Copyright Staci Stallings, 2005
Rebecca was waiting for him Thursday night when he made it to the dorm. She had been praying about the coming few hours ever since she’d agreed to this. When she caught sight of him, she said one more, “please help, Holy Spirit” as she stood from the couch. “What took you so long?”
He looked at his watch. “6:25. I’m early.”
“Huh, that’s a first.” She smiled at him.
“I’ll take that as a compliment.” He swirled his hands in front of him. “Madam, your chariot awaits.”
She arched her eyebrows skeptically. “Are you the prince or the footman?”
“I’m the mouse, and the car will turn back into a pumpkin at midnight.”
They walked out to his car.
“The mouse, huh? Maybe I’d better drive.”
“Just point me to the cheese, and I’ll get us there.”
Back and forth the conversation went. It seemed neither of them could squelch the enthusiasm of being together all the way until they got to the mall. However, the moment they walked through the sliding glass doors, a pallor fell over Eric’s spirit. It worried Rebecca, but she tried not to let it show.
“So, where are we meeting them anyway?” she asked, window-shopping as they walked so he wouldn’t know she was concerned.
“The food court.”
“A giant cookie!” she said a little too loudly, and several people walking in the other direction stared at her. “That’s what you should get your parents.”
“To go with their platter,” he said, and there was almost a smile on the edge of it.
“They would know in a second who it was from.” She goaded him with her eyes. When he still didn’t smile outright, she swayed her steps into his and bumped his shoulder. “Come on now. You have to admit that was funny.”
It was obvious he was trying not to laugh.
“Uh-huh. That was funny,” she assured herself. “So nice you could come with us, Rebecca. Your humor is just so sparklingly witty tonight. Oh, I know. Don’t I just slay you?” She was talking to the air, which seemed to be talking back.
Eric shook his head. It was clear he was losing the fight not to laugh. “You are completely nuts, you know that?”
“Of course I am. I’m out with you.” She looked at him in utter seriousness. Her smile cracked first her face then his.
“You are so cruel.”
“I made you laugh though. I did. Come on. Admit it.”
He fought to corral the smile. “I admit no such thing.”
“I’m not chicken. I’m just not laughing.”
She surveyed him seriously. “And why not?”
His gaze slid from her to the windows, and she saw the intake of air.
The laughter slid away from her. “You’re worried.”
He made a valiant attempt at looking happy. “I am not.”
Not one ounce of her fell for it. “You are too. You’re worried about them seeing us together. You’re worried about what they’ll think. You’re worried about me…”
At that moment his gaze jumped from her to the jewelry counter in the center of the walkway. Rebecca’s gaze followed his. Standing there was a woman gesturing frantically while the man at the counter shook his head in incomprehension.
“Hang on,” Eric said, putting his hands on her arms to move her to the side.
“What…?” Rebecca started to ask, but Eric had already stepped past her toward the woman.
He stepped up right in the middle of the fracas. “Is there a problem?”
“Something’s wrong,” the man at the counter said. “But I guess she’s deaf. I can’t get her to tell me what’s going on.”
Rebecca stepped up behind Eric, the previous conversation forgotten. Calmly, he turned to the woman and signed something to her. She signed something back.
“It’s her kid. They got separated.”
Even as Eric continued to converse with the woman, Rebecca’s gaze shot around the mall. “How old?”
“Six,” Eric replied.
She surveyed the crowd and every nook and cranny up and down the path. “Can he hear?”
“Where were they last?”
“In the Gap, over there,” Eric translated. “She thinks maybe he wandered out here.”
“Maybe ten minutes.”
Instinct kicked in, and Rebecca ran to the security guard she caught sight of. She explained what she knew. “You need to issue a Code Adam.”
“Calm down, Ma’am,” he said. “We don’t know how serious it is.”
She forced her voice to be calm even though she could’ve kicked him. “He’s a six year old boy, Sir, with a hearing impairment. That’s serious if you ask me.” She had just enough presence of mind to notice his nameplate. “Officer Reynolds, this kid has had ten minutes to get from here to who knows where with who knows whom. You need to issue a Code Adam.” He followed her back to Eric.
“His name is Juan,” Eric relayed. “He’s about so high, dark brown skin, black hair, dark eyes.”
Rebecca looked at Officer Reynolds, fully prepared to pull rank on him if necessary. After a moment of looking at them, he lifted his radio.
“This is Reynolds. We’ve got a missing deaf kid in section B-7.” As he continued to talk, Rebecca looked back at Eric.
“Ask her what he likes.”
“Just ask her.”
Eric relayed the question, watched for the answer, then leaned to Rebecca. “Puppies.”
Her gaze swept through the mall. People. Stores. More people. Then she saw it. She put her hand on his arm. “Stay here.”
“But where are you…?”
