Chapter One: Meet the Man-Hater - 10/17
It all started with the discussion at lunchtime.
Love was in the air, or so they say, and it had entrapped my friends. Every girl at the table was gossiping about the latest hook-ups and breakups. And their latest dating crisis too. That made seven girls who were talking about the same thing.
Except me, of course.
I was frantically doing my Honors Pre-Calculus homework. I had math next period, and Mr. Abernathy always checked if we did homework or not. Some teachers let us slide, as long as we aced the exams, but not Abernathy. He checked on every student, and I wanted to stay in his good graces. Two more problems to go, and I'd be done.
Livy's voice broke into my consciousness. "And so I couldn't stand it anymore. I mean, God, why should I?" A pause and then she said, "Raleigh? Are you paying attention?"
I shook my head and nibbled on the end of my pencil. This problem was tough, and I had no idea how to solve it. I didn't want Abernathy to call on me and have me go to the blackboard and write the answer. He had a particular knack for ferreting out students who just happened to be clueless about a specific problem.
"Raleigh!" Livy's voice sharpened and I knew I was in trouble.
"Yeah?" I said.
"I just poured out my heart about Kevin, and you didn't even listen." Her lower lip was trembling, and I grimaced. I hated it when she did that. It always made me feel guilty, as if I'd kicked a cute puppy or something.
"I'm sorry. Really." I sighed and gestured towards my math book. "You know how Abernathy is."
My other best friend Noelle snorted. She shoved her notebook at me and said, "Oh, just copy my answers. I did them yesterday."
I didn't have to think twice. Noelle was a math whiz, and her grade was higher than mine - a feat when you consider my class rank. I started copying.
Grrr. If I didn't love Livy so much, I'd strangle her. But of course, I couldn't do that. Livy Windsor had been my best friend ever since kindergarten, and we'd weathered a lot together. So I just ignored her and concentrated on Noelle's answers.
Noelle came to my rescue once again. "Leave her alone. You can tell her about Kevin over ice-cream at the mall."
"All right," Livy agreed, and I raised an eyebrow. Apparently the thing with Kevin wasn't too serious; otherwise she'd have balked. Good, I could work.
I flashed a look of gratitude at Noelle, and she nodded coolly.
I know I'm making her sound like a hardcore bitch, and to a degree, that's true, but mostly, it's not. I'd met Noelle Lansing in sixth grade, and from the very start, we'd hit it off. It took Livy and Noelle a while to accept each other, but later, Livy managed to win Noelle's trust. And the three of us had stuck together ever since.
It took me only a few minutes to finish and push Noelle's notebook back at her. I was finally ready to join the conversation. "So what's going on?"
Livy's eyes were bright. "Oh, we're just talking about this and that." She gave me a mischievous smile. "Your favorite topic."
I groaned. "Not about guys again?"
Sharon Markham leaned forward on her forearms. "Raleigh, Raleigh," she said, shaking her head. "Not everyone's a man-hater like you are. Some of us actually like to date."
Man-hater. Yeah, that's what they say about me. Just because I wouldn't sleep with Jeremy Phillips - incidentally, one of the most popular juniors at the time - two years ago, people thought I was a man-hater. Still, I could have used more tact when I saw that Jeremy was a little..underdeveloped, shall we say? As I recall, I just laughed at him. He never talked to me again. Just as well. The only thing he loved to talk about was Jeremy Phillips himself.
I put a hand on my chest. "Excuse me?" I said, widening my eyes. "I don't hate guys. I went with Ian to the Homecoming dance, didn't I?"
My friends all looked at me incredulously.
"What?" I snapped.
Livy cleared her throat. "Um, Raleigh? Ian's gay, remember? He doesn't exactly count as a heterosexual guy, you know?"
Well, yeah, there was that little minor detail.
I ignored her. "I went to the prom last year."
"With my brother," Noelle pointed out. "And only because Neil's date had a family emergency."
