Todays First Chapter is from When the Heart Heals by my friend Simone Beaudelaire.
When fat old Mrs. Thompson forces Drew to work with his long-time enemy Alyssa on their senior English project, the future doctor is furious. But he quickly comes to realize that the girl he never liked is actually kind-hearted and beautiful… and shouldering the crushing burden of caring for her ailing father.
Against the odds, these long-time rivals find their way to a high-school romance: intense, passionate, and destined to end…
That is, until a run-in with a drunk driver leaves an adult Alyssa in need of Drew’s professional help. Friendship flares into passion again, but Alyssa, convinced she isn’t good enough for her doctor, flees in the night, taking with her a secret that just might bring them back together forever… or tear them apart for good.
Central High School
Andrew Peterson had never liked Alyssa Miller.
He supposed, objectively, that there was probably nothing wrong with the girl. She was certainly pretty enough, with a mane of silky, strawberry blonde hair, a heart-shaped face with turquoise eyes, soft rosebud lips, and a slender, waif-like figure. Not that he had been looking, of course. No, there was just something about her personality which rubbed him the wrong way. He couldn’t put his finger on what it was exactly, but from early elementary, whenever they’d had class together (which was often, as they’d always attended the same school), they had teased, made fun of, and generally tried as hard as possible to make each other miserable. And now, as seniors in high school, their stupid A.P. English teacher was assigning them to work together on a major project which would count for a quarter of their semester grade.
It was bad luck really. They had both been absent on the day when groups were selected, so they were stuck together. And what a project it was. They were exploring theater, from Ancient Greece through the modern era, and his and Alyssa’s topic was the use of romance in plays. If there was one thing Drew did not want to talk to Alyssa about, it was romance. So he went to Mrs. Thompson’s desk and requested permission to work with his friends, Dave and Jamal, who had the much more interesting topic of war.
“I’m sorry, Drew.” Mrs. Thompson said, her chins jiggling as she shook her head “But a group of three is too big for this project. I want you to work with Alyssa.”
“I don’t like her,” he argued, careful to control a slight urge to whine. “She doesn’t like me either. There’s no way we can work together. It would be a disaster.”
She closed one eye halfway, in that ‘oh please’ look all teachers seemed to have. “Listen, Drew, sometimes in life we have to work with people we don’t like. Do you think I enjoy the company of every other teacher in this school? The real disaster would be if you two refused to do this project and got a bad grade for the whole semester. You’re not changing groups. Make peace with it and get to work.”
Muttering under his breath, Drew returned grumpily to the desk where Alyssa was sitting, along the wall under a large poster of a bear with paws over its face groaning about forgotten homework. Mrs. Thompson seemed to love those kinds of decorations. They dominated every wall of the whitewashed classroom.
“Sorry, Miller,” he said in a sarcastic drawl. “No go. She won’t let us switch.”
“Shit,” replied Alyssa, very softly.
“No kidding. Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ll be damned if I get a bad grade in this class. We’ll have to make it work somehow.”
She leaned her head back against the wall in defeat. “I guess. I need a scholarship pretty bad, so I have to keep my grades up, and pass the A.P. exam too.”
Drew didn’t say anything. While he would like a scholarship, he probably wouldn’t need one. His dad could afford to send him to college, at least if he lived at home, but with a major state university here in town, that would be easy. He’d known Alyssa was a little poor, but she’d always seemed to be doing all right. He was suddenly struck by how much worse off she’d been this year. Her clothes were pretty shabby, and her makeup cheap. He felt a little sorry for her.
She picked up her head and opened her eyes, suddenly determined. “Well, Peterson, let’s brainstorm. What kind of project do you want to do?”
He shrugged, not yet finished being annoying. “I don’t know. What do you think?”
“A diorama? I think I have an old shoebox.” She began to sketch on the notebook with a purple pen.
“Naw.” He dismissed her thoughts with a wave, plucking the pen from her fingers. “That’s pretty middle school. What about a commercial?”
“What kind of commercial?” she asked in a hard voice, narrowing her brilliant turquoise eyes.
He grinned at her annoyance. She hadn’t appreciated the middle school comment. Then he stopped teasing her and got down to business.
“Like, what if all our plays represent romantic getaways, each one with a caution, like those medicine commercials. We could talk about passionate Ancient Greece, where you can marry your mother, but the side effect could be gouging your eyes out, Venice, specializing in the interracial scene, like in Othello…”
“But you have to watch out for treacherous friends. Good idea.” He could see Alyssa was starting to get inspired. Her hard expression had softened and her eyes were sparkling. “And how about a cruise, like in that Eugene O’Neill play, but you could end up…”
“In the zoo.” They both laughed.
