Chapter One

Love is a funny thing. It takes you off to unexpected places, stirs up feelings you never knew you had. The only time I've ever experienced love, or what I thought was love, was with a man who didn't treat me well. Romantic for Craig Duke was getting spending the night at a party where I would say nothing and demand sex from me later on in an empty room. If I didn't comply, I would be punished. How that relationship lasted four years, I'll never know. The version of love I experienced with Craig Duke left me broken and weak.

After my relationship with Craig, I wanted to stay away from men. To grab a hold of my head and emotions and put the pieces in my life back together. A couple months after leaving Craig, however, I met another man. A man who saw me for the woman I was. Who treated me like a princess, even when I wanted nothing to do with him. But there did come a time I finally did accept my feelings for him, and when I did, things in my life changed forever.

The day I met this man I've told you about was after my first day of my senior year at Gloria High School. There I saw friends, enemies, and even got my first party invite of the year.

My mother was not at the house when I got home that day. But then, she never was. My mother was Emerald Marks, after all. Texas's most sought after interior designer. A few years ago she started up a little business that bloomed before our very eyes. Soon she started getting calls that were out of state. She decided to start trying them out and before we knew it she was in LA doing rooms and homes for celebrities. Now her job demanded all of her time that left none for me.

I've never really enjoyed the fact that her job took away time from me. Before she started doing celebrity homes we had been as close as a mother and daughter could be. Then she was gone. A growing girl needs her mother around. But now I've grown used to it. We still talk on the phone and e-mail but that's it. She only comes home once in a very blue moon, she's so busy.

I don't live in the house alone; I haven't for about three years now. My two cousins Kyle and Sammy lived with us. Kyle and Sammy Dunn's parents lost their lives in a plane accident that killed forty or so people. My mother immediately offered to take them both in, no questions asked. At the time I didn't mind. Of course I didn't. Being an only child, I'd always wanted a brother or sister. Sometimes, very rarely, I wish I were an only child again.

Kyle is a twenty-one-year-old vacuum cleaner that still lives at the house since we're so closely located to the University of Houston, where he goes to college. He's a pig that manages to eat almost everything by the time the week is up. He makes up for it by buying the groceries. And Sammy is a sweet twelve-year-old who watches just a tad bit too much television.

When I came home, Kyle and some of his friends I really didn't like were in the kitchen, eating us out of house and home as usual. Mitch, Dizzy, and Ronnie always used Kyle and his cooking skills for free food, especially when they were stoned or high.

Mitch and Dizzy were the two druggies. Every time they were to drunk or high to go home, they came here and crashed in Kyle's room. Ronnie, however, had at least some of my approval. Though he drank a lot, he managed to stay away from the drugs Mitch and Dizzy had.

When I walked into the kitchen, Mitch and Dizzy were eating a pizza at the table, and Eric and Ronnie were standing next to the counter, talking. I grabbed a water bottle out of the fridge before Mitch or Dizzy could swallow their bites of pizza and hit on me, like they had a habit of doing every time they were over. Kyle told me Sammy had gone over to a friend's house after school.

After successfully dodging catcalls, I then went into my mother's home office to fax papers that I needed to get signed by my parent/or guardian. With that done I ventured to my room, fell back on my plush purple couch Mom bought during one of her trips in New York, and became involved in a novel I bought the day before.

Around five my best friend Kim Morgan called me up to invite me to a local coffee shop called Cinderella's. I've known Kim forever (Okay, I've known her since the sixth grade, but it feels like forever). During our sophomore year we found the coffee shop while trying to find a place to hang out at. I don't enjoy the vile taste of coffee, so I usually order a bottle of water and some Crème Savers.

When I arrived at the shop Kim and Ashley Oliphane, the most popular senior at Gloria High, were sitting side by side in a booth. There's only one way to describe Ashley Oliphane and that's Blonde with a capital B. Thanks to beach bumming during the summer her flawless skin developed into a nice bronze, and her hair turned into the color of honey. Along with being beautiful, Ashley was also kind and Miss Social of Gloria High.

I slipped silently into the side of the booth across from the two as Ash flirted with the dark haired waiter in an indigo blue apron. The plastic blue tag read Dave in white letters. Noticing my arrival, he smiled and greeted me.

"Hello." I smiled back. "How are you?"

"Fine. What would you like?" He asked, poising his pen over a small pad of white paper.

"I would like a . . ."

Before I could finish my order another waiter wearing the same dark garb approached. My jaw began to drop like a cartoon characters would have, but I caught myself in the nick of time. This new waiter certainly had my attention.

"I'll take this one, Dave. You go on." The new waiter told him, planting his hand on Dave's shoulder. When he spoke his voice seemed to rumble somewhere within me.

