Rules and Roses

When it comes down to acclaim in the yearbook, my class rank would probably earn me my only entry, but very little else. I don’t wear cosmetics, do my hair or really give a damn about my appearance in general. I don’t need to be cool, and I’ve managed my high school career navigating all the different groups from the nerds to the jocks to the theatre kids and the band geeks.

Kicking off senior year, my only focus is to make every AP class count and keep my grades up. Shouldn’t be hard, particularly with my so-called untouchable status. Oh yeah, imagine that—I had a reputation. Hadn’t been a blip on my radar until the end of junior year when one of the girls’ dropped that little nugget on me. Apparently, the guys at school considered me the best girl to hang out with for fun or homework, but nothing else.

While I’m not looking for a date, it’s a little hard to swallow that I ranked as the best bud and tutor, but would definitely never fall into the Girl Most Likely To Get Asked Out.

Pfft. What did I care? One more year and I was off to college, so what if the numbers of female friends I used to have drifted off and I’d scored a permanent seat in the friend zone. I had subjects to study, grades to maintain, and colleges to get into. Fine, I didn’t care about the rules or status before, and I wouldn’t now.

181 class days to go, and I’ll graduate. No problem, right?

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Read Chapter One

First day.

 

“Frankie,” Mom called. “You’re going to be late.”

“I’m not going to be late,” I yelled, not bothering to straighten from where I was digging under the bed for my shoes. I had one, the other was just almost out of—got it. Fingers hooked into the heel of the sneaker, I yanked it out and then pivoted to sit on the floor so I could put on my shoes.

Tiddles eyed me from his perch on my windowsill. He paused mid-groom as though I’d disturbed him with my antics. Shoes on, I stood and gave the black feline a scratch under his chin. He purred his approval then resumed his grooming as I snagged my backpack, made sure my wallet was secured where it went, then checked for my keys before giving the room a once over.

Bed not made. Clothes still in the hamper because I didn’t have time to do laundry over the weekend. My uniform stuck out of the top with its ugly ketchup stain prominent as if giving me the bird. Fine, I’d do laundry after school. I didn’t work again until Wednesday, anyway.

I scanned the floor—I’d vacuum before Mom noticed, had an aneurism, and ripped my head off. Course, that depended heavily on if she noticed. Backpack over my shoulder, I pulled the bedroom door wide and left it that way. Tiddles would spend ninety percent of his day in my room, but if I shut him in there, he’d shred the door or the carpet. As Mom always said, we needed the pet deposit back someday.

Speaking of Mom, she stood in the kitchen drinking a cup of coffee. As I approached, she pushed a sealed tumbler of coffee toward me along with two twenties.

I eyed the money then her. “Thank you,” I muttered, claiming the coffee. I had a car and the school was less than ten minutes away by car, but I always went in early. First day, new year, and I had six AP classes and a TA period. No time for slacking, senior year or not.

“Take the money, too.” Mom held up a hand before I could open my mouth. “Not a word, Frankie. Put the money in your wallet. I don’t care if you never spend it, but you’re going to have pocket money.”

I made my own money. I worked at the fast food joint two blocks from school—Mason’s, home of the Big and Thick, known for its big burgers and thick shakes. Yes, it sounded dirty, but I’d gotten over blushing about it years ago. I still snickered, though. Course, every penny I earned was currently being poured into a savings account.

One I’d dipped into to fix my car two weeks earlier, but I still had to have air conditioning and a car that didn’t overheat. It was supposed to be over a hundred today and would stay about that for the next week or so. Back to school did not mean fall weather in Texas.

Joy.

Rapture.

“You’ve been working your butt off, missy, and instead of cruising through your senior year—which you could be doing—you’re overachieving, again.” Madeline Curtis, Maddy to her friends, Mad Maddy to her family, and Mom to me, shook her head.

“Every AP exam I ace equals one less college class I have to take a loan out for.” Since I had my eye on an out of state university, I needed all the help with that tuition I could get. I’d done two classes in my sophomore year, five in my junior, and this year was all AP classes. I only needed three of those classes to finish my credits for graduation. “I really don’t mind.”

Actually, I kind of looked forward to the classes. I knew a couple of the guys in at least two of the classes, and I’d probably end up tutoring some of the others, so it wasn’t like I wouldn’t have people to talk to.

After the end of last year, that was a good thing.

