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Poughkeepsie begins, p.3
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       Poughkeepsie Begins, p.3

           Debra Anastasia
 
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  “I can get you a real good deal on the tickets. You stay out of ISI, and we’ll consider you paid up for two.”

  Beckett knew in his heart that the man meant well. He was a good one—the kind that slipped gift cards in his locker, new jackets for the little kids in his house too. It was fucking cold in New York.

  Beckett let go of the pass and backed up a step.

  “No, thanks. I’m cool.” He held his hands in the air.

  Mr. Gold stepped forward, not one to give up easily, holding out the pass in earnest this time. “I’m not trying to shame you into this. I just know, okay? I know sometimes it would have been great to take a chance…” He trailed off.

  Beckett bet the man’s quiet was a direct reaction to the shield he’d put up. Beckett rubbed a hand down his face.

  “Mr. Gold, if you wanted to take a girl to a dance…” Beckett looked at the man’s shoes. “Wouldn’t you want to pay for the ticket yourself?”

  The AP sighed. Beckett started backing away, point made. He had no intention of taking handouts from the AP.

  “At least take the pass. You don’t have to spend every damn day breaking the rules.” Mr. Gold held it out again.

  Beckett nodded and trotted back up to snatch it, this time with no resistance. “Thanks, bro.”

  “I’m not your bro. Don’t call me that.” The AP turned on his heel and left Beckett to do the right thing.

  And Beckett wanted to jog right out the back door, find the other stoners, and smoke away the shame he tasted in the back of his throat. Instead he pulled open the science lab door and walked in, silently offering a tribute to Mr. Gold, who was still hoping for a lost cause.

  3

  Damn Knight

  “CANDY COX?”

  Candy wished with every letter of the alphabet that teachers would sometimes skip taking attendance. Or just call her Candy. But no, her full given name always had to be uttered. Her dad was military, so she’d done this time-honored ritual a lot. And just when people got used to her name, she’d find herself sitting in a new school with a stress headache listening to a new group of people react.

  The snickering started anew.

  “Here.” She was the only new kid. Or that’s how it seemed. The school was big, but for sure not the largest she’d been to. Couldn’t the teacher just identify people by their faces?

  Her internal question was answered—the answer again no—when the woman wrote her name on the board and told the class to do the odd-numbered review questions in the back of the book because their regular teacher was in meetings. Zyler hustled in, clutching a pass, and Candy sighed.

  “Sorry I’m late, ma’am.” He gave her a confident smile. The teacher nodded and slid the pass into her folder.

  Zyler took the seat in front of Candy as she raised her hand to tell the teacher she didn’t have a textbook yet.

  He pulled the book out of his backpack and twisted in his chair. “Looking for one of these?”

  She nodded.

  “We can share it, if that’s okay. I don’t want to be a dick.”

  He had deep brown eyes and a mop of wild hair. It covered one eye. He was hot and confident. She was used to his type: alpha male who wanted to pee on the new tree first. She’d made the mistake in the past of going on a date or two with guys just like him, only to find them talking trash about the “wild sex” they’d had with her—even though she was still a virgin in the real world.

  Zyler flipped open the pages and lay the book between them, turning in his seat to put his paper next to hers.

  “Just don’t cheat off me. I’m a numbers wizard.” He smiled again.

  She gave him a small chuckle. “Wizard, huh?”

  “You should see my wand.”

  “You are predictable.” She looked at the first problem. They’d already covered this material at her last high school, so she got started.

  “And you are frigid.” He also wrote down the first number.

  She sighed. The frigid bullshit again.

  He touched her hand. “I’m kidding. You’re fine. I can’t imagine what it’s like coming in senior year to a new school.”

  “Second school this year, so I’m used to it.” She tried to do her calculations, but there wasn’t much room on her desk.

  “Military?” He was already on number three.

  “Yeah. How’d you know?” She jotted down her answer.

  “We got the base nearby, so we get your kind a lot: friendly, fun, and cute. And just when you get attached, they get reassigned. It’s a bitch. You all could be assholes. It would make it easier on those of us left behind.” He smiled again.

