First

"Why would she tell you that?" Nolan asked, frowning at me.

I shrugged, and then I shielded my eyes from the sun with my hand, wondering about that myself as I looked up through the overarching branches of the oak tree above me.

Nolan and I were at the park by my house. It was the first weekend of November, and surprisingly, it had been quite warm over the past few days. We were lying underneath the tree at the top of a hill in the park next to my apartment. Our teachers hadn't really given us any homework for the weekend. It was a good weekend.

Well, a good weekend barring the mess with the tickets.

"She said she just wanted me to know," I said, remembering Alaina's reply when I had asked her the exact same thing. I went on. "Maybe she thinks this will make me rethink my decision to side with Katie."

Nolan propped himself up from where he was lying next to me and raised an eyebrow. "Does it?"

Again, I frowned. "I don't know," I finally said, sighing. "I don't know how Alaina even found out that ticket was Katie's in the first place. What could she have done? Compared handwritings with everyone's homework assignments? Questioned all the people that were selling the ticket?"

For a long time, Nolan didn't reply. In fact, he was silent for so long that I turned and looked at him. "I don't know," he muttered. "I don't know what Alaina's trying to do by telling you. What if that ticket isn't Katie's?"

"You don't think so?" My eyes widened as I looked over at him. I had considered this myself. What if Alaina was wrong? But then again, what if she was right? What if Katie had really bought a ticket for Jeremy to dance with his ex-girlfriend. What would be her motive? Shannon's words about that being a terrible thing to do bounced around in my head. What if Katie wanted to humiliate both of them? It was certainly not unreasonable for her to be furious with both Jeremy and Alaina. Still, it would make me feel terrible to know that she had actually bought the ticket with that motive.

I closed my eyes. I don't think I would ever understand the people of Bollinger.

Nolan still hadn't given me a reply. I rolled over on my side and opened one eye to look at him. He was looking up at the sky with a pensive look on his face. I wondered what he was thinking, but I didn't prompt him for an answer. I wasn't sure I wanted to continue talking about this.

When he finally rolled over so that he was lying on his side and we were face to face, he said softly, "I would stay out of it all if I were you," he said, looking at me with a softened expression.

I squeezed my eyes shut. How had I gotten so deep in all this drama? That had never been my intention.

"You know," Nolan said, his voice suddenly tinted with a hint of playfulness. "You owe me."

I opened my eyes and frowned at him, not understanding. He was grinning.

"What do I owe you?" I said cautiously, with a frown.

"A dinner," he replied. "You ran out on me the last time we were supposed to have one together."

I blushed at his words. I remembered that day all too well.

"Actually, now that I think about it, you owe me two dinners," Nolan went on, his grin getting wider as he saw how flustered I had become. That jerk. "The first time we were supposed to eat dinner together, we got interrupted by Alaina."

I blinked, not realizing at first what he had meant. Then I remembered. My dad had invited Nolan to stay and eat with me the first time he had come over to work on a biology project with me. We were supposed to eat leftover Italian food from my fridge, courtesy of my dad trying out his new recipes on us. That dinner had been interrupted by Alaina's phone call. That dinner and that almost kiss.

Well aware that my face was very red by this point and that the growing amusement was flickering in Nolan's eyes, I glared at him. "Neither of those were my fault," I declared.

He laughed, a deep, soothing laugh that made me shiver. "Oh, I think the second one was definitely your fault," he said, reaching over and resting his hand on the side of my body where it dipped above my hips as I was lying on my side, facing him. Over the past week, he had put his arm around me and held my hand and even kissed me quite a few times, but I don't think I could ever get used to his touch. His hand had somehow found that bit of bare skin above my jeans where my cardigan had shifted up slightly, and I could feel my skin tingling from the contact.

"So what do you say, Jess?" Nolan asked with another smile as he leaned forward. "Will you let me take you out on an actual date?"

I could barely hold my gaze with him as he leaned closer and closer until his nose was almost touching mine. It made me feel flustered and giddy all at once, but I was determined to continue glaring at him. I hated how flustered I got around him, but Nolan seemed to find it all quite amusing.

"Fine," I breathed out, my heart hammering in my chest because he was so close to me.

Nolan's lips curled. "Good," he said smugly, and then he leaned in to kiss me.

