When seventeen-year-old track and field star Jesse Collins’s dreams of a full scholarship are shattered after the sudden death of her dad, she leaves home to work as a summer camp counsellor to escape the nosy stares in small town…and her own secret guilt. After a mix-up at registration, she’s put in charge of a boys’ cabin, and the head counsellor, Kirk, predicts she won’t last the first two weeks.
In the midst of fending off four twelve-year-old boys who are hell-bent on mortifying her and a growing attraction to Kirk, Jesse finds the inspiration to run again from an unlikely source. After all, a good pair of legs can take a girl far, but it’s facing the truth that makes all the difference.
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There's no such thing as a safe bet. You might be the fastest runner in the heat, but that doesn't mean you're going to win the final race. Even when the finish line is dead ahead, waiting at the end of that flat stretch of track, it can still seem like an uphill climb. But I knew that as long as I could see it, I could reach it first.
Crouching down, I'd wiggle the toe of my sneaker into the starting block. My splayed fingers stretched behind the chalk line as I inched forward, psyching out the runners beside me. Don't even bother, my body language warned them, I've already won this thing.
BANG! Jolted by the starter pistol, I would surge forward with eyes wide open, targeting the finish, dead ahead.
But like I said, there's no such thing as a safe bet. Four months ago, my finish line disappeared, and along with it, my future.
Now instead of early morning runs and sessions at the gym — instead of waiting eagerly for that pistol to go off — I spent my time loafing around in my best friend's bedroom. Chloe's company was my refuge in our sleepy little town, where the whispers and glances still followed me. She was able to keep up the banter for both of us, and it helped me feel like I was almost normal again.
"It's a known fact," Chloe said, running a brush through her thick black hair. "The best looking guys are the best kissers." It was a topic she liked to analyze with great enthusiasm. She even had a theory.
"Something I'll have to take your word for," I answered. I sat sideways in her pink wing-back chair with my legs dangling over one armrest and my ponytail hanging down over the other. "Practice makes perfect," Chloe recited, "and the cutest guys have ample opportunity to hone their craft."
She stood in front of the long antique mirror in the corner of her bedroom, admiring her reflection. Her new jeans were a birthday present from me (after she told me where to go and what to buy). With her exotic features and flawless brown skin, Chloe was cover girl material. And me? I was Jesse Collins, high school track and field star, carrying small town hopes of being an Olympian — or at least, I used to be.
"I know where you're going with this," I said. I looked up from the only book Chloe had in her room. Style magazines littered her bed and a shiny brochure for summer camp peeked out — the one I would be leaving for tomorrow. "This is about the dirty old Santa, isn't it?" I prodded.
"It's called the Kissing Clause!" She stooped over and picked up a pair of wedge sandals from the array of designer shoes strewn on the floor.
"Oh right." I laid the romance book open on my chest, marking my spot. "The Kissing Clause," I said, making quotations around her phrase. "Remind me of the finer points of your master's thesis."
She was on one knee, securing the sandal strap around her ankle. "First kisses are terrible. It doesn't matter how experienced you both are, the nervousness overrides the skill."
"Still sounds like a perverted holiday icon."
"I'm just trying to figure out why you didn't hit it off with Keith," she pouted. "I thought you guys would be a perfect match." She straightened up and crossed her arms, staring at me, waiting for an explanation.
Even though I couldn't care less, I had to admit, Chloe had a point. Keith was a really nice guy. He even showed up at the door with flowers. But after three dates there was no denying it: things weren't heating up. The kissing wasn't horrible, it was like celery — enjoyable if spread with cream cheese and roasted walnuts. But celery on its own just isn't enough, even if it shows up with flowers.
"I believe he has a chronic kissing clause infection," I said, letting her fill in the blanks. "We agreed to be friends ... just like the other guys you've set me up with."
"What about Terry?" she asked. "He wasn't so bad."
I rolled my eyes. "He used his inhaler right before he kissed me good night! He claimed my perfume could put him into a bronchial spasm — and for the record, I'll take garlic breath over the taste of Ventolin any day.
Chloe's expression was crestfallen.
"It's not your fault," I said. "The pool of eligible bachelors is a bunch of guys we've known since grade two." I dropped my voice. "Besides," I said, "how can a guy get romantic with someone the whole town is talking about?"
"Come on, it's not like they're gossiping you're preggers or something."