She didn’t wait for his question. This was too important, and she might well be running out of time. Four doors down in the crowded walkway, she made a hard left into the pet store. One aisle, a second. Midway past the third aisle, she saw him. Tiny barely described him as he sat next to a cage, his fingers reaching in for all they were worth. The soft beige pup on the other side huddled in the corner away from the tiny reaching fingers.
“Hey, little guy.” Rebecca sat down on her heels and put her hand on his shoulder, which brought his attention to her. “You’ve got lots of people worried about you.”
His vacuous gaze, vulnerable and trusting, swelled her heart. “Pup-ie.”
She smiled and nodded. “What do you say we go find Mom-ie? She’s worried about you?” She stood and held her hand out to him.
He gazed at it and then took it and stood. At the counter they stopped.
“Have they called the Code Adam yet?” she asked.
“They just did,” the girl behind the counter said, clearly at a loss for what to do next.
“I just found the little boy.” Rebecca indicated her charge. “Can you call them and tell them to come here?”
“Oh, yeah. I think so.” The girl went around the counter, stepped to the door and motioned to a security guard who came running. The two of them had a quick conversation.
He surveyed Rebecca, and then he ducked into his radio. That taken care of, he strode over to Rebecca. “I hear you found somebody we were looking for.”
“He was looking at the puppies,” Rebecca said just as the other three descended on the place.
The mother who was by now near hysterics knelt down in front of the child and flung her arms around him. Upon seeing his mother’s state, the little boy burst into tears as well.
Eric put his hands on his hips in consternation. “How’d you find him?”
She wound her arms at her chest as she backed up next to him and watched the reunion. “It was a shot in the dark.”
“Well, looks to me like you hit a bull’s eye with that one.”
The mother stood from the floor and with glistening eyes, walked to where Eric stood. She held out her hands and clasped his in hers. Then she touched her chin.
“You’re welcome,” Eric both said and signed back. He reached over and put his hand on Rebecca’s back. Then he signed again. “She found him.”
The center of Rebecca’s heart ripped in two at the anguished gratitude in the mother’s dark eyes. Again she touched her chin.
“She says, ‘Thank you,’” Eric said, leaning toward her.
“Oh. You’re welcome,” Rebecca said with a nod.
The two officers seemed pleased with themselves although it was clear they were not responsible for the outcome of the situation. With one more touch of thanks on Eric’s arm, the mother collected her son, and they left.
“Thanks, you two,” Officer Reynolds said. “That was some good teamwork.”
“Yeah.” Eric took her hand. “Well, we make a good team.”
Rebecca looked at him, and his soft smile made her insides dance. The officers conversed once more and then went back out into the mall.
Eric glanced at his watch. “Great. Now we’re late. They’re going to be waiting.”
She followed him out, wanting to put the pride she had at being by his side into words, but not knowing how. They walked to the food court hand-in-hand.
“Well, it’s about time you two show up,” a tall guy with dark curly hair said as he stepped up to them.
“Sorry,” Rebecca said the instant she felt Eric’s hand tighten around hers. The fall of his spirit through the comment was nearly palpable. “Eric was busy saving the world.”
“Saving the world?” the young lady with sandy colored hair who stood by her husband asked.
Eric shrugged. “It was no big deal.”
However, Rebecca wasn’t about to let him off that easily. “Well, it was to that mother.” She turned her gaze to the other two. “You should’ve seen how he jumped in there and used his sign language to find that child. It was great.”
Eric’s gaze fell to the floor.
“That’s my brother,” the tall guy said, and there was real pride in his voice. Now that her brain was working again, Rebecca realized he must be Ryan. “Always helping out.”
A moment they stood, and then Eric took in air and let it out sharply. “Yeah, well… Are we going to shop or stand here all night?”
Rebecca noticed the change of subject as well as how Eric suddenly seemed nervous and unsure of himself. It was a change she didn’t particularly like—not because it was unattractive, more because it hurt her heart to see him that way.
“So, do we have any goal in mind here, or are we just going to walk around until our eyes hurt?” Ryan asked.
“Well, Becca and I were talking, and she thought we could get a silver platter with their names and stuff engraved on it,” Eric said, but she couldn’t quite read the look in his eyes when he glanced at her.
“Oh, hey. That’s a great idea,” Desiree said. She turned her attention to Rebecca. “Where would we get something like that?”
“There’s Treasures ‘n’ Stones on the upper floor,” Rebecca said, finding courage she never would’ve thought she possessed. “They might have something like that or know somebody who would.”
In tandem the four of them turned for the escalators.
Mesmerizing. It was the only word Eric could come up with to describe her. Ever since he’d walked into the pet store and found her with the child, his heart couldn’t quite contain everything it was feeling. He followed the others, glad for her hand so he didn’t have to think where he was going. She would get him there, of that he had no doubt.
“So, Jeremy says you go to church a lot,” Desi said, and without thinking Eric’s hand tightened on hers. Somehow he had known they would find a way to mess this up. Questioning his every move was fine, but putting her through it was sure to chase her in the other direction.
