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Excerpt for The Love You Give Me by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



The Love You Give Me

Prequel to The Names You Call Me


by



KELLY VIOLET

Blurb

Rae

I learned early in life never to hope for much. Then a boy crashed into my world and wouldn’t take no for answer. Wouldn’t just leave me be. Now, it was the end of my senior year and things were as good as could be. Especially when it came to me and my best friend, Xander. He was still right there by my side. Only he wasn’t an annoying steamroller anymore. He was the very best thing.


But that was too good to be true. Always had been.


Everyone disappoints me eventually, right?


I always thought it was funny how people let you down right when you needed them most.



Xander

I was on top of the world. High school was coming to an end and there I was with my best friend, Rae, along for the ride. My dream girl. She had no clue how I felt, but I was ready for that to change. To tell her exactly how I wanted things to be between us. If my nerves didn’t kill me first. But I would take my shot no matter what.


She deserves everything.


Until she crushed me. One moment was all it took. One image I couldn’t get out of my head. Then it was over. We were over.

Copyright

The Love You Give Me

Copyright © 2018 by Kelly Violet

All rights reserved. This book is licensed to the original purchaser only. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereinafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the express written permission of the author.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental. All product/brand names mentioned herein are registered trademarks of their respective holders/companies.


Published by Pump Up the Violet Publishing, Los Angeles, CA.


Photo by moren hsu on Unsplash


Cover Design by Kelly Violet


ISBN-13: 978-0-9997048-5-1



Acknowledgement

Special thanks to fellow author, Angela Kay Austin, who sparked the idea for this prequel; thank you for the priceless advice and inspiration. I’d also like to thank my family and friends who continue to cheer me on. Thank you so much for your boundless love and support. And to the readers, this prequel is for you! Hope you enjoy.

Chapter One

Rae


Almost free.

The voice in my head kept repeating those two words over and over again while I crossed off days on my mental calendar until prom and graduation.

We’ll go together, Rae.” So matter of fact, Xander’s offer to the high school soiree not even a month ago. It wasn’t the least bit romantic, yet it had my heart skipping all the same. We’ve been best friends for the last few years. My life sucked most days, but he made things brighter.

Better.

Happier.

My small but joyous cocoon promptly burst, bringing me back to my everyday reality that was my life at home.

A dark cloud now hovered over me as I walked through the door of the single wide trailer I’ve lived in with my parents for eight years. My small slice of happiness almost forgotten.

Sometimes the kids at McAlister Preparatory Academy, the private school I attended several miles outside city limits, called me trailer or ghetto trash. Most of the time the name-calling happened behind my back. Sometimes even making sure I heard them loud and clear. Preppy kids pelted me with immature but no less hurtful insults.

In terms of where I lived compared to their lush upbringing or even the dorms of McAlister, they weren’t far off the mark. My family resided in one of the rougher and mostly forgotten areas of Cincinnati. Predominantly Black and Latino, my neighborhood included people on the lower rung of the working class. Everyone lived paycheck to paycheck in these parts. Or worse.

Maybe the paychecks stopped coming altogether.

Like with my parents.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Speak of the devil and she shall appear. The high-pitched, venomous question halted my steps, stopping me in my tracks as the front door clicked shut behind me. It also left my heart racing and blood boiling.

I looked up at my mother, trying hard not to show my overall disappointment for the woman who gave birth to me. She had a practiced nasally voice, having perfected it over the years. Janet Sharpe was a lean, light-skinned woman with long legs and even sharper features, which she directed at me most days, like right now. A look of complete disdain clear on her face. She currently wore a slinky negligee, too much makeup, and her house slippers.

I inherited my father’s dark complexion and softer features. And at just under five-four, I was considered a squirt by distant cousins who I haven’t laid eyes on in more years than I cared to count.

Basically, my mother was the complete opposite of me. While I was studious and hardworking, in and out of school, I didn’t remember her ever holding down a job for more than a week or two. She always seemed to have a ready excuse for why it never worked out. And my father let her slide. She’d rather stand on line for a handout than do an honest day’s work. As an abled-bodied person not quite forty, I couldn’t wrap my head around why that was the case.

“I mean, what are you doing home so goddamn early, Rae-Ana?” she asked with all the disdain in the world. I hated when she used my full name and she damn well knew it. It grated on my nerves even more coming from her red-stained lips.

I didn’t have to think too hard about what my parents were up to at the moment. Still, they had so many days ahead of them to do their mid-afternoon sexy times once I left for college. Thinking about it had me throwing up in my mouth a little.

I sighed. “It’s the time I usually get home on Fridays.” There weren’t any extra shifts at the grocery store which I now regretted. Why couldn’t Mr. Willis find a reason to call me in this afternoon? I wanted to cry from the injustice. Most days when I got home before dark, I hightailed it to my closet-sized bedroom to avoid a run-in with my parents.

Luck wasn’t on my side today, though.

“Well, we weren’t expecting you back yet. Would you do us a favor and stay in your room for a couple hours?”

Gladly. The single word stayed right there on my tongue. “Not a problem,” was what I actually murmured in her direction. Quickly, I kicked off the shoes I wore to school, picking them up and hurrying to my bedroom. Homework would keep me occupied for an hour or longer. I also had a novel I planned to finish tonight.

Three weeks until prom. Four until the graduation ceremony at McAlister and I couldn’t wait for it all to be done. The only bright spot in the monotony of my below-average life was my best friend, Xander.