  She had to give him points for the backhanded compliments. “We do what we have to. And we are nice.” She started on problem number three.

  “So do you have a…” He paused as the teacher stood from her desk and walked the perimeter of the classroom.

  Candy knew what was next, a boyfriend. She mentally prepared her answer, deciding she might have a long-distance one this time, just to avoid the inevitable cock joke.

  He finished his statement. “…dog?”

  She was so ready for the boyfriend question, she laughed. “What?”

  “Do you have a dog? I ask because you have hair on your sweater.”

  She looked down and sure enough, Pilot’s black hair covered the arm of her soft cardigan. “Yes. Yes, I do. Pilot’s his name. He’s black, as you can see.”

  “Me too. Her name is Butter. Yellow lab. I love that dog something awful.” Zyler pulled out his wallet after finishing up number five and held up a worn picture of his dog. She was adorable. “I’ve had her since I was eleven. She’s my pup.”

  Candy touched the nose of the dog in the picture. “She friendly?”

  “She’s a cupcake. Sweetest thing. Loves everyone. Yesterday she was trying to make friends with a squirrel. Hilarious. Is Pilot friendly?” Zyler tilted his head and gave her his full attention.

  “Yeah. He’s a lab too and way too friendly. He’s a licker.”

  In between math problems they swapped stories about their dogs’ personalities. Zyler finished first and offered Candy his textbook for the homework.

  “I can’t take your book; you’ll need it.” She waved it away.

  “It’s totally okay. One of the guys on the team has this same class. I’ll grab his book after practice. It won’t take me long.”

  She agreed, and as she was putting the book into her bag, he asked for her schedule. When she showed him, he explained quickly how to get around using the map she had in her new-student folder.

  “I’m headed past your next class,” he told her. “I’ll take you there.” He took her backpack and his.

  Now he’s a gentleman? So many years of moving from place to place had given Candy a leeriness, but also a pretty good ability to read people. Zyler was a little confusing. He’d definitely been an ass to Beckett. Was he nervous? Why did he have it in for her English partner?

  As they walked to class, he steered her out of the way of oncoming traffic and used his huge football body to clear a path through the busy hallway. When they got to her class, he handed her the bag.

  “See you at lunch! We have the same one. Come find me. I’ll save you a space.”

  Candy thanked him and took her bag. As she turned to walk into her classroom, she saw him. Beckett watched her while leaning against the wall. He nodded when their eyes met through the hustling groups of kids. She was about to wave, but after a particularly large group passed, he was gone—like he’d never been standing there at all.

  She walked into the classroom and readied herself for roll to be called again. She found the next of her classes on her own, and then the big hurdle was getting to the cafeteria. All the kids seemed to be throwing their backpacks into their lockers, but Candy didn’t have one yet. Being a military brat made her a master at appearing confident, but inside she quaked a little. Lunchtime was always the hardest. It could be the longest thirty minut
es of her life if she didn’t find a place to sit.

  Her tried-and-true method was to find a small group of kids who looked like they didn’t fit in. She could sit with them no matter what and make other friends later, if needed. And if the first group she chose was friendly, she would find safety there.

  The Poughkeepsie East cafeteria was a cavernous space that echoed with shouts and waves of conversation. Candy took a deep breath. There were at least three hundred kids in the room, and it felt like all eyes were on her as she stepped down the center aisle.

  She hazarded a glance around the room. Most of the tables were crowded. She wondered if the seniors sat in the back of the room for lunch. She heard her name weaving through the collage of noise. Such fun to say Candy Cox. Even at seventeen or eighteen years old, kids still loved that first easy joke.

  Toward the front of the room sat a single guy touching a piece of cardboard. He seemed like a safe bet. She walked over and interrupted his concentration.

  “Excuse me, can I sit here?”

  He looked up from his hands and met her eyes. “Sure. I’m Blake Hartt. And you are?” He stood and waved his hand to the other side of the table like a thirty-five-year-old maître d’.

  “Candy.”

  There was an awkward pause as he waited for her last name. She looked at the crumpled lunch bag in her hand. “Candy Cox.”

