Summer before Sophomore Year
“Taylor Anderson is the hottest guy ever!” Madison said as she leaned in closer to me to catch a better view of him moving across the concrete basketball court in our local park.
To my right, Alyssa, who looked just like a younger Lucy Liu, practically burst an internal organ when she exclaimed, “I know. I’ve secretly dreamed of marrying him since I was ten.” A pathetic sigh followed.
Disgusted with myself for somewhat agreeing with their drooling, I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, you and every other girl in this park. Look around you—is there a girl here not into Taylor?”
Alyssa flipped her long black hair and turned to stare at me with wide eyes. “Don’t you like him? I thought everybody liked him.”
Madison, still intent on Taylor, started to cheer as he made a basket. Her sporty, light brown ponytail bobbed up and down. Every other girl on the bleachers cheered and applauded, drowning out any answer I could’ve given Alyssa. Taylor pranced around with that silly grin on his face, waving to his adoring fan club, which only made them scream louder.
I rolled my eyes again. Please, could this get any worse? The guy’s got an ego the size of Madagascar. Let’s just inflate it more, shall we?
As if by some built in radar, fifteen-year-old Taylor’s eyes honed in on me and my lack of enthusiasm. His lopsided grin worked all of its charm on the crowd as he approached our section of the bleachers. “Hey, Chloe,” he hollered. “What’s the deal? You weren’t impressed?”
“Uh . . .” was all I could gasp as every female within a three-mile radius turned in my direction. I’m sure Taylor couldn’t even hear me with all the noise.
“Come on! I bet I could get you to cheer for me. To prove it, this next basket’s for you.”
All the girls let out a collective sigh as he pointed his finger right at me. I could have cheerfully crawled under a rock and lived there for five years, mostly because of my body’s reaction. He knows my name. He called me Chloe. He knows my name! my heart chanted as its speed tripled. Mesmerized by Taylor’s retreating back, I watched slow-motion-movie-like as he rejoined the other players and laughed off their teasing remarks, which were muffled by the pounding in my ears.
“Chloe? Hello? Earth to Chloe.” Madison’s voice reached my subconscious.
“What? I’m here.”
Alyssa giggled and nudged me with her elbow. “You were saying?”
I stared at her blankly. “Uh, saying?”
“You know, about not liking Taylor?”
A smirking Madison came to my rescue. “Come on, Alyssa. She’s just a little shell-shocked, that’s all. Honestly, who wouldn’t be? Nobody can resist falling for him. It’s a proven fact.”
Smiling at my dazed expression, Madison nudged me again. “I would have to say the new girl’s got it bad.” Both of my neighbors and so-called friends burst into laughter.
Taylor must’ve heard them, because he paused and looked in our direction. Just as I was starting to breathe normally, he pointed right at me again and winked. In an instant, my face was as red as my very-berry lip gloss. Taylor noticed, and everyone noticed Taylor noticing me. He winked again and flashed those 100-watt pearly whites right at me. I was a goner. In the amount of time it takes a butterfly wing to beat, I was simpering and smiling back. Madison was right. No girl could resist the charm of Taylor Anderson, not even me.
With the knowledge of my defeat, Taylor turned just in time to catch the ball and swoosh it into the net. The fact that he had been standing on the three-point line made it a much louder “Taylor cheer” as the crowd of teenage girls rose to their feet. He beamed as he turned to me and mouthed, “That was for you.”
“Get up!” Alyssa yelled, tugging on my arm.
“Come on!” Madison shouted as she literally pulled me to my feet. The other players were trying to congratulate Taylor, but he was still standing in the middle of the court, hands on his hips, daring me to cheer.
I gave up and let out a wild cheer to rival all the other girls on the bleachers, clapping my hands and jumping up and down. I couldn’t help myself.
“Welcome to the Taylor Club, Chloe,” Taylor said, moving to stand beneath me.
