Always and forever, p.1
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       Always and Forever, p.1

           Lurlene McDaniel
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Always and Forever

  Published by

  Dell Laurel-Leaf

  an imprint of

  Random House Children’s Books

  a division of Random House, Inc.

  New York

  Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

  This edition contains the complete and unabridged texts of the original editions. This omnibus was originally published in separate volumes under the titles:

  Too Young to Die copyright © 1989 by Lurlene McDaniel Goodbye Doesn’t Mean Forever copyright © 1989 by Lurlene McDaniel

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law. For information address Dell Laurel-Leaf Books.

  Dell and Laurel are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

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  eISBN: 978-0-307-77634-1




  Title Page


  Too Young to Die



  Doesn’t Mean Forever

  Too Young to Die

  For my sons, Sean and Erik


  “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us …”

  ROMANS 5:3-5a (NIV)

  Chapter One

  “Melissa. Melissa Austin, are you awake?”

  Melissa groaned at the sound of her name being whispered with repeated pokes in her side. She opened her eyes wide enough to see that her bedroom was still shrouded in darkness—pitch black darkness. What could Jory possibly want at this hour of the morning?

  “Go away …” she muttered. Her arms and legs felt like lead weights, her brain foggy and disoriented. Every joint in her body ached.

  Jory persevered. “But it’s four A.M. Aren’t we going with Michael as his spotters?”

  It came back to Melissa in tiny spurts. Michael, her brother. Hot-air ballooning, his favorite sport. Jory Delaney, spending the night in order to drive Michaels pickup truck as his chase vehicle while he maneuvered his balloon into the Florida sunrise above. “It can’t be four o’clock already. We only just went to sleep!”

  “Correction,” Jory said. “You fell asleep the minute you hit the bed. I’ve been up all night waiting for this.”

  Naturally Jory would be anxious, Melissa thought as she struggled again to clear her head from the cobwebs of sleep. She wished she felt better. “You’ve got to get over this fixation on my brother,” she grumbled, more annoyed at having to get up so early than with Jory. “He’s twenty and you’re sixteen—just like me. He’s a sophomore at the junior college. You’re a junior in high school—just like me. He’s …”

  “… waiting for us in the kitchen. So get a move on,” Jory directed, ignoring the facts that Melissa pointed out. “If Michael asked me to push peanuts with my nose on the streets of downtown Tampa, I’d do it. Remember Romeo and Juliet. Princess Di and Prince Charles. We’re only talking four years here.”

  Jory flipped on the overhead light, and Melissa felt as if her eyeballs had been pricked with pins. She swung her legs over the side of her bed, stood, and almost fell over.

  “Whoa. You okay?” Jory asked, already tugging on her jeans.

  “Of course I’m okay,” Melissa lied, feeling lightheaded. “Just a little wobbly from lack of sleep.” She ambled to her dresser and rummaged for jeans and a T-shirt, dragging her thick, straight, black hair out of her eyes. She had one leg in her jeans when Jory said, “Melissa, you’re bleeding.”

  Sure enough, blood trickled down her tanned leg from below the knee. “Oh, I must’ve cut it when I shaved my legs last night.”

  “And it’s still bleeding? You’d have thought it would have clotted by now.”

  “Could you hand me a tissue and that roll of tape? I don’t think there are any more gauze bandages left.”

  Melissa wiped off the trail of blood and secured the tissue over the cut. It did seem odd that it was still bleeding hours later. She forgot the cut as she dabbed on blusher and lipstick and decided she should buy a concealer stick for the dark circles under her eyes.

  “Are you coming?” Jory asked impatiently from the doorway. “In lieu of a toothbrush, how about a mint? We’ve got to go!”

  Melissa clasped her waist-length hair back and followed Jory into the kitchen where Michael was already waiting. “I thought I was going to have to wake you two myself,” he muttered. “I’ve made coffee for the thermos and there’s granola bars in the cupboard. Let’s get going.” He was dressed in well-worn jeans, and his black hair was still damp from a shower, all five foot ten of him smelling of clean, fresh soap.

  “Sorry,” Melissa said, catching the keys that he tossed for his pickup truck.

  “I’ll ride in the back with the balloon. We’ve got twenty minutes to get to the field and meet the others.”

  Melissa sensed Jory’s disappointment. “Why don’t you drive?” she suggested to Michael. “We can all crowd into the cab.”

  Michael turned his sapphire-blue eyes toward her. Sometimes looking at him was like looking into a mirror. He had the same square face, high, angular cheekbones, and dark eyebrows as she. “All right,” he said. “At least I drive faster than you.” Jory flashed Melissa a glance that screamed thank you!

  Outside the dark morning was humid and heavy. Melissa walked around Jory’s new white convertible, running her hands along the gleaming paint covetously. The three of them squeezed into the cab of Michael’s beat-up truck, and Melissa waved Jory in first, making certain she was wedged in the middle.

  Michael sipped coffee from a Styrofoam cup, driving with one wrist draped over the steering wheel. “Are you meeting in the usual place?” Melissa asked.

  “The usual.” It was a cow pasture in the north-west corner of the county.

