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The Holiday Kiss (Briarwood High Book 4) by Maggie Dallen (1)

Chapter One

Maya

My best friend, Taylor, stopped pacing the hallway when I stormed out of my meeting with the school committee.

“So?” she asked, falling into step beside me. “How’d it go?”

I let out a long, slow exhale and kept my lips pressed tightly together, too irritated to speak. It wasn’t until we reached my locker a few feet away that I took a deep inhale and turned to face her. Her wince told me I wasn’t doing a very good job of disguising my anger.

“Not well, I take it?”

I shook my head, gripping the clipboard in my hands so tightly my knuckles turned white. “Not well.”

“What happened?” Taylor’s blonde hair fell into her eyes and she tossed it back with annoyance. “This should be an easy sell. Briarwood needs a STEM academics club if it’s going to stay competitive with the other private schools in our state.”

I nodded. Taylor was preaching to the choir here. Everything she said, I’d just told the committee. We’d worked on the speech together so she knew that. “You don’t have to sell me.” I nodded toward the now closed doors. “They’re the ones who are being obtuse.”

“But—but—” Her stammering came to a stop. My best friend was speechless.

Taylor was taller than me but even from my lowly vantage point I could see her crestfallen expression. She looked tragic in a pretty, willowy blonde kind of way, like she was a princess from a Disney movie waiting to be saved.

We were exact opposites in that sense—in the physical sense, I mean. Where she was tall and fair, I was short and curvy. My long dark hair was always pulled back, usually in a bun.

But that was beside the point because hair was the least of our worries. And whether Taylor looked like some fairytale princess or not, she was stunned.

I couldn’t blame her. I was having a hard time wrapping my head around what had just happened and I’d been there. The fact of the matter was, the grant money should have been ours. I’d done the research into local competition, into college recruitment assessments. I’d even provided quotes from ivy league recruiters as to the importance of STEM-focused programs, specifically ones that were designed to include female students.

Like me. Like Taylor. It would have been a coup for our school and an added bonus to my high school resume to be the one who’d instituted the program.

Granted, I’d already been accepted into Harvard early admission so I no longer needed it to woo them, but that was beside the point. This was a matter of principle. Of pride.

“So they said no?” Taylor finally asked. She sounded heartbroken and I couldn’t exactly blame her. She hadn’t applied early admission and was still waiting desperately to see if she’d gotten into her school of choice or one of her safety schools.

I pitied her, I really did. I’d barely survived the waiting period and mine had been a fairly quick process. If I were still waiting to find out, I’d be going nuts right now. As it was, I was just going to lose my mind with frustration. “They didn’t say no,” I said. “Not yet. They said they’d think about it.”

Taylor brightened. “So maybe they just need some time to think it over.”

I nodded for her sake. “Maybe.”

“Why do you still look so angry?” Taylor asked.

“Because I wasn’t the only one there petitioning for the grant money,” I said.

“Really?” Her voice shot up two octaves, but it was no wonder Taylor was surprised. We’d gotten the inside track on the grant money from our friend Charles, whose mother works in the principal’s office. Aside from that, most students weren’t too interested in instituting new programs at Briarwood. Most were too focused on the mundane, mindless task of being a high schooler. I.e., going to football games and keggers and talking about who was dating whom.

They were more interested in sports or theater or their own everyday drama to think about what we were actually doing here. There were only a handful of us who were actually focused on our educations, and who were thinking ahead to how we could be the best once we arrived at the college of our dreams.

“Who?” Taylor asked with a shake of her head. “Why? I mean, what did they need the money for?”

“Updating the locker rooms by the pool.” I skipped over the first part because I couldn’t trust myself to say his name without letting loose a stream of profanities that would get me suspended if anyone overheard. And they would, because I would be screaming my freakin’ head off.

And yeah, maybe I was being a bit of a coward by putting off the inevitable, because if I told her who my rival had been in that committee meeting, I’d have to explain how, exactly, he’d learned about the school’s new grant.