“Yeah. I kind of fell away when I first came, but I’ve started going again this year,” Rebecca said, not missing a beat. “It’s nice to know Someone’s looking out for you.”
“We used to go to church when I was little,” Desi said, “but after my parents divorced, Mom didn’t take us much after that. I don’t think I’d even remember how anymore.”
“I didn’t think I would either.” Rebecca laughed, and Eric thought as he watched her how much he had grown to love that laugh. “But my friends in Bible Study say you don’t really have to know how. He’ll show you how if you’re willing.”
They made it to the store. Eric wished he could hear more, but the conversation swung to more practical matters. He was content to sit back and let the others make the decisions. It was easier that way. Every time he had ever had an opinion on any subject, it was shot down because they all knew so much more than he did. So he had learned. Sit there, shut your mouth, and nod a lot. However, midway through the decision making process, Rebecca turned to him. “Okay, now. You aren’t getting out of this that easy. Do you have a preference on a saying for it?”
Fear jumped on him as she handed him the book with the choices. He read several, his gaze bouncing up and down the page as the others looked on. Sweat beads seemed to appear around his collar. “How about this one? ‘With love all things are possible.’”
Instantly Desi reached for the book. “Oh, I love that.”
Rebecca reached over for his hand. “Very nice.” Her smile danced circles around his heart.
He shrugged. “Well, you know. It’s a gift.”
Strange as it was, by the time Ryan suggested staying for dinner, Rebecca had no desire to beg off the invitation. She was still a little worried about Eric, but once the money changed hands for the purchase of the platter, he seemed to calm down a little.
“How about The Steak Knife?” Ryan asked as they walked down the mall.
Eric shrugged. “Sounds better than Oreos.”
Rebecca’s gaze jumped to him. “Oreos?”
He smiled a half-smile. “Yeah. That’s what I usually eat for dinner.”
The statement wound through her. “Well, not for dinner, but you can’t beat a good Oreo.”
“Oh, no.” Desi shook her head. “There’s two of them.”
Ryan grabbed her hand. “Quick, run for your life!”
Not quite understanding, Rebecca kept pace with them. “What’s wrong with Oreos?”
“Nothing,” Desi said, “but when you make them your main source of nutrition like Eric does, then you’ve got a problem.”
“Oh.” Rebecca lifted her chin as she looked at him. He seemed to wither under the criticism. “Well, that explains it.”
His gaze was hard and angry. “Explains what?”
“Why you’re so loopy all the time. It’s a sugar high.”
“Hey. I’m not loopy.”
Ryan hooked his arm around his brother’s neck for a moment. “Face it, bro. You are a little on the loopy side.”
“Not that that’s a bad thing,” Rebecca added just so he’d know she was teasing. “Loopy can have its advantages.”
“Oh, yeah? Like what?” He still seemed miffed.
“Like not having to be so serious all the time.” She puffed out her chest and put a scowl on her face. When her smile broke onto her face, she winked at him.
“Yeah, you just want my Oreos.” His smile couldn’t be reined in.
“Yes, I do, and I’m buttering you up so you’ll show me where they are.”
“In the cabinet, next to the refrigerator, bottom shelf,” Ryan offered. “You can’t miss them. They’re the only thing in the cabinet.”
Eric ducked his head, clearly embarrassed by either how well his brother could peg him or by the undeniably sparse life his brother had just described. Her heart ached for him either way. She stepped to his side and slung one arm over his shoulders and patted his stomach with the other. “Then we’ve got to get some real food into this guy before he dries up and blows away.”
When he looked at her, the vulnerability of his gaze twisted through her. She tried to smile, to assure him they were only teasing, but she wasn’t at all sure how well that worked. At that moment she decided it was time they talked about something else, preferably someone else. “So, Desi, what are you studying this semester?”
The conversation swung that direction, and Rebecca did her best all through the meal to keep it there. By the end, they were sitting, saying how stuffed they were, when he finally reached for her hand under the table. It was a breakthrough, and she knew it.
“So, Rebecca, are you coming tomorrow night?” Desi asked, clearly assuming the invitation had already been offered.
His fingers tightened on hers as he shifted positions, but she fought off why. “Where to?”
“Avalon.” Ryan pushed back in his seat. “Pre-final bash.”
Rebecca glanced over at Eric, but she couldn’t really tell what he was thinking. “Oh, I don’t know. I’ve got a lot of studying to do. I’ll have to see.”
“Well, you’re welcome to come,” Ryan said. “Somebody needs to keep this boy in line.”
She tried to smile, but it hurt. “I’ll think about it.”
The drive back to her dorm was the quietest twenty minutes they’d ever spent together. Eric knew he should apologize for dragging her along, for talking her into this, for his life in general. It was hard to find a place to start the apology. It seemed his whole life required one.