He bulldozed his way into my solitary sphere on the first day of class in ninth grade. And although it took me too long to let him in, he remained stubborn. Still was to this day. Xan couldn’t be ignored by anyone, least of all me. He hadn’t let me get away with it; continued pestering me until I caved.

I wanted to text him so bad and tell him about the ridiculous mess that was my mother I just walked in on, but we never talked about that kind of stuff. I made sure of it.

For solely self-preservation purposes.

Refused to see the pity in his blue-black eyes, let alone hear it in his tone or voice. And there would pity. There was always pity.

If he came at me with it, I didn’t know what I’d do. All I knew was I wouldn’t be able to handle it. Not from him.

Changing into sweatpants and a tank top, I fell on my ten-year-old twin mattress and stared up at my cracked-filled ceiling for several minutes. I rolled over, turned my old-school clock radio on low and hung off the bed to grab my backpack from the floor. My AP English teacher, Mrs. Naper, assigned us one last paper due next week and then school work and classes for seniors would officially be over. I planned to finish this assignment by Sunday.

Which gave me plenty of time to figure the next few weeks out. I had already sent in my intention to join the class of 2020 at Davis College. I was equal parts excited and petrified.

College spelled freedom for me. I’d be free of the never-ending roller coaster ride my parents have had me on since birth. At least that’s how I felt. There was a total lack of warmth within these four walls and I couldn’t take it anymore.

My only saving grace was Xander. The boy who, at the beginning of ninth grade, wouldn’t leave well enough alone. He brought so much warmth during those hours of school each day. I depended on it now. And I never wanted that or him to go away.

When the sun set a while ago, I had enough forethought to turn on the lamp I had clamped to my metal headboard. The rest of the evening passed by with little fanfare. By nine-thirty, I started reading the book I planned to finish tonight, but my heart was no longer in it. Thoughts were squarely on my best friend.

More and more that seemed to be the case. I knew deep down he didn’t return my feelings; he just wasn’t interested in me that way. The girl from the other side of the tracks, those same tracks he stubbornly ignored when he badgered me into our friendship. And that was one of the reasons I loved him. Because of his stubbornness, for one.

I loved him for so many other reasons too. But there it was. My greatest secret, at least when it came to Xander.

He had no idea and I had to keep it that way.

I only hurt myself when I dreamt of something more between us. And that was all I could to do... Dream.

I didn’t want anything ruining our friendship.

I counted on him probably more than I should. And I never wanted to lose what we had.

Ever.


Chapter Two

Xander



I scraped the last bit of mashed potatoes off my plate and shoved it in my mouth before sitting back, rubbing my stomach. I loved my mom’s cooking. The food at McAlister wasn’t bad, but there was nothing quite like a home-cooked meal with family to nourish a man’s soul and his stomach.

It was something I made sure to do a couple times a month since junior year. I’d be leaving for college in a few months which meant hundreds of miles between me and my family, not merely two dozen. Times like these were limited. We all knew it.

My mom chuckled at whatever my dad whispered to her, slapping his hand away as she cleared away our dirty dishes. “I can help you, mom,” I offered. She flapped her free hand again, waving off my half-assed words. Good thing since I wasn’t quite ready to get up yet.

If she struggled, I would’ve jumped up in a heartbeat, but this was old hat for her. While growing up, I remembered my dad clearing the table after dinner most nights. I assumed he continued the domestic ritual from time to time.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all. That was just the type of relationship they had ever since I could remember. After all these years, they still flirted with each other, yet it didn’t make me want to throw up in my mouth as much. It seemed like a true partnership between them. And I wanted that for myself. Could actually see it down the road and with one particular person in mind.

Now, I understood the need to constantly touch the person you loved. The need to be close to that person all the time.

Faint humming traveled into the dining room from the kitchen as my mom moved around in there. I saw her in my mind’s eye. I had her coloring, with a slight tan, but that was where our likeness ended. Nowadays, her straight blonde hair had more noticeable grays, probably more my little brother’s doing than mine. Glancing over at Sammy, I watched as he pushed the last spoonful of food around on his plate. We’d played video games for almost two hours before my mom announced dinner.

I looked over at my dad and noticed his slight smile. We shared the same dark brown hair and blue eyes. And I took after him in height and build.

Sammy bore several more of our mom’s characteristics in stature. He was just growing into his long, skinny arms and legs, but for now, he had a softer and rounder face with sandy blond hair and brown eyes.

As a pre-teen, I hadn’t been much different from him. After joining the wrestling team freshman year at McAlister, I started a rigorous workout regime and my body followed the accelerated exercises with gusto. Not long after, I developed lean muscles and became quick and agile on the mat. Now, I was co-captain of the varsity team at school.

I hoped to get even better at the collegiate level on Davis’ team next year.

Taking a sip of water, I studied Sammy while he fidgeted across the table from me. As soon as mom came back out, he’d ask to be excused. Smiling to myself, I had an inkling why. I kicked his ass at Call of Duty earlier and he most likely wanted to get more practice time in before the parental units called lights out in two hours.  

He’d need it because I was a pro. Damn good and too competitive to let my little brother beat me at anything just yet.

Sammy was a good kid overall, even if I gave him a bunch of shit. I took my role as older brother seriously and didn’t want him ending up like those pretentious pricks I’ve spent the last four years with at McAlister.

Four long years.

Some of them were alright, but most threw their family wealth around like suits of armor. Like it protected them from any real consequences.

By no means was it all bad. Some definite golden moments filled the wasteland that was any high school experience.

