Read an Excerpt
You don't choose love. Love chooses you.
—Grandma Gladys, The Duchess
She'd seen him around St. Clair's Secondary school. Blondish-brown hair swept long over his ears, giving him the look of a sexy brooding musician despite his wide smile. He was the guy who got along with everyone, moving from the jock crowd to the popular crowd to the artsy crowd with ease.
His name was Paul, and he was a year older. A touch of mystery surrounded him, which made him all the more attractive. Nothing like a guy with a bit of experience and access to a car to make him interesting. Being cute didn't hurt either.
Jennifer pegged him as charming with a bit of the devil in his sparkling green eyes. But touching him was the memory that stuck with her. Lean fingers and a firm hold. The moment came from ninth grade when the gym teacher paired them up in square dancing.
Jogging over to her, he wore a leather vest and faded blue jeans that hugged his thighs and showed off his love of sports and physical activity. His arm slipped through hers and her stomach bounced. She'd kissed a boy at camp once, but this, the skin against skin contact, sucked the air right out of her.
With Paul, swinging around in a circle didn't seem silly or embarrassing. The world whirled around her as they clapped and stepped. She wanted the dance to last forever.
But this meeting months later was different. No laughing students or dumb music. They were alone in his room.
Her big sister Heather usually agreed to have her tag along on social stuff, but this time Heather had wanted to be with her boyfriend. It was New Year's Eve, after all. Being dumped would have sucked for Jennifer if Heather hadn't done a little matchmaking and arranged for the dumping to happen at Paul's house.
Snow fell outside as cold air blew off Lake Huron and wrapped around Sarnia, the harbor city in southern Ontario where they lived. Pink Floyd echoed off the walls of the dark basement.
After hours of talking about his most recent hike and the bands he liked best, of her talking about her offbeat family and its focus on learning and reading, they took a long breath and looked up. Hours had passed as they sat locked together, hands touching and heads bent in conversation.
She knew he was different from the boys at school. He listened, looked at her like her words mattered, and seemed to understand her better than any boy she'd ever met.
To break the spell she felt weaving around her, she glanced around the sparse underground space. No one had bothered them. No parents to separate them or demand she head home. If this were her house, her dad would have checked in more than once by now. Probably would have lingered around until he scared Paul off.
But nothing about the room or the moment reminded of her of her usual life. She lived in a house with books stacked in every corner and on every shelf and a piano at its center. Her days were filled with music and heated discussions where she took one side and her mom took another.
Paul's surroundings carried a note of loneliness. Quiet and dark. Stuffing peeked out of the frayed edges of the pillows. The rug was worn through to the cement below in a several places. The stacked stereo looked like it cost more than everything else in the room combined.
'Where is everybody?' she asked.
A typical Paul response, short and a bit cryptic but spoken with laughter in his voice. 'That's specific.'
'You're here by yourself?'
He gave her a you're-losing-it look. 'You're here.'
'Oh, right.' Her gaze lingered on the bed before returning to his face. 'Your parents let you sleep down here?'
'I like privacy,' he said, not really answering the question.
'What's this?' She stood up and went to the odd assortment of treasures lined up on top of his dresser. Her fingers brushed over each item.
She grabbed his sleeve when he started to turn away. 'No, really. Tell me.'
He shrugged. 'Do you really care?'
As if there was anything about him that didn't matter to her. She doodled his name in her notebook, and just seeing his face in the halls at school made her stomach bounce around with excitement.
Yeah, she cared. Like, couldn't stop thinking about him cared. 'Just tell me.'
Still he stayed quiet. He bit his lip. Even frowned at her. Finally, he cleared his throat and started talking. 'It's all the stuff that matters.'
'Oh.' She hesitated, then shook her head. 'Yeah, I don't get it.'
He picked up the stone chips and fingered the dried rose with a reverence that made him seem years older than sixteen. 'From Marie's grave.'
Pain washed through his voice as he talked. His usually sunny face pulled tight with a grim line across his lips.
Jennifer knew the story. He'd had a steady girlfriend with cystic fibrosis who died the year before. Jennifer didn't ask if he loved Marie because Jennifer wasn't sure she wanted to hear him say it. But knowing he could feel something deep like that convinced her that, living in a basement or not, she was right where she wanted to be.
His smile came out of nowhere this time. 'Your sister told me about you.'
Heather had filled Jennifer in on that part. Heather was three years older and ridiculously protective of her clothes and had all kinds of rules about Jennifer not wearing them, but they got along. Heather answered the big questions about boys and make-up.
And she'd mentioned Paul. Jennifer just realized that while Heather was talking about him, she might also be filling him in on Jennifer. It was a scary thought, especially since there hadn't been many details on Paul but Heather had way too much ammo on Jennifer.
'What did she say?' she asked.
'Have I got a girl for you.'
She missed something. Jennifer put down the photo of him with a group of boys she recognized but couldn't name and focused on the conversation. 'What?'
'That's what Heather said.'
'She was talking about me?'
He moved closer, pushing in close and stopping only when Jennifer's hands brushed against his chest. 'Is there a third sister I don't know about?'
Jennifer had never heard him laugh before and it sent her heart tumbling to her feet. 'No.'
'I like your shirt.' He ran his fingers over the ruffle.
Her breath caught. 'Why?'
'Because it's pretty . . . like you.'
His eyes went to the clock on the wall. 'It's almost midnight.'
She started the mental countdown. New Year's, it was the perfect time for him to kiss her, and she prayed he would. As the seconds ticked by, a voice in her head screamed for him to do something.
She followed the second hand until it hit twelve. 'And now that it's midnight . . .?'
He didn't move, but his sweet smile turned to something else. 'Happy New Year's.'
She tried to say it back to him, but the words stuck in her throat.
His palms cupped her cheeks.
His warm lips touched against hers, soft and not completely sure. They pressed once and then parted. His eyes opened and he stared down at her.