“You really do like Lifehouse,” she said, and he heard the tired in her voice. His gaze traveled over to her face lit only by the passing streetlights as the CD continued.
“What’d you think I was lying?”
She let her head fall to the side so she could look at him. “You never know.” After a moment she shook her head. “This must be a dream.” Her gaze slid out the window on the other side.
More like a nightmare, he thought sullenly. “What does that mean?”
“This can’t be me in real life. It’s just not possible.”
Concern for the wisps of sadness in her voice drifted over him. “Why not?”
“Because,” she said, seeming to pull reality to her, “I’m here, with you, in a car, on an actual, almost, semi-sort-of date. It just can’t be real.”
Which part of that list he most reacted to, he couldn’t be sure. “An actual, almost semi-sort-of date? Is that what this is?” Although he only glanced at her, he saw the sadness his pathetic attempt at a joke pulled into her eyes.
“It’s as close as I get, I guess.”
“That’s funny,” he said, forgetting how barren his own life was. “I thought it was an actual, actual date.”
Gratefulness flooded her features. “Ryan and Desi are really nice.”
He stopped at the light. “They have their moments.”
She reached over, and her hand touched his shoulder. “So do you.”
As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t look at her. “How do you do that?”
“That make-me-feel-better-about-myself so easily thing.”
“What’s to feel bad about?” There was so much sincerity in her question, he almost believed she was serious.
He snorted softly to ward off the ache in his core. “Everything. My car’s a wreck. My apartment’s falling apart. I eat Oreos to stay alive, and my friends can’t get it through their heads I don’t want the life they want for me.”
“I think you’re wrong.”
The statement stopped his diatribe. “How’s that?”
“They love you, Eric. You can see it in how they look at you, how they act around you. You may not be perfect, but none of us are. They just want what’s best for you.”
“And I don’t?”
“They’re protective of you. They don’t want to see you hurting. Sometimes they go a little overboard. That’s not a bad thing. It just means they care.” Her gaze slipped out to the trees as they turned into the dorm parking lot. “I wish I had that.”
His attention snapped to her. “What about Emily and Dena? They care about you.”
“Yeah.” The gratefulness in the syllable smashed into his heart. “They do.”
He parked the car and after a moment reached down and shut it off. “So, I guess this is it.”
“Looks like it.” She stared up at the building shrouded in trees above them. “Oh, and don’t worry about what Desi said—about Avalon. I’m not going to just show up.”
His heart flipped over when he turned to look at her. “What if I want you to?”
The question wound through her gaze as she glanced at him and then let it fall to the darkness between them. He couldn’t stand the despondency in her eyes. Gently he reached over and cupped her chin in his hand. Lifting her gaze with a raise of her chin, he wondered how he’d ever thought he was living prior to this moment. “Rebecca, I want you to come, with me, in my car, on an actual, actual date.”
She tried to smile, but tears came instead. “Are you sure?”
He nodded, unable to get even one more word out. His attention fell to her lips and then traced back up to her eyes. Knowing how he had gotten here no longer mattered. He was here, and he wanted to be nowhere else. A centimeter at a time he closed the gap between them. He felt her hesitation the second before his lips brushed hers. The thought of how vulnerable she must feel ripped through him, and protectiveness clamped on him. For one more second, he let her get comfortable with the idea. Then as if home had finally found him, his lips found hers.
Her hand slipped onto his on the seat between them, and a torrent of want crashed over him. Fighting to breathe and to think, he broke the kiss and backed away to his side of the car. It wasn’t the direction he wanted to go, but he didn’t trust himself to go anywhere else. “We’d better get you in.” When he got out of the car, he brushed his bottom lip with the back of his hand, which was shaking from the feelings gushing through him. Never would he have expected one kiss to rattle him so violently. At her car door, he raked his hands through his hair before he popped the door open.
He took her hand and helped her out although she didn’t really look at him. He didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing, but at the moment his mind and body were too involved with other concerns to focus on that question. Her hand in his, they walked to the front door of the dorm. Practical details, his mind screamed at him. It was the only way to get his wits back. “What do you say, I pick you up about nine? Maybe we can grab a bite and head over there?”
She nodded. “Okay.”
When they got to the door, what to do attacked him again. Should he kiss her again? Should he not? He didn’t want her to think he was a complete louse, but which direction louse stood at that moment was more than he could tell. However, before he had the chance to decide, she smiled at him.
“Thanks for tonight. I really had fun.” She stood for one, solitary moment, and then she leaned over and kissed the side of his cheek. “Don’t keep me waiting tomorrow night.” With that she turned into the dorms.
He tried to laugh, but it barely came out. “I’ll try not to.” When she was gone, he looked up toward the heavens and let out the longest breath of his life.
Every thought Rebecca had from the moment she’d left him at the door was filled with how she was ever going to convince him not to turn around and run. Long before that night, she had thought she’d fallen for him, but that falling and this falling were polar opposites. That falling was about a fantasy she never thought she could have. This one could actually break her heart.