“I hate to say it, Peterson,” she admitted, grabbing her pen out of his hand, “but you do sometimes come up with a good one. Let’s do it.”
“You know what would make it even better?” His enthusiasm sparked higher at his next clever inspiration.
“If we recorded it on a video and played it for the class.”
Alyssa got very quiet.
“What’s up, Miller?” he asked, wondering what had deflated her high spirits.
“Do you have a video camera?”
What a strange question. “No, but I think we can rent one.”
“I can’t afford it.” Her pale cheeks turned pink.
It was a perfect opportunity to make fun of her, but for some reason he didn’t want to do it. Teasing her about her dimple is one thing, he reasoned to himself, but Dad always told me not to be cruel to people. Making fun of this girl for being poor is ungentlemanly. He refrained.
“Well, the camera was my idea, so I’ll take charge of renting it. How about if you work on the script?” She was a good writer, he knew. After all, they’d been competing for top marks since they realized grades were something to fight for.
It would have been a great opportunity for her to make a cutting comment to him, about buying his ‘A’, but she didn’t.
“That sounds fair,” Alyssa said, and then, with a touch of intensity in her voice. “Thank you, Drew.”
They never called each other by their first names, and he knew what she was trying to say, without really saying it… that she understood why he had said what he said. He was trying to spare her pride, and she appreciated his kindness.
“You’re welcome, Alyssa.”
She gave him a little smile and leaned over the notebook to start working on the script. She kept running ideas past him the entire period, some that, even as she spoke them aloud, both could see wouldn’t work. Others were so funny they had him roaring with laughter, to the point where the teacher had to tell him to calm down several times. He had never had so much fun in English class, at least not while working on his lesson, and it shocked the hell out of him. Stubbornly, he reminded himself that everyone knew Alyssa was smart. That wasn’t the problem, never had been, and he wouldn’t start liking her just because they had to work together.
At last the bell rang, and he sent Alyssa on to choir, after requesting she finish the script that evening, while he headed off to physics. After physics was lunch, and then chemistry, and his favorite, anatomy and physiology. Drew was going to be a doctor someday, and he just loved learning about the human body. Next week they were going to go to the cadaver lab at the university. Awesome. Some of his friends just went because it was gross, but Drew was actually interested in the dissections. Okay, so he was a massive geek. At least he played football and basketball to make up for it.
But throughout the rest of the day, he was slightly distracted. A soft pink mouth, turned up in a smile, a deeply dented cheek, and a pair of dancing turquoise eyes kept lingering around the edges of his consciousness. He angrily tried to push the images away, but he couldn’t do it.
By the next morning, he was thoroughly grumpy and he wanted someone to blame for it. Alyssa was a likely target, as it was her fault he was so distracted. He stomped into English class madder than he’d been the day before.
“Well, Miller, did you get the script finished?” He confronted her with a belligerent tone.
“I’m sorry, Drew,” she said softly, “it’s not quite done.”
“Why the hell not?” he all but howled. Mrs. Thompson gave him a warning look from across the room.
“I had choir practice after school and then I had to work. I’ll finish it at lunch, I promise. Would you like to see what I’ve already done?”
Odd, normally she would have fought back. Today she was answering softly.
“Work?” he asked, still feeling aggressive but lowering his volume a bit. He placed his hands on his hips and glared, demanding an explanation.
She blushed, her gaze skating away from his, and she fiddled with the end of her hair. “I’m a cashier at the Sophie’s Groceries most evenings. Last night I was scheduled from 5:00 to 10:00, but they kept me until 11:30. Then I still had homework due today in two other classes.”
No wonder she had such dark circles under her eyes. The fight went out of Drew. “Why didn’t you just tell them you had to go home?” he suggested. “Legally I don’t think they can keep you so late on a school night.”
“We need the money.”
We was a strange thing to say. Every other high school student he knew who worked was saving up to buy a car, or a prom dress, or saving for college. He wondered who exactly was spending Alyssa’s grocery cashier paycheck. But they weren’t friends, and it was none of his business, and so he let it go.
“Are you working today?” he asked, returning the conversation to safer territory.
“No, I’m off today. I still have rehearsal though.”
He nodded. “Okay, I have basketball practice until about then. Can we get together after that and finish the script?”
She shook her head. “I have to go home afterwards. My parents are expecting me.”
Drew sighed, beginning to feel exasperated again. “Call them and let them know.”
“We don’t have a phone at the moment.”
He stared, appalled. Who doesn’t have a phone? It took a moment of him opening and closing his mouth like a hooked fish before his thoughts could coalesce into an answer.
