Chapter no 3

My Life with the Walter Boys

I was in the car with my family. My dad and mom were in the front seat, and Lucy was sitting next to me in the back. We were sharing a set of headphones and jamming out to one of our favorite songs. When it came to an end, I smiled and looked out the window. It was one of those crisp, sunny spring days that let you know that winter was almost over. A small green haze that was almost invisible surrounded the tree branches as new buds started to push forth.

I looked down in surprise as my seat belt suddenly slid off. “What the…?” I muttered to myself and clicked it back in. A sinking feeling formed in my stomach when the buckle clicked undone again. Before I could push it back in, an invisible force yanked me from the car.

Now I was standing on the concrete. The trees on both sides of the road had shriveled up, and the sky darkened to an ominous gray. Our car sped by, and I caught a glimpse of Lucy staring out the back window at me.

“Wait, stop!” I cried and started to sprint down the street.

But the car didn’t stop. I watched in horror as a mile down the road the pavement started to crumble apart. When the road split in two, our car drove right off the edge and the earth swallowed my family up.

Panting, I sat straight up in bed with a thick layer of sweat covering my body. As my vision adjusted to the dark, dread built up inside me at the sight of unfamiliar surroundings. I kicked the covers off and stepped onto the cold, hard floor. For a moment, I was confused because my room didn’t have a wooden floor. Where was the carpet?

I searched in the dark for the light switch, and when I flipped it on, the mural on the walls lit up around me. The shock of reality hit me so hard that my knees buckled and I crumbled to the ground in a heap. I wasn’t at home in New York. I was in Colorado.

It was a dream. I had only been dreaming about the accident.

When it happened, I wasn’t with them. Instead, I had been lying on the couch, sick with the flu. I remember being tucked into a cocoon of blankets, trying to sleep away the shivers. As the morning slipped by, I drifted in and out of consciousness, and my family must have disappeared from existence sometime then.

At some point, the phone started ringing, but I felt too awful to answer. It continued to ring all afternoon long, until finally there was a knock on the front door and I was forced to get up. When the police officer told me what had happened to my family, my stomach reacted before I could process anything. I bent over, hands to my knees, and emptied onto the floor the small amount of hot chocolate I’d been able to sip that morning.

I didn’t understand how Lucy could be gone. She had always gone a step beyond being an older sister. The night before, when I came down with the flu, she’d held my hair and rubbed soothing circles across my back as I cried into the toilet. And my mother—she had been the strongest woman I knew. At the time, it didn’t make sense that she was dead.

But she was. They all were.

Ever since that day—ninety-four days, to be exact—I’d been dreaming about them. My father was the famous CEO of Howard Investment Corporation, so their car accident played on the news in loops, a constant reminder that they were gone. I still couldn’t get the image out of my head of our car, which had been crunched up into a ball as if it were nothing more than aluminum foil. It was as if every detail was seared into my brain, like when you look away from the sun after staring too long and it starts multiplying across the sky in vivid colors.

Minutes passed as my chest heaved up and down, until finally I was able to gain control of my breathing. I picked myself up and glanced at the clock

—5:31 a.m.

I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep, so I went to my dresser. After finding my workout clothes, I pulled on a pair of athletic shorts, grabbed my running shoes, and unhooked my iPod from its charger. It was early and I was exhausted from my nightmare, but I needed a distraction.

Normally I worked out on one of the treadmills in our family’s gym, but the Walters didn’t have a gym—or even a treadmill, for that matter. Running outside would have to do. The sun was creeping into the sky, and a cool breeze swept across my neck as I stepped out onto the rickety, wooden porch. The morning dew sparkled on the lawn as I sat down to tie my shoelaces before stretching.

As I stretched, butterflies knotted up in my stomach. I couldn’t tell if they were left over from my nightmare or if I was nervous about my upcoming day. The prospect of going to a new school made me feel sick. I had only been in the Walter household for a day, and so far it was awful. I couldn’t imagine going to a public school with hundreds of boys—eleven plus Parker was bad enough.

It was already nearing the end of the school year, and I was positive that I wouldn’t make a single friend. I found myself wishing it were already three in the afternoon, so I could shut myself in my room and curl up under the covers.

