought he had her, and now losing her is worse than ever. But if she doesn’t care about him, then there’s only one other logical explanation for the way she looks.

“You’re pregnant.” I whisper, barely able to utter the words.

Her face registers shock and then bitter resignation. “How did you know?”

“I don’t know. I just did.” I say weakly. “Does Max know?”

“No. I’m not keeping it. Telling him would just hurt him more and… I’ve hurt him enough already.” She tells me, her voice sounding hollow and dead.

I nod because I agree. Max love kids and he loves Belle. This would destroy him.

“Have you seen a doctor yet?”

She shakes her head. “I’ve taken about twenty pregnancy tests and I’ve already missed two … I never do that.”

I stare at her for a long time. “Does anyone else know?”

“Only Hayden… and Georgia, but she doesn’t know it’s Max’s. She thinks it’s Hayden’s.”

“So, that’s why she broke up with him. That is messed up.” I say, still slightly in shock. “What happens when Hayden and Georgia get back together?”

“What makes you think they will?” She asks doubtfully.

“I told you, they’re destined.” I explain. “They’re going to get back together and then he’ll have to tell her the truth and she’ll tell Max.”

She shakes her head. “I can’t think about that now. Besides, Hayden wouldn’t break my confidence.”

I don’t think I agree with her. When it comes to Georgia and the rest of the world, Hayden will always put Georgia first. But I can’t worry about that right now either. So instead I say, “You should go see my mom.”


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