Chapter One: An Uncomplicated Life

Nicola Blake, considered somewhat flighty by her own father and sisters, nonetheless had never wavered in her belief that Grant Darlington was a medieval knight in shining white armor with his ruggedly handsome looks and innate chivalry. All right, maybe this wasn't the medieval times anymore, but to Nicky, he looked like a young King Arthur: blond and blue-eyed.

He was just missing a horse, that's all.

Her tongue stuck out between her teeth, as she tried to figure out how to draw the animal. The teacher was droning on and on about geometry proofs, but Nicky had long decided that a person actually learned more about geometry by doodling.

The Grant picture-model was exactly six inches tall, which was almost proportional to his real height of six foot four inches. Not even the plate armor she'd put on him could disguise the breadth of his broad shoulders and the toned muscle of his arms and legs. Before him, Nicky had never liked muscle on guys, since the Arnold Schwarzenegger look was kind of gross, what with the bulging pecs and popping veins, but Grant was a natural fit. Just exactly the right amount: nothing too bulgy or poppy.

"Ms. Blake? Are you paying attention?"

Deep in thought, Nicky studied her drawing. She'd done it only with her pencil, so she hadn't been able to add color. Grant had the perfect Nordic coloring: sun-kissed blond hair, paler in winter time, and ice blue eyes. None of that came across in the picture, but at least she'd gotten the even symmetry of his facial features right. Symmetry - that was a useful term she'd picked up in geometry class.

"Ms. Blake!"

The kid sitting behind her kicked her desk. Startled, Nicky scratched her pencil across her notebook, so now the Grant model had a black smear across his forehead. She sucked in a quick breath. Great.

Flushing, she looked up and met the teacher's exasperated stare. She knew she was chewing on the end of her pencil, a sure sign of guilt. Please, please, please be nice to me...

"As I was saying," Mrs. Levin said dryly, "there were only four students in this class who got an A on the test. Surprisingly, you were one of them, Ms. Blake, but if you continue mooning over your drawings, I don't think you'll be able to keep up that trend."

The other kids laughed, and Nicky sank lower in her seat. She could barely maintain the eye contact with Mrs. Levin when the woman passed the tests back. They both knew very well that getting A's on exams wasn't her norm. If not for Grant who'd tutored her, she'd have added yet another B or C.

It just wasn't fair.

Nicky's two sisters had grabbed all the brains in the family, leaving her in the middle as the Average Blake Girl. She wasn't in any Advanced Placement or Honors classes. On the other hand, if it was only Adrian, Nicky could have stood it since Adrian was two years older, but Meg was four years younger than Nicky. There was even talk about having Meg skip seventh grade, going straight from sixth to eighth.

Adrian was the acknowledged beauty and Meg the force of nature no one wanted to mess around with. And Nicky was... well, Nicky.

A new identity was needed, she mused. Adrian was a name that sounded tough and masculine, and Meg sounded tough as well. Nicky was one for babies. Now, what if she went with her full first name Nicola? More sophisticated, more intelligent.

Nicola Irene Blake. Nicola Darlington. Nicola Blake-Darlington.

Nibbling on her pencil again, she studied the various combinations she'd just written out. Yes, they really did look better, didn't they?

She erased the black smear from the Grant-model's forehead. No, it wasn't perfect yet, but if he had a sword and a shield... She narrowed her eyes. Yeah, sort of like Mel Gibson from "Braveheart" back in the day when he hadn't been so old and crazy. She thought Grant might even be Scottish, so it worked.

Or maybe he was French... Her thoughts trailed off, as she wrote out the French versions of her name. Nicolette Blake. Nicolette Darlington. Nicolina Blake.

She'd never been to Paris; actually she'd never left the United States, but she knew what the city would be like. She'd sit in a cafe wearing a glamorous scarf wrapped around her head and neck, like Grace Kelly, that American actress-turned-princess. A thin cigarette would dangle between her fingers (but she wouldn't smoke, since you could get cancer). Across from her would be her lover wearing a natty black beret tilted jauntily. Around them would be the sweet smell of coffee, pastries, and romance.

Inspired, Nicky turned another notebook page and sketched the Paris skyline. Actually, it looked remarkably similar to Chicago's famed skyline, complete with the requisite Sears Towers, but whatever, it was all imagination.

It was good progress on her part, she thought proudly. Only a few months ago, she'd been on the verge of a constant breakdown, thanks to her father's abrupt decision to uproot the family from their comfortable Chicago suburb home and move to River Valley, Arizona just right before the school year started.

