Joel Anderson was still on cloud nine the day following when he met Winnie. The guys at football practice teased him about switching teams and joining the fine arts department so he could be her dance partner.
Little did they know how close to the mark they’d hit. He was planning to meet her at her studio after practice and take her out to dinner. He didn’t care. They could tease him all they wanted. He’d get the final laugh by hanging out with a gorgeous brunette for the evening.
Winnie was tall and elegant with legs that stretched on for miles, almond eyes brimming with mystery and intrigue. Olive skin tone that hinted of Mediterranean or Italian or Middle Eastern origin. Whatever it was about her, he wanted to peel back the onion layers and find out more.
This afternoon he needed to focus on upcoming games. The University of Michigan had appeared in the Rose Bowl twenty times, second only to University of Southern California. Joel and the boys intended to make it twenty-one. They were undefeated this season and rumored to be a shoe-in.
But first they had to get through Big Ten championships and that required kicking Ohio State right back to Columbus. Normally their toughest competition, Ohio State had a few key injuries and a tough year. Michigan should pull off a win, but not necessarily an easy win.
The week before Thanksgiving they had a non-conference game against Eastern Michigan that would be another throw away. Nonetheless, they treated every practice as if this week’s game was the most important.
Joel and the guys gave it all they had. As he stole the ball from an offensive running back, Joel couldn’t help smile about how Winnie had said if she was the ball he’d have her halfway to the endzone by now. As he spiked the ball in victory that day in practice, he thought, that one’s for you, babe.
Shane was the only guy on the team who had overheard that conversation and he razzed him on the way to the locker room.
“How’d that ball feel?” Shane nudged Joel’s shoulder. “Almost as heavy as your date last night? What was her name? Winifred?”
“Winnie, short for Edwina, which I think is an elegant name.” Joel sighed. “And I think the ball was heavier. That girl was light as a feather.”
“Light as a feather, stiff as a board,” Shane teased. “Sounds like a party game that’s ends with those long legs wrapped around you.”
“I was a perfect gentleman,” Joel said. “I deposited her safely on the trainer’s table, typed my cell phone number into her contacts list, and sent myself a text asking myself out to dinner.”
“How’d she react to that?” Shane asked with a congratulatory nod.
“She laughed and told me she gets out of practice this evening at seven, I’m picking her up in a little while.”
“Be careful with this woman, Joel,” Shane warned. “She’s out of your league.”
“Only if I let her be,” Joel said with confidence. “She doesn’t intimidate me in the least. She likes football, flirts with me shamelessly, and let me bench press her the night we met. Imagine what she’ll want to do after a few weeks of dating.”
“I’m telling you, she’s too much woman for you.” Shane was probably right but Joel was too egotistical to admit that. As they headed into separate showers, Shane called over his shoulder. “Hey, if she’s got a roommate or something, hook a brother up.”
“I’ll see what I can do, man.”
Joel forgot his promise on the walk from the stadium to the fine arts building, and by the time he snuck into the back of her practice room, carefully staying out of Winnie’s line of sight, he forgot his own name.
She was mesmerizing. Joel knew very little about ballet but had a sudden desire to learn more. He didn’t know the names of any of the moves, but watched as Winnie leapt into the air, spun on the tips of her toes and moved to the beat of a haunting piano arrangement of something Christmas-y and passionate.
He remembered the conversation from yesterday about her being flexible and she definitely was. He could imagine all kinds of ways to put that flexibility to good use.
When the music finally wound down to slower, controlled movements, Joel thought the dance was coming to an end. He was wrong. Whoever had created this piece of music suddenly pounded out the last few notes in a dramatic ending that was almost orgasmic. He could imagine the auditorium on their feet immediately following the conclusion of the dance and Edwina LaFleur stepping to the front of the stage, taking a bow while adoring fans threw roses at her feet.
Joel was breathless. Whoever this girl was, she was talented beyond Joel’s imagination. Shane was right. She was out of his league.
Did you miss the song? I've imbedded her performance piece below.
“You’re favoring your knee again,” Madame Jocie called over the majestic piano music pounding through the speakers in the otherwise empty practice room.
“It’s just been a long day,” Winnie called back, annoyed that her ballet instructor had interrupted her flow. “I just need some ice.” The music stopped abruptly but Winnie continued spinning on pointe, finishing her series of pirouettes without missing a beat.
