Always and forever, p.3
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       Always and Forever, p.3

           Lurlene McDaniel
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  Melissa flicked water in Jory’s face. “You’re impossible!”

  “What else are rich parents good for?”

  To help send you to college, Melissa thought. How could Jory be so casual about her future?

  Melissa hung back in the girls’ room until the very last minute on the afternoon of the test. She nervously dropped her hairbrush while running it through her hair for the umpteenth time. She noticed her face in the mirror looked gaunt, and dark circles smudged the skin beneath her eyes. She needed to get more rest, she thought, so she wouldn’t look like a raccoon.

  Melissa adjusted her blouse and noticed another purplish blotch on her arm. “Oh, good grief,” she said to her reflection. Not another bruise. Melissa didn’t know what was causing them, but she did know she had to do something about them. Why, just the other day she’d caught her phys ed teacher staring at the bruises on her legs. “Leg makeup,” she mumbled in a sudden flash of inspiration. She’d buy leg makeup to hide them. Dancers used that trick all the time.

  Pushing the bruise problem to the back of her mind, Melissa tried to focus on the situation at hand. The test. At the testing room she paused, wondering how many people would be inside. Would she know anyone else? It’s probably a roomful of nerds with IQs in the extraterrestrial range, she told herself. What chance have I got?

  The room was surprisingly crowded, and she did recognize many faces. Shocking to find out who’s really smart, she mused. Melissa looked around for an empty chair. Suddenly, her gaze stopped short and her stomach lurched as Brad Kessing flashed her a dazzling, heart-thudding grin.

  Chapter Four

  Melissa felt herself blush. She nodded briskly at Brad’s smile and hurried past him to an open desk in the very back of the room. Of all the kids at Lincoln, Brad Kessing was the last she had expected to see sitting in the room. Well, why not? her mind argued. She’d heard that he was smart. She only wished that seeing him hadn’t rattled her so. Why had it? Why, when she’d vowed not to be distracted by boys this year in pursuit of her academic goals?

  You’re being ridiculous, she told herself with annoyance. You don’t have time for infatuations.

  For that’s all it was. Brad simply had the right blend of looks and charm that appealed to her.

  Melissa’s thoughts were interrupted as Mr. Marshall came in and tried to quiet the restless group of students assembled in the room. “Good afternoon,” he began, dropping a stack of papers on the desk in front of him. “Mrs. Watson will be here shortly, but I want to get you started.” He surveyed the room with a broad grin. “Do you realize that your cumulative IQs rank up in the same numerical category as the national debt?”

  Giggles twittered and feet shuffled. “As Mrs. Watson and I have told each of you during the past few days, it is our goal that Lincoln put together the best combination of talent and skill for the countywide Brain Bowl competitions. It’s not just brains we’re looking for, but self-confidence, openness, an ability to think quickly on your feet … ”

  Mr. Marshall’s voice trailed off as Mrs. Watson, a small-boned woman who moved with economical, determined purpose, entered the room. She had black hair, and features that were sharp and angular. Her brown eyes were studious, seeming to miss nothing. As she surveyed the room, kids sat up straighter and became subdued. She said, “I’m glad to see so many of you here. Today’s test is a quest for knowledge. We’ve compiled the questions from actual Brain Bowl questionnaires. Tomorrow’s test will gauge emotional and psychological factors.”

  A student quipped, “You mean, it’ll tell you if any of us are crazy geniuses?”

  “We already know that,” Mr. Marshall joked. “The tests will tell us who’s able to sit under the interrogator’s eye without flinching.” He rolled his hands together like a mad-scientist and caused another ripple of giggles through the audience.

  Melissa listened intently, determined to score high in every area. Mrs. Watson continued. “From these tests, we’ll whittle the group down to twenty-five people whom we’ll interview and pare down to ten finalists. The group of finalists will be decided quickly—I’d say within two weeks. That panel of ten will drill together, study together, and work side by side until April, when we’ll choose six final panelists to begin the preliminary rounds of Brain Bowl. After that initial round-robin—since I know Lincoln will still be in it”—a smattering of applause broke out—“we will advance to All-County—which will be televised, I might add—and from there to State finals.”