Before Taylor could ask any more questions, the doors I’d just walked through swung open again and there he was. The arch nemesis in question. Luke Perona. Tall and lean, with short dirty blond hair, he strode into the hallway like he owned this place. And in some ways, I supposed he did.

Taylor gasped beside me. “Luke?” she asked. “Luke is our competition?”

I gave a half shrug as I corrected her. “Well, he was speaking on behalf of the entire swim team, but yes.”

I could feel her stare but I hadn’t looked away from Luke. If looks could kill I would have slayed him ten different ways by now. Each bloodier and more gratifyingly painful than the next.

“Maya, Luke is the swim team.”

I pursed my lips in lieu of a response. I couldn’t argue with her on that one. As the captain, his name was synonymous with that winning team. Besides, I was still waiting for her follow-up question. The one I knew was coming

“How did Luke find out about the grant?” she asked. “And why would he care?”

And there it was.

Oh Taylor. Sweet, loveable Taylor. How could I break it to her that this was all my fault? She’d forgive me, I knew she would. But I wasn’t sure I could ever forgive myself.

I turned to face her, ready to admit my epic fail. Before I could, Luke was shouting my name. “Maya!”

I stiffened at the sound of his voice, all low and loud. He had the kind of natural confidence and booming voice that seemed to go hand in hand with overly broad shoulders and absurdly handsome features.

I supposed, in a way, that made sense. Anyone with Luke’s perfect genes must suffer from a severe sense of entitlement. It was a natural side effect from how he must have been treated his whole life. Like a golden child. And then, as he got older—like a king. Basically, he’d spent his entire life being adored, was it any wonder that he’d grown up to be a spoiled, arrogant brat? No. I didn’t have to ace Psych 101 to figure that one out.

The illustrious swim team captain was entitled with a capital E. And if anyone should question that entitlement?

Well, let’s just say that I learned the hard way that Luke’s competitive spirit reached far beyond the pool.

I didn’t want to turn around and face Luke’s smug grin so I found myself staring into Taylor’s wide, question-filled eyes as he and his irritatingly smirky side-kick approached. Kyle, I think his name was. Whatever. It didn’t matter. He was an underclassman and only here to be Luke’s personal lapdog.

“You put up a good fight in there,” Luke said. He was talking to me. I knew he was talking to me but I pretended I couldn’t hear him.

Super mature, I know, and definitely not effective since the four of us were the only people in the hallway. I was hoping he’d walk away.

He didn’t.

“What, you’re going to ignore me now?”

Yes. Yes, that was exactly what I was doing as I turned to my locker and opened it with shaking fingers. I wasn’t nervous, just pissed. Furious, even. I’d never dealt well with excessive emotions, which was why I tended to avoid them. I was typically calm, cool, and collected. Even before this meeting with the school committee, I’d been calm. I hadn’t been nervous at all, but in hindsight I should have been.

Like an idiot, I hadn’t seen it coming. I hadn’t actually believed Luke would go through with it.

“Aw, c’mon,” Luke said from behind me.

Right behind me. He was so close I could feel him towering over me.

Damn tall people with their stupid…tallness.

Believe it or not, I was typically quite eloquent when my mind wasn’t boiling over with rage. But at this particular moment it took all of my mental alacrity just to focus on my locker combination and drown out Luke’s looming presence behind me and the mockery in his tone.

“Don’t be a sore loser,” he said.

That was it. My anger had reached its tipping point and beat out my cowardice. Spinning around, I glared up at him. “I’m not a loser,” I said. “They haven’t made their decision yet.”

His lopsided grin was so cocky it was hard not to smack it off his face. “Yeah, but we all know they’ll choose me.”

Me. They’ll choose me. He didn’t even try to pretend that this was about the swim team or the greater good of the athletics department, like he’d said in that meeting room. No, this was all about Luke and his need to win.

