So the thing with pre-orders is you often can’t see the chapter sample. NO BUENO.
My newsletter friends got a sneak peek of one of my favorite chapters/scenes from I’ll Be Yours, but that didn’t include the all-important chapter one. So…here ’tis!
Sometimes I stare out my bedroom window, find the North Star, and wonder if it’s shining down elsewhere—on the life I was supposed to live.
A different version.
With different people.
And a different me.
When I was nine, I came to live with the O’Malleys. For my eleventh birthday, they adopted me. Rescued me, really.
They were a family of beautiful, athletic, overachievers.
Let’s just say if life were a nerd parade, I’d be its grand marshal.
“Harper, you just sighed three times in fifteen minutes.” My mom passed me a bowl of peas. “Are you feeling okay, honey?”
“Yeah.” I handed the offensive vegetables off to the person to my right, pulling my thoughts from the deep, dark edge, then shooting my two brothers a glare at their buffoonish guffaws. “Here, DeShawn. Your favorite.”
“Are you sure?” Mom asked again.
“Maybe after the guys leave, we could talk?”
Her pink lips gave me that familiar smile. “Of course.”
“What’s wrong over there?” my dad asked from the end of a table big enough to feed half of Kentucky and still leave elbow room.
“Nothing.” I adjusted the napkin in my lap, gaining the rapt attention of the two dogs on guard beside me. Jay-Z and Kanye were not stupid. If there was any time to expect floor scraps, it was when the football team came to dine. I’m a vegetarian who eats a whole lot of salads and beans, so the mutts gave up on me long ago.
“I know what’s wrong with her.” My oldest brother, Michael, wore a grin as wicked as a snake rattle.
I felt the earth shift beneath my chair.
Oh, no. Not this. Not now.
Not with them.
“That’s enough, Michael. I don’t need you to—”
“Harper likes a boy.”
Fifteen heads swerved in unison.
I sank lower in my chair. And watched the table explode.
This wasn’t just any dining room table. It was Coach O’Malley’s table. Almost every Sunday, my mom, dad, two brothers, and I sat down for pot roast or fried chicken. And so did about a fourth of the football team from the University of Southern Kentucky.
Voices fired around me like grenades, and I did what any miserable girl could. I reached for more gravy.
“Who is he?”
“He dat punk kid who wears the trench?”
“I want a name!”
“What’s his GPA?”
“He treat his mama right?”
“Where’s that fool live?”
“You got pictures?”
“He got a hot sister?”
Even with my burning face and exasperated thoughts, I couldn’t help but smile.
Though the faces of the players changed through the years, their presence in my life, at my dinner table—it was a constant I held close to my heart.
Most times I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.
This wasn’t one of those moments.
I had finally, finally contracted the Love Plague.
And the only remedy was Andrew James Wesley Levin.
A boy so fabulous his parents had to give him three names just to contain all the wonder. He was basically the most amazing junior at Washington High School to ever sit in the trumpet section.
Unfortunately, when it came to guys, I was kind of remedial. We’re talking way behind.
At the age of ten, while my friends were writing love notes, I was watching Shark Week. When I was twelve, my friends all proudly had boyfriends. I just wanted to show off my VIP library card.
But six weeks ago, during an ordinary Monday of my junior year at Washington High, I got it.
The Boy Crazies.
It was as if a fairy had tapped me on my curly head and sprinkled love glitter and man-awareness magic.
Because on that auspicious day in September, not only did Andrew enroll at WHS, but he showed up in my band class.
Boys were scary business to me, but I had resolved to push through the fear this time. I would have a normal crush if it killed me. Not only could I confirm that I liked Andrew, but also I had developed a strategic plan in winning him over. So far I hadn’t implemented it, unless you considered stalking him from afar my warm-up.
The doorbell rang, and the melody was a chime of salvation. “I’ll get it!” I jumped up and ran toward the foyer. Sensing imminent danger, one of the dogs leaped after me, ready to maim someone with slobber.
I cut through the living room, walking past framed pictures hanging on walls and occupying tables. Pictures of my dad clutching championship trophies. My mom smiling at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. My brother Michael shooting a buzzer-beating three. Ten-year-old Cole in a graceful leap over a hurdle.
Oh, look. There was one of me. Holding a band camp certificate.
The bell sounded again, and mid-impatient ding, I swung the door wide open.
And I did not like what I saw.
I blinked against the sun, the heat, the arrogance.
On my front step stood Ridley Estes.
I took in his dark jeans and his Washington Wildcat T-shirt, observing a tiny hole in his sleeve and the outline of muscles sculpted from years of football. A baseball cap covered the short-cropped black hair that complemented his Latin skin, which looked forever tan. Pasty white girls like myself noticed these sorts of things.
“Hello . . .” His voice trailed off, as if he’d just hung a question mark in the air.
“Harper,” I reminded him. “My name is Harper.” I gave my best first-chair trumpet stare of intimidation. But it was no use for the one the girls called Ridley with all the reverence and awe usually reserved for pop stars and movie heartthrobs. Wide receiver of my high school football team, a little too rugged to be an Abercrombie model, king of campus, and unexpected guest. A guy who’d clearly made an illicit deal with the underworld.
I couldn’t stand his type. Too cool to be aware of the rest of us
mere mortals. Used to everyone oohing and aahing over him.
“Harper,” he said, trying my name out on his lips. “I knew that.”
“Oh, no reason to.” His crooked grin was a rubber band on the sunburn of my annoyance. “Just because we’ve been at the same school for four years, we had art together, and last year your locker was over mine.” Constantly hitting me in the head while he snuggled up to some honey. “No reason at all.”