“Fine,” Mom said with a sigh. “You’re going to do what you do.”

“Yep.” I grinned and gave her a loose hug. Mom wasn’t that touchy-feely, no matter how much I might have wished otherwise. She tolerated my hugs. PDAs just weren’t her thing, but she let me kiss her cheek and give her the occasional hug. Sometimes, she even ruffled my hair, which I had to duck away from because it was in a ponytail, the frizzy tamed at the moment, and I wanted it to stay that way.

After slipping the twenties into my wallet and securing it back inside the safety pouch of the backpack, I took my keys and my travel mug of coffee. “We, who are about to enter the breach, salute you.”

Mom snorted. “May the odds be in your favor.”

I groaned. I hated those movies, but she loved them. “Thanks, Effie.”

Her eyes crinkled with her smile as she followed me to the door. “I’m going to be late tonight, but there’s still leftover lasagna. Get the chicken out for tomorrow before you go to bed?”

“Can do.”

I jogged down the concrete steps from our apartment to the ground. The apartment complex was built into a hill so we were higher than the apartments behind ours. 

“Do you work tomorrow?”

“Wednesday,” I called. “Thursday, too. Then the weekend.” Same days I did every week, but I’d pulled extra shifts over the summer. “Bye, Mom.”

“Bye, Frankie!”

It took a couple minutes to reach the parking lot. Mom got to park in the carport, but we only got one slot with our apartment, so I had to park across the lot in any open space I could find. The extra ninety seconds of walking wouldn’t kill me. I checked my phone before I shoved it in my back pocket. Five minutes late.

I needed to get going or I’d never find a parking spot at the school. I got the sticker that said I could park, but unless I wanted to pay an extra hundred, I didn’t get assigned parking spot there, either.

Unsurprisingly, a sandy blond leaned against the side of my car. He had his backpack slung over one shoulder, his eyes half-closed, and five o’clock shadow on his face.

“You look like crap,” I said by way of greeting.

“Look better than you,” Coop retaliated, and I grinned.

“Impossible.”

With a light shove, I pushed him away from the driver’s side door. He mock-stumbled before straightening. At six foot, he topped me by six and a half inches.

“Let me guess, you need a ride?”

“Kind of obvious, isn’t it?” He smirked and circled around the car. I’d already unlocked the doors, so he all but fell into the passenger seat. “I’ll cover half the gas.”

“For the ten-minute drive?” I rolled my eyes as I set my backpack into the backseat before climbing into the driver’s seat. The ten-year-old Toyota wasn’t flashy or sexy, but she was reliable and got me where I needed to go. She was also paid off, and I made payments to Mom for her, which helped Mom make payments on her new car—not that she’d asked me to do it, but fair was fair.

“Okay, I’ll keep my money to myself, if you insist,” Coop smirked. “Drive, Jeeves.”

I flipped him off, and then got the car started. “Ass.”

He just laughed.

The drive to school didn’t take long; it never did. Coop spent most of it with his eyes closed behind his sunglasses, and I drank my coffee, draining the last of it before we even pulled into the lot. First day back and it wasn’t crowded yet. Fantastic. I scored a parking spot next to the only tree and closer to the gym hall’s exit doors.

Good karma for the first day.

First day as a senior, too.

So weird.

Coop made an obnoxious snoring noise as I shut the car—and thus the air conditioner—off. I pinched him and he made a grumbling noise then caught my hand and held it to his chest.

Rolling my eyes, I flicked his nose and he made a face. “You are so mean to me.”

“Ha. Out of my car, Coop. I need to go inside, walk my classes, and see if Ms. Fajardo is in her classroom.”

“Why?” He gave my hand a squeeze before he let me go. “God, girl. Just come to the cafeteria and hang out.”

“There’s plenty of time for that.” Well, there had been in freshman and sophomore years. We hung out every day before classes, but then Mr. G let me use his classroom in junior year, and I hung out there some—mostly toward the end of the year. I was kind of hoping Ms. Farjardo would do it this year.

“Uh huh.” Cooper “Coop” Brennen, the boy next door with the lazy attitude and the never in a hurry motto, had a GPA just a bare fraction off mine. He was so not the face he showed the world of being too cool for school or study. “You said that last year and disappeared on us.”