  A hush fell over the room as the meaning of Brain Bowl suddenly became real to each student. Then Mr. Marshall asked, “Any questions?” There were none, so he passed through the rows and lay the tests facedown on each desk. Mr. Marshall returned to the front of the room and announced, “Let the games begin.”

  Melissa took a deep breath, mumbled a quick prayer, and began.

  “Did you ace it?” Jory asked through a mouthful of pizza as she sat on her living room floor the following Friday night.

  Melissa shrugged but offered a satisfied grin. “I didn’t flunk. Actually, I knew more than I thought I would. And the psychological part was a breeze. I gather from the questionnaire that I’m socially well adjusted.”

  Jory gave Melissa a teasing look. “But how can that be when you had every opportunity to linger and talk with Brad Kessing after the tests and instead chose to zip away the minute they were over?”

  Melissa gasped. “Who told you that?”

  “Brad, of course. He asked me if you were attached or if you just didn’t like him.”

  Flustered and embarrassed, Melissa was at a momentary loss for words. The truth was, she’d been too much of a coward to talk to Brad. He made her feel off balance and out of sorts. She was attracted to him but resisted it. “What’s not to like?” Melissa asked nonchalantly. “I knew I was coming over here to spend the night and had a million things to do before I could come.”

  Jory rolled her eyes in feigned tolerance. “Well, I defended you staunchly, so you still have a shot at him. I told him you were probably preoccupied, since you had your heart set on making that brainy team. He understood.”

  Melissa wished Jory wouldn’t be so helpful. What did she have to say to make her friend understand that she was committed to matters of the mind and not the heart? She scanned the living room with its Louis XIV heirloom furniture, plush lemon-yellow carpet, porcelain knickknacks, and cut-crystal vases of silk flowers. It crossed her mind that maybe Jory recognized something that Melissa could not see—that she probably could focus on school and have a social life, too. And that maybe it was unreasonable for her to deny her feelings about Brad.

  Her gaze returned to where Jory had set the pizza box on a gleaming fruitwood coffee table. A grease stain streaked the dull shine of the wood. “You’re ruining your mother’s table,” she noted irritably.

  Jory shrugged. “The maid will clean it tomorrow. Are we going to watch movies or blabber?”

  “Which TV? The one in your room, the den, or the family room?” Melissa asked, knowing that the irony of the question would be lost on Jory. Didn’t every house have three TVs?

  Jory jumped up. “Family room. Come see how I’ve fixed us up.”

  Melissa tagged after her to a cavernous room with beamed ceilings. The carpet had been covered with down comforters and mounds of pillows. Bowls of fruit nestled amid the folds of satin softness. “What’s this?” Melissa asked with genuine delight.

  “A Turkish harem room, dummy. Like it?”

  “It’s dynamite.”

  “Thanks.” Jory’s pixie grin highlighted her dimples and made her green eyes shine. Why wasn’t Michael nuts for her? Melissa wondered. “I’ve even rounded up some sexy negligees.” Jory held up two wisps of flowing nylon. “Siren Red or Ice Princess Blue?” She asked.

  “I feel red,” Melissa giggled, taking the scarlet fabric from her friend. In minutes, both girls had shed their clothing and wrapped themselves in the sheer lingerie. Melissa whirled, her hair
rippling loose and free down her back. “This is positively sinful.”

  “Yeah. But isn’t it fun?” Jory spun around too. “You know, you need to eat more pizza. You’re losing weight.”

  “You know what they say: ‘You can’t be too rich or too thin,’ ” Melissa joked.

  “I’m not kidding,” Jory answered seriously. “You really have lost weight.”

  Melissa smoothed the filmy material over her flat stomach. “Do you think so?”

  “I know so.”

  “Well, it’s probably just the cut of the gown.”

  “No, I don’t think so …”

  Melissa grew flustered and a little self-conscious over Jory’s comments. “Don’t make such a big deal about it, Jory. Are we going to blabber or watch movies?”

  Jory shrugged and began sorting through the pile of videocassettes they’d chosen earlier that afternoon from the video store. “What’ll it be?”

