These scenes were added when I was trying to clarify Echo and Noah’s plan for getting into their files. These two chapters would have taken place after Noah and Echo studied calculus in the hallway at school and before Echo has a group therapy session with her father and stepmother. Ultimately my editor and I realized they weren’t adding much to the pacing of the story as a whole, so we decided to leave them out. But I have to admit I had fun writing them.
Welcome to Echo’s group date with Luke—her ex-boyfriend with whom she’s trying to rekindle a relationship in an attempt to feel “normal” again—and her bff, Lila, and Lila’s boyfriend. Just when Echo thinks things can’t get any more awkward with Luke, she runs into Noah, the one guy who’s guaranteed to send her into a tailspin of confusion.
Sitting beside me, Luke laughed at Stephen’s story and laced his fingers with my gloved ones. All that remained of the two large pizzas our group ordered an hour ago was a slice of cheese and two slices of pepperoni.
Two years ago, this restaurant used to be a Pizza Hut, but the Pizza Hut moved when the new strip mall opened down the street. A knockoff pizza place bought the building and inherited the booths with red plastic seats, the stench of parmesan, the pictures of tomatoes on the maroon brick wall, and the white and red gingham tablecloths. Everyone at school loved it here because the food was cheap and the owner didn’t care how long we stayed.
“You guys are pigs,” said Lila as Stephen grabbed another slice.
Stephen kissed Lila’s temple before taking a bite and said between mouthfuls, “Need protein for all this muscle.” He nudged her with his elbow to show her he was kidding and, in response, she placed her head on his shoulder.
I envied Lila–that feeling of contentment. Luke squeezed my fingers and I glanced up at him. His glow mirrored that of Lila’s. This was our first official date since we broke up during our sophomore year. Why, oh, why couldn’t I share Luke’s happiness? Not that I was sad, but I wasn’t sure I was happy either.
“What do you say we get some movies and head back to your place,” Stephen said to Luke. My spine straightened as Lila and I shared a knowing look. Movies at Luke’s house always meant making out and I wasn’t ready for that. At least not yet.
“Sounds great.” Luke threw some cash on the table as our group slid out of the booth.
Stephen clapped Luke on the back, mumbled “bathroom”, and left the group. Lila tilted her head towards the ladies’ room. “Echo?”
Before I could answer, Luke placed his hand on my arm. “Do you really need to go?”
No, I didn’t, but I did want to talk to Lila about a plan of attack to keep movie-watching from turning into hooking up. “I’m fine,” I told her.
Luke and I wandered toward the exit and stood near the jukebox, waiting for our friends. Shoving his hands into his pockets, Luke rocked on his toes. “I’ve had fun tonight.”
“Yeah, me too.” I had to admit, it was fun to be normal for a few minutes.
“And it’s been cool talking to you on the phone at night.”
“Yeah.” But I couldn’t include the “me too.” On the phone, Luke talked a lot about basketball and the guys on the team and his plans for college next year, but I, on the other hand, didn’t really have much to say on any of those subjects, so I stayed silent. Luke never seemed to mind my silence. He liked talking.
“Then will you tell me what’s wrong?”
My eyes shot to his. Crap. What did I do? Or not do? I laughed at all the right parts, let him hold my hand, ordered diet instead of real Coke and only ate two pieces of pizza when I really wanted three. I even encouraged him to tell his favorite basketball stories though I had heard them before. This entire night I’d focused on what I would have done two years before and concentrated on making those choices. “Nothing’s wrong.”
He lowered his head and nudged his toe at a spot on the floor. “You’re not being you.”
“I guess I’m nervous.” Nervous I would never be normal.
His face lit up. “Are you nervous about kissing me again?”
Yes and no. Yes would be a much better answer than saying I was nervous I’d screw this all up and be a freak for life. But honestly…“I’m not ready to kiss.” You, added a voice from the deep recesses of my brain.
“So you’re saying you want to take it slow.”
His head moved side to side as if he were actually weighing the pros and cons in his mind, then he finally said, “Okay. We’ll go slow.”
Crap. Stephen and Lila giggled as they rounded the corner from the hallway leading to the restrooms. Luke nodded in the direction of the door and I followed his nonverbal cue.
“Echo!” Luke said in alarm right as I rammed into a wall of solid muscle. My gaze drifted up and I was greeted to twinkling dark brown eyes and a wicked grin that stirred my soul. Double freaking crap.
The smile stretched across my lips the moment Echo’s eyes met mine, and stretched even wider when she swallowed and stuttered out some words. “Hi, Noah. I mean sorry. You know. For running into you.”
“We’re good.” Very good. She could stand this close to me anytime.
Echo sucked in a breath and took a huge step back. “What are you doing here?”
“Five dollar pizza.” Two larges for eight dollars. Isaiah, Beth, and I would starve without that meal deal from this place and the leftovers I brought home from work.
“Yeah.” She gave an exaggerated shrug. “Pizza. Of course.”
I chuckled at her poor attempt at nonchalant and loved when her cheeks turned bright red.