My heart flip-flopped as I stared down into his gorgeous blue eyes.
“I promise you won’t regret it.” With that he grinned, turned, and jogged to the other side of the court, where he sat next to one of the prettiest girls I had ever seen, then nonchalantly leaned over and kissed her. My heart and hands froze.
“Who is that?” I murmured.
Alyssa answered first. “That’s Taylor’s girlfriend.”
“He has a girlfriend?” He has a girlfriend!
“Yeah. You didn’t know?”
No, I didn’t know! “I guess I never thought about it,” I answered in a squeaky voice, but at least I didn’t start to shake or anything.
Could I seriously have made a bigger fool of myself? How in the world did I, for two seconds, fall for his charm? Of course he has a girlfriend. She’s probably the most popular girl in the whole school. The guy’s obviously a player. I, of all people, should be able to withstand egotistical morons like Taylor Anderson.
My mind jolted back two months to Denver, Colorado, the assembly on the last day of school before summer break. I will never forget how Levi McFayden looked through the sea of people that separated us to find and connect with my eyes, or how he spoke so loudly that the whole school could hear him. He had pretended to still be talking to my friend Abbie, but everyone could see that the most popular boy at our school was looking straight at me.
“What? Why would I like Chloe Hart? What made you think I could ever like her? Just because I talk to someone doesn’t mean I like them. Besides, she’s a reject, plain and simple. I could never like a reject. So go run back to your friend and tell her my answer is no.”
Levi had picked the last day of school to publicly humiliate me, and I was suddenly relieved my family was moving far away from Denver. I wanted to make a new start somewhere else—anywhere else. Yet here I found myself in a new place, getting ready to start at a new school, knowing the same awful thing could be repeated all over again.
Well, not this time. I’d learned my lesson. Popular guys like Taylor Anderson will never see girls for who they are, but I could see exactly what he was. Taylor Anderson can officially remember this moment as the last time I will ever give him the time of day, I thought. What a self-centered, manipulative jerk.
“Chloe, are you okay?” Alyssa asked.
“Y–yeah, I’m fine. I, uh, just remembered my mom needed me home by 3:00, so I’m gonna go, okay?”
Madison turned from the game. “You’re heading home?”
“I need to.” I smiled reassuringly. “Let me know how the game goes, all right?”
Both of my friends shared a girly look until Madison piped up. “Do you really need to ask? Isn’t it obvious Taylor’s team will win?”
“Is it?” I said.
“Hello? General rule of thumb, if you’re going to be living in Farmington—Taylor’s team always wins. He’s the best at everything!”
“And don’t forget, the cutest.” Alyssa giggled.
My smile tightened. “Bye. I’ll call you two later.” I heard their combined chorus of “Okay, bye” as I walked down the steps of the bleachers. At the edge of the court, I came across two girls whispering.
“He’s so hot! I mean honestly, can you believe there is anyone as hot as Taylor on this planet? Dark hair, blue eyes . . . like, everyone is in love with him.”
Disgusted, I pushed my red curls off my face and then stomped away. Not this girl! There is one thing I can safely promise myself. I will never fall in love with Taylor Anderson.
Three years later: first day of school, senior year
As I spun around in the crowded hallway by my locker, Madison caught me up in a bear hug. She had gone to stay with her cousins in Florida for two months of summer break, and she had come back tan and beautiful. I laughed as I removed a piece of her streaked blond hair that was caught on my backpack.
“Wow! Maddi, you look gorgeous. You obviously had a great time in Florida.”
Madison sighed. “It was wonderful!”
“So, tell me, did you find some amazingly hot lifeguard to sweep you off your feet?”
She rolled her eyes. “I wish.” Then she glanced at me suspiciously. “So how about you? Did you find anyone this summer?”
I laughed. “Yeah, right. I just hung out and did my theater gig. Besides, every guy I’m remotely interested in ends up too self-centered and a total jerk anyway, so—”
“You know, Chloe, one of these days some guy is going to prove you wrong. And when he does you’re going to fall for him hard. Personally, I can’t wait.”