It was a pretty steamy kiss that totally caught me off guard because we were in a public park. For goodness sakes, we were on top of a hill. Anybody could see us.

"Nolan!" I gasped as he drew back. I could barely breathe from that. He was tracing circles with the pad of his thumb on the side of my stomach, and it was taking all my willpower to get my next words out coherently. "We're in the middle of the park. There are kids here!"

Nolan only chuckled and then glanced around lazily. There was no one around us. I could hear kids screaming and giggling in the distance, but they must all be further down in the park, where the playgrounds and soccer fields were. I guess we were the only ones that felt like trekking up this far today.

"Oh, there's no one around," he said languidly. Then, before I could make another protest, he leaned in and kissed me again.

It was impossible to resist. I couldn't help but nudge in closer to him and wrap my arms around his neck. It was absolutely intoxicating to kiss him.

I gasped into his mouth when I felt his hand slide further up the side of my stomach, underneath my cardigan and my shirt. I could feel the tips of his fingers brushing the bottom of my ribcage. It was setting my skin on fire to feel him touching me as he deepened the kiss, but it was the touch that unclouded my brain for just a moment.

I pushed against his chest and drew back.

Nolan looked at me curiously, surprised. His breathing was pretty ragged from that kiss, but he only continued to look at me, waiting for me to say something.

"We're in a park," I finally breathed out, turning away in embarrassment.

I couldn't see Nolan's face, so I couldn't tell if he knew that that wasn't really what I was trying to say. I had felt his fingers slide up the side of my body, and I had been nervous. It had been a thrilling and relatively innocent touch, but I didn't know what he would have done if I didn't stop the kiss. I knew that Nolan was definitely the more experienced of the two of us. He was the first guy I had ever kissed. The first guy that had ever asked me out. I really had never done anything with a guy before, and it made me nervous because I wasn't sure what Nolan expected, because I was sure he had done more with Julianne and McKenzie than just kiss them.

But I didn't know what to say. Hey, I haven't really done anything, so really, if we could just discuss what kind of things we're both comfortable with…

I cringed internally. Was this how you were supposed to go about dating someone? I felt so clueless sometimes.

Looking back at Nolan, though, I saw that that thoughtful look was again back in his eyes.

After a few seconds, he asked lightly. "Have you never dated anyone before?"

I stared at him. Did he really just read me that easily?

"No," I answered truthfully, wondering just what he thought. That I was too inexperienced? "No I haven't."

For a long moment, Nolan didn't reply. He only continued to look at me.

"So I'm the first?" he finally asked.

I bit my lip and nodded, watching his face carefully and trying to read his expression so I could know just what he was thinking.

Suddenly, he raised his eyebrows just a little bit and smiled. Then he gave me a quick peck on my forehead. When he drew back, he was positively grinning.

"Thank goodness," he said, smiling at me. "I would hate the thought of you kissing anyone else."

That response was so unexpected that I laughed out loud. But then, Nolan suddenly drew back and looked at me quite seriously.

"So," he said somberly, "Nothing with Jeremy?"

I laughed, but then stopped once I realized that Nolan was not smiling.

"Are you actually serious?" I stared at him, incredulous.

He sighed. "I mean, you did ask him to the dance," he said, trailing off. "I know Jeremy would probably never make a move on you, but what I mean is, you've never liked him?"

I looked at him. "What?"

"Look," Nolan said with a sigh. "What we heard Alaina say the other day…all those accusations from her about Jeremy out flirting with other girls behind her back, those accusations aren't exactly unfounded. Not that Jeremy did anything," he quickly added at the look of shock on my face. "I don't think he would ever cheat on Alaina like that, but Jeremy's personality is just very charming. He's so friendly to everyone he meets, so I guess I could kind of see where Alaina's fears would come from."

I looked at Nolan thoughtfully. "You know, Jeremy's actually the one who told me you liked me," I said.

Nolan's eyes widened in surprise. "He told you that?"

I thought about it. "Well, not exactly," I corrected myself. "After you invited me to eat with you that day, he told me that you never did that, so I must be something special. And one time I mentioned that you didn't care about me, and he told me not to be so oblivious."

The look on Nolan's face told me that this was news to him.

"You know, if it wasn't for what he said, I don't think I would have had the guts to admit that I liked you at the dance," I said, realizing as I said the words that it was true. It was partly due to Shannon's encouragement, and also partly due to what Jeremy told me.