Winnie didn’t need the music playing through the speakers in order to hear Jarrod Radnich’s arrangement of Carol of the Bells in her head. She only wished she could dance across the stage as rapidly and passionately as his fingers danced across the keys of his piano.
She ended her series of turns, landing in fourth arabesque and shifted her spot in the mirror to meet the pointed glare of her ballet mistress who stood a few feet away.
“Your back leg is where you get your power for those pirouettes.” Madame Jocie’s purposely calm words were more terrifying than her shouting at a class full of freshman ballerinas with weak ankles. “You’re this close.” She held up her fingers as if pinching a grain of sand.
“I know.” Winnie’s eyes lowered to where a dusting of chalk collected in a divot created by someone’s overzealous tap shoe.
“Your performance is in less than three weeks.” Madame Jocie’s reminder encouraged Winnie to lift her chin with confidence. “Talent scouts will be in the auditorium. This is your chance, Edwina. Don’t screw this up.”
“I won’t let you down, Madame. I promise.” Winnie’s confidence soared and she knew her words to be true.
“This isn’t about me. These are your dreams. I’m a washed-up old ballet mistress teaching college level dance rather than donning a tutu at the New York City Ballet.”
“At one of the finest universities in the world,” Winnie pointed out. Teaching dance at the University of Michigan was hardly something to sniff at. The theatre and drama department at U of M was world-renowned. They didn’t hire second-rate instructors.
“I want you to call it a day and head over to the training room and get that knee checked out.”
“Yes, Madame.” There was no way Winnie was going to argue. Her knee was throbbing just enough make her cautious. She turned to head over to gather her belongings and sit down to remove her toe shoes.
“When was the last time you ate?”
Winnie stopped walking and avoided Madame Jocie’s penetrating gaze. “I was going to head over to get a protein smoothie on my way to the trainer.”
“I promise,” Winnie whispered.
“Lots of berries, kale, and avocado, and see if they’ve got some olive oil they can throw in there.”
Winnie shuddered and stuck out her tongue. “Yuck. I don’t think they have olive oil at the smoothie shop, but I’ll ask.” She hoped her ballet mistress didn’t hear the lie Winnie was trying to slip past.
“You know, I’m kind of hungry myself.” Madame Jocie followed Winnie to the door and untied her dance shoes also, reaching for her street shoes. Guess she didn’t believe the lie. “Let’s go get some smoothies together.”
“That sounds… lovely.”
With her parents’ wealth, Winnie didn’t exactly need anyone buying her dinner, but she wasn’t going to argue or Madame Jocie would become even more suspicious.
Winnie would drink as much of that smoothie as her body could handle and throw the rest away. She wasn’t going to risk puking it back up on the long walk to the training room. She might be struggling, but she wasn’t stupid. Nutrition needed to stay inside the body once it was there. Period. Getting it in there was the hard part.
She finished untying her toe shoes, pulled on some long, warm socks over her tights, slipped on the most comfortable pair of soft leather boots ever created by the finest cobblers her parents could afford, and wrapped herself in layers of sweaters and a parka. Michigan in November was not the kind of place to walk across campus in the chill of twilight. Especially for someone with so little fat on her bones. Madame Jocie was right. She needed to add some oil into that smoothie.
They mostly walked in silence, huddled against the wind and chill in the air. The smoothie shop was only a few hundred feet from the entrance of the performing arts building but it was far enough that her knee hurt even more from walking in the cold.
The smoothie shop was relatively packed with college kids and the main topic of conversation was the football playoffs. Michigan was rumored to be in the running for the Rose Bowl this year. That was pretty big time. Even Winnie was impressed and eavesdropped on the two guys in front of them in line. Something about a defensive tackle who got past the linemen and pummeled the quarterback. She tried not to roll her eyes. She also tried not to gag at the sheer volume of food they ordered.
At last, the moment arrived when they noticed her. There was always the moment. Guys tended to do a double take when they looked at her. Winnie knew she was beautiful. Tall, slim and elegant. And guys were predictable. Like their hormones controlled their jaw that dropped, and their eyes that couldn’t help traveling down and then up her body. And then their gaze would lock with hers and she’d smirk and raise her eyebrows and they’d come out of their testosterone-induced hypnosis. It was kind of adorable.
Football player number one and football player number two stepped aside with a gesture of inviting her to step up to the counter and order her food. Football player number two was kind of cute. He exuded confidence like he knew he was hot and sexy. And, dang it, he was. Sandy brown hair with a hint of a curl, a five o’clock shadow, broad shoulders and muscular but not too stocky.