“I didn’t disappear,” I argued. He unfolded himself from my car and stretched before sliding his arms into his backpack. He shut the door and circled the car, snagging my backpack for me and holding it up. It was already hot and humid outside. Texas in August? What did anyone expect? At least we could wear shorts to school, and I’d taken advantage of it.

Not Coop. He wore jeans and looked like he’d never broken a sweat. Sliding my arms into the straps, I locked the car before shoving the keys into my pocket. My tumbler would stay in the car until I got home. I’d kill for another cup of coffee. There was a Starbuck’s a short walk away, inside the grocery store up the street. But—meh. I didn’t want to be dripping sweat with curls pulling my hair out of the ponytail.

So, I’d suffer.

Looping an arm over my shoulders, Coop turned me toward the building. “You spend most of your time in classrooms even when you didn’t have to be.”

“I was studying. Five AP classes is a lot of homework.”

Coop snorted again. “Frankie, Frankie, Frankie… do not hide this year.”

“I’m not hiding,” I said, and gave him a shove. “And get off. It’s hot.”

He laughed. The great thing about Coop was he never fell into bad moods or got tense. If anything, he was the most laid-back guy at Robertson High. He didn’t sweat grades, homework, the temperature, or life. He just drifted along, and the currents were always kind to him.

Well—except for when they weren’t. I put a pin in my internal whining. Coop made conscious choices to be zen, and I knew why, so better to just respect than be an ass about it.

“Tell you what,” Coop said as he pulled the door open for me. The ancient air conditioning must have been in a good mood because a wall of cool air greeted us. After a couple of thousand students arrived, it wasn’t likely to stay that cool. “I’ll go with you to Fajardo’s room. You can kiss up to teach, dazzle her with your awesomeness, and then you come hang out with me in the cafeteria.”

I didn’t say anything at first. What did it matter if I hung out or not? Being seen wasn’t going to get me a date. If anything, the end of last year proved my involvement, or lack thereof, in the social scene wasn’t going to get me anywhere.

“Frankie,” Coop dragged out my name like every syllable was a hint of him pleading. “Say yes. C’mon. You know you wanna. Bubba will be there. Jake and Archie, too. You haven’t really seen them this summer.”

I scowled. “You’re going to be a pest until I say yes, aren’t you?”

“Well, duh,” he said, smirking. “If you’d come to one party this summer, I might cut you some slack.”

“I went to one of the parties.” I’d gone to Bubba’s birthday party two weeks ago. His eighteenth. The first of the group to hit it. Coop was next. Archie closer to Halloween and Jake at Christmas. Me? I didn’t get the right to vote until almost Easter.

Sucked to be me.

“One.” Dry. So dry and so sorrowful. “One does not count. You only went because it was Bubba’s birthday. You stayed for exactly thirty-five minutes, gave Bubba a present, and slipped out when you thought no one was looking.”

Halting, I stared at him. We were mostly alone, because I’d only seen a few kids and a couple of teachers. In about twenty minutes, the first school buses would be rolling in. “How do you know? You had your tongue down Laura’s throat.”

His smile grew. “I know things.”

“Like what Laura Zaverman’s tonsils look like?”

“Feel, not look. If I were looking at them, that would be gross. And we all noticed you ditched.”

Crap.

I tilted my head back and stared at the ceiling. The problem with being that girl. The one they all hung out with, the terminally friend-zoned buddy, was they did notice crap like that.

Everyone at the party had been pairing off. There were kids in the pool making out, kids on the lawn furniture making out. At least three of the cars had been rocking when I headed down the hill to my own. “Fine,” I conceded. “But I need to walk my schedule first and talk to Ms. Fajardo.”

“Then the cafeteria?”

Gripping my backpack straps, I made another face. “Yes, then the cafeteria. Can we go now?”

Coop pivoted and started walking, his longer strides outpacing me almost immediately. “C’mon, slowpoke,” he called over his shoulder. “Stop dawdling. We got teachers to see and classes to find.”

Torn between laughing and groaning, I shook my head and hurried to catch up. It was almost impossible to get mad at Coop.

Almost.

I’d done it.

At the end of last year, but I’d taken the summer to get over it.

When he smirked and bumped me, I had to fight the urge to bump him back harder.

I was over it, right?

Most of my classes were on the second floor, which was convenient. I’d spent my sophomore year zigzagging across the school along with Archie. The two of us had the worst schedules. Coop and Bubba had pretty much been on one half of the school or the other while Jake had the opposite of their schedule. The only benefits Archie and I had were we had classes with all of them, but after Freshman year, we’d never had a class including all five of us.

