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Poughkeepsie begins, p.12
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       Poughkeepsie Begins, p.12

           Debra Anastasia
 
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  Looking over her shoulder, she saw that Mrs. Drivens had succeeded in rousing Beckett again, and he nodded at her urgent words.

  “You missed class.” She walked to Zyler, surprised he was waiting for her, given his attitude since their post-Halloween discussion. But maybe he’d changed his mind and really was determined to be friends. Right now he was full of energy.

  “Team meeting. Big game tonight, You coming?”

  “Maybe. I heard it was going to snow.” She had almost finished the second part of the project she was supposed to be working on with Beckett. She looked back into the classroom, but her sleepy slight-obsession was nowhere to be found.

  “How are your parents? Your brother?” Zyler leaned down to hear her answers while he navigated the crowded hallway with ease.

  Why was he suddenly so friendly again? “They’re great. It’s all good. I think they’re bored though. They like to be involved in stuff.” She noticed some girls giving her dirty looks, while others seemed envious. Zyler was obviously the school dreamboat.

  “How about Pilot? Have you taken him to the dog park yet?” He waved at a few people as they made their way to her next class.

  “Not yet. I didn’t even know there was one.” She removed her books from his arms.

  “I can show you. My pup loves to go. Labs have to run, right?” He gave her a smile that seemed to say there were no hard feelings. She felt a bit relieved. Though she was pretty sure Zyler had squandered any romantic potential he might have had for her, she didn’t want to make enemies at Poughkeepsie East. And she could certainly use friends.

  “That sounds like fun,” she admitted.

  He touched her cheek. “You know, tonight we celebrate the ladies in our lives by giving them a flower. I got three: one for my mom, one for my sister, and I was hoping to give the third to you. Maybe bring your parents and brother to the game? Something fun to do. Do they like football?”

  “They do,” she answered, taking a step back. “But I’m not sure I’m the right person for your flower.”

  His eyes sparkled with renewed confidence. “Of course you are. It’s the least I can do. We got off to a rocky start, but it’s going to be fine. I know it. We’re dog buddies!”

  Candy figured half the girls and a few of the guys in school would chew their own arm off for a proposal like this from him. Her parents would be thrilled. Why couldn’t she be more enthusiastic?

  She took a deep breath. “Okay, sure, I’ll come. And I’ll invite the fam. That’ll be nice.” She patted his bicep, which he immediately tightened.

  As they rounded the corner, she looked for Beckett again, and of course he stood in the hallway watching her. His hair was a wreck from his naps, his leather jacket tossed over one shoulder. He pinned her with a gaze that made her feel guilty and on fire all at once. She continued on with Zyler, but her thoughts stayed with the broken boy she walked away from.

  That evening Candy tied her Converse sneakers and looked in the mirror. Jeans, a white long-sleeved tee, and her puffy white jacket with the belt seemed appropriate for a football game. She wasn’t sure how she would handle the flower toss thing Zyler was so excited about, but at least she wouldn’t accidently be dressed in the opposing team’s colors.

  With mittens and a hat in her pockets, she was ready to roll out. She went downstairs to find her parents and brother equally bundled up and ready to go, their decision to come with her made. Football was apparently big in Poughkeepsie, and her family had learned through all the moves that the quickest way to make friends was to get involved. Evidently there was some boating on the Hudson, so they’d probably all go on a few rides this summer. She waved at them and took her own car, in case the family got too cold and had to leave early. Or in case she was bored to tears and had to flee.

  Candy followed her dad’s taillights and thought about Beckett more than anything else. Maybe she was a junkie, and he was dealing her drugs too. His lips and the dangerous feeling he created in her stomach were her high. He was wrong for her. Of course. God, she could never bring him home to her parents. A freaking drug dealer. Who does that?

  But then she pictured him running into the school during the fire drill, setting her up to braid the little girls’ hair. It would be easier if he wasn’t hot as hell.

  One of the last spots in the parking lot was right next to her parents’ minivan, so she pulled in. Mom hopped out with a huge jug of hot cocoa and a ton of cups. The woman knew how to get in good with cold people.