Winnie glanced over at him several times while Madame Jocie ordered exactly what kind of smoothie she wanted Winnie to drink. Every time she glanced his way, football player number two was still smiling that cocky little smile that insinuated he’d welcome another cheerleader into his life. Too bad for him, Winnie wasn’t a cheerleader. She was a prima ballerina. Likely to leave college with a one-way ticket to New York City.
Madame Jocie handed her the plastic order number and pointed for her to go stand over there and wait while she paid. Right beside football player number two.
Winne pulled a page from the guys’ playbook and allowed her eyes to trail down and then up his body in a very provocative way that had him flustered to the point where his jaw involuntarily dropped again. Adorable and predictable. She stood beside him close enough that she could have held his hand if she’d been so bold, which she wasn’t.
Her ballet mistress and mentor didn’t notice the primal tension that rolled between her student and football player number two, but his buddy obviously did.
Football player number one nudged his friend’s shoulder, smirked, cleared his throat, and finally reached around football player number two and stuck out his hand. “I’m Shane. This tongue-tie coward is Joel. He totally thinks you're hot and wants to ask you out but isn’t brave enough so I’m going to have to ask you out instead.”
“I don’t think so, dude.” Joel stepped in front of Shane, blocking his advance and intercepted her handshake.
“Ooh, played like a defensive cornerback,” Winnie said with bravado. “Impressive.”
“A woman who knows her football,” Joel said. “Now that’s impressive.”
Winnie leaned closer to Joel and stage whispered, “If I were the ball, you’d have me halfway to the endzone by now.”
Joel let out a tiny whimper that told Winnie everything she needed to know about him. Typical guy who probably thought she researched the game of football on Google while standing in line to get her smoothie in order to impress him. The thought wouldn’t occur to him that she had brothers and a father who were season ticket holders with box seats at The Big House.
“Edwina,” Madame Jocie hissed at her. “That was completely unladylike.”
“My apologies, Madame,” Winnie said with a playful lilt. “I promise to refrain from flirting with any other guys for the remainder of my college career.”
The guys laughed at her teasing and were distracted as a guy behind the counter called them over for their meals. The same guy called Winnie and Madame Jocie over for their smoothies, which had gotten done at the same time.
Winnie winced as she turned away from the counter. “Ooh, I think I’m going to take an Uber over to the training room.”
“We were heading that way also,” Joel said, grabbing a stack of napkins and adding them to the large bag of takeout boxes filled with more food than she’d be able to eat in a week. “What are you in for? Twisted ankle?”
“Throbbing knee pain,” Winnie said. “You?”
“Student, actually.” Joel puffed out his chest. “Sports medicine.”
“I’m Winnie, by the way. Probably should formally introduce myself to the guy I’ve been shamelessly flirting with the past five minutes.”
“Nice to meet you, Winnie. What’s your major?” Typical pickup line.
“Classical ballet.” She lifted her chin.
“Ooh…” He leaned closer to whisper near her ear. “Flexible?” It wasn’t really a question. More like an acknowledged assumption.
“Very,” she whispered back.
Joel pulled away slightly. “I’d very much like to take you on a date sometime.”
“How about our first date be that you give me a lift over to the training room so I don’t have to call for an Uber?”
“Your wish is my command.” Joel swooped Winnie up into his arms like she was a feather. He probably bench pressed more than she weighed. She laughed and clung to her smoothie with both hands. “Shane you carry my bag of food and I’ll carry the invalid.”
As Joel started walking toward the door, Madame Josie called out from back at the counter, “Make sure she drinks every drop of that smoothie!”
Winnie pursed her lips around her straw and made a show of taking a long drink while batting her eyelashes up at Joel.
He chuckled as Shane held open the door for them. The walk to the training center was much more fun than she’d have predicted twenty minutes ago. Dating a football player could be fun. She took another drink of her smoothie and settled in for the ride across campus in the arms of football player number two.
I think a couple of my Super Fans will know who this book is dedicated to... the problem is, I have no idea what this book will be named. Any suggestions?
P.S. it takes Jarrod Radnich almost a full minute to get to the good stuff, but listen from the beginning to get a feel for Winnie's performance number wherein she will be approached by talent scouts from the New York City Ballet.
Greetings My Favorite Readers!
Today I have a dilemma. Usually, I know exactly which book to write/post next. Right this second there are too many books and not enough time to get them all written. I love them all, but I want to write what YOU want to read.