“Whatever.” I laughed and shook my head. Madison was crazy, of course, but something about the way she looked at me with one eyebrow raised made me uneasy. I decided it was a good time to change the subject. “Well, we may not have been so lucky, but wait till you hear about this Zack guy Alyssa’s been talking about.”
“Alyssa found a guy?”
“She hasn’t told me much, but from what I can tell she’s head over heels. I’m going to art class with her next, so I’ll get the scoop for you.”
“You have art next? Me too.”
“Seriously?” I said, and she handed over her schedule to confirm. “No way!” We jumped up and down like a couple of eighth graders. The three of us had tried since we were freshmen to get a class together, but it never worked out.
“Chloe, wait up!”
At the sound of Alyssa’s voice, Maddi and I both turned to see her running through the crowded hall. Her cello case bounced up and down on her back as she headed straight for us. She halted midway. “Madison? Madison! It’s you. Eeeh! You look so good. I love your hair.”
Excitedly, we joined her and took a few seconds to stare at each other before we all said at the same time, “Group hug?” We stood there hugging each other, taking up most of the hallway. Later, we would have time to catch up with all of our other friends, but right now it was just us. This year was going to be good—I just knew it.
I glanced at my watch. “Hey, we’ve got to hurry if we’re going to beat the bell. I hope there’s a table left for all of us.”
We rushed into the art room just as the bell rang, giggling while the whole class witnessed our excellent example of how not to enter a classroom. With a glance at Ms. Bailey, our art teacher, I could see we were forgiven—barely. Hiding a grin, she raised an eyebrow and pointed to an empty table with four plastic blue chairs in the back of the room.
A whole table just for us. Yes. “Thank you, Ms. Bailey,” I said as we almost skipped to the table.
“Yes. Well, girls, hurry and get situated while I call roll.” Ms. Bailey scooped up a clipboard with a pen dangling from it and began to call out the names on her list. “Daniel Addison?”
At our table, we chattered and chuckled over our amazing good fortune. The energy in the room positively sizzled with excitement and anticipation. Then Ms. Bailey called out, “Taylor Anderson?”
It was like the summer when I was fourteen, all over again. My heart stopped, and I could feel myself begin to shrink to the size of a pea.
Taylor is here? He’s in this class? With us? No! This was supposed to be our perfect year.
As I scanned the room, I saw excitement on almost every face. Clearly, our classmates were thrilled at the thought of the most popular guy in school gracing us with his presence every day. But there was no Taylor.
He isn’t here. Taylor isn’t here. Ha ha, I thought.
“Taylor? Taylor Anderson, are you present?” asked a worried Ms. Bailey.
He had probably changed his schedule at the last minute, I decided. I was prepared to shout with glee when a pretty blond sophomore raised her hand at the table next to us.
“Ms. Bailey, I was told Taylor was in California saying goodbye to his girlfriend, who’s going to college. He’s supposed to be here Thursday.”
“Thank you, Miss—”
The blond girl blushed. “Oh, I’m Emma . . . Emmalee Bradford. My name is probably next on your list. My stepbrother Zack Bradford, who is a senior this year, is, like, Taylor’s best friend.”
Alyssa gasped. “That’s Zack’s sister?”
I thought she was going to have a heart attack. “His stepsister. So? What of it? Oh! He’s the Zack you’re going out with?”
“I’m not going out with him. I just kind of like him. Well, a lot.” Alyssa grinned shyly.
“We are definitely hitting Colleen’s Diner after school,” Madison announced. Then she zeroed in on Alyssa. “Zack Bradford? Sheez. I want to know everything.”
“Chloe Hart is—present.”
