Chapter I

Random Introductions

I watched as Jackson Evrette wrapped his lips around the end of his cigarette and took a slow drag. He held it for a moment before letting the smoke escape, making my heart flutter a little. God, he was so ridiculously sexy, with his messy black hair and crystal blue eyes and smooth skin that was just slightly tanned. He looked every bit the dark, mysterious stranger, handsome and stoic; he even looked intelligent, like he read Dostoevsky for fun and maybe even spoke a foreign language. And that was all just by looking at him.

I caught sight of his eyes again, pale blue with just a hint of silver. They were curious, as though studying something. What was he looking at?

"Zee?" he asked suddenly, his warm voice jerking me out of my stupor. "Are you all right?"

Oh. Me. I was what he was looking at.

"Fine," I replied airily, folding my arms on the wooden surface of the picnic table we were sitting at. "Why do you ask?"

"You've been zoning out for the past ten minutes," he told me, the corner of his mouth twitching.

"Not to mention drooling," Melissa added from her perch on the table, focusing on her compact as she applied a cherry-red gloss to her lips.

"I'm not drooling."

"You sure? I see a little something on your chin, there."

"Shut up, Issa."

She sneered at me, closing her compact and tucking it and her gloss into her little purse, designed to look like an 80s' stereo.

"For the record," Jack put in, grinning, "I think it's adorable when you drool, Zee."

"See? Jack thinks I'm cute."

"Jack thinks it's cute when you blow your nose. His opinion doesn't count."

Before I could say anything, Melissa decided to change the subject. "Let me bum one?" she asked Jack, indicating his cigarette.

"What if I don't want to?" he retorted. "Did I not just get finished saying that your opinion doesn't count?"

My name is Azalea Aadams, and I hate my parents. I suspect the feeling is mutual, seeing as how they named me Azalea.

Truth be told, I don't actually hate my mother. I do wish she'd named me something other than Azalea, though. I also wish my dad had stuck around past my seventh birthday, but that was something that wasn't likely to change. At the time I'd been devastated by his disappearance. Now, nine years later, I'd gotten over it.

Anyway, I had other things to distract me from my not-so-awesome home life. I had high school, as fun as that was. I had Jack, my boyfriend of the past two years and the best guy I could hope for. And, perhaps best of all, I had Melissa Rochette, my closest friend since kindergarten.

"Man, Mrs. Freeson is such a dill hole," Melissa said as she shoved her math book into her locker. I leaned against the locker beside hers, arms crossed over my chest as I watched one of our teachers, the art instructor Mr. Beck, scurry over.

"Miss Rochette!" he exclaimed, peering at her from behind his thick glasses. "What did you just say?"

I swallowed a smile as Melissa rolled her eyes and turned to the teacher. He was an older man, at least seventy, which is I supposed why he was so uppity about language. Was 'dill hole' even a curse? I didn't know, but apparently Mr. Beck thought so. I liked the guy; he was a good teacher, and his classes were fun, but he could be awfully uptight.

"What?" Melissa asked after putting on the slightest French accent. "Did I say something wrong, Mr. Beck?"

To his credit, Mr. Beck managed to continue looking disapproving even as discomfort crossed his wrinkled old face. "That term, er… You just said it…"

"Dill hole," I supplied with a pleasant smile.

He frowned at me. "Yes… That."

"Is that a bad word?" Melissa asked innocently. "We don't have 'dill hole' in France. I heard someone say it and so I thought -"

"I-It's fine, Miss Rochette," Mr. Beck said finally, uncomfortable. "Just don't say it again." And then he left, muttering under his breath about teaching art and not English.

Melissa waited until he was out of earshot before snorting and turning back to her locker. Of course, she knew that 'dill hole' wasn't exactly school appropriate. She'd been living in America for twelve years, after all, after moving from France with her parents. But that didn't mean she couldn't take advantage of her heritage to get out of trouble sometimes. At least, she didn't seem to think so.