With that, my thoughts returned to Rae, my best friend, and the number one reason I wasn’t rushing back to the dorms on campus this Sunday evening. Before I left tonight, I needed a word with my dad. He always gave good advice.

This time with my parents and kid brother was precious and I knew it. My mom and dad instilled in me many important lessons. One of which was keep family and good friends close.

Nothing made me think of that more than my best friend.

She was a tough girl and I guessed she had to be. And after four years of friendship, I thought I knew her pretty well even if we never discussed heavy stuff. Not completely oblivious, I realized her home life wasn’t picture-perfect like mine or how everyone else at school made theirs out to be.

Nevertheless, she was a beacon for me. A star that brought more shine to my already happy-go-lucky existence. She was the very reason I started wrestling in the first place.

One day I was bitching about school and how bored I was in the dorms after classes ended. Rae told me to do something about it and stop complaining. Her exact words were “stop being a baby, Xander. Join the wrestling team or something.” At the time, her annoyed comment wasn’t all that serious, throwing wrestling out like it was the most out-of-the-box school activity to come to mind. I took her suggestion to heart, seeking out the JV coach after the last class of the day that afternoon.

And I hadn’t looked back since.

The memory made me smile, like most thoughts of her. And I thought I was finally ready to do something about it.

She still held herself back from me—and everyone else—but often enough I caught glimpses of such beautiful light leaking through holes in the wall she built around herself. And now more than ever I wanted her to shine bright for me. Right next to me.

Because of me.

Not just as friends either.

In all likelihood, I fell a little in love with her that first day of school in the ninth grade. I remembered walking up to her with all the determination and false bravado I could muster at thirteen and a half. And I didn’t quit after she knocked me down a peg.

Something told me we needed each other deep down. That feeling was still there, but it burned brighter and fiercer than before.

And I had to get my ass in gear before I lost my opportunity with her. Prom was coming up in less than two weeks. The news of me and Rae going together hadn’t made the rounds quite yet. Some girls at school now even dropped not-so-subtle hints about their availability. I saw them but for damn sure refused to pick them up.

The only girl I had in mind to ask was Rae. It was always her, but something was holding me back from making my true feelings known. I needed some advice.

A few minutes later, my mom came out of the kitchen, taking her seat across from dad again. Before anyone could say anything, I turned to my father and said, “hey, dad, can I talk to you for a minute before I head back to campus?”

“Of course, Xander.” He pushed away from the dining room table and I followed, suddenly nervous about bringing up my girl problems with him.

A quiet tension trailed closely behind me as I closed the door to my dad’s office. He bypassed his big oak desk, instead sitting on the leather loveseat near his large bookcase overflowing with law texts and the nonfiction books he preferred to read in his free time.

Before we both drowned in uncomfortable silence, I rushed out with the first thing to pop in my head. “When did you know you were in love with mom?”

“Oh...” I could tell my question took him by surprise. “Well, in all honesty, I think I knew almost immediately. I saw her across the reading room in the library. She was actually with another guy at the time. That didn’t deter me in the slightest though. Before she left, I mustered up enough courage to introduce myself and ask her out.”

I’d heard the story a time or two, but I guess I’d hoped to glean something else from the day they first met.

“What’s this all about, Xander?”

“I want to ask a girl to prom and I don’t know how to go about it, I guess.”

“A chip off the old block, eh?” He chuckled and then got serious. “What’s going on, son?”

Sitting forward in the lounge chair across from him, I raked my hand through my short hair. “I just can’t fuck this up, dad. It’s really important to me, ya know?” She’s important to me.

“I can see that. So, what’s actually holding you back? I figured you had girls following you around all the time.” He wasn’t too far off, but I only wanted one person’s attention.

I shrugged my shoulders. “They aren’t the girl I really want,” I said matter-of-factly.

“Fair enough. So, what does Rae think?” Glancing up, I noticed his knowing smirk.

“Is it that obvious?”

“You’re not fooling anyone in this house, Xander. You spent half of dinner inserting her into conversation. It wasn’t hard to put two and two together.”

He leaned forward, gazing into my eyes. “Now, what’s holding you back, son?”

“What if she doesn’t feel the same way I do?” What if I screw everything up?

“Mom and I have only met her a few times, but I have to tell you, the way she looks at you is the same way your mom looks at me. The same way I remember my mother looking at my father. That’s rare these days. I don’t think you need to worry.”

I leaned forward, still not convinced. He didn’t know Rae like I did. Everything was so up in the air. It could go either way. A toss-up. But I knew what I wanted, which way I needed this to go. I wanted Rae to be my girl.  

Not solely my best friend. My everything.

“If you’re still worried, here’s more wisdom for you. Back in my day there was the grand gesture.” He chuckled then sat back against the loveseat. “Mom has made you sit through enough movies from our era, but I think you know exactly what’s right for you and Rae.”

More like my mom was obsessed with movies from the eighties. They were mostly okay, if not downright corny, but I got what my dad was saying. I had to pull out all the stops. Let Rae know in no uncertain terms I wanted her.

“So, you think I should go for it then? What if it ruins our friendship?”

“You want more than friendship, don’t you?” I nodded. “Then you have to at least try. You do not want to go through life thinking about the what ifs. Regretting not taking a chance. But in my humble opinion, I don’t think you have to worry. Rae’s a lovely girl.”

I figured that was my dad’s way of giving me...us his blessing. And I really hoped there was an us in the very near future.