I looked up as Ms. Bailey marked my name on her clipboard. Good ol’ Ms. Bailey. She had been my art teacher all throughout high school. I loved this class. Freedom to draw and design and create was something that moved me toward art more than anything. Yeah, so we had to do the assignments she gave us—portraits, still life, watercolor, or whatever—yet she always let us express ourselves however we wanted. If I wanted to paint my lion purple with a green mustache and an orange Gucci bag, I could. Not that I ever had. It was the fact that it was up to me how I painted the subject that made Ms. Bailey so cool. She was a teacher first, but a friend always.
Why oh why is Taylor Anderson in here, of all places? He’s going to mess up everything.
I knew he liked art. Everybody knew Taylor liked art. But with eight art periods to choose from, I never thought we would be in the same class together.
I have seriously got to get a grip. There is absolutely no reason for Taylor to have this sort of effect on me. So he is the most annoying, arrogant, pig-headed idiot—that doesn’t mean he’s going to concern me in any way. Ms. B. may not be able to get the rest of the class to work since they’ll all be staring at him, but I am way above that. I am smarter than every other girl in this room. I see him for who he is. He doesn’t fool me with his carefree mask and witty charm, and he never will. There. That sounded good. But why did he have to be so, so good-looking?
“Okay, fess up. I want to hear all about Zack and how you and he—you know, met,” Madison said as we waited for our milkshakes at Colleen’s Diner.
Alyssa fidgeted and made that funny, squeaky noise that happens when you squirm on vinyl-covered booths. “He, well, he . . . he likes the cello.”
“Okay, and? How did you meet him? What were you doing? How did he know you played the cello? Did he see you perform or something? Come on, Alyssa, I’m dying for some exciting news already, so tell me!” Madison begged.
“All right, but you have to promise not to laugh, okay?” She turned to me. “Okay?”
We both nodded.
As if I would. Well, maybe a little.
“You know how my family and I go to the rest home in Bloomfield every Sunday evening so I can play for my grandpa, right? Actually, I’m pretty popular, and now I perform in their main lounge area so anyone who wants to can come in and listen. Some nights I even get requests. It’s like a standing gig every Sunday night at 6:30.” She winked at us.
“Really? I had no idea,” I said. “You should invite us sometime.”
“Yeah, we could be in the front row and hold up signs that say, ‘Alyssa rocks, so get your rocker and rock along with her!’” Madison added.
We all burst into giggles, but Madison quickly got back on track. “Okay, so about Zack?”
“Well, what you may not know, and what I definitely didn’t know,” said Alyssa, “was that Zack goes to the same rest home every Sunday afternoon to visit his grandma. Anyway, his grandma had told him about my playing. Which was cool, because his mom used to . . . Oh my gosh! Did you know his mom died of breast cancer?”
“What?” I almost dropped my drink.
Alyssa continued, “I mean I knew he had a stepmom and all, but I just always assumed his parents were divorced.”
I was shocked. “So did I.”
“So did I,” Madison exclaimed. “Well, at least he’s popular, you know?”
“Kind of a pathetic consolation prize for losing your mother,” I said.
Madison nodded quietly for a moment before snapping back into interrogation mode. “Enough doom and gloom. Tell us what happened. You were about to say something else about his mom?”
“Oh, did you know his mom used to play the cello? Can you believe it? The cello. It’s like fate or something.”
“Now, that is cool,” I said.
“That’s not even the best part!” Alyssa leaned forward. “Zack’s mom must’ve been an incredible player, because right before she died, when he was like seven or eight, she performed in a breast cancer fundraising event where her cello solo raised over $33,000! That’s thirty-three thousand dollars! Can you believe it? The most I have ever raised for charity was $23.59. No wait. It was $23.58. My punk little brother took his penny back after hearing me play.”
Too funny. I love little Tanner. He’s such a hoot. I tried not to smile.
Madison smothered a grin too. “Stop stalling already, Alyssa. Get to the good stuff.”