  “Is ballooning fun?” Jory asked.

  “There’s absolutely nothing like it,” Michael told her. “It’s hard to describe. There’s nothing but sky and wind and the whoosh of the gas jets. I suppose it’s as close to heaven as some of us will ever get.”

  “Maybe you could take Jory up sometime,” Melissa ventured.

  Michael laughed. “I took you up, and how did you repay my gesture?”

  “So I’m afraid of heights and got sick to my stomach.” Melissa defended herself indignantly. “It could have happened to anyone.”

  “I’ve been skiing in Aspen and water-jetting in the Bahamas, but I’ve never been ballooning,” Jory offered. “I’ve got a stomach like a rock, and heights don’t bother me.”

  Melissa smiled at Jory’s hints, but she wished Jory hadn’t mentioned her many adventures. Rich girls put Michael off, and he probably thought she was boasting. Not that Jory was snobby. It wasn’t her fault she’d been blessed with a wealthy family.

  “I think you’re better off staying on the ground,” Michael said evasively.

  He turned the truck off the road and it bounced through pasture land. Suddenly the headlights glared on a group of people clustered in the field. Several wore shirts stamped “Blue Sky Balloon Club.” Michael halted, pulled on the hand brake, and stepped out onto the spongy sod while Melissa and Jory tagged behind. Someone
said, “We almost started without you, Austin. Sun’s due to rise in half an hour.”

  “My spotters overslept,” he said, dragging his balloon off the truckbed. The lightweight nylon fluttered while Melissa helped him spread it out on the ground apart from the other balloons. Propane tanks hissed hot air into the necks of the dormant balloons, and they rose slowly like giant mushrooms. As each one filled, a person climbed into the dangling basket while others released ropes and the balloons drifted upward, like colorful bubbles in the sky. Michael leaped into his basket, and Melissa watched as the ropes were loosened and the mammoth balloon floated up through the gray morning mist.

  “I’d have given my eyeteeth if he’d taken me,” Jory said with a sigh.

  “Maybe some other time.” Melissa consoled her gently. Why couldn’t Michael be sensitive to Jory’s feelings for him? “Come on.” She took Jory’s arm. “Now our job starts.”

  In the truck, Melissa drove across the bumpy terrain toward the road. “Don’t let him out of your sight. When he sets it down, we have to be there to help him pack it up.”

  “Seems like a lot of hassle for such a short ride to watch the sunrise.”

  “He loves it. And I’m glad he got into it. If Michael isn’t working either of his jobs, he’s going to school. Mom worries about him—she thinks he works too hard for his own good. But my brother’s very determined to succeed.”

  “He isn’t the only one,” Jory said, pouring a cup of coffee and shooting Melissa a sidelong glance. “You’ve had your nose in a book ever since school started two weeks ago. You haven’t even taken time to do anything fun with me lately.”

  “Don’t be selfish, Jory. The PSATs are coming up in October and I’ve got to score big if I’m going to be eligible for a National Merit Scholarship next year.”

  “Do you still have your hopes set on Princeton?”

  “If it’s good enough for Brooke Shields … ” Jory giggled. But Melissa added, “Seriously, I don’t want to be stuck at a junior college like Michael. I want to go somewhere new, do something productive and meaningful with my life.”

  “Does that mean law?”

  “Probably. But I’m keeping an open mind.” She glanced over at Jory. Her auburn bangs hung shaggy over her carefully plucked eyebrows. Her pert, turned-up nose gave her a sassy look brightened by almond-shaped sea-green eyes. Jory appeared to wear a perpetual pout, but her frequent dimpled smiles softened her face. Melissa considered her best friend seriously. She was pretty, rich, and smart to boot. “You could come to Princeton, too, if you concentrated on studying instead of boys and partying.”

  “Ugh.” Jory wrinkled her nose. “One genius in this friendship is enough. I’ll be your manager.”

  “Lawyers don’t need managers.”

  “All right, your social director. Surely you plan to date between spurts of studying.”

  “There’s really no one I’m interested in.” Melissa felt color creep up her neck, and her conscience nagged, except Brad Kessing. Blond. Athletic. Bright. A senior. And absolutely unobtainable. Melissa knew what the most popular kids at Lincoln High thought of her—she was “bookish” and “pretty but intellectual.”

  “And why not? Gosh, Melissa, have a little self-confidence. Look at yourself: gorgeous black hair down your back, huge blue eyes, legs that start at your neckline, and brains coming out of your ears. You could have any guy at Lincoln you set your mind on.”

  “My mind’s on college, Jory. That’s my number-one priority. Are you watching Michael’s balloon?” Melissa deftly changed the subject.

  The sky was streaked with color, melting from indigo into pale lavender, laced with fingers of pink. Jory rose up on her knees and stretched the upper half of her body out of the window of the cab. “I see him! He’s pretty high up and heading east.” The wind caught her words and flung them back.

  “Drat!” Melissa eased over into the traffic, looking for the first road that turned left. “If he’s high up, that means there are power lines. Don’t lose sight of him.” She found a road and turned, caught sight of the balloon in her windshield, and accelerated. A sharp pain shot through her knee and she winced.

