The Real You Excerpt
Lady Melody Thornhaven had only moments left to live.
She dangled helplessly over the precipice, the rope knotted cruelly about her wrists beginning to fray. Already she had watched both slippers slide off her dainty feet and plummet into the gaping chasm below; soon the rest of her would follow suit, never to be seen or heard from again. Her only hope now was for Josef, the sagacious and gold-hearted blacksmith from the nearby village, to miraculously happen by and rescue her. Rourke was certain he would. In fact, she had a feeling Josef would not only save Melody, but that he would whisk her away with him back to the charming little cottage behind his smithy, and loyally protect her while she convalesced.
Until now, Melody had always ignored Josef, but while secreted away with him, she would have no choice but to finally pay attention to him, to at last realize the overwhelming depths of his intelligence, sensitivity, and kindness. She would swiftly recognize that although he was a dirt-poor peasant, he was still far better for her than that awful earl who, although wealthy and handsome, had only wanted to marry her so that he could plunder her land and then, when she’d found him out, had hired thugs to string her up over the gorge. After a day or so in the blacksmith’s enchanting company, Melody, fully infatuated, and still suffused with gratitude over her rescue, would cease to care that Josef wasn’t nobility – or that his appealingly rugged features had been slightly disfigured all those years ago in a smelting accident. Her father would likely threaten to renounce her for wanting to marry beneath her, but Melody wouldn’t care about that, either. She would know true love was more important than riches – more important than anything – and she would readily sacrifice her pampered existence at her family’s manor estate in exchange for a simple but happy life in the blacksmith’s cottage as his wife, and as the mother to his many, many children…
At least that was what Rourke assumed would happen. What she hoped would happen. Biting her thumbnail, she swiped the page to find out, but…the words morphed into a hopeless blur as her phone was rudely yanked away.
“Hey!” she cried.
“Are you listening?” Julia demanded. “I said we’re almost there.”
“No, I wasn’t listening,” Rourke snapped, snatching back her phone, “I was reading.”
Julia cast a reproving glance at her younger sister, watching as she fumbled to relocate her place in her e-book. “You know, if Mom were here, she wouldn’t let you read that romance garbage,” she said. “It’s not exactly for kids.”
Rourke scowled. She knew her sister thought she only read romance novels for the titillation, but that wasn’t true. She read them for the love. For the encouragement they offered, and hope they represented, in a world where it often seemed most people cared only about themselves – and where far too many people seemed destined to wind up bitter and alone.
But there was no sense in getting into all that with her sister right now. Julia’s pinched expression told Rourke her patience, as usual, was wearing thin.
“Yeah, well, I’m not exactly a kid,” Rourke muttered. “And get real. If Mom were here, she’d probably be so wasted she wouldn’t know what day of the week it was, much less what I was reading.”
Her sister opened her mouth to protest, but then shut it again. She knew what Rourke had just said was true. Their mother, Linda, was a “lush.” That was what their Great-aunt Jeanie had called her, anyway. Rourke had looked up the unfamiliar term and discovered it was an old-fashioned word for “drunk.” Which was certainly apt. Although to Linda’s credit, she was at least trying to get better. She was currently in rehab drying out, which was why Julia was here, driving Rourke to her first day at her new school instead of their mom.
With her mother locked away, someone needed to watch over Rourke until she graduated from high school and turned eighteen in a few months, and after Great-Aunt Jeanie, the geographically closest relative, had bailed, Julia was next on the list of feasible wardens. Rourke’s half-sister was twenty-five years old, relatively stable and responsible. She lived on her own and worked as an ER nurse in Fort Worth. Or at least she had until she’d quit her job there and gotten a new one here, in Carreen, Texas. The move had been prompted by their maternal grandmother, Samantha, who, according to Julia, had offered them the use of her house on Carreen’s Garden Street so that Rourke could attend “a decent school district” and the two sisters wouldn’t have to live “right on top of one another” in Julia’s studio apartment in the city. Someday, when Samantha passed, the house would belong to Rourke and Julia anyway, but at the moment Grandma Sam was still alive and kicking – and as of three months ago, kicking it in a beach house down in Galveston with her French bulldog, Buford, while the Carreen house stood empty and unused. Julia, who liked the city, her job, her life, just the way it was had initially rejected the offer, but Samantha hadn’t given up. She had called Julia and harangued her, asking why she’d insist on continuing to pay exorbitant rent for a “cramped little coffin” in some squalid downtown enclave when she could live for free in a roomy, two-story house with a huge backyard, in a suitable neighborhood instead? Julia had reportedly responded that she liked her “coffin” just fine, thank-you-very-much, to which Samantha had retorted she would never understand Julia’s generation, or how ungrateful they could sometimes be.
Eventually, however, Samantha had gotten Rourke’s sister to see reason. Rourke wasn’t clear on all the details of the negotiation, nor did she particularly care about them. The important thing was Julia had come to her senses and, two weeks later, the Featherstone sisters had found themselves back in Carreen, unpacking boxes at the house on Garden Street. Rourke was ecstatic. It was exactly the outcome she’d been praying for. Her hometown was no bustling metropolis – it was a lot smaller, a lot less exciting, and a bit quainter and more Mayberry-ish than most of the other places she’d lived – but Rourke wasn’t the type of person who needed much excitement, anyway. So long as a town had a working public library, she was content. And besides, she had another, more personal reason for believing Carreen was the best possible place in the entire universe to live.