Nicky's father had settled down happily with his new wife, but in his post-nuptial bliss, he'd left all his three daughters to fend for themselves in the desert. River Valley, Nicky had quickly discovered, didn't have snow. She could literally count on one hand how many times it'd rained in the seven-odd months she'd been here.

Grant had come to her rescue.

He was a senior at RVHS, but of all the girls he could have picked, he'd taken her to Homecoming. That gesture hadn't gone unnoticed by the other girls in Nicky's sophomore class. She'd started to enjoy more attention and popularity after that. And finally, for real, she'd made some new friends.

She swept all the junk off her desk into her backpack when the bell rang. Then she yanked the math test out of her bag. She'd need to show it to Grant.

"Nicky, wait!" her friend Effie called after her.

Euphemia "Effie" Sparks was the only one who had a worse nickname than Nicky, as far as both were concerned, but it was what they'd initially bonded over.

Effie linked arms with Nicky, as they navigated the jostling crowd pouring into the hallway all from various classrooms. They slowed down as they passed Honors Geometry, waiting for their friend Chelsey Perkins.

"You will not believe what I heard!" Effie said, breathless.

"What?" Nicky said.

As always, her fingers itched for a pencil, so she could draw Effie, but it'd already disappeared somewhere in the depths of her backpack. The Bermuda Triangle had nothing on Nicky's satanic school bag, which vanquished pens and pencils and all kinds of writing utensils at an amazing rate.

Effie's eyes sparkled. She had a wild mop of red curls, held at bay only by the thick black headband she always wore. Six freckles spread across her nose, which she cursed on a regular basis. It gave her the appearance of a pixie, and her tiny body frame only accentuated that impression.

"Guess!" she said.

"Um..." Nicky's sister Adrian and stepbrother Alex were seniors, so if there had been any gossip concerning the popular crowd, she would have known. "Um..."

"Who do you hate the most?"

This time Nicky had no hesitation. "Bri Latimer," she said immediately. She might have been at RVHS for only a few months, but already, she had a storied history with that evil witch.

Chelsey came out of the classroom just in time to hear the end of their conversation. "Ditto," she said. She was a sophomore like Nicky and Effie, but she'd made the varsity girls' softball team. And unfortunately for her, Bri Latimer just happened to be the star of the team.

"Bitch is crazy," Chelsey continued. "Ladonna Brown got into it with her before first period. Something about a parking lot snafu."

Effie looked disappointed. "I was going to tell Nicky!" she complained.

"Well, whatever, you can tell her now." Chelsey shot a quick look at the almost-forgotten math test Nicky still held in her hand. "A-minus? Nice. You gonna tell Darlington?"

Nicky brightened. "Yeah, I wanted to find him before homeroom started. He really showed me how to do the proofs-"

"Nicky, Nicky, when are you gonna learn? Stop running after him. Boys aren't worth the dicks they have on them."

"But you think he's a great athlete!"

"On the field he is. But off the field... not so much."

"Oh come on," Effie said a bit peevishly. "You can't have it both ways. First, you don't like Nicky's stepbrother Alex because he's a man whore. Now you don't like Grant because he isn't a man whore?"

Chelsey broke into a long stride. The crowd had started to thin out already, so the three girls picked up their pace. They all had Health together the next period, a subject required for all sophomores.

"Let's review the facts, shall we?" Chelsey said, her ponytail bouncing off her back. More often than not, she hid her hair under an Arizona Diamondbacks baseball cap, but for once she didn't have her hat. "Grant Darlington is a senior. He's a popular guy. He hangs out with Nicky's stepbrother. And yet he's never been romantically linked to any girl. You don't think that's funny?"

Nicky scowled at her friend. "Maybe he's just discriminating!"

"Yeah!" Effie said.

Chelsey shook her head in pity. "Personally, I think he's a serial killer. Or maybe he's a gay serial killer. Either one works."

For the entire Health class, Nicky fumed in silence. It was easy for Chelsey to say all of that crap, since she'd never really hung out with Grant. Or maybe Chelsey was a lesbian, so all of his good points were lost on her.

That theory made Nicky happier. Chelsey was a tall blonde who never spent any time on makeup or nice clothes. She always wore T-shirts and ratty jeans. The thing was, she really was pretty, Nicky had to admit. Chelsey had the same striking Nordic coloring as Grant, and thanks to sports, she was always in great shape. She had a frigging six-pack for God's sake. She even had a pair of big boobs that guys always gawked over - which probably had turned her toward secret lesbianism.

Nicky flipped to an empty page in her notebook and drew Chelsey in a military uniform. With a flourish, she added a symbol to the picture.

