I drove my car into the parking lot two minutes after the first bell rang. Mom had gotten sick that morning, and I didn’t trust the nurse, a round, matronly woman named Sofia, to take care of her properly. Not that there was anything particularly menacing about her, but I’d spent most of the past four years caring for my mother, and as far as I was concerned, no one else could do it right. I’d nearly skipped to stay home with her, but my mother had insisted I go. As difficult as the day had been so far, I was certain it was about to get worse.
At least I wasn’t alone in the walk of shame through the parking lot. Halfway to the building, I noticed a boy following me. He couldn’t have been old enough to drive, and his white-blond hair stuck out almost as much as his overgrown ears did. Judging from his cheery expression, he couldn’t have cared less that he was late.
He dashed forward to reach the front door before I did, and much to my surprise, he held it open for me. I couldn’t think of a single guy at my old school who would’ve done that.
“After you, mademoiselle.”
Mademoiselle? I stared at the ground to avoid giving him an odd look. No use in being rude the first day.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, stepping inside and walking faster. He was taller than me though, and he caught up in no time. Much to my horror, instead of passing me, he slowed so we were walking together.
“Do I know you?”
Oh, God. Did he expect me to answer? Luckily, he didn’t seem to, as he didn’t give me a chance to respond.
“I don’t know you.”
Brilliant observation, Einstein.
“I should know you.”
Right outside the office, he swung around, placing himself between me and the entrance. Sticking out a hand, he looked at me expectantly.
“I’m James,” he said, and I finally got a good look at his face. Still boyish, but maybe he was older than I thought. His features were hardened, more mature than I’d expected. “James MacDuffy. Laugh, and I’ll be forced to hate you.”
Seeing no other choice, I forced a small smile and took his hand. “Kate Winters.”
He stared at me for longer than was strictly necessary, a goofy grin on his face. As the seconds ticked by, I stood there, shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other, and finally I cleared my throat.
“Er—could you maybe…?”
“What? Oh.” James dropped my hand and opened the door, once again holding it open for me. “After you, Kate Winters.”
I stepped inside, drawing my messenger bag closer. Inside the office was a woman dressed head to toe in blue, with sleek auburn hair I’d have given my right foot to have.
“—Kate Winters,” interrupted James, falling into place next to me. “I don’t know her.”
The receptionist managed to simultaneously sigh and laugh. “What is it this time, James?”
“Flat tire.” He grinned. “Changed it myself.”
She scribbled on a pink pad of paper, then tore off the sheet and handed it to him. “You walk.”
“Do I?” His grin widened. “Y’know, Irene, if you keep doubting me like this, I’m going to start thinking you don’t like me anymore. Same time tomorrow?”
She chuckled, and finally James disappeared. I refused to watch him go, instead staring down at an announcement taped to the counter. Apparently Picture Day was in three weeks.
“Katherine Winters,” said the woman—Irene—once the office door closed. “We’ve been expecting you.”
She busied herself looking through a file, and I stood there awkwardly, wishing there was something to say. I wasn’t much of a talker, but I could at least carry on a conversation. Sometimes. “You have a pretty name.”
She raised her perfectly plucked eyebrows. “Do I? I’m glad you think so. I rather like it myself. Ah, here we go.” She pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to me. “Your schedule, as well as a map of the school. Shouldn’t be too hard to find—the hallways are color-coded, and if you get lost, just ask. We’re all nice enough around here.”
I nodded, taking note of my first class. Calculus. Joy. “Thanks.”
I turned to leave, but as my hand touched the doorknob, she cleared her throat.
“Miss Winters? I just—I wanted to say I’m sorry. About your mother, I mean. I knew her a very long time ago, and—well. I’m very sorry.”
I closed my eyes. Everyone knew. I didn’t know how, but they knew. My mother said her family had lived in Eden for generations, and I’d been stupid to think that I could get away with coming here unnoticed.
Blinking back tears, I turned the knob and hurried out of the office, keeping my head down in hopes that James wouldn’t try to talk to me again.
Just as I turned the corner, I ran directly into what felt like a wall. I stumbled to the ground, the contents of my bag spilling out everywhere. My cheeks burned, and I tried to collect my things as I mumbled an apology.
“Are you okay?”
I looked up. The human wall stared down at me, and I found myself face-to-face with a varsity football jacket. Apparently James and I weren’t the only ones running late that morning.
“I’m Dylan.” He knelt next to me, offering me a hand. I only took it long enough to sit up.
“Kate,” I said. He handed me my notebooks, and I snatched them from him, shoving them back into my bag. Two textbooks and five folders later, I stood and brushed off my jeans. That was when I noticed that he was cute. Not just in Eden, but cute by New York standards, too. Even so, there was something about the way he looked at me that made me want to pull away.