“Going out again?” Holly asked from her usual spot on the bed the next night as Rebecca stood at the mirror.
She blew the piece of bangs she was trying to get put into place into the air. It fell right back where she didn’t want it. “Trying to.” In frustration she pulled the gold chain hanging around her neck away to scratch the bone underneath. It bothered her to wear jewelry. It always had. But this was different. Tonight she needed to look like the rest of them. She needed to fit in. She needed him to notice.
“Where’re you going?”
That thought and everything it entailed clutched her heart as she readjusted the black mini-skirt she had borrowed from Emily. Realizing it was hopeless, she went back to the equally hopeless task of getting her hair to cooperate. “Avalon.”
Rebecca nodded but could get no more out. Memories of his kiss stormed through her every time his name traipsed across her thoughts. She frowned at her reflection. Grabbing the hair spray, she angled it first one way, then the other, trying to figure out how to get her hair to do something spectacular. If she’d just had more practice at this…
“You want some help?” Holly asked, seeing her friend’s frustration.
She dropped the hairspray to the cabinet. “Is it that obvious?”
Holly smiled. “No. I just thought I’d offer.”
In exasperation, Rebecca turned and held out the pick and the hair spray. “Desperate times.”
Taking the hair tools, Holly started to work. “So, I guess this means you’re going out together now.”
The statement stumbled across Rebecca’s heart. She didn’t know what it meant actually. She was having a hard enough time processing what was happening much less trying to figure out what it meant. “I don’t know. We’re just friends.” However, the memory of his kiss pulled that declaration up short.
Holly sprayed two puffs of mist onto her friend’s hair. “That’s a good place to start.” She took a step back. “All done. See, that wasn’t so hard.”
Rebecca turned back to the mirror and was amazed at the results. Her chin-length, shag-cut bob perfectly framed her face. It was a touch more poofy than she would’ve liked, but she wasn’t going to complain. It was far better than she could’ve done. “Nice.”
“I’m sure Eric will love it,” Holly said, collapsing back on the bed.
Excitement surged in her as she looked down at the complete picture. “I hope so.”
She was five feet from him before Eric recognized her on his way to the phones. Instantly he stopped. “Wow.”
“Like it?” She spun so he could see the total effect. “Holly did it.”
The words traced through him dragging unease through him. It wasn’t that he didn’t like it. In fact, he had the distinct thought if she had looked like this to begin with, he probably would’ve noticed her long before he did. However, he was no longer looking for runway beauty. He just wanted her—messed up hair, no make-up, worn out jeans, and all. That’s who she really was when she wasn’t trying to impress anybody, and that’s who he wanted her to be. Herself.
However, she had obviously gone to a lot of trouble to look extra nice, and he wasn’t going to trash that effort. “It’s nice, very nice.” He offered her his arm. “We ready?”
All while they ate, Eric couldn’t help but notice how she brushed the edges of her hair back from her face. It was so unnatural for her. She seemed so nervous and unsure of everything. When she laughed, it was clear she was forcing it. She was trying. He didn’t want trying. He’d had that, and it didn’t work out too great. However, he put a smile on his face and pretended not to notice. At Avalon as they waited in line, he noticed her pulling at her short smoky black skirt. “Did you go shopping?”
“Oh.” She stopped pulling at the skirt and shifted her hand to the gold necklace at her throat. “This was just some stuff I’ve had in my closet for forever. I never had a chance to wear it much.”
He lifted his chin in understanding. At the door he paid and reached down for her hand. Somehow he had to find a way to tell her, but not here, not now. He didn’t want to make her feel more self-conscious than she already did. He noticed as they walked that she stayed behind him as if using him for a shield. “I bet they’re over on that side,” he yelled to her over the music. It wasn’t necessary to tell her the presumed location. It was clear she would have followed him right off the edge of the earth.
Her nervousness seemed to flow off her body as they made it around the bar.
He found the others in a bunch by the DJ. “Hey, guys.”
“Eric! You made it!” Jeremy gave him a quick slap on the back. “We were getting worried.”
“No, you weren’t, but nice try.”
Jeremy’s gaze went past Eric to Rebecca whose gaze bounced from his out to the dance floor. “Rebecca.” He stopped for a long moment. “You came.”
She twisted her finger through the hair at the top of her neck. “I did.”
“Nice outfit,” Desi said, appraising Rebecca. “I like that skirt.”
Rebecca’s hand drifted down to her skirt, which she smoothed. “Thanks.”
Sanity kicked Eric’s brain in gear. “Oh, Becca, this is Ransom and Zoë.”
“Hi,” she said so softly there was no way they heard her.
“Nice to meet you.” Zoë offered her hand. “Desi’s told us so much about you.”
“Not all bad, I hope,” Rebecca said. He wondered how she hadn’t pulled the strand of hair right out of her head.