“Thanks, Dad.” He rose from the loveseat and patted me on the shoulder before leaving me to my own thoughts.

I got up and left his office some minutes later. Saying goodbye to my parents and Sammy, I promised to see them next weekend for dinner.

I made the drive back to McAlister in relative silence. I had a lot to think about tonight.

Like how to ask my guarded best friend and the girl of my dreams to prom. For real this time. Make it known that I wanted to take her as my date, not just my best friend.

Maybe push my luck further and tell her I didn’t want that to be the end of it either. That I was interested in the long haul.   

Shit. I had my work cut out for me.


Chapter Three

Rae



Monday morning and I was back at McAlister. My second instance of hell on earth.

Home held steady in first place more often than not these days.

If not for Xander, this school might’ve broken me a long time ago.

The bus was ten minutes late this morning, so I had to book it up the drive, making it to first period with only a minute to spare before the late bell rang.

Hoping the day calmed down, I settled onto a seat at the front of AP Calc with Mr. Hunter. I expected my luck to improve after such a bad start but didn’t hold out too much faith. At the end of the day, I still had one too many days left at this place.

I had to work twice as hard, if not more, than everyone else here. I knew it. The teachers knew it too. And most of them called on me because of it, not realizing it put a huge bull’s eye on my back where it concerned my peers.

That and other things made the vultures circle me in McAlister’s long hallways. Or, more specifically, a person I wasn’t willing to give up.

Xander.

My best friend in and outside these four walls. He was the one person who made this place bearable, besides the odd teacher or two. More than bearable. I looked forward to coming to school these past three years because of him. Xander being my best friend hadn’t stopped the almost daily bullshit tossed my way by the rich kids here, though. As if I didn’t deserve anyone’s attention, let alone one of the most popular guys on our campus.

I was one of only four scholarship students in my year. And no one let me forget it. That’s just the ways it’s been for too-many years.

My first three classes went by in a relative blur.

Thank God.

Seniors technically only had four days left of classes. We had to come in next week for senior activities. I wasn’t excited, except to hang out for hours at a time with Xander.

At least that was my hope. We’d only done that a few times since he lived on the McAlister compound. He came into town once and we hung out at a city park. And that was one of the best days ever. Otherwise, our friendship existed solely within McAlister’s walls.

My heart pounded in my chest as I power walked to the other side of school, heading toward the cafeteria. And Xander.

I was always heading in his direction. Nowadays, I resigned myself to this reality. Four years ago, I felt differently. He was a thorn in my side and I couldn’t shake him. Then I didn’t want to. He quickly became the most important person in my life. I don’t remember ever coming to grips with that fact before.

He never disappointed or let me down. Was always there when I needed him, even when I didn’t realize it myself.

This year, we only had lunch period together. There was also an odd end-of-the-day ritual where we stole extra minutes chatting before I had to catch my bus home. And I totally considered them stolen moments with him.

He knew nothing about my feelings—that I loved him more than a friend should. Than I had any business too.

On some level, I wanted our relationship to stay this way.

Simple. No frills.

Our friendship was exactly what I needed. Even if my closed off thirteen-year-old self hadn’t realized it back then.

Xander always pushed me when I hesitated. Embraced me when I felt most alone. I opened up to him, in my own ways, and he listened. Simply sat across from me and offered his positive aura.

Until he came along, I never realized that something important was missing.

Missing from my home life...from having friends at school.

I was lacking someone in my life who genuinely cared about me. But my feelings for him weren’t about hero worship. At least, that was no longer the case.

Xander was the man of my dreams, when I dared to dream such outlandish things.

And that’s all it was. All it could be.

A dream.

He shared none of my feelings beyond friendship, I was sure. I would know if he did, wouldn’t I? I asked myself the stupid question, not for the first time. I couldn’t believe it, so I pushed the thought out of my mind. Especially since it was a waste of time. And also dangerous. My steps slowed with all of my circular thinking and now I was out in the open—in the hallway jungle—which never boded well.

As if my swirling, foreboding thoughts made them appear, Miranda and friends came around the corner, halting everything, even my breath.

Walking just a few feet, the girls stopped where they always seemed to congregate, in the center of the hallway near the lockers. Smack dab next to my locker.

Obviously.

Right where I was headed since it was on the way to the cafeteria. I knew Miranda’s was at the other end of the long corridor, by the bathrooms and across from the chemistry lab. They had no other reason to hang out at that particular row of lockers except to make my life a living hell.

I eased into my quick pace again, dead set on walking right past them and going straight to the cafeteria to meet Xander.

As I got closer, I picked up on their conversation. Which wasn’t a coincidence, I was positive.

“I heard she’s so poor that she dumpster dives in a grocery store downtown. How pathetic is that?”

I lifted my head higher than necessary. I knew the garbage they spewed was made up. In that moment, I realized someone from school probably saw me taking out the trash at my job. And now, the vultures had this tidbit of information and spun it into whatever outlandish story they wanted to tell.

It shouldn’t matter—hurt—this much, but it did.

The threat of physical altercations stopped completely once I let Xander in. No one ever went beyond a shoulder bump after he came along, but I guessed looming prom and graduation made people bolder. And more stupid. But the snickering taunts continued growing louder and nastier since ninth grade.

The hallway was relatively empty, save for us. For any seniors not at lunch, they had the option of study hall. I was practically on the terrible trio now, ready to walk by, when they stopped me. Before I realized what was happening, Miranda, Rosa and Lily had me crowded against a locker behind me, the metal handle grinding into my upper back.