Just as I was about to take off, the screen door screeched open as George stepped out. Will and Cole were right behind him, and they were all dressed in work clothes: jeans, old T-shirts that had faded from white to cream, boots, and hats to protect them from the sun.

“Morning, Jackie,” George said and tipped his hat at me. Will waved and offered me a friendly smile.

“Morning, Mr. Walter, Will,” I replied.

“You’re up early,” Cole grumbled as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “I could say the same to you.”

Cole scowled. “Chores,” was all he said.

“The boys have some work on the ranch to get done before they head off for the day,” George told me. “If you’re going for a run, you might want to wait for Nathan. He’ll be out in a second.”

“Okay, thanks,” I said as the three stepped off the porch.

As I waited for Nathan, I watched them head in the direction of a barn that was barely visible in the early morning light. At one point in their walk, Will playfully shoved Cole, who tripped and fell over into the grass. I covered the smile on my face with my hand.

The screen door screeched again, and Nathan stepped out. When he saw me, he beamed. I was trying to remember which boy he was when I noticed the guitar pick necklace. Right, the musician.

“You like to run?” he asked me excitedly, without a good morning.

“I like keeping in shape,” I told him. “I wouldn’t necessarily say I enjoy running.”

“Okay,” he said and laughed. “Do you want to join me on my attempt to stay in shape?” He seemed genuinely eager about it.

“Sure, I don’t mind,” I said. “Actually, I’m surprised that you want me to come with you. Everyone seemed pretty mad at me last night.” I felt my cheeks burn at the memory of the spaghetti flying through the air, but Nathan just grinned. He was going to look so much like Cole when he was older, but he wasn’t anything close to being as intimidating.

“Of course I want to run with you! And besides, I thought it was funny.

Don’t let Jordan get to you. He’s just a prankster.”

“I’ll try to keep that in mind,” I said as we headed down the steps. “Want to follow my normal route?” Nathan asked me.

“Lead the way.”


After my run, I went to the kitchen to get some breakfast before anyone else woke up. I thought it was the perfect way to avoid another catastrophe. Of course, my plan backfired. Katherine was sitting at the table in a pink, fuzzy bathrobe, drinking coffee and reading a book. To make matters worse,

Katherine’s oldest nephew was there too. He was standing at the kitchen counter and eating a bagel in his boxers. Good morning, six-pack! The only thing I could do was stand there and gawk like an idiot.

“Morning, Jackie!” he exclaimed through a mouthful of bagel. Once again, I felt warmth creeping into my cheeks. Why did every one of these boys have a perfect set of abs?

“Um, hi,” I greeted stupidly. Katherine looked up with a start at the sound of my voice.

“Isaac!” she scolded, jogging my memory. I remembered that we were the same age, sixteen, but he was a year above me in school. “Go put some clothes on, for God’s sake! There’s a girl in the house now.”

“But you’re a girl and you’ve never had a problem with it before,” he countered. “Besides, Jackie doesn’t mind. Do you, Jackie?” He turned to face me.

What the heck was I supposed to say to that? Oh yes, Isaac. I love staring at your half-naked body? Instead, I answered like any smart girl in my situation would do. “Um…” I trailed off, looking back and forth between the two.

“See, Aunt Kathy? Jackie said she doesn’t care,” he told his aunt. Funny, I didn’t remember saying anything along those lines.

“No, she didn’t, young man,” countered Katherine, placing her hands on her hips. “Now go get dressed before I drag you upstairs!”

Just then Alex entered the kitchen, still rubbing away his sleepiness. He was also wearing nothing but his boxers. Unlike Isaac, he slid to a halt when he spotted me. For a moment he stood frozen, his eyes wide, but then he spun around and dashed down the hall.

“See!” Katherine said when her son was gone. “That’s exactly how you should be acting in the presence of a beautiful girl—embarrassed!”

“Aunt Kathy, Jackie might be hot, you know, in a preppy, Goody Two-Shoes sort of way, but I could never be embarrassed about this,” Isaac said and pointed down at his body.

“Isaac Walter!” she said, shaking a finger and taking a step toward him. Laughing, Isaac exited the kitchen, but not before winking at me. I don’t know exactly why I blushed. It might have had something to do with Katherine complimenting me, or maybe it was because Isaac had agreed.