  “Are you all right?” Jory asked, sliding back into her seat.

  “Just my rheumatism acting up,” she joked. “Now tell me why you won’t come to Princeton with me? Your grandfather will send you anywhere you want to go.”

  “You said it yourself, Melissa—I’m a party girl. Princeton’s too staid and proper for me. Besides, someone has to stay behind and keep an eye on your brother.”

  Melissa rolled her eyes. “You’re impossible! Stick with guys our own age.”

  “They’re absolute children.”

  By now the sun was up and the light through the windshield pierced Melissa’s eyes.

  “I think he’s coming down,” Jory said, pointing to the red-and-yellow balloon drifting down toward an empty field.

  “Terrific,” Melissa grumbled. “How am I going to get through the barbed wire?”

  “There’s a gate.” Jory pointed excitedly.

  Melissa drove the truck through the gate and then headed across the vast green pasture, where Michaels balloon squatted, already deflating and fluttering in the breeze like a sailboat.

  “God, that was great!” Michael shouted as the girls climbed out of the truck to help him fold the giant arch of nylon and put it back on the truck. His blue eyes shone and his face was flushed.

  “He’s high,” Melissa teased, her words doubled with meaning.

  “It’s incredible—high above the earth, seeing the world like a bird does. Man, it’s almost better than—” He caught himself, glancing self-consciously at Jory.

  “Better than sex?” Melissa finished drolly, quoting one of his frequently used descriptive phrases. “I wouldn’t know.”

  “You better not.” He grinned. “Now let’s get moving and I’ll treat everybody to breakfast.”

  Melissa laughed and reached to unlatch the back of the truck. She stared down at an ugly purple bruise on her arm. Now how in the world had she gotten that, she wondered. She ignored it and dropped the tailgate with a bang.

  “Don’t break it,” Michael chided. “It’s not much, but it’s paid for.”

  “Sorry. I lost my grip.”

  They crowded into the cab and Michael headed back across the field toward town. Jory chattered in a stream of quick, witty observations about ballooning and Michael’s passion for it. Melissa dropped her head against the seat and watched the cloudless blue sky shoot past, her eyelids growing heavy. She wished she weren’t so tired. But it was good to be alive. Good to breathe in the fresh, warm September air.

  Lulled by the movement of the truck and the warm sun, Melissa felt content. Her junior year of high school would be her best, and her grades would be her highest. She’d make sure of it. The course of her future depended on it.

  Chapter Two

  “You didn’t have to be so rude to Jory, Michael,” Melissa said testily the minute they walked into the kitchen of their house and Jory had driven off in her convertible.

  “Rude? What are you talking about?” Michael lowered himself into a chair, stretched out his long legs, and clasped his hands behind his head. “I thought I was very tolerant under the circumstances.”

  “What circumstances?”

  “She’s a bubblehead.”

  Melissa felt her anger rise. “She’s my best friend and has been since the fifth grade.”

  “She’s also rich and spoiled. Why does she hang around here anyway? And why does she go to Lincoln High when she could go to any private school in the city?”

  Melissa answered his second question first. “She goes to Lincoln because she likes public school. A lot of kids prefer Lincoln to private schools.” Like Brad Kessing, she reminded herself. For although he traveled in Jory’s charmed circle of monied elite, he too preferred Lincoln. “And she hangs around here because she has a crummy home life.”

  “And ours
is perfect?” There was an undertone of bitterness in his question that made Melissa sigh.

  She sat across from him at the table and fiddled with the salt shaker. “I didn’t say it was perfect. Face it, Michael, Dad’s been gone six years and he’s not coming back. I think Mom’s done a terrific job of keeping us together, don’t you?”

  He nodded. “Mom’s a great lady. But she works too hard.”

  “That’s what she says about you.”

  A small smile started at the corners of his mouth. “That’s because I’m going to be rich someday, just like Miss Delaney. Then Mom won’t ever have to go downtown to the office again. And she won’t have to worry about paying bills and trying to make ends meet.”

  “You know it’s not that bad since she’s gotten her promotion. And besides, you’re missing the point. Jory has money and two parents but she’s not particularly happy, and that’s why she likes to come over here. We may not have much money, but at least we’re a family. I think Jory senses the closeness between us and wants to be a part of it.” Melissa paused, remembering the times over the years that Jory had come home from school with her. She’d stay as late as she could, until Mom had to drive her home to an often dark and empty house in the exclusive neighborhood of mansions where she lived.

  “Her parents are always off chasing real estate deals, and Jory’s left alone. Her older brothers and sisters all live in other states, and none of them are close to her anyway. I mean, not like you and I are.”

  “She’s not always alone,” Michael said with a twinkle in his eye. “She’s usually over here.”

  “Oh you!” Melissa flung the salt shaker at him, exasperated.

  “Now don’t tell me you aren’t just a tiny bit envious of her,” Michael said. “I see the way you look at her car. Wouldn’t you like to have someone hand you the keys to a machine like that, absolutely free?”

  “I didn’t say money isn’t important. I said it doesn’t buy happiness.”

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