I knew a bruise formed just from the slight pulsing pain between my shoulders.

Digging deep, I talked myself out of doing something stupid, like standing up for myself.

Who would the school believe if I hit back? Three against one notwithstanding, I was the black girl from the wrong side of the tracks. The bad element among the affluent kids. Just by birth and circumstance, they were the complete opposite of me. And they most likely banked on the fact that I’d get in trouble while they got off scot-free.

Even though I worked my ass off to be a great student, I still didn’t belong at McAlister. If I ever had. And Miranda and friends made sure I knew it.  

“Hey. Leave her alone.” Suddenly, the deep command came out of nowhere. My eyes closed, blood pumping a frantic rhythm in my ears, so I assumed my best friend rode in on his white horse as he often did, playing the hero. But it wasn’t him. Instead, when I opened my eyes I saw Taylor Folsom III elbowing the girls aside. He stood in front of me now, looking down at me with what appeared to be concern.

In all the years I’ve gone to school with this kid, I couldn’t recall ever seeing that particular expression grace his face before. Considering what Taylor Folsom, the Turd was like, this situation was definitely an anomaly. I never said the nickname to his face, but that’s how I thought of him.

He was a pompous asshole on a good day, so I had zero clue what pushed him to stick up for me today. Stepping in like he did.

“You okay, Rae-Ana?” In that moment, him using my full name didn’t even leave a blip on my radar.

“Yeah, sure.” With bated breath, I watched the mean girls rush into the bathroom right down the hall, their evil cackles floating in the air. At least they were out of my hair for now.

It wouldn’t surprise me if they came at me again before senior week, though. The window of opportunity for their favorite target dwindled day by day.

“Uh...thanks, Taylor.” I brushed off the bad vibes and adjusted the heavy messenger bag on my left shoulder.

“Not a problem. Those bitches don’t know how to let shit go.” I cringed at his word choice. I had that term hurled at me too many times to count. That it came out of his mouth so easily didn’t change my opinion of him in the slightest.

He was still very much a turd.

“Well, thank you. I have to—”

Cutting me off as if I hadn’t spoken, he started, “Anyway, I wanted to talk to you.”

“Oh?” I asked, only a little curious. I took out my prepaid smartphone, glancing at the time. “Shit.” I should’ve been sitting with Xan already. Lunch would be over in twenty minutes. “I have to go meet Xander for lunch.”

A snide expression crossed his face before he nodded. I ignored his reaction and brushed past him to finish my trip to the cafeteria.

Finally, I made it.

When I arrived, I noticed several teammates from varsity wrestling surrounded Xan at a table. They were a close-knit group of guys who were all going their separate ways in a few short weeks. It wasn’t an odd thing to see them huddled together like they were, but this was our time.

A second after I walked into the large room he noticed me, a huge smile taking over his face. Butterflies rumbled in my belly just seeing him from across the way. He stood up and strode over to me, his long legs made quick work of the distance between us. My feet moved automatically, meeting him halfway.

“Hey, Rae. What took you so long today? Lunch’s almost over.”

“Oh, I lost track of time. Sorry I’m late.” I could tell Xander didn’t like my vague answer, but he chose not to comment on it. I never wanted him to worry about me, always concerned that I was a project for him or something. He didn’t need to fight my battles. Plus, there was only a few days left and then McAlister and all the people here would be in my past.

Except for Xan.

“Well, give me your bag and go get food before they close up shop.” Before I knew it, he wrestled the bag off my shoulder, swinging it onto his own, and pushed me towards the short lunch line.

“Okay, I’m going,” I giggled. Leave it to Xan to make my day better without even trying.

There were only a few more days like this. We had the summer break and then college. Everything would be different.

Something deep down inside told me so. I wasn’t ready for whatever it was, but I never had much control over what happened in my life. Just learned to live with the good and bad as it came along.

After securing a tray loaded with food, I walked back to Xander’s table. The guys sitting with him when I arrived were no longer there. Selfishly, I was happy about that. Time was running out for moments like this one.

Although we would attend Davis College together in the fall, which I was ecstatic about, I refused to get my hopes up. That our friendship remained the same. That things never changed between us. People grew up and grew apart in college. I wasn’t naive enough to think differently.

Plus, he’d always been a likeable and popular guy in school. I didn’t see that changing anytime soon. It was in his DNA.

Me? Without a doubt, I was on the periphery. An outlier. On a campus the size of Davis, I hoped to fade to the background. And that’s just not what he was about.

We were like night and day. At some point, I knew going away to school would eventually drive it home for him. But I held out an infinitesimal amount of hope. If I couldn’t have my ultimate fantasy come to life, then at least we’d remain best friends.

I could totally live with that. It was a complete and utter lie, but I kept telling it to myself anyway.


Chapter Four

Xander



By the time Rae made it to lunch that day, the confidence I’d built working up the nerve to tell her how I felt took a plunge.

I didn’t think there was one particular thing that did it. Her lateness worried me a little, but I just figured she was held up by a teacher or something academic. My best friend was a bit of a nerd.

Which gave all my other thoughts ample opportunity to roll around in my head, getting the best of me. Now, at the end of last period, I found myself leaning against her locker, waiting for her before she rushed off to catch her bus home. I checked the clock on my iPhone for the third or fourth time in as many minutes.

Where is she? She should’ve been here already.

Standing around was irking me. And making me worry. I was hard up to see her and get everything out in the open. The longer I waited, the more I second-guessed myself.