“What do you think you’re doing?” Lee demanded as I waited outside the bathroom in my robe. I was still sweaty from my run with Nathan and needed to shower before school. This time I remembered to bring shower shoes and my clothes, and was mentally preparing myself for the disgusting war zone inside.

“Waiting for the bathroom,” I answered. “I believe Cole is inside.”

“I know Cole’s inside. It’s his scheduled time to be in there,” Lee said, pointing at a piece of paper taped next to the bathroom door. He flicked his dark hair out of his eyes as he glowered at me. “I’m up next, so get lost.”

“There’s a schedule to use the bathroom?”

“Only in the morning,” Nathan said, coming out of his room already showered and dressed. “With all of us trying to get ready before school, it’s kind of hectic.”

Cole opened the bathroom door, and a wave of steam rushed out into the hall. He only had a white towel wrapped around his waist, and water droplets still clung to his sculpted shoulders and abs, making his skin sparkle.

“If we didn’t have an allotted time,” he said, trying to shake some water out of his ear, “Danny would be in there for hours trying to make himself look pretty.” Then he pushed past Lee, Nathan, and me, calling over his shoulder, “I myself don’t need much time because I was gifted with being naturally pretty.”

“Is there any way I can squeeze in?” I asked as I glanced over the schedule. The twenty-minute increments were booked all the way up until we had to leave for school.

Isaac poked his head out of the room he shared with Lee. “Has anyone seen my leather jacket?”

“It’s in your closet, idiot,” Lee told his older brother. “Like on a hanger? How the heck did it get there?” “Guys?” I asked.

“Your crap was all over the place and I couldn’t find my board.”

“Next time you decide to do a bit of spring cleaning, do me a favor— don’t touch the jacket.”

“Hello? Is anybody going to answer me?” I demanded, putting a hand on my hip. “I need to use the shower too.”

“Should have said something earlier, babe,” Isaac said. “We could’ve shared my shower time.” He grinned at me before vanishing back inside his room.

Lee laughed at his brother as he slipped into the bathroom and slammed the door in my face.

“Try the one downstairs next to the little kids’ rooms,” Nathan suggested. “They take baths at night, so there shouldn’t be anyone in there. Just watch out for all the bath toys. I’ve tripped on them before.”


Once everyone showered, ate breakfast, and hurried to finish their homework at the last minute, Katherine pushed us all out the door.

“Lee, leave that skateboard at home. If you ride it in the school halls again, you’ll get a suspension.”

“But, Aunt Kathy—”

“No buts. Alex, you got an F on your history paper. Star Wars does not count as a valid topic for most significant war in history. Apologize to your teacher and tell him you’ll rewrite it. Isaac, the women’s volleyball coach called and said if she catches you trying to sneak into the girls’ locker room one more time, she’ll make sure you fail gym class. Now get going,” Katherine shouted from the porch. “Jackie better not be late for her first day of school, or I won’t be very happy!”

The guys dumped their backpacks into the bed of the old pickup truck and started piling in. I stared at them from the side of the driveway, feeling like I was watching a picturesque scene from a movie. Everyone had so much personality, and I felt like I didn’t belong. Even the truck had character. It had probably been a bright crimson color when it was brand new, but age and weather had worn it down to a dull red. One of the side mirrors was missing, and a headlight had been smashed in. I wondered how it was possibly roadworthy.

Danny, who had taken more time than anyone getting ready, ran out the front door, trying to avoid his mother’s scolding. He threw the car keys at Cole, who climbed into the front seat. It didn’t take a genius to work out that he was the designated driver. Soon, everyone else had settled into their usual seats, and I realized that the truck was full. Danny, Isaac, and Alex sat in the back, while Cole, Lee, and Nathan sat in the front.

“Um,” I began awkwardly, still standing on the grass, “where should I sit?”

“You could always walk,” Lee replied sarcastically.

I fought the urge to stick my tongue out at him, but thankfully Nathan came to my rescue. “Don’t worry, Jackie. You can squeeze in up front. We’ll make room.” He smiled warmly from the passenger window.

“If that doesn’t work, we can always strap Alex to the roof. Nobody will care,” Cole offered as he started up the car.