"Huh," Nolan mused. "I should really thank him then."

"You should," I teased. "He also told me you lied to me about where you lived."

Nolan scoffed. "I should take back the thanks, then," he muttered.

I laughed, but then sobered up quickly. "Why'd you do that?" I asked him.

He propped his head up to look over at me. "I wanted to drive you home," he said with a light smile.

I stared. "Really? You did that just because you wanted to go out of your way to send me home after school every day?"

"Is that so hard to believe?" he replied softly, looking into my eyes.

I bit back a smile, suddenly embarrassed again.

"You know, I'm your first, but you're also mine." He said softly, looking out into the distance across the tops of the trees in the park. The sun was beginning to set. It cast a red glow on the already fall colored leaves. I could feel a slight breeze pass through.

"What are you talking about?" I asked. "You said yourself that there was—

"But you're different," he was still looking out into the distance, now with a slight smile on his face. "You're the first girl I really felt this way about."

I didn't know what to say to that. Instead, I shifted closer to him so that we were both now sitting up, leaning our backs against the trunk of the oak tree. My knees were propped up, and Nolan put a hand lightly on my left knee, absentmindedly drumming his fingertips while we watched the sun set.

It was a glowing hemisphere above the horizon before he spoke again.

"You know, Jeremy's been a much better friend to me than I have been to him over the past few months," Nolan said with a heavy sigh.

I looked over at him. "Because you agreed to go with Alaina to homecoming? Oh, he knows you didn't really mean anything by that," I reasoned.

"No, not just that," he replied with a shake of his head. "He and Alaina got so messy towards the end, and then even after their breakup…I knew that Jeremy was feeling terrible, despite how much he tried to hide it, but I didn't do anything." He sighed again, and then went on. "I didn't do anything to try to help either of them fix it."

I thought he would go on, but he didn't. Again, Nolan had that pensive look on his face, and I didn't pry.

Finally, he stood up. Reaching out a hand towards me, he smiled.

"Come on, Jess," he said. "It's getting late. I don't want your dad to hate me for hogging you all day."

"Oh my dad doesn't mind," I muttered, placing my hand in his and letting him pull me up to my feet. It was true, Dad was thrilled when he heard that I was hanging out with Nolan for the day. He liked Nolan from that brief encounter they had. Moreover, I think he was just so relieved at my finally living some semblance of the life of a normal teenage girl that he didn't even bother setting a curfew or being overprotective or doing any of the things that fathers are supposed to do. "Plus, he's not even home tonight. Still at the restaurant, working the dinner shift."

Nolan raised an eyebrow at me. "Oh?" he quipped. "So what are you doing for dinner?"

I shrugged. "Probably leftovers."

"Want to come to my house?" he asked, and then smiled. "You owe me two, remember?"

I smiled. "Are you going to cook?"

"I can," Nolan said. "We usually have someone at the house to take care of this for us, but since I'm such a great chef and you ran out on me the last time I wanted to cook for you…"

I rolled my eyes.

"Hmm," I murmured, "How about tomorrow? I have to take care of some stuff tonight."

Nolan looked at me curiously, but he didn't prod. I did have something that I wanted to take care of today, and I didn't feel like telling him. Not just yet. Not until I've sorted everything out myself first.

"Okay," he said simply. "Then I'll see you tomorrow?"

I smiled back. "See you tomorrow."

I raised my hand to wave at him. I was always so awkward about this type of stuff. Were we supposed to hug or something?

To my surprise, Nolan took my hand and gave me a tug so that I was pulled towards him. I yelped in surprise as I went tumbling closer towards him and only caught myself when I braced both of my hands against his chest.

Looking up, I glared at him, only to catch that familiar look of amusement flickering in his eyes.

"I'll look forward to it, Jess," he breathed softly in my ear.

I could almost hear my heart pound. His lips were so close to mine that I could feel my eyelids droop out of anticipation. I leaned forward, just ever so slightly.

To my surprise, Nolan drew back and grinned at me.

He stepped back. "I'll pick you up," he said, still grinning.

I glared at him. Oh, he did that one on purpose. But he only laughed as he gave me a wave goodbye and we parted ways.

