Mike Ryan never wanted to be a stalker, but he sure rocked the job.
Glancing at Cindy Wilson across the classroom, he caught his breath. Maybe he should feel special. Lucky. Call Guinness. Not many guys had permission to spy on their own girlfriends. But damn, he felt like a creep following her around.
Hide their relationship at all costs. Nobody could know. Not that he cared, but she did—
even if he didn’t understand why. Aside from their best friends, Hayden and Molly, nobody else in the Elkwood High class of 1986 knew they were dating.
And it totally sucked.
Mike tapped his pen against his notebook, one smack for each tick from the clock above the door. Five minutes. Five more minutes until biology ended, and he’d follow her—again.
Looking at the teacher as he droned on about DNA in his gravely pack-a-day voice, Mike leaned back in his chair. The molded blue plastic dug into his muscles and he sighed.
Cindy turned her head at the noise, making eye contact, but ended it before he could react.
Three minutes. Tap. Tap. Tap.
Two minutes. Tap. Tap.
She brushed a stray hair from her face and Mike flexed his fingers. He forced his gaze back to the teacher.
“Don’t forget,” said their teacher, “your third quarter project outline is due tomorrow.”
The ear-splitting final bell rang, and everyone talked at once. Chairs scraped and sneakers squeaked against the tiled floor. Two guys squeezed past Mike, bumping into him on their way to the door as they raced toward freedom.
Mike gathered his books, peeking again at Cindy from the corner of his eye. She laughed at something Molly said, and he swallowed down the lump of jealousy that clogged his throat.
Melissa, a girl he’d dated a few times last year, patted his arm. “Later, Mike.”
He smiled, sparing her a glance. “Yeah, see ya.”
He turned his head back in time to catch Cindy’s glare. She shoved a book into her bag and stomped out the door. Grinning at her reaction, he followed.
It had been so long since he’d been on an official date, even his self-absorbed mother asked him why he never went out. It was bogus concern. She only noticed because she had to stay home when his dad nixed her requests for the two of them to get away— again.
Mike rolled his eyes. If his dad would take her somewhere, she’d leave him alone about his lack of a social life.
Weaving through the crowded hall, he focused his gaze on Cindy’s athletic form gliding between the big-haired girls with their padded shoulders. Cindy stood out in a crowd, and not because she was the only black girl in their small, Illinois town. Her don’t-mess-with-me attitude and talents on the track made her special.
She stopped at her locker and Mike slipped to the opposite side of the hall to take a drink from the water fountain. A pair of white Keds appeared next to his feet, smooth-skinned legs starting inside the sneaker and extending past his view.
“I’ve been looking for you, Mike.”
He muffled a groan, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and standing to face the shoe owner. To his left stood Jenny, a junior from his trig class. Across the hall, Cindy frowned.
Jenny walked her fingers up the sleeve of his jean jacket. “A few of us are going for frozen yogurt. Want to come?”
She flashed her dimples, flipping her long blonde hair. She liked to point out that it was the same shade as his whenever she badgered him for a date. As if matching hair meant they should be together—like Barbie and Ken.
The echo of metal on metal hit his ears as Cindy slammed her locker.
“Sorry, got plans.” He bit back a smile and moved his arm from Jenny’s reach to scratch a fake itch on his head.
“Are you sure?” She leaned closer and put both her hands on his chest. A cloud of perfume encircled his head and he blinked his watering eyes. “If you keep telling me no, I’ll think you don’t like me.”
He opened his mouth as Cindy bumped into Jenny’s side, knocking her away from him.
She smirked at Jenny. “Oops, sorry. Got pushed. Crossing the hall is like playing Frogger.”
“Right.” Jenny rubbed her shoulder.
Cindy stepped between them and shot a wide-eyed glance at Mike before bending to get a drink from the fountain.
Her hip touched his leg and he pressed back slightly. He shook his head at Jenny.
“Already have plans.”