I clutched my clipboard to my chest. I’d forgotten I’d been holding it but right now it came in handy as a sort of talisman against Luke’s smug smile and those ice blue eyes. “They won’t choose you,” I said with a sneer. “They’ll choose the program that will benefit Briarwood the most.”

“By supporting their state-champion swim team,” he finished.

I drew in a deep breath to try and stay calm. “They’ll come to their senses.”

His smile grew. “So you admit it. I won today.” He nodded toward the room. “I kicked your ass back there.”

I opened my mouth to deny it, but he had. He totally had. That was the most infuriating part. But I wouldn’t give that to him, because the way he’d won, it had been crappy. It epitomized everything that drove me nuts about Briarwood, and high school in general.

I took a step closer, in what I guess was an ill-advised attempt to be intimidating. It didn’t work. There was no way to be physically intimidating when you’re five-foot-three on tiptoe. Now I was forced to crane my neck back as I glared at him through narrowed eyes.

“You may have won them over with your charm and charisma,” I started. Oh hell. That made his grin spread until he was beaming down at me with an insufferable smile.

What was my point? My mind scrambled, in a crazy disarray at the full force of his smile, even if it was taunting me.

Right. That was the point. He was taunting me. That’s all this was about. “We both know that you don’t care what happens to the swim team after you’re gone.”

He started to protest. Even his friend tried to intervene but I waved a hand to cut them off, my voice rising to talk over them both.

“It’s the truth. You don’t care about anyone but yourself. So yeah, you might have charmed them but once they look at the material we provided they’ll see that I actually did the homework. I crunched the numbers, and I did the legwork.”

I took another step closer until we were practically touching because apparently I didn’t learn my lesson that first time.

“A good personality will only get you so far, Luke. Sure, you might be a king in high school but at some point you’ll discover that it takes more than just a great body and a sexy smile to get by in life.”

Dammit. Crap crap crap. The moment the words were out, my brain caught up to my mouth. Only Luke and severe anger seemed to have this effect on me. Or maybe it was just Luke, because come to think of it, I’d never suffered this level of anger before he’d come into my life.

Not that he was in my life, but

“So, you think I’ve got a hot body, huh?” His voice was a low, lazy drawl that made my skin feel flushed and hot.

“I didn’t say that.” And I hadn’t. Technically I’d said ‘great body.’ Big difference.

“I knew it.” He turned to share a smirk with his little friend.

I opened my mouth to tell him that he was missing the point. Not surprising, really. He might’ve looked pretty but there was no way he had brains and brawn.

Life couldn’t be that unfair.

But before I could say anything, the bell rang loudly through the speaker over our heads. Students filed into the hallway, filling it with the noise of shuffling feet, laughter, and talking. Anything I’d been about to say would have just been drowned out in the sudden sea of voices that enveloped us.

Besides, Luke was already backing away, that smirk still firmly in place as he held his arms out, not bothering to look to see if he might bump into someone. Why would he? The crowd parted for tall, hot guys like Luke.

Seriously, the crowd parted for him like he was Moses, whereas I would have been trampled without so much as an oops, sorry.

I’d thought we were done, the snark-fest temporarily put on hold until we were forced into one another’s company again. Hopefully not anytime in the near future.

“Good effort, Maya,” Luke called out condescendingly before turning around to head down the hall.

His booming voice had the students nearby turning to stare at me and I could feel my face heat under the crowd’s stare.

He turned back when he was about ten feet away. “By the way, I had a great time at your house the other night.” His wink was obnoxious and over-the-top. “Let’s do it again soon.”

That last parting blow hit where it hurt. Now everyone would think—the stares grew in intensity and I swung around to hide my burning cheeks in my locker. No, no one would think that. Luke might’ve had a reputation for being a player and hooking up with anything that moved, but no one would believe he’d hooked up with the school’s biggest nerd.

