My parents are going to some black-tie event with the prince and princess on Friday night. You should come over and I’ll cook you dinner. I’m not a great cook, but I’m up for some science experimentation. Alex finished his nondescript text and hit send, knowing cell phones can get misplaced and picked up by parents. Hopefully no one would recognize the coded message behind his text. Experimenting with a dinner recipe was a lot more common than healing a spinal cord injury.
I’m not a very good cook either, but I’m definitely willing to conduct science experiments. Her text came back quickly, which meant she was just as excited about Friday night as he was.
Alex wondered how they were going to make it through a week of physical therapy with her father while anticipating finally being alone together for the first time probably since they’d met six months ago, and definitely the first time since making the decision to heal his spinal cord using a science experiment.
Alex shouldn’t have been nervous. Ellen knew more about the inner workings of his mind and heart than any other living person. He’d admitted things to her that he’d barely admitted to himself. In a lot of ways they were closer as a couple than most married people celebrating their twentieth anniversary.
This nervousness was beyond anything physical. He was still working through forgiving himself for the things he’d done before his accident. He needed to heal his mind as much as his body and he had an idea how she could help him with that also.
They had decided that Friday evening was a perfect time to exchange shirts as well, since they planned to remove them anyway. Alex wore her chosen hoody when he answered the doorbell right at 7:00 p.m.
Ellen arrived wearing the shirt she would be loaning him. He promised not to cry on it this time.
“Hello, my future wife,” Alex said as he opened the front door to his parents’ spacious home.
“Hello, my future husband.” Ellen leaned forward and met him in a lingering kiss then kicked the door shut with her foot and sat on his lap, adjusting her position on his wheelchair.
“Do you want me to make you dinner?” Alex asked between kisses.
“No, I just ate a few minutes ago.” She barely pulled her mouth away long enough to answer.
“Me too.” He used muscle memory and instinct to wheel himself toward his bedroom, closing that door behind them as well. They continued forward until he bumped his wheelchair into his king-sized bed.
Alex needed to slow down, physically and metaphorically. Because there was one more important thing Alex wanted to do and he wasn’t sure how Ellen would respond.
He pulled away from her kisses and pressed his forehead to hers, trying to slow down his breathing. “Will you do something with me? If I ask pretty please?”
“Another science experiment?” Ellen asked provocatively.
“Uh… sort of.” Alex swallowed his nerves and laid out his heart. “Will you pray with me?”
Ellen pulled back but kept her arms around his neck, cocking her eyebrows and wrinkling her nose. “I didn’t know that you were into that sort of thing.”
“Well, I’ve never prayed before, but I think now would be a good time to start, especially if we want to get married and create a future together.”
“I don’t really know how to pray,” Ellen admitted.
“Me neither, but…” Alex took a deep breath. “If praying is anything like my experience in paradise, we’re both going to really love praying.”
“Alex, I’m willing to try anything with you.” The sincerity in her words shone through her eyes and countenance.
“Good, because what I’m going to ask you to do later is going to take just as much faith and vulnerability as baring our souls to God.”
“I’ll repeat my statement from a moment ago,” Ellen said. “I’m willing to try anything with you.”
“Thank you.” Alex leaned forward and pulled her in for another kiss before gently encouraging her to climb off his lap.
Ellen stood beside his wheelchair and straightened her clothes. “How do you want to do this? Like, get down on our knees or something?”
“My legs won’t support me if I try to kneel on them,” Alex said. “Let’s lay down on the bed together and hold hands.”
“Probably should leave our clothes on for the prayer thing, though, right?” she asked with a nervous chuckle.
“Yeah, probably.” Alex pulled himself closer to the bed and grabbed the railing for leverage.
“Do you need any help?” Ellen reached as if to help him up onto the bed.
“Nah, I’m good. I do this every night by myself now.” In one swift move Alex swung himself onto his bed. “Asking mommy and daddy for help to get in and out of bed each night is not fun. I was motivated to gain some independence. Come here.” Alex reached for her hand as he scooted over to the middle of the bed.
Ellen climbed into his bed and laid her head on the pillow beside him with a content sigh.
“My sentiments exactly.” Alex reached out and smoothed his hand across her hair, enjoying the feathery softness. “I want you in my bed every night.”
“Okay.” Her eyes closed halfway, and a smile played across her lips.
“I don’t think my parents will let you move in with me until we’re married, but I’ll dream of you laying here just like that.”
“Okay,” she said again. “Let’s get married tonight. Because I don’t want to go home.”
“I don’t want you to go home either.” Alex moved closer and reached for Ellen’s hands. She seemed to realize his mood had shifted because her eyes gained intensity as they met one another’s gaze. Alex wasn’t sure how to do this so he just kind of started talking without preamble. “God, it’s me again. Alex. I guess you know that though, don’t you?”
Ellen giggled, and Alex chuckled along with her.
“I want you to meet Ellen,” Alex continued. “You probably know her too. But maybe you didn’t know that we want to get married. Actually, you probably do know that. I love her, God, like, a lot.”
“I love Alex too, God,” Ellen whispered.
“See, she loves me too. I’m not making this up.”
Ellen laughed again but then pulled her face into peaceful stoicism.
“God, we’re not asking for miracles. Okay, we’re kind of asking for miracles.” Alex felt his throat choke with tears. “Because nothing short of a miracle is going to heal my heart and my mind.”
Ellen moved closer and touched her forehead to his, closing her eyes as soft tears fell across her face and down to his pillow.
“I know that you’ve forgiven me because you’ve shown me that when I was visiting you a few months ago. Now I need to learn how to forgive myself. Can you help me with that? I don’t know how to even start.”
That was about the time that Alex started sobbing, clinging to Ellen like a lifeline.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. God, please, I’m so sorry. I don’t know how to fix this. I don’t know how to make it right. I can’t go back in time. If I could, I would. I wish I could go back to the first day of high school and treat every single girl with the respect she deserved. I wish I had waited. I wish I had waited for Ellen.”
Ellen released Alex’s hands and pulled him into her arms, letting him bury his face in her hair and sob. After a few moments of crying together, Ellen spoke. “Hey, God, it’s Ellen. Please help me to help Alex. I don’t know how to do this whole prayer thing, and I don’t know what you said to him when he was visiting you, but it really had an effect on him. He’s a totally different guy now and I really love him. I know that the man he is today would not have done the things he did a few years ago. You changed him, God. You changed him.” Ellen had to stop talking also, crying and holding Alex.
The powerful love that flowed between them was unlike anything Alex had ever felt on earth. The only comparable love was that which he felt in paradise. He knew they were on the right track with this whole prayer thing. When told he had to come back to earth, he fought to stay in the presence of God. If he had known this love was waiting for him, he would have gladly returned to earth. Alex took a couple of deep breaths, trying to calm down enough to speak again.
Ellen beat him to it. “Alex?”
“Yeah?” He sniffed and considered reaching for a tissue but didn’t want to release the passionate grip around her.
“I want you to repeat after me word for word, okay?”
“Uh… okay.” He pulled back and looked her in the eyes, then realized they both needed tissues, so he sat up and grabbed the box off his bedside table. They each wiped their eyes and noses and laughed a little at how much mascara came off Ellen’s cheeks. Then they laid back down and took each other’s hands again. “Okay, I’m ready.”
“I, Alexander Stephenson, junior…” Ellen waited for him to repeat her words.
“I, Alexander Stephenson, junior…” Alex waited for her next prompt.
“…do hereby forgive myself.”
“…do hereby for—” He choked on the words and squeezed his eyes shut, not sure he could do what she was asking him to do.
“I, Alexander Stephenson, junior do hereby forgive myself,” she repeated. “Say it.”
“I, Alexander Stephenson, junior do hereby forgive myself.” He rushed through the sentence, not sure how sincere he was being.
“Now say it again like you mean it,” Ellen prompted.
Alex took a couple of deep breaths and met her gaze again, then said quietly, “I, Alexander Stephenson, junior do hereby forgive myself.”
“Good… now mean it this time.” She was testing him. He needed this push. This time he didn’t stop.
“I, Alexander Stephenson, junior do hereby forgive myself for treating my body with disrespect, and for treating girls’ bodies with disrespect, and for using girls’ bodies for my own pleasure, and for giving my body to any other girl besides Ellen Alaunus, the love of my life.”
Ellen’s soft smile encouraged him to keep going.
“Ellen, will you please forgive me for disrespecting my body? And for using girls’ bodies for my own pleasure, and for giving my body to another girl besides you?”
“Yes, Alex, I forgive you,” Ellen whispered, then closed her eyes again. “God, we need your help. You see, Alex did something stupid. Okay, he did a lot of stupid things, but one stupid thing he did was to climb into a car with a friend who had been drinking alcohol.”
“Yeah, God, let me interrupt for a second. If I had been sober, I could have taken the car keys from Gus and this never would have happened. So that was the first stupid thing I did that night. Okay, sorry Ellen, keep going.”
“As I was saying, God, Alex did some stupid things and those stupid things led to him getting crushed in a car and it totally messed up his spinal cord. And the thing is, this might seem like a really silly reason to ask for healing, but we’d kind of like to have you fix his spinal cord so that he can maybe walk, and so that he can make love to me on our wedding night.”
Alex opened his eyes, and Ellen opened hers and they gazed into each other’s souls. “Hey, God, it’s me again. Have you seen how beautiful this woman is? Have you seen her heart and the way she loves me? Do you blame me for wanting to share my body with her, and only her, from now until eternity?”
Not sure if God was going to answer with words or not, Alex waited. A warm peace came over his heart but no booming voice from the sky. He met Ellen’s eyes and she met his and they just stared at each other like that for a long time.
Finally Ellen whispered, “I want your shirt.”
Book Club Discussion Questions: Super long chapter today, but an important chapter. This is a pivotal moment in Alex’s healing. He needed this time to pour his heart out to God, and he needed Ellen to be a part of his forgiveness. I look forward to your opinions about this chapter.
“I need you to take this back,” Alex said, handing the shirt to Ellen.
“Why?” Her crestfallen face made him clarify his request.
“I had to wash it because I cried all over it and now it doesn’t smell like you,” Alex said. “I need you to wear the shirt for several days and then give it back to me.” Passing through his bedroom on the way to the garden room gave Alex and Ellen a few seconds alone without his parents or her father overhearing their conversation.
Ellen laughed hard. “Okay, I’ll do that under one condition. I want you to find your most comfortable hooded sweatshirt and wear it for several days and then give it to me. We can trade.”
“I love that idea. Why don’t you go into my closet and pick which sweatshirt you want me to wear.”
“Do I get to take my clothes off in front of you again?” Ellen backed toward the closet with a come-get-me look in her eyes.
If she knew about the internal chastisement he’d flogged himself with the previous night she probably wouldn’t be teasing about that. No matter how terrible he felt for the way he’d acted in the past, he was still an eighteen-year-old guy and wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to flirt with the one woman in the world he did want to see without clothes.
Growing up he wasn’t sure he would ever get married. He wasn’t sure he wanted to narrow down his selection of conquests to just one woman. Now he couldn’t imagine being with anyone but Ellen. He marveled how it would feel to have her lying next to him in bed every night as his wife.
But they had a lot to work through before getting to that point, and he needed to talk to her about that.
“Gosh, you know, if taking your shirt off is the only way for you to try on my shirt to make sure it fits well, who am I to argue?”
“And you don’t mind watching me do that?”
“Oh, I look forward to it.” Alex wheeled himself forward, following her.
“You are such a bad boy, Alex.”
“You have no idea.” Alex was prepared this time and made sure he was close enough that he could help her remove her shirt. In the process he was able to graze his fingers across her stomach admiring her creamy skin and defined muscles. “You must work out.”
She laughed again. “Just a little bit. Not obsessively or anything. My father preaches to us about physical fitness and using core muscles and cardiovascular exercise.” Ellen changed her cadence and voice to mimic her father. “When a patient is physically fit at the time that they have an injury their recovery is much faster.”
Alex jumped on the opportunity to springboard their conversation toward recovery. “Your father told me that I might be able to heal my body if I can learn to forgive myself.”
“What the heck makes him think that you forgiving yourself will help your body heal?” She turned to his clothing racks to search for the right hoodie.
“He says that focused energy work can heal the body, but the only person who can use that is me.” Alex hesitated. “But I don’t know if I deserve to be healed.”
“Why do you feel you don’t deserve to be healed?” Her voice was soft and compassionate. She turned back toward him, already with a Navy blue hoodie draped over her arm.
“I told him about the conversation you and I had yesterday when we were talking about all the girls that I had been with.” Alex gulped, remembering all his tears from the night before and fighting back emotions. “I feel like I’m being punished for using that part of my body so inappropriately, and now I’ve lost the use of that part of my body as a punishment.”
“I don’t think it works that way, Alex.”
“That’s what he said too.”
“My father is a very smart man.”
“I also told him that I want to marry you.”
“You told him what?”
“I told him that the reason I want my body to be healed is so that I can make love to you on our wedding night.”
“You told my father that?” Her voice was almost a squeak. “And you lived to tell about it?”
“He loves me like a son and he’s going to help me heal just as if I were his son,” Alex said. “Even though he wants to beat the crap out of me for saying that about his daughter.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t beat the crap out of you for saying that.”
“But it’s true.”
“It’s true that one of the reasons I want my body to be healed is because I want to make love to you on our wedding night.”
“And what makes you think that I’m going to marry you?”
“Will you marry me?”
“Are you officially proposing to me Alex?” Ellen asked softly.
“Well I kind of hoped to have a diamond ring in my hand when I asked you that, but this is kind of a unique situation.”
“In what way?”
“I don’t know if I will ever be able to have a physical relationship with you,” Alex reminded her. “Would you still want to marry me even if I can’t have sex with you?”
“That’s a pretty bold thing to ask,” she said. “But I think the answer would be yes. I will want to marry you even if you can’t have sex with me.”
Alex didn’t realize he’d been holding in a breath until it whooshed out of his chest.
“But I think you’re not seeing the big picture about sex,” Ellen continued. “There’s more to sex than intercourse. I may not have any experience, but I know enough from health class to have a general idea. Even just kissing you I get all fluttery inside.”
“This is a very scientific discussion to have standing in my closet half naked.”
“I’m the only one half naked,” Ellen said. “You haven’t let me take your clothes off of you yet.”
“We should probably close the closet door if you want to do that.”
“Knowing that my father is going to be here any minute is motivating for me to not close the closet door and take your clothes off of you.”
“Maybe some other day then.”
“I want to conduct an experiment sometime. I want you to touch me.” There. He’d said it. No take backs.
“I want to see if you touching me will elicit any type of response from my body.”
“Do you think it will?” She took a tentative step forward.
“I sincerely hope it does. I’m in love with you Ellen and I’m ready to be your husband even though we’re young and stupid and injured and recovering from a spinal cord injury and a devastating accident and probably PTSD.” Alex reached for her hand. “If knowing all of that about me, you’re still willing to marry me, then you are the most incredible woman in the world.”
“So… this science experiment?”
“Sure, that’s what we can call it. A science experiment.”
“How is that supposed to work exactly?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never exactly been in this position before.”
“Well, I’ve never been in any position with a man before so this is completely a first time for me.”
“That’s actually to my benefit because you have no expectations.”
She laughed again. “I wouldn’t have any expectations anyway.”
“Well, I will. I don’t want to let you down. I don’t want you to be disappointed.”
“Alex, you’re missing the point,” Ellen said. “I’m not disappointed anyway and I never will be disappointed. Still, just because I don’t know what to expect doesn’t mean I don’t want to find out what I’m missing. I want to try this experiment, but I want to try it at a time when we aren’t under a time constraint and when the person who is about to walk into this room is my own father. So, can we maybe go on a date or something and try it then? You know when we’re alone someplace where he won’t be disturbed?”