"So anyway," I prompted. "Why is Mrs. Freeson a bad word?"

"She acts like I'm the only person to ever not turn in homework," Melissa told me with a scowl. "She gave me a ten-minute-long lecture about the importance of doing and turning in your assignments. I was like, hello? Shouldn't you be teaching your class?"

I wanted to point out that it was her own fault for not doing the homework, but I didn't bother. She wouldn't care, anyway; she didn't care about much of anything that had to do with school.

Melissa was by far the weirdest person I'd ever met. Not because she hated school; a teenager hating school was fairly normal. A good chunk of her weirdness came from the fashion statements she made everyday; today, for example, she'd dressed in a soft pink shirt with sleeves puffier than Snow Whites. Her skirt was mid-thigh length and layered; the bottommost layer was a bright pink, the upper layers white and sheer, edged in black lace. She wore rainbow-striped socks that came to rest just under her skirt and black ballet slippers on her feet, fishnet fingerless gloves covering her arms up to the elbows. Her long, wavy blond hair hung to her mid-back, tips dyed the same red that colored her lips and eyelids.

My own outfit consisted of a black T-shirt and jeans under a dark blue sweater, black converse on my feet and my dark hair pulled up into a ponytail. The contrast was almost funny; we often earned odd looks when we went out in public together, as though two people with differing tastes in clothes couldn't be friends. Then again, Melissa often earned odd looks no matter who she was with or where she was.

"So what're you and dear Jackson doing this afternoon?" she asked, effectively changing the subject. Another of her strange traits; random and often sudden topic changes.

"I don't know. Whatever he wants to do, I guess," I answered with a shrug, adjusting my black messenger bag on my shoulder.

Melissa slammed her locker shut, earning a raised eyebrow from me. "What, you're going to let this dude run your life?" she asked loudly, glaring at me. "You gotta take control! Show that man who's boss! Tell him what you want to do for a change instead of just doing what he says! Be a woman!" She flailed her arms, swinging her stereo bag dangerously close to some hapless passerby.

"Sheesh, Melissa, it's not like I'm his slave," I told her with a grin. "Chances are he'll insist on doing whatever I want to do, anyway."

"Oh." Melissa blinked at me, then shrugged. "All right then. Let's go ask what he wants to do so we can find out what you want to do."

"Lead the way."

She nodded and started walking along the emptying hall. School had ended almost ten minutes ago and most of the student body had already boarded their buses and gone home. Those who drove to school had either left or were hanging around with their friends, and the remaining few in clubs or on sports teams had gone to their respective playing fields and club rooms.

Melissa led the way to a flight of stairs leading down to the first floor. I followed her outside of the brick building, and she seemed to know exactly where she was going as she headed along the sidewalk to the baseball field.

Sure enough, on the bleachers sat three boys, stretched out comfortably. One was blond, one a redhead, and the third was my black-haired Jack, a cigarette hanging between his lips as he watched the cloudy sky.

"Hey, Jack!" Melissa called out, waving cheerfully. "Get your ass down here, will ya?"

The boys looked over, startled by her cry.

"Looks like your old lady's callin'," the blond boy, Evan, snickered at Jack.

Jack snorted. "She wishes," he retorted, pushing himself to his feet and making his way down the bleachers to Melissa and I. He took a drag from his cigarette on the way, letting the smoke out as he reached us and took my hand.

"Don't try to pretend you don't want a piece of this, Evan," Melissa said coyly, crossing her arms.

"Name the time and place, sweetheart," Evan replied, raising his cigarette in salute.

"Shut up, Evan, you virgin," Jack called over his shoulder as he led us away from the bleachers, his fingers lacing with mine.

"Call me!" Melissa called, waving over her shoulder as she followed. "Where are we going?"

"You'll find out when we get there," Jack replied airily. "And if you ask again I swear I'll turn this car around."