Zoë smiled. “No, all good.”
There was no reply, only a long awkward pause. Eric finally breathed. “Well, we’re going to go try out the dance floor.” He turned to her and nudged her ahead of him. Suddenly all he could feel was the nervousness of his stomach. When they got onto the dance floor, Rebecca turned toward him with a gaze of uncertain fear that would’ve made a statue cry.
“I’m not… Umm, I don’t really know how to do this.”
The fact that his friends were watching and the understanding that this was their first dance ever slipped away from him. All he wanted at that moment was for her to feel safe with him again. “It’s easy.” He took both of her hands and slipped them up to his shoulders. “You put your hands here, and I put my hands here.” He put his on her waist. Her gaze never left his, and he knew she was afraid to look away lest the rest of the world tell her she was doing it wrong. “Then we just move.”
With all the smoothness in him, he started swaying. After several movements back and forth, he smiled at her. “See, it’s not so hard.”
She seemed to be gazing right into his soul. All trying evaporated. “Not hard at all.”
It was a dream she was destined to wake up from eventually. Rebecca knew that as well as anyone, but eventually came much sooner than even she had expected. Holding onto Eric’s hand made her feel like she could pull off the façade that she was anything like them. However, when they got back to the table, he asked if she wanted anything. The dancing and the nervousness had taken their toll on her hydration level. “A Coke?” She hated how young that sounded, but she didn’t want to get him into trouble either.
There was a twinkle in his eye as he let go of her hand. “A Coke it is.”
Rebecca slid up onto one of the stools as he walked off. She watched him walk away, liking everything about that walk.
“So, Rebecca,” Jeremy said practically in her ear as he took the seat next to her, stumbling on the last step. She jumped and turned to him wanting only to run the other direction. The dream that she could ever fit in crashed to the ground between them. “I’m surprised you came.” The words were slurred, and his eyes arrogant and condescending.
Rebecca looked around for Gwen or any of the others, but they didn’t seem to be anywhere around. She laid the back of her head on her fist propped up with her elbow on the table. “Oh? Why’s that?”
“Dancing? Drinking? I thought you guys forbid that kind of thing.”
Concern pounded through her with the vibration of the beat thundering through the speakers. “You guys?”
“Yeah.” He settled into his spot, obviously swaying under the weight of the alcohol hovering around him. “You know, you and your friends. The Bible Study bunch.”
The comment and his sneer hit her like a brick as she watched him take a long drink of the beer in his hand. She reached down and twisted the bracelet at her wrist, bringing her hand all the way up to her chest. “When did they appoint you the morality police?”
He looked like he might be sick. “They didn’t. I just thought, you know, good, Christian girls like you didn’t do this kind of scene.”
Darkness dropped over her. “What’re you trying to say?”
“I’m saying, ‘Look at you. In those clothes? Here. Dancing? Who’re you trying to kid?’”
Her hand slid down her skirt as humiliation seeped into her.
“Besides, I thought this was against your religion.” The last word was said with a sneer that would’ve made Satan cringe.
“You don’t know anything about my religion or about me.”
“Well, I know you don’t deserve Eric.” He took another swig. “He’s way out of your league.”
Tears jumped to her eyes. “Don’t you think that’s his decision?”
Jeremy brushed that question aside with a wave of the bottle. “Trust me. He’ll wake up sooner or later. You can’t make lead into gold no matter how much paint you put on it.”
Gwen stepped up to the table. “What’d I miss?”
Rebecca stood, fighting for breath. “Your boyfriend being a jerk. Tell Eric I went to get some air.” She stomped past the table leaving Gwen gaping at her. Once again, Jeremy had won.
Two Cokes in hand, Eric walked back up to the table. However, the closer he got, the more confused he became. His gaze slid around the club. “Where’s Rebecca?”
“I don’t know.” Gwen set her hands on her hips. “Where is Rebecca, Jeremy?”
Jeremy took a drink and leaned back in his chair as if his mission had finally been accomplished. “She left.”
Slamming the Cokes onto the table so that the liquid splashed everywhere, fury punched through Eric. “What did you do now?”
A look of conquest slid over his features as Jeremy looked at Eric. “What you should’ve done a long time ago. Come on, Eric. She’s a drag. You don’t need her hanging around.”
“Hey, what happened?” Desi asked, striding up to the table. “We just saw Rebecca headed out, and I think she was crying.”
The desire to pummel Jeremy was surpassed only by his concern for Rebecca. “Great.” Eric shoved past his friends and raced to the door. He pushed through the first and then the second door, nearly knocking down several people in his rush to get to her.
Outside, his gaze swept the scene. It took only a minute to locate her at the far end of the street by the bus stop. “Becca.” His steps carried him right to her side where he put his hands on her shoulders. They were quaking uncontrollably. She had her arms clamped over her chest.