“Did you have a particular place in mind?”
“No but I’ll think about it.”
“I will look forward to it. In more ways than you can possibly imagine.”
“I have a vivid imagination.” Ellen leaned down and kissed Alex lightly. “Come on, let’s go write for a little while until my father gets here.”
Book Club Discussion Questions: A lot happened in this chapter. Alex is riding an emotional roller coaster right now dealing with the very human aspects of being an eighteen-year-old in love, wanting to take the next steps into adulthood, being limited by his physical handicaps, working through guilt, physical healing, emotional trauma from his accident, and all the normal everyday challenges in life. Yet, Alex also has one more huge thing in the forefront of his mind. His near-death experience provided a very real glimpse into what God expects from him. Have you ever known anyone who had a near-death experience? I'm trying to capture that without making it hokey or unrealistic.
Why can’t I forgive myself? Lying in bed that night holding Ellen’s shirt to his face and drinking in her scent, Alex wondered how he was ever going to get past this. Forgiving himself was not going to be easy.
He had committed the worst kind of sins. He might as well have murdered those girls. That was the only sin that could be worse.
Since the first day of high school when he and Gus strutted into the building with the three oldest princes on their six, they’d been the two guys who could get any girl, not just in the freshman class, but any girl in any grade.
Alex stood in point position. He was the leader. From day one. Maybe he stood out as the white kid with sandy brown hair and deep, blue eyes amidst the mysterious caramel skinned, Middle Eastern princes with their thick dark hair and sultry chocolate eyes. The older three had already paved the way for Gus and Alex. They were heartbreakers on reputation alone. And they’d never even kissed a girl… yet.
Lunch time, day one of high school, Aaron, the oldest of the Sayid princes, decided it would be fun to show Gus and Alex what the girls’ locker room looked like. For that, they needed girls. Five of them. One for each prince, plus one for their honorary prince.
Now, four years later, Alex couldn’t even remember the name of the first girl he kissed.
The following day there was a different girl, and then another, and another. By the end of the first week of school, they were doing way more than kissing. By homecoming weekend, Alex had given away the one gift he could never take back. And he didn’t even remember her name.
Alex held Ellen’s shirt to his face and sobbed, wishing he would have waited. Not just that day, but every day. Not just that girl, but every girl. He rolled over and crushed his face into his pillow, wishing he could crush the memories out of his mind. Wishing he could go back in time.
He had lusted after those girls and taken away their innocence. He had taken away their chance to save themselves for their wedding night. To save that gift for the man of their dreams, not to have been lured away by the cunning acts of a boy too stupid to know right from wrong.
If what Ellen said was true, that the girls were just as guilty as the boys, then chances are the girls were right now feeling the same guilt as he was. Maybe Gus and his brothers were feeling just as guilty as he was.
But maybe not. None of them had taken a journey to paradise like Alex had. None of them had stood in the presence of God and had their sins laid out before them. None of them knew the things that he knew. None of them had a perfect recollection of everything that they had done wrong from the time they were born.
They may not even realize that what they were doing was wrong. Could Alex look back in his heart and know what he was doing was wrong?
Maybe. Maybe he knew it all along. Which means that he was willfully rebelling against the truth and against what God would have him do even back during a time when he didn’t know there was a God.
Now that he did know that there is a God, Alex was held that much more accountable.
But did he still need to be racked with guilt?
Did he still need to beat himself up for the things he had done?
Was there a way to make this right? Was there a way to go back in time?
No, he couldn’t go back in time. What he could do was go forward.
He could accept the forgiveness that God had already given him.
So why couldn’t he forgive himself?
Maybe the reason that God sent him back to this earth was to give Alex the opportunity to fix the things he did wrong. Now he just needed to figure out how.
What was the first step? To acknowledge that what he did was wrong. He had already done that. To change the way he lived his life. He had already done that too.
What was the next step? To apologize? To whom? To every single girl he had ever wronged?
And what about the alcohol? He hadn’t bought the alcohol. Someone else had. He still wasn’t even old enough to purchase alcohol. Alex couldn’t remember a single time that he had encouraged someone else to drink alcohol who wasn’t already choosing to drink alcohol. But he could have stopped them from drinking alcohol.
If someone had stopped him and his friends from drinking alcohol that night, Alex wouldn’t be lying in a bed, paralyzed from the waist down.
Again, he couldn’t go back in time to stop anyone from drinking alcohol. But he could go forward and tell other people not to drink alcohol, kind of like what he had done at his graduation speech.
But even if he could tell every person he meets not to drink alcohol, would they listen? And would it make any difference?
And going back to his original concern, would it help Alex to forgive himself? Making restitution for the things he had done wrong was great, but this forgiveness happened within his own mind.
God had forgiven him. Now he needed to forgive himself.
He was right back at the beginning of this internal conversation. Racked with guilt trying to figure out how to fix the past. He pressed Ellen’s shirt to his face again and sobbed long into the night.
Book Club Discussion Questions: What do you think of Alex's heart wrenching confessions to himself?
“Any progress?” Malik asked the same question at the beginning of every session. So far, the answer was always the same. If there had been any progress, it was too subtle to be discernible.
Alex gazed up at his physical therapist from his supine position on the therapy table perpetually set up in the center of the garden room. The all-seasons space was an expanse of glass windows on all sides including the roof. A person could feel as they were under the tree canopy. This was the perfect space to relax through the torture that was named physical therapy. “Can you heal my spinal cord?”
“No,” Malik answered. “Only you can do that.”
“I’m not a doctor. How can I heal myself?”
“I’m not a doctor either and yet you asked me the same question.”
“But you’re a healer.” This seemed so obvious to Alex.
“Your body is the healer.” Malik said.
“What do you mean by that?” So far his body hadn’t done much healing. Alex had grown frustrated in the six months since the car accident that had left him mostly paralyzed from the waist down.
“Your body has the natural ability to heal itself and your mind is the only thing standing in its way.”
“How can my mind be standing in its way?” Alex asked, nervous about the direction this conversation was heading. “My brain is way up here my legs are down there.”
“I have heard of spinal cord injuries—even really bad spinal cord injuries—being healed with the power of focused energy healing.” Malik ran a metal tool down the center of Alex’s left foot and then his right.
Sometimes Alex thought he felt the pressure when Malik manipulated his feet and legs, but he wasn’t sure if that was just a manifestation from knowing the pressure was there. Other days he didn’t feel a thing.
“I can teach you how to do focused energy healing, but you are the one who has to use your mind in order to focus that energy. I can help, but ultimately the decision is up to you.”
“Okay, I’ve decided. I want to be healed.”
“What is this really about?” Malik was on to him.
Might as well be upfront and blunt. “I want to be able to make love to your daughter on our wedding night.”
Maybe Alex should have waited for Malik to put down his water bottle before saying that because he spit water across the room. Sputtering and coughing, he wiped off his mouth and tossed a towel on the floor, wiping up the mess with his foot. “Is that so?”
“Do you think it’s possible?” Alex ignored Malik’s obvious discomfort about the topic.
“Aside from the fact that I want to beat the crap out of you for even suggesting that with my daughter, from a healing perspective, I think it’s possible. From the perspective of her father, I want to beat the crap out of you.”
“Oh, come on Malik, you love me like a son. If I were your son, and not trying to marry your daughter, what would you do to heal my spinal cord injury?”
“I would do the same thing that I will do for you,” Malik said, laying a hand on Alex’s shoulder. “I will help you, in any way I can, to regain full control over every part of your body.”
“Thank you,” Alex said, thankful they’d gotten the awkward part of the conversation out of the way. “So, how do we get started?”
“Well, do you believe you can be healed?” Malik asked.
“What makes you hesitate?”
“I think I’ll believe it when I see it.” Why was Alex suddenly feeling defensive?
“Well, I think you’ll need to believe it in order to see it. Which means we need to back up a little bit. What’s the real issue?”
“What do you mean?” Alex asked.
“Let me rephrase the question. Do you believe that you should be healed?” Malik raised his eyebrows.
“I’m not sure.” Alex’s soft voice contained every vulnerability in his heart.
“What makes you say that?” Malik’s voice was equally as soft.
“I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life.”
“We’ve all done a lot of bad things in our lives.”
“I think I’m being punished for my sins.” Alex couldn’t look Malik in the eye from embarrassment and remorse.
“I don’t think God works that way,” Malik said.
“How do you know?” Alex asked, defensively. “Have you ever met him?”
“No… but I think you have.”
Alex couldn’t respond to that observation.
“What really happened when you were over there?” Malik’s question was soft and compassionate. Alex knew Malik was one of the few people in the world he could trust.
“I was in the most peaceful, wonderful, extraordinary paradise you can possibly imagine,” Alex said, allowing his mind to wander back to that plane, hovering on the edge. “But one of the things that I had to experience while I was there was a perfect recollection of everything I had ever done in my life, right and wrong. When you stand in the presence of God and have all of your sins laid out in front of you, it really makes you evaluate what you’ve done and what you haven’t done.”
“What’s the worst thing that you think you’ve done?” Malik asked in a near-whisper. “And the reason you think you don’t deserve to be healed?”
“I was with a lot of girls. I mean a lot of girls. I took away their innocence,” Alex said, choking up. “For what? One night of fun? One hour of fun? If I did so many things wrong using that part of my body, maybe God’s punishing me by taking away function to that part of my body.”
“Again, I don’t think it works that way,” Malik said. “I think you need to forgive yourself for all the things that you did wrong and ask God to heal you. Ask him to heal your mind as well as your body, because you won’t be able to heal your body until you can heal your mind.”
“I don’t know how.” Tears ran down Alex’s face, dripping into his ears and onto the table. He reached up and tried to brush the tears off his cheeks.
“I think you do know how,” Malik said. “I think you are one of the few people in this world who has been shown how to forgive yourself. You are now in a position to choose whether or not you will forgive yourself. Do you think God has forgiven you?”
“I know he has.”
“How do you know that?” Malik cocked his head to the side. “Did you ask him? Did he tell you with words?”
“He didn’t have to,” Alex said. “I was just talking to Ellen about this earlier today. In paradise there is no speech. There is no talking. There’s just knowledge. There’s an overwhelming feeling of understanding one another. There was no English language or Spanish or French or Farsi or Arabic. There was just thought and understanding, and compassion. That’s why I know that even as scarlet as my sins were, God has already forgiven me.”
“Then why can’t you forgive yourself, son?”
“I don’t know.” Alex searched Malik’s eyes, desperate for answers.
“Well, that’s the first assignment,” Malik said. “As soon as you know the answer to that question, we’ll go to the next step in your healing. Is that fair?”
Alex had to choke on his words when he answered his friend and physical therapist. “Yes, that’s fair.”
Book Club Discussion Question: Why do you think Alex can't forgive himself?
“Hey, Gracie and Laura—” I hated to break up their hug. but I needed to do one more thing to make all this right. I turned to Maddie to include her as well. “I want to introduce myself, since, you know, I’m your next-door neighbor. My name’s Taylor Burton, but everyone calls me Tay.”
I pulled Kade closer to me and continued my reintroduction.
“This is my twin brother Kade, who I haven’t seen in two years because he was healing from some past mistakes. Our dad is Kai Burton, the guitarist for the rock band Buxton Peak. We moved here to get a fresh start, and I would love if you could be a part of it.”
Gracie smiled and stepped forward putting her hand in mine to return the handshake. “It’s nice to meet you, Tay. I’m Gracie Hansen, and these are two of my best friends, Laura and Maddie. I’m glad you moved in next door, and happy to be a part of your fresh start.”
I reached my hand out to Maddie. “I heard you have a beautiful singing voice. You and my brother Kade would probably get along great. He’s a pretty talented musician.”
Maddie shook my hand with a giggle and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, locking eyes with Kade. “I’m excited to get to know you better, Kade.”
“I’m excited to get to know you as well, Maddie,” Kade said, taking the hand she’d just released from mine. “You know, a slow song just started in the ball room. Would you dance with me?”
“I would love to dance with you.” Maddie giggled again and they walked away together, swallowed into the sea of high school kids on the dancefloor.
I stepped over to Laura and reached out my hand to her as well. “I heard you’re kind of like a sister to Gracie. And any sister of Gracie’s is a sister of mine.”
“I’m sorry I’ve been a jerk the past few years,” Laura said. “And I’m sorry I printed mean things in the newspaper.”
“All is forgiven.” We shook and then I turned to Gracie. “You know, I’ve had my eye on you all night and I hoped I could ask you to dance.”
“I’d love to dance with you, Tay Burton.” Gracie chuckled and shook her head in resignation. “That’s going to take some getting used to.”
“Guess we’re going to have to spend lots of time together so you can get used to it.”
“Tay, can I interrupt for a second?” Laura asked. “Could you, maybe, introduce me to your dad’s band sometime? I’m kind of a huge fan.”
“I’ll do even better than that,” I said. “Next time they have a concert within a hundred-mile radius, I’ll get us all free tickets and backstage passes.”
“Thank you so much,” Laura said with a huge grin. “You two have fun on the dance floor.” She started to back away, but Gracie pulled her in for one more hug.
As we headed over to the dancefloor, Gracie called over her shoulder. “You’re coming to my tennis match tomorrow, right?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Laura called back.
What had started as the worst night of my life ended with Gracie in my arms on the dancefloor, her hands around my shoulders, her wrist corsage resting near my boutonniere. “We match,” I said.
“We’re a perfect match,” Gracie said. Then she lifted onto her toes and her lips met mine in a perfect kiss.
“W—what?” Gracie stepped closer to her former best friend.
“Gracie, I’ve known I liked girls since middle school. But I never told you because I didn’t want to ruin our friendship. I always kind of hoped you would someday love me too. So, when I saw you with Tay, it kind of… broke my heart.”
I was stunned. I had suspected she liked girls, but I was surprised to find out that she had loved me as more than a friend. I shouldn’t have been. I reached over and grabbed her hand tightly in mine.
“Laura, I would never think of you any differently regardless of who you love. That’s your choice, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about it.”
Laura smiled softly and tears fell from each of her sad eyes. “Thank you,” she said under her breath.
“I’m sorry that I didn’t reach out when our friendship broke to see what was wrong,” I said. “You’re right, I was caught up in everything about Tay, and that wasn’t fair to you after you had been my friend for so many years. I don’t know how our friendship would have changed if you’d told me how you really felt about me.”
“Yeah, I wasn’t sure either, which is why I was scared to tell you,” Laura said. “I didn’t want to lose you as a friend.”
“Well, I’m willing to give our friendship another try if you are,” I said. “As long as you promise to go back to being the nice Laura I once knew. No more lies in the school paper.”
Laura laughed softly and shook her head. “No more lies.” Laura glanced around the group of our friends. “From any of us.”
I pulled Laura into a long embrace, glad to have my friend back. But there was one more thing I needed to make clear. I pulled back so we were at arm’s length. “I love you too… like a sister. Can you be okay with that?”
“Yeah, I can be okay with that.” She nodded and we pulled each other into another hug. Everything would be better now.
Book Club Discussion Questions: How many different ways can we use the word "love" and still have it mean love? brotherly/sisterly love, romantic love, the love between a parent and child, the love between best friends, the love between neighbors, one-sided love, the love for God, and God's love for us. Sometimes love can mean the same thing in different contexts, and yet can still be love. And sometimes the lines get blurred. And that's okay. I guess this isn't really a question, just my rambling thoughts. -Julie (P.S. I love my readers!)
