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Excerpt 1: Try With Me

Book 3: The With Me Series

My life has finally settled into a routine, and after seven months of living in Burlington, it’s starting to feel like home.

I wake up, roll out of bed, and get ready for the day ahead. If it’s a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, I take a left turn out of my apartment building. And if it’s a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday, I take a right and head toward the coffee shop, one of my many jobs. Sundays are mostly spent at St. Anne’s Hospital.

Sundays are the hardest day for me.

But today is Thursday, and I’m already two hours into my five-hour shift at Java Buzz. I get off at noon and have a few hours before I have to hit my other job at Cinema 18, one of the movie theaters in Burlington. I know that it’ll be busy tonight since a highly anticipated movie releases at midnight, and I also have to help train a new employee.

As usual, Java Buzz has a steady flow of customers since opening this morning. I’m making drinks, and most regulars are ordering cappuccinos or lattes. If they decide to sit down, I put a little design in the drinks. It’s not as if I’m Van Gogh’ing their cappuccinos, but I can do a leaf, happy faces, hearts, and flowers.

For Mr. Valiant—one of my favorite customers—I’m putting the finishing touches of a smiley face in his cappuccino when the door swings open, the bells tinkling above.

And in walks Jamie McAlister.

I fight the urge to duck.

Hide.

Run away.

I keep an eye on Jamie as I pass the steaming cup over to Mr. Valiant.

Mr. Valiant, with his shock of white hair and round face lined with wrinkles and laugh lines, reminds me of a grandfather . . . if I had a grandfather still alive, that is. He smiles at me as he takes the cup. “Thank you, Zelda.”

“Anytime, Mr. V.,” I say brightly and watch Jamie take his place in line.

Jamie McAlister.

I haven’t seen him since we graduated from high school. We were in the same year, and I had some classes with Jamie but not his fraternal twin sister, Julie. It seems like I always ended up sitting behind him, as my last name, Nichols, was typically a desk or three behind McAlister. While Jamie was popular, easily liked, and had the best time in high school, well . . . I didn’t.

But I kept my head down and did well enough to I graduate valedictorian. I had plans. Big plans. Ones that involved Harvard. And then . . .

There’s no point in thinking about Harvard anymore. That was four years ago when I put aside my dreams, my ambitions . . . my hopes. I made my choice back then, and I wouldn’t unmake that choice now. I’ve made peace with my decision. Really, I have.

It’s a little weird to see Jamie after all this time. Although we lived in somewhat of a small town in Connecticut, our high school graduating class had close to four hundred kids. I had heard Jamie was debating between going to California or Vermont, but I never knew his final decision. It wasn’t as if we were friends—we didn’t run in the same crowds. But obviously, seeing him here means he went with a college in Vermont.

I’m not sure Jamie would even recognize me. I kept to myself and tried to disappear as much as possible, just so I wouldn’t be teased or bullied. I was shy and quiet, and other kids seized on what they considered a weakness and made me their target. But Jamie never made fun of me. Actually whenever Jamie was around, no one would do anything to me. In some ways, he was a hero in that regard, but he never talked to me. To be fair, I hardly talked to him either. So I never hated Jamie.

Hate wasn’t even in my vocabulary when it came to Jamie. I never hated him.

I—I liked him.

I stifle a snort. Like is putting it mildly. Truth be told, I had the hugest crush on him. It was the first time in my life I saw a guy and felt all of these fizzy, warm, romantic feelings. It was the first time my heart pounded and raced. It was the first time—and only time—I fell in love.

Fell in love.

How silly of me. Seriously. I was thirteen when I started my freshman year of high school, but I still remember walking into that huge building and feeling nervous. Would I get lost? What if it was like my miserable experience in middle school? Maybe I could reinvent myself and be totally cool and popular and have a ton of friends?

I didn’t get lost. High school ended up being way more miserable than middle school. And I was geeky and unpopular and had zero friends. A modern-day wallflower . . . except I didn’t even get invited to dances or parties.

When I walked into my first class—honors math—I saw this really cute boy with golden blond hair and light blue eyes. He had a wide smile and a bunch of other kids had gathered around him, all of them laughing at his jokes. I instantly wanted to be part of his crowd. Then he looked over at me, standing in the doorway, and his smile grew even wider.

That was it for me.

Over the next few years, it always felt like a repeat of that first day of class in freshman year. Jamie McAlister would already be in the classroom, surrounded by a bunch of people, and I would hover in the doorway. And he’d look over, see me, and his smile would deepen. Maybe that smile wasn’t meant for me, but . . .

How I wished that it was.

All of these memories flood my senses, and I feel like that girl again—the one who sees the guyand falls hard for him. At fifteen, I doodled hearts and wrote Jamie’s name in my diary, all the while wondering what it would be like to be kissed by him. And then I was that seventeen-year-old girl who knew she wasn’t going to be asked to prom but still hoped that maybe life would be like a romantic movie and I’d get the guy at the end.

Stupid, foolish, idiotic me. Even now I want to bang my head against the counter for spinning such fantasies.

Maybe Jamie won’t even recognize me.

God, I hope he doesn’t. And there’s a strong possibility he won’t.