"Yeah right!" I snorted. "Gossip would be better. Everyone feels sorry for me, but no one talks to me. They still whisper 'Poor Jesse' behind my back."
"It's only been four months." She paused and then smiled, trying to look hopeful. "Besides, by the end of the summer, everyone will be talking about something else, and your life will get back to normal again."
For all her bouncy energy and matchmaking attempts, Chloe still didn't get it. Nothing would ever be normal again. My best friend was all about fashion and guys. Trying to get me a boyfriend had been her way of helping me deal with my grief. She thought it could bring me back — back to being the girl who always won, the girl who always made it to the finish line first.
"Yeah, maybe." I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. Had it only been four months? It's weird; sometimes it felt like it happened yesterday and sometimes it felt like forever. A whole day could go by without crying, then BOOM. Out of nowhere, the smallest thing could trigger a meltdown of tears. But I hid it well, even from Chloe. The all-night slobber-fest was a private party between me and my pillow.
Chloe was still staring at me. A familiar heaviness settled in my stomach. I never earned a part in a school play, but the role I'd taken up in recent months was so convincing, I even fooled my best friend. For a second, I was sorry that I had to put on the show for her. I wondered if she could see how hard I worked to make people believe that I was fine. But if she knew, she never let on, and so I kept playing the role.
"A Kissing Clause, huh?" I wrestled up a mischievous smile, reaching for the book on my chest. "Not according to this fine literature." I held up the romance novel Chloe had taken from her Mom's room. "Exhibit A," I proclaimed. Using my SpongeBob SquarePants voice, I read the steamy love scene, for which Chloe had stolen the book in the first place.
She turned back to the mirror, giggling. I stared down at the cover of the book. It was the usual long-haired guy with his shirt open, showing off his rippling chest muscles. Judging by his clothes, this hero was apparently captain of a pirate ship, and the half-dressed chick in his arms with the unfastened bustier didn't seem to mind the dramatic tilt of the schooner.
"Do you think it's really like that?" I asked.
I held up the book. "Is there a Sex Clause too?"
"No, that's totally different."
I raised my eyebrows at her.
"I don't know," she laughed. "You're the one reading the manual."
"Which is completely useless when there's a shortage of sexy pirates in town," I said.
"Says the girl who hasn't even laid eyes on the hot lifeguard I've set her up with for our double date tonight."
"Oh my god, Chloe!" I covered my face with the book. "Sam is only doing this because he's still totally in love with you." I remembered the charismatic rugby player who had graduated last year and taken Chloe to his prom. Obviously a year away hadn't dampened his interest. The "hot lifeguard" was his college friend, and apparently my babysitter for the night. Kill. Me. Now.
The truth is I'd spent most of the past four years on the track, comfortable and in control. Guys and kissing and sex clauses were barely a passing thought. But suddenly I had all the time in the world for dating. Something I was apparently not going to win any trophies for. If my new finish line was having sex with a hot boyfriend, I was on the bleachers. I threw the stupid book on the floor. I might be a permanent resident of the cheering section, but being a spectator is something I would never get used to.
Chloe put on a thin rhinestone headband, then turned around and gave me her serious look. Knowing what was coming, I hid behind the summer camp brochure.
"Are you sure you want to spend your summer looking after a bunch of brats while swatting mosquitoes and making macaroni belts?" she asked.
"It's not all glamour," I said, from behind Kamp Krystal Lake's image.
"Shut up. You know what I mean." She pulled the brochure away from my face and gave me a serious stare. Geez, maybe I wasn't such a good actress.
"I'll be okay, Chloe. And I need the money for university next year."
She opened her mouth, and the word "scholarship" almost fell out.
"Don't say it," I whispered.
The day the recruiting coach was at our school, I was curled up on my bed, still in my black dress from Dad's funeral. Mom and Grandma tried to convince me to go, but I could never compete again. My runners were shoved in the back of the closet, banished from sight, erased from my memory.
I cleared my throat. "I need to be the new girl," I explained. "Be someone nobody knows."
"All right," she said, giving me one of her puppy dog looks. "You know, I'm sacrificing any fun we'd have this summer so that you can get poison ivy."
"Those eyes only work on your boyfriends," I huffed.