Chelsey picked that moment to peer over at Nicky's notebook. "Nice," she said wryly. "I kinda like that Nazi armband you gave me."

They both broke down in giggles. Nicky wrote her name in a looping signature: Nicola Irene Blake. Then she handed the picture to her friend as a present.

"Girls!" the teacher said.

When the bell finally rang, Nicky ignored Chelsey's pitying headshake and dashed out of the class. She hurried to the room where she knew Grant's homeroom was, but he hadn't arrived yet, so she searched the crowd.

She thought her heart just might burst with anticipation. Unlike her usual frantic cramming thirty minutes before the actual test itself, she'd periodically met Grant in the library to go over her homework assignments and review the proof rules and work on extra problems. She'd practically floated into math class, so confident was she that Grant had tutored her to solve anything that Mrs. Levin threw at her.

Grant rounded the corner, and Nicky's heart fluttered.

Just seeing him made her happier, not to mention calmer. It was like seeing the sun come out after a rainy day or something. All was right with the world again.

He smiled when he saw her. "Hey," he said, his voice a warm baritone. "What brings you here?"

She surreptitiously tried to stand up on her toes. She'd never be supermodel-tall, but a couple more inches wouldn't have killed her. Grant was just about the second tallest senior in the entire school.

"Guess!" she said.

"Ah... you got an A on your test?"

"How did you know?"

He nodded at the paper in her hand. "Lucky guess."

"Oh. Well." Beaming, Nicky shoved it at him. "Thanks."

"You're welcome."

She shifted her backpack over her shoulder. "Well... I just wanted you to know. I mean, you really, really, really helped me, when you didn't have to, and now I have an A-minus, which's probably the highest math grade I've got in years-"

A corner of his mouth lifted into a half-smile. "Nicky, it was my pleasure. Really, really, really."

She giggled. "Okay. Thanks anyway."

Bri Latimer's appearance saved her from racking her brain for something to say next. Nicky knew the second Bri saw her because Bri paused ever-so slightly in the bustle of the hallway crowd.

They locked eyes and exchanged mutual sneers. Neither one had forgotten that Bri had once dated Nicky's stepbrother and that it'd gone badly. Neither one had forgotten that Bri still hated Nicky's sister Adrian to this day. Adrian and Alex were now a couple, and Bri was relegated to the social dregs of humiliation.

Or at least it should have worked that way.

The fact that Bri's twin brother was an especially nice and likable guy had saved her. Everybody loved Justin. So for his sake, they grudgingly put up with her, and she hadn't really suffered at all.

"Chelsey thinks you're a gay serial killer," Nicky said to Grant, "but she's got it all wrong. Bri's the gay serial killer. An evil one."

Now her fingers really were itching for a pencil. As soon as she got some time, she'd draw a burning effigy, one that had Bri shrieking and writhing at the stake. Or maybe she'd draw Bri as a venomous dragon and Grant galloping on a stallion and slaying her with a lance. Horses! She still didn't know how to draw one...

Fired up, Nicky hurried off to the school library without a further word. She'd have to see if they had books of horses.

Had he known what Nicky was thinking, Grant Darlington probably would be bemused. As it was, he held a geometry test in his hand, which was of utterly no use to him, since he'd taken Honors Geometry two years ago.

Smiling, he shook his head. He'd just have to catch up with Nicky later and give it back. She'd already flitted off like a butterfly. Actually, come to think of it, that was more than an apt comparison. Sometimes Grant wondered what she saw in him, since he was neither colorful nor extravagant.

He harbored no illusions. Sure, he was built like a linebacker, which had its advantages, but he knew he wasn't a heartthrob like Alex or rich like Quentin or even nice like Justin. But that was okay with him.

"Never thought cradle-robbing was your style," Bri said to him. For emphasis, she shot a significant look toward Nicky's retreating back.

His eyes cooled. It was damned unfortunate she was Justin's twin sister, but since Justin was his best friend...

"You might want to check your bitterness a bit," he said mildly.

Bri smirked up at him. She had enough of a passing resemblance to Justin, so that it could get unsettling at times, but despite her long cinnamon curls and rock-hard slim body, Grant had never thought she was pretty. Too hard, for his taste.

"Thanks for the advice, Darlington," she said. The last warning bell had already rung, so they were both late for homeroom, but she lingered in the hallway. "Just one piece of advice," Bri murmured, her voice so low that only Grant could hear her. "It's pretty pathetic when you're sniffing around a sophomore girl... and even more pathetic when you don't ask her out."