"Face it, girl," Sharon said with a laugh. "You just don't like guys. You only go out on dates if they're school-related. And even then, we still have to drag you along." She looked around at the group for confirmation. "Remember how we had to make Raleigh buy her Homecoming dress?"
"Oh God!" Livy buried her head in her hands. "Don't remind me!"
Against my will, a smile crept onto my lips. We'd hit more than a dozen stores and ended up buying a slinky dress at the very first store we'd started at. And that was only because the usually iron-willed Noelle had begged me and promised to buy my dress, no matter how expensive it was, as long as we got out of the mall in fifteen minutes. It had been an offer too good to pass up.
Melanie Dalton, who'd transferred to Glenbrook High a couple weeks ago, wrinkled her forehead. "I feel like I'm missing out here. I don't get the joke," she said.
The other girls shared glances, as if silently electing one of them as the spokeswoman, then Noelle shrugged. "It's quite simple," she said, her tone cool. "Raleigh doesn't like boys. You must have heard the rumors about her? Well, they're true. She doesn't date unless a gun's pointed at her head. And that's a shame since there's a lot of eligible guys she could date."
"Okay," Melanie said slowly. She directed her next question to me. "So that means you've got a thing for girls then?"
"No," I said.
She still seemed confused, so I sighed and tried to explain. "I like guys-"
"Really? Now that's a shock," Livy interrupted.
"As long as they're far away from me," I finished. "Maybe ten feet away. Closer than that, then I get claustrophobia." I was beginning to get into stride, so I continued. "I mean, guys are like dogs. Cute and messy, but you don't want them to slobber all over you."
Melanie blinked. "Interesting analogy. So you don't date at all?"
The concept clearly staggered her. As well as it should, I suppose. I wasn't one of those proverbial pariahs who got picked on by the other kids. I wasn't ugly and I had an older brother who was a part of the in crowd. He'd made it easy for me to be accepted, and I was invited to parties regularly. So it wasn't like I couldn't get a date.
"Right," I said.
"Give up, Mel," Sharon advised. "If we don't understand Raleigh, you won't either. It's just one of her quirks, that's all."
"I guess," Melanie said with a shrug.
She might have said more, but Livy brought up Ally Waters's party . So we talked about the party until the bell rang.
I headed to math class with Noelle, and much to my relief, Mr. Abernathy didn't call on me. I watched as he harassed one of the shyer girls until she almost cried. The thought of taking AP Calculus with him next year was repulsive. Too bad I was only a junior; otherwise I'd graduate in a few more months.
After Honors Pre-Cal, I had AP US History. That was upstairs, so I trudged to the second floor with Noelle. Livy joined us before we neared the English wing. We'd managed to coordinate our schedules, so we had a lot of our classes together.
Livy's eyes were bright. She had a bounce in her step, and I smiled to myself. She had gossip to share with us, and sure enough, I was right. "Guess what I heard?" she asked breathlessly.
"What?" we said in unison.
"Samantha Martin and Ryan Henderson broke up," she said, clapping her hands. "I was in the restroom a few minutes ago and saw her crying. Apparently he said he wanted a change. She's really distraught."
"Oh please!" I said. "As if she didn't know it was coming."
Noelle opened the classroom's door and we sat down in the desks assigned to us. "A bit heartless, aren't you?" she said. As usual, her tone was that of cultivated boredom, but it was only an act. Her eyes glittered with amusement.
Livy, ever the tender one, slapped my arm. "You should have more compassion for the poor girl. She really liked Ryan."
"All the more reason why I shouldn't feel sorry for her," I said. "She knew what she was getting. Ryan almost never dates a girl more than three months. Juanita Vasquez lasted five months, but only because he was dating Gabrielle Lyons at the same time."
"How can you remember all of that?" Livy marveled.
I laid my textbook on my desk. "He practically lives at my house, Livy. If you saw him everyday, you'd remember all of that stuff."