Cindy stepped back from the water fountain.
Jenny yanked her foot from under Cindy’s.
“Excuse me,” Cindy said.
Jenny turned her back and smiled at him. “Maybe next time.” She slid a hand up his arm and Cindy’s eyes widened again.
“See ya later,” Jenny said with a tap of her finger on his nose.
Mike smirked as Jenny brushed past Cindy, chin raised, and eyes narrowed.
Cindy glared back then turned her gaze to him.
He gave her a small grin.
“Hmph.” She strode toward the door.
He chuckled as he followed her, but the fun ended as they walked through the parking lot.
For all the attention she gave him, the twenty feet between them could have been fifty miles. She didn’t make eye contact, didn’t look in his direction, didn’t flip him off. Nothing. Just like every other day.
Sunlight reflected off the cars in the dusty gravel parking lot, and Mike squinted against the glare. Unlocking his red Camaro, he tossed his backpack in the back seat and glanced once more in her direction. His blood heated just thinking about touching her. Shiny black hair pulled into a curly ponytail, smooth brown skin glowing in the sunshine—he’d committed its softness to memory during their secret interactions.
Sucking in a breath of cold spring air, he hopped into the driver’s seat and revved his engine. Obsession blasted from the speakers he’d left up too loud.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” he said to the radio. He sang along while he drove, following her blue Escort to the running trail outside of town.
Pulling into the lot right behind her, he parked next to her and cut the engine. With a blast of cool air, Cindy opened the door and slid into the passenger seat. Her sweet scent enveloped him, and he was home.
“Hey.” She leaned toward him.
“Come here. I’ve waited all day for this.” He held her face and kissed her, long and deep.
He touched her shoulders, sliding his hands from her arms onto her waist. He pulled her closer, and she sighed.
She played with the spiky hair on top of his head while her lips moved softly against his.
When he finally let her go, her brown eyes twinkled in the sunlight streaming through the windshield. “How was your day?” she asked.
“Lonely.” God, he sounded pathetic, but each day got harder and harder.
“Well, you had company after bio.” She pressed her lips against his again.
He pulled away shaking his head. “Just ignore her. I do.”
“I’d like to, but she’s always trying to talk to you.”
“I never should have went out with her sophomore year.” Mike squinted. “It was only one date. Girl doesn’t know how to take no for an answer.”
“That’s not all I’ve heard about her.”
“Oh?” He raised his eyebrows. “Didn’t know you listened to gossip.”
“It’s hard to ignore when everyone talks about it.”
Cindy shook her head. “I don’t spread rumors. But she’d better keep her hands to herself.” She touched his leg and heat raced across his thigh. “Next time I won’t be so nice. I’ll push her into the Frogger lane.”
“Her hands aren’t the ones I want touching me.” He wagged his eyebrows up and down and grinned. “But you can touch me anywhere.”
She giggled and caressed his cheek. “Come on. It’s a nice day. Let’s take a walk before I have to practice.”
Mike’s stomach tightened. Great. Another walk in the woods. Their relationship had become a freaking fairy tale. Snow White and Prince Charming, kissing in the trees.
He held her hand as they walked the ten feet through the gravel lot to the trailhead and stepped onto the uneven path. The leafless trees allowed the sun to reach them, making the cool breeze more bearable. A large branch from a broken maple tree hung across the trail. Jumping in front of Cindy, Mike held it back and wiped away the spider webs. She passed through with a smile and took his offered hand again.
After a few minutes of listening to the conversation of the birds, they walked toward a large flat boulder set back under the trees. His white Converse sank into the squishy leaves of last summer, sending the smell of wet earth up from the ground. They sat on the rock. Wrapping both arms around her, he pulled Cindy into his warmth.
She relaxed against him. “Are you excited about joining track?”
“Yes,” he chuckled. “I can’t believe I let you talk me into it. Senior year, most people drop out of sports, they don’t join a new one.”
