My boyfriend had a death wish.
And if he kept making excuses about why he’d forgotten to pick me up, leaving me stranded in the rain, there was a strong chance I’d be granting that wish.
“Where were you Saturday night?” I had already asked the question twice. I’d always thought that Jake was pretty smart for a football player, but right now he was looking at me with blank eyes and truly embracing the dumb-jock stereotype. I wasn’t usually an angry person, but the way he kept stalling made me want to punch him.
“Saturday night…” His voice hovered over the words, dragging them out like he’d been given a lobotomy and had forgotten how to speak. He glanced around at the school parking lot, and I couldn’t figure out if he was looking for someone or searching for an escape. It was still early though, and there was barely anyone at school—unfortunately for him.
I’d been silent the whole drive to school this morning, working up the courage to ask him about the weekend, and now all my questions were spilling out of me in a nervous, angry rush.
“You were supposed to pick me up from work,” I said. The fury in my voice had quickly evaporated, and my tone was now clearly tinged with sadness. I wasn’t very good at playing the angry girlfriend.
His eyes finally found mine again as realization dawned on him. “Aw, I’m sorry, Madi. I completely forgot.”
“I waited for over an hour,” I said. “I tried calling you a hundred times, but you never answered. I had to walk home in the rain.”
He rubbed his face, guilt flaring in his eyes. “Madi, I didn’t realize. I would never leave you stranded.”
Except he did.
“So, where were you?” I asked, trying to get to the point of the whole horrid conversation. “And why didn’t you return any of my calls yesterday?”
He swallowed, licking his lips as if they’d suddenly become dry. “I was out with the guys on Saturday,” he finally admitted. “And I dropped my phone.” He pulled his battered phone out of his pocket as proof. The screen had shattered into a thousand different pieces. “I was going to talk to Skip today to see if he could fix it for me.”
I stared at the phone, trying to process his explanation. “That doesn’t change the fact you forgot about me…” I said, peering back up at him.
He met my gaze and nodded. “I know, and I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”
I let out an uneasy breath. It wasn’t the first time Jake had let me down, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. I knew he often got caught up in the moment when he was hanging out with his friends though, and his broken phone seemed like proof enough of why I ended up stranded.
“Forgive me?” he asked. “You know I’d forget my own name if my mom hadn’t sewn it on all my socks.”
“I’ll think about,” I said. Jake's joke caused a small smile to light my lips. I tried to hide it, but I knew it was too late.
He shook his head at me and grinned before pulling me in and smacking a slobbery lingering kiss against my cheek.
“How about now?” he asked.
“Jake!” I squealed. “That’s disgusting!’
He laughed before planting another kiss on my other cheek. “I can do this all day, Mads,” he said.
“All right, all right, you’re forgiven,” I conceded.
He let me go and smiled down at me smugly. I could only shake my head at him. I’d never been good at holding a grudge against Jake, and he totally knew it.
He slung an arm over my shoulder, and we walked into the school together. It was like everything had magically returned to normal. Jake was smiling so freely that it was almost impossible to believe we’d been fighting just minutes before.
His friends were all crowded around his locker when we arrived, and the moment Jake saw them his arm dropped from around me, and he went to join them. I didn’t even get a goodbye. It was hardly unusual, but today it upset me for some reason. As I watched him bump fists with the guys in greeting, a queasy, uncertain feeling returned to my stomach. I’d told Jake I’d forgiven him; why hadn’t my stomach got the memo?
I started toward my locker, trying to ignore how ill I suddenly felt. Jake was a good guy, but sometimes he seemed to fail at also being a good boyfriend. I cared about him a lot, but deep down I was beginning to worry that we weren’t right for each other. We were probably just going through a rough patch, and everything would be fine given a little time—at least, that’s what I was hoping.
I felt a hand touch my elbow and let out a breath as Hayley linked her arm with mine. Her long, brown hair was up in a ponytail today, and she was wearing one of her signature school outfits—cute wedges, a denim skirt and a white tank top. There was so much concern in my best friend’s hazel eyes, and she was giving me a hesitant smile, as though she wasn’t sure what mood I was in. I couldn’t even begin to verbalize how relieved I felt to have her at my side.
“How did things go with Jake this morning?” she asked.
“It was fine,” I muttered. “He said he forgot about picking me up and that his phone broke so he didn’t get my calls.”
Hayley’s expression darkened. “And you’re okay with that?”
I shook my head. “Of course not. I just know how he is, and I hate being mad at him. It’s not that big a deal.”