True, that. Ryan was my older brother's best friend, and he was at my house so often that I thought my parents should have charged him rent. Now, I didn't hate him, but I didn't like him either. He was mostly just there.
"I wouldn't complain if I were you. If I had Ryan at my house all the time..." Livy closed her eyes dreamily. "I'd think I was in heaven!"
I made a face. "Noelle? Help me out here."
"He's not bad."
My mouth fell open. "What?"
She smiled ever so slightly. "He's good-looking, popular, and rich. And very single right now. I'd say that makes him eligible."
"I don't believe you," I said. "You'd actually go out with him if he asked?"
"Yes, why not?"
"Why not?" Livy echoed.
The bell rang again and the teacher rose from his desk. He had his notes ready, and everyone turned to face him. As he droned on about the late 1700's, my thoughts wandered. The world was really coming to an end if my two best friends would willingly date Ryan Henderson. I'd never suspected it of them, and I was stunned. Maybe it was my reputation as a man-hater, but I had never understood his appeal. He was just a guy, and all guys were dogs.
I know, I know. You're probably wondering why I feel this way. I can assure you that I don't have a dark secret lurking in my past. My parents are happily married, and they celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary last month. They don't abuse me or neglect me. My older brother is all right too. I've never been molested, raped, or slapped around by a guy. So if you think something terrible happened to me, think again.
It's just that I've always felt this way. At least since junior high school, that is. I saw my friends' hearts getting broken by guys who weren't worth their time. Frankly, it was just a game. The whole dating schmuck was rigged in favor of jerks. Once I saw it was that way, I decided not to play. I don't want my heart broken because I don't want to spend energy repairing it.
If people think I'm a man-hater, so be it.
The din was the first thing when I came home. I sighed and dug for my keys. My baby brother was at it again. He seemed to think he was the next great drummer. Never mind that he wasn't even two years old yet.
Andy was sitting on the kitchen floor, banging away at pots. When he saw me, he squealed and clapped his hands. I picked him up and he threw his arms around my neck. There's nothing like a happy baby. It was hard to remember that I hadn't wanted him before.
He'd surprised everyone. My parents already had Jared and me, so they weren't expecting another child, not so late. As for me, I was embarrassed. Andy's existence was proof enough that my parents were still having sex. And I really, really didn't want to imagine that. I mean, come on. I knew that my parents' marriage was healthy. But that healthy? Wow.
My mother kissed my cheek and got some celery sticks and peanut butter for me. "So how was school today, honey?" she asked.
I told her about my math class and about my friends. Since she was stuck home taking care of Andy, I usually tried to fill her in. I'd always done that, ever since I was little, and it was good to know that our daily ritual hadn't changed.
She smiled and nodded in the right places. "Ryan broke up with his girlfriend? I wonder what excuse he'll give this time," she mused.
It was a long-running joke between them. Every time Ryan dumped his current girlfriend, my mother always asked him what his reason was. His excuses were either silly or serious.
"Samantha's a vegetarian. I bet that's got something to do with it," I said.
My mother laughed. "Probably." Then she cast a look at the clock on the wall and then at me. "I've got to go to the store. Watch Andy for a while, please?"
"Sure. Take your time."
She brightened and grabbed her purse. She hadn't been out of the house for a couple days, so the shopping trip was literally the highlight of her day. After a flurry of goodbyes, she left.
I carried Andy to the family room where he promptly put a toy into his mouth. I hurried back to the kitchen and put away the peanut butter and the pots. And then I decided to start my homework. I'd barely finished the two required chapters for Honors English when Jared came home.
Andy tugged at his jeans, so Jared picked him up. "Where's Mom?"
"At the store."
"Good. We're running low on everything." With Andy under his arm, he went to the kitchen and opened the fridge. "Don't we have anything to eat?"
"We've got chips."
He located them and returned to the family room. "My friends are coming over." He tossed me a grin. "They've got cooties. Scram, sis."
I rolled my eyes. "Very funny, Jared."