  There was no snickering, just a kind smile. “Nice to meet you.”

  She sat and exhaled. “God, I hate the first day at lunch.”

  “I’m sorry.” He looked down at his cardboard again.

  “Practicing piano?” She motioned to the faint keyboard outlined on it.

  He nodded.

  “That’s great. I used to play violin.”

  “What happened to it?” He started to pick out soundless notes.

  Candy opened her sandwich and took a bite before answering. “It was a rental, and when I moved to the next school, it was too late to get one for the semester. I just let it drop.”

  “Do you do anything musical?” He seemed to be humming to himself.

  “I like to sing. In my shower. And in chorus.” She let him have the silence again, eating. She preferred to eat with a quiet partner than a crowded table full of friends who had known each other for years.

  Then the seat next to Blake was filled. The boy had clear blue eyes and mocha skin. He had such a serious demeanor.

  Blake introduced them formally. Cole Bridge nodded as Blake presented him as his brother. He didn’t make fun of her name, and she didn’t ask why the two looked nothing alike.

  They were a quiet pair, but made an effort to include her, asking how the day was going. Blake asked a few other questions, politely listening to her answers. Still, she felt a little like an intruder.

  “Do you guys need privacy? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude.” She began to pick up her trash, scanning the room for another option.

  As she did, she saw Zyler making his way toward her with easily ten other guys, all in football jackets. As she turned to tell her tablemates they might have company, she noticed they were already standing. Blake had rolled up his piano and tucked it into his back pocket. Cole watched the crowd with the hard look of a criminal.

  What the hell had she gotten in the center of?

  Blake hopped the table to stand in front of Candy. She put her hand gently on his back, leaning forward. “Zyler talked to me in class today. He was super nice.” Blake nodded once to let her know he’d heard her.

  Candy looked around for a teacher, but saw none.

  “Hey, Candy Cox,” a boy shouted in her direction.

  Zyler slapped him in the chest. “Don’t scare her away, Dunns.”

  Dunns ignored Zyler. “Looks like you’re getting in with a bad crowd. And you sure look like a nice girl.” Dunns looked her up and down thoroughly. “Real nice.”

  Zyler stepped in front of him. “Ignore him; he’s an asshole. I thought we were sitting together? You and me?” Zyler stepped closer to Blake.

  “I didn’t see you, so I sat here. And these guys were kind enough to let me.” Candy put her hand on Blake’s shoulder, trying to get him to move out of her way. She didn’t want a fight on her first day because she had somehow picked the wrong place to sit.

  “These guys are trash, Candy Cox. Worst kind. Seriously.” Dunns was posturing, and the guys behind made loud thumping noises.

  “I’ll make up my own mind about people,” Candy countered. “Listen, I’ll come sit with you now. It’s not a problem.”

  She didn’t like the looks of the situation. Quiet Cole had veins pulsing in his neck. Blake seemed calm, but she noticed he was clenching and unclenching his fists.

  Shit was about to go down.

  “You stupid fuckheads. You don’t learn a goddamn lesson.” All of the sudden the atmosphere changed to electric. Beckett walked into the space between the two groups like he was legally in charge of it. “Have you forgotten our locker room tango already? And Dunns. You get a new mattress, or did you just flip it over after I made you piss it this weekend?” Beckett was on fire. He was magnetic like this, easy. Swaggering. She couldn’t look away.

  Dunns turned a violent shade of purple. She’d never seen a guy get so angry.

  The rest of the cafeteria stood on the tables, some chanting, “Fight! Fight!”

  “You foster home pieces of trash. No one wants you here, and you know it.” Dunns pointed, spitting with his words.

  And then it made sense why Cole and Blake looked nothing alike. And Beckett too, it seemed. Foster kids.

  Candy stepped up on the table where she’d just eaten her lunch using Blake’s shoulder for balance. He held out his hand to assist her, which she took. She thanked him in a murmur as she moved around him.

  Cole cleared his throat, and when she looked at him, he shook his head. He didn’t want her getting involved.