  Melissa flopped provocatively onto the sea of cushions and nibbled daintily on a cluster of grapes. “How about Casablanca? I feel romantic.”

  Jory shook her head and shuffled through the stack. “You’re weird, girl. You want romance, but not with a real live willing and able guy!”

  “Dreams take less energy than the real thing,” Melissa said, as a sudden tiredness rushed through her. She stifled a yawn.

  “You’re not going to fall asleep on me like the last time you stayed over, are you?” Jory demanded with a cry.

  “Absolutely not,” Melissa said, even as her eyelids struggled to stay open. “Well, I may doze off, but nudge me for the scene in the fog, when Bogart and Bergman say goodbye.”

  Jory gave an exasperated sigh and stretched out next to Melissa on the fluffy floor coverings. “Some concubine you’d make,” she grumbled. “Asleep before the sheik arrived.”

  Melissa managed a smile and drifted into a hazy world of lethargy. “When the prince comes, have him give me a kiss.”

  “What if he’s a frog and gives you warts?”

  “Then I’ll defend him. He has a right to an attorney.” The last thing she remembered was Jory’s squeal of exaggerated distress as sleep overcame her.

  The next morning, Melissa buried her face in the downy coverings, too tired to move, feeling as if she’d been drugged.

  “Rise and shine,” Jory directed from the far side of the room, balancing an ornate silver tray laden with doughnuts and Cokes. “Time for breakfast.”

  Melissa groaned. “What time is it?”

  “Nine on the nose, and we have a full day ahead of us.”

  Melissa struggled up, raking her tousled hair from her eyes. She felt tired and achy. She hoped she wasn’t coming down with the flu—not with so many great things going on in her life. She reached for a glazed doughnut. It tasted warm and sweet. “Delicious.”

  “I drove over to the bakery myself because I couldn’t blast you awake. You missed some good movies,” Jory added with a hint of accusation.

  Sheepishly, Melissa shrugged. “Sorry. My eyes just refused to stay open. This past week must have been more strenuous than I thought.”

  “Yes. Deep thinking can be hazardous to your health.”

  Melissa pelted Jory with a fluffy pillow. “Well, I’m awake now. What’s the game plan?”

  “The country club, of course.”

  Melissa glanced toward the bank of high windows in the room. Sunlight slanted inward, in taut ribbons. “We can swim in your pool,” she suggested, still feeling sluggish.

  “Forget it! Get your suit on. We’re leaving in thirty minutes. There’s a certain lifeguard who’s come to my attention … ” She let the sentence trail suggestively.

  “I told you to stick to guys at Lincoln.”

  “And I told you they’re all children. I prefer older, more experienced men. Come on, let’s move it.”

  In the bathroom, Melissa tugged on her bathing suit, then stepped into crisp white shorts and a gauzy blue cover-up. She twisted her thick black hair into a braid and secured it with a gold clip at the end. Finally, she smoothed on some waterproof leg makeup she’d bought. It had cost a fortune, but it did an excellent job of concealing those ugly bruises. The makeup had become a regular part of her dressing routine, though she’d forgotten to use it after gym class Friday, and she’d caught her teacher staring at her legs again. It was so embarrassing, she vowed to be more careful. She daubed on lipstick and blusher and met Jory at the car.

  Melissa lolled against the upholstery of Jory’s convertible, watching the intense blue sky slip past overhead. Hot Florida sun beat down despite the early morning hour as the car wound its way through the wrought iron gates of the country club and along a winding driveway lined with oleander.

  Jory stopped in the circular driveway before a massive stone-and-cypress building, where a valet opened their car doors. Melissa grabbed her duffel bag and followed Jory up the steps into the cool interior. Tropical flowers and pools of water graced a giant lobby domed by soaring ceilings and skylights. Tinted glass walls allowed sunlight to filter through to palm trees growing in cultivated garden boxes and hibiscus blooming in thick profusion. Jory elbowed Melissa. “Let’s hit the pool first. We’ll do the sauna and game rooms later.”

  Melissa needed no further urging. She longed to stretch out on a chaise lounge and drift lazily in a netherworld of near sleep while the sun browned her body.