“You purposely told Gracie about us being twins after I specifically forbid you from doing that.” I glared at my brother, my fisted hands twitching to show him just how angry I was.
“How long were you planning to keep that up?” Kade stepped right up into my face, almost begging me to throw the first punch. “You were just prolonging the inevitable. The longer that lie went on, the worse the ramifications.”
“I wanted to keep it up through graduation and then move away from you for good so you can’t ruin my life again. Although I’m sure you would have found a way.”
“You’re such a jerk, Tay.” Kade pointed his finger in my face. “I don’t know why I even try with you. Twin brothers or not, I’m done trying to be perfect for you. You can’t see my side of anything. You made me lie for you. You won’t trust me that I can stay clean.”
“This isn’t about the drugs,” I said, aware that we’d drawn a captive audience in the foyer outside the ballroom at the event center where prom was happening without us. “I can’t forgive you for what you did.”
“What did he do?” Gracie asked from behind me. I spun around to find my very angry girlfriend had snuck up behind me while I was yelling at my brother.
“Shall I list all the reasons he went to juvie?” I asked with disdain. “Using drugs, dealing drugs, theft, breaking and entering. Am I missing anything, Kade?”
“You let me go on a date with him when you knew he was a criminal?” Gracie’s menacing voice was more frightening than if she’d yelled. “How could you?” Her black satin gown and sparkly jewelry almost disguised her red eyes from crying. I felt terrible those tears were caused by me.
“I didn’t let you do anything!” I defended. “The only reason I agreed to double date with you was to protect you from him.”
“I have been sober for two years and I’ve done my time for everything else,” Kade said.
“You’ve only been sober because you were locked up, admit it.” I sneered at Kade. “And you deserve a lot more time for what you did.”
“You don’t even know what I did,” Kade shouted in my face. “I took the fall for everyone else that night. The only reason I went back into the house was to return your PRS.”
“What?” I glared at my brother. “You were stealing my guitar. You were caught with it in your arms.”
“Because I was returning it. My friends were trying to steal your guitar with everything else we were stealing. But I was just barely sober enough to know not to let them get away with your guitar.”
“Why didn’t you ever tell anyone that?” I took a step back, feeling as if someone had shoved me in the chest.
“I was so flippin’ stoned I didn’t know what I was saying. I was trying to explain but nothing was coming out right. They had to take me to detox before they could take me to jail. It was not a fun night for me.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have been doing drugs.” I was still angry even after everything he’d confessed.
“I know that now,” Kade said. “And I never will again. I promise. If Andy can stay sober after all these years, I know I can.”
“Who’s Andy?” Maddie asked, slipping up beside Kade and sneaking her hand into his.
“Andy Smith,” I answered. “Bassist for Buxton Peak.”
“He visited me every single month the whole time I was locked up, which was a heckuvalot more than you visited.”
“Why’d he visit you so much?” Gracie asked, compassion in her voice.
“He’s my sponsor. My accountability partner. Andy knows what’s it’s like to fight an addiction to drugs.” Kade’s voice lowered to a near whisper. “He doesn’t want what happened to Gary to happen to me.”
Gracie reached over and held Kade’s other hand. “That’s not going to happen to you.” My jealousy flared even though I knew she was just being nice.
“Who’s Gary?” Maddie asked. “And what happened to him?”
“He couldn’t stay sober,” Kade said. “He wrapped his Bentley around a tree and…” Kade didn’t need to finish his sentence for the rest of us to know what happened.
“Gary was the original drummer for Buxton Peak,” I said. “If you listen to their earlier albums, that’s who you’ll hear. He was probably one of the most talented drummers ever. Drugs destroyed his life.”
“Speaking of talent—” Maddie sidled up next to Kade, who wrapped his arm around her shoulder. “Now I understand how you got so talented. Makes perfect sense now that I know you’re Kai Burton’s son. What was that like? Growing up with a famous dad?”
“It sucks,” Kade and I said at the same time.
“Everyone knows your business,” Kade said. “Everyone expects something from you.”
“People want to be friends with you just because your dad’s famous,” I said. “Girls only flirt with you because your dad’s a rock star.”
Gracie released Kade’s hand and stepped closer to me, wrapping her arms around my waist. “I’m glad I didn’t know your dad was famous. I don’t want you ever questioning why I love you.”
I tucked her into my arms and kissed the top of her head just as Kade released Maddie from his arms and reached out his hand to shake mine.
“Will you please forgive me now that you know the truth?” The hurt in my twin brother’s eyes conveyed his remorse. “I never should have gotten involved with drugs, and I never should have stolen anything, and I never should have ruined your life.”
I looked down at his outstretched hand, considered clasping it and offering forgiveness. Instead I stepped away from Gracie and pulled my twin into my arms. The comfort that flowed through me was like draping a blanket around my shoulders and wrapping us together. Ours was a bond stronger than any others in our lives. “I forgive you, Kade. And I love you, more than you can possibly imagine.”
“I love you too, my brother,” Kade said, pulling me just a little tighter. “And I’ve missed you.”
“Since we’re all confessing our love for each other—” Laura Miller stepped up to our group, her satin prom dress crinkled from her hands gripping into the skirt. “The reason I’ve been so angry the past two years since Tay moved in and took you away from me… was because I’m in love with you.”
Laura wasn’t talking to me. Her gaze was locked with Gracie’s.
Book Club Discussion Questions: Did you see that coming?
The ladies’ room in the event center had a nice powder area, and I plopped myself on the striped couch directly across from the massive wall to wall mirror. I didn’t want to cry and mess up my makeup. Maddie had worked on my face for over an hour. I grabbed a tissue from the end table next to me to pat my eyes.
Taylor and Kade were twins. It was undeniable. As the dots connected in front of me, disbelief clouded my thoughts. How could I not have seen this before?
I didn’t understand why Taylor would lie to me. I gave him the opportunity not even ten minutes prior to tell me the complete truth, but he still chose to withhold information from me.
The mirror stared back at me. I was pathetic sitting here in my black satin gown, glitzy jewelry, and red eyes from the tears fighting to fall down my cheeks. I fought back and dabbed at my eyes again.
“Really, Gracie?” I grumbled at my reflection. “Were you really this blind to Taylor’s lies? Son of a rock star, probably a millionaire, twin to someone who didn’t exist until two weeks ago? You’re pathetic.”
“Maybe just a little,” Laura said, standing by the door to the ladies’ room. When did she come in? How much had she heard of my ramblings? Great.
“Don’t you have someone else to patronize?” I asked, rolling my eyes and looking back towards my reflection.
“You know you deserve better than that, right Gracie?” Laura said in a kind voice.
I glanced over at her, perplexed. Why was she being nice to me? “Everything was perfect before Kade got here.” There, I’d said it out loud, granted I said it to the girl who used to be my best friend, but whatever. “I mean, yeah, I was hiding my feelings from Tay. But people were nice to me and I certainly had a lot less drama.”
“Gracie, you’ve always had drama,” Laura said, clicking her tongue and laughing softly. There she goes, patronizing me again. I half-wondered if she was going to pat me on the head as she walked past and sat next to me on the sofa.
I furrowed my eyebrows and turned to face her. “What do you mean by that?”
Laura folded her hands and placed them on her violet satin gown. “Oh, come on, Gracie. You used to call me almost every night with the same whining. ‘My parents are fighting. I don’t know if I’m good enough for tennis. So-and-so doesn’t like me’. It was exhausting to say the least.”
I was offended but had to admit she was right. I hadn’t meant to be whiny and needy. “I guess it makes sense why you didn’t want to be my friend anymore.”
“Yeah, that would make sense.” Laura glanced down at her perfectly manicured hands and she took another deep breath. “But that wasn’t why I stopped being your friend.”
Her words were so quiet I wasn’t sure if she’d meant to say them out loud. I heard it though, and I couldn’t ignore it. “So, why did you stop being my friend?”
Laura closed her eyes and her leg bounced like it does when she’s nervous.
“It’s okay, Laura,” I encouraged. “I won’t be mad. I want to know so I can make it right. You deserve that.”
Laura turned to look at me. “I couldn’t be your friend anymore after I saw you with Tay,” she said. “It was like he replaced me, and that hurt, especially after we had been friends for so long.”
I could tell that there was more she wanted to tell me, so I sat there until she was ready to talk.
Laura took another deep breath and let it out slowly. She clutched the skirt of her satin prom dress with her fists, opening and closing her hands like she was kneading a stress ball. I could tell that whatever she was about to say was the real reason she was no longer my friend. I held my breath, suspecting I already knew the truth.
“Haven’t you done enough damage?” Maddie said from the doorway, interrupting the first time Laura and I had talked in several years.
Laura stood and took a step back, that same mask of anger once again on her face.
“Maddie, it’s okay,” I started to say.
“No, it’s fine,” Laura said. “You hang out with your other best friend and I’ll talk to you another time.” Laura gave Maddie a wide berth as she skirted around Maddie to get to the door. And then she was gone, taking with her the real reason why she’d stopped being my friend.
Book Club Discussion Questions: What do you think Laura was trying to tell Gracie before Maddie interrupted?
“Can we go back to where you were describing how everyone in paradise thinks instead of speaks, or something like that.” Ellen held her pen above her notebook, ready to capture Alex’s musings. “Did anyone speak English?”
“We didn’t speak at all.” Alex found his mind hovering near the edge of remembrance. “We more like, uh, how can I describe this? It was like we understood each other’s thoughts.”
Alex shifted in his wheelchair to pull himself a little closer to the patio table. The all-seasons garden room at the back end of his parents’ elegant home provided a view of the forest from three sides. Plus, the greenhouse roof offered living space under the canopy of the trees. This was Alex’s favorite room in the house, which was good since his physical therapy table was set up beside the therapeutic hot tub.
This was the perfect place to bring his girlfriend now that they could no longer meet in the library after school. As much as he’d been excited to graduate high school, there were certain advantages to going there every day. Now that it was summer, he needed an excuse to get together with Ellen. If he could drag out the writing of their book just a little while longer, that was the perfect reason.
Did she ask the same questions more than once? Maybe. Did he drag out his answers more than necessary? Maybe. Should they just make this official and get engaged? Probably. There was still the matter of his insecurities about her marrying a man who was broken, wounded, scarred, unable to walk or do much of anything from the waist down. How could he ask his girlfriend to commit her life to him? He tried to remind himself that she wouldn’t be here if she didn’t want to be here with him. She could have finished writing this book a long time ago.
“And not everything was peaceful, right?” Ellen was scrawling words so quickly Alex wondered how she could keep one thought straight while asking about another.
“That’s correct. For quite a long time I was wracked with guilt for the things I’d done.” He didn’t wait for her to ask what those things were. He just continued. “I rebelled against my parents, using our wealth and privilege to obtain anything I desired. I toyed with girls’ hearts. I led them down a path none of us should have been walking. The competitions between me and Gus and his brothers were absurd. Which one of us could snag the most girls in one weekend, the most in one night, the most at one time, in the strangest location… which one of us could take their innocence first.”
Alex lowered his head to the table and gripped his hands into his hair, remembering how it felt to stand in the presence of God and justify his actions. There was no excuse for what he’d done. What they’d all done.
“But you know what was even more stupid?” He raised his head to meet her gaze, not waiting for her to answer his rhetorical question. “The girls were playing the same games. Which prince would give her his attention? Which prince would win the prize? Which prince would call the next day? We never did. That was part of the game. Never twice in a row. Maybe a few weeks later, but not right away.”
“I know for a fact the girls were playing your games right along with you,” Ellen said. “I was so jealous of the pretty girls. The popular girls. None of you would have wanted me anyway.”
“Why do you say that?” Compassion filled his heart and Alex took Ellen’s hand across the table.
“I was so frumpy with my Coke-bottle lenses, wispy hair, acne, and braces.”
“Well, your braces must have worked because your smile is beautiful.”
“Thank you,” Ellen whispered, glancing down at her notebook and tucking a lock of hair behind her ear.
“Your hair is soft and delicate, and the only thing wrong with your glasses is that they get in the way when I want to make out with you.” As if to prove his point, Alex reached over and slipped her tiny frames off her face then pulled her over to sit on his lap.
Ellen wrapped her arms around his neck and Alex wrapped his arms around her back, pulling her close. Their lips met in a slow, careful kiss that grew in intensity until her hands were gripping into his hair and his were creeping closer to places they shouldn’t be.
And that’s how her father, Malik, found them when he walked in the door to the garden room. “How many times am I going to walk in on you two making out?”
As Ellen scrambled to climb off Alex’s lap, he unapologetically turned to her father. “That’s a good question. You could start knocking before entering the room and you’d be less likely to walk in on us making out.”
“That, or I can hoist you onto the table to torture you, and my daughter can go find a book to read or something else tame and innocent that won’t raise my blood pressure.
“I don’t know, dad, you should see some of the books out there nowadays. Some are way more inappropriate than anything Alex and I would ever do.”
“No, thank you. I’m happy with my nice, peaceful life of torturing people.” Malik held out his arm for Alex to use as leverage. “Speaking of which, hop up on the table and I’ll get to work torturing you.”
Before Ellen left the room she walked over and leaned down to kiss Alex, who now lay on his back on the therapy table. She mouthed the word, “Goodbye,” and Alex winked up her.
“The easiest way for me to wheel out to the garden room is through my bedroom, so don’t get the wrong idea and think I’m trying to get you into a compromising position.” Alex spun in his wheelchair so that he could back over the little ramp that had been installed over the door jam.
He’d found backing over things to be surprisingly easier than pushing himself forward. Something in his arm muscles offered more leverage that way. Plus, this gave him easier view of Ellen’s face as he teased her.
“I would never think that Alex.” Ellen flirted right back. She had loosened up her cynical haughtiness since when they’d first met. Not that he didn’t deserve her snubs. All she’d ever known of him since he’d entered high school was the womanizer he used to be. “I’m quite aware how much you have changed.”
Was she ever? Ellen knew more about his near-death experience than anyone in the world, if that’s what he could call his three-day coma. He never felt dead during the event; rather very much alive. Perhaps more alive than any other time he’d lived on this earth.
But having no other words or phrases to accurately describe that period of awareness, and because the phrase seemed to comfort everyone else, he’d resigned to referring to his coma as a near-death experience. His physical body may not have been responding, but his mind and spirit and being were in tune with a higher plane of existence.
Ellen was also one of the few people who embraced the way Alex referred to his experience as paradise rather than heaven or an afterlife or something lame like that.
Alex had heard every cliché question from his friends and family. Did you go to heaven? Was there a bright light? Did you see angels? Did you meet God? That question always gave him pause.
Did you meet God?
He wanted to turn the answer on its head, but he wasn’t sure anyone would truly understand. If he could rephrase the question, he’d be able to give an accurate answer. Were you with God? Wholeheartedly, without a doubt, he had been in the presence of God. A concept he previously hadn’t known to exist.
And yet, the moment he was back within God’s presence, Alex had realized he’d known the truth all along. He’d just forgotten. Like a veil had been removed from his eyes and he could see again.
So, when his physical therapist, Malik Alaunus, had suggested he write the story of his experience, Alex had agreed wholeheartedly. He just didn’t realize Malik would send his daughter, Ellen, to be his ghost writer.
Ellen knew Alex from school, but Alex didn’t remember Ellen. She was the geeky girl in the back of the classroom, leaning over a notebook with a pen in hand, writing. Alex was the handsome class president, honorary prince to his best friends, the Sayid princes. He was Mr. Popular, most-likely-to-succeed, guy who could get any girl he wanted, and frequently did. He would never notice Ellen, and if he had, he would have wanted her too.
Alex was glad he had never met Ellen.