Rourke looked out the passenger’s side window, hunting for that Personal Reason now, but he was as yet nowhere to be found.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come in with you?” Julia asked. Her expression had gone from merely pinched to downright beleaguered, her manicured hands throttling the steering wheel as she pulled the car to the curb. “Just to make sure you find your first class without any problems-?”
Rourke’s shoulders tensed with anxiety. “No,” she said quickly.
Her sister shot her a dubious glance.
“I mean, uh, no, thanks, that, won’t be necessary,” Rourke said.
“Are you sure?”
“Positive.” Rourke shook her head emphatically. “I’ll be fine. You hooked me up with my very own tour guide, remember?”
Julia seemed to relax, bringing one hand up to smooth the neckline of her scrubs. “The counselor called it a ‘peer aide,’” she corrected with a sniff, “and I figured if the school offers help to students with a need, why not take advantage of it?”
Rourke’s mouth twitched to one side. “By ‘students with a need,’ I think they mean, you know, students with a need.”
Julia gave her a blank look.
“As in it’s a program for people with issues,” Rourke clarified.
Julia’s mouth curled at one corner. “You have issues.”
Rourke narrowed her eyes. “Not that kind. Besides, I just don’t see the point. Dal’s here. You know I can count on him if I need anything.”
Julia’s smirk collapsed. She pursed her lips and peered through the windshield, darting a cool gaze around the lawn of Carreen High. “He’s here? Where? I don’t see him, do you?”
Rourke toyed with her hoodie’s drawstrings and looked out her window again. Despite the early hour, the lawn was swarming with students, but not the tall, dark, and handsome one she was veritably aching to see. “Not yet,” she admitted, trying to hide her disappointment. “But I’m sure he’ll find me. He promised.”
Julia’s chuckle was humorless. “Yeah, well, I think we both know better than to put too much stock into the promise of one of those Mackenzie men, now don’t we?” she sneered.
Rourke bristled at the snide comment, but fought the urge to answer back. Julia had some odd – and completely wrong-headed – ideas about Dallas and his father, David, but Rourke doubted anything she said right now would change her sister’s mind about either man.
Turning away, she pulled down the visor and checked her face in the mirror. Her make-up looked okay, but because Julia had made her get here so darn early, she hadn’t had time to do much about her hair. It was just lying there, limp as a dishrag. But she supposed it didn’t matter. Dallas had seen her looking worse sometimes, particularly when she’d been sick, although that had always been through a computer or a cell phone screen. She’d hoped to look her best once she finally saw him again in person. With a resigned sigh she said, “Just let me out here, okay? I’ll find him.”
Julia didn’t budge.
“I’ll be fine,” Rourke insisted.
Her sister sighed, too, blowing her bangs out of her eyes, but she unlocked the car doors. “So where should I pick you up this afternoon? Here?”
Rourke unbuckled her seatbelt. “You don’t need to pick me up. Dal said he’ll give me a ride home.”
Julia’s eyebrows arched. “When did he say that? I thought you said he was out of town all weekend at his grandparents’.”
Rourke held up her phone, giving her sister an incredulous look.
Julia smiled stiffly. “Oh. Right. He texted you.” Then, under her breath, “Probably about fifty times.”
Try more like a hundred, Rourke thought, and pushed open the door, but that’s only because he was so busy. She hopped out onto the sidewalk.
“Wait!” Julia’s shout came just as the door slammed.
Rourke stopped, clenching her jaw. She heard the car window slide down behind her and turned to see her sister leaning over the seat. “If he flakes out on you, give me a call,” Julia said. “I’ll find someone to cover for me at the hospital and I’ll be here in a flash. Actually, if you need anything at all today, just call me…”
“‘Bye, Jules!” Rourke waved away the insulting comments, turned and jogged toward the lawn, already switching her attention back to her phone. As she heard Julia finally drive away behind her, she tapped out a quick text: Dal, I’m here. Where r u?
The reply was almost instantaneous: Finally! And where’s ‘here,’ exactly? I don’t see u.
Rourke looked around. I’m on the, um…right side of the school?
As she hit ‘send,’ someone bumped into her, hard. The phone leapt out of her hand and clattered to the sidewalk. Before she could rescue it, some guy wearing combat boots passed by and unknowingly kicked it out of her reach, directly into the path of an oncoming crowd. “Darn it!” Rourke muttered.
Behind her, she heard someone else curse and then a different boy was darting out in front of her, risking the mob to snatch Rourke’s phone from out of harm’s way. He trotted back with it in his hand. “Hey, are you alright?” he asked. “I knocked into you pretty hard.”
He’d have touched Rourke’s shoulder, but she twitched out of his reach. “Can I please have my phone back?” she said.
He held it out. “Sorry, it was totally my fault. Hope your phone’s okay.”