Then again, we were all focused on different tracks. Junior year they’d combined all the lunch periods, so at least we could eat together. Junior year also marked the first year we could eat off campus, though, so the guys ate off more than on for the fall semester. I got used to finding somewhere else to go at lunch. I could afford to eat off campus, I just didn’t want to spend the money.

Coop nudged me when we got to Ms. Fajardo’s room. The door was open and the lights were on. The teacher in question was just setting her purse on her desk when I stuck my head in the room.

“Hi, Ms. Fajardo.”

With a soft laugh, the teacher waved me inside. “Hi, Frankie. Couldn’t even let the first day go by before you checked in?”

Heat kissed my cheeks. “Well, when a routine works, it’s better to stick to it.”

“True enough.” Ms. Fajardo wasn’t much older than my mom. She had a pageboy cut to her dark brown hair, really kind brown eyes, and a smile that welcomed questions. She also possessed a terrific sense of humor. This was the first year I’d actually be in her class, though I’d met her way back in ninth grade when she talked to our Honors Humanity class that served as my English credit that year. “Come on in.”

I straightened and slipped in the door. Instead of following, Coop just leaned in the doorframe.

Ms. Fajardo had already pulled out her sticky notes and wrote down the name of three books. “I’m assuming you finished The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Middlesex?” Those had been on our summer reading list.

“In June,” I admitted ignoring Coop’s drawn out “nerd” from where he stood at the door. Hands behind my back, I flipped him off.

Ms. Fajardo glanced past me to Coop. “If you haven’t finished them, Mr. Brennen, you won’t be ready for today’s introductory quiz.”

“I’m good,” he declared, much to my surprise.

Twisting, I stared at him. A, he was in AP Lit? And B, he’d done the reading?

“I finished the last one yesterday.” He tapped his chest. “Not a nerd.” He pointed at me. “Definitely a nerd.”

Rolling my eyes, I returned my attention to Ms. Fajardo. She just shook her head while still chuckling. “Then this list is for you, too,” she informed him. “You’re going to have independent reading each quarter. This is the first quarter choices. Pick whichever one you like. If you have it with you, and there’s free time in class, you can read it then.” Without missing a beat, she focused on me. “You should probably grab all three, because I know you. You’ll finish them by the weekend.”

Face hot, I just grinned. “Like I said, when it works…”

“Yes, yes. It works. Okay. Go on.” She pressed the sticky note to my hand. “I’ll see you both in fourth.”

Oh. Cool. Coop and I had Fajardo together before lunch.

“See you then!”

As Coop fell into step with me, he peered at the list. “How many have you already read?”

I skimmed the list of books then had to bite back a laugh.

“Two,” Coop answered before I could. “My money is on two.”

Dammit. “Yes, I’ve already read two of them.”

He laughed and hooked an arm around my shoulders again. “Gonna be my study buddy, right?”

“Depends,” I countered. “You didn’t tell me you were taking AP classes this year.” In fact, he’d avoided them when at all possible. Dual credit was where he’d focused his efforts. If you were going to school in state, dual credit was better.

“You didn’t ask,” he challenged. Without missing a step, he guided me to the next classroom. AP French. Four years and I’d gotten pretty good at the language, so this year would be fantastic. Madame greeted us both, though Coop hadn’t set foot in French after sophomore year. Since they only required two years, that was all he intended to do.

With Madame’s notes added to my sticky, we went on. AP World History with Mr. G was an independent study class. He wasn’t in his classroom, but there was a note on his door addressed to me. Coop laughed his ass off when I snagged it.

By the time we’d swung by AP Calculus, AP Government and AP Economics—gov was on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays while econ would be Tuesdays and Thursdays for the fall semester. The schedule would flip-flop in the spring—Coop was over the tour and hurrying me along. It helped that those teachers weren’t there.

“I’m sorry, Coop,” I said as we jogged down the stairs to hall A so we could make our way to the lunchroom.

He paused on the last step and stared at me. Since I was two steps up from him, we were almost eye-to-eye. “For what?”

“I kind of ignored you this summer.” Coop was right about that. We’d picked our classes last April, two days after the spring formal and fundraiser, and I’d—I’d been a little sore.