He was glad that he had never done anything or said anything or wanted anything from her that would make their experience any more awkward than this already was.
Because in telling his story, Alex had to allow Ellen to see the inner workings of his heart and mind. He had to be more vulnerable with her than if he’d stood on that stage to give his graduation speech in his underwear. She knew things about him that he didn’t want anyone to know.
And yet, he wanted her to know.
Alex wanted Ellen to know everything.
Today he wanted to tell her something that he wasn’t sure he could say out loud, and so he planned to avoid the subject as long as possible until the sentence popped out of his mouth of its own volition.
But first they had to put the finishing touches on their book. They’d been working on it since last December while he was still in the hospital. Now, eight weeks after graduation, they were almost done.
“This used to be my parents’ bedroom until my accident left me with a noticeable inability to walk up the stairs.” Alex glanced around at the sports memorabilia and video game consoles and souvenirs from rock concerts he’d attended. They all seemed so juvenile now. “My parents moved everything down here and traded rooms with me. And I do mean everything.”
Alex opened the drawer beside his bed to show her the large box of unmentionables that he’d been morbidly embarrassed his mother had discovered.
“Why, Alex, I do believe you promised you weren’t bringing me into your bedroom to seduce me,” Ellen drawled in fake Southern accent. “Whatever would you need those for?”
“I won’t need them.” Alex shoved the dresser drawer closed a little harder than he’d meant to. “Because that part of my body doesn’t work anymore, remember?”
He wasn’t telling her anything she didn’t already know. Between her father and Alex speaking candidly and openly about pretty much everything involving his paralysis, and him sharing the intimate secrets from the darkest reaches of his mind in the writing of their book, he couldn’t hide anything from her if he wanted to. Which he didn’t.
“This is my walk-in closet filled with clothes I can’t reach so I don’t wear, and this is my extra-large bathroom, complete with handicap bars, a state-of-the-art alarm system to warn my team of medical professionals if my temperature is one degree two high, or my pee is the wrong color. There’s also a shower large enough for two if you’d like to join me. Although once you fit my wheelchair in there, the shower is a lot less roomy.”
“Wait—” Ellen stopped him. “Why doesn’t someone move your clothes to a lower rack so you can wear them?”
Alex glanced down at his workout pants, T-shirt, and hoody. “These are more comfortable, and I can get them on and off by myself. I hate asking for any more help than I already need. Plus, when my physical therapist shows up to torture me, he doesn’t have to wait for me to change my clothes.”
“Good point.” Ellen walked all the way into his closet and started thumbing through his dress shirts.
“Whatcha doin’, babe?”
“I’m gonna borrow one of your shirts,” she explained. “If you’re not gonna wear them, I want to.” She chose a dark pink Hugo Boss dress shirt that Alex used to wear with a black silk tie and custom-tailored slacks. Paired with his $700 Cordovan shoes, he’d been one of the best-dressed guys at the party wherever he went.
Ellen slipped the shirt off the hanger and handed it to Alex. Then, just to test his theory about his body’s inability to react to external stimuli, she slipped her casual jersey shirt over her head, revealing a black bra and nothing else. Alex’s jaw dropped.
“Trade ya.” She tossed him her discarded shirt, which smelled like her perfume and body lotion got together to create their own unique fragrance. She took his button-up and never released his gaze as she made a show of selecting exactly which buttons to fasten, purposely leaving the top two open, and the bottom three. With the remaining fabric, Ellen tied the shirt like a schoolgirl right out of a Britney Spears music video. She held out her arms in a runaway model pose. “Do I look okay?”
The sound that emerged from somewhere inside Alex’s throat was more of a whimper than a word of affirmation.
“I’ll take that as a yes.” Ellen leaned down and kissed Alex lightly on his lips, before whispering close to his ear. “You can keep mine.”
“I’m going to sleep with it tonight,” he said in a husky voice. “And every night. From now until eternity.”
“You do that.” She patted him on the shoulder as she left his closet and called back to him. “Come on. We’re supposed to be writing a book in the garden room. We’re running out of time before my father gets here to torture you, I mean do your physical therapy.”
“If he knew the inappropriate thoughts I was having about his daughter, that physical therapy session would be more torture and less therapy.”
Alex turned his wheelchair around and made a beeline for his bedside table, stopping long enough to fold the shirt and place it inside the drawer right on top of that half-full box of latex heaven. Maybe he would need them someday. He mumbled under his breath, “A guy could always hope.”
“Oh, aren’t you guys cute with your matching corsage and boutonniere,” Laura Miller said, stalking toward us in the foyer of the event center where prom was barely underway. I instinctively took a step between my date and this former friend who seemed to have a bone to pick with Gracie. “I would have thought that the identical twins would want to wear something that matched.”
“We are not identical twins,” Kade told Laura. “We’re fraternal twins.”
“Shut up, Kade!” I demanded, already knowing it was too late.
“What? Don’t you think it’s time Gracie learned the truth? She knows about dad. Time to tell her about us.”
“What are you guys talking about?” Gracie asked.
“Oh, come on, Gracie.” Kade turned to her. “You nailed it the first time you saw us standing next to each other. I don’t know why Tay thought he could pass me off as his cousin. We may be fraternal twins, but we look identical. Admit it.”
“Oh my gosh.” Gracie looked back and forth between us. “You do look identical.”
“Well, we’re not.” I glared at Kade. “I’m nothing like him. We have zero in common.”
“Other than our birthdates,” Kade said, not backing down. “I still can’t believe she didn’t figure it out the night of our date to the minigolf putting thing.”
“You were lying to me this whole time?” Gracie was no longer focused on Kade. She had narrowed eyes shooting proverbial daggers at me. “You purposely made up a story telling everyone he was your cousin? Why?”
“Because I didn’t want him ruining my life again.” I tried to justify my reasoning.
“Oh, grow up, Tay. You don’t even know the full story of what I did.”
“And you—” Gracie turned on Kade “—You went along with Tay’s scheme and you even pretended you liked me.”
“I did like you,” Kade said. “I do like you. You’re a great person.”
“Yeah, I’m such a good person that you both thought it was okay to lie to me.”
Gracie ripped the corsage off her wrist and whipped it in our direction. Kade caught the corsage and handed it to me.
“I wish you had never come here, Kade! What Tay and I had was perfect, and now it’s like the Tay I thought I knew is gone!”
Kade was silent. He looked down at his feet and Maddie wrapped her arm around his waist.
Gracie turned on me again. “You said you loved me and that you would never lie to me. You promised me a few minutes ago you would never lie to me again.”
“I haven’t lied to you again,” I defended. “And you promised that you’d forgive me as you learn about my past.”
“I gave you the chance to tell me everything. How could you still not trust me enough to tell me the truth?”
I reached out to her, trying to hold on to the small thread of hope that she would hear my reasoning. “Gracie, please…”
She stepped back, holding out her hands so that I couldn’t get close enough to touch her. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
“You lied to me.” She looked back and forth between me and Kade.
“Well, to be fair,” Kade said, “I was just doing as I was asked.” His argument was not helping my defense.
Gracie glared at me. “So, you told him to lie to me?”
“Gracie, it isn’t like that,” I said.
“It is like that, Tay,” Gracie said. “I cannot believe it took me this long to see it. I’m such a fool.” She turned on her heels, beelining it towards the ladies’ room, the one place I couldn’t follow her.
“Why did you do that?” I took a step toward Laura, my fists balled at my side.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa Scrappy,” Kade said. “As your one and only twin brother it is my responsibility to keep you from going to jail for hitting a seventeen-year-old girl at prom.”
“Gracie deserved to know the truth about you,” Laura said with a smirk. “She deserved to know what kind of guy she abandoned me for.”
“Abandoned you?” Maddie asked. “You’re the one who quit the tennis team. You’re the one who abandoned her.”
“She abandoned me long before I quit,” Laura said. “She abandoned me the minute Tay moved into our subdivision. She immediately started calling him her best friend, as if she didn’t already have a best friend.”
“Gracie has lots of best friends,” Maddie said. “And she never understood why you no longer wanted to be one of them.”
“Well, maybe I should go talk to her.” Laura back away from us. “Since her boyfriend is not allowed in the ladies room.” Laura turned on her strappy high-heeled shoes and her violet prom dress swished as she walked away.
Book Club Discussion Questions: What could Taylor do to make this right?
“I cannot believe you lied to me,” I grumbled, clicking my high heel shoes on the kitchen linoleum as I headed out to the car. “What else are you lying about?”
“A whole buncha stuff,” Kade said from behind us.
“Shut up, Kade!” Taylor demanded, turning around and glaring at his cousin.
“A whole buncha stuff, huh?” I stopped near the doorway of the mudroom and glared at Taylor.
“Don’t listen to him.” Taylor put his arm around me and guided me toward his BMW. “Let’s go to prom and have a good time, okay?”
“Shouldn’t we at least talk about your dad being Kai freaking Burton?” I didn’t even try to hide my frustration of him lying about his family for the past two years.
“Yeah, let’s uh… talk in the car.” Taylor opened the passenger door for me. His nervous stutter was understandable considering how mad I was for him lying to me.
“We’ll meet you guys there,” I said to Maddie, who took the hint she and Kade should drive separately.
“Sure thing.” Maddie nodded then turned to Kade. “Kade, it’s your lucky night. You get to ride in my girl Ethel. My grandad restored this beauty when I was a little girl, and it’s gonna be all mine one day.” Maddie pointed at her Grandpa’s 1966 black Mustang convertible.
“Woah!” Kade exclaimed. “This baby is sweet.” Kade jogged over to Maddie’s car, inspecting it as if he knew something about cars. Maybe he did, or maybe he was just admiring it, how would I know since I’ve been lied to already about how they’re related to a famous rock star.
“Ready to go?” Taylor asked in a soft voice.
I could see the remorse in his eyes. I knew he loved me, and I loved him too, but I was still mad that he lied. I climbed into the passenger seat as Taylor rounded the front of the car to climb into the driver’s side and turned the key in the ignition.
“Oh wait, I almost forgot. I’ll be right back.” He left the car running and headed into the house, coming out with a small box tied with a gold bow. Looped through the ribbon was a rose charm for my bracelet. “That’s so we can remember our prom together.”
I pulled the ribbon away and opened the box to reveal an elegant corsage and matching boutonniere. They each had a singular red rose accented by small blush pink budding peonies. Held together with black ribbon and sparkling crystals, these weren’t the average corsage and boutonniere combo sold at the local flower shop. “Oh Tay, they’re beautiful.”
“May I?” Taylor pointed to the corsage and I nodded. He reached out, scooping up the corsage and sliding it onto my wrist. The red and soft pink complemented my black satin dress. I lifted the boutonniere and carefully pinned it to his tailored black tux.
Taylor lifted my hand to his lips and kissed it. “I love you, Gracie.”
“I love you too,” I said with a small smile, then lowered my brows. “We still have a lot to talk about.”
“I know.” He squeezed my hand once then let go and shifted the car into reverse. As we backed out of the driveway he asked, “So, what do you want to know?”
“Well, first, why didn’t you tell me who your dad was?”
“I didn’t want to be known as the son of a famous rock star. I didn’t want to be known as someone who had a lot of money because of who his dad is. I wanted to be known just for being me.”
“Okay, that’s fair. But why wouldn’t you tell me after we had been friends for so long?”
“I guess I just didn’t want our friendship to change, and I was worried you would treat me differently if you knew who my dad was.”
“Tay, you know me better than that.”
“Yeah, that’s true. I guess another reason is because I’ve gotten used to it just being my mom and siblings, then you and the tennis teams, and I just liked how life finally felt normal. You know?”
“Well, I can’t know for sure since I’m not related to a multi-millionaire rock star. But I can kind of see where you’re coming from.”
“Now you know why I am such a Buxton Peak fan.”
I laughed, “Yeah, I was just rolling with your obsession because it made you happy.”
“See, that is one of the many reasons I love you.”
I smiled, but then remembered why I was still angry. “Kade said there was a whole buncha stuff you were lying about. What else?”
Taylor was silent for a moment then sighed. “A few years ago, Kade did some things that were really mean to me and I’m having a hard time forgiving him. I’m actually surprised he wants you to know about our argument.”
“Well, maybe that’s a sign that he’s changed.”
Taylor grumbled. “I’m not convinced he’s changed.”
“Has he given you any reason to suggest he hasn’t?” I asked.
Taylor seemed to contemplate for a moment. “No, he hasn’t. I still don’t trust him.”
“Well, it seems to me that you are the only one still hurting from all of that.”
“Yeah, it seems that way,” Taylor grumbled again.
“Why do you think that is?”
“Because he has everyone else wrapped around his little finger.”
“Perhaps. Or maybe it’s because he actually has changed, and everyone else sees that, but you’re so caught up in how he wronged you that you won’t even give him a chance to be forgiven.”
“You’re probably right.” Taylor let out a long sigh. I reached over and squeezed his hand to show that I was supporting him.
We arrived at the event center and Taylor put the car in park. We both sat there, not moving. I wasn’t quite done with this conversation, and Taylor seemed to respect that. “Can you promise me two things?” I asked, breaking the silence.
“Definitely.” Taylor nodded and and looked over at me.
“One, can you try to be friends with your cousin again?” I asked. “From what he’s told me you guys used to be really close. I think he misses you a lot.”
Taylor raised his eyebrows then cleared his throat. “I’ll try. What’s the second thing?”
“I want you to promise that you won’t lie to me again. About anything. We need to be honest with each other if we want this relationship to work, which I do. I wouldn’t want to be dating a liar, let alone be friends with one.”
“Gracie, I do want our relationship to work. But there are things I’ve been hiding from you for years and I’m sorry.” Taylor gulped and took a deep breath. “I promise not to lie to you again. But promise that you’ll forgive me as you learn about my past.”
“Of course, I’ll forgive you.” I leaned over the center console and he met me halfway for a sweet kiss, at least it started that way. Taylor wrapped his hand around the nape of my neck, low enough that I wasn’t worried about my updo. He didn’t seem to be holding back his passion. I gripped my hands into his hair, pulling him closer.
We were interrupted by a knock on our windows and pulled away from each other to find Kade and Maddie standing outside the car.
“Are you lovebirds ready to go?” Kade asked with a smirk.
“Not really,” Taylor grumbled as he climbed out of the car. He shut the door, and pulled Kade aside. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I hoped Taylor was offering Kade forgiveness and renewed friendship.
Maddie stepped aside as I opened my door. “You okay, girl?” She draped her arm through mine as we walked into the event center, our dates trailing behind us, still deep in conversation.
I wanted to let them have this moment and turned my attention to Maddie. “Yeah, I’m good. How was your ride over here?”
“Oh, it was fantastic!” Maddie didn’t even try to contain her excitement. “Did you that Kade has been learning to play the guitar since he was six years old? His dad wanted to be sure he was a great player, and it came as no surprise that he was naturally talented at it.”
“Really?” I asked. “I didn’t know he’d started playing that young. I’ve heard him play and he’s definitely talented.”
I was still a little off since finding out Taylor had lied to me. I forgave him, but it didn’t change the fact that it hurt. Hopefully a prom full of fun, food, and dancing would be just the thing to take my mind off the drama and enjoy time with my best friend, who also happened to now be my boyfriend.
As Taylor and Kade hurried around us to open the doors, I decided to make this the best night of our lives.
Book Club Discussion Questions: Taylor's still hiding a whole lot of stuff from Gracie. Raise your hand if you think this is truly going to be the best night of their lives! (Okay, not a question, but still a good discussion topic!)