Gently he turned her and pulled her into him. “Don’t. He’s an idiot. Whatever he said…”
“I should’ve come. I don’t belong here.” She shook away from him. “Look at me. This isn’t me.” She pulled at her skirt. “I feel like a freak.”
Love overtook him then. “You’re trying too hard.” He turned her to him, and his gaze followed his fingers up to the hair over her forehead which he brushed away. “This isn’t you.”
“But I wanted to look nice.”
“You do look nice.” His gaze fell to her face. “As you.”
The scowl on her face deepened. “I thought this was what you wanted.”
“This? What this?”
She held her hands out to the side. “This. The hair. The make-up.” Her hands fell. “It’s why you noticed Holly.” Then she shook her head. “I shouldn’t have bothered. I don’t know what I was thinking trying to fit in.”
He struggled to understand what she was telling him, not just the words but the hurt behind them. “You don’t have to change to fit in. Just be you.”
“Be me?” Her voice tilted on the words. “Who me? The boring me who studies all the time, or the good little Christian me who has no idea how to drink and dance?”
His eyes narrowed. “What does being a Christian have to do with anything?”
She reached up and wiped the tear sliding down the side of her cheek away. “It’s not important.”
“Whoa. Hey,” he said firmly. “It is to me. Is this about Jeremy? Did he say something?”
“Something? Oh, yeah. He said something all right.” She sniffed. “Let’s see. I’m not your type. I don’t deserve you. I dress funny.” She thought for two seconds. “Oh, yeah, and don’t forget the part about how I’m a Bible-thumping freak who has no idea how to have fun and so I’ll never fit in.” The scowl pulled her mouth down. “Yeah, that about covers it.”
“He said that to you?”
She shrugged. “That was the gist of it.”
All the other times he had managed to convince himself Jeremy was in a bad mood or he really didn’t mean the things he said. This time was different. He reached for her hand. “Come on, we’re going home.”
“Now?” Surprise jumped to her face, and she stopped him with one yank. “You don’t have to leave for me.”
“I’m not leaving for you. Why would I want to hang out with a bunch of selfish, arrogant, malicious jerks when I can hang out with my cool friends?”
She surveyed him skeptically. “Friends?”
“Okay, friend.” He looked at his watch. “It’s only 10:30. We could go over and shoot some pool. You could even call Em and have her meet us there if you want.”
The idea flitted across her face. But then she looked down at herself. “I’m kind of overdressed for pool.”
“We can stop off. Get you some real clothes.”
Rebecca’s attention slid past him, and he saw the apprehension trace through her eyes. He turned just as Desi and Ryan strode up.
“Becca,” Desi said. “I’m so sorry. Jeremy was way out of line in there. Are you okay?”
Rebecca’s gaze fell to her shoes. “Yeah. It’s okay.”
“No, it’s not,” Ryan said, and the vehemence in his voice shook Eric to the core. “We don’t let anybody trash our friends like that. Don’t think we all think like that. We don’t.”
Her arms came over her chest, and the need to protect her clutched him.
Eric put his arm over her shoulders. “We were just going over to the Student U to shoot some pool. You guys are welcome to join us.” Before they had a chance to accept, he leaned closer to Rebecca. “It’s okay. I won’t tell them. You can hustle them out of their money too.”
In annoyance, she reached over and whacked his stomach. “I did not hustle you, and there was no money involved.”
He was glad to have her back.
Ryan’s cell phone beeped, and he answered it. “Yeah. Yeah. We found them. We’re going over to the Student U. Hang out. Shoot some pool. You guys can come if you want.” He put a hand over the phone at the panicked looks he was getting. “Ransom and Zoë.” Desi relaxed, but under Eric’s arm, Rebecca felt like an ironing board. “K. We’ll meet you there. Yeah. See ya.” He clicked it off. “They’ll meet us over there.”
They turned for the parking lot, and after four steps, Eric released Rebecca into Desi’s care. He hung back just enough with Ryan so the girls wouldn’t hear. “What about Jeremy?”
Ryan took his brother’s cue and ducked sideways. “They went home. Gwen went ballistic on him.”
Eric nodded at that information.
“Hey, are you guys coming, or are we going without you?” Desi called.
Although they hadn’t gone back for Rebecca to get in real clothes, the ponytail holder Desi graciously offered her was doing a passable job of making her feel almost normal. In fact, in three consecutive games, she had taken down Desi, Ryan, and Eric. As the clock arched back toward midnight, she and Ransom, the strongest pool player of the group battled for the championship. She leaned over the pool table and lined up the 10 ball.
“What are you aiming at?” Ransom asked, standing at the other end, pool stick in hand as he surveyed the table.
“The ten,” she said although it was three banked-angles away in the other direction from the one she was shooting in.
She looked up and winked at Eric who sat behind and just to the left of Ransom. “All things are possible if you believe.” With a smooth stroke, she sent the white ball first to one rail, then another, then another. It ran the length of the table and tapped the 10 ball in the corner pocket.