The last thing I wanted was to get in my own way again.

I walked through my action plan in my head for the hundredth time. I’d offer her a ride home, not planning to take no for an answer this time around. We needed time to ourselves so that I could say my peace, without inquiring minds and busybodies listening in and overhearing my fumbling.

Or her potential rejection.

That’s what held me back the most. Rae had a poker face, holding a lot of things close to her chest. And hidden from me. Her go-to survival skills kicked in high gear while on school grounds.

A brilliant reason why both of us had to get away from McAlister for a bit.  

After the talk with my dad, I had a glimmer of hope for her returning my feelings. At least being open to the possibility. Taking her to prom was a foregone conclusion and it came out that way too. I hadn’t asked her the way I should have. With all the bells and whistles. With her knowing exactly where I stood. We weren’t going merely as friends. I wanted to take her as my date, my girlfriend.  

And two weeks ago, Rae glowed with an almost blinding smile when she told me she brought a dress for prom. And all I could think at the time was how I couldn’t wait to see her in it.

Even now, I counted down the days until we could enter that ballroom all decked out together.

I just hoped she felt the same way as me. That I wasn’t about to shoot myself in the foot by telling her what I wanted.

Time’s up, Xander. Go get your girl! My inner voice, that sounded almost like my dad, urged me on. Pushing off the lockers I leaned against, I started down the hallway where Rae’s last class was located. With so few days left of school, the halls of the main building were damn near deserted this time of day. It felt like everyone, but Rae and I escaped to do something else—anything else.

Not us, though. We made the time to see each other before she headed home twenty minutes after the last bell.

So where is she then? I asked myself for the hundredth time. Not a damn thing came to mind either. It was weird how she got to lunch so late. All flustered. Usually nothing got in the way of our meeting times. But she quickly brushed off my question with a vague response when I probed a little.

It finally hit me that something else must be going on with her. Just frustrated me that Rae felt she couldn’t confide in me about whatever it was.

My heart rate increased as I turned another corner; something told me we needed to get so much more out on the table than my feelings for her. Rae had to know she could depend on me for anything.

What I saw next as I turned a corner stopped me cold. I wished my eyes were deceiving me right now. I shook my head, knowing deep down inside they weren’t.

Just a few feet away from where I stood frozen, the girl who stole my heart all those years ago—the girl of my dreams—kissed another guy.

The scene in front of me felt like a punch to the chest. Like a hot poker stabbed me in the heart. Over and over and over again.

Everything slowed, my breath freezing in my chest. But like the rising tide before a tsunami, a similar dangerous presence awakened in me.

Anger.

More like violent rage hovered over my skin. A radioactive aura prickling the short hairs on my straining forearms. A hushed voice in the back of my mind cautioned me to calm down, but that was the last thing my body wanted. Instincts and an ever-climbing fury prepared me for grappling. A take-down for the ages that I could already taste.

Like the most satisfying victory of my life.

And there was the problem.

I clenched my fists, ready to pummel the bastard with his arms around Rae. Taylor Folsom, the fucking third.

I took a step towards them before stopping myself. That was when her startled brown gaze found mine. We stared at each other for a long moment; I searched for answers in her eyes and found none. All I continued to see was red. It erased everything else around me.

The rage inside hadn’t dissipated even a little, just continuously pulsed in my bloodstream.

I spared another glance at Rae. Something in her big, doe eyes called to me, but the two of them seemed all too cozy against the lockers.

That thought alone hurt too much. Pissed me off more.

So many thoughts and feelings battled in my head and heart for dominance. I knew if I stayed any longer, there’d be dangerous consequences for all of us.

So, I decided to walk away. Turned my back on one of the most important people in my life. My best friend.

My dream girl.

The betrayed heart beating in my chest constricted just thinking about it. I took a deep breath and started moving anyway.

“You snooze, you lose, bro.” The smug bastard had the nerve to say, a gloating smirk graced his mouth as I turned to leave. Before I did something stupid, like pound his head into the fucking lockers he had Rae pressed against, I walked away. Told myself to keep moving.

“Xan,” her small voice called me back. She never sounded like that, not with me, but I couldn’t turn around to see her cozy in his arms again.

The pounding in my ears seemed deafening. My body pulsed, fists clenching and unclenching like they still readied for a fight. Something I’ve never done in anger before. Now, I craved it. I was ready to hurt someone, preferably the asshole with his hands on my Rae.

And that’s why I needed to leave.

I could no longer look my best friend in the eye.

Dammit!

The punch to a locker didn’t even faze me as I left through the back doors of the main academic building and headed for my dorm room.

Worst fucking day ever.


Chapter Five

Rae



Xan hated me.

A disgusted and angry look overtook the happy-go-lucky face I was used to. I realized then there was no getting through to him. I had no idea how everything snowballed out of control so quickly. One minute I was walking down the hall ready to meet Xander. Said he had to ask me something after the last wrestling team event, an end-of-day party put together for the graduating seniors. I promised to stick around to wait for him. Our time was running out and I wanted to spend every second I could with him.

The thought took root in my head and wouldn’t leave.

Then, all of a sudden, everything went to hell.

Finishing up last-minute extra credit, I placed the sheets of paper in the box on Mrs. Naper’s desk. She let the class out a few minutes early and every single person dashed out like the school was on fire. Everyone except me. I had some time before meeting up with Xander, so I stayed to complete the quick assignment.

Now, all was quiet as I packed up. Mrs. Naper had left several minutes ago, which meant I was all alone.