Only when I had turned away to walk off back towards my apartments did I allow myself to grin. I put my fingers to my lips and laughed a little. If I had known I would get to this point with Nolan during my first day at Bollinger, I would have never believed it. I didn't know which was more shocking, all the drama that had unfolded with me and Alaina or that I had ended up dating Nolan Barnes.

Still, I couldn't dwell on that for long. As I made my way back towards my apartments, I turned at the fork right before I got to my building. I clenched my fists as I walked. I don't know how much I wanted to do this, or whether or not I should, but I needed to know.

I got to building 23D. The light was on in the first floor corner apartment, so I knew she would be there. I got to the door, raised my hand, and knocked.

Katie seemed surprised when she opened the door.

"Jessica!" she said and then gave me a slight smile and stepped back. "What are you doing here? Want to come inside?"

I tried to smile back at her but couldn't. I could never really pretend to feel at ease when I wasn't. I shook my head at her offer. It was Saturday, so maybe her parents were home. I didn't want to have to ask her in front of her parents. I didn't want to have to ask her at all, but I knew I had to settle this. If nothing else, I wanted to know if she was really the type of person I had thought she was.

"I just have a question I wanted to ask you," I said. I could feel my nails digging into my palms.

Katie looked at me curiously. "What is it?" she asked.

I gritted my teeth, but I had already made up my mind to ask her. "That ticket that had Jeremy's name on it for the dance with Alaina," I said, "Did you buy it?"

Katie stared at me, her mouth agape, her hand on the doorway.

"Wha—what?" she stammered, still staring at me.

I looked back at her, seeing the shock in her eyes. For some reason, I couldn't bring myself to ask her the same question again.

"Why would I do that?" she asked, still staring at me with a look of horror. Then, in an even smaller voice. "Why? Do you think I did?"

For a moment, I simply stared back at her, not knowing what to say. She had not really answered my question. No yes or no. Just expressions of shock, and then of horror at the idea that I thought she had bought the ticket.

I shook my head, a feeling of guilt washing over me. "No," I shook my head. "No, I don't," I replied. "I'm sorry I asked."

Then without waiting for her to say anything else, I turned around and walked off, suddenly feeling terrible.

Did I really think Katie bought that ticket? I knew I didn't want to think so. I knew that from my interactions with her, she didn't seem like she would do that out of spite. I felt so bad for even implying that I suspected her by asking that I was sure Alaina was wrong.

As I was walking back towards my own apartment, I realized something. It didn't matter if Katie bought the ticket or not. Maybe she didn't. Maybe she did. Maybe it was a moment of anger and frustration at the way she had been treated for the past half a year. But it didn't matter. Even if she did, I knew she wouldn't deserve the amount of bullying Alaina's wrath would unleash for the rest of the school year, or maybe for the rest of high school. Not after everything she had been through. No one deserved something like that.

I was at the foot of my apartment building when I made a split second decision. Turning back around, I hugged my cardigan closer towards me. It was getting colder now. The sun had almost set completely, decorating the sky with brilliant rays of color before it disappeared over the horizon.

I walked briskly, towards the entrance of my apartment complex, across the street, and to Alaina's house.

The colors in the sky had just about disappeared once I reached her front gate. I could see Alaina's BMW parked in the driveway. I rubbed my hands up and down my arms. The warmness of the afternoon was fading now that the sun was almost gone. I rang the buzzer.

It picked up after two rings.

I half expected Marietta to answer me. The voice I heard on the other end, however, was not hers, but Alaina's.

"Who is it?" Alaina asked.

I closed my eyes. "It's Jessica," I said.

There was a pause on the other end. Then a light, "Oh." Then the gate slowly pulled open as she let me in.

I sucked my cheeks in as I walked up the entranceway to the door. The lights by the fountain in front of her house had already turned on. I could see the chubby face of a stone cherub holding what looked like a flower in the fountain. But I didn't have time to dwell on that as I saw the door open in front of me.

Alaina stood in the doorway, looking out at me as I neared.

Like always, I couldn't even guess what she was thinking as she watched me walk up, but I spoke before she had a chance to say something.

"About that ticket," I began. Alaina turned her a bit to look sharply at me. That had gotten her attention. "It wasn't Katie."

She raised an eyebrow. "It wasn't?" she said, gazing at me intently.

"No," I said, my jaw tight. "I bought it."