“You called me crying when you finally got home on Saturday night. I almost took the two-hour drive back from our beach house to come check on you. How is that not a big deal?” Hayley could be a bit of a pit bull when it came to me. Sometimes it felt like she was more protective of me than my own mother was.
I shrugged. I didn’t have an answer for her. In truth, I was still upset, but I’d forgiven Jake, and I needed to move past it.
“He’s always letting you down. You’re far too good for him,” Hayley continued.
I couldn’t argue with her because after the weekend I was beginning to feel like maybe she was right. It hurt to think of ending things with Jake though. We’d been together for almost two years and friends since we were kids. I couldn’t seem to process the idea of us no longer being together. I knew what a great person he was; I just felt like recently, I was seeing less and less of that great person around me.
I let out a sigh, pushing thoughts of Jake from my mind. I’d already dealt with him today, and I didn’t want to dwell on it any longer.
“Ladies,” a voice called from behind us. Hayley and I both turned to find Angus striding toward us. In his chinos and button-up shirt, he looked every bit the student body president he was so proud to be. As soon as he reached us, he shoved flyers into both our hands.
“Don’t forget that today’s the last day to vote,” he said.
I frowned and glanced down at the paper. It was a voting form for the stupid charity dating competition the school was hosting. “True Love,” they were calling the contest. It made me want to gag.
I immediately passed the flyer back to him. “Thanks, I don’t need one,” I said.
Angus grinned. “Oh, you’ve already voted? No problem, Madi.”
“No, she hasn’t,” Hayley chimed in, grabbing the flyer back from Angus and shooting me a knowing look.
“Madison Matthews, I thought you were better than that,” Angus gasped, raising his hand to his forehead in fake shock. “We need everyone to get involved. It’s for charity after all. Every penny goes to help victims of the terrible wildfires last summer.”
I tilted my head at Angus. I knew all about the wildfires. Everyone did. I hadn’t been directly affected, but the flames had come dangerously close to the school, and plenty of houses on the south side of town were damaged. I wasn’t convinced that Angus was genuinely concerned though. He looked far too excited about the whole event.
“I just think there could be better ways to raise money,” I said, glancing between both Hayley and Angus, hopeful of finding some support.
“What better way than while helping two people find ‘True Love,’” Angus replied before he thrust another voting form into my hand. Before I could protest again, he turned on his heel and left, no doubt off to harass his next unsuspecting victim.
As I watched Angus bounce from student to student, I realized his flyers weren’t the only thing promoting the contest. As I looked around the corridor, I began to notice there were posters everywhere. There was even a massive banner strung from the ceiling. Whole reams of paper had been wasted covering every locker in the school to remind people that today was the last day to vote for contestants.
The fact I was only noticing them now just showed how distracted I’d been when I’d arrived at school.
“You think they’re actually going to go through with it?” I asked Hayley, nodding my head at the voting slip Angus had handed her.
“It looks like it. There’s an assembly announcing the contestants at the end of the day tomorrow,” she replied. “Plus, Angus has Mrs. Green wrapped around his little finger. He could lock us all in a room for a month and call it Big Brother and our principal would probably go for the idea.”
I sighed and tried not to look so miserable about it all. I don’t know why I was so against the contest. I guess it was because I didn’t want to see a bunch of girls getting hurt.
“I still think they could have come up with another way to raise money. Why couldn’t they have just held a bake sale?” I wondered. A cupcake never hurt anyone.
Hayley grinned. “Probably because not everyone in our school feels the same way as you do about baked goods. I still have no idea where you put it all. I’d be the size of a house if I ate half the stuff you devour.”
“Nah, you’d be alright,” I replied. Being on the cheer squad, Hayley did way more exercise than me. I liked to go on the occasional run, but working out wasn’t really my thing. “And even if you weren’t, you’d still be the hottest house around.”
Hayley laughed brightly at my comment. “This coming from the girl who the boys voted ‘sexiest in school’ last year.”
I frowned at the memory, wishing she hadn’t brought it up. All the guys had made a list last year ranking the girls at school. There’d been a massive blow up over it after some of the girls found out and shared it around.
Hayley was right; I had been at the top of the list of girls. I didn’t find it complimentary though. The hot list had upset so many girls, but what Hayley didn’t seem to understand was how much it had also hurt me. I’d received so much unwanted attention from it all, and none of it had been good.
The girls were the worst. Some told me that I was voted for as a joke, and others went in the opposite direction and said it was because I was a slut.
“You know I don’t like talking about the list,” I murmured.
Hayley’s face dropped. “Yeah, I know,” she replied. “I was just hoping we were at the point where we could laugh about it, you know.”