Mostly he looked forward to not missing out on time with her because she had practice.
Not that he’d tell her that. He sounded pathetic enough without letting her know how obsessed he was with her.
“You’ll do fine.”
“Why do the girls start practicing before the guys?” He glanced around at the woods.
They only met here so she’d be able to make it to practice on time on the other side of the park.
“Because,” she said, straightening the lapel of his jacket. “We have a shot at going to state with our relays this year. Gotta condition.”
“I hope you don’t hold me to that standard. I’ve never even been to a meet. I might get smoked on the track and make an ass out of myself. Or get out-thrown in the field events.”
She raised her eyebrows and tucked in her chin. “You better not. No boyfriend of mine can suck at sports.”
“Keep up that attitude and I’ll lose on purpose.”
“That is the most ignorant thing you’ve ever said.” She giggled as he tickled her. “Take it back.”
“Only if you promise not to laugh at me tomorrow when I drop the ball on my foot.”
“It’s called a shot, and no way. I claim laughing rights anytime you do something that stupid.”
“You’re mean.” He rested his cheek on the top of her head. “Maybe I should go home and practice. Want to come and help me?”
“I have to practice.”
“How about afterward.” He held his breath waiting for her answer.
Her shoulders stiffened. “I can’t. You know that.”
“I know you think that. Nobody’s there. We’ll be alone.”
“I want to.” Cindy frowned and dropped her gaze to the ground. “But, I can’t.”
He blew out a frustrated breath. “No, you won’t. There’s a difference.”
His body ached to sit with her on a couch, watch TV, listen to music, anything but walk in the trees or kiss in his car. As romantic as it should sound, it wasn’t.
“I don’t like this either.” She pushed off the rock and sloshed through the muck back to the trail.
Mike pursed his lips, staring at her back, then jogged to her side. “The only thing stopping us from telling everyone we’re dating is you.” He gently grabbed her shoulder and turned her toward him.
“Do we have to argue again?”
“No,” he said with a shaky grin. “You can just agree with me and then we can act like a real couple.”
She gave a sarcastic laugh. “If I agree with you, I won’t be around to be a couple with you. My mom will kill me and barbeque my remains on the grill.”
“C’mon, Cindy. She can’t be that bad.”
“When we moved here, Mama told me no dating until after high school. Her words were Boys are nothing but trouble, and I’ll whoop you into tomorrow if I catch you with one. I don’t want to cross Mama.”
Mike smirked. “You moved here when you were twelve. Maybe it’s time to revisit that conversation.”
“No, it’s…” She glanced at her feet then over his shoulder. “It’s not the right time.”
“Why not? Is it your brother? Are you afraid Elijah will get mad?” Chuckling, he stuck his hands in his pockets. “I mean don’t you two have that weird twin bonding thing? You know, Wonder Twin powers, activate.”
“No,” she said with a snort. “I can handle Elijah. That’s not it.”
Avoiding his eyes, she walked on toward the lot. Mike kicked a stone into the brush and followed. They reached their lonely cars in the sun-filled dusty lot.
He held her hands and pulled her toward him, staring into her eyes. Acceptance, belonging, passion, understanding, floated in those melted chocolate depths. He drew a shallow breath. It should be so easy. Why did she make it so hard?
“I want a real relationship, Cindy. Where we go on real dates and do real things together where everyone can see us and know we’re together.”
“You know I want the same things.”
“Then let’s do them.” He held her hands to his chest. “If we both want things to change then why not change them?”
She stared back, biting her lip.
His heart jackhammered against his ribs.
Then Cindy shook her head, and his hopes landed in the dirt at his feet.
“We graduate in a few months. Once I’m at college and out of the house, we’ll be free.”
Months. More waiting. More hiding. More sacrifices for reasons he didn’t even understand. Maybe she didn’t really share his feelings. Maybe she didn’t like him as much as he did her.