  She’d just joined them when they heard what sounded like a herd of horses running toward them. Zyler and about five other football guys, all in uniform, sans helmets, jogged up to the open tailgate of their van.

  “Candy! I didn’t think you’d make it. Can we borrow her, sir?” Zyler held out his hand to her father.

  “Um…let me help them get their stuff to a good spot, and then I can go where you need me,” Candy suggested.

  The football players jockeyed around the family, all grabbing chairs, blankets, and any other things they could find, and jogged away. Zyler had a crew to command, apparently. Why was he so obsessed about this flower thing?

  He motioned to the field as if it were his mansion. “That better? Can you come with me now?”

  Her mother nearly swooned and gasped.

  Candy rolled her eyes but smiled. “Okay, problem solver.”

  Zyler shook her father’s hand again and kissed her mother’s cheek before fist bumping her brother. “You should have brought Pilot!” he told them.

  When they were a good distance away, she teased him. “You lay it on pretty thick, huh?”

  “Are you kidding? Please, your father’s military. That’s superhero status in my book.” Zyler patted the American flag patch on his right arm.

  Now Candy swooned a little. He seemed like he was genuine. That meant something.

  “Seriously, your family moves all the time, and they just pack up and come to the game in a new town? That’s badass.”

  He reached down and grabbed her hand. She wondered for a moment if her let’s-be-friends speech had really sunk in, but decided just to roll with it.

  “Okay, so only the seniors get to have ladies in the car parade, and your chariot is right up here with my mom in it as well.”

  So, she was meeting his family. Sitting in a car?

  It all made sense when they got to the auxiliary parking lot. There was a long line of convertibles, and women were being helped to sit on the trunks or in the back of the open-topped cars.

  Oh my God.

  They all needed help because they had on huge dresses and matching hats. It all clicked into place. Zyler wasn’t tossing her a flower. He was expecting her to commit to some sort of official football woman-claiming ritual. He hadn’t internalized a word of her speech. And she’d agreed to do this. Crap.

  “I…I…I’m not dressed for this.” She waved a hand at her outfit.

  “Shit. Sorry. You’re so pretty, I didn’t even notice what you were wearing.” He gave her a blinding smile.

  “I’ll go wait in the stands. Okay? Just wave at me or whatever.” She stepped backward and watched as disappointment crashed onto his face. She took another look at the lineup. There were easily twenty cars, and each featured a mother and an excited girl. Everyone was damn near glowing. This was a thing. An important thing.

  Zyler stopped her. “Wait. My sister is riding for my friend. He lost his mom to breast cancer over the summer. And his girlfriend just dumped him. My mom has issues with balance, but she’s determined to ride. And, of course, my dad wants to drive the Bel Air. It’s from nineteen fifty-seven, and it’s his second wife. He’s been shining it up all day. Would you mind helping my mom? I’m sorry. If not, it’s no worry. I’ll just take a picture with her now and make her get out.”

  He gave her puppy dog eyes. Somehow he’d been able to drag breast cancer, his sister’s kindness, and his mother’s health issues into one request. Candy nodded. What else could she
do?

  “Great.” His smile returned. “Look, I think Randy’s mom had an extra hat. Let me see if I can grab it for you. Thanks so much. This means the world to my mom.”

  After locating a white hat with a feather in it and helping Candy set it just right, he led her to a bright red convertible Mustang. He introduced her to his gorgeously dressed mother, also in white. She didn’t comment on Candy’s lack a of a pageant dress, which might’ve been kind since Mrs. Merchant’s probably cost more than a mortgage payment. Mr. Merchant was clearly in his element, happy to be driving his prized automobile and barely sparing her a wave.

  You’d think Zyler hung the moon the way his mother looked at him as he made sure she was secure and had a good grip on the makeshift seatbelt someone had rigged for her. He hopped down, giving Candy another winning smile and mouthing thank you before he received his red roses with bows attached from a cheerleader. He grabbed his helmet from the front seat and held it like a ring bearer would his pillow.

  Mrs. Merchant gave Candy a forced smile. “Couldn’t find a dress?”

  So much for her not mentioning it. “Um, I didn’t know I was coming until this afternoon. And I didn’t even know it was a thing. So no. And I feel wicked out of place.” Candy looked at her mittens.