Sometimes I think he's a part of the reason why people call me a man-hater. With him around, it was hard to date. Any guy who got past my rigorous standards had to get past his "older brother protective act". It wasn't that he feared for my chastity. He just loved harassing the guys who had the temerity to get interested in me. Hopefully, Andy wouldn't turn out to be like him.
I rescued Andy and went upstairs to my room. Even though I'd only seen Livy two hours ago, I called her and chatted for a bit. I paused when I heard voices downstairs, but they were only Jared's friends. I ignored them until Ryan's voice drifted upstairs.
"God, I'm bored."
"Dude, you should just have kept Samantha then," Daniel Stockton said.
Ryan said something that I couldn't catch, but it must have been funny because the other guys laughed. And then I heard Jared. "I'm bored too."
There was a note to his tone that made me sit straight. I'd heard it before, and it usually preceded trouble. I'd had sixteen years as Jared's sister, and I knew when something was up.
"Raleigh?" Livy said on the phone.
"Hush," I whispered.
"So..." Jared began, trailing off and letting the anticipation build. "Time for another bet, you reckon?"
I groaned and Andy looked up at me. His brow wrinkled as if to ask me what was wrong, and I just sighed. "We have an idiot for a brother," I told him.
"Raleigh?" Livy said again.
"Jared's doing another bet," I said succinctly.
She gasped. "Not crickets this time! If he's going to release them in school again, I'll kill him myself. And no dead frogs either. Ugh."
As dire as it sounded, there was still a glimmer of hope. Ryan hadn't answered and there was a very slim chance that he'd actually say no.
"Definitely," Ryan said, dashing my hopes.
Yes, the Apocalypse was upon us. Whenever there was a bet between Jared and Ryan, it was just better for the audience to duck and run. They had a glorious tradition of challenging each other to do stupid things. The stupider the deed was, the better it was. It was a game that involved a twisted sense of masculine ego and pride.
You think I'm exaggerating? Well, there was the infamous roller-blading incident. Ryan challenged Jared to don rollerblades and to tie a rope around his waist. The other end of the rope was attached to Daniel Stockton's pickup truck. Ryan drove the truck, dragging Jared at 60 mph. A cop caught them, but luckily, he was one of their friends' older brothers. He let them off easy.
And then there was the time when Jared had Ryan speak only in Spanish for two weeks. The teachers weren't amused. And the principal was even less amused. I think Ryan got a month's detention for that one. See what I mean?
"So what's the bet?" Livy said, lowering her voice.
I tilted my head, but I could only hear murmurs. Apparently they hadn't decided on the bet yet, but knowing them, it'd be outrageous. Pretty much the only word I could use to describe their various antics.
"They're still talking," I said.
"Let me know what happens. Did you finish Keyes's project? I just started right now, and I realized I don't even know what I'm doing."
"Come over to my house after dinner. I'm absolutely dying here," she begged. "I also called Noelle for help, and she said she'd come."
I caved because I didn't have any other choice. Livy was very conscious of the fact that she wasn't as good in school as Noelle and I were. That's not to say she was stupid. It was just that we were better. Livy was aware of it, and I hated to rub it in.
"I'll be there around eight-thirty. That's the best I can do. I'll bring all of my work I did for Keyes." I held the cordless phone away from me as I searched for my backpack. Then I remembered that I'd left it downstairs in the kitchen. "I'll call you back in a minute. I need to get my bag first."
Andy, who evidently felt ignored, began to howl. I cuddled him and the little demon quieted, but he wouldn't let go of my shirt. Ever try balancing a phone and a baby at the same time? It's not as easy as it looks.
So I went downstairs with Andy in my left arm. He was busily yanking my hair, and perhaps because of my tilted head, I heard the guys again.
"I'm serious, man. I can make any girl fall for me within three months. It's easy when you know what you're doing," Ryan declared.
I nearly choked, but Jared's response was simple. "Prove it, then."
Ryan never lost a beat. "All right, I will. Who's the last girl you can imagine of being with me? Give me a name."