I never minded the quiet. Found solace in it often enough. But right now, something crackled just under the surface. Instead of worrying about it too much I quickly grabbed my bag and started for our regular rendezvous spot.

After closing the classroom door behind me I looked up and froze. Taylor leaned against some lockers a few feet away. He pushed off them and started towards me.

“Hi, Rae-Ana.” Something about his greeting turned my stomach. Had he been waiting here for me?

“Hey, Taylor.” I hiked up the strap on my messenger bag and tried walking past him. Instead of moving out of my way, he blocked my path.

“I wanted to talk to you. You got a minute?” His question came out confident and polite. For some reason, I didn’t understand why, I knew standing in this abandoned hallway with him wasn’t a good idea.

“Uh, not really. Sorry,” I said. I side-stepped to my left, hoping to get past him this time. He just moved with me, not budging out of my way.

“I didn’t have to fucking help you the other day, Rae-Ana.” This time my name sounded like a dirty insult on his tongue. “Now you owe me.”

Owe him? He was out of his freaking mind.

“What? I don’t owe you anything.” This pretentious asshole. He had some nerve. And here I thought for thirty seconds that maybe, just maybe, Taylor had grown up some when he helped me last week. That idea died a quick death in my head. “Let me pass, Taylor. I don’t have time for this.”

“Well, make time, bitch.” The harsh command spewed from his lips with too much venom. “You go around this school thinking you’re better than everyone. Better than me. I’m Taylor Folsom, the fucking third. No one ignores me. Especially a trailer-trash, scholarship whore from the ghetto.”

The breath stalled in my throat. I had this vitriol tossed at me before, but not like this. Not in such a sinister way. His intentions were clear now.

He wanted to hurt me. With his words for sure. But maybe in some other way too.

“You have everyone fooled here, but not me. I know exactly how you got here.” The implication of his words was crystal clear. I was lower than dirt to him. To everyone at McAlister.

Except Xan, my inner voice reminded me.

Taylor crowded me against the lockers, a metal handle digging into my back yet again. He chuckled as I winced in pain. The thought that we were completely alone in the hallway rushed back to me. Things were too quiet. Everyone else had gone home or back to the dorms and I had no clue if Xander still waited for me. Our end-of-date ritual and I wasn’t there with him, where I should be.

The air around us was too charged.

I felt trapped.

Fear barreled through my chest, causing my heart to pump erratically. My fight-or-flight instincts kicking in.

His gaze was predatory, making my skin crawl. As if he liked seeing my fear. Got off on it.

“I swear to God, Taylor, if you don’t let me pass—” I didn’t get the rest of my threat out. The air rushed out of my lungs as he stepped closer. Too close.

He leaned down and asked, “What’s a whore like you gonna do, huh?”

The look in his eyes appeared feral, like a rabid animal. Sick and deranged. And out for blood.

It scared me more than I wanted to admit.

Taylor’s hot breath gusted across my cheek before he stole a kiss I never offered him. Somehow, I knew he craved more from me. More than what he took now. I had to get away, stay clear of him. I didn’t know why this—why now—but it hardly mattered. He thought he could treat me like the whore he called me.

I pushed at his chest with little give but kept at it, forcing my fists and arms to move between us. Finally, I tore my mouth from his, wanting to throw up. Scour my lips and tongue with soap and water and cleanse this whole thing from my mind. But I had to escape first.     

Determined to do just that, I looked up and noticed Xan standing a few feet away. Disgust and rage there in his eyes. Like I betrayed him or something. And then he just turned his back and stormed off.

Away from me.

I called after him, but he kept walking.

Taylor chuckled above me, saying something over his shoulder I didn’t catch.

My heart shattered into tiny pieces right then. I found it almost impossible to breathe as real fear bubbled up in my chest.

I lost him.

My best friend.

The most important person in my life just left me all alone.

I have to get out of here. I wouldn’t let them know they ultimately won. That they succeeded in breaking me.

A loud sound boomed down the hallway and I jumped.

My skin crawled as I came back to myself and realized Taylor still stood against me, crowding me. Turned slightly, he looked in the same direction Xander stormed away only a moment ago with a smirk riding his thin, harsh lips.

I shoved past him, too distracted with gloating to stop me before he could reach out and grab me. Then I ran in the other direction. I ran as fast as my legs could carry the heavy weight of my body.

My heart.

“Now now, Rae-Ana, you’re not worth chasing. You’re not worth anything. So come on back, you slutty cunt. Let’s have some fun.” His disgusting words echoed down the empty hallway.

I burst through the double doors at the entrance of the main building and rushed from school grounds. Taylor’s parting shot still followed close behind me, ringing in my ears.

I kept moving. Away from the riotous laughter now pounding in my head. The phantom laughter targeted my pain, making it strip me bare. And the farther away I distanced myself from McAlister, the lower it got. I could breathe just a little easier, but my heart continued breaking.

For me and Xander.

For my fantasies, where I meant more to him.

In an instant, it all blew up in my face. He couldn’t even look at me. Didn’t see that I needed him more than ever all those moments ago.

Hours passed before I realized I was back at the trailer park. Rushing inside, I went straight to my room, fell face-first on my bed and finally and completely broke down.


Chapter Six

Xander



McAlister’s graduation ceremony passed in a blur. I didn’t care about it that much anymore. I was just going through the motions now.

“Xander, honey.” She nudged my shoulder as I said goodbye to my coach before he went off to speak to other families. I turned towards her and my dad.