  “You know, Tiffany and Zyler used to date. She’s a cheerleader. Have you ever been on cheer?” Mrs. Merchant attempted another smile but just managed to scrunch her cheeks around the hard, straight line her mouth made.

  Candy followed the woman’s pointing finger to the flower-giving cheerleader. “No. We move a lot. I didn’t want to be part of the pyramid and then have my dad get orders and have the structure collapse. And I’m not even sure I would make the squad.”

  Candy had been in enough high schools to know that the stereotypes about cheerleaders weren’t necessarily true. But as she watched Tiffany flounce in front of Zyler, she thought they might fit pretty well with good ol’ Tiff.

  “Military or just unsettled?”

  Candy gave Zyler’s mother a more concentrated gaze. “Military.”

  “Oh. Yes. I think Zyler mentioned something about your father.” She waved her hand in a way that reminded Candy of swatting a fly.

  “Yeah, Zyler has been very sweet and complimentary of my father.” Old or not, if this crazy fart was in some way trying to look down on her father or her family, they were going to have words.

  Mrs. Merchant’s attention seemed to wane. She waved at a woman a few cars ahead, and they laughed together.

  Zyler tapped the hood. “Okay, ladies, ready? Watch the cars in front; we’ll be moving in a minute here. Hold tight, Mom.”

  Candy saw the concern on his face, so she arranged her body so that her arm rested just behind Mrs. Merchant’s lower back. As the car started rolling, the woman did indeed seem a bit woozy. Candy braced herself and steadied her, forgoing politeness to hold on to her arm. Mrs. Merchant gasped and grabbed her arm in return.

  “You okay?” Candy asked.

  “Yes. Yes. Thank you, dear.” The woman looked genuine for the first time.

  “Mom?”

  Zyler must have vaulted into the car.

  “Son, I’m fine. Look. Fine.” She showed him her tight grip on the seatbelt. He smiled at his mom as she patted his face with her free hand.

  Candy scooted a little closer, caging as much of the woman’s back as she could with her arm. “Just tell your dad to brake and gas real easy for us.” She included herself in the request.

  Zyler gave her a grateful look, which also struck her as sexy. She was definitely losing her mind. If she didn’t know what she wanted, how could anyone else? He hopped out and spoke to his father.

  “He’s crazy about you,” Candy offered, checking to see if Mrs. Merchant was looking pale or shaky at all.

  She nodded. “The feeling is mutual.”

  Candy hated her a little less by the time they arrived on the track around the field. Each car stopped, and a football player distributed his flowers as the ladies’ names were spoken over the loudspeaker. The crowd whooped and whistled when the girlfriends involved got a kiss that was a little longer than appropriate.

  Shit.

  Their car was next, the last in the line, and as Zyler moved to hand out his flowers, the announcer called over the speaker. “Zyler Merchant, can you and your lady come up here?”

  Candy moved her legs to the side, making way for Mrs. Merchant to get to the podium set up in front of the stands, but the woman grabbed her arm. “You have to go with him. I can’t. It took me forever to get in here!”

  Zyler opened the door and waited, the red roses in his hand.

  Great. I’m not even dressed for this nonsense.

  Zyler handed one flower to his mom and kissed her cheek and then her hand. His mother blushed and smiled from one ear to the other. Tiffany didn’t even pretend to smile as she waved her pom-poms around with the other cheerleaders. Candy looked at her feet and concentrated on not slipping as she moved out of the car and up the stairs. Zyler whispered in her ear, “I have no idea what this is about.”

  It was an apology to be sure. She stepped to the side as the announcer waxed poetic about Zyler’s football career. She looked anywhere but at the rows of people staring at her—in her jeans wearing someone’s mom’s extra hat. But just to the right of the bleachers, and halfway in the dark, she saw Beckett leaning against one of the supports.

  He lifted one eyebrow, acknowledging her.

  She swallowed hard. Inhale, exhale. What the hell was he doing here anyway? She lifted her own eyebrow as the question formed in her head.

  He shrugged, as if he could hear her thoughts.

  While she watched, one of the kids from the other school sidled up to him. A few brief words and Beckett traded one thing for another. Drugs. He was selling drugs. Having to witness it put tears in her eyes. She wanted to see the good in him, and be excited by the bad—but this, a freaking kid selling drugs to another kid, was a shame.