“If anyone is going to be strapped to the roof,” Alex shot back, “it should be you, Cole. You take up the most room.”

“Nobody asked your opinion,” Cole said, glaring at his younger brother in the rearview mirror. “Now come on, let’s go.”

Lee grunted in annoyance but scooted closer to Cole. He didn’t look too happy about sharing the front with me, but I opened the passenger door and slid in anyway once Nathan made some room.

During the twenty-minute drive to school, I received a crash course in Boys 101 and decided that maybe the male species wasn’t so different from females after all. To sum it up, the Walters gossiped worse than the girls at

my old boarding school. At first the car was silent, which was probably due to my presence, but soon the boys relaxed and carried on as if I wasn’t there. They talked about who was going to make track team this spring and who wasn’t. They discussed what they should wear to a party on Friday night and who was going to be there. But most of all they talked about girls: who was cute, which girl wore the perfect perfume, and who had the prettiest hair.

When they started talking about a girl named Kate who, to use Isaac’s words, had “the perkiest pair of tits in the world,” I felt uncomfortable. Trying to tune the conversation out, I shrunk back into my seat and stared out the window. Please let us be there soon. Please be there soon!

But as the truck sped into the school parking lot, Cole laughing like a little boy when the wheels screeched, I instantly regretted my silent prayer. Valley View High was three times the size of my old school. Instead of the green lawns and bricks covered in crawling ivy that I was accustomed to, it was an ugly, cement block building that looked like it was straight out of the ’70s. A banner hanging over the front entrance read: Home of the Tigers!

Staring at my new school, I decided that the sheer number of kids was making me nervous. A stream of students made their way toward the front steps, backpacks slung over their shoulders. Other people lingered in the parking lot; there was a group of guys tossing around a football, couples making out against cars, and friends talking in big groups.

“Out,” Lee demanded, even though Cole was just swinging the truck into an empty spot. As soon as Nathan and I slid out, Lee dropped to the pavement and tore off into the crowd. I tried to follow him with my eyes, but he disappeared in a matter of seconds. How was I ever going to find my way around this place?

The back doors slammed shut, and the guys grabbed their bags from the bed of the truck. I hung back, hoping someone would offer to show me around.

“Let’s get out of here before the fan club arrives,” I heard Alex whispering to Danny as they brushed by me.

Isaac shrugged on his leather jacket and pulled a lighter out of his pocket. “Enjoy your first day as the new girl,” he called over his shoulder, a smoke already pressed between his lips.

My stomach did a flip. His words made me feel even more nervous. I didn’t want to be the new girl—I didn’t know how! I had been attending Hawks since sixth grade, where I’d shared the same dorm room every year with my best friend, Sammy, and hung out with the same group of girls that I’d known since preschool. My eyes welled up as I thought about home.

“You okay?” Nathan asked. He must have noticed the worried look on my face.

“Fine,” I muttered, blinking away the tears. “You sure?”

“I’m fine, I swear.”

“Okay. Well, how about I show you where the office is?” he asked as he strapped his guitar onto his back.

“You’d do that?” My voice jumped up in hope.

“Sure thing,” he said and smiled. “Can’t have you getting lost on your first day.”

The breath I’d been holding in hissed out through my lips. “I’d really appreciate it, Nathan. Just let me grab my stuff.’’

At the back of the truck, Cole was sitting on the tailgate as if he was waiting for something. “So, New York,” he said and handed me my bag. “Whad’ya think?”

“About your school?” I asked. “It’s, um—big.”

Cole laughed. “You’ve been sheltered in a boarding school since junior high, and all you have to say about your first impression of the real world is that it’s big?”

I hate itI thought. But that answer wouldn’t do. “It’s very different from my old school,” I said slowly. “For example, I don’t have to wear a uniform.”

“You wore uniforms?”

“Yes,” I replied. “It was a private school, so they were a requirement.” Thinking of my old, lumpy-looking sweater, tie, and matching plaid skirt, I heaved a sigh. Yes, my uniform was ugly, but there was always something comforting about pulling it on in the morning. Today, I’d had no clue what to wear. After Cole made fun of my outfit yesterday, I realized I didn’t know how kids at public schools dressed.

“And you went to an all-girls’ school? Man, that must have been a sight.