Come to my house when you guys are done primping. I’m helping babysit my little sister. Kade and I both had changed into our tuxes, minus the jackets, which we’d draped over the backs of chairs in the dining room. and planned to wait at our house until the girls were ready.
All of our parents were busy or out of town, so we planned to do pictures with friends at the event center where prom was being held.
Okay, see you in a couple of hours. Gracie texted back.
I put the phone down, turned back to the Disney movie and laughed for another two hours with my siblings. I was surprised the time had gone by so quickly when Gracie and Maddie walked in the back door.
“Gracie!” Reina pushed herself off my lap and scrambled to get down from the couch. She raced across the room and jumped into Gracie’s arms. To her credit, Gracie didn’t flinch about Reina messing up her evening gown. “Come watch Frozen with us.”
“How many times have you seen that movie?” Gracie asked, stepping over Clay, who was laying in the middle of the living room floor. She waved Maddie to follow her and sat beside me on the couch.
Kade rose from his chair to welcome Maddie over to the other end of the sectional, sitting beside her awkwardly.
“Hey, how’re you doing?” I asked Gracie, wanting to pull her close. We’d barely had a second alone since making our relationship official and I couldn’t wait to have her in my arms on the dancefloor.
“I’m good.” Gracie tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and lowered her eyes. Awkward shyness. So much fun on a date. “How are you?”
“Good. Are you excited for our date?” I wished we could leave now but we were waiting for my oldest brother Sean to get home from work. Not that Clay couldn’t handle babysitting our little sister, there was just an unspoken understanding that we would wait.
“Where are you going on a date?” Reina asked, turning to Gracie.
“We are going to prom,” Gracie answered, pulling on her ponytail.
“Can I come with you? Pleeeeease?” Reina knew how to turn up the charm.
“Not this time.” Gracie turned Reina around so she was facing forward. “Do you want me to braid your hair?” Good distraction.
“Yes!” Reina climbed down and ran to get her favorite comb and detangling spray. She came back and stood in front of Gracie, leaning her head back and looking up at the ceiling.
“Dang, you have a lot of snarls. Didn’t your mommy do your hair before bed last night?”
“She’s still gone visiting daddy,” Reina said, her eyes now focused on the television.
Gracie looked over at me with raised eyebrows. “I thought your parents were divorced.”
Oh boy, here we go. “I’ve never actually said that. You just assumed.”
“But… you go and visit your dad’s house every few weeks. Are your parents separated?”
“Uh… no, not officially.”
“Why didn’t you go with your mom to visit your dad?”
“They are bunny rabbits,” Reina said. “None of my brothers want to be in the same wing of the house because they don’t want to think about what mommy and daddy are doing. I don’t know what that means.”
Maddie snickered and Gracie openly laughed.
“Kids say the darndest things,” I said, chuckling along with the girls as if I wasn’t dreading the rest of this conversation.
“She’s just saying what the rest of us are thinking,” Clay said, rolling onto his back and tucking his hands behind his head. No one seemed to be paying any attention to the Disney movie anymore.
“What did you mean by the same wing of the house?” Maddie asked.
“Our big house has wings.” Reina flapped her arms like a bird. “Our little house doesn’t have any wings.”
I held my breath, hoping Gracie didn’t ask. She did. “How many houses do you have?”
“We have two houses,” Reina said without turning from where Gracie was still combing through tangles. “A big house and a little house.”
“Wait… this is your little house?” Maddie asked, glancing up at the cathedral ceiling, the 72” television mounted on the wall, and the imported furniture.
“I have two bedrooms at my daddy’s house.” Reina turned around and held up two fingers. “They call one of them my playroom because there are lots of toys. But I like Clay’s playroom better because he has lots of video games and bean bags. I’m not allowed to go into Kade’s playroom because there are too many guitars in there. And he has a whole drum set right in his playroom. It’s not as big as Uncle Nathan’s drum set. But that’s downstairs in the studio. I’m not allowed to go down there without daddy or mommy.”
I held my head in my hands, gripping into my hair.
“Well, I guess that cat’s outta the bag.” Kade snickered.
“Dude, this isn’t funny.” I lifted my head and glared across the room where my twin brother leaned back into the sofa beside his date.
“We only have six bedrooms in this house.” Reina continued her speech that was destroying my perfect little world. “And they’re all crammed together on one floor.”
“How many bedrooms are in your big house?” Gracie asked through clenched teeth, glaring at me. I was in so much trouble.
“I don’t know. A whole bunch of them.” Reina shrugged.
“Fifteen,” Clay said without lifting his head.
“Fifteen?” Maddie’s question was practically a squeal. “How come you don’t live in your big house?”
“We came to live here after Grandma Kendrick had her heart attack.” That was our standard answer as a family. Reina was repeating the narrative she’d been taught. Maybe Gracie would accept that and move on with our evening.
“If your mommy is visiting your daddy at his big house, why aren’t you visiting also?” Gracie was getting more out of this conversation with my little sister in five minutes than I’d told her in the two years I’d been her next-door neighbor and best friend. Might as well let this train wreck happen so we can finally get it over with. I knew what was coming next and I cringed.
“Daddy’s on tour,” Reina said. “They’re at a hotel somewhere in New York City. They played in a garden last night.”
“A garden?” Maddie asked. “Do you mean Central Park?”
“No, it was a square garden,” Reina said.
“Madison Square Garden?” Gracie’s jaw dropped and I saw the moment she connected the last dots that had been right in front of her eyes for so long she was probably embarrassed this had taken her so long to figure out. “Your dad is Kai Burton.”
“How did you know my daddy’s name?” Reina asked, turning around and looking at Gracie with big eyes.
Gracie looked around at all of my brothers, still with gaping mouth, Sean having just walked in the door. We all kind of held our breath, except Kade, who turned his head away, tracing the pattern on the arm of the sofa. “Oh my gosh, you all look just like him. I can’t believe I never…”
“Sorry,” I whispered.
“Why haven’t you ever told me who your father was?” Gracie sounded like she was going to cry.
“Wait, are you talking about Kai Burton, the lead guitarist of the rock band Buxton Peak?” Maddie finally connected her own set of dots.
“Please understand our perspective here.” I ignored Maddie and spoke directly to Gracie. “We just want to lead a normal life without all the fame and stuff.”
“By lying about who you were?”
“We didn’t lie… we just didn’t tell the whole truth.”
“Maybe you guys should talk about this another time.” Sean stepped over to pick up Reina who now had perfect little braids on either side of her head. “How about if I feed Reina her bedtime snack and you four can head out on your date. Souds like you have lots to talk about when little ears aren’t around.”
“Great idea.” Gracie stood and folded her arms across her chest. “We do have lots to talk about.”
“Alright, let’s do this.” Kade hopped up from the sofa, offered his hand to Maddie and lifted her to stand beside him. “The truth will finally set us free.”
“The truth,” I mumbled. Wait until she finds out the rest of the truth. I had an ominous feeling that this was going to be the worst night of my life.
Book Club Discussion Questions: What do you think? Was Gracie justified in her anger?
When Laura didn’t answer me, I asked again, slower and with more anger. “How… could… you?”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Laura said with a furrowed brow and pursed lips.
“You know what I mean, Laura,” I snapped with obvious aggression. “Why would you make up all of those blatant lies and then put it on the front page of the school paper?”
Laura shrugged her shoulders and stuck her nose up higher in the air as she said, “What, I’m just an effective journalist.”
I rolled my eyes as I stuck one fist on my hip and the other pointing a finger in Laura’s face. I wasn’t even trying to hold back my anger. “You know darn well that that is not journalism. That is gossip column mediocrity. Now the entire school knows that you lied.”
“Do they though?” Laura asked rhetorically.
I looked around to see our classmates videoing us on their phones. Why is everyone so interested in my love life?
“Yes, they do,” Taylor said as he stepped next to me putting his arm around my shoulders and pulling me close to him. I relaxed a little being in his arms and taking in his cologne, but my emotions were still burning with fire.
“I’m not so sure everyone is convinced,” Laura said snarky. “I may have added a few extra juicy details for flare, but those pictures were very much real, and so is your relationship with Kade.”
“I am not in love with Kade,” I said through clenched teeth.
“Gracie, you’ve told me so many times that you weren’t in love with Tay either,” Laura said. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye with what looked like a loathsome glare. “Yet, here you stand. So graciously wrapped around each other. Like two love sick puppies finally being honest for the first time in two years.”
Taylor flinched and I could tell that Laura was starting to get to him.
“Tay and I are honest with each other,” I said. “We don’t keep secrets from each other.”
“Like being in love with each other?” Laura asked.
“If I could interject here,” Taylor said clearing his throat. “I think we both knew deep down we were in love with each other, but we didn’t want to ruin our friendship.”
Laura threw her head back and laughed in an incredibly sarcastic tone. “Oh really, Tay? You are always honest?”
Why did she say always as if she knew something else? At this point all her journalism bunny trails are leading towards a catastrophe, so I decided to take it with a grain of salt because I didn’t want to be anywhere near that drama bomb.
Taylor shoved his free hand in his pocket and looked down at his feet, showing that he was giving up this fight that really wasn’t even worth having, but unlike my chivalrous boyfriend, I wasn’t going down that easy.
“Yes, Laura,” I said. “He is always honest with me. Like, what is your problem? Why did you start hating me the second he showed up?”
Laura looked me square in the eye and said in a shallow voice, “You have no idea what you did.”
She turned and started to walk away from me, but I started following her down the hall. I grabbed her shoulder and pulled her back around so we were standing face to face, our noses nearly touching.
“No,” I said. “You don’t get to just walk away from me. We are having this conversation. Right here. Right now.”
“You know what Gracie?” Laura said, throwing her books down. “The world doesn’t revolve around you. I don’t have to do a thing you say because I’m not your little puppet just waiting at your beck and call.” She shoved her hands into my shoulders making me take a step back, but not hard enough to actually knock me down.
“You never were a puppet, Laura,” I said with animosity.
“Oh yeah, who was the one you called when your parents were fighting?” Laura asked.
“That isn’t fair, that is just being a good frie—” I said before Laura interjected and continued on.
“Who was the one who crawled through your window at night when you needed a friend to talk to?”
I stood there, not knowing how to respond to the girl who used to be my best friend.
Laura continued on, “Who was the one who brought you your favorite snack every Friday for lunch since Kindergarten? Who was the one who took you on every family fourth of July camping trip since sixth grade? Who was the one who came over when your dog of ten years died? Who was the one who introduced you to your beloved tennis? Who was the one who bought you your first racket for your twelfth birthday with all of her babysitting money? Who was the one who let you cry on their shoulder anytime any little, tiny, bad thing happened in your life? Who was the one, Gracie?”
I continued to stand there, and I wanted to say something, but I still couldn’t find the words.
“Because it sure wasn’t him,” Laura stated, pointing a finger at Taylor, but still looking me square in the eyes. “And I am no longer your puppet.”
Laura bent down and picked up her books, and without even giving me a second glance, turned on her heels and walked away from me. I wanted to chase after her and tell her I’m sorry, but I didn’t think it would do any good. I wanted to tell her that she meant so much to me even now, but I knew it would fall on deaf ears. She had loved me like a sister once, and now she knew me as her enemy, and that stung.
Taylor and I may be best friends now, but Laura and I go back to childhood best friends. We had been friends since we were five years old. A part of me will always be with Laura, and nothing was ever going to be able to change the time we spent together.
I started to tear up as a part of my heart began to grieve, perhaps for the first time, the friend that I once had, realizing that I will most likely never be able to have that friendship ever again.
Today was a difficult day. It was quite melancholy and bittersweet. On one hand I finally have the guy I have been in love with for two years, but on the other I have been embarrassed beyond imagination and just got raked over the coals by my ex-best friend.
And it was only Monday morning.
Book Club Questions: Why do you think Laura's being such a brat?
We missed French class. Well, we missed the class part. I couldn’t believe my luck. My heart raced as we walked into the school amidst taunts from my friends. Not trying to hide my grin, I welcomed their cat calls and whistles as I finally walked my girlfriend to her locker. That was going to take some getting used to.
My girlfriend. Gracie Hansen is my girlfriend. I wanted to shout it from the bleachers. But I really didn’t need to shout because everyone could see my arm around Gracie. My girlfriend.
My twin brother waited for us beside Gracie’s locker with a smirk on his face. “Looks like you no longer need me to walk you to class, gorgeous, I mean Gracie.”
“No, I think I can take it from here, Kade,” I said with confidence.
“Very funny, you two.” Gracie slipped from my arms to reach for her locker combination.
I felt her absence and missed her warmth. Like a welcome security blanket, one of my hoodies was hanging in her locker and I reached over her to grab it.
“Do you want your jacket back,” she asked, the innocent apprehension in her expression begging me not to ask for the jacket.
“Nah, you can wear it for the rest of the day.” I slipped the hoody over my head and relished the way her perfume clung to every fiber. She’d borrowed the sweatshirt a long time ago and I decided I’d never wash it again.
“So, does this mean I can’t take you to prom next week?” Kade asked with a purposely innocent expression.
“Don’t go there, dude.”
“Mind if I ask Maddie to go with me?” Kade asked Gracie.
“Oh my gosh, she would love that.” Gracie bounced on her toes with excitement. “We can double date again.”
“Only if my boutonniere matches your corsage,” I said. “I don’t want anyone to question which one of us you’re in love with this time.”
“Never again.” Gracie leaned closer and lifted onto her toes to touch her lips to mine.
“Blech,” Kade said with a gagging sound. “You can find your own escort to chemistry class. I’m out of here.” He pushed away from the lockers and started down the hall.
I ignored my brother for a few seconds as I got lost in Gracie’s kiss, savoring the moment without pushing our luck. No need to get called out for public display of affection on our first day as a couple. Pulling back just a little I asked, “Could I walk you to chemistry class from now on?”
“That would be awesome.” As she stepped away from me, she ran right into her old friend-turned-enemy, Laura Miller. Gracie didn’t flinch from the girl who had caused us so much trouble that morning. Instead, she got right in Laura’s face. The sound that emerged from deep inside her was almost a growl. “How could you?”
Book Club Discussion Questions: Why do you think Laura did what she did? Discuss in the comments below.
To the south of the baseball diamonds there are several wooded acres. Taylor and I had wandered over this way after a home football game our junior year while trying to find an adventurous way home. Instead, we came across a weeping willow tree at the corner of the school’s property where a fence blocked our progression.
Neither of us were ready to go home for the night, so we built a little fort under that tree and we declared it our secret spot. Whenever we needed to get away from the world for a while, we came here.
I ran the entire way to the woods then plopped myself down at the base of our tree and sobbed into my knees. I didn’t care that the ground was still wet with this morning’s dew, nor that it would ruin my capri pants.
I was missing French class, but my teacher, Ms. Moreau, was extremely forgiving. I would probably be hiding in her classroom during lunch, anyway, crying about the morning’s drama. There was no way I could confront anyone, especially Taylor, about what happened.
I heard some twigs snap, and I peeked up over my knees to see Taylor standing in front of me. I couldn’t bring myself to look him in the eye. I didn’t want to see the hurt that he must have felt after seeing those pictures of me with his cousin.
He stood there for what seemed like an eternity but was only a few seconds, saying nothing while I sat on the forest floor crying.
“I’m sorry, Tay.” I looked up at him with my tear-streaked face. “Those pictures aren’t real. I mean they’re real, but they were taken completely out of context.”
“Hey now—” Taylor crouched down in front of me and placed a hand on top of mine where they clutched my knees tight to my chest. “It’s okay.”
“How can you say that?” I questioned as I glanced up at him. His cologne mixed with the fresh spring breeze comforted me, but I couldn’t maintain eye contact, so I returned to burying my face in my knees and said in a muffled voice, “Everyone thinks I’m in love with Kade, but I’m not.”