  And when he met her gaze again, the defeat was there. Like he’d expected her to be disgusted. She took her mitten off and wiped quickly at the tears she refused to shed. Unintentionally, she met Mrs. Merchant’s proud gaze. The woman visibly softened when she saw Candy’s emotion.

  Finally, the announcer seemed to be winding down. “And Zyler would like to appreciate his friend, Candy Cox,” he boomed.

  Relief swept through her. She wouldn’t be subject to a public kiss fest. A slight titter of giggles ruffled through the crowd as Zyler smiled and handed her the rose.

  But then the announcer continued. “Zyler Merchant, Poughkeepsie East High School is honored to announce that you’ve received a four-year scholarship to SUNY New Paltz based on your high grades and your stellar football skills.”

  The crowd went wild. Zyler accepted hugs from his coach, who bounded up to the stage. Candy looked at Mrs. Merchant, who was now supported by her husband, which was good—otherwise she might have just clapped herself off the back of the car.

  It was most likely the excitement, but finally Zyler turned to her again. The crowd stomped their feet, adding to the urgency of the moment. Despite the previous declaration of friendship, and despite her firm explanation that it was for the best, he pulled her to him and dipped her, old-fashioned style, then planted a kiss on her shocked mouth. The already loud crowd went berserk as she scrambled to hold on to her borrowed hat.

  All Candy could feel while being kissed by the school hero was the heat of Beckett’s gaze spiking up her spine.

  Beckett knew it was probably a bad thing that he was armed. And even worse that he was high as fuck. The girl he thought about more than he should was acting out the end of an uplifting Lifetime movie in front of God and everyone. His hands curled into fists. His temples thumped as he tried to talk sense into his goddamn self. She didn’t owe him anything. He should have seen this coming. Shit, he was a suck-ass listener.

  He watched as Candy pushed away from Fyler and turned her
head, ending the kiss. She patted his shoulder pads as if she’d enjoyed it—the kiss the bastard just took. Myler helped her down the stage stairs and back into the car she’d arrived in with the old bag. Beckett could taste his hate.

  Merry stumbled up next to him with her impeccably shitty timing. “I need a hit, Taylor. Come on.”

  Merry, short for Merry-Go-Round, would give anyone a ride, just like her namesake. As the convertible parade lumbered forward, Beckett watched Candy look for him.

  “You want a hit? Blow me.” His eyes never met Merry’s.

  She had no shame, and for a teenage girl to hit her knees at those words was a fucking mess. His heart lurched, but she would serve her purpose. As she fumbled with his belt, he put his hands in her hair. And if he timed it right…Yup. Just as Candy spotted him under the bleachers, it looked like he’d been getting head while she’d been putting on her own show.

  He wanted to hurt her. He smiled at her, letting her see that he was fucking bulletproof. He watched her eyes widen, and instead of crying or doing something equally satisfying, she mouthed, Fuck you. The geezer next to her wobbled a bit, possibly surprised.

  Candy steadied her with a hand and was still watching as Merry leaned to the side and vomited with loud retching, revealing his still-zipped pants. Beckett stepped back. His intended payback had backfired. Another glance at Candy revealed her shaking her head and flipping him the bird—in front of the whole crowd and the old biddy next to her.

  And that made him hard. She was wearing jeans when everyone else was dolled up like damn drag queens. He wanted her hair in his hands, her panties in his teeth. Damn it. God, he fucking loved this side of her, the side that kissed him in the damn center of the cafeteria on the day they’d met or left her tits out for a whole ride home. That she could be a pink princess and also shoot him the middle finger when she caught him faking was too much. She seemed to know him too fucking well. Which was impossible. She knew nothing.

  And fuck why he came to these stupid things. Goddamn football song and dance. The coaches tried recruiting him every year. And every year they had to be reminded that although he could move fast and hit hard, he could never stop. He took the whole fucking thing personal. But Kick had needed someone to work the game. This was his territory. Right now he felt stupid as fuck—you never dealt on school grounds. But Kick was happy playing video games in his fucking office.

 
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