Rourke scowled as she snatched the phone out of the stranger’s hand and looked it over. Her chest burned with irritation, and a barbed response leapt to her tongue. But then her psychologist, Dr. Boris’s, voice filtered through her thoughts, urging her to stay calm. It’s your choice whether or not to get angry, Dr. Boris always said. But it didn’t usually feel like a choice to Rourke. “Yeah, it seems alright,” she finally muttered.
“Sorry,” the stranger said again. Then, after a pause, “Hey, are you new here? I don’t think I know you.”
She finally looked up at him.
Because he was adorable, with light brown hair that brushed his shoulders, aqua eyes, and a chiseled jaw. The corners of his mouth were curved up in a gently teasing smile. Rourke couldn’t believe it, but he looked almost exactly like her mental picture of Josef the blacksmith. Without the smelting scars, of course.
“Uh,” she said, her grip on her phone tightening. “Yeah. Yes. I mean,” she blinked. “Yes, I’m new. Today.”
The guy’s smile widened and she had the horrifying impression he was about to start laughing at her. Well, no wonder. She was making a fool of herself. But he didn’t laugh. He just pushed his hand through his hair and said, “Cool. What’s your name? I’m Casey, by the way.”
He held his other hand out to her. When she took it she found that Casey’s fingers were cool and he had a firm handshake. Very firm.
“I’m…” she said, and trailed off. Because his lively eyes were mesmerizing, mirroring the light turquoise color of his long-sleeve Henley. With effort, she broke eye contact, dipping her gaze down to get a peek at some of the rest of him. He had long legs, she noticed. A broad chest. His sleeves were pushed up, baring sculpted forearms, and the buttons at his collar were undone, exposing the hollow of his throat and a length of thin black cord that stood out darkly against his tan skin…
“Yeah?” he said, sounding amused.
“Hm?” She looked at his face again, realizing he had the most adorable pair of dimples.
“You’re…” he prompted, lifting his eyebrows.
“I’m…” she said. Sheesh, Rourke, spit it out. “Rourke,” she managed. “I’m Rourke. Featherstone. Nice to meet you.”
Casey’s eyebrows lifted even higher. “Rourke?” he repeated. “That’s an unusual name.” His eyes lit up. “Say, you’re not named after Mickey Rourke, are you? The actor?”
Rourke’s heart plummeted with disappointment. She snatched back her hand, plunging it deep into the pocket of her hoodie. “No, I’m not,” she snapped, and shot him an automatic frown. Because if she had a dollar for every time someone asked her that silly question, she’d…well, she’d have a lot of money. More than enough money to download every e-book in the Ladies and Peasants historical romance series at full price. But still not enough to compensate for how annoying it was to have to answer that same stupid question over and over again her entire life.
“Oh,” Casey’s head jerked back. “Well…It was nice meeting you, anyway. I guess.” He slid one foot behind him, backing away. “Um, have a good first day…”
Guilt washed over Rourke as she saw how abashed he looked. With effort, she relaxed the muscles in her face, trying to look less angry. After all, it wasn’t Casey’s fault she was so edgy on her first day at yet another new school, or that she felt a little discombobulated after being ambushed into introducing herself to the cutest guy she’d met in a long time. “Thanks,” she said, and managed to force a smile.
Casey smiled back weakly, the expression not nearly as open and friendly as it had been before. Shoot, she thought, watching him turn on his heel and retreat into the school building. Way to screw that up, Rourke. But then she glanced at her phone and realized she didn’t have much time to dwell on it. She was supposed to have been in someplace called the ‘Student Study Center’ five minutes ago.
She was hurrying down a hallway when her phone buzzed.
The ‘right’ side of the building? Do you mean North? Learn directions, lol.
She rolled her eyes at the screen. She was about to text back and suggest Dallas hush his mouth when he sent her another message: Aren’t you supposed to be meeting your welcoming committee in the SSC?
She grimaced as she read the words. Silly Julia and her silly ideas! Rourke had changed schools seven times now. In the past, she’d always been considered perfectly capable of handling her own business, but apparently once your mother got divorced for the third time, sank to the bottom of a bottle and agreed to be sent away, things changed. First you had to go and live with your elderly great-aunt for a few months, just because she happened to live in the same town as you. Then, a few bad grades, a few skipped meals – and, yeah, okay, one uncontrollable crying jag under the gym bleachers – later, you found yourself seeing a shrink twice a month. After that it didn’t take long to go from being considered “in trouble” to “too much trouble,” and being shipped off to live with your high-strung older sister down in Texas instead. And apparently around here, if the administration knew about your “issues,” they assigned a babysitter to escort you around your new school so you wouldn’t get too stressed out and have another meltdown.
Rourke sighed. At least she had managed to talk the vice principal down to only a single day of “peer aide” supervision, rather than the full week Julia had initially pushed for. Don’t remind me, she texted Dallas.
U know where that is?
Yeah, the VP showed me when I came to enroll.
So just go straight there, he instructed. I’ll find u.