His temper ignited. There were people in the school who wondered if he even had a temper, but if they had been inside his head right now, they'd have learned otherwise. The trick, though, was to gather all of your fury and bank it until you were alone. For that exact reason, he had a punching bag at home.

"Maybe I'll do that," he said, pleasant. "Your matchmaking skills are pretty good."

Now Bri was watching him warily. She was waiting for the trap, but Grant didn't deliver until he stepped past her into the homeroom and looked over his shoulder.

"After all, you helped push Alex and Adrian together, didn't you?" he said.

Satisfied, he took his seat.

Her face like a thundercloud, Bri stormed into the classroom after him. Grant couldn't stop a slight smile curling his lips, but he was man enough not to gloat openly at her expense. He folded Nicky's exam in half, then paused.

Unopened condoms were piled high on Quentin's desk. From assorted materials (with a high degree of suspicious resemblance to various Playboy and Penthouse and Maxim magazines) he'd fashioned a cactus plant. He was now in the process of gluing the condoms on.

"What the hell is he doing?" Grant said to Justin.

Quentin looked up briefly from his pornographic plant. "Hey, I'm right here," he protested. "You can ask me."

Grant snorted. "Justin?"

Justin was grinning broadly. "Our ex-friend here has turned into a shadow of himself. I think he mentioned 'love' and 'fidelity,' but I'd have to double-check because I passed out from shock."

"Funny." Quentin sulked. "It's my third week anniversary with Devon, so I'm giving her a present." He glued on two glow-in-the-dark rainbow condoms, or at least that was what the packaging was advertising.

Grant lifted his eyebrows. "I'm pretty sure that isn't the kind of flowers she had in mind."

"See, that's where my genius comes in. I'm voluntarily surrendering all of my condoms as a pledge of my feelings for my sparrow. No more rich-boy partying and hedonism. I'm all done."

Grant's mouth quirked. "I thought you had more condoms than that."

"Yeah, that's the problem. I still haven't figured out what to do with my porn collection. Jenna and the other girls need to find a new home." Quentin leered at him. "You willing to adopt them?"

"No thanks. Why don't you just throw them out?"

Shock leapt across Quentin's features. "Out?" he repeated, as if he'd never heard the word. "Out? My girls rotting at the bottom of a rat-infested Dumpster? Do you not realize what a monstrous crime that would be against humanity?"

He pointed his Krazy glue at Grant. "What's wrong with you? All this time and not a hand up a girl's skirt. You've just wasted four years of your sexual prime! Are you even acquainted with your hand?"

His voice was getting louder and louder, and by now, everyone was openly eavesdropping. Even the teacher was listening, and he hadn't stopped Quentin from making his condom plant - which just showed that discipline at RVHS could be a bit of a joke, as far as Grant was concerned.

Justin jumped into the conversation, trying to intervene. "Hey, man," he said. "You're dating Devon now. And last I heard, she didn't want to have sex."

"And when she wants to, she'll be in for a marathon." Quentin smirked. "She won't be disappointed at all. But that's not my point. Grant hasn't gotten any action, and that's just not natural."

"That's because I'm a gay serial killer," Grant said dryly. "Haven't you heard?"

It still amused him Nicky had told him what her friend said. He had the feeling it had simply never occurred to her not to tell him or that it might not have been the most discreet thing to share. But then again, that was Nicky.

Quentin nodded at Nicky's exam lying on Grant's desk. "A gay serial killer who's taking geometry again? Kinky. I didn't know you had it in you."

Annoyed with himself, Grant stored the paper in his binder. "Yeah, well, you know me. I need a break from stuffing bodies in my meat locker."

"You know what'd be even kinkier? You going out on an actual date with a girl."

His sense of self-preservation kicked in. There was nothing scarier than Quentin Maxwell's bloodhound instincts. The guy was easily distracted most of the time, thanks to his ADHD, but if motivated (or interested) enough, he was harder to shake off than a common cold. At least colds vanished after a few days.

"Looks like I need to talk to Devon," Grant said. "She must not be keeping you busy, if you're that interested in my love life."

"I'm busy enough," Quentin said with his customary leer, "but my dick is on temporary hiatus. Someone has to pick up the slack around here."

"Sorry. I'm not going to be your dick by proxy."

They all cracked up. That, right there, was probably the only reason why he hadn't strangled Quentin years ago. No one matched Quentin's sheer entertainment value, and if Grant was honest with himself, he didn't mind being caught up in Quentin's crazy stunts, as long as he wasn't the central focus.

"Q does have a point, though," Justin said, later in gym. They had Advanced Fitness, pretty much an excuse for athletes to get an easy A and stay in shape. "You never date."