If I just ignored their stares, they’d turn their attention elsewhere.

But I couldn’t avoid Taylor who was making squeaking sounds beside me. I realized that those squeaking sounds were actually words. “What? When? You?”

They weren’t complete thoughts but I got the picture.

“It wasn’t like that,” I said. I slammed my locker shut and turned around to find that I was no longer the center of attention, thank God. I sighed and headed down the hallway to my next class, with Taylor tagging along at my side still pestering me with questions. “Then what did he mean?”

“He meant…” I let out a huff of air. It was so stupid. I should have told her before but it seemed unimportant considering all the work we’d had to do for our pitch to the committee.

“My mom and his mom are now best friends, or something.” I muttered this with as much disgust as I felt. Not that I had anything against Luke’s mom. Patty actually seemed pretty cool. And his two younger brothers weren’t all that bad, either. They’d mostly just played amongst themselves when they all came over for one of my mom’s famous taco nights. They’re not famous to anyone but me and her, but she liked to call them that.

Taylor was gaping at me so intently I had to reach out to grab her arm and steer her so we didn’t cause a collision in the hall. “What?” she said. “Since when? I mean…why?”

I rolled my eyes. Because my mom was the world’s nicest person, that’s why. As for the other two… “It’s a recent turn of events. They’re both on the PTA and I guess his parents got divorced and so now they have this whole single-mom bond.”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes again. Not that I had anything but complete and utter respect for single moms, but my mom had this soft spot for them that was just weird. She took in newly single mothers like some people adopted pets from the shelter.

Naturally gregarious, with an easy laugh, everyone loved my mom. But the newly single seemed to adore her. Maybe she gave them hope or something, or maybe they just needed someone like her who’d been through the trenches and could dole out sage advice.

I don’t know, I was just her daughter, but that was my theory.

Needless to say, she had a wide circle of friends, and Patty was the latest addition. This was all fine and good except that both of our moms seemed to share the misguided idea that Luke and I should be friends as well. They kept trying to throw us together, but each attempt failed spectacularly to the point that these little get-togethers were starting to feel like one of those reality shows where it was just a matter of time before a fight broke out and furniture was being thrown across the room.

The taco dinner the other night had been a fiasco from the start. First, Luke had been late. Apparently swim team practice had run long—because as we all know the world begins and ends with swimming for Luke. So my mom decided we all had to wait, which meant I was starving while also trying to keep two middle-schoolers entertained in our videogame-free household.

Then, over dinner, in one of my mom’s not-so-subtle attempts to get us talking, she prompted me to tell Luke about the grant proposal I’d been working on.

I’d literally watched his pretty blue eyes cloud over with boredom as I’d started to talk. I honestly didn’t think he was listening at all until I’d mentioned that there was no competition for the grant so it should be an easy sell.

Oh, how I wished I could go back and slap a hand over my mouth.

He’d looked up at that, his mouth still full of taco and his gaze oddly intense, like he was seeing me for the first time since he’d walked in. After he’d swallowed and taken a sip of his club soda, he started in on the questions. Where did the money come from, why didn’t everyone know about it, how did I know another academics program was the best use for it, etc.

Our poor moms just looked back and forth between us as my answers grew shorter and snippier as his questions turned into a full-blown interrogation.

I’ll admit I made matters worse by laughing when he said the school could use better pool facilities.

This led to a whole battle about high school priorities and the fact that academics should always outweigh sports.

I won’t recap the whole argument because I think it’s fairly clear which side we were each on and needless to say—we didn’t see eye to eye.

He and his family eventually—thankfully—left our house and I’d thought the matter was over. Until I arrived at today’s meeting.

That jerk had gone and stolen my grant money.

I gave Taylor the rundown on all this and followed it all up with a sincere apology. We stopped in front of our next AP class and I met her gaze for the first time since I’d started talking. “I’m so sorry, Taylor. If we lose the grant money, it’s all my fault.”