Schoolgirl outfits are hot.” “Sorry?”

“You know, like Britney Spears?”

I gave Cole a pointed look. “Our skirts came down to our knees.” “Shame,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “But, I bet you made it look


His compliment caught me off guard. “I—um,” I stammered.

“Coley!” someone squealed, saving me from my embarrassment. A small girl with chestnut hair and poison-green eyes flung her arms around Cole’s neck and slammed her lips into his. I looked away when I saw a flicker of tongue.

“Olivia,” Cole said, finally breaking away from their kiss, “what did I tell you about calling me that? It’s not manly.” He peeled Olivia’s arms off his neck, but stood next to her and slung an arm over her shoulder.

“Sorry,” she responded without an ounce of humiliation, “but you know how happy I get when I see you. Sometimes I can’t contain my excitement.”

“Yeah, I know, babe,” he said and guided her toward the front entrance. He was halfway across the parking lot when he swung back around. “Good luck today, New York!” he called.

“Typical Cole,” Nathan said as he shook his head.

“Is she his girlfriend?” I asked as I stared after them, unable to take my eyes off Olivia. It didn’t surprise me that Cole had a girl who looked like a supermodel. Together they were a picture-perfect couple.

Nathan snorted. “She wishes.” “Huh?”

“Cole doesn’t date,” he explained as we started walking in. “He has lots of girls that he hooks up with, but never anything more.”

“The girls? They’re okay with that?” “I guess,” Nathan said with a shrug.

I frowned as we climbed the steps to the school. “That’s disgusting.” “The thing you need to know about Cole,” Nathan said, holding the door

open for me when we reached the top, “is that he runs this school. All the girls want him, and all the guys want to be him.”

“But if all the girls want him, why doesn’t he just pick one?”

He shrugged. “Why pick one if he can get away with sampling every flavor?”

“Sampling every flavor?” I gasped. “I can’t believe you just said that!” “Look, Jackie,” Nathan said, laughing. “I’m not saying I agree with how

Cole behaves. I’m just trying to explain the way he thinks.”

We stepped inside, and I realized how very different attending a public school was going to be. Just thinking about it made my head spin. Did guys actually think like that? Maybe Boys 101 hadn’t been as informational as I thought.

“Fine,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief. “But I don’t understand how any girl would be okay with a guy treating her like that.”

“Trust me,” Nathan said as a bell overhead rang, “I ask myself that same question all the time. That was the first bell. Let’s head down to the office so you aren’t late.”

After helping me find the office so I could pick up my schedule, Nathan walked me to my first-period class, which happened to be anatomy.

“Here you go—Room 207,” he said, escorting me into the room. “Hey! Looks like you have a class with Alex.” Nathan pointed out his brother, who was hiding in the back corner of the room with his nose buried in a book. “Let’s go see if you can sit with him.”

“Wait, no,” I started to say, but Nathan was already strolling into the classroom. Sighing, I followed him.

“Hi, Alex,” Nathan said when he reached the back of the room. “What’s up, Nate?” Alex asked without looking up from his page.

“I was just walking Jackie to class, and she happens to have anatomy with you. Mind if she shares your table?”

Alex looked up sharply when he heard my name. “Um…” he started to say. He trailed off as something caught his attention over my shoulder.

A high-pitched giggle filled the room, and I turned to see a beautiful girl with curly blond ringlets. She had a perfect button nose that crinkled up in delight as she laughed, and her blue eyes sparkled. Her arm was locked with another girl’s as they walked into class, joking.

I turned back to Alex and noticed his eyes were locked on the girl. He pressed his lips together, and for a moment I thought he was going to tell Nathan no, but then he cleared off the space next to him.

“Awesome! Thanks, Al,” Nathan said.

“No problem,” Alex said and returned to his reading. “Well, I better get to class. Have a good first day, Jackie.”

“Bye, Nathan. I really appreciate all your help this morning.” “It was my pleasure,” he said. “See you both later.”

When Nathan was gone, I hovered at the edge of the table. “I can move if you want to sit by one of your friends,” I told Alex quietly, and by friends I meant the girl. “I’ll be fine by myself.”