“Right. Let’s keep hiding in the woods.” He ignored her frown and walked to the Escort, pulling the door open. “Better get to practice, before you turn into a pumpkin.”
“So, that’s it?” She raised her eyebrows. “You don’t want to be with me?”
“Of course I do. I always want to be with you. But not here.”
He glanced around at the trees, bare branches clacking in the wind, last year’s nests visible without the leaves to hide them. Sad reminders of families long gone. He returned his gaze to hers, blinking against the sting in his eyes. “I can’t do this anymore.”
“You mean you won’t. There’s a difference,” she mocked.
“I guess so.”
“Fine. Then we won’t.” Cindy sniffled. She crossed her arms and turned to glare at the trees.
Staring at her profile, Mike swallowed the boulder from his throat. He’d gone too far this time. “Are you… are you breaking up with me?”
She gasped, whipping back around to face him. “What? No.”
He lifted his gaze to hers, hands shaking at the rare tears that sparkled in her eyes. His stomach tightened and he ran a finger across her cheek.
She whispered, “Are you breaking up with me?”
Was he? Could he go back to meaningless dates with girls who didn’t matter but would at least be seen in public with him? No, he could no sooner end this than he could solve a Rubik’s cube without pulling off the stickers. But things had to change, or he’d go insane.
Cindy closed her eyes, and the tears slid down her face. “You are.”
“I don’t want to break up, but I can’t keep hiding.” Lifting his trembling hands, he wiped her tears away with his thumbs.
“Mike, what if… if people don’t like us being together? There aren’t any couples like us here.”
“So? The difference in our skin doesn’t matter.”
“To some people it will.”
“Since when do you care what people think?”
“Since I have something they can ruin.”
“You stand up to everyone who pisses you off or looks at you wrong. What makes this any different? Isn’t this important enough to fight for?”
“Of course.” She squeezed his hands. “But that’s what scares me. People are assholes.”
Mike leaned his forehead on hers. “If someone has a problem with us, they can deal with it.”
“Yes, but…” The tremors in her bottom lip sent vibrations to his stomach.
“Let’s start slow. Just tell our friends and the assholes at school. Your parents won’t have to know, but everyone else will know how I feel for you.” He forced a grin. “Then maybe Jenny will leave me alone.”
She gave a soft laugh, tears spilling onto her cheeks.
“I promise,” Mike said. “Just at school. I won’t call your house or come to see you there.
This was it. His last argument. Slumping his shoulders, he swallowed back the bile rising in his throat. A no this time would send him over the edge.
The chirping of the birds ticked away the longest ten seconds of his life. His chest constricted, sweat trickling down his back despite the coolness of the day.
“You’re right. I do want people to know.” She pressed her face into his neck. “Okay, we’ll start slow. Just at school.”
He pulled her in for a kiss. “Thank you,” he whispered.
She shook her head. “Thank me if we survive tomorrow. With the stupidity of some of our classmates, you might change your mind.”
“Nah. I can ignore them as long as you don’t make me follow you around anymore.”
A slow smile spread across her face. “I’ll break the news to Jenny.”
“Right.” Cindy rolled her eyes. She kissed him on the cheek then laid her head on his chest. “I have to go. I’m gonna be late.”
“Okay.” He squeezed her then gestured to her open door. She got in, her body rocking back and forth as she rolled down her window. Mike leaned through to give her one last kiss.
“I’ll see you tomorrow. I’ll wait for you by the door.”
“OK. See you at school.” She touched his cheek and he stood back, waving as she drove away.
Driving home, relishing the warm feeling in his chest instead of the usual cold loneliness, he worried about Elijah’s reaction to their relationship. Mike wasn’t afraid of him, but he didn’t want to have her brother mad at him. And he didn’t want Elijah to narc on them to her parents.
He’d trust Cindy to take care of her brother and he’d focus on the others. This relationship would turn their little rural school upside down. But Mike would do whatever it took to be with her. How hard could it be?
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