“Okay, how about this? I’ll go home with you and we can work on the project together at your place. I can see you don’t like that, but listen, Allie, we’ve got to work on it. I promise to be nice, no matter what, okay?”
“Okay.” Alyssa said.
They spent the rest of the period working on the script together.
After practice, a freshly showered Drew, his hair still wet despite the biting January cold, located Alyssa in the choir room and followed her to her car.
It was a very old car, not surprisingly, a family sedan in the final stages of decomposition, heavily rusted. But when she turned the key, it started right up and purred. Someone had taken good care of it… at least of the mechanical parts. He felt a little bad, following her in his almost new Trans Am. He felt even worse when he parked in front of her… home.
Alyssa lived in a mobile home, in a rather seedy trailer park on the east side of town. Drew’s neighborhood was only a few blocks away, but for all the close proximity, it could have been another planet. The pretty, spacious red-brick rambler he shared with his dad was surrounded by others of the same sort; large lots, manicured lawns, and all were well kept and clean. The Millers’ mobile home was old but tidy. There was no junk in the yard.
Many of the neighbors were less fastidious. Broken toys, empty cans, and cigarette butts were strewn everywhere, and across the street, a man with a huge beer gut was sitting on a broken-down folding chair, in a dirty tank top and unbuttoned flannel shirt, smoking something which neither looked nor smelled like a cigarette. The man eyed Alyssa with unwarranted interest. She shivered and Drew deliberately stepped close to her and put his arm around her waist, making them look like a couple. He gave the pothead a hard look and escorted Alyssa into the house.
Drew had never been inside a mobile home before. It wasn’t really what he had expected. While the materials were cheap, obvious care had been taken to make the place look nice. There was a comfortable sofa and small television in the living room, and the end table had a bouquet of plastic flowers in a pretty vase. The kitchen was sparkling clean. The room smelled fresh.
Alyssa grew a little pink in the face as Drew scrutinized her home. He still had his arm around her, and she hadn’t shaken it off yet.
“Nice place,” he said at last.
“Thank you. Shall we get to work?”
“Sure.” He walked her to the kitchen table, at last releasing her slender waist, and they spread out their homework.
A few minutes later, a thin middle-aged woman with a sad expression on her face ambled out of one of the bedrooms. Drew stood as she entered.
“Hello, Alyssa,” she said, giving her daughter a hug.
“Hi, Mom.” She kissed the woman on the cheek and smoothed a strand of fading light brown hair from her forehead.
“Who’s your friend?”
“This is Andrew Peterson. We’re doing a school project together.”
Mrs. Miller’s eyes narrowed a bit at the mention of his name. “Oh. Nice to meet you, Andrew.”
She must remember… all the trouble I’ve had with Alyssa, he thought, but since she was observing the protocols, he could do the same. “Nice to meet you too, ma’am.”
He shook her hand politely. She gave him a sad-eyed smile and went back the way she had come.
Drew was bursting with questions, but all were awkward and none were his business, so he kept them to himself.
They worked for a couple of hours, finishing the script together and practicing their lines so they could say them smoothly. They were just about ready to film.
“Allie, when do you have your next day off from work, so we can finish this?” he asked, as he pulled on his letterman jacket and gloves.
She thought for a moment, one finger tangling in the bottom of her strawberry blond ponytail. “Well, I work tomorrow and Friday until close, and I’m opening Saturday, but I should be off Saturday afternoon, say about four. Would that work for you?”
Actually it wouldn’t. He had a date on Saturday, but this was schoolwork. He and Marcie would have to reschedule. She wouldn’t like it, but Drew felt a profound sense of relief at being able to put if off. “Sure, that would be fine. Listen, I have to go. Dad’s expecting me for dinner.”
She smiled at him. “Okay. See you in class tomorrow.”
“See you. Thanks for inviting me.”
“Thanks for your help.” Alyssa smiled and got up.
Drew glanced out the window. “Hey, don’t walk me out, okay? That guy’s still there and I don’t like the way he looked at you.”
She shivered. “He freaks me out.”
“Keep your distance from him.”
Drew walked out to his car. He gritted his teeth and growled. Someone had dragged a key over the cherry red paint. That figured. Poor Allie, having to live in this junk heap. He drove home, still thinking about her. It was amazing how being polite to someone changed the entire nature of their relationship and his own feelings about her. Working with her was almost like working with a friend. And he suddenly felt very protective as well. Marcie isn’t going to like this. She was extremely possessive and disapproved of him being nice to other girls.
Saturday afternoon, Drew picked Alyssa up and drove her to his house, so they could finish on the project. As Alyssa got out of his car, her attention was captured by the scratch marks on the door.
