“OKAY! I can’t take it anymore.” Christian slammed his textbook shut for effect, and began stuffing his books into his backpack. “No more studying. It’s much too nice a day.”
Faith looked up surprised. “Be patient. You’ll get it.”
She let her gaze slide from her cute, blond pupil to take in the landscaped school grounds of Saint Ignatius Catholic School. Perched on a small, grassy hill overlooking Main Street, the school’s stately red-brick buildings were splendidly complimented by the fir trees, oaks, red maples, and professionally landscaped bushes that surrounded them.
The late summer New England sun kissed the afternoon, enticing the lunchtime crowd to venture out in their usual cliquish clusters. Faith inhaled deeply, allowing the scent of lilies, roses, and sunshine to fill her senses. She felt a happiness she had never experienced before. She packed her own book into her bag and wondered if her inner joy was a product of the beautiful day or the handsome boy sitting beside her. No contest, she concluded.
Christian shoved the last bite of his sandwich into his mouth and looked at his phone as he stood up. She rushed to her feet also, dusting grass off the back of her school-approved navy skirt.
He slung his bag over his shoulder, ran his right hand through his short, dirty-blond hair. “I have to go. We have an early practice. Thanks for your help. I’m sorry I’m such a dope when it comes to this.” He grinned apologetically.
The expression made her giggle, a response she immediately regretted for its lack of sophistication. She covered it with a short cough.
“Christian, you’re getting better,” she said. “You’re getting it. Really!” They stood facing each other now and she wondered how her complexion was behaving at that particular moment. Then she sucked her teeth discreetly, in case any carrot stick remnants had gotten lodged there.
“Well, I’ll trust your judgment, since you’re the chem expert.”
“I’m not sure I’d call myself an expert. But, so far, I understand what’s going on in class.”
“That’s good enough for me. I can’t afford to be kicked off this team. At least, that’s what my dad likes to keep reminding me.”
She searched for something funny or smart to say to him, but he was already lost in his phone, sending a text message to someone, clearly oblivious of her existence.
A voice spoke from behind her. “Hey, Christian.”
A tall, dark-haired girl with a tight ponytail and glossy, crimson lips sidled up to him, with two other girls close behind. One girl with curly blond hair was chewing gum with her mouth open, while the other, with bright red hair, was lost in her own phone, tapping away with pink-bedazzled finger nails. All three wore their school skirts shorter than the mandated knee-length.
Faith watched as the blond girl moved in closer to him.
He looked up from his phone. “What’s up, girls?”
“You guys having a study date?” The blond girl snapped her gum and threw Faith a thin smile. Faith dropped her gaze. “You going to introduce us?”
“Ladies, this is Faith, my chemistry tutor.” He nodded toward her while continuing to tap on his phone. “Faith, these are my . . . friends, Maria, Carla, and Jules.”
“Hey,” Maria with the ponytail said.
“Charmed.” Carla, the blond, tossed her hair and glanced away.
The redhead on the phone just flicked her a glance and a smile.
Faith returned their greetings with a smile and a nod, but was more interested in watching Carla close the gap between herself and Christian. The blond girl brushed an invisible strand of hair from her forehead and twisted from side to side as she watched him tap on his phone. She cleared her throat.
“Christian, can we talk?” she asked in a low voice.
The other two exchanged a look, and Maria rolled her eyes.
“OMG, Carla, really?”
“What?” Carla glared at her friend.
Christian glanced up. “Actually, I have to go.”
“Another time, then.” Maria grabbed a protesting Carla by the shoulder, and dragged her away. “Why you gotta embarrass us all the time?”
Carla yanked her arm from her friend’s grip, but walked away with them.
Faith watched them leave, but said nothing. Christian’s phone buzzed and he looked at it again and then, to her disbelief, turned and slowly walked away with his head down and fingers still tapping.
“Well, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” Faith said half-heartedly. She picked up her bag to leave.
Christian stopped and turned back, his face was blank for a moment. “Oh, right. Sorry.” He raised his phone and shrugged, then shoved it into his back pocket. “Thanks again.”
“My pleasure,” she said.
“Yeah? You mean that?” He raised his eyebrows and smiled crookedly. She loved his smile, with its puckish curve at the corner that she was sure hid many a secret, and she loved the way his soft brown eyes just seemed to beckon her. He stepped closer to her, invading her personal space, and she hoped that he couldn’t see through her cool façade.
She flushed. “I don’t know.” She took a step back, suddenly unsure.
He shoved his palms into the pockets of his khakis.
“You’re sweet. Same time, same tree, next week?”
“I look forward to it.” He reached out to tuck a blond strand of hair behind her ear. This time she didn’t step back. Instead she just smiled, because the touch of his hand had that effect on her.
As she watched him walk away, she heard someone call her name and turned to see her friend, Nina, coming toward her. “Hey, Faith, where were you?”
“I had lunch out here,” she said. “It’s such a nice day.”
“You should have told us. Tate and I would have come out and eaten with you.”
“Well, it was kind of a study lunch. I’m tutoring a friend in Chemistry.”
“Oh, okay . . . hey, are you wearing makeup?” Nina’s forehead crinkled with curiosity.
“Just a bit. Covering some zits. We better get going.” She turned and hurried toward the school, so that Nina had to rush to catch up.
“You have zits on your lips?”
CHRISTIAN AIMED A FRONT PUNCH to the chest of his opponent and the crowd erupted, sending the packed bleachers on the left side of the small school gym into complete pandemonium. The sound of cheers and heckling filled the space.
In perfect timing, his short, stocky opponent lowered his left arm to shove the threat down and, at the same instant, turned his body to throw a fast roundhouse kick that connected to Christian’s right side.
“Aahhh!” He stomped with one foot and saw his opponent’s look of feigned sadness. He walked back to his starting point, trying desperately to ignore the anger surging in his chest.
“Stay focused, Slade.” He ignored his coach’s shouted exhortation and flailing arms, and turned his back on his opponent. Dropping to one knee, he adjusted his sash, buying himself a moment to plan his next move before he stood and faced the other boy.
They stood poised in fighting positions. Each needed one more point to win.
“Begin,” yelled the chief judge.
The other boy came at him, his gloved hands sardonically beckoning Christian as he swayed from left to right. Then Christian stepped in, too, his cheeks burning as he looked into the taunting eyes of his opponent. There was something about the look of the face rushing toward him that made Christian want to punch it.
Coach had warned him against abandoning self-control in past episodes of complete abandon, when rage built to such an extreme and nothing else sufficed but the teaching of a brutal lesson. Still, he chose to ignore his coach this time and released a solid blow square into the offending face.
END OF CHAPTER 1
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