“I’m pretty sure almost no one thinks you’re in love with Kade,” Taylor reassured me. “It wouldn’t be the first time something was wrong in the school paper, right?”
That was true, but it didn’t change how I felt about the situation. “Jimmy was a huge jerk and kept saying awful things about me.”
“Jimmy’s always been a jerk,” Taylor said. “That’s one of the reasons I encouraged you to break up with him.”
“One of the reasons?” I asked sheepishly as I peered over my knees to see Taylor looking at me with soft intensity.
“Gracie, I haven’t been honest with you,” Taylor said softly.
“What do you mean?” I asked, resting my head on the tree trunk behind me, no longer trying to hide my tears. Taylor reached out and wiped them away from my eyes. He took a deep breath, then looked up to meet my gaze.
“Gracie, I’ve been in love with you since the day I met you. You played tennis with me after running from your home crying. You always push past your hard circumstances and see the positive side of things. You’re authentic and honest, and you don’t try to hide anything about yourself. You’re kind, brave, funny, beautiful. You’re so unlike anyone I’ve ever met.” With a furrowed brow he took another deep breath and gently held both of my hands in his. He let out a nervous chuckle accompanied with a crooked smile then shyly continued. “Gracie, you’re everything I’ve ever wanted. You mean the world to me. More than you’ll ever know.”
Taylor stood and pulled me up with him. He placed one hand on the small of my back and pulled me close to him, so our bodies were touching. With his other hand he cradled my cheek and turned my face up to look him in the eye. His warmth drew me in closer as I instinctively wrapped my arms around his waist. My heart raced and I got lost in his deep brown eyes.
“Gracie Hansen, I love you.” Taylor pulled my face to his and our lips met as the world stopped moving. Nothing in my life had ever felt this right. I clenched his jacket with my hands and pulled him closer to me, kissing him with the longing that I’d been suppressing for nearly two years.
Everything in that single moment was perfect and how it should be. I loved Taylor Kendrick and had since meeting him on the tennis court two summers ago.
As he pulled away, we were both breathing heavily, and he placed his forehead on mine. Both of our eyes still closed, not wanting this moment to end.
“I love you too, Tay,” I whispered, opening my eyes to see a smile on his face.
“I’ve dreamed of hearing you say those words,” Taylor said.
We pulled each other back in for another kiss, but not nearly as long this time. Ending the kiss with a sigh, we embraced one another, prolonging the moment now that we’d admitted the truth.
“I think it’s time to head back,” Taylor said softly.
“Already?” I protested with a suggestive pout.
Taylor tucked a lock of my hair behind my ear and I leaned into his hand as he stroked my cheek with his thumb. “I think we’ve missed enough of our French class already.”
I sighed. “You’re probably right. At least Ms. Moreau is understanding.”
“And I’m sure she would love to hear about your traumatic morning,” Taylor said, knowing I frequently confided in Ms. Moreau. “But perhaps we should keep this treasure between us, hmm?” He leaned down and placed one quick kiss on the tip of my nose.
“Yes, this is just for us.” I bit my lower lip, already wanting to kiss him again.
When Taylor released me from his embrace, I shivered in the cool morning air. He took off his jacket and wrapped it around my shoulders, then wrapped his arm around my waist, guiding me in the direction of the school.
Everything was going to be different now. Taylor and I could be together as boyfriend and girlfriend. My Taylor.
As we left our secret place in the woods, I never wanted this feeling to go away.
Book Club Discussion Question: How do you think Gracie will react when she finds out all the other things Taylor is lying about?
“What the flipping nightmare is this?” I held up the newspaper in shock. Right there in black and white on the front page was my brother and my best friend practically kissing and holding hands. How could he? He knows how I feel about her! Or does he? Hmm… I’ve called her my best friend so many times it’s like I’m trying to convince myself. But is that the truth? No, she’s way more than a best friend.
Kade hurried around the corner into homeroom holding the newspaper.
I took a step back. “Don’t you even have the nerve to talk to me!”
“Tay, none of it is true!” Kade said. “You have to believe me!”
“You have ruined my life over and over. I shouldn’t be surprised that you would do this to me after you promised you would never ruin my life again. I don’t know why I ever trusted you.”
“Tay, that’s harsh. You know darn well that I never intended for her to fall in love with me. Heck, I know she’s not in love with me because she’s in love with you!”
“She doesn’t even like me that way,” I insisted. “And she’s obviously in love with you. The pictures don’t lie.”
“See that picture right there—” Kade pointed to the picture of him kissing Gracie’s forehead. I wanted to puke. “I had just told her that you were lucky to have her because I knew from talking to her, and from being your brother, that you were in love with each other.”
I hoped no one in my homeroom caught that he called himself my brother, but I was past caring. “I may be in love with her, but I know she doesn’t like me that way.”
“Actually, she does.” Dean, one of our friends in homeroom, held up his cell phone with an Instagram post about Gracie running from her homeroom crying after admitting that the reason she wasn’t in love with Kade was because she was in love with Tay.
“What?” I grabbed his cell phone in disbelief. “I thought she didn’t like me that way.”
“That is your own denial, my brother.” There he goes again, calling himself my brother. That rumor was going to get back to Gracie too. Oh well. “She loves you and you love her, and you guys need to just admit that to each other. Because you’ve admitted it to us, and she’s admitted it to her friends. It’s time you to talk to one another.”
“I don’t even know where she is,” I said, dejected. “She ran away and who knows where she went.”
“Well, you know her better than anybody else,” Kade said. “Where do you think she went?”
Immediately I knew she went to our secret spot. I didn’t even bother saying goodbye to my friends or explaining myself to our teacher. I grabbed my bookbag and ran from the room.
Book Club Discussion Question: Where do you think Gracie went?
“Did you figure out our chemistry homework this weekend?” Maddie asked, setting her stack of books on the desk beside mine in homeroom first thing Monday morning. Some kids were frantically trying to finish incomplete assignments. She and I usually worked ahead so we didn’t get overstressed from all of our other activities. Tennis for me, music for her. I’d won the entire tennis tournament for first singles on Saturday. Kade and Taylor both came to support me, which was super nice.
“Yeah, Kade joined Tay and me for our weekend study session so he helped me figure it out.” I thought back to our discussion at their dining room table. Kade joining us added an interesting dynamic to our normal routine. Taylor and I had gotten relaxed together these past two years and Kade shook us out of our comfort zone.
“You and Kade have been spending a lot of time together.” Maddie wiggled her eyebrows up and down.
“Well, he is my best friend’s cousin, and they live in the same house, and we are neighbors, and we have class together, so odds are we would spend a lot of time together.” Why was I being so defensive? Why did I suddenly want to put the idea of Kade and me to rest?
“I don’t know, girl.” Was she baiting me? She was my best girlfriend, so she’d probably already figured out that I was secretly in love with Taylor but had never said anything.
“I will not deny that he is good looking,” I said. “I mean have you seen him?”
Maddie chuckled. “Oh, I’ve seen him alright.” The provocative desire showed through in her voice.
“Yeah, I’m sure you have. Anyway, he’s a super nice guy. Like, under the bad boy, wanna-be rock star persona, he’s almost as nice as Tay.”
Maddie raised her eyebrows in disbelief. “Only nice?” She closed her chemistry textbook and placed her elbow on it so she could rest her head as she stared me down.
“Okay, he is undoubtedly more flirtatious and forward than Taylor, but they are equally as gorgeous.”
“You mean sexy.” Maddie smirked and winked at me.
I let out a sigh and stared at the ceiling. “Yes, I mean sexy.” Okay, maybe I should match up Maddie with Kade.
Maddie was absolutely stunning with her dark skin and natural hair. She almost always wore subtle makeup, white gold hoop earrings, and sustainable clothing from her minimalist capsule wardrobe. She was the embodiment of authenticity. But she was also the embodiment of persistence, which meant she was never going to drop this topic without serious convincing.
The classroom door opened and a freshman on the school newspaper committee brought in a large stack of newspapers. I should have known there was trouble when I saw how nervous the freshman looked. He handed them to our homeroom teacher, Mr. Johnson, and hurried from the room.
Mr. Johnson let out a long sigh and glanced up at me with deep, sympathetic eyes. What was going on?
“Alright class, come and grab a paper off the desk if you want one, but please keep the noise down so others can continue working on their homework.” After 30 years in the profession, Mr. Johnson had perfected his matter-of-fact tone.
I didn’t even get halfway to Mr. Johnson’s desk before my ex-boyfriend Jimmy blurted out, “So much for being in love with Sir Tay Kendrick, Miss Perfect.”
I stopped in my tracks. In love? Miss perfect? Was he still upset I dumped him two years ago? One of my classmates, Marie turned to me with a smirk.
“Didn’t take you long to latch on to the next hottie, now did it?” Marie asked.
“What are you guys talking about?” A nervous panic came over me.
“Umm, this.” Maddie handed me her copy of the paper.
Front page of the paper, above the fold. Our Newest Couple: Prom King and Queen? Below were pictures of me and Kade. So many pictures. I unfolded the paper to see pictures of him leaning on the lockers beside mine as we gazed at each other. Photos of me holding his hand, mere inches from his face as I spoke to him. Photos of him at my tennis tournament cheering me on. The worst photo of all was the one of him kissing my forehead during our intimate conversation on our date Friday night.
I began reading the blatant lies about how Kade and I fell in love at first sight, that we have spent nearly every moment together from the time he arrived, and that our love was the kind that couples dream about.
There was even a supposed quote from me saying “I knew Kade was the one for me the moment I saw him. He is so much like my best friend Taylor, but there was something about Kade that made me fall in love with him.”
Another obviously falsified quote from Kade, read, “Gracie is the most amazing girl, and I have to thank my cousin Taylor for introducing me to the love of my life.”
“This isn’t true!” I panicked. How could they not see the misquotes just by the way neither of us would ever call Tay by his full name?
“I don’t know, Gracie, I do see you guys together a lot.” Heidi, from my tennis team, raised her eyebrows. “He was at our tennis tournament this weekend.”
“Yeah, because Tay was there, like he is at every tournament because he’s my best friend.” My voice cracked.
“He does look a lot like Tay though, dude,” Jimmy said. “I mean you and Tay obviously friend-zoned each other a long time ago, or you’d be dating by now. He was the reason you and I broke up.”
“I broke up with you because you’re a selfish jerk who never supported me in anything and because you tried to get me into the back seat of your car.” I pointed my finger in Jimmy’s face, anger at him compounding my embarrassment and frustration. “This paper is lying. I am not dating Kade, nor am I even interested in dating Kade. And Tay and I did not friend zone each other.”
“You did just tell me you thought Kade was hot,” Maddie reminded me.
“Just like every other girl in this school would say.” How could Maddie betray me like this? She was one of my best friends.
“Alright kids, settle down,” Mr. Johnson called out in an attempt to regain control of the class. “I’m sure there is a misunderstanding, and you all need to get back to your desks.”
Nobody paid Mr. Johnson any attention and the assault on my character and love life continued.
“How poetic that miss goody-two-shoes fell in love with a bad boy,” Marie said.
“And Kade is obviously interested in you.” Heidi held up the paper to show me the front page as if I hadn’t already seen it. “I mean these pictures don’t lie.”
“They do lie.” My voiced cracked as I tried to hold back tears and keep my chin up.
“You just don’t want to admit you’re dating Kade,” Jimmy continued his jabs. “How long did you think you could keep this a secret? Does Tay know about your love affair, or will this be a surprise to him too? Maybe we should text him to see how he’s taking this news.”
“Shut up, Jimmy,” I said through clenched teeth, tears welling in my eyes.
“Ah, come on Gracie.” Jimmy pointed at each picture. “Kade is literally kissing you in this picture and you are the one holding his hand in this one. You walk to class together, hang out together every day, and obviously go on dates with each other. He even showed up to one of your dreadfully boring tennis matches.”
“We are friends, nothing else,” I snapped back.
“I’ve heard that one before,” said Jimmy so intensely that I could feel his resentful scorn. “You want everyone to think you’re so perfect, but underneath this façade you are broken. Maybe that’s why Tay never made a move on you, even after you broke up with me for him. You’re too difficult to be with anyway, so hats off and good luck to Kade. He has no idea what he’s gotten himself into with you.”
“Please stop,” I begged almost inaudibly.
“It’s so obvious you’re in love with Kade.” Jimmy kept taunting me, pushing me to admit the truth he already knew. “Why do you keep denying it?”
“Because I’m in love with Tay!” I blurted out and instantly covered my mouth with both of my hands as I realized I could never take it back.
Everyone in the room fell silent, all eyes fixed on me.
“Well, it’s about time you admitted that.” Jimmy smirked and put both hands behind his head, propping his feet on the desk in front of him.
Hot tears fell uncontrollably down my cheeks as I ran out the classroom door. My feet carried me down the hall and I ran as fast as I could, needing to get out of the building, to go somewhere safe. If I knew my best friend, I was sure he would know where to find me.
“Dude, you didn’t tell me I was missing a study session,” Kade said, sliding into the seat beside me. Our dining room table was spread with textbooks and notebooks like it always was on Sunday afternoons. Just another part of my routine life that Kade was disrupting. He flopped his chemistry textbook on the table and spoke directly to Gracie. “Need any help?”
“Actually, I do,” she said. I hadn’t realized she was struggling. “I can’t get these coefficients to balance. What am I doing wrong?” She slid her lab notebook across the table and Kade placed hers beside his, glancing back and forth between the two. Was he really smart enough to know how to help her?
“Ah, you didn’t account for the coefficients you used to balance the carbon atoms before you tried to balance the oxygen atoms.” He slid both notebooks across the table and pointed to his notebook to show where he’d already balanced the equation. “See, when you add coefficients to the product, you’ve now increased its number of oxygen atoms. If you add a coefficient of five to the oxygen molecule in the reactant, you’ll have balanced the carbon and the oxygen, and the hydrogen should be obvious.”
“Oh my gosh, that totally worked.” Gracie sounded almost as surprised as I felt.
“Dang, how did you get so smart?” I asked my brother.
He shrugged. “I had a lot of time to study the past couple of years.”
“Yeah, I guess you did,” I mumbled, pulling out my dogeared copy of The Great Gatsby, the dreadfully boring story of snobby rich people who swore too much and had more affairs than I could keep track of. They lived in Long Island mansions across the bay from each other on something called the East Egg and the West Egg. I was glad my family lived in a nice, normal house in a nice, normal neighborhood without all the drama of the uber rich. “Got any more chemistry questions? Or do you want to move on to the great American novel?”
“That was the only question stumping me,” Gracie said. “We can move on.” She also pulled out her copy of The Great Gatsby.
“Gracie and I are good with chemistry, aren’t we?” Kade winked at Gracie. Jealously flared inside me and I almost shoved my brother off the chair beside me.
“Do you guys have any idea what this book is about?” Gracie asked with exaggerated frustration. “I have no clue.”
Yeah right. Was she playing dumb to get Kade’s attention? She probably had the book overanalyzed and ready for next week’s exam.
“Fitzgerald clearly wanted to distinguish the transcendence of class over wealth in American society,” Kade said. Huh? I wanted to ask him again how he got so smart, but in asking I was making myself look stupid. “It’s a classic case of old money trumping new money despite the capitalist economy that rewards innovation.”
“But I thought capitalism was bad.” Gracie’s brow creased.
“No, that’s just what the people with old money want you to believe,” Kade told her. “If it weren’t for capitalism you wouldn’t be holding that iPhone in your hand and Buxton Peak wouldn’t be the greatest rock band on the planet.”