Grant almost sighed. "Don't start."

They were running in tandem. The teacher had told everyone to run three miles on the track, and since he wasn't timing them, Grant had taken it easy, but he was beginning to regret that decision. Normally, he didn't care when his friends heckled him about his lack of a love life, but then again, if Bri hadn't taken that dig at Nicky, he'd probably have felt relaxed enough to shoot the breeze with the guys.

There was a bit of a kick to the wind. March in River Valley was cool enough that you still had to wear a light jacket and pants, but not so hot that you were sweating. Just about the perfect weather for joggers, really.

Alex Montgomery fell in step with them: the fourth person of the friendship foursome that was often the envy of their senior class. He hadn't showed up in homeroom, but Grant figured Alex didn't think the attendance rules applied to him.

"You want to gossip like girls?" Alex demanded. "Or you want to run?"

Grant sped a notch, and Alex picked up on it. They ate up the track as the others gave way for them. Alex was the premier athlete in the entire school and Grant usually let him keep that honor.

But not today.

He let it all go. The fury he'd held inside, from his clash with Bri, flowed into his arms and legs until he wasn't even thinking anymore. The world was melting in a blur, and he was all alone, the way he liked it best. Out here, there was no need for words.

Next to him, Alex was keeping a determined pace, but little after little, he fell away as Grant streaked like a rocket.

"That's what I like to see!" the teacher shouted from the bleachers.

Grant was breathing hard when he stepped off the track. Sweat was pouring off him, and he knew he'd need to hit the showers after, but the burn in his muscles felt good. Hands on his hips, he tried to catch his breath. In and out. In and out.

Alex came over to stand at his side. A secret part of Grant reveled in the fact that his friend was panting. There had always been an unspoken competition between them, a back-and-forth tug of war that Grant mostly didn't bother with, but just the same, both knew it was there.

Sometimes Grant thought it was why Alex had decided to befriend him. When Grant had first moved to River Valley, he'd been even quieter than he was now. If not for his muscular frame, he would have been shark bait for the junior high school bullies. And back in the day, Alex and Quentin had been among the bullies.

No, they hadn't done anything as cliche as stealing lunch money from other kids, but it hadn't taken Grant more than a few seconds to recognize them for what they were. Even then, Alex had been the unquestioned leader and Quentin a combination of the second-in-command, the class clown, and the charmer.

They'd tried to take Grant on. Suffice to say, Grant had quickly corrected their assumption that he was easy meat.

"Been eating your Wheaties lately?" Alex said to him, as they leaned against the fence around the track.

"Something like that," Grant said.

Alex's green eyes narrowed. Oh yeah, he was sore from losing the race. Under that pretty-boy exterior was still the same son of a bitch Grant had known from their junior high school days, but in classic Alex Montgomery fashion, Alex didn't acknowledge his loss. He just jerked his head at the track.

Justin was near the front of the pack of athletes. Whether it had been his silence or his "new kid" status, Grant didn't know, but Justin had walked up to him and introduced himself. His friendliness had instantly put Grant on guard because no one could be that friendly without an ulterior motive. But Justin had been and still was the real thing.

"You know what your problem is?" Alex said abruptly.

"What?" Grant said.

"You don't want anything bad enough. If you tried, you could probably beat me every time we run." He favored Grant with a thin smile. "But today, you wanted it, and you got it. How can you just turn it off?"

Grant measured him with a look. Aside from the hurt pride, which didn't concern Grant in the slightest, Alex seemed genuinely puzzled.

"Because I want an uncomplicated life," Grant said.

It was probably his dearest wish, he reflected. Alex was dating his own stepsister, a scandal that RVHS still hadn't recovered from. Quentin seemed to have settled down for the most part, but just a few weeks ago, he'd had a very public and nasty blow-out with his girlfriend in the school cafeteria of all places. Justin had his cancer of a twin sister to deal with. No, Grant didn't want to be any one of them.

Life was too hard as it was.

AUTHOR NOTE: Yes, we're back in River Valley! This was my secret NaNoWriMo project, so I'm very pleased to share this at last. Here, you guys will be seeing Nicky and Grant's POVs throughout the story. Sometimes a chapter will have them both. Sometimes a chapter will be all Nicky or Grant. Just giving you guys a heads-up :)

Please, please, please consider reading "Reason and Romance Redux" and "Trouble Starts With a Q" first since they come chronologically before this story, and we'll be seeing a LOT of backstory here. As always, thank you guys for joining me for this ride. Here's hoping it's a good one :)