So, I’ll tell you which books I have in the works and you vote which book you want me to finish (start) writing next. If I’m able, I’ll try to start posting that book tomorrow.
I’m gathering votes from multiple sources: here on the blog post comments, emails, and my Facebook group. I will seriously try to take all your votes into consideration and go with the majority. But sometimes I have to follow my muse. And sometimes I have a weird dream at 3:00 in the morning and then three weeks later wake up to find that I wrote a book.
Speaking of books, here are the current options:
Finish writing Mending Fences (sequel to The Farmer’s Daughter)
About 1/3 written
Caleb, Paul, and Sarah go three separate ways trying to pick up the pieces after Ashley’s dramatic betrayal at the end of The Farmer’s Daughter. Caleb heads to Germany in search of the angel who introduced him to the gospel when he was in his early teens hoping to rekindle an old flame. Paul is called to serve as a missionary and unexpectedly happens upon the missing piece of a complicated puzzle. Sarah fumbles through college as an older student only to discover that embracing her natural talent leads to the love of her life.
Finish writing Phantom of the Chapel
About 80% complete
Phil Chapel is a military veteran who was burned severely when his patrol ran over a roadside bomb. His face is unrecognizable from the handsome man he used to be. He feels ugly, frustrated, judged, lost, has PTSD, trust issues, the works.
This story is a combination Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast type of story.
Christine has a beautiful singing voice and speaking voice and her voice is what originally draws Phil to her. She doesn’t see his face until well into the story and he barely sees hers, definitely not up close. They are truly falling in love with each other for who they are on the inside and not outward appearances.
Phil hides in the periphery of life, leaving her notes on the music stand in the chapel where Christine is the music leader each Sunday and sending messages through his roommate. For that reason, Christine and her roommate start jokingly calling Phil the Phantom of the Chapel. Little do they know that P.C. is actually his initials, but it fits.
Finish writing The Overlook
About 1/3 written
Stephanie’s marriage to Jared was supposed to last forever. After a honeymoon filled with laughter and romance, a tragic accident leaves Stephanie to pull her life back together as a young widow.
Their lake house in northern Michigan becomes a prison she needs to escape. After wandering through the woods, Stephanie happens upon a deck overlooking the picturesque and peaceful Au Sable River. She’s drawn to its beauty and the freedom from her troubles if she would take one… long… fall off the overlook.
After a handsome, young park ranger pulls Stephanie down off the ledge, both literally and figuratively, she comes to realize how much she has to lose.
Matt never dreamed how his world would change when he rescued Stephanie. His solitary life patrolling the forest is turned upside down in an instant, and he comes to question everything he thought to be true. Matt never knew how much he needed Stephanie until she needed him first.
Cinderella Meets Einstein
Possibly in the All’s Fair in Love and Sports Series but not sure if this story fits the pattern of all the others. It’s kind of a football player meets cheerleader type of story except I’ve got a lot of football player meets cheerleader stories already. There’s a cool twist to the story but I can’t tell you what that is yet.
As I Have Loved You
A famous motivational speaker, her right-hand woman-slash-personal assistant-slash-best friend, and her business manager-slash-boyfriend.
None of them could do their job without the other two. What happens when one of them is stricken with a life-threatening illness?
Can the love they feel survive this devastating loss? Can they honor a dying request to pick up the pieces and move on?
Before He Was a Billionaire
Darren Berkley is determined to get married before he becomes a billionaire. But with his net worth creeping ever closer, he dates woman after woman hoping he’ll find his future wife.
Chelsea Sparks has given up finding a husband. As a single mom, she waits tables and tends bar by night and volunteers at the local women’s aid service by day. Most men she meets are either creeps or drunks. Late each night, she counsels her friend, Darren.
Darren brings the women he dates to Chelsea’s restaurant and they evaluate them afterward. While discussing the pros and cons of each prospect, Chelsea wonders why she can’t find a man like Darren, and Darren wonders why he can’t meet a woman as caring and understanding as Chelsea.
When Darren learns of a funding crisis at the women’s aid service, Chelsea comes up with a plan to solve his problem, inadvertently helping every needy woman for miles around.
But can she help him find a wife before he becomes a billionaire?