“Drew, someone keyed you.”
“I know.” He shrugged. She didn’t need to know how he’d kicked the hell out of the punching bag he and Dad had hung in the basement. It wasn’t her fault.
“Was that on Wednesday?” she asked hesitantly.
“I think so,” he admitted.
“I’m sorry.” She touched his arm with one bare hand. Her fingers looked cold. “If you have to come over again, let’s leave your car at school, okay? It kind of stands out in my neighborhood.”
He patted her hand. It was as cold as he’d expected. It’s about 12 degrees out here. Where are her gloves? “That’s a good idea, but don’t worry about it, Allie. It’s not your fault.”
Without thought, he slipped his arm around her waist as he walked her into the house and down the hallway to the den. He had placed the rented video camera on the coffee table and rearranged the brown leather furniture, pushing it up against the cream-colored walls to make an open area in the center for their commercial set. “Right. Okay, let’s run through our script one more time. I want to be sure I’ve really got it all down before we turn on the camera.”
They practiced a while, and then set up the camera on its tripod and got to work. It took a few tries, but they eventually got a video they were proud of. Then Alyssa helped Drew move the furniture into its usual configuration around the entertainment center. At that point, Drew’s dad came in.
“Hey, Dad. This is Alyssa. Allie, my dad, James Peterson.”
“Hello, Alyssa,” James replied, his pale blue eyes shining with mirth at the mention of her name. Drew was going to have to answer some questions later, he saw. Then his father continued. “Hey, would you two like some banana bread?”
“Sure, Dad,” Drew agreed eagerly, his mouth watering at the thought of his dad’s expert baking. “You know I’m always hungry.”
What’s that note in Alyssa’s voice?
James returned with a plate laden with four thick slices of the bread. Alyssa grabbed a piece and took a bite. Her eyes, just before they slid closed, had taken on a wild, wolfish expression he didn’t want to understand. She was trembling as she chewed.
He finished his slice and deliberately pushed the other two towards her without a word. Then he got up and left the room. When he returned with a tall glass of milk, the plate was empty. He sat down beside her on the sofa and handed her the milk. She took it and downed it quickly, setting the glass on a coaster.
Then she looked at Drew, blushing furiously. He held out his hand to her, and she took it. He pulled her against him, hugging her tight. She didn’t fight. She just leaned her cheek against his shirt. Her hands rested on his chest.
“When did you eat last?” he asked gently.
“At school,” she replied, her voice strained.
“Lunch yesterday?” he asked, dismayed.
“Yes,” she mumbled into his shirt.
She lifted her head at last. “It’s pretty normal.”
He looked into her eyes and saw the strain she had been living under. School, work, no food. Alyssa was on the brink. “Oh my God. I’m sorry I’ve been so mean to you. I had no idea.”
She tried to smile. “I’ve been mean to you, too. It was stupid, wasn’t it?”
“It was. Let’s not do it anymore.”
Alyssa’s grip on her control was tenuous, and the longer Drew held her, the harder it was to hold on. When she felt his hand sliding through her hair, caressing her, she lost it completely. Try though she might, she couldn’t hold in her sobs. He just sat with her, his arm around her, petting her back and hair while she cried and cried.
At last the storm passed. Alyssa wanted to be embarrassed, but Drew wouldn’t hear of it. He handed her a tissue and asked, his voice filled with concern, “Is there anything I can do?”
Alyssa shook her head, and blew her nose.
“Can you tell me what’s going on? Is anyone… hurting you?”
Who is this boy with the gentle eyes? I think I preferred mean Drew. At least I understood him. “No. I’m not being abused. I’m fine.”
“That’s a lie. You’re not fine at all.” He said it gently.
“I’ll get through. Sorry, but I don’t want to talk about it. No one can help, so what’s the point?”
Drew nodded. Then he did something she had never expected. He pressed the back of his hand against her cheek. She leaned into the soft touch. He stroked her skin for a moment, and then turned his hand over, his fingers on one side of her jaw, his thumb on the other, and he tilted her face up so he could look into her eyes.
She could see the hunger in those emerald depths. It startled her. It startled her almost as much as when, a moment later, he leaned forward and pressed his mouth gently to hers.
It was a long kiss, but a sweet, innocent one as well. He made no attempt to penetrate her mouth. Who would have guessed, after all their years of animosity that she would be here, now, with Drew Peterson, and kissing him, of all things? And yet, it was the nicest kiss she had ever had. Granted her opportunities had been somewhat limited, but she was not completely without experience. Then she remembered something important. She pulled back.