“Yeah, mom.”

“Rae’s over there. Let’s go say hello. I don’t think I see her parents with her.” I saw where my mom pointed, and Rae stood off to the side. All by herself. Her favorite teacher stepped in front of her just then. I watched as Mrs. Naper handed something to her but looked away after another second. I couldn’t make myself walk over there.

“Oh well, looks like she’s busy now. Maybe later, darling.” My father’s soft words broke through my fog as he pulled my mom into his side.

Rage resurfaced, still pumping like acid in my blood just at the thought of what I witnessed last week. Seeing Rae and Taylor together like that. Like they were suddenly chummy and shit. He had her pushed up against lockers and from where I stood she wasn’t pushing him away. Blunt fingernails dug into my palms and I realized I clenched my fists. I took a deep breath and dismissed the image from my mind.

My right hand stayed tender for a few days after I punched a random locker before leaving the main building. And there was another reason to leave those images behind me. I never had outbursts like that. It wasn’t who I was, who my parents raised me to be.

I’d wanted to claim Rae for myself for so long, but now it seemed Taylor had beat me to her. Just like he said. It still killed me to think of the two of them together. What they had gotten up to before or after I caught them. Is he the reason she’s been so spacey with me lately?

I hadn’t laid eyes on her since that afternoon. Hadn’t seen her and Taylor together either. She didn’t show up to any of the senior week activities or prom, which wasn’t much of a surprise once I thought about it. Rae wasn’t into group activities on a good day, but prom should’ve been a different story. The only reason I went was to keep up appearances.

At the hour mark, I scanned the large ballroom with its twinkling lights, watching a bunch of people I didn’t really care for have fun. Prom was our last hurrah and it should’ve been a celebration of epic proportions. A time for me and my best friend to enjoy ourselves. Instead, there I was pretty damn miserable, sulking and feeling too damn pissy.

Rae nowhere to be seen.

I kept an eye on the entrance and told myself I wasn’t looking for her to show up. The lies we tell ourselves. I couldn’t stop the thoughts from coming, though.

I drove back to my dorm room on campus and finished packing up my stuff.  

Plus, if I visited my parents like I wanted to, they would’ve known something was up. Especially dad.

Telling them what I saw...reliving it again by uttering the words. I had no intentions of doing that, let alone thinking about it anymore than I had already.

Laughter brought me back to the present moment. More of my teammates stopped by. We shot the shit for a few minutes at a time before they rushed off to talk to other friends. People tossed several graduation party invitations my way and I considered them. Now, though, I just wanted to hang out with my family.

I was getting antsy standing out here. My gaze continued trailing over to where Rae lingered moments ago. All by herself.

At one point, she’d taken a step forward then stopped. Even from where I stood, I saw her take a deep breath as her eyes closed and then she exhaled. A weight on her shoulders I didn’t understand seemed to pull her into herself. She lifted her head in my direction again; I could feel her focus on me like a warm breeze then she shook her head.

Her actions made me wary. I had perfect vision and knew what I witnessed the other day. The ugly truth of it. It made me not want to talk to her, forcing myself to look away every time my gaze returned to her.

So, why does it look like her world is crumbling around her?

She made her bed, I told myself.

Rae made a choice and it damn sure hadn’t included me. If I ever factored in at all for her. I wasn’t even sure now. And thoughts like that killed me the most.

Calling our entire friendship into question.

With the conversation with Mrs. Naper over, Rae walked off.

Alone.  

I watched the black gown she still wore sweep across the back of her bare legs, a sudden breeze causing it to balloon out.

Belatedly, I turned my gaze away and tried my damnedest to put that sad look she tried masking with indifference out of my mind.

She was no longer mine.

Rae had never been my girl, if I were being honest with myself. She’d kept herself at a distance the entire duration of our friendship. But that hadn’t stopped me from falling in love with her.

I shook the cobwebs from my head. My thoughts kept meandering, creating more twists and turns I refused to follow anymore.

That’s old news. I told himself to block out everything to do with Rae. Move on.

This summer was all about having some fun before college in the fall. I had a ton of catching up to do when it came to letting loose. And I decided to start with those party invitations.

A few minutes later, everyone piled into the family car and we headed downtown for an early dinner celebration.

Summer vacation, here I come.


Chapter Seven

Rae



Why am I here again?

It was the second day of senior week events. Our senior class officers organized a bunch of on and off-campus activities. Today was an outdoor fair. There were several stands and other entertainment. I remembered a flier for the event said there would be a kissing booth (proceeds going to a local charity, of course), a pie-eating contest, and a booth to pick up class t-shirts.

I showed up because I was too sick and tired of crying in my room. Nothing at home held my attention. Not books. Not videos on my phone. Everything felt empty.

So, here I was hoping for a distraction in the last place I wanted to be.

In the back of my mind I’d hoped to catch sight of Xander. See if there was an opening. Maybe explain what happened the week before. How Taylor sidelined me on the way to meet up with him. How he almost did much worse. Let him know unequivocally that I wanted nothing to do with Taylor’s psychopathic ass. Now or ever.

Then I saw him. He had a huge smile on his face. Him and a few of his teammates stood around in the middle of the grassy open field. Another group of students walked up to them, making an even bigger group. Then it hit me. There he was a dozen or so yards away from me, joking and laughing with the same kids who tormented me throughout high school.

Miranda and her minions swooped down like a flock of vultures, circling Xander like he was easy prey now that I was out of the picture.


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