Outline written – leaning toward this as my next project
Joel’s a college football player majoring in sports medicine. Winnie’s majoring in performing arts and specializing in ballet. After a minor knee injury sends her to the sports medicine department, a serendipitous moment lands Winnie in the arms of the handsome wide receiver. He calls her a delicate little bird not realizing she is teetering on the edge of anorexia. A whirlwind romance filled with family holidays, baggy sweaters, and a trip to the Rose Bowl hides what should have been obvious to Joel. His promise to love and cherish through sickness and health is tried and tested when he realizes the extent of Winnie’s illness. Can they pull through with a little help from their two best friends and modern medical treatment? Or will till death do us part come sooner than expected?
Book Club Discussion Questions: Which book should I write next and why?
The first thought in his mind was, I forgive you.
There was no doubt that Alex was with God, however unlikely that seemed. An hour ago, God didn’t exist. And now, God had always existed. Alex had merely forgotten. As quickly as he had this perfect recollection, all his past sins were placed before him for every peaceful being to observe. For God to observe.
Alex fell to his knees and wept, recognizing every detail of the past few hours, the alcohol, the girls, the haughtiness, the swearing, the girls, the defiance, the girls, and more girls and more girls. Alex tried to cover his face with his hands but couldn’t move them. He was being forced to see everything as quickly as scenes flashing one after another after another.
The horror of what he had done. The innocence stolen, the crushing guilt, the feeling of complete unworthiness.
Again, God’s voice was there, I forgive you.
How? Alex screamed the thought. How can you forgive me? Can’t you see what I’ve done?
I’ve watched your every move since the moment you left my presence and entered this realm.
Why didn’t you stop me?
You have the choice to follow me, or to follow my adversary.
I want to follow you!
Come, follow me.
I will! Alex cried to God. I will follow you forevermore. I promise.
Oh, my son, I welcome that. But you will be tempted repeatedly throughout your life and you will choose over and over to follow me or to turn your back.
I will never turn my back on you again. Never.
Many trials await you upon your return.
Return where? I’m home.
You must go back, my son.
No, you cannot send me back.
In this you do not have a choice.
What do you mean I have no choice?
I have work for you to do.
Work to do? No, I want to stay.
It’s not your time.
Not my time? This doesn’t make any sense.
You will understand when you’re ready.
“Alex, wake up.”
Please, I want to stay. Don’t make me go back.
“Alex, can you hear me?”
No, I cannot hear you. Leave me alone. I’m staying. It’s peaceful here.
“Please, Alex, you’ve got to come back to me. You’re my best friend. So many people are worried about you. Your mom and dad have been here. Thankfully they didn’t force me to leave. They’re all mad at me though. My Audi was totaled. Heck, I might go to jail if you don’t wake up. I might go to jail even if you do.”
“Whatever. I don’t care. I just want you to wake up. I can endure any punishment as long as you wake up. That’s all I care about. Do you know how many cards and flowers are in this room? Maybe you can smell them.”
I don’t know. Can I smell them?
“News of our accident has blown up social media. Oh, and I had a concussion. I’m better now. Sorta. I mean, I can’t sleep, and I can’t eat, and I’m shaking, like a lot. Can you hear me, man?”
“They have you hooked up to so many tubes and monitors. They’ve pumped like a million bags of fluid through your IV. You almost died a couple times.”
I did? That’s weird because I’ve been walking and talking and exploring and meeting new people and it’s really beautiful here. I can’t wait to tell you about it.
“You really scared me, man.”
Are you crying?
“You can’t leave me like this.”
I’m right here, what are you talking about?
“Hey, man, I learned how to pray, I think. I don’t know if anyone can hear me.”
“Maybe you see angels and ghosts, I don’t know. I figured if God does exist, it wouldn’t hurt to talk to him.”
“Can you even hear me?”
Hey, are you still there? Are you crying again?
Alex squeezed his fingers just a little to see if he could still feel whatever had been resting in his hand for hours.
“Alex? Can you hear me?”
“Alex, squeeze my hand again, man.”
No, it hurts.
“Please, wake up, man, squeeze my hand again.”
Gus? Is that you?
“Wake up, Alex. Squeeze my hand again.”
Okay, okay, already. You don’t have to get all huffy.
“NURSE!!!” Gus yelled. “He squeezed my hand!”
That’s so loud! Alex cringed away from the sound.
“I’m sorry, oh my gosh, where’s that damn nurse’s button, there it is!”
Alex was jostled around for a few seconds, then Gus’s voice was talking to him again.
“Alex, wake up, man. It’s Gus.”
Duh, I’d know your voice anywhere, man. I can hear you. You can stop talking so loudly. I’m right here.
“Alex, squeeze my hand again. Please.”
“How can I help you?”
