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It was amazing to me that, despite her frail, small frame and normally quiet disposition, she could command a room like a burly drill sergeant twice her size.
For that and many other reasons, Mrs. Landers was one of my favorite teachers at Sugar Tree.
“I know you’re all bustling with energy after this weekend. No doubt there is plenty to talk about, but unfortunately for you and for me, it’s Monday, which means it’s time to work.”
Groans were heard throughout the classroom.
“For those of you who actually follow the syllabus I passed out all those weeks ago when we started this semester, you’ve noticed that a good chunk of your grade is based on something called a personal project. What is that? Well, today, you shall find out.”
More groans followed as well as a few disgruntled heads hitting desks.
I sat quietly in my desk, trying my best not to study the back of Sam’s head.
I was failing miserably.
“If you have any older siblings, which I know some of you do, you might be familiar with the personal project. It requires you to delve into your past — specifically, the history of your family. It’s something I’ve required for decades since arriving at Sugar Tree, and for some students, it’s what they look forward to upon entering their junior year.”
Several students looked around the room, wondering just who might be crazy enough to actually look forward to schoolwork. I was one of them. I might be a decent student, but I didn’t come here, begging for stuff to do.
“This year, however, I’ve decided to switch things up a bit,” she announced, causing a few heads to rise in interest. “You will still be studying your past, learning about your family and ancestry, like the classes before you. But, this year, you will do so with a partner. This year, you will not only be learning about your history, but also the legacy of one of your fellow students. And, at the end of this assignment, you will write a report of what makes you individual and unique in addition to sharing any similarities you and your partner might have in common. This is your chance to learn about other cultures, to discover various circumstances outside your own. After all, isn’t that what history is?”
It was a nice speech; I’d give her that.
If she’d delivered it to anyone but a room of high school students, I was sure the response would have been overwhelmingly positive.
But it wasn’t.
Instead, we all looked at her like she was insane.
Completely, totally insane.
“Now, to make sure this is fair,” she continued, seemingly unfazed by the lack of enthusiasm to the revised assignment, “I’ve already preselected your partners.”
If she was hoping for a response, she found it with that announcement.
If there was one thing that could cause a riot among young girls, it was telling them they couldn’t work with their friends.
Heck, even I was upset, and I barely knew anyone in the entire class.
“Good,” Mrs. Landers continued, ignoring our outcries of injustice. “I’ll be posting the pairings at the end of class. The requirements along with the due date will be added to the class’s online Blackboard. Please feel free to see me if you have questions. Let’s move on.”
I wasn’t sure anyone paid the least bit of attention to the lecture she gave as we all sat on the edges of our seats, waiting for that list to be revealed.
I honestly didn’t care who I was paired with. I mean, how bad could it be? I didn’t know anyone, so really, one person was just as bad as the next.
No, that would never happen.
My anticipation doubled.
While I waited for the period to be over, forty minutes easily became a hundred forty as the clock seemed to move backward,
Is the clock freaking broken?
Finally, the bell rang, and we all jumped from our seats. Mrs. Landers slowly walked to her desk, reaching for a manila envelope. From inside, she pulled out a single sheet of paper and casually took it to the door. All at once, she was crowded by twenty students, wrangling for a look at the list.
Somehow, maybe because of her tiny figure, our teacher made it out of the fray alive and sat back in her desk chair. A happy smile was on her face as she watched everyone jockeying for positions near the list.
I, on the other hand, held back, until every last one of them had their turn before I approached.
Some were pleased with their pairings, giving high fives as they exited to the hallway. Others swore under their breaths or threw their hands up in the air, like the entire world had just ended.
I cautiously walked up to the list and felt my stomach hit the floor.
Just freaking great.
Turning toward Mrs. Landers, I spoke, “Is there any way I can switch?”
Her eyebrows furrowed in confusion as she took out a duplicate list from her desk and found my name.
“Is there a reason you can’t be partnered with Mr. Shepherd?” she asked, neatly folding her hands in her lap.
He does funny things to my insides.
He said I was pretty, and I don’t know what that means.
“No,” I replied, followed by, “I mean, it’s just—”
She smiled warmly. “I get it. You don’t know him. You’re new here. But that is why I paired everyone the way I did. I purposely put students together who might not know each other well. This will push you outside your boundaries, force you to get to know someone you might otherwise ignore.”
“But I do know him. We work together!” I blurted out, thinking I’d found a loophole in her carefully thought-out plan.
“Oh? Well, that could change things. Tell me then, where does he live? What does Sam like to do when he’s not at school?”
“Uh…” I struggled to answer. “I don’t know.”
Her smile widened, almost as if she’d expected my answer. “There is a difference between knowing someone and truly understanding them. Maybe this will help you discover that distinction. Good luck with your assignment.”
I nodded, realizing she’d given me a firm no to my request.
As I exited the room, my head reeling while I tried to figure out just how I was going to make all this work, I ran straight into a brick wall.
Looking up, I realized it wasn’t a brick wall at all.
It was Sam.
The expression on his face was just as hard and unyielding.
“Read,” he said.
“That’s what I like to do when I’m not at school.”
And then he walked away.
Don’t look up.
Never make eye contact.
Those were the words I lived by growing up, the words that protected me in an unsafe home. But words are only letters and eventually even they couldn’t keep his hands off me.
Hoping to leave behind the shattered life of my past, I find myself in a boring, small town, with an aunt I’ve never met and at a school I loathe.
But soon I learn, not everything in this world is as black and white as I’ve determined. Sometimes those we are so quick to judge often need a second, third or even fourth time to make a first impression.
And often, there are friendships and even love waiting just around the corner, if we are brave enough to take the first step.
Am I brave?
Or will I hide behind these tattered gloves of mine forever?
Tattered Gloves releases on January 24th!
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I’m married to my high school sweetheart. We were married young, barely out of high school. Everyone told us we were crazy and stupid. We’ll be celebrating 12 years of marriage this year, and I love him more every single day. We’re living proof that true love knows no age limit.
We’ve been blessed with two beautiful daughters who continue to amaze and inspire me, and are probably making me go a bit insane. I’m obsessed with yoga and pilates and am a complete chocoholic. I apologize in advance for the amount of sweets in my book.
I’m absolutely obsessed with romance novels (duh) and probably could have built a vacation home with the amount of money I’ve invested in them over the years. Romance novels take you to another place, making your heart race, emotions swell, passion run free. After so many years of meeting hundreds of fictional characters and discovering their worlds, I found myself creating my own.
I am represented by Jill Marsal of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency, LLC.