She gave me a little side hug that put my face right in her armpit. But since I was begging for forgiveness, I didn’t say anything.

“It’s not your fault, Maya,” she said.

My friend was always the kind one. She really was too sweet for the guys at our school. Whenever I tried to tell her this she rolled her eyes and told me I sounded just like her grandmother.

If that were the case, her grandmother was a smart lady. Seriously, there were some people who were just too good for high school guys and Taylor was one of them. She was smarter, kinder, and far more generous than any guy at Briarwood.

This was not the reason that I was single. I was nice, but not a saint. I was generous, but not to a fault. And while I was definitely smarter than most of the guys in our school, it didn’t really matter because I didn’t date high school boys. Not anymore.

You see, I had a boyfriend. We were on a break while I finished up my senior year and he got through his first year at MIT, but we planned to rekindle our relationship once I was at Harvard and we resided in the same city.

I’d been lucky to meet Brandon my freshman year, when he was a sophomore at a different high school. We were the perfect match. We shared similar goals and had the same group of friends. I wouldn’t exactly call it true love, but then I didn’t necessarily believe such a thing existed.

Mom was the romantic in our little family. I was the voice of reason. So while I wasn’t prepared to discount the idea entirely, I didn’t embrace it either. To put it analytically, I didn’t have enough data to support either side of this particular debate.

But I didn’t have to analyze the facts to know that I was still fuming over the disastrous meeting, not to mention severely disappointed. I’d been expecting a win before winter break. Something to celebrate while relaxing on the beach with my mom.

Every Christmas since I was little my mom had been taking me to Puerto Escondido, a beach town in Mexico. It wasn’t too far from where she grew up, though none of her family lived there anymore.

Sure, some kids loved the whole white Christmas thing, but for our little family Christmas meant sunning on the beach and shopping for useless trinkets to bring back as souvenirs.

It wasn’t exactly traditional, but it was tradition.

“Just enjoy your vacation,” Taylor said, as if she could read my mind. “And I’ll do the same.”

Taylor’s family went further north to Canada every Christmas to see her grandparents. I shuddered at the thought of a winter without some sunny respite, but to each his own.

“The good news is, you already got into Harvard and don’t need the extra credit,” Taylor said. “And my applications are all in so while this would have been a nice coup, neither of us need it. The upcoming classes will have to take up the fight for themselves if they want a STEM program.” Her tone had taken on that logical lilt that I loved so dearly. This right here was why we were friends. Her way of comforting me was to talk reason, not wallow in emotions.

An excess of any emotions tended to make us both uncomfortable. When Taylor had moved to Briarwood in seventh grade it had been like finding the one coworker who was also allergic to dogs while working at a pound.

Because, you see, Briarwood was teeming with emotions. Junior high had been a cesspool of angst. Cliques had formed, friends had parted ways, crushes had developed, along with new fledgling relationships. Couples seemed to be created and destroyed within the course of a few heartbeats, but the brevity of these relationships did nothing to dampen the grief.

More than once I’d had to back out of a girls’ bathroom in horror because I’d walked in on a girl crying. Sometimes multiple girls.

Then came Taylor. Wise, kind, logical Taylor. It’s not like she and I didn’t have emotions—of course we did, everyone does, that’s just science. It’s the human condition, like it or not. But we shared a mutual belief that emotions could be controlled, at least to some extent. One could indulge them or one could put them in their rightful place. One could get sucked into the drama that was junior high and then high school, or one could concentrate on the future.

I managed a smile for Taylor’s sake, because she was right. I didn’t need this win, I’d just wanted it. This emotional turmoil wasn’t so much about losing the grant money as it was my anger over how it was stolen. Nothing that a week on a beach wouldn’t fix. A week in which I wasn’t forced to hear that low, booming voice or see that cocky smile.

Yes, this vacation was exactly what I needed.

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