The babysitter didn’t look anything like Rourke had anticipated. She wasn’t sure why, but she had expected a girl, someone prim and uptight with impeccable fashion sense and perfect posture. Instead she was met by a tall, lanky boy with messy russet-colored hair who seemed perpetually to be fidgeting. When he greeted her, Rourke saw that what she’d heard about CHS was true: it was a different sort of school. Progressive. Even body art was allowed here. This boy, for instance, had a face full of metal – two rings in his right earlobe, a barbell in his left cartilage, and another spearing his right eyebrow, not to mention the full set of braces glinting from his teeth. He said his name was Clinton Krantz but that everyone called him “C-Dawg.” She instantly liked him anyway.
“Sorry if I kept you waiting,” he said, “but I was running a little late. My mom was being a pain in my ass this morning, trying to get me to help her feed my little brothers. I was like ‘whatever.’ How’s it my problem? Like I’m always telling her, if she didn’t want to have to deal with babies dumping their Cheerios all over her at her advanced age, she shouldn’t have gotten back together with my dad and let him knock her up again, this time with twins, amiright?”
Rourke chuckled, which made Clinton smile. A slotted card reader jutted from the door to the Center. He swiped his student I.D. through it, opening the door, and ushered Rourke into a spacious room lined with bookshelves and computers.
“It’s no problem,” she whispered to him. “I didn’t have to wait long. I was running a little late, too.”
Clinton smiled down at her. “Cool, but…you don’t have to whisper. This isn’t a library. It’s just a place where people can get together and work on homework or projects or whatever. We can talk as long as it’s not too loud.” He led her to an empty table on the far side of the room. Other students lifted their heads to stare curiously at Rourke as she passed, but when they saw she was with Clinton, their expressions softened. Most of them smiled; some even waved. Observing these reactions, Rourke felt a smidgen of invisible weight lift from her shoulders. She’d been dreading having a shadow on her first day, but now she saw how it might work to her advantage. She could already tell Clinton was cool. People obviously liked him. Having him glued to her hip all day would undoubtedly attract unwanted attention, but it might also make it easier for Rourke to meet people. To maybe even make a few friends for a change.
“Hey, I’ve got presents for you,” Clinton said, reaching into his tattered backpack as they sat down. “Happy birthday.”
She thumbed through the sheaf of papers he’d handed her: a copy of the New Student Handbook, a map of the school, a temporary parking pass, and a ticket for a free lunch in the cafeteria. “Ooh, how’d you know?” she said, which made him laugh.
He took out his phone and danced his fingers across the screen. “Listen, my usual M.O. is to go over a few things with you here in the Center first. Then we take a little tour of the school, get your I.D. made, find your locker and such. I’ve downloaded your schedule to my phone, so I’ll walk with you to each of your classes today, just to make sure you know where everything is and that your teachers are ready for you.” He reached over and picked up the new student handbook.
“Seriously?” Rourke felt more weight disappear from her shoulders. “That’s awesome.”
Clinton was flipping through the handbook when two girls approached.
“Clinton,” the first one said, “is this your latest charge? Introduce me.”
Clinton looked up, making eye contact with the speaker. His lips parted but no sound came out of his mouth.
Rourke could see why he was suddenly tongue-tied. The girl who’d issued the command was drop-dead gorgeous, with a flawless olive complexion and sleek black hair that hung in waves over her shoulders. Behind her stylish glasses, her eyes were a deep, sparkling green and ringed by thick, dark lashes.
“Clinton?” The girl bent forward and snapped her fingers an inch in front of his nose. “Hello?”
Clinton shook his head as if to rouse himself. Sounding dazed, he murmured, “Sorry. Maddison Garcia, this is Rourke Featherstone. Rourke, Maddison – she’s an aide, too.”
“You can call me Maddie,” the girl beamed at Rourke. “And this is Lauren.” She gestured at the girl peeking out shyly from behind her shoulder.
“Hello,” the second girl offered, so quietly that Rourke almost didn’t hear her. Lauren wore glasses, too, Rourke noticed, but they were unflattering, their thick lenses slightly magnifying her already owlish brown eyes. Her hair was pulled back, woven into a severe French braid, and she was pale and skinny, drowning in a voluminous t-shirt and overalls.
“Hi,” Rourke said to the girls. “Nice to meet you.”
Maddison offered a heart-stopping smile. She pushed her hair back over her shoulder and slid into one of the empty seats. Lauren sat down beside her, producing a notebook computer from a backpack. Within moments she was absorbed in something on her screen, ignoring everyone else at the table.
“So, you’re new?” Maddison asked Rourke.
“Are you a senior?”
“Isn’t that a little weird? I mean, it must be tough switching schools right now, with only a few months left until graduation.”
Rourke squirmed in her molded plastic chair. “Actually, I won’t be graduating until August. And that’s assuming I do okay in summer school.”
Maddison’s impeccably groomed eyebrows rose. “Summer school?”
“I’m usually a good student,” Rourke said quickly, “but I’ve, uh, fallen behind. I’ve had a few…setbacks.” She hoped Maddison wouldn’t ask her for more details.
She didn’t. Instead the other girl pulled her phone from her purse, tapping and scrolling as she talked. “So where are you from?” she asked.
Rourke glanced at Clinton, whose eyes were glued to the New Student Handbook. Beads of sweat had materialized at his temples.