A woman? Who’s the woman? Why’s she here?
“He squeezed my hand!”
And we’re back to yelling.
“Twice! And then I saw his forehead move.”
Weird. Why would I move my forehead? That seems like a strange thing to do.
“Alex, wake up. Squeeze my hand again.”
Why do you keep saying that?
“The doctor’s here.”
Gus? Where’d your hand go? Gus? You still there?
“Alex, it’s Doctor Herman. Can you hear me?”
Who the heck are you? Our family’s doctor is Doctor Cathcart. He has a place somewhere down in Kingston, but he usually just comes to our home. Am I home? No, this doesn’t smell like home. Hey! I can smell again. Yuck… what the heck is that smell? Ugh!
“His pupils are reactive,” Doctor Herman said.
What the heck! What on earth makes you think I want you to shine an incredibly bright light into my eye? And then the other eye? Get the heck out of my face!
“Mrs. Stephenson, he squeezed my hand!”
Hey, there’s Gus again. Good. He’s further away. Come back and hold my hand again, Gus. Wait, Mrs. Stephenson? Is he talking to my mom? Where’s my mom? Mom!
“He’s showing multiple reactions. He can probably hear us. Where’s that kid? Get him back over here.”
Kid? What kid? Who can hear you?
“Gus, honey, come talk to Alex,” the woman said.
Gus! Yeah, bring Gus back. Oh, good, there’s your hand. Thank you. Don’t leave me again, okay?
“Talk to him, honey. He can probably hear you.”
“Alex, buddy. Can you hear me?”
“He squeezed my hand again!”
You keep yellin’ in my ear, and I’m gonna stop squeezing. I’m joking. You can yell all you want, just don’t leave me again.
“Alex, can you open your eyes, man?”
Why would I want to open my eyes? For someone to shine bright lights in them again? Ah, man, did my eyes just move? I am not opening them. I refuse.
“His eyes are moving!” Gus said. “Alex, can you hear me? Open your eyes and look at me.”
Too bright. What the heck did you do to your face? It’s all scratched up. Man, you’re crying again. Stop.
“You’re alive! Oh my God, you’re alive!”
Please don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, you idiot. Don’t you know He hears every word you say? And He really doesn’t like that. Also, when was I ever not alive? I’ve been walking all over this place. There were a lot more people before. But whatever.
“Alex, can you say something? Can you talk to me?”
“Did Phoebe agree to go out with you again?” Alex asked, his voice scratchy.
“You idiot! I wouldn’t know! I haven’t left your side!” Gus pressed his face into Alex’s white blanket and sobbed, gripping the blanket as if he’d never let go. His words were muffled through the thick blanket. “Alex, God, Alex, I thought you were gonna die. Don’t you leave me like that again. I’m so sorry. I’ll never drink alcohol again as long as I live. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”
Alex lifted his heavy hand and rested it on Gus’s head. Gus leaned toward his hand, and Alex patted his head. He cleared his throat and tried talking again. “Quit being such a baby.”
“Alex, do you know where you are?” Doctor Herman asked. So that’s what you look like.
“Do you know why you’re in the hospital?”
“’Cause this idiot prince got shot down by a hot chick, drank himself into a stupor, and killed a perfectly good Audi, and I happened to be sitting next to him at the time.”
Gus started crying again.
“Shut up, man, you blubber like a baby.”
“Do you know what day of the week it is?” Doctor Herman asked.
“Darn it, I missed my geography test. Probably woulda failed it anyway.”
“I’m sure they’ll let you make it up.” Doctor Herman chuckled.
“I’ll still fail it. My teacher won’t believe that there’s this country in northern Saudi Arabia near the Jordanian border where these four cocky princes think their ancestors cry to them from the dust.”
Gus gripped Alex’s hand again and pressed his forehead against Alex’s and then they were both crying. “Don’t you leave me again.”
“Only if you promise not to wrap any more cars around telephone poles.”
“I promise,” Gus said, pulling his head back. “Hey, how did you know about the telephone pole?”
“I saw it,” Alex said. “Your car was trashed, man.”
“You were unconscious when they pulled you from the car.”
“Nah, I was standing right there, man. Two idiot princes puking, you bein’ hauled outta yer mangled wreck of an Audi by yer shoulders, and mister crown prince himself throwin’ around his title like it was gonna git him outta gettin’ a ticket or somethin’. I never realized how haughty he sounds when he does that.”
