CHAPTER ONE Camilla
Social norms are a challenging thing for us to face,” Mrs. Brandwright said in a thoughtful tone. She paced up and down our classroom aisle, locking eyes with each of us for a moment. Her blond shoulder-length bob brushed her face as she walked. “So how have cultures evolved different perspectives on what is considered acceptable behavior in public? Because it does vary, depending on where you are.”
I jotted the question down in my notebook, then went back to nibbling on my pen. I could pretty much predict that was going to be on our next pop quiz.
“I’m excited for us to start breaking these apart, to really analyze these norms, such as ‘Don’t talk too loud, or you’ll bug people or look desperate for attention’ or ‘Control your emotions, or you’ll appear volatile’ or ‘Stay outside of strangers’ personal boundaries, or you’ll be labeled creepy.’ ” She paused. “As a society, we learn that we must act a certain way around others, even from a young age. And as we get older, having internalized those rules, we grow uncomfortable when those around us break them. Who
we perceive as rude or weird or lacking manners . . . or crazy.” She locked her eyes on Carter, the guy behind me, who, from the sound of it, was halfway to snoozeville. “Carter—wake up.”
He snorted and said in a bleary, sleep-filled voice, “I—I’m present.”
The class tittered.
“Carter.” Mrs. Brandwright gave that heavy teacher sigh. “I already took attendance. Pay attention, sir.” She spun around and went back to the front of the classroom to write a few key terms about social norms on the chalkboard.
I turned my attention to my psychology notebook and tried to focus on her lecture, on writing notes. But once again my gaze slid, unbidden, to the back of Benjamin’s neck. From my seat directly behind him, I could smell his light ocean-scented cologne wafting to my nose.
It was so, so hard not to lean forward and inhale.
Twelve freckles on the back of his neck. I knew because I’d counted them innumerable times since the beginning of the school year. Had stared in fascination at the small, dark blond swirl on the top of his head, which gave his hairline a twisty part and made the top spike in a haphazard fashion.
Benjamin ran a strong hand along his neckline, then scratched. Cheeks heated, I ripped my gaze away and fixed my attention on my notebook. Doodled a little in the margins, wrote my name in fancy script—Camilla is super awesome. It was stupid of me to spend all this time looking at him, I knew.
Not once since the school year began had the guy said more than five words to me in a row. Tests and papers were handed back in total silence. No chitchat before or after class. Hell, he barely even made
eye contact with me. The last time it happened, I felt a strange zing through my whole body when those dark green eyes fixed on mine.
Then he’d looked away, back down to doodle in his notebook or sneak-read whatever novel was hidden in his lap, and I was reminded that Benjamin didn’t give two shits about me. He probably didn’t even know my name, despite the fact that I’d sat behind him since August. And given that it was already the beginning of April, I didn’t see that changing anytime soon.
“Camilla,” Mrs. Brandwright said, snapping me out of my thoughts, “what about you?”
Shit. I had no idea what we were talking about. “Um.” I cleared my throat and narrowed my eyes at the board to see what she’d written. “I . . .”
The sigh she gave me closely resembled the ones she typically reserved for Carter. Her brown eyes creased as she shot me an irritated look. “I asked when was the last time you’ve been in a socially uncomfortable situation because of another person.”
“Oh.” My brain scrabbled for an answer, and I tried to ignore the huffs of impatience around me. “When I went to see a movie last month, the row my aunt and I chose was empty, and we sat in the middle. And then this older guy took the seat right beside me, despite there being plenty available elsewhere.”
“I hate when that happens,” Megan, the brunette in the seat beside mine, mumbled. “Why is it always guys who do that?”
“Interesting.” Our teacher leaned back against her desk and crossed her arms over her ample chest. “Is it really always males who break these societal rules, especially regarding personal boundaries?”
“I think females break them too,” Benjamin said in his low, husky tone.
“But in different ways and maybe with different intents.”
Intents. Yeah, like wanting to touch every lean line of his body, the way I ached to. I bet he was always having girls cuddle up a little too close to him. Had to get a bit old for him, being so ridiculously hot.
Okay, he wasn’t hot in the typical sense. His nose was a little crooked, his lips a bit on the thin side. He was tall and kind of lanky. But there was something magnetic about those dark green eyes, the way he seemed like he could see right inside you. Saw past the facade and pierced to the truth, even with a brief glance.
Plus, he was well-read, unlike most guys in school who whined about having to do any reading outside of class. I didn’t remember ever seeing Benjamin without a book in hand. All those classic titles he toted around—War and Peace, The Count of Monte Cristo, even Jane Eyre—gave me snippets of his personality, made me want to know more.