Gracie threw her head back and laughed. “What does a rock band have to do with capitalism?”
“That rock band is a classic example of new money created on the premise of innovation and talent.”
“What about the next generation after the rock band creates new money?” I asked, now fully engrossed in the discussion despite our complete derailment from the topic of The Great Gatsby. “Would the children of the rock stars be considered to be from old money because they were living off the riches created by their parents?”
“Possibly…” Kade narrowed his eyes at me. “I suppose that depends on how the kids choose to invest their time and energy.”
“And if they look down upon people who don’t have money,” Gracie pointed out.
“Or if they allow their wealth to justify their own corruption,” I added, knowing Gracie wouldn’t understand the reference but Kade would.
“Sometimes wealth enables people to fall into the trap of drinking and doing drugs… and other bad things.” Kade glanced at me and I could tell we were no longer talking about an historic novel from the nineteen twenties.
“Like Gary Owens,” Gracie said, pulling our focus away from each other. Kade and I both turned our attention to her, startled by the direction of her thoughts. “He was their drummer. Don’t you remember?”
“He died before we were born,” I said, confused. “We never met him.”
“But you’ve heard of him, right?” Gracie’s eyes darted back and forth between me and Kade. “You guys are huge fans of the rock band, Buxton Peak. You had to have heard of Gary Owens, right?”
“Yeah, of course.” Kade snorted. I wondered if he’d mention the collector’s memorabilia their dad had purchased at auction autographed by Gary. “I mean, he was a great drummer.”
“But going back to your original point,” Gracie said. “If he hadn’t gotten super rich, he might not have had access to drugs and then he might be alive today.”
“Yeah, it’s good to be alive.” Kade lowered his eyes and fiddled with the corner of his book. I wondered how close he’d come to doing something over-the-top stupid. I could have lost him for real. Not just for two years. I needed to remember that.
“Unlike Gatsby, who was murdered,” Gracie declared.
“Only because he took the fall for the person he loved the most,” Kade mumbled.
“What do you mean?” Gracie asked.
“Daisy was driving the car that killed Tom’s mistress, but Gatsby took the blame,” Kade said, lifting his gaze. “Sometimes people take the blame and pay the ultimate price.”
“Like going to jail…” I choked out, again knowing Kade and I were talking about a completely different story than Gracie.
“Or in Gatsby’s case, getting murdered.” Gracie sighed. “Thanks, guys, you have really helped me understand this story. We’re going to ace this exam.”
As Gracie gathered up her books and notebooks, shoving them into her backpack, Kade and I sat in silence. I weighed the implication of his statement, realizing there was more to the story that had haunted me for two years. What was he really trying to tell me?
Book Club Discussion Question: What do you think Kade's trying to tell Taylor?
“I hope you’re all ready to get your butts kicked.” I pretended to swing my putter like a professional golfer at the U.S. Open.
“In your dreams, short stuff.” Hannah was tall like Taylor and Kade. She had a darker complexion with big, brown eyes and natural makeup. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she wore jeans and sneakers with a graphic T-shirt. Basically, she’d come straight from the community center where she helped run the kids’ sports programs and I regularly volunteered as a tennis instructor.
“Hey now, slow down,” Kade said. “Save the trash talk for the course.” Dressed in black jeans and T-shirt, Kade looked more like Hannah’s date than mine.
Taylor chuckled but didn’t saying anything. I wondered if he felt uncomfortable being here with Kade. He certainly seemed out of place standing beside the two of them. His khakis and knit Polo shirt mirrored mine and I tried to shake off the sense that we were paired incorrectly on this date.
We walked to the first hole with our color specific balls so that we could tell them apart. The mini golf course was lively with several families and other couples on dates. The flashing lights from the animatronic pirates and birds combined with the adventurous water features made a fun, lighthearted atmosphere. Perfect for a first date, and for Kade and Taylor to hopefully relax around each other.
“So, who wants to go first?” Hannah asked.
“How about oldest to youngest?” I suggested. “Kade, when’s your birthday?”
“June 28th,” Kade said without hesitation then glanced at Taylor, who looked like he was clenching his teeth.
“Huh, what are the odds that you and Taylor would have the same birthday?” I asked, also glancing at Taylor.
“Pretty slim I would say, but stranger things have happened.” Kade shrugged and cleared his throat.
“Guess our parents must have both had a party in October and gotten carried away,” Taylor said with a sneer. Why did he always have to show such animosity toward Kade? I’d gotten to know him more through our chemistry class when he was assigned to be my lab partner. He’d been super helpful the whole week and was incredibly smart. I hadn’t expected that from with his rock star bad boy persona. He certainly didn’t seem to be the jerk Taylor claimed he was.
“I wouldn’t want to share a birthday,” said Hannah. She seemed oblivious to the tension between our two dates. “I like to have a day dedicated to just me.”
“Same,” I agreed. “My birthday’s July 17th. What about you, Hannah?”
“Mine’s May 13th so I’m the oldest. Why don’t we go me, Taylor, Kade, then Gracie?” Hannah’s question sounded more like a plan that was not up for discussion.
“Sounds great,” said Taylor. “Let’s do this.” He held out his hand, inviting Hannah to step up to the tee.
Hannah putted her ball close to the hole and offered Taylor a high five as he took her place. Why did that make me jealous? He wasn’t my date.
Taylor’s ball bounced off the brick barrier a few times but ended up on the green close to the hole.
Kade wasn’t even close and had to re-hit his ball twice just to get it over the first hill.
“Alright Gracie let’s put some of that trash talk to the test.” Hannah sneered playfully.
I stepped up and set my hot pink ball down on the tee, lined up my shot, and with one quick swing got a hole in one.
“Boom!” I cheered, jumping in the air to celebrate my awesome shot.
Kade lifted me in a hug of congratulations, and Hannah offered me a high-five.
As we walked toward the end of the green to retrieve our balls, Taylor leaned close to me and asked, “It’s that lucky charm I got you, isn’t it?”
“I came prepared,” I said with a wink, shaking my wrist so we could hear the charms jingle.
I looked down at the charm bracelet Taylor had given me on my 16th birthday, shortly after we became friends. Every now and then he would surprise me with a new charm. A tennis racket, of course, in remembrance of how we became friends, a music note to commemorate the day we went to a Buxton Peak concert together. Another charm was a stack of books for the late nights we spent together studying. There were others, but the most recent charm was declared to be my lucky charm. It was a yin yang symbol to help me remember that opposites can complement and help one another, even if it doesn’t always seem that way.
We kept playing through all eighteen holes, and predicably I won. Hannah was a close second, but Kade and Taylor hit their balls into the water so many times that we stopped counting their shots at hole ten.
“Well, now that I have been thoroughly reminded how bad I am at sports, how about some ice cream?” Kade suggested, wrapping his arm around my waist and leading me to the concession stand.
“Yes please. I always have a terrible sweet tooth, especially for peanut butter chocolate ice cream.”
“I will gladly satiate that sweet tooth,” Kade said in a sultry voice. I smacked his shoulder in response to his flirting.
I looked back and noticed Taylor and Hannah were smiling at each other as they took our clubs and balls back to the main counter. They seemed to be hitting it off, sort of. I fought that same pang of jealousy even though I had been the one to set them up on this date in the first place. Hannah was a great person but not good enough for my best friend.
Kade either didn’t notice my frustration or chose to ignore my creased brows and distracted glare. He ordered our ice cream, and we sat at a nearby picnic table opposite each other as we waited for Hannah and Taylor to order theirs.
“Tell me the story about your necklace.” Kade pointed to the heart I wore on a delicate chain. “You always seem to be wearing it.”
“Tay got it for me this past Christmas.” I reached to fiddle with the heart between my fingers. “It says Omnia vincit amor, which means love conquers all.”
“Love, huh?” Kade smirked knowingly. I realized I needed to clarify the meaning.
“My parents fight a lot, and Tay got me this necklace to remind me that they love me, and deep down they probably still love each other. And at the end of the day, love is what gets us through our hard times.”
Kade didn’t say anything but stood up and leaned over the table. With his face inches away from mine, I could smell his cologne. My heart pounded as I waited for his next move.
Gently, he brushed my fingers away from the words so he could read them, and a soft smile appeared on his face. He whispered the phrase as if he were saying it to himself. His glance shifted so that he was looking me in the eyes.
“Tay’s really lucky to have you,” Kade whispered. Then he reached up and kissed me on the forehead before settling back down on his side of the bench.
I was speechless. This was not the Kade that Taylor described to me, and the more I got to know Kade the more I thought Taylor misunderstood him. I also realized that my relationship and interest with Kade had shifted since we first met. Although I still found him extremely attractive, he was more like a brother to me, just like Sean or Clay.
Kade and I sat in silence across the picnic table from one another, eating our ice cream and waiting for Hannah and Taylor to bring their ice cream over and sit with us.
“Yum, give me a bite.” Taylor leaned close when he sat beside me on the bench. “You always get peanut butter chocolate. My favorite.”
As he took my cone, he handed me his and I teased him. “If peanut butter chocolate is your favorite, why do you always get strawberry?” Without considering the notion that we were swapping spit, we traded back after I took a huge bite of his, scoring a large chunk of frozen strawberry.
Kade raised his eyebrows and smirked at me across the table, his eyes darting back and forth between me and Taylor. Bumping his elbow gently against the girl who was supposedly on a date with Taylor, Kade offered his cone to Hannah. “You wanna trade?”
Hannah wrinkled her nose. “No thanks, I don’t like mint chocolate chip.”
“That’s okay, I don’t like butter pecan either.” Kade resumed eating his own ice cream.
The rest of the evening was lighthearted and playful, joking around and having fun. This no longer felt like a date other than one time when Taylor wrapped his arm around my back, reaching to snag the last bite of my cone.
As we were wiping off our table and getting ready to leave, I noticed Laura was near the edge of the patio taking pictures of students from our high school as they obliviously played mini golf and ate ice cream.
She was often singlehandedly in charge of running the entire school paper. She did everything from reporting, to photography, and right down to the editing.
I wondered what crazy project she had planned for this week’s edition and how kids playing minigolf factored into her story. Guess I would have to wait for Monday during homeroom. The school paper was a major highlight every Monday morning and that was in large credit to her diligence over the prior week.
Gathering up my used napkins, I threw them in the trash, then followed my friends to where Taylor had parked his car.
Kade opened the back door for me like a gentleman and I slipped into the seat, wishing I could sit up front. Where I normally sat. When Taylor wasn’t on a date with someone else.
Book Club Discussion Questions: Now that Gracie realizes her relationship with Kade is more like a brother/sister friendship, what should she do?
“How was your first day of school, guys?” Mom asked when we walked in the door.
“Wasn’t my first day of school,” I mumbled, dropping my backpack in the mudroom and heading straight for the refrigerator.
“That was probably the best day of school ever in my life,” Kade said. He leaned against the kitchen island and reached for a banana from the fruit basket. “You’d be surprised how much you miss something as mundane as school when you’re kept away for two years.”
“Your own fault.” I couldn’t help being rude even though I knew to reign myself in.
“Tay, enough of that.” Mom pointed her finger at me and gave me that look.
“Sorry, Mom,” I said under my breath, not nearly as sorry as I should have been.
“Apologize to your brother, not me.”
“What, are we in preschool?” I asked.
“You tell me. You’re the one acting like a four-year-old.”
I ignored my mom and glared across the room at my twin brother, daring him to demand an apology. He took the initiative to change the subject, essentially letting me off the hook.
“Grand Haven High School has a great band program,” Kade said, releasing my gaze and looking over at our mom. “I wish I’d been here during basketball season because they apparently have a jazz band that rocks. Right now, the seniors aren’t doing much except hanging out while the kids practice songs for graduation and crap like that. A couple of the guys and I went into one of the practice rooms and jammed. Totally took me back, ya know?”
“Are they good kids?” Mom didn’t even try to hide her suspicion. I was sure she was just as leery of Kade getting involved in the wrong crowd as I was.
“Doesn’t matter.” Kade’s tone was defensive. “I’m not gonna do nothin’. Geesh, Mom. Besides, I just met ‘em today. How would I know?”
“I just want you to be careful.” She reached for her oven mitts and opened the door, allowing the heavenly aroma of lasagna to waft into the kitchen.
“Yeah, make new friends, Kade.” Kade’s statement dripped with sarcasm. “But only the right kind of friends, is that it?”
“You don’t need to be all defensive,” Mom said, closing the oven door. She placed the mitts on the counter and turned to my brother. “We just got you back and I don’t want to lose you again.”
“I’m not goin’ nowhere, okay?” Kade pushed past me and reached into the refrigerator for a Perrier, his strange go-to drink. I always suspected he used sparkling mineral water to hide a shot of vodka, but there was no alcohol in our house, that I knew of anyway. “I got homework. I’ll be in my room.”
Kade stopped in the mudroom to grab his backpack and headed for the stairs.
Mom sighed and I felt bad for snapping at her. “You need to let up on him, Tay. You’re going to push him away and he may never come back.”
“What if I didn’t want him to come back?” I couldn’t meet her gaze.
“You don’t mean that.” Her soft voice offered compassion. “He’s your twin brother. If you weren’t meant to be together you wouldn’t have been born at the same time.”
I’d heard that argument all my life. “Mom, we have nothing in common.”
“That’s not the real issue, though, is it?” Mom saw right through me.
My answer was barely a whisper and I was afraid I’d start crying if I wasn’t careful. “I don’t know if I can forgive him,” I admitted.
“Let him prove to you that he’s changed, Tay.” Mom came around the kitchen island and took me in her arms. I reluctantly let her hold me, inhaling the subtle French perfume that reminded me of home.
“I’ll try, okay?” I settled into a comfortable hug with my mom, allowing a rare show of affection. “Maybe I can go see if he needs help with homework or something.”
“That’s a great idea.” She gave me one more hug then released me from her arms.
I grabbed my backpack and headed up to Kade’s room. Without knocking, I opened his door and found him laying on his bed, a copy of The Great Gatsby in his hand.
“Need the Sparknotes version?” I asked, knowing that book was dreadfully dull to most seventeen-year-old boys. But more importantly, knowing that our midterm test was next week. He would need to cram several weeks’ worth of reading into only a few days.
“I really like it so far.” Kade turned the book around and glanced at the cover. “I’ve grown to appreciate good books.”
“Who are you and what did you do with my twin brother?” I dropped my backpack on the floor and pulled out my own copy of The Great Gatsby knowing I had about ten pages left and was behind. Might as well join him. I climbed over Kade and laid down on the other side of his queen bed.
“Your twin brother went to juvenile detention center and came back as your cousin, remember?” His sarcasm barely hid the hurt that was probably clawing at his heart.
“If only we could turn back time.” I settled onto his extra pillow and we read in companionable silence until mom called us down for dinner.
Book club discussion question: What could Kade have possibly done two years ago that Taylor still can't forgive him?? Discuss in the comments below. -Julie
“Hey, gorgeous, I mean Gracie,” said the voice behind my locker door. I moved it slightly to see Kade leaning his shoulder against the lockers next to mine. His hair was styled in the same disheveled curls, but today he was sporting a seriously expensive looking leather jacket over his dark clothing.
“Hey yourself,” I replied as I pulled my chemistry book out of my locker. “You know, you look like a genuine rock star.”
“Do I now?” Kade chuckled. “Well, I’m sure there's a reason for that. Maybe, just maybe, I’m an even bigger Buxton Peak fan than my dear cousin.” Was he making fun of Taylor? I wanted to call him out, but I decided to stay on Kade’s good side so I could help them become friends.