“Yes,” he said slowly, eyeing me. “You did. Lucky for you, I forgave you for that already.”

A laugh escaped and I shook my head. “I really am sorry.”

“Fine,” he said all too easily, but that was Coop. “You can make it up to me by driving me to school this year. And maybe giving me rides home.”

“I’m pretty sure you were going to ride with me anyway…” Then again, he’d just shown up at my car this morning. He’d been waiting for me. Maybe it hadn’t been a sure thing for him.

Yep. I’d been a jerk.

“Convenient, isn’t it?” He winked. “Now, let’s go.” With a light tug, he pulled my ponytail, and I smacked his shoulder. The tension popped and we were just Coop and Frankie. I’d known Coop since kindergarten, we’d been best friends from day one. He’d vanished over summer vacation between 7th and 8th right as his parents were getting divorced. He’d gone to stay with his sister at his grandparents. I didn’t hear from him at all. Then he was back, waiting for the bus the morning eighth grade started, and he’d tugged my ponytail then.

It was like nothing had changed.

Yet, at the same time, everything had.

But it had changed even more in ninth…

There were a lot more kids in the cafeteria. Band kids streamed in from practice, theatre kids acting out—pun intended—on the steps, the ROTC kids checking each other’s uniforms, and then there were the jocks flowing in from the athletics hall. Band and sports got there even earlier than me.

Speaking of sports, Bubba and Jake dropped their backpacks on the table Archie had already claimed. Sipping from a venti cup from Starbuck’s, Archie motioned to the other cups, but Coop’s whistle caught their attention. Archie—Archibald Standish the Third, poor guy. His parents were well off, but his grandfather was stinking rich. There’d been some kind of falling out between his grandparents and his parents, so while Archie could probably afford to go to school at some ritzy place in Europe, he was enrolled in public high school and had been since ninth grade.

That first year had been kind of hard on him, and I wasn’t the only one who’d gotten protective. Rich and pampered didn’t always equal egotistical dick.

No, he’d had to grow into that reputation, but in a lot of ways, Archie was still that same kid who’d looked so hopelessly out of his depth in my freshman homeroom class. I’d taken the seat next to him and spent that first week of school introducing him to everything.

“Oh my god, it must be a holiday. Frankie Curtis is in the house!” The announcement sounded a lot louder than it was, but it definitely earned us a few looks from the other tables, including a smirk from Rachel Manning. We shared one of those barely polite smiles at each other before she turned back to her friends and I followed Coop over to the table.

Jacob “Jake” Benton snorted as he checked the coffees on the table, then picked up one and turned it around so I could read the Frankie Goes to Senior Year on the side of it. Laughing, I shook my head as he held it out. Jake had gone to elementary with Coop and me. But Jake’s dad was military, so when he got sent overseas, off their whole family went. After his parents divorced while he was in junior high, his mom moved them back here.

Ian “Bubba” Rhys straddled a chair and took a long drink from his coffee while Jake handed me mine. Bubba’s eyes were closed, his expression almost blissful. He was a running back on the football team while Jake served as the tight end. That was about the extent of my knowledge of football. They were both big, bruiser-looking guys with wide shoulders, heavily muscled, and every stereotype of fit, buff jock you could think of. While Archie wasn’t a slouch, they made Archie and Coop both look lean and underweight. Not that it seemed to faze them.

Out of all of them, Archie had been in most of my classes the last three years. We were the closest in GPAs, too. I edged him by less than a quarter point when they posted our class rankings last spring.

I needed to climb two more spots—that would secure me a top percentage and a guaranteed scholarship.

“You look beat,” Coop said with a light slap to Bubba’s back.

Bubba grunted, but just kept drinking his coffee.

“Wait until his caffeine kicks in,” I advised, setting my bag down. Jake stole my sticky note before I could secure it, though. Thankfully, he offered me coffee to keep me from smacking him.

“Ha. Ten bucks,” he said to Archie and held up the note. “I told you she’d go see the teachers first even if she brought Coop with her.”

Archie made a face. “You know, Frankie, you could be less predictable. Just once. That would be great.”

“Too bad, so sad,” I told him then snatched my note back before sitting down and taking a sip of my coffee. “My methods work.”

With a sigh, Archie stared at me as he pulled out his wallet and forked over a ten-dollar bill to Jake. “Don’t we know it…”