A shadow easing near Echo caught my attention and caused my muscles to tense--preparing for an attack. Echo’s overgrown ape boyfriend hovered behind her. “When did you two become friendly?”
Echo angled her body so that she stood between me and the ape. “Oh, it’s okay, Luke. I began tu…” Her mouth formed the t to finish the word “tutoring,” but she trailed off while giving me a quick glance under her eyelashes. “We’re…uh…working…together…um…on…”
Echo blinked like she’d been caught in a hurricane at sea. Damn, this girl couldn’t lie. While part of me found that fact amusing, another part of me softened at the idea that she was willing to lie so I could save face. “She’s tutoring me.”
The ape began to laugh. “No joke, Hutchins.”
I stepped closer, crossing the personal space line that indicated I was willing to throw down. My fist could easily crush his jaw from this distance. “No joke.” And it was his call how big a deal he wanted to make of this.
“Guess the school found their idiot,” he said.
“Luke!” Echo chastised.
“Ah, hell.” The comment came from the Siamese twin constantly attached to Echo’s side. “My tire is flat.”
“Luke,” said the other guy in their posse. “Let it go and let’s go take a look at Lila’s car.”
Cold air smacked my face as the girl flew out the door, her guy hot on her heels.
“Come on, Echo,” said the ape.
Problem was – I wasn’t ready for her to go. “Real chivalrous, Manning.”
Holding the door wide open, he paused. “Excuse me?”
I hitched my thumbs in my pockets, pretending not to care. “It’s twenty degrees out, and you’re going to make Echo stand in the cold in a skirt?”
Behind Luke, Echo shifted and rubbed her hands over her arms. She did have a jacket on for once, but I could tell the draft from the open door still gave her a chill. “I’ll be fine.”
“She can sit in the car,” he said.
“Because sitting in the backseat of a non-running car is much better. Besides, last time I checked you need to jack up a car to change a tire. Maybe you should look into tutoring.”
“Luke,” called the other guy from the parking lot. “I need your help.”
The ape’s eyes flickered from me to Echo to the parking lot. “Echo, I’ll come get you when the car is ready.” Luke’s eyes burned with hatred as he left.
When the door completely shut, Echo turned to me. “I’m so sorry about Luke. Sometimes he gets cocky around guys he doesn’t know. And you didn’t have to tell him I was tutoring you. I would have kept that between us.”
I leaned my hip against the jukebox and tried to wrap my brain around the beauty in front of me. An unfamiliar warmth twisted my insides. My instincts told me to not trust the emotions she created. No one had taken this much interest in me in years. Or cared about my feelings. “Don’t worry about it. Look, I’ve been thinking about our plan.” Last Tuesday, Echo had agreed to work with me so we could peek into our mutual case worker’s files. For me to find out where my brothers’ lived and for her to learn how she got the scars on her arms.
“Do you really think we can do it?” She paused. “And not get caught?”
“Have you ever broken a rule in your life?”
“Yeah.” She blinked like crazy again. “Plenty of times.”
“Uh-huh.” In order for this to work, I’d have to hold her hand every step of the way. Which could be annoying…or fun. “I think the best plan of attack is to move our appointment times so that they’re right next to each other. That way, we could come up with ways to distract Mrs. Collins.”
“I don’t get it.”
Of course she didn’t. Echo wasn’t a rule breaker. “Picture me in therapy and you rush in to ask her some important question that draws Mrs. Collins out her office. Or after my appointment, I rush in and say I forgot a book and then lie about some breakthrough in therapy that I need to discuss with her in the hallway. Make up whatever excuse you want – but the important part is drawing Mrs. Collins out of the office so we can see our files.”
“Why move the appointment time? Why can’t I rush in during the time you have now?”
I ran a hand over my face. Man, this girl must have never plotted a wrong thing in her life. “Mrs. Collins would know something was up if you showed up an hour before school begins and she’d be suspicious as hell if I stuck around after it for any reason.”
The light bulb flipped on. “I get it,” she said. I loved the movement of her lips as she smiled. I liked those lips – a lot. “Move the appointments – take away the suspicion.”
“Did I ever tell you smart girls give me a hard-on?” Especially sexy ones like Echo.
She bit her lip and hid in her hair. “You’re bad.”
“Yeah,” I said and nodded to the employee motioning that the order I had called in earlier was ready. “I am.”
I shifted away from the jukebox and gave into a temptation I should have resisted. My finger skimmed the smooth skin under Echo’s chin and I tilted her face up to mine. My thumb caressed the curve of her mouth. “Good night, Echo Emerson.”
She stared up at me. I stared back down at her, never wanting to kiss anyone as much as I wanted to kiss her. She’d let me. The smolder in her eyes told me as much. Echo would taste sweet – her lips against mine would feel right – and she would be the only good in a world where all I had was bad.
But screwing around with a good girl like Echo would only upset her and ruin my plans. I dropped my hand right as she stepped away from me--as if she sensed she was already crossing lines she should be nowhere near.
“Good night,” she whispered and retreated outside.