The room had gone quiet, and Alex looked around at everyone staring at him. That annoying Doctor Herman with his flashlight ready to blind him again, the older woman who called Gus “honey” and another woman. Oh, and Gus. His best friend. Alex smiled at his best friend.
“Do you know where my mom is?” Alex asked. Everyone continued to stare at him with gaping jaws.
“She’s on her way, honey.” The older woman stepped forward.
I’m not honey. Gus’s honey. “I want my mom.”
“She’ll be here soon,” Gus said.
Alex reached out to grip Gus’s hand again, squeezing as hard as his limited strength would allow. “I’m really tired, Gus. Will you stay with me until my mom gets here?”
“Yeah, man, I’ll stay right here.” Gus held onto Alex’s hand with both of his and gripped as if he’d never let go.
“Wake me up… when she gets… here.” Alex closed his eyes and slept for what felt like the first time in days.
Alex stumbled along beside Gus and his older brothers, all of them laughing, just as plastered as he was.
When they reached the curb, Gus held up the keys to his sporty little Audi RS 5. “Who’s drivin’?”
They usually fought over who got to drive. Tonight no one stepped forward. Alex shook his head. No way was he gonna volunteer. He could barely walk. He just hoped Gus was more sober than he was, or they’d be in a ditch before they could make it down the hill into Kingston.
“All right, pile in,” Gus said.
Alex sat in front and Gus’s older brothers crammed into the tiny backseat. None of them considered seatbelts a priority anyway, so it didn’t matter that they were practically sitting on each other’s laps.
“Drive fast,” Hayden said. “’Cause I’m gonna need to puke eventually, and I’d really prefer not to do that in the back seat of yer pretty car.”
“You’ll be payin’ to git it detailed if ya do,” Gus said. “But gest in case, I’ll put the pedal ta tha medal.”
“We all appreciate that, l’ill brother,” Owen said.
They rolled down the windows and let the night air flood them with wind in their hair, whooping and laughing and singing along to Bohemian Rhapsody as if they were starring in their very own Wayne’s World video. When it came time to do the headbanging, they gave it all they had, complete with air guitars.
Complete with flipped cars.
And broken guardrails.
Fallen telephone poles.
Alex stood beside the car, not sure how he’d gotten there. A loud hissing came from somewhere within. Smoke and dust billowed into the air. Broken glass was everywhere. There was chaos, lights, sirens. Hayden was puking loudly somewhere nearby, hanging half his body out the side door from how it sounded. Owen moaned from the backseat, and Aaron kept calling Alex’s name over and over.
“I’m right here, man,” Alex told Aaron. “You can stop yelling.”
He didn’t. It was like Aaron couldn’t hear him. Alex stepped closer and tried to get Aaron’s attention. He was distracted by Gus struggling to disentangle himself from his airbags. When did those explode? Alex didn’t remember that happening. He turned his attention back to Aaron. Was he crying?
“He won’t wake up,” Aaron said. “Git him to wake up.”
“I’m awake,” Alex tried to tell him. “I’m right here.”
“Sir, take a step back,” a paramedic said. When did they arrive? Alex looked around at all the vehicles with swirling, flashing lights. “We’re doing everything we can for your friend. I need a gurney over here. Get his neck stabilized. On my count. Three, two, one. Sir, step back. I need you to move out of the way.”
“Alex, wake up!” Aaron cried. “Wake up, dammit! Wake up!”
Alex was tired of trying to get Aaron to hear him, so he listened to a police officer asking Aaron questions.
“Sir, come this way, please. Can you tell me your name?”
“Prince Aaron Sayid of Madain Saleh,” Aaron choked out through tears. His standard answer whenever asked. As crown prince, he’d always been determined to carry on their name and monarchy even if they never saw their homeland again. Now it just sounded haughty. Alex snickered.
“What?” a police officer questioned.
“Aaron,” he cried. “Just call me Aaron. Where are you taking Alex?”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Alex answered the question intended for the police officer.
“He’s going to the hospital, sir.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Can you tell me Alex’s last name?”
“Stephenson,” Alex told him.
“Stephenson,” Aaron echoed.
“Is he related to the real estate developer, Alexander Stephenson?”
“Hey, you know my dad, cool.”
“Yes, Alex’s his son.”
“And did you claim to be a prince?” the officer asked.
“Yes, our father is Prince Marcos Sayid of Madain Saleh. Alexander Stephenson is our father’s best friend.”
“The other three men in the car are your brothers?”
“Yes.” Aaron’s sobs had lessened to heavy breathing.