Jared's friends started shouting out names. The noise was so loud that it set Andy off again. He shrieked right into my ear and I reeled.
I stumbled downstairs, juggling Andy and the phone, and Jared came into the hallway. When he saw me, he grinned. His smirk made me step backwards, but he was suddenly at my side. He grasped my elbow and dragged me into the family room.
"Raleigh," he announced proudly.
Silence fell as everyone stared at me. I stared back at them, at a loss for words, and my eyes met Ryan's. They were deep blue, and in the right lighting, they appeared almost black, but right now, they were just pensive. He looked at me as if he'd never seen me before and then a corner of his mouth turned up.
Noelle had said he was good-looking, and if I used some imagination, I almost could see it. His short, spiky black hair gave him a preppy appearance, but he had killer cheekbones and a chiseled face. The dimple in his right cheek made him look boyish. It was in full effect now, but I was unmoved.
"Done!" Ryan said.
It took a few seconds for the significance to sink in, and then I whirled around to confront Jared. "No, no! Don't drag me into this." The last time I'd gotten involved had been disastrous. My hands had literally turned purple from the dye, and I scrubbed my hands raw for five days straight. "You can't make me do anything."
"Come on, sis. It'll be fun," Jared said.
My protest opened the floodgates. Before I knew it, I had six guys ragging me. Jared was among them - whatever happened to sibling loyalty? - and his comments only egged them on. Andy was my lone defender, and he just gnawed on my hair.
"She knows she can't resist me for three whole months," Ryan boasted. "It's that famous Henderson charm. Never fails, I tell you."
"You scared, baby?" Daniel jeered at me. "Don't want to lose your man-hating reputation?"
"She just needs the right man," Kyle Edwards said. He punched Ryan's shoulder. "If Henderson can't do it, no one else can."
"Damn straight," Ryan said.
My eyes narrowed. His arrogance was unbelievable! I could have understood it if he was putting on a show for his friends, but he actually seemed to believe he could make me fall for him.
After one more round of comments, Ryan shouted down everyone. "Oh, leave her alone," he said dismissively. "She's too scared to try it. And besides, I'd win and she knows it."
I couldn't stand it any longer. "I'll do it and I'll win."
Now I had everyone's attention. I could feel their gazes, but it was Ryan who held my attention. He raised an eyebrow. "You're saying you'll do it then?"
"Yes." I put a hand on my hip, shifting Andy a little. "And since I'm a part of the bet, I'm modifying the terms a little. I say that you can't stay with a girl more than three months, so we'll see how you cope with dating only me for four months."
Daniel whistled. "Harsh. She's got you by the balls."
Ryan's grin was slow and lazy. "Hardly. She's giving me more time." He turned that grin on me and said, "A lot can happen in four months, Raleigh. You still sure?"
"All right," Jared said, his tone business-like. "We need to establish some ground rules. No cheating. And no tricks allowed." A smile tugged at his mouth as he regarded me. "That means you've got to give Ryan a fair chance, sis. Not going to be much fun if you lock yourself in a closet for the next four months."
"Whose side are you on anyway?" I said, miffed.
"Yours, of course. The bet's mine too. If you lose, I have to pay up." Seeing my questioning look, he grimaced. "The loser has to strip for Mr. Glenbrook High show in March."
I shuddered. The pageant was one of Glenbrook High's annual events and very popular. It brought in major fundraising money and it brought in every girl to ogle the male contestants. Almost without fail, the winner was always a part of the in crowd.
"Anyway, that's far off," Jared said briskly. "Today's date is October 17th, and since the bet's on for exactly four months, we'll decide the victor on February 18th." He motioned for Ryan and me to get closer. "Shake hands."
We shook hands. And it wasn't until I'd retrieved my backpack and gone upstairs with Andy that my adrenaline faded. I was surprised to discover that I was shaking all over. The reality of my situation sank in and I buried my head in my hands.
What had I just done?