“I’m actually from Carreen,” Rourke said, “originally. I lived here until I was eight.”
“Oh, yeah? Where’ve you been since then?”
Rourke shrugged. “All over the place. Arkansas, New Mexico, South Carolina, most recently Pennsylvania.”
Maddison looked impressed, her eyes growing even as they remained fixated on her cell phone screen. “Wow, that’s a lot of places. So what brings you back here?”
Darn, Rourke thought, wishing she’d taken the time to craft a convincing cover story. But she’d been too preoccupied the last few days, thinking about Dallas, her mind muddled with euphoria over the thought of finally seeing him again. “Well, um, my mom…I mean, my sister…” Before she could decide how best to answer, the door to the Center squeaked open. A deep voice called into the room, “Merry? You in here?”
Rourke stiffened in her seat. She heard the rattle and scrape of chairs as everyone else in the room turned toward the door.
Maddison finally looked up from her phone again. Her eyes widened. “Oh my God,” she said.
“Merry?” the call came again, a little louder this time.
Rourke took a breath, bracing herself to turn around. Before she could, Maddison’s hand shot across the table and grabbed her wrist. “Can you please tell me why the hottest guy in school is shouting at you?” she demanded under her breath.
“Who?” Rourke said.
Maddison’s brows drew together. She dropped her phone to the table. “Dallas Aaron Mackenzie,” she said in a choked whisper. “Even his initials spell daaamn.”
Maddison’s grip tightened. She looked at Rourke with round eyes. “I’m not kidding,” she said. “He’s been the star of every theater production since ninth grade and I’ve been in love with him, oh, roughly as long. God, he played Romeo last year? Just remembering it gives me goosebumps. I could have clawed the eyes out of the little trollop playing Juliet, I was so jealous.” She fanned herself with her free hand. “God, he makes me sweat like a whore in church.”
Rourke smirked. “Um, okay. But what makes you think he’s talking to me-?”
“Hello, he’s looking right at you.” Maddison jabbed a finger over Rourke’s shoulder.
Rourke looked back. She spied a boy in snug, dark-rinse jeans and a plain black t-shirt making his way across the room to her, navigating impatiently between chairs and desks. Instantly she saw what Maddison had been talking about. The guy was easily six feet tall and handsome, with an athletic build, thick black hair, and eyes that appeared penetratingly ice-blue even from this distance.
Or, to put it another way: daaamn.
Rourke’s heart leapt into her throat at the sight of him, but she decided to have a little fun. She turned back to Maddison. Hooking her thumb over her shoulder, she asked, “That’s the hottest guy in school?”
Maddison paused. She let go of Rourke’s wrist and sat back. “You don’t think so?”
Rourke shrugged. “Sure. If that’s what you’re into.”
Maddison’s nose wrinkled in annoyance. “Tall, gorgeous, built like no one’s business…yeah, I’d say that’s what I’m into. And screw you if you say you’re not…” Her gaze darted over Rourke’s shoulder again. “And oh my God, he’s coming over here. And yep, he’s definitely trying to get your attention. Only, why is he calling you ‘Mary’? I thought you said your name was Rourke? Does he have you confused with someone else?” She was the one who looked confused.
Rourke shook her head. “He’s not saying ‘Mary,’ it’s…”
Rourke turned again. And there he was, less than a yard away from her for the first time in almost ten years. Dallas Mackenzie. Theater star. “Hottest guy in school” (supposedly). Also her best friend in the entire world, ever. Rourke reminded herself she’d known this guy since they were both six years old and building pillow forts together in his dad’s living room. She knew him better than anyone else in the world, and vice versa. There was no good reason to be so darned nervous right now, and yet…she still felt as though her heart might be about to thump its way out of her ribcage.
She lifted her hand, giving Dallas a little wave. “Hey, Dal.”
“Hey yourself,” he said, jogging the last few steps to the table. “Glad I finally found you. Sorry I missed you outside. I was waiting on the South – oh, sorry, I mean right side of the building.” He pushed his hair off his forehead, flashing a winsome grin.
Rourke gulped. She pushed her chair back, standing up on legs that were suddenly shaky. “That’s okay. We should have just planned to meet here anyway…”
“Hi, Dallas!” Maddison blurted.
With a start, Dallas glanced over at her. He gave Maddison an uncertain smile. “Um, hi?” he said. It was clear from his blank expression he had no idea who the other girl was.
Maddison grinned, undeterred. She seemed about to say something else, but Dallas turned away from her, refocusing on Rourke. “Geez, Merry,” he said, gazing wonderingly at her, “it’s so freaking great to finally see you again. In the flesh, I mean.”
“Yeah,” she said weakly, “you, too.”
Rourke was surprised she could speak at all. Dallas’s sapphire gaze, disarming enough over her computer screen during one of their weekly webchats, was, in person, startlingly intense. She felt he was seeing straight into her soul. “You, um, you look good,” she squeaked.
He gave her a lopsided smile. “Likewise. So how you been, little sis?”
“Sis?” Maddison practically screeched. “As in – this new girl’s your sister?”