“How old are you, son?”
“And can you give me your brother’s names and ages?” the officer asked.
“Gus was driving. This is his car. He’s seventeen. And Hayden, the one who was puking a few minutes ago, he’s eighteen. And Owen, he’s still in the car”—the interrogation was halted by heaving in the backseat— “I guess he’s puking now too. He’s nineteen.”
“How much have you had to drink tonight?”
“Uh… a lot?” Aaron said.
That was an understatement, Alex thought.
“Yeah, that sounds about accurate.”
“Is Alex gonna be okay?”
“I’m okay,” Alex said.
“I’m sure the paramedics are doing all they can. What is your father’s phone number?” the officer asked.
Aaron gave the man his father’s phone number.
“And do you know Alex’s father’s phone number?”
Alex rattled off his dad’s phone number but the officer didn’t even bother writing it down.
“No.” Aaron said.
None of this was making complete sense to Alex.
“Okay, we’ve got ambulances on the way for each of you so sit tight.”
“I don’t need an ambulance,” Aaron said.
“I don’t need one either,” Alex told him.
The officer shone his flashlight into Aaron’s eyes, and he cringed away.
“Hmm, you’re probably right. But your brothers do,” the man said.
Alex was relieved the man didn’t say he needed an ambulance. He was standing, which is more than he could say for Gus, Owen and Hayden.
Aaron left Alex’s side and went to sit by Gus and they held each other’s hands.
“Is Alex gonna be okay?” Gus looked up at his brother, his expression that of a desperate man.
“I dunno, buddy.” Aaron squeezed Gus’s hand. “I hope so.”
“Dude, I’m right here. I’m fine. You don’t need to worry about me.”
Suddenly Alex wasn’t fine. He was screaming in pain, flat on his back in a moving vehicle with lights and sirens. An ambulance? He told the officer he didn’t need an ambulance. He did now. His body hurt everywhere and all he wanted was for them to make the pain go away.
It did. As quickly as the pain had arrived, it was gone and Alex was standing in an emergency room where he heard scary phrases like, “multiple injuries, “life support,” “critical condition,” “stable,” “blood alcohol level of point-one-two,” “the youngest one was driving.”
The youngest one? Gus? Alex looked around for Gus and found him lying on a hospital bed in one of the curtained partitions, talking to his mom.
“Are you hurt, baby?”
“My head hurts,” Gus told her. Then he asked the same question everyone kept asking. “Is Alex gonna be okay.”
“I’m fine, dude, the pain’s gone now.”
Gus’s mom looked away and straightened the blanket. “I’m sure they’re doing all they can for him.”
What did she mean by that?
“Where are my brothers?” Gus asked.
“They’re down there.” Alex pointed to the other side of the emergency room.
“Aaron is having a talk with your father, and Hayden and Owen are in beds near the end of the room over there, basically sleeping off what will soon become a nasty hangover.” Her tone grew more and more irritated.
“I’m sorry, momma,” Gus said. Was he crying? What a dork.
“I want you to concentrate on getting yourself healed,” she said. Her expression shifted, and her lip quivered. “And I’d suggest you pray—hard—that Alex lives… because you will be tried as an adult.”
“Lives?” Alex asked. “I feel totally fine.”
And just like that he wasn’t totally fine. The pain was back and Alex wailed in agony. He was on a bed again but this one wasn’t moving and there weren’t lights and sirens anymore. Well, there were lights, but not spinning ones. Blinding lights. Why didn’t someone turn down the lights?
As quickly as he’d thought the words, the lights didn’t blind him anymore. Alex was thankful to the nurse in the white uniform who beckoned to him.
Come this way. Did she say something or was Alex imagining her words? You’ll understand everything. And he did. Everything around him made perfect sense.
There were people surrounding him and they were all smiling, welcoming him.
Wow, they were all so beautiful, and so familiar, and so peaceful. There was unconditional love flowing all around him and he had the desire to share that love, and all that he owned, with everyone he knew. As if nothing he had on earth was truly his.
The peaceful, beautiful people took him on a tour of the hospital and through the streets of the community, up one street and down another. Alex felt love for everyone he saw but also those he couldn’t see, everyone in each of the homes they passed. It was as if he had no enemies, and all of them had everything in common. As if there were no physical riches, only intrinsic riches. Like the love that they all shared was what made them rich.
And then a new pain arrived. A different kind of pain than he’d experienced a few minutes prior. A dark pain. A dark, horrific pain.