He cocked his head as his brown eyes studied me. “I’m sensing some anger issues here, Harper. You might want to do something about that. Frustration could shrivel up some of those genius brain cells.”
Before I could respond, he looked past my shoulder and straightened his six-foot posture.
“Can I help you with something?” I asked. Like letting some air out of that ego?
He stared right through me. “Your brother invited me to lunch.”
“With the team? I doubt—”
“Ridley!” Michael stood behind me and nudged me out of the way.
“Don’t mind her. Come on in. Get yourself a seat.”
The two filed on into the dining room, and I was left to walk in their shadow.
“Dad, you know Ridley.”
My dad’s smile slipped as he sent a sharp eye to Michael. “Son, we live and die by NCAA rules in this house,” he said quietly. “I don’t have to tell you that possible recruits cannot be sitting with me at my dining room table.”
“He’s not.” My brother plopped back in his seat and grabbed another cob of corn. “He’s sitting at my dinner table.”
Dad mumbled something about a waiver and violations, but nobody else seemed too concerned.
So Ridley was a possible University of Southern Kentucky recruit. I knew he was good, but I hadn’t known he was that good. Normally my dad liked boys who had decent GPAs and stayed out of trouble. Surely that counted Ridley out.
The campus darling settled into a chair beside my brother.
Forks paused. Water glasses stopped mid-sip.
The stare down began. Happened every time a new person sat at our table, especially one who had his eye on being an Eagle. My football family was protective of us. Plus, they didn’t like to share Mom’s chocolate pie.
Mom cleared her throat. “Well, I’m glad you can join us.” She gave the team the discreet glare that promised dish duty to anyone not behaving. “We always love having the kids’ friends around. You know Harper, right?”
“Oh, yeah.” Ridley had the nerve to smile. “We go way back.”
My mother introduced my younger brother, then quickly named off the team.
Michael sent the senior captain a look that said, “He’s cool.”
Dominic Vago nodded, then smacked Ridley on the back. “Get you some potatoes. Mama O’Malley makes some mean mashed potatoes.”
“Yeah.” Tyler Nicholson talked with his mouth around a bite of green beans. “You gotta try her garlic bread too. She makes that herself, dude. It’s not frozen or nothing.”
“You guys are so sweet.” My mom’s face flushed pink as my dad wrapped an arm around her chair and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek.
“The lady can cook,” Dad said. “These Sunday lunches will add at least another hour to your workout.”
Ridley took the platter of roast from the junior wide receiver.
“Sounds worth it to me.”
“Harper”—Marcus Ross pushed up his glasses with a fat finger—“you were telling us the name of this boy you like.”
My eyes automatically flew to Ridley. Then away. Anywhere but him. “No. No, I wasn’t.”
“Yeah, she’s wasn’t,” said my ten year-old brother. “Michael was.”
I shot my oldest brother a look promising creative forms of death and torture. To no avail.
“His name is Andrew Levin.”
“No, it’s not!” I shook my head like my hair was on fire. “It’s not. I don’t like anyone. That’s just the name of some boy at school. Michael, I don’t even know where you got that.”
Cole took a bite of potatoes. “Your laptop. The file labeled diary.”
The blood drained from my face, my arms, my legs. If I looked down, surely there would be a pool of it at my feet.
“Did you read your sister’s diary?” Mom’s voice carried an edge that let my brother know he would be dealt with later.
“He like you back?” Marcus asked.
Marcus sat at my right, and I had to admit he was one of my favorites. Overweight, short, and totally in the closet. The book-reading closet, that is. Over the past two years, we’d spent many an hour talking Harry Potter, Shakespeare, and the psychology crap his professors made him read.
“He does not like her back,” Cole said. “Ow! Quit kicking me, Michael. You told me that’s what it said.”
I wanted to die. I wanted to flop in the floor like an oxygen-deprived fish in my torment and slip away into the great beyond—far, far away from this inhumane humiliation. My brothers were clearly conspiring to make sure I had zero self-respect left. Might as well announce to the table that I’d never had a date. That I’d never been properly kissed. That the only reason I had boobs was because I bought them at Victoria’s Secret.
“He’d be a fool not to chase you, Harper.” My dad smiled and gave me his comforting slow wink. Just one drop of the eyelid, one easy grin, and for a few seconds, I felt special. Beautiful.
I just wished it was enough for Andrew Levin.
“We should probably meet this dude.” Tyler Nicholson turned to Michael. “You know him?”
“I do.” Ridley set down a pitcher of tea and looked right at me.
At this, the whole team broke out into celebration, like the boy had just handed off the game-winning pass.
“Let’s hear it.” Dominic cut into his roast beef. “Oh, girl, you in trouble now.”
“Maybe we should respect her privacy,” Marcus said.
“Yes, let’s.” I stared down every single member of the team.
Fifteen men dropped their attention back to their plates, and knives and forks clanked as they quietly returned to their lunch.
“Then again,” laughed Marcus, “she’s always up in my business.”
The table once again erupted into shouts, and soon the questions flew anew. Only this time for Ridley.
Mr. Arrogance watched me from the opposite end of the table, a pirate’s smile curving those lips. “I could talk to him for you, Harper.”
“That won’t be necessary.” As I expected to self-combust within the next minute.
“Just think,” Michael said. “If the Eagles offer Ridley a contract, he’ll be eating with us every Sunday.”
I glared at my brother’s newest annoying friend.
I was angry that he had shown up. Even more angry at my brothers.
But determined more than ever to be Andrew Levin’s next girlfriend.