All around her, Rourke heard people shifting in their chairs again. She could feel everyone in the room’s curiosity trained on her like laser beams, but neither she nor Dallas turned to face them, or to answer Maddison. They were too busy still staring at one another, Rourke wondering what she ought to do now. Shake Dallas’s hand? Hug him? Tackle him to the carpet and smother him with kisses? Thankfully, before she could succumb to any ill-advised impulses, Dallas reached out and put his hand around her elbow. “Hey,” he said to the others, “do you guys mind if I talk to Merry in private for just a sec?” Without waiting for an answer, he tugged Rourke away from the table.
“Dal?” she said. “What’s going on? Is everything alright?”
He maneuvered her between two bookcases. “It really is good to see you,” he said, stopping and turning her to face him. “Amazing, in fact.”
Then he was slipping his arm around her waist, pulling her in close. Before she could say anything else, he kissed her.
Or at least he seemed to kiss her. As he leaned in, Dallas cradled Rourke’s face in his hand and eased his thumb over her lips. He dipped her, turning her slightly away from the rest of the room – and kissed his thumb.
“What are you doing?” she mumbled in alarm.
“It’s called a stage kiss,” he whispered. “This is how we do it in theater class.” He opened one eye to peek at her. “Do you think it looks real enough?”
“Try to sell it, Merry, please?”
“Put your arms around me. Close your eyes. And don’t just stand there like a statue. Relax.”
Relax?! Rourke thought. Ha! Easy for him to say. He didn’t know what it was like for her to be in this position. So close to him. Wrapped in his warm, rock-hard arms. Being almost-kissed. The whole thing was making her dizzy. The only reason Dallas could expect Rourke to relax in this situation was because he didn’t have a clue how she really felt about him. He didn’t know she was desperately in love with him. That she had been for years and years and years now…
Not that it would have mattered to him if he’d known. Dallas fooled around with girls all the time, but he never got involved with any of them. He was a player. Oh sure, he was a kind enough person and a great friend, but…he wasn’t looking for love, especially not with Rourke. To him, she was just little “Merry” Featherstone, his childhood pal. His buddy. His “little sis,” as he’d just called her. Rourke had resigned herself to that truth ages ago, but a part of her had never stopped wishing things could be different.
“Come on,” Dallas urged, and ran his free hand up Rourke’s back. “Loosen up, Merry.”
Rourke closed her eyes, wishing with all her heart that Dallas wasn’t just play-acting right now. That his thumb wasn’t in the way and his lips were actually caressing hers. Most of all, she wished he were kissing because he was as crazy for her as she was for him. But he wasn’t. He was only faking it for some reason. The thought was disheartening. She brought her hands up to push him away and spare herself the pain, but then…as her hands made contact with his shoulders, she realized something. This pretend kiss, whatever the reason for it might be, was probably the closest Rourke was ever going to get to the real thing; she probably ought to at least enjoy it while it lasted.
Sell it, he’d said? Well, okay.
Sighing, she moved in closer, pressing her body up against his the way the ladies in romance novels were always doing to the men they were hopelessly in love with (the way she assumed Lady Melody would do to Josef just as soon she sorted everything out about him) and wound her arms around Dallas’s neck, plunging one hand into his thick, dark hair.
“Mmm, that’s better,” he whispered.
His voice was husky, and at the sound of it, Rourke melted. Her knees went weak and she faltered against him. He responded by wrapping his arm tighter around her, practically holding her up. She was so close to him now that she could feel him, his strength and his heat, and she could smell him, too, his freshly-scrubbed body and clean hair…Rourke’s temperature rose. Her pulse began to beat faster and faster. Her consciousness went fuzzy, but in a pleasant, blissful way, and then…
“Uhhhf….” Rourke stumbled as Dallas abruptly let her go. She reeled back, just managing to catch herself against a bookshelf. She looked up to see that he was grinning at her, his eyes alight with amusement. “Um, h-how was that?” she asked him, surprised by how breathless she sounded.
“Excellent,” he smirked. “Remind me to introduce you to the drama teacher later. I think you may have a future as an incredible actress.”
“Oh, um…great,” she muttered.
A cagey look came into his eyes. He turned and peeked around the bookcase, sweeping his gaze around the Center.
“Dal, what is this all about?” she wondered, her heart still leaping about frantically, threatening to escape her chest.
“Jennifer Tiplady,” he said out of the side of his mouth.
“The blonde in the tight t-shirt. Didn’t you see her?”
“No. Who is she?”
He shrugged irritably. “Just the latest girl to become obsessed with me. I’ve told her I’m not interested but she still follows me around everywhere I go. She was in here, skulking around, and I figured if she saw me kissing someone else, maybe it’d convince her to finally give up on me.”
Rourke felt her heart begin to calm down, dropping a few centimeters inside her chest. “Oh,” she said, straightening her shirt. “Do you think it worked?”
“Maybe. She seems to have split.”