My blond hair is way shorter than it was in high school—shoulder-length instead of mid-waist—and it’s not as if I was a blip on his radar. So, I guess I’m safe, but it’s the possibility that he could remember that’s worrying me. When do you ever want to run into someone from high school and have to play the fake game of “Didn’t we know each other?” or “Wow, it’s been so long. What have you been up to?” And then I would have to brush it off with a lie, and if there’s something I’m bad it, it’s not telling the truth.

My mother always tells me that she knows when I’m lying because I can’t meet her eyes, and I blush all over.

It’s true.

I tested her theory during my junior year of high school, as I was getting ready for school. I looked in my bathroom mirror and told the biggest lie I could think of—Jamie McAlister loves me. And, immediately, my whole neck and chest area went splotchy red. My dark brown eyes darted down and away, looking anywhere else but at my reflection.

Jamie McAlister.

I was so foolish back then, liking a guy who didn’t even know my name or see me. It was ridiculous that my heart would race simply by looking at him. The silly fantasies that I would spin where Jamie would suddenly fall in love with me.

But I’m not sixteen. I’m not in high school. I’m not that kind of girl anymore.

I’m twenty-one. I’m officially an adult, but I’ve had adult responsibilities as far back as I can remember. I’m not romantic—I don’t even believe that everything will end happily ever after.

I know better.

I sneak another glance at Jamie. He looks great, dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt. He’s lost that boyish look in his body and face—he’s more built and he seems taller—the top of my head would just reach his chest. But his blond hair is still like the molten gold I remember, and his eyes that incredible light blue. He honestly could be a cover model, that’s how good-looking he is.

He’s not going to remember me.

Of course he’s not. Why would he?

And why am I secretly holding onto this futile hope that he will? Dear self: you don’t want him to remember you. You really, really don’t.

Plain, shy girls like me never get the guy—it’s always the pretty, non-Wallflower girls who do. It’s foolish of me to think otherwise. Why would Jamie recognize me when he didn’t in high school?

Jamie McAlister is like that guy in the myth, the one who flew on waxen wings to escape an island—but instead of crashing and burning because those wings got too close to the sun, Jamie kept soaring to bigger and better things. I’m not the girl he left behind.

I’m not anyone to him.

He doesn’t know me. He never did. Any time he would turn in his chair in one of our shared classes, he’d ask, “Hey, you got a pen I can borrow?”

Too soon it feels like Jamie reaches the counter to place his order. I try to get as small and invisible as I can, which is pretty easy given that I’m barely five foot two, and I’m blocked by huge machines and carafes.

Please don’t see me. Please don’t look over at me. Please get your order to go.

“For here or to go?” Frank, one of my coworkers, asks.

“Here,” Jamie says.

Damn it. Maybe he’s a fast drinker. As long as he doesn’t order anything—

“How are those muffins?”

Horrible. Only horrible if you don’t like buttery, sugary things that melt in your mouth.

“They’re one of a kind,” Frank says. “I like the banana nut myself.”

“I’ll have that one, please,” Jamie says.

Great, that means Jamie will be in Java Buzz for at least fifteen minutes, if not more. Luckily, Jamie still hasn’t spotted me—at least I don’t think he has—and I set about making his order. I’m distracted when he approaches my side of the counter, so I don’t pay attention to what design I make. My heartbeat roars in my ears as I set his cup in front of him.

“Here you go,” I say quickly.

Jamie looks at me for a long moment, then grabs his cup. He looks down at it and smiles.

There should be a law against a smile that makes me that weak in the knees.

“Thanks for the heart,” he says. “It might be a little too soon, though.”

Oh no. Oh no. Oh no.

I snap my head down and there, in the white foam clear as day, is a heart. Perfectly designed. Huge. The curved edges and point almost touch the inside of the cup.

“I didn’t mean to make that,” I say dumbly.

“You sure?”

“Yes. No. I don’t . . . I mean, I’m not . . .” I stammer, feeling my face flush with sudden heat.

“So, the heart is for me, then?” Jamie leans forward, shoving his cup to the side. “Because I work a lot slower than that. I usually wait for the fourth or fifth date before I say anything about love.”

“No. Of course, I didn’t . . . Not really. I . . .” It dawns on me. Finally. And I take a step back. Hot shame burns through me. He’s teasing me. I hate being teased. Hate it. I never know if it’s out of good humor, or if the person is secretly poking fun at me. I tend to expect the latter—being made fun of since first grade has made me suspicious of people joking.

Jamie notices my withdrawal and his smile slips a little.

“Here,” I say. “Give it back, and I’ll make something else. I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Sorry, but you can’t take back your heart.” He pauses as he picks up his drink. “Nice to see you again, Zelda.”

And then he heads to a table by the window.

He knows my name? I frown, resisting the urge to slap myself silly. How many times do I have to tell myself that I’m not that girl? It’s becoming one too many to count. I don’t get flummoxed because a guy asked to borrow my pen. And I certainly don’t have daydreams about Jamie McAlister.

I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse that he knows my name. No, that’s not true. I do know. It makes it worse. So much worse that Jamie knows who I am.

I shake my head and get to work on the orders coming in, all to-go drinks. I wipe my hands off on a towel and clean off the smudge on my shirt . . . with my nametag on it. Of course. He only called me “Zelda” because of this.

He doesn’t know me.

He doesn’t remember me.

This is good. Great. Fabulous.

Really, it is.


Excerpt 1: Try With Me