Dave turned around and left, heading for the rowdy table. This new waiter had my heart beating a tad bit more than usual. His mane of golden blonde hair fell to his nape, and his golden brown eyes captured my gaze. The tight black shirt showed off his muscled arms and strong forearms. A black tattoo of a Celtic cross was etched on his right forearm. If I'd been standing up, my knees would have surely buckled.

"Hi." He smiled at us. God he had a nice smile. "I'm Keith, and I'll be your waiter."

"Well," Ashley perked up, clearly interested in this guy. "I don't mind that at all, not one bit, but why replace Dave's table?"

"His shift is almost over. Thought I'd let him off a little early," he answered, giving us another award-winning smile.

Judging from my first impression of him this guy probably had to fight the girls off him with a stick. Either that or he probably already had a girl. I found myself hoping, somewhere deep within me, that he was single.

"I'd like a mocha frappucino," Kim ordered, her own gaze studying the waiter up and down.

"A bottle of water with a little dish of Crème Savers," I ordered my usual. This was one of the reasons I liked Cinderella's. They didn't just have coffee and bagels at this shop. They served Crème Savers, which I am absolutely addicted to, preferably the strawberries and cream.

"And I," Ashley added in smoothly. "Would like a vanilla latte and your number."

Oh yes, I forgot to tell you that Ashley Oliphane is one of the most straightforward girls I've ever met in my lifetime. The waiter grinned, unfazed by her order. He acted as though it happened everyday. For some reason my heart sank at the notion that maybe this did happen everyday and that he already had a girlfriend. But then, I was a cynical person by nature; of course I thought he was taken and I didn't have a chance. That's what I always thought, even if the guy was interested in me.

"Coming right up." His voice broke through my thoughts and I was thankful. Who knows what would have happened if I kept thinking like that.

Ashley's gaze fell to his butt when he turned around. She let out a low whistle as he walked back to the counter. "Since when did this place start hiring such hotties?"

"I don't know, but I'm certainly coming here more often." Kim agreed, crossing her arms in front of her as she tore her gaze from the waiter.

"Same here." Ashley laughed.

"Please, girls." I broke in, even though I too agreed with them.

"Oh, come on, Gwen. Just because you're going through an all-men-are-bastards phase because of Craig does not mean we are." Ashley said.

I didn't reply. Ashley didn't know about Craig's abuse. We didn't really start hanging out with each other until last year. Kim knew, but only because she didn't buy any of my stories. She and Kyle were the ones who finally talked me into leaving Craig, though it was I who insisted we not go to the police.

"Let's not get onto her about that." Kim was always there, sticking up for me.

Ashley shrugged. "I'm not saying it's a bad thing. Craig's an asshole. I mean, you'd think he'd take some mourning time after you guys broke up! But no, instead, he hooks up with Cara right away. Did you know they got caught messing around by the principal in the school parking lot this afternoon?"

No, I didn't know that. But, with Ashley and Cara Wibler being the best of friends, of course she would know. It did hurt that just day or so after I left Craig, he found comfort in the arms of Cara. I did my best to warn her about Craig and his abuse, but she was so happy he was interested in her she just shrugged me off.

"I never liked him," Kim replied, crossing her arms on the table.

I only shrugged and turned my gaze to study the coffee shop. It was just as well for Kim and Ashley turned the conversation about nails and where they got them done and such. My own nails were bitten pretty low because when I got nervous, that's what I did. I chewed my nails.
Cinderella's was a popular shop in Gloria. The walls were painted a sky blue and the tables and counters were all a peach color. Pictures of the Disney version hung on the walls to greet customers. As my gaze wandered my attention fell on the peach counter in the front of the shop. Our waiter was walking behind it, his hand full with a tray. He then disappeared to the back, only to reappear once again, this time with a vacant tray. Pulling out a piece of paper from his pocket, he stopped, as though thinking of what to write. Strands of hair fell in front of his handsome face. The need of pushing them back strummed through me strongly, but I resisted, as hard as it was.

Just as I was thinking about it, he pushed back the strands behind his ears. Several cups were set in front of him on the tray by a girl with light brown hair in the same blue smock He grinned at her with that grin he used on us. She didn't take her eyes off him as she said something I couldn't make out. He answered with a laugh. I tore my eyes from him and studied the peach table in front of me.

Unfortunately, I couldn't stop myself from looking up at him again, just to see him. He was scribbling something down quickly. When he finished he straightened and looked over at our table. My heart began to beat quickly as our eyes met for the split second. I turned my gaze and attention back to the table's conversation.

"How about you?" Ashley asked. "How was your first day of being a senior?"

I opened my mouth to speak, but before I could the waiter approached. I could feel the pink rising to my cheeks. Why did I let myself get caught staring at him? I wondered.