The first time I saw him freshman year, walking down the hallway with a couple of guys, I felt the impact of it long afterward. There was an intensity in his eyes that I’d never seen in anyone else’s, and I wanted more. But we never had classes together, never shared a lunch break. My experiences were limited to fleeting glimpses during the occasional shuffle between classes.
So when I discovered on our first day of senior year that we were both in this psych class, I’d reveled in the realization that this was my big chance. And then had found out quickly that Benjamin wasn’t much of a talker—not to me, not to anyone. But when he did talk in class to answer questions or offer thoughts, he was intelligent, albeit succinct.
Mrs. Brandwright peeked down at her watch. “Okay, everyone, grab
your journals. Today’s entry is going to be about your most recent experience with someone breaking a societal norm in your presence. Sitting too close, talking too loud, doing something that made you uncomfortable because it broke those ‘silent rules’ of manners we all seem to adhere to. Analyze what made you so uncomfortable with the experience and also tell me how you reacted to it.”
The sounds of pencils and pens scratching across paper filled the silence in the room. For a moment, I watched Benjamin scrawl in his notebook, his left hand sweeping across the page. He paused, tilted his head in thought, then wrote more.
What was he writing in there?
My heart squeezed in my chest. I dropped my gaze to my paper and wrote about my movie theater awkwardness. How I’d spent the rest of the movie leaning closer to my aunt Betsy, and how we’d exchanged whispers about the creeper beside me. Yet I hadn’t moved away from the guy.
I paused. Why was that? Why had I been so hesitant to just get up and find another seat?
Maybe I didn’t want to offend the guy in case he really wasn’t that bad of a person, I wrote on my paper. Or make a public disturbance that might disrupt others and thus make me the jerk. Sometimes I worry too much about looking impolite—I worry what others will think of me. That people will think I’m just a rude teen and write me and my feelings off because of it.
I chewed on my pen as I reread what I wrote. Part of the reason for me being like this, so overly concerned with pleasing people, was my mom, who was a little . . . over the top, to say the least. And part of it had to do with the desire to be liked.
The final bell rang—school done, hooray! I shoved those
uncomfortable musings to the back of my head and gathered my belongings. People hustled down the aisle in an effort to get out of the classroom and head home. I filed behind everyone, last to leave, and made my way out of the room.
Then stopped dead in the door. Blinked.
The hallway was lined with dozens of students along the lockers, all staring at me in eerie silence, hands tucked behind their backs. To the right, in the middle of the hall, I saw Zach, a guy in my statistics class who wore a touch too much body spray and laughed loudly. His black hair was slicked back, and he had on a tuxedo that looked a little big on him.
He stepped toward me and gave me a curt nod. I saw his hands tremble, and he clenched them at his sides. “Hey, Camilla.”
My heart gave a stuttering thud. I tugged the sleeves of my sweater over my hands. “Um. Hi, Zach?”
What the hell was going on here? Was this part of some strange social mores experiment from psych class that I’d missed because of not paying attention? I guess that was what I got for staring at Benjamin so often.
Students started whispering furiously as they stared at us. Then, just behind Zach, I saw a crew for a local news station. The college-age girl holding the camera had a shit-eating grin that took up nearly half her face, and beside her was a tall, polished brunette woman in a navy blue suit.
Oh God. Whatever this was, it was going to be on TV.
The camera’s light hit me right in the eyes, and I blinked.
“Camilla,” Zach said in a bellowing voice. “As I’m sure you know, we’re nearing springtime. Our high school journey is about to end.”
I barely smothered a snort at his overly formal tone; my brain wasn’t quite accepting what was happening, and I didn’t know yet how to react. “Yes, Zach. I kind of had an inkling about that.”
He thrust his chin in the air. “You and I have been acquaintances for a while now, and today I wanted to ask you something important.” He dropped down to one knee, looked to his left, and nodded, and soft classical music filled the hallways.
One by one, a number of the students along the lockers came up to me, and each handed me a red rose until my arms were overladen with flowers. A few of the girls winked at me or gave me whispered cheers of encouragement. The sickly sweet scent of roses filled the air.
My stomach knotted. Suddenly, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what was coming, and I had the strong impulse to drop the flowers, shove Zach away, and barrel down the hall.
Don’t do it, I mentally begged him. Don’t ask me, please.