Dallas turned back to her and smiled, smoothing his hair where Rourke had rumpled it. Watching him, she ached to be close to him again, wishing he would pull her back into his arms and give her another fake kiss. Or better yet, a real one. Because as unlikely as it was to happen – and as pathetic as she knew it was to get her hopes up about it – there was no use pretending that wasn’t what she’d been longing for from the moment she’d discovered she’d be moving back here. So many times over the past few months, the idea of something happening with Dallas once they were reunited had been the only thing keeping Rourke going. The only thing that had made the move back to Carreen seem at all worthwhile.
But there was no second kiss, real or otherwise. Just an affectionate cuff under her chin as Dallas said, “Thanks for the help, Mer. I owe you a big, greasy slice of cheese pizza.” Then he winked at her and turned, strutting back to the table – where Clinton and Maddison sat staring at the two of them in sheer horror.
Actually, everyone in the room seemed to be staring at them. Not that Rourke was surprised. They’d all just witnessed the hottest guy in school making out with some short, funny-looking new girl. A new girl who, thanks to Maddison’s earlier outburst, everyone believed was his little sister. Rourke cringed as she slunk back into her seat and caught the flabbergasted look on Maddison’s face. Clinton was frowning, too. Only Lauren seemed unfazed, but then again she didn’t seem to have looked up from her laptop.
Clinton was the one to finally break the awkward silence. “Close family?” he asked drily.
Rourke rolled her eyes. “Dal just does that sometimes because he thinks it’s funny. Don’t you, Dal, you big joker?” She swatted his bicep – impressed anew by its solidity.
“Does what?” said Maddison, swallowing. She looked a little gray, and as though she might be about to throw up. “Tongue-kisses his little sister in public-?”
“No,” Rourke was shaking her head. “Nonono, I’m not his sister. He just likes to call me that. As a joke.”
Maddison’s frown deepened.
“Ugh,” Rourke said. “Dal, can I get a little help here, please-?”
Dallas was smirking, radiating amusement. “Why?” he asked. “You’re doing so well on your own.” But finally he yielded to Rourke’s pleading look. Chuckling, he told Maddison, “Fine, she’s not really my sister. But our parents were married once.”
“Forever ago,” Rourke hurried to add. “For less than a year, when we were six.”
“And then our parents got separated,” Dallas said, “and Merry and her family moved into her grandma’s house down the block from me. For a while there, we were neighbors. Played together every day.”
“And watched all seven seasons of his dad’s TNG collection,” Rourke blurted out, “start to finish.”
Maddison’s brow crinkled in confusion. “T…NG?”
“Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Rourke clarified.
“Star Trek?” Maddison shot a glance at Dallas. Her mouth curled with amusement. “You mean you guys are, like, Trekkies or something?”
Rourke’s face flushed in response to the derision in the other girl’s tone. But then she sat up straighter, lifting her chin. “Depends on who you ask,” she said. “Some people prefer the term Trekkers. And anyway, Dal and I only got so into the show because his dad was super strict. He wouldn’t really let us watch anything else–”
Dallas laid a hand on her shoulder, jostling her gently until she shut up. He flashed a quick, admonitory frown. “Merry, Merry, what’re you doing? Blowing my cover already? I told you, no one here knows I’m a geek.”
She looked up at him, blinking. “Oh, right, sorry.”
He grinned, shaking his head softly, and redirected his attention to the others. “Anyway, Merry moved away when we were eight.”
“Because my mom divorced his dad,” Rourke added.
“My dad divorced your mom,” Dallas corrected.
“Same thing,” Rourke said.
“No, it isn’t. Saying your mom divorced him makes it sound like it was his fault but we both know it wasn’t.”
Rourke blushed again, because she knew he was right. Her mother had been the one to cheat on Dallas’s dad. She’d done the same thing to Rourke’s father once, as well. Linda had never married Julia’s dad, but Rourke didn’t doubt that if she had, she’d have made his life miserable, eventually cheated on him, and then divorced him, too. It was sort of her thing. “Okay,” she conceded. “But the really important thing right now is that you and I aren’t – and never were – actually related. Only through marriage. A marriage that no longer exists and hasn’t for almost ten years.”
Maddison exhaled. A bit of color returned to her face. Then she perked up with excitement, clapping her hands. “Oh my gosh, so you guys are like Cher and Josh in Clueless!”
“Who?” said Dallas, “In what?” Because he generally only liked movies where people and/or cars and/or space ships got blown to smithereens.
“No, not really,” Rourke said. Because while she enjoyed watching things explode as much as the next person, she loved movies adapted from Jane Austen novels almost as much. She had probably seen every one ever made. Twice.
“Why not?” Maddison asked, blinking.
Because Dal and I are never going to end up together the way Cher and Josh did, Rourke thought miserably. Out loud, she said, “Well, um…Dal and I don’t really bicker like those two. We’ve pretty much always gotten along.”
“We bonded over the fact that we both have uncommon, sort of ridiculous, slightly pretentious first names,” Dallas said.
“Ooh,” Clinton held up his hand, “can I join that club?”
Rourke darted a glance at him. “Clinton’s not a bad name.”
He smiled uneasily. “Thanks. But everyone thinks I’m named after Hillary’s husband just because I was born while he was still in office.”
“Yeah, well, at least your name doesn’t rhyme with anything…unfortunate, the way mine does,” Rourke countered.