“What? Why?” He appeared bewildered.
She glared at him. “You’re playing with me.”
“Yes you are. What is this, take advantage of the poor girl? She’ll be grateful for the attention? You have a girlfriend,” she reminded him, furious.
Understanding dawned. He stroked her cheek again as he explained in a soft, thoughtful voice, “It’s not like that. And I don’t have a girlfriend, not anymore. We broke up last week.”
Now it was Alyssa’s turn to be confused. Beautiful Marcie? The cheerleader with the big eyes and bigger boobs? Who would break up with her? “Why?”
“Because of you.”
She lowered her eyebrows. “What do you mean?”
“I had to cancel a date with her to work with you today. She took it the wrong way.”
Ah, that makes sense. Marcie has always been… touchy. “But once she sees the video, she’ll understand it was just schoolwork.”
Drew shook his head. “No, Allie, it’s over between Marcie and me. We weren’t getting along well anyway, and it was past time.”
“But she’s crazy about you. I thought you two might be the ones to prove high school relationships can work out.”
His expression turned rueful. “I don’t think she was crazy about me so much as about being with someone, having a boyfriend. She really didn’t care much about what I wanted or felt.”
Alyssa looked at him quizzically.
“Okay, look, I’ll tell you, but only if you promise never to say a word about it to anyone. I don’t want people spreading rumors about Marcie, okay?”
Drew wants to confide in me? “Sure. I know how to keep things private.”
“She wanted more than I was willing to give.” He flushed a little.
“More physical.” Drew was really blushing now.
Alyssa’s eyes widened. “Really? A high school boy not willing to… get physical? How strange.”
Drew shrugged. “It’s not a great mystery. My dad raised me to be a gentleman, and one thing that means a lot to me is treating my girl right. It’s okay to date someone, but I would never go to bed with her if I didn’t love her. And I don’t love Marcie.”
Alyssa blinked. What teenaged boy thinks like that? “Wow. That’s amazing, Drew. I’m impressed. Not too many guys would turn down an offer like that.”
“Well, that’s just how it is.”
“So you’ve never…” Her cheeks burned. What did you ask that for?
His face was still red, but he replied in a matter-of-fact tone, “Nope. Not yet. I’m not ready.”
Shaking her head at her own nosiness, she hastened to reassure him. “Me either. You’re not the only one, Drew.”
“Thanks, Allie.” He grinned lopsidedly, making her stomach flutter. “So at any rate, you can see I’m not playing games with you. Marcie and I are through, and I… well, suddenly I seem to like you. If you don’t like me, could you please tell me so I can stop pursuing you?”
“Is that what you’re doing?” Alyssa’s heart gave a wild thump and commenced to pounding.
“Wow.” She gulped. What am I supposed to do about this? She felt a bit lightheaded. It was more than she could take in all at once. “Okay, um, can I take a couple of days and think about this?”
“I need to go home.”
“Okay, but before you do, let me make you some sandwiches, okay?”
Alyssa’s mouth watered, but her excitement gave way to shame. “No thanks, Drew. I don’t want any charity.”
He thought for a moment. “It’s not charity. We bought too much lunchmeat at the store, and we won’t be able to use it up before it spoils. You would be doing us a favor by taking it.”
She gave him a long look. “All right.”
He took her hand in his and led her into the kitchen. It was at least three times the size of hers, with pretty wood cabinets and heavy stone countertops.
He pulled out a loaf of bread and opened the fridge. She could see he wasn’t lying. The meat drawer was piled with plastic tubs of lunchmeat, way too much for a small family like his.
Drew made Alyssa enough sandwiches for three people for two days, along with carrot and celery sticks and apples. He piled the food into brown lunch bags and escorted her to the car.
They drove in silence. Alyssa was digesting this new side of Drew, wondering what to make of it all.
Drew was just thinking about how pretty Alyssa was, and how sad it was that she had to live in such poverty, she didn’t even have enough to eat. If she would let him, he would do all he could to change that.
At her house, he noticed the scary man sitting on his chair again. This time he was swilling cheap beer. A six pack, half gone, sat at his feet, and empty cans were strewn about. Disgusting. This was no environment for a teenage girl to grow up in. It was no environment for anyone, really. Drew walked Alyssa to her door.
On the step, he turned to her. “Think about what I said.”
“As if I could think about anything else,” she replied. Her cheeks were flushed with the cold and her lips looked nearly blue. He needed to get her inside. But first…
“There’s something else.”
“What’s that, Drew?”
“This.” He pulled her into his arms and kissed her again… and again… and again. And then he pushed her through the door of her house and vaulted into his car.
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