  The pool area wasn’t crowded. Red striped umbrellas dipped over redwood tables on the deck. Melissa blinked against the reflection of bright sun on the calm water. “That’s him,” Jory whispered, pointing to a bronzed lifeguard perched in a special chair on the far side of the pool. “You’ll excuse me while I go check out his availability?”

  Melissa nodded, depositing her towel on a lounge and lying down on her stomach. “Don’t let me cramp your style.”

  Jory paused and remarked wistfully, “I wish it were Michael.”

  “Maybe someday …” Melissa said consolingly and closed her eyes. The sun soaked through her. She barely heard the sounds of the splashing and laughing surrounding her. She might have gone to sleep, but a voice said, “Hello, Melissa.”

  She sat up, startled, and found herself face to face with Brad Kessing.

  Chapter Five

  “Hi,” she said, as a surge of adrenaline chased away her sun-induced stupor.

  “It’s good to see you. Jory mentioned that you two might come out here today.”

  Jory. No wonder she’d insisted on coming to the country club. “You’re not swimming?” she asked. Brad wore yellow jams and a tank top that showed off his tanned and powerful upper body. Mirrored sunglasses dangled from a cord around his neck.

  “Just finished,” he said. “I was thinking about playing racquetball, but I need a partner.”

  His look was an invitation. “I’d like to, but I’m a little low on energy,” she told him, knowing she had neither the stamina nor the presence of mind to get through a game with him.

  His blue eyes traveled the length of her, and she felt a tingling sensation that she associated with romance novels. “Want to go through the gardens in the back? There are ponds with goldfish a foot long.”

  She’d walked the gardens often with Jory, but to go there now with Brad.… She glanced at Jory, who was engrossed in conversation with two guys at the lifeguard station. She’d never miss her. “Sure. You lead the way.”

  As she slipped on her cover-up and sandals, Brad flipped her heavy braid, the tips of his fingers brushing lightly over her shoulder. She followed him down a flagstone path, and in minutes the pool area had disappeared. Silence settled around them in thickets of green as they stepped into a tropical forest. Ficus trees, crotons, and exotic shrubs were intertwined with purple and fuchsia bougainvillea flowers. Brad broke the intimate silence by asking, “How do you think you did on the Brain Bowl testing?”

  “I think I did all right. And you?”

  His grin was lopsided, “I’m a Kessing. Kessings always do all rig
ht. It’s in the family rule book.”

  His comment was puzzling, but she didn’t question it. “And I thought you were only interested in soccer.”

  They stopped on a wooden bridge arched over a winding stream where the water was green and still. “Jocks aren’t supposed to be smart. Is that what you mean?” His question made her feel foolish.

  “I didn’t mean it the way it came out. I guess I was just surprised when I walked into the room and saw you in the front row.” Her palms grew sweaty. Nothing she was saying was coming out right.

  “We jocks have reputations to maintain. I try not to let on that I can think as well as I can kick a ball.” There was a hint of amusement in his words. “But I do intend to make the Brain Bowl team.”

  She met his intense blue-eyed gaze steadily. “So do I.”

  “Deep down I have a secret desire. I want to be a Rhodes Scholar. Do you know what that is?”

  He toyed with her braid, and her thoughts scattered. “It has something to do with athletics and academic achievements, doesn’t it?” she said.

  “Actually, it’s a scholarship to Oxford University in England. My grandfather was a Rhodes Scholar, and I guess I’ve always wanted to follow in his footsteps.”

  Brad intrigued her. She’d never really known a guy who was interested in anything so profound and serious. Most boys she’d dated were only concerned with the latest football scores—or their own scores when it came to girls. But Brad was someone who really thought about his future. “I hope you get it,” Melissa said with sincerity.

  His smile was intimate as he said, “I always get what I go after.” Melissa’s heart hammered and her mouth went dry.

  Brad rested his elbows on the rough wood of the bridge and leaned over, pointing toward the water. “Look, there’s a fish.” She caught a flash of gold as a fat, lazy fish ventured from beneath an overhanging rock. “Actually, they’re carp, not goldfish.”

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