Maddison blinked at her. “Like what?”
Rourke sighed. “Well, ‘pork’ for one thing, and I went through sort of a chubby phase.”
“Oh, no,” Maddison laughed, covering her mouth.
“Also, everyone thinks I’m named after that weird guy with those electric whips in Iron Man 2, when really ‘Rourke’ is just some dumb old family name.”
“What about me?” Dallas asked. “Everyone always asks me if Dallas is where I was conceived.”
Maddison widened her eyes, grinning. “Is it?”
“No,” Rourke started to answer for him, “he’s named after–”
But Dallas cut her off: “Uh, never mind that. The point is Rourke and I have been close for a really long time. All these years we’ve been apart, we’ve almost always stayed in touch.”
Rourke nodded. “Yeah, at first we wrote each other postcards and letters.”
“But then we pretty much moved our friendship online. You know, email and such.”
“We text and IM all the time.”
“And we video chat at least once a week.”
“Aw, and you practically finish one another’s sentences, too,” Clinton interjected in a syrupy tone. “Oh, but don’t worry you guys, it isn’t nauseating. At all.”
Dallas flashed the other boy his middle finger, but Clinton just laughed.
Maddison looked from Dallas to Rourke and then from Rourke to Dallas again. Her lower lip protruded. “Dallas Mackenzie,” she said reproachfully, “are you telling me that all these years – while every girl in the Carreen school system was steadily falling in love with you – you’ve had a secret long-distance girlfriend?!”
“Girlfriend?” Dallas’s brow furrowed. “No. I mean, Merry and I…” He shot a glance at Rourke. “Well, we’re not involved that way. We’re just friends.”
Poor Maddison looked like her head was about ready to explode. She pressed her fingertips to her temple. “What do you mean you’re just friends?! You just planted the world’s most passionate kiss on her over there by the reference section-!”
Dallas grinned, catching on. “Oh, no, that? That was only pretend.”
“Long story,” he told her. “And wait a second, every girl here is in love with me?” He toyed with the leather cuff buckled around his wrist, looking Maddison over with a devilish grin. “Since when?”
Maddison lowered her gaze. She seemed pleasantly flustered by Dallas’s attention. Clinton on the other hand, had begun to look annoyed.
“Now that the reunion’s over with, can we get down to business?” he huffed at Dallas. “I still need to go over some stuff with your sister-slash-girlfriend here before the first bell rings.”
Rourke could feel her temperature rising. She tucked her hair behind her ears, debating whether or not to correct him again.
Maddison distracted her by saying, “Wait a second. Rourke, you still haven’t explained why Dallas calls you Mary.”
Rourke shook her head. “It’s not Mary, it’s…”
“Merry.” Dallas spread his arms. “As in Christmas. As in eat, drink, and be!”
“It’s short for Meredith,” Rourke admitted reluctantly. “I read it in some book as a kid and used to think it was the prettiest name in the entire world.”
Dallas hooked his hand over the back of Rourke’s chair. “When we were small, she came home one day, bawling her eyes out over the kids at school calling her ‘Rourke the dork’ or some stupid thing. She wanted to change her name, tried to get everyone to call her Meredith instead.”
“Only Dal went along with it,” Rourke said. “But then he shortened it to Merry for some reason, and it stuck.”
“Well it does seem to fit,” Dallas said, tugging playfully on a lock of Rourke’s hair. “We’ve always had such a rip-roaring good time together.”
Maddison chuckled, batting her eyelashes. “Aw, that’s sweet,” she sighed. She checked the time on her phone and then stood up. As if attached by a tether, Lauren also stood, closing down her laptop and slipping it into her bag. “I have to go,” Maddison said, “but it was nice meeting you, Rourke. Maybe we’ll see each other later. What classes did you get stuck with?”
Clinton sighed and shoved his phone at Maddison, who took it and began scrolling. Her face lit up as she perused Rourke’s schedule. “Ooh, we have AP History together!”
Rourke sat up straighter, jolted by the other girl’s enthusiasm. “Um, is that a good class?”
Maddison scowled. “No, it’s actually pretty brutal. But our regular teacher, Mrs. Giarardini? Delivered her baby prematurely and had to take her maternity leave early. So we have a sub for the rest of the semester. Mr. M. You’re going to love him. He’s cool, and for an old guy he’s pretty damn tasty.”
Clinton groaned and rubbed his forehead.
“Oh, he’s also Clinton’s uncle,” Maddison added.
“And practically yours, too,” Clinton said.
Maddison ran her thumb over the phone, looking at Rourke’s schedule instead of at him. “Um, no. Just because my aunt is married to one of Mr. M’s best friends does not make him my uncle. Thank God.”
Clinton frowned. “Yeah, but you know he’s married, right? To my aunt. And anyone who’s ever seen the two of them together knows he’s completely nuts about her.”
Maddison made a face. “Do you guys hear something?” she asked Rourke and Dallas. Then, turning to glare at Clinton, she muttered, “Oh yeah. That was Clinton. Being a buzz-kill as usual!”
Clinton, looking mortified, held out his hand. “Can I please have my phone back?”