“Huh?” He looked up from his book again. “Oh no. It’s totally fine. Sit down,” he said, pulling out the chair for me.

Relief washed over me. “Okay, thanks.”

Alex’s eyes darted back to what he was reading, but then he pulled out a marker, jammed it between the pages, and shut the book.

“Don’t stop on my account,” I said, unzipping my schoolbag and pulling out a notebook.

“No, I was being rude before,” Alex said and offered me a smile. “You just caught me at my favorite part.”

“Oh, so you’ve read it before?” I asked, tilting my head to read the title. “What’s it called?”

The Fellowship of the Ring.” I stared at Alex blankly.

“Tolkien?” he asked, shaking his head in disbelief. “You’re joking, right? You’ve never heard of The Lord of the Rings?”

“Oh, like the movie?”

Alex groaned and banged his head on the table in frustration. “Why don’t girls ever read good fantasy?”

“What are you talking about? I thoroughly enjoy fantasy. What about A Midsummer Night’s Dream?”

“Is that some girly crap like Twilight? That doesn’t count as fantasy.” “Shakespeare doesn’t write about sparkly vampires,” I scoffed.

“Oh, I know now! Isn’t he that super-old dude who wrote plays? I’ve read his stuff in English class.”

I knew he was only joking, but I scoffed and said, “You don’t know who Shakespeare is but laugh at me for not knowing Tonkin or whatever his name was?”

“Tolkien,” Alex corrected me, and he wrote the greatest fantasy series of all time.”

“Yes, but Shakespeare could be considered the greatest literary figure of all time.”

Before Alex could respond, a young man appeared in the front of the room.

“Good morning, class,” he began. “Today we have a new student. Jackie, is it?”

When I heard my name, I instantly froze up. The entire class turned to look at me.

“Um, yes?”

“All right, then,” the teacher continued enthusiastically. “Welcome to Valley View. I’m Mr. Piper, and I teach most of the science classes here. Why don’t you stand up and tell us something about yourself?”

He wanted me to stand up, like in front of everyone? I could feel my face burn.

“Jackie?” Mr. Piper prompted me.

I heard my chair scrape back and then I was standing. My hands shook and I quickly tucked them behind my back. “Um, okay. Hi, I’m Jackie Howard and I recently moved here from New York.” I announced my short greeting in a rush and sat back down. If I had to do this in every class, today was going to be a nightmare.

“Thank you, Jackie,” Mr. Piper said, rubbing his hands together. “Moving on. Please take out your books. Today we’re going to start working on our skeletal unit.”

“Not much of public speaker, huh?” Alex whispered. A lazy grin covered his face, and for a moment I was taken aback at how similar he looked to Cole. They had the same strong jawline, the same sun-kissed skin, and the same blue eyes surrounded by thick lashes that any girl would kill for. But as I studied his face, subtle differences started to emerge: a nearly invisible sprinkle of freckles dotted his nose, and his eyes were a slightly darker shade of blue with flecks of gold that I noticed only because we were sitting so close.

When I realized that I was staring, I shook my head and looked away. “No, not at all.”

“Me neither,” Alex told me. “Just thinking about it makes me itch.” He pushed his textbook into the middle of the table. “You don’t have a book yet, right? We can share.” I smiled to myself. It seemed that I made another friend in the Walter house.

Mr. Piper dove into his lecture, and I focused my attention up front. It was then that I noticed the blonde from before. She was sitting across the room, glaring daggers in my direction.


Once anatomy was over, I had art. I got lost finding the room, and when I showed up late, the class had already started working on their project. Mrs.

Hanks, the art teacher, was a short lady with red glasses and copper hair that curled in every direction. She told me the class was finishing up a project and would be starting something new tomorrow, so I could take a free period.

Glancing around the room, I failed to spot the bright blond of any of the Walter boys, so I found an empty table near the back. As I sat down, a girl with red hair smiled at me before returning to her project. Maybe the people here won’t be so bad, I thought to myself and pulled out The Lord of the Rings. Alex had lent it to me when our class finished, and I told him I would read it on the condition that he brush up on his Shakespeare. The thick book was daunting, but after only a few pages I was so absorbed that I jumped in my seat when the bell rang signaling the end of class.