"Okay, ladies," he set the tray down and relayed the orders as he set them down in front of us. When he set the bright blue bowel filled to the top with Crème Savers, I quickly grabbed one, unwrapped it, and popped it into my mouth.

"And," he slipped his hand into his back pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper – the same scrap he'd been writing on earlier. A number was now scribbled down. "One phone number."

Ashley's hazel eyes lit up and she grinned. "Now comes the fight for who gets the pleasure of calling you."

His golden brown gaze turned to Kim. He took a moment to study her. I've always thought of Kim Morgan to be one of those classic beauties. She kept her jet-black hair in a pixie cut, had skin the color of milk, and a set of bright blue eyes that I've always admired.

After studying Kim, his gaze turned to me. I consciously ran my fingers through my hair, wondering if he approved of me. Critical thoughts never failed to run through my mind when guys like this waiter studied me. At five foot three, I'm not exactly the tallest in my class. I'm not the skinniest person in the world either, but then, I'm not the biggest. My eyes are a dull hazel color. The only thing unique about my appearance is my hair. It falls down several inches past my bottom and has not been cut in about five years or so. No one but me touches my hair. Not until I decided to chop it off at least.

"Are you telling me the three of you would fight for this little number?" he asked, his eyes sparkling as he smiled at the there of us.

"Maybe. Why? Are you interested?" Ashley flirted, crossing one leg over the other.

Wearing a short khaki skirt, Ashley never failed to catch a male's attention with her crossing-the-legs trick. Until now. Instead, the waiter turned his gaze back over to Kim and me

"I might be," he answered. "Who's getting this number?"
"If you give us that number there you'll find out." Ashley purred.

The waiter gave a disappointed sigh. "Sorry ladies," he slipped the scrap of paper back into his jean pocket. "I guess the next pretty girl who asks for this number is going to be getting it." He took the tray back up and walked away.

I tried to hold back my laughter at the look of Ashley's facial expression. When I looked up at Kim, I saw she was trying to do the same thing.

"Maybe he was taken?" I suggested, knowing I didn't want that to be the case either.

Ashley shrugged, the shocked expression wiping clear off her face. "It doesn't matter. Calvin asked me out a couple days ago anyways. I'll live."

Both Kim and I knew that Ashley wasn't used to getting rejected. Thankfully, that didn't happen often so she was able to forget the waiter in a matter of minutes. For the rest of the afternoon we gossiped about anyone and everything. Sometimes my mind would wander off and I would start thinking about the waiter. More than once I glanced over to get another peek of him. A couple times I had to quickly bring my gaze back to the table for he was watching us.

Some time later we split the bill and headed out for the parking lot for a parting conversation.

Once outside Ashley lit up a cigarette. Kim bummed one off of her. I, never taking up the disgusting habit of ruining my lungs, went into my car and pulled out my own stash of strawberries and cream Crème Savers.

"That waiter was just leading us on," Ashley said, taking a drag of her cigarette.

"Ya think?" Kim retorted.

I only shook my head and popped a candy in my mouth. After a day or two of trying to figure out why the waiter rejected her Ashley would decide he was gay and then move on. That's what she did during the rare moments a guy turned her down.

Right then the shop door opened to reveal none other than said waiter. His dark apron was bunched up in his hand, giving me time to absorb what he had actually been wearing underneath its cover. The tight black shirt revealed his, what I could see, nicely toned muscle's, and the old jeans he wore weren't as tight in front as they were in back, but still caused me to almost drool.

"Why, hello ladies," he grinned at us. "Don't tell me you decided to wait out here just for me."

Ashley blew smoke his way. "Good. We won't."

I jumped at the sudden sound of my cell phone ringing. Everyone turned to look at me. I could feel the pink rising to my cheeks as I answered the phone.


"Hey, Gwen." Kyle's voice answered back. "The guy's and me wanna have a night out. Would you mind coming home?"
"Sure. When did you need me there?" I asked, popping another candy in my mouth.

"Could you start leaving now? Thanks. See you soon." There was a click on the other line, signaling the end of the conversation.

I frowned at the cell phone in my hand. Kyle and I always traded off weekends watching Sammy so the other could go off and do their thing. We usually told each other beforehand what we would be doing so the other would know. Kyle would receive a good scolding in the morning after he cooked me breakfast.

I opened the car door and threw my bag of Crème Saver's into the passenger seat. "Sorry guys, but I have to run."

There was a chorus of farewells as I slid into the front seat of my PT Cruiser. The car was a gift from my mother when she was here back in June. Once she saw the four-year-old Volvo I was driving, she demanded I get a new car, and took my shopping. As I pulled away from the coffee shop I couldn't help but glance into my review mirror at the front of the building. The waiter was watching the car drive off. I thought nothing of it because now he had to endure Kim and Ashley. By the time I talked to either of them again, one of them will have wrapped him around their manicured finger.