I nodded, knowing she meant no harm. I think she believed I was just a bit embarrassed by it all. But she didn’t realize that I doubted myself every time I left the house these days. Were my clothes too revealing? Was I wearing too much makeup? Was I wearing too little? That stupid list had made me question the way I portrayed myself to the world. It made me wonder if people saw the real me, or if they only cared about what was on the outside.
We stopped by her locker so she could collect her things before heading a little further down the corridor to mine. I immediately felt my hackles go up as I saw who was leaning against it. Cole Kingston: Lincoln High’s most beloved footballer, and my personal nemesis.
He looked like some kind of Abercrombie model as he casually propped himself up against my locker. His dirty blonde hair was hanging in his eyes, and his low-slung jeans and white t-shirt gripped his body tightly. Lucky for me I was immune to his good looks, unlike most of the girls in the school. He had a reputation for being charming and flirtatious, but to me it just came across as cocky, arrogant and irritating.
“Good morning, Hayley,” he said, smiling at my friend as we approached. “Matthews,” he added, glancing at me briefly, as though it had only just occurred to him to greet me, despite the fact he was waiting at my locker. I certainly didn’t get a good morning smile.
“Do you want something, Cole?” I asked, trying to keep my cool. I was a pretty nice person 90% of the time, but Cole seemed to bring out that other 10%.
Cole and I had once been friends, but that felt like a million years ago now. We’d done almost everything together, but around the time we started high school that had all stopped. Almost overnight we went from best friends to complete strangers. I still had no idea why he stopped speaking to me. When he started again though, his words had turned cruel and taunting. He’d changed.
All that remained of our friendship now were a few memories and a matching scar on our knees from when we tried and failed to ride a tandem bike together one summer. He’d been sweet once upon a time, but the guy standing before me now was nothing like that.
He tapped his fingers across his bottom lip, considering my question. “World peace?” he asked as if he were unsure.
“You know that’s not what I’m asking.”
His lips lifted in a grin. Any other girl in the student population would probably swoon if Cole Kingston looked at them that way. I didn’t see the appeal.
“Can you move?” I asked.
He jumped out of the way of my locker in a flash. But what was revealed behind him only made my mood worse. There was a flyer for the True Love competition plastered across the door.
I immediately pulled the flyer from my locker and scrunched it into a ball.
Cole laughed. “Not a fan of charity?” he asked.
“Not a fan of women being degraded,” I replied. “But I’m sure you’re all for this kind of misogyny.”
“It’s not degrading if it’s for true love,” he replied.
I rolled my eyes at Cole and glanced at Hayley who was smirking at him.
“Traitor,” I mouthed at her, making her grin widely.
I went to open my locker as Cole opened the one next to mine. How we ended up as neighbors in school and at home, I’ll never know. Not only did I have to see him several times a day, but I also had to battle through his fan club to get my books most mornings.
“So, you’re saying you wouldn’t want to be a contestant and vie for our lucky bachelor’s heart?” he asked, closing his locker and looking at me intently.
“I have a boyfriend.” I shut my own locker a little harder than I intended.
“Sure you do,” he said, patting my shoulder like I was a child.
“You know I do,” I growled.
“You keep telling yourself that.”
Before I could respond, he turned and walked away, leaving me standing there, fuming at nothing but air. I wanted to shout a retort after him, but his stupidly large shoulders were already too far down the corridor for him to hear me.
“Did you see that?” I turned to Hayley, who had been standing silently next to me the whole time. She may have been the only female in the school that wasn’t completely infatuated with Cole—well, besides me of course. I suspected it was because she was into college guys. She said high school boys were too immature for her tastes, and when it came to Cole, I had to agree.
“I think he likes you,” she said.
“Cole doesn’t like me,” I replied. “Don’t even joke about stuff like that.”
“Who says I was joking?” she asked. “His banter with you is totally filled with sexual tension.”
“Gross, Hayley. Now, next time he talks to me, that’s all I’m going to think about.”
She grinned. “I’m just saying it how it is.”
“Maybe we could just put a muzzle on him?” It wasn’t the worst idea I’d come up with for dealing with Cole.
Hayley laughed and bumped her shoulder against mine. “Sounds kind of kinky.”
I shook my head, laughing with her as we started toward class. The bell rang as we entered the English room. The day was only just beginning, and yet I was ready for it to be over. It didn’t help that when I sat down, there was a small square ballot form waiting on my desk.
“Vote for your True Love contestants!” was scrawled across the top of the page, with one box allocated for the male vote and ten boxes for the female.
I scrunched the paper up into a ball and sat back as the others in class scribbled away on their voting forms. This competition was ridiculous. I just couldn’t believe I was the only one in the school who thought so.