Fear and horror and those damned social mores Mrs. Brandwright had just talked about paralyzed me in place. The smile on my face was pinched so tight it hurt. I scoured the hall, looking for someone who might help get me out of this situation.
I was met with swooning girls, snorting guys.
And Benjamin. Standing there, hands thrust in his jeans pockets, face inscrutable, just watching everything happen.
“You are the most beautiful girl in school, maybe even in all of Ohio,” Zach declared, his loud tone grabbing my attention. “And I’d like to ask you to please accompany me to the senior prom. As my date. With me.” His cheeks burned bright red.
“Um.” I swallowed. My hands shook; I gripped the flower
stems tighter. This wasn’t how I’d envisioned my promposal happening. Not with a TV crew. Not with Zach looking overly awkward and uncomfortable as he tried to woo me.
Not with Benjamin sitting on the sidelines, a witness to the whole thing.
“Say yes,” someone to my right whispered.
“Yes, yes, yes,” another guy chanted.
Students around us began clapping, saying yes over and over again. The camera swept across the crowd, taking in the full scene, and then that bright light swirled back to me.
I sucked in a shaky breath. Released it. Looked down at Zach. My throat was squeezed so tight I wasn’t sure I could speak; frustration mingled with disappointment in my gut. I bit my lip and simply nodded my reply, tried to blink back the tears that threatened to burn my eyes.
The hallways exploded with applause, and the newscaster turned to the camera and began speaking. Zach stood and stepped toward me, his eyes bright with joy.
“It’s going to be great,” he whispered. “I can’t wait for the end of May.”
The newscaster came over and thrust a mike in our faces. “So, Zachary,” she said, “how did you come up with the idea for this . . . ‘promposal’?” She beamed us a smile, her white teeth perfect and straight.
Zach talked for a few moments, but I didn’t hear what he said. All I heard was the dull roar in my head. The heated words that battered my brain. I’d said yes to Zach, had agreed to be his date because I’d been peer-pressured into it. There was no way I could turn him down, not with all these people looking at us.
And with a friggin’ TV crew on hand, for crying out loud.
No hadn’t been an option for me.
“Camilla,” the woman said, “so what do you think you’ll wear? Will you two coordinate your outfits?”
I mumbled some generic response and tried my best to give her a smile, though it felt like my face was cracking apart. I just wanted to go home, curl up on my bed, and cry. I hadn’t envisioned my promposal happening like this. Not with a guy I barely knew.
The woman turned her attention back to the camera to finish up her segment, and several girls came up to me.
“Oh my God, that was the most romantic thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” one freshman said. She pressed her hand to her heart and practically swooned right there. “I hope my senior promposal will be that amazing. You are so, so lucky.”
I gave a weak nod, and they scampered off.
The hallways cleared out. Zach walked over to the newscaster and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks, Mom.”
Oh God. Seriously? His mom. I should have known.
She and her camerawoman packed up the gear and left too.
Zach turned toward me, self-congratulation evident in the warm flush of his cheeks, the glow in his eyes. “Well, I’d better get going.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
I guess my tone wasn’t as upbeat as I tried to make it. His brow furrowed, and some of the sparkle left his eyes. “You do want to go with me, don’t you?”
The weight of the roses was making my arms tired. I shifted them a bit and glanced away, guilt twisting in my chest. What did I
say to that without sounding like a total jerk? Despite his proclamation, I barely knew the guy. I sat in statistics with him this year, and on the rare occasion, we shared the same lunch table.
But that look on his face when he’d asked me . . . that flare of hope in his eyes . . . He’d taken a lot of time to set this up.
I forced a smile to my face. Mom would be proud. “I’m sure it’ll be a lot of fun.” When in doubt, deflect.
He didn’t seem to notice I hadn’t answered his question. He smiled and squeezed my arm. “Get those flowers in water before they start to wilt.” Then he leaned close to me and brushed a small kiss across my cheek. “I’ll see you on Monday . . . date.”
With that, Zach sauntered off with more than a little swagger, like a guy who always wore a tuxedo to school, and turned the corner out of sight.
I was left alone in the hall now. Stomach knotted. Head swirling with doubts. What did I do now? I was totally stuck going to prom with someone I didn’t have any feelings for. The secret fantasy I’d had in my head of Benjamin asking me to prom was now dead and gone for good.
Yeah, I’d known it wouldn’t happen, but the hope had still been there.
With a heavy sigh, I plodded to my locker and then headed outside. Maybe my bestie, Joshua, would have some advice for me. God knew I had no idea how I was going to dig myself out of this hole.