“I don’t know about that,” I said, only half teasing. “Tay knows all of their songs and goes to a lot of their concerts. Even backstage at some.”
“Does he really?” Kade’s eyes widened and he mumbled, “Surprised he went without me.” Kade almost seemed offended or hurt.
“Okay, no need to be jealous.” I found myself wanting to defend Taylor’s right to go to a concert without inviting his cousin, especially when there was obvious animosity between the two of them. “He’s only taken me once, if that makes you feel any better.”
“It does make me feel better.” Kade seemed to pull himself together. “You are after all his best friend.”
“That’s right.” I turned back to my locker to grab my lab notebook so we could head to chemistry class. “I’m his best friend.” Was I trying to convince myself? Or Kade?
“How about we shut this scrapbook, I mean locker, and head to class, hmm?” Kade nodded toward my open locker with all of the magnets, paper crafts, and pictures with friends, most of which included Taylor. Huh, I’d never noticed there were so many pictures of me and Taylor in my locker. I wondered if Taylor ever noticed.
“Scrapbook?” My jaw dropped with feigned offense.
“Yeah, it looks like a scrapbooking company held their annual meeting inside your locker.”
“Just so you know—” I closed my locker and offered a flirtatious grin, “I love my scrapbook inspired locker.”
“I’m sure you do.” Kade raised his eyebrows knowingly. I wondered if he was referencing all of the pictures with Taylor, but I didn’t ask. He seemed to see right through me. I wondered if I should worry about losing my heart to him or worry that he would call me out for my attraction to Taylor.
I turned away from my locker and we walked down the hall together, drawing attention from our classmates. It was a small enough school that everyone knew Kade was Taylor’s cousin. They all knew that Taylor and I were best friends, so logically I would also be friends with his cousin. Right? “You know, everyone is staring at us,” I said under my breath.
Kade smirked. “Maybe they just wish they were me so they could have chemistry with you too.”
“Very funny.” My cheeks flushed and I lowered my gaze. More likely they all wished they were me so they could get close to the mysterious hot guy who was my new next-door neighbor.
“Oh, I seem to have touched a nerve,” he teased. Then in a solemn voice he said. “You know I was just joking, I’m sure you’re a fantastic person. I mean Tay seems to really like you, and he normally has better luck with friends than I do.”
“You seem to know more about me than I know about you.” I glanced over at Kade and his brows were furrowed as if deep in thought. What didn’t make sense was that Taylor had never mentioned Kade before. Taylor was like that about a lot of his family members, but Kade seemed to be an especially touchy subject for him. “You coming here must have been a sudden thing for him. I noticed you two don’t have chemistry together.”
Kade was silent the entire rest of the way to our classroom. When I reached for the handle, Kade put his arm up, preventing me from opening the door. He looked me in my eyes and said in a low voice, “Not everything Tay says about me is true. I know you’re best friends, but he has some big misunderstandings about me. I don’t want you to see me differently because he’s still angry at me for something I did years ago.”
I grabbed Kade’s free hand and held it between mine. I stepped closer so I was less than a foot away from him. I wanted him to be the only one who could hear what I needed to say. “I trust Tay with nearly everything, but he also knows I think for myself. I’m not going to pre-judge you, Kade. That’s not who I am. My friendship with Tay is completely separate from my friendship with you. Tay respects my friendships, even if he doesn’t always understand them. I’m sure you’ll be no exception.” I let go of his hand and took one step backwards.
Before Kade opened the door to the chemistry classroom he said, “You’re different than what I expected.”
“Yeah, well you’re different than what I expected because I didn’t even know you existed.” I offered him a quick wink. “Shall we see about our chemistry class then?”
Before entering the classroom, I noticed Laura, the photographer for the school newspaper had her eyes trained on me. What was her deal? Was she taking pictures of people in the hallway?
Laura and I stopped hanging out after she quit the tennis team last year. Her leaving had been a loss for our team because her natural talent and skills rivaled my own. She could have easily been an all-state champion.
But her leaving meant I lost one of my best friends too. I still didn’t know what I did to make her so mad at me. We used to be inseparable.
The newspaper had taken over Laura’s life and she no longer had room for me. Or maybe I no longer had room for her. She left tennis right about the time I started hanging out with Taylor.
Was she jealous? I mean, Taylor’s hot, but she never really seemed boy crazy. Maybe she wasn’t staring at me. Maybe she was staring at Kade. He was almost as hot as Taylor. I was way overthinking this. I offered her a half smile and ducked into my classroom.
Book Club Discussion Questions: what do you think of Gracie's scrapbook shrine to her "best" friend? Do you think Kade has figured it out? What do you think Gracie should do about Laura? Maybe set her up with Kade so she can go out with Taylor? or set her up with Taylor like she'd been planning. She needs to set him up with somebody... right?
“Geesh, Tay, aren’t you even going to wait until I have a chance to unpack a racket?” Gracie asked me as she set down her bag and unzipped the compartment with her favorite rackets. She kept them lined up in order of string tension and practiced with a different racket each day to gradually break them all in. By the time she got to a tournament, most of the rackets in her bag were optimized.
“No,” I grumbled. “Stay over here. I don’t want to hit you.”
“Okaaay…” She wisely slipped behind me and to the side, keeping a wide berth.
I tossed the next ball into the air and smacked it as hard as I could, not caring whether the serve was accurate. This wasn’t practice for me; it was blowing off steam, shaking off the aggression in my heart. Every ball I hit I imagined Kade’s smirk and I just wanted to smack him. Punch him. Hit him. Each ball had his face.
Then I realized his face was my face. Hating him was hurting us both. I screamed and almost smashed my racket against the court. Thankfully I kept my temper at bay.
“Hey.” Gracie’s soft voice was closer than I was expecting. She was brave to come this close to a guy who was a hair away from losing his temper. That woke me up. “You want to talk about it?”
“Not really.” I lowered my racket and let my arms go slack at my sides.
“I take it Kade moving in with you guys wasn’t your idea?” Her compassion was undeserved especially when I responded with sarcasm.
“Gee, what makes you think that?”
She didn’t answer, just pursed her lips and lifted her chin. Her long blonde hair pulled into a ponytail fell down her back.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to be a prick.”
“Do you remember the first day we came here to the tennis courts two years ago?” she asked.
“Of course.” I knew where she was going with this. “I watched you from my bedroom window as you stormed out of your house carrying your tennis bag and wiping tears from your face.”
“And do you remember why I was crying and storming from my house?”
“Because your parents were fighting again.”
“And what did you do?” she asked.
“I followed you here like a stalker.” I chuckled and she joined in, breaking the tension.
“You listened,” she said. “Even though we barely knew each other, and I was a blubbering mess, we sat here on the court and you listened as I told you about my horrible day.”
“And you smiled afterward.”
“And then we played tennis together for an hour,” she said.
“And I was terrible.”
“You had room for improvement.” She raised her eyebrows. I knew she wasn’t just talking about tennis anymore.
“He’s a jerk, okay? I don’t want him living with me because he’s gonna ruin my life again when I finally have normal friends and a normal house and a normal life, and I don’t want his drama.”
“See, don’t you feel better now, getting that off your chest?” She raised her eyebrows. “If I know anything about my best friend it’s that you won’t let some jerk ruin your life.”
“Easier said than done when the jerk is family,” I grumbled.
“I’m never going to choose him over you, if that’s what you’re worried about. One date with your cousin isn’t going to change the friendship you and I share.”
“Unless you fall in love, grow up and get married.” I was trying to make a joke but the thought of them together that way was revolting. She deserved a guy better than him.
“Well, if that were the case, I’d have the best cousin-in-law ever.”
I almost corrected her that she’d have the best brother-in-law ever, but I kept myself in check. I held up my racket. “You ready to beat the crap out of me?”
“Definitely.” Before heading over to the other side of the court, Gracie tucked herself into my arms and we held each other in a comfortable hug for a long moment.
I wished she could be in my arms every day and go on dates with me, not my twin brother. But she didn’t like me that way, and I could understand why. I was boring and normal. Kade was a sexy, brooding bad boy with the potential to be a rock star someday. If he hadn’t gotten into trouble when he did, he’d probably already be a rock star. With our dad and his connections, Kade could pick his venue.
No girl would choose me over him, not even my best friend. I pulled back and handed her the ball I’d had in my hand. “You can serve first.”
Taylor’s face lit up with a smile and his little sister clamored to extricate herself from his arms when she saw me.
“Gracie!” Little Reina scrambled off the bed and ran across the spacious room, jumping into my arms. I laughed as she wrapped her arms around my neck.
“Didn’t know I was missing a concert,” I said, leaning against the doorway of Taylor’s bedroom. I shifted the heavy five-year-old onto my hip.
The music stopped and Kade placed his hand across the strings of the guitar he was holding, silencing the reverb.
I’d let myself into Taylor’s back door through the kitchen like I always did and heard loud music from upstairs. No one was on the main level of the house. That was because they were all right here gathered around Kade.
“Did you know Kade is here?” Reina asked, as if Kade wasn’t right in front of me. “I haven’t seen him in years!”
“It’s only been a few months since you saw me, Ray.” Kade switched off the amp to stop the sound altogether.
“Don’t let me stop you from playing,” I said. “Nice to see that guitar getting some use. Tay never plays it.”
I carried Reina across the room and sat on Taylor’s bed next to where his older brother, Sean, sat on the floor leaning his back against the bed. Their younger brother, Clay, sat on the floor at Kade’s feet as if he idolized his cousin.
“Hey, that thing’s a collector’s item,” Taylor defended. “It’s going to be worth something someday.”
“It’s worth something now, idiot.” Sean turned around and shoved his brother playfully. “How many people in this world own a Paul Reed Smith signed by Ian Taylor?”
“Not many, I’m sure.” I glanced up at the poster above Taylor’s bed and his eyes followed mine. “How did you manage to get that guitar, anyway?”
“When Ian found out I was named after him, he gave it to me as a birthday present,” Taylor said, still gazing at the poster where the rock band, Buxton Peak stood in a pose worthy of a ninety’s boy band with a hint of rock god thrown in. They were a little younger in the photo then they were now, but it was a great poster. They’d had it matted and framed.
For the first time I realized the poster wasn’t just signed by the band members, it had personalized autographs written to Taylor. Dang. I set Reina on the bed and rose to get a closer look.
Happy birthday, little Tay. Love, Andy Smith. That was signed next the band’s bassist. Tay, thanks for screaming at our concert. Gonna git you some headphones! Love, Nathanial Jackson. That was next to their drummer. Love you, Tay. Happy first birthday. That was scrawled next to the band’s lead guitarist, Kai Burton. And last was a larger signature next to their front man, Ian Taylor, who must have been the guy who gifted the poster along with the guitar. So cool that your parents named you after me, Little Tay. Love you, buddy. -Ian Taylor
“A guitar is a pretty expensive first birthday gift,” I said, turning back to Taylor.
“Ian’s a billionaire,” Taylor dismissed my concern. “He can afford it.”
“It was probably a tax write-off.” Sean chuckled.
“Wanna hear me play it?” Kade asked me but looked to Taylor almost as if getting his permission. They glared at each other for a moment and I sensed more tension between the two of them.
“Whatever,” Taylor mumbled and looked away. He laid down on his bed and tossed a tennis ball in the air, letting it fall back into his hand. I wanted to comfort him but decided he and I could talk later when we could be alone. My best friend was having a tough day and I needed to find out why. As he continued tossing the ball in the air, I turned back to Kade.
“I’d love to hear you play.”
No one else seemed to notice the tension between Taylor and their cousin. We all settled into our spots and Kade turned the amplifier back on.
Without thinking about it I leaned back against Taylor’s headboard and pulled my feet up on the bed.
Taylor stilled for a second in response to me practically cuddled up by his side. He leaned his shoulder against my leg and glanced up at me, vulnerability in his eyes. I wondered if the tension between him and his cousin had anything to do with Kade flirting with me. Interesting.
I winked at Taylor then faced Kade as the sound of reverb filled the room. Taylor resumed throwing his ball.
Kade was seriously talented on the guitar. No wonder the family was gathered around to listen. I was caught up in the music as he played songs from Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Chuck Barry, Eddie Van Halen, Guns ‘N Roses, Carlos Santana, and Buxton Peak. He played Kai Burton’s solo from their most popular song, Passing through Eternity, so well that I’d swear I was listening to a recording.
That was Taylor’s favorite song, so he listened to it a lot. I guess if I were named after a rock star, his band would become my favorite band also.
After a little while of listening, a door slammed downstairs and Rhonda called up to us, “Kids, I brought pizza.”
“Pizza!” Clay hopped off the floor and headed out of the room. Sixteen-year-old boys were perpetually hungry.
“Pizza, pizza, pizza!” Reina slid down from the bed and followed her brother.
“Dang, you’d think they’d never been fed before.” Nineteen-year-old Sean hoisted himself off the plush carpet and brushed himself off.
As Kade turned off the amp and put the guitar in its stand, I caught Taylor’s tennis ball mid-throw.
“Wanna go hit some balls after dinner?” I asked Taylor quietly, speaking to just him.
“I would love that.” Taylor glanced up at me, his brown eyes smoldering. Dang, I wish he liked me as more than a friend. When Kade cleared his throat from across the room, Taylor sat up and pointed at him. “Don’t even think about it. You can have your date with Gracie another day. Tennis is our thing.”
“Yeah, tennis is our thing,” I teased as Taylor sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. I stood to get out of his way, helping him to his feet.
“Hey, have you figured out who you’re going to set me up with yet?” Taylor asked.
“Yes!” I realized I hadn’t told him the reason I came over. “My friend Hannah from the community center. She said she’s free on Friday night if you’re both up for some mini golf?”
“Whoever isn’t up for mini golf?” Kade asked with false enthusiasm. I wondered if his idea of fun on a Friday night involved something stronger than put-put golf. Something more like a rave party or rock concert. Something with scantily clad girls hanging on him. What had I gotten myself into?
“Yes, Friday sounds perfect.” Taylor put his hand on the small of my back, leading me out into the hallway. “Let’s eat some pizza and then head over to the courts, okay?”
Taylor was looking at me so intensely, like he was trying to communicate something he didn’t want to say in front of his cousin. This wasn’t like Taylor, and I hoped he would be willing to open up when we got to the courts.
“Whenever you’re ready Tay,” I responded, looking him straight in the eyes for several seconds, hoping to convey the message that I was ready to listen as soon as he was ready to talk.
Kade coughed from the doorway to Taylor’s bedroom. “So, gorgeous, I mean Gracie, I hear we have chemistry class together.” Kade’s emphasis on chemistry was purposely provocative.
Through nearly clenched teeth Taylor said to me, “I went ahead and shared our schedules with Kade.”
“That was very thoughtful of you, Tay.” I patted Taylor on the shoulder. “I’ll make sure Kade has a great first day at his new school.”
“I bet you will.” Kade’s suggestive comment earned him a punch in the arm from his cousin.
As I skipped down the stairs, I could hear Kade and Taylor talking aggressively to each other under their breaths. Maybe they weren’t working on their friendship.
When I walked into the kitchen, Rhonda offered me a slice of pizza, which I gladly accepted. She looked tired, and I marveled at how brave she was to take on one more mouth to feed when she was already raising four kids as a single mom.
There was a possibility that my mom might soon know how that felt and I wasn’t ready. My parents hadn’t officially split up yet, but the threat hung over our family like an ominous cloud. At least my best friend would be able to comfort me through my parents’ divorce, if it came down to that.
I didn’t want it to come down to that.
Book Club Discussion Question: What message do you think Taylor's trying to convey to Gracie? Please discuss in the comments.