“Woohoo. Nice shot,” Ryan yelled. He stepped over to Ransom and clapped him on the back. “She’s going to beat you, buddy. You’re going to get beat by a girl.”
“A lady,” Desi corrected with no sarcasm.
Eric stood and stepped over to Ransom’s side where he wound his hands under his own arms. “Don’t worry. The only game I’ve won against her is the one she sank the eight ball on a lousy shot at the six.” He shook his head. “Only lousy shot I’ve seen her make so far.”
Rebecca tried not to let the compliment find her heart, but it sank there anyway. She strode around the table. “Eight ball. Side pocket.” With her friends standing all around the table, she had to put her head down to allow herself one breath and the luxury of memorizing this moment, this feeling. When she picked up her head, she tapped the white ball softly. It rolled down the table, right to the eight ball, which it bumped just hard enough to send it into the pocket. In victory, she raised the cue stick over her head. “Yes.”
In two seconds Eric was there. He grabbed her. “She’s champion of the world!” He picked her up backward in a mock rendition of ‘Titanic.’
“Ha. Ha. Very funny.” She twisted to get away from him. “Now put me down before you drop me.”
With displeasure on his face, he let her slide to the floor. “Well, now that wasn’t very romantic.”
“Romantic?” She leveled her gaze on him skeptically lest she get caught in his eyes and whisked away from her senses. “Is that what that was supposed to be?”
“Well, it was until you ruined it.”
“Oh,” she said, knowing there was no barb in the comment. “Well, next time tell me when you’re going to be romantic so I don’t miss it.”
He laughed. “I’ll be sure to do that.”
“Well, losers and Rebecca,” Ryan said as he looked at his watch. “It’s time to call it a night.”
Eric put his arm around her. “Losers and Rebecca, I like that.”
She gazed at him with playful glee “That would make you a loser.”
“Well, you’ve got a point there, but I’m the one who gets to take the winner home, so it’s all good.” He leaned toward her and kissed the top of her forehead. However, with one touch, he pulled back and wiped his mouth. “Ugh. You’ve really got to do something about that hair spray thing. Yuck. It tastes like roach killer.”
Her laugh came of its own will. “I’ll have to remember that.”
They said goodnight to the group, told them to drive carefully, and then got in his car and started for the dorms. After all the horrible things Jeremy had said to her, she should’ve been crushed, beaten, bruised, broken. But sitting there with Eric’s hand in hers, his friends now her friends, she was anything but. “That was fun.”
His gaze spoke of concern for her. “You really thought so?”
“Yeah, didn’t you?”
He redirected his eyes to the road. “I didn’t know… if you did. I was hoping you weren’t just pretending.”
She let the comment wind through her. “They’re fun. It was nice to have somebody to play with.”
“Hey, you played with me.”
“No, I mean somebody good.” The smirk on her face clearly said she was joking. “Kidding. I’m kidding. No, it was fun. It really was.”
He glanced at her. “So, you wouldn’t mind going out with them again?”
“No. I think it would be fun.”
They pulled up to the dorm, and he killed the engine. “Good, then what are you doing tomorrow night?”
Fear reached up and grabbed her. “Tomorrow night? Why?”
“Well, it’s my parents’ anniversary…”
That slammed her backward. “Oh, Eric. I don’t know. That’s like… serious.”
“Please. I don’t want to go alone. Besides I want you to come, to be with me. It’d be weird without you there now.” He put a sad puppy dog look on his face. “Please.”
With one look at him, she twisted her face into a frown. “Don’t make that face.”
“Please. I’m asking. Will you please go with me to my parents’ party?”
She was trapped, and she knew it. Besides the fact that she was flattered at being asked, she really did want to see him again. Her protests were drowning in the pool of yeses swimming through her head. “That’ll make five nights straight of being together. You better watch it, or people will start to talk.”
“Let them talk. What do you say, my parents’ party tomorrow night and church together Sunday?”
She noticed the addition. “Hey, now. Is this how you negotiate?”
His eyebrows bounced up in beguilingly. “You’d better say yes, or I’ll add something else.”
“Fine.” As soon as she said it, the smile broke onto her face. “Fine. Fine. Fine. Fine. Fine!”
“Fine what?” he asked, moving toward her.
“Fine. I’ll go to your parents’ party. Fine. I’ll go to church with you.” Suddenly he was right in front of her.
“Fine, you’ll kiss me?”
“ Fine. I’ll kiss you.”
His lips found hers, and the heat from them went through every part of her. Without moving more than enough space to get the words out he smiled. “In case you didn’t know it, this is the romantic part.”
The laugh engulfed her just as he kissed her again. She tried to kiss him and not laugh, but it was impossible. He pulled back. “What?”
“You! You’re insane.” She whacked his shoulder.
“Of course I am. I’m with you.”
She had never thought a comment like that would feel so much like a compliment.