“So there I was playing. This time, I guess Zack decided to stay and listen. I didn’t even know he was there. You know how I get into my own zone when I’m performing? Anyway, later, he said that seeing me up there reminded him of his mom. And I won’t go into how much of a compliment that was to me, because then Madison will get all testy again. So, before I knew it” —Alyssa went on, drowning out Maddi’s protests— “my little recital was over and I was bowing, because they always make me bow when they clap. I tell you, old people can be pretty demanding.” She looked to Madison. “Okay. I’m moving on.
“And as I bowed and bowed—they were especially moved that day, standing up and everything—I was starting to get embarrassed by all the attention. So, to stop my adoring fans, I did an extra dramatic swooshing curtsy thing. That should never be done in public and never will be done in public again, because as I was standing, my arm went way out and totally hit a stunned Zack right in the face! He was coming up to compliment me. The smack surprised him so much he lost his balance and fell backwards. He knocked over a whole cluster of fake trees, spilling rocks, foam, and fake moss everywhere. It was so humiliating.”
“What? Oh my gosh. You knocked over Zack Bradford? That’s how you met?” I couldn’t help but laugh.
Madison laughed too. “This is hilarious! What did you do? What did he do?”
“Hey, you promised not to laugh.” Alyssa leaned back. “Well, I was mortified, as you can imagine, and I think he was too. His face was all red, and he couldn’t even look at me for a while. But it was okay, because we were both so busy. We helped the workers clean up the mess. It was after we collected the moss stuff, vacuumed the floor, and redecorated, that we were finally able to really talk to each other.”
“So what did you say?” I asked.
Alyssa blushed. “Well, I told him he still had some moss in his hair. After laughing about it and getting what he could without a mirror, he let me remove the rest. It was as I was pulling the bits of pieces off the back of his head that he told me about his mom and why he wanted to come up and talk to me.”
“Wow, Alyssa,” I whispered. Madison was as still as I was.
“Yeah, it was a really nice moment for both of us,” Alyssa went on. “Then I told him how my grandma and grandpa migrated here from China with just their instruments and a few dollars, and how it was because of them and their love of music that I play now. After that, Zack and I just sat on the couches and talked. It was really cool getting to see him as a normal guy.”
I smiled. “Alyssa, he’s one of the most popular guys in our school. I can’t believe that was the Zack you’ve been talking about all the time.”
“I was afraid you’d be mad at me if you knew he was Taylor’s friend,” she said.
“What, why? No, I’m happy for you, really!”
Madison smirked. “Well, we’ve all heard your thoughts on Taylor. It’s no wonder she hesitated to bring up Zack.” She turned to Alyssa. “He sounds like a great guy, and I think you should go for him.”
“Go for him? I thought you were already going out with him,” I said. “At least that’s what it seemed like.”
“No, not really. We just hang out at the rest home on Sundays. Usually, we’ll play a mad game of Dominoes or Pinochle with our grandparents.”
“Pinochle? It’s gotta be love if you’re playing Pinochle together,” Madison teased.
“We’re just friends,” Alyssa said defensively. “Honest. Apart from quickly saying hi to me in the halls a couple of times, Zack never even spoke to me today, and we have two classes together.”
What is it with popular guys shutting out people in front of their friends? I thought. It’s what makes me so mad about the “in” crowd. Everyone is so superficial. I hate to even think it, but Zack has an awesome chance at having a real, compassionate girlfriend for probably the first time in his life, and yet he’s too scared to do anything about it. Guys like that are so fake. Of course, then there’s Taylor Anderson, who’s on a whole other level of shallow.
At least I had three days to prepare to keep my equilibrium from tipping and making me dizzy whenever he was around. If Zack’s example wasn’t enough of an inducement to keep my head afloat—and keep me from drowning in the same silliness as the other girls around me—then I didn’t know what was.
This seemed like an awesome little pep talk to give myself at the time. But I hadn’t counted on one thing: Taylor showing up earlier than anyone could have predicted.