  Too late. By the time she got to the front, Dunns and Beckett were toe to toe. Neither had thrown a punch, but clearly they wanted to. Candy moved next to Zyler and touched his arm. He looked down at her.

  “I’ll come to your table. Make him stop.” She nodded toward Dunns.

  Zyler put his arm around her in a stupid, claiming-type gesture. She slipped out from under it.

  “Make him stop.”

  She could see all three brothers now. The weariness in Cole and Blake’s faces broke her heart. They were used to it, this spectacle in front of them. Being told loudly and forcefully that they were trash was common, judging from their lack of response.

  Beckett, though—holy crap! He was damn near luminous, his deep blue eyes filled with delight. The muscles under his black T-shirt tensed. He spared her a quick look, blowing her a kiss like a damn knight on a horse, ready to fall for his queen. She had clearly romanticized the whole thing in her head. She’d never been so close to something like this before. She finally walked into the eye of the storm and pushed at both guys.

  Neither would have moved from the force of her hands alone, but Beckett allowed her to push him back. She slid between their chests.

  She whispered, “Please tell your brothers I said thank you for letting me sit with them. I’m going to sit with Zyler now.”

  He glared at the whole crowd behind her. She felt Dunns’ chest move away from her back and saw him stagger to her left, Zyler having pulled him away.

  Finally Beckett looked at her face. “Really?”

  She nodded because that’s all she had. Her words were curled in her stomach, huddled with the butterflies he gave her. Male, dominant, barely in control. He looked so much older than a senior in high school as he waited for more from her.

  “I’m not scared of these pussies.” He spoke to her but pointed at the retreating football team.

  A teacher finally arrived on the scene looking for information. No one was answering her. Zyler sat down at the edge of the closest table—full of freshmen—when the teacher demanded they all go back to their seats.
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  “So that’s how it is for you?” Beckett seemed unrushed by the commands to settle down.

  “No. I’ve been in this school four hours. I haven’t decided anything, I just want to eat lunch. This is insane.”

  He nodded. “You can stay here with us. It’s okay. I’ll make it okay.”

  Who is this kid? “I’m going to go sit with them for now.” She backed away, hating to do it. She wanted to put her lips on his so much she almost did.

  Instead she forced herself to turn. Zyler hopped up behind her and put his hand on her lower back, guiding her to the rear of the room. After tossing her lunch bag in the trash and almost making it to the football table—for lack of a better term—the bell rang.

  The football team was due to meet in the locker room for a quick meeting, according to the announcements over the loudspeaker. Zyler wanted to walk her to her next class, but he seemed afraid to incur the wrath of the football coach. She waved him off and followed behind the herd of boys talking trash about how much they wanted to get some unsupervised time with the brothers.

  Beckett came from behind one of the thick support pillars holding up the giant hallway ceiling when he saw Candy moving through the flow of bodies. He had her pink backpack on his shoulder. “You left this.”

  She tried to take it from his hand. He held it on to it.

  “Thanks,” she said.

  She looked pale. More than scared, she was overwhelmed.

  “Hell of a first day.”

  “It’s always something.” She looked at the backpack he wasn’t letting her have.

  “Try being a little less pretty the next time you walk into a new school. Drives the boys crazy seeing you.” He let go, and she stumbled at the sudden lack of counterbalance.

  He steadied her, pulling her against his chest. Instead of fighting him or bracing herself, she allowed him to keep her body against his. Her breasts were soft and her waist small. Her dark hair smelled good as he let his lips hover near her forehead. “Sorry.” He felt the chill go through her body.

  She tilted her face up and looked at him with her disarming two-colored eyes. She put her hands on either side of his face, so soft. He was used to making the first move. God, I’ve never been with one of these fancy kinds of girls, he thought as she kissed him gently with her beautiful, pillowy lips. He was stunned for a second. And then he did what he knew he should. He grabbed two handfuls of her ass and pulled her even closer. But as he went to deepen the kiss, she pulled away, covering her lips—that had tasted like peanut butter, goddamn it. She fought him, and he let her out of his grasp.

 
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