The rest of the morning flew by until I only had one period left before lunch. When I walked into the math room, I noticed that many of the students looked older than me. My private school education put me ahead of most of the public school kids, so I was enrolled in advanced calculus, which was a senior class.

About ten minutes into class, Cole came strolling in with a grin on his face.

“Hey, teach, sorry I’m late,” he said like it was no big problem. Then he spotted me. “Hey, Jackie! I didn’t know you were in any of my classes!”

Everyone turned to look at me. Glancing down, I kept my eyes on my notes and hid behind a curtain of hair.

“Mr. Walter! Will you please take a seat and stop interrupting my class?” the teacher asked.

Cole saluted him before taking the only seat left, right in the front row.

When we were finally dismissed, I began packing up my stuff. I was shoving my new textbook into my bag when Cole came up and sat right on top of my desk.

“’Sup, Jackie?” he asked, grabbing one of my notebooks and flipping through it. “Whoa, you actually use this thing?” he asked when he spotted the notes I took.

“Um, yes, that’s what it’s for,” I responded with a duh tone.

“Who takes notes these days?” he questioned. I took my notebook from him, tucked it away, and zipped up my satchel.

“Me.” I threw my bag over my shoulder and headed toward the door. “Yeah,” he pestered, following me out of the room, “losers like you.” “I am not a loser,” I opposed, stopping to frown up at him.

“Are too,” he teased.

“Am not,” I argued, starting to get angry. “There’s a big difference between being a loser and a good student.” I wasn’t sure why I couldn’t stand his teasing. Maybe it was because I was still upset about what Nathan had said about him this morning.

“Relax, Jackie. I’m just joking,” Cole told me. “What’s so funny?” I asked, still frowning.

“You get really red when you’re angry,” he said and poked my cheek. “Where’s the lunchroom?” I snapped and brushed his hand away. I was

fed up with Cole.

He laughed and pulled me to his side. “Chill out, Jackie.” I inhaled sharply as his hand touched my bare arm. Cole continued to talk as if he didn’t notice. “I’ll walk you down there and even show you the best table to sit at.”

Since I didn’t know where I was going, my only choice was to let him lead me toward the cafeteria. I planned on ditching Cole when we arrived, but as we stepped into the loud room, I felt my stomach drop. There were so many people, and I knew nobody. The thought of sitting by myself was terrifying, so I followed him without complaining. He pulled me through the crowds toward the front of the lunch line, and as we went, I could feel the stares of curious students. Instead of looking back, I kept my gaze glued to the back of Cole’s head.

After grabbing a tray, he scooped up two bags of pretzels.

“You like turkey?” he asked. I nodded, and he dropped two sandwiches on the tray. “An apple to keep the doctor away,” he muttered to himself as

he picked up two pieces of fruit. “And milk for strong bones. There you go, a Cole Walter certified lunch. Hold the tray while I pay for this.”

“I have money,” I told him as he dumped the tray into my hands. Ignoring me, Cole dug out his wallet and handed the lunch lady a bill.

He pocketed the change and put his hand on the small of my back. “This way,” he said and guided me toward the middle of the lunchroom.

The table we arrived at was mostly full—guys wearing letter jackets and girls in cheerleading uniforms—and I immediately felt out of place. Cole sat down next to a tall girl with long auburn hair. Her lips were rosy pink, and they parted into a smile when she saw him.

“Where have you been all day, Walter?” she asked, running her manicured nails through Cole’s hair. “Not off with that floozy Olivia, were you?”

“Nice to see you too, Erin,” Cole said. “For your information, I was getting lunch with Jackie.”

“Jackie? Who’s she?”

“My friend,” Cole said and gestured to me, “so scoot over and give her some room.”

“It’s a little cramped at the table for an extra person, don’t you think?” Erin asked as she looked me over.

“Then leave,” Cole suggested.

Erin mouth’s dropped open in shocked surprise. “Are you serious?” she demanded. Cole stared back at her with cold eyes, so she pressed her lips together in a tight line and moved over without another complaint.

When I set the lunch tray down on the table, the look of loathing on Erin’s face nearly made me leave. Cole, however, patted the now empty space next to him. “What are you waiting for?” he asked, the warmth returning to his face with a beam. Swallowing my nerves, I forced myself to sit down.

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