Chloe always had guys circling around her like bees to the hive. Grandma said she was the town Scarlett O'Hara, but much nicer. "True," she laughed, then looked at her watch. "Shit! We're going to be late!"
"We have another hour before the guys are due to show up," I said.
"Yeah, and you're hardly ready," she frowned at my usual T-shirt and gym short ensemble. My style was based entirely on the tracksuit section of Sports R Us. She pulled me out of the pink wingback chair, then plunked me in front of her make-up dresser. Yes, Chloe had a dresser just for makeup.
She painstakingly straightened my hair, and swapped my gym gear for capris and a white ruffled tank top. I compromised on shoes, avoiding the high-heeled slingbacks but accepting sequined flip-flops. Even though I'm a good three inches taller than Chloe, our feet were the same size. A fact she often grumbled about.
"How will I ever get dressed without you this summer?" I teased.
She fussed with my hair one last time. "I dropped by your house earlier with a few ensembles. Your grandma promised to pack them in your bag."
"Grandma," I smiled. "Did she read your palm again?"
"Apparently we're in for an unexpected romance tonight."
I sighed. "She says that every time."
"Cut the crap. You'll be playing mouth to mouth with that hot lifeguard before Sam pulls out of my driveway."
Since Dad died, Chloe was one of the few friends who treated me the same. The day of the funeral she came over and did my makeup. "Don't be such a jock, Jesse," she had said, applying blush while we sniffed away our tears. "Besides, you want to look nice for your dad." I would do anything for her, hence the expensive birthday jeans.
Mostly everyone else acted like I was made of glass, afraid to even mention his name, thinking I would break down crying in front of them. Usually people stared, and then quickly looked away, pretending I wasn't there so they wouldn't have to talk to me.
But I had been crying — a lot. A few months ago I found a pamphlet shoved in between the cushions of the couch, "Ten Ways To Tell If Your Teen Is Depressed." I hadn't realized how worried Mom was until she told me about the appointment she'd made for me to see someone. I could almost read the quotation marks in the air, "someone." That scared the crap out of me.
I never did go to that first appointment. Instead I've been playing the part of the grieving but coping teenager, letting Chloe dress me up for meaningless dates, pretending to move on. I even started making fake entries in my diary, knowing Mom was reading it, double checking to see if I had any of the "ten ways" from the pamphlet.
And it worked.
Mom doesn't hover as much, and yeah, it almost feels like I could get my life back, but every night the tears still come.
It's not all about grief. Worse is the guilt. And I'll keep that to myself, thanks. I know the knot in my gut every morning is my dirty secret. And there's no way talking with "someone" will change that.
Cool morning air hit my face. My sneakers kept count with a steady beat.
"Feet and lungs, Jesse!" Dad called out.
I pumped my arms faster, not even hearing the gravel crunch under my shoes. I wasn't running, I was flying. I bounded through the air for a few more seconds before slowing down.
"Beat that!" I laughed between deep breaths.
But he wasn't behind me.
"Dad?" My voice echoed through the empty park. A woodpecker knocked above my head. I looked up, but there wasn't a bird. Then the park melted into darkness ... into nothing.
I blinked and my bedroom came into focus. Someone knocked on my door. I pulled the covers over my head.
"Hey, Legs," Grandma sang. "You up?"
"Yeah," I mumbled into the pillow.
This was the worst time of the day. For a few seconds, I believed that life for the last four months had only been a dream, and that Dad was actually downstairs making breakfast. Although Mom was the caterer, Dad owned the kitchen on weekend mornings. It was unusual to wake up and not smell bacon or hear the gurgles from the coffee maker. But that had changed, too. The familiar knot tightened my stomach. Reality packs a mean punch.
"Yup." I pushed myself up in bed and rubbed my face. Grandma's white spiked hair peeked around the door frame. A big smile on her red lips made me return the expression automatically. She closed the door, then sat down on the bed and took my hand in hers.
"Oh, Legs." She's the only person who still calls me that without it feeling forced or sarcastic. Her silver bangles tinkled as she traced the lines of my palm with her wrinkled finger.
"Let me guess," I yawned, "an unexpected romance."
"Hmm," she frowned.
"Good or bad?"
"Shh, I'm concentrating. This is very interesting." She turned my hand and gently squeezed the flesh, making ridges along the side of my hand.
I knew what she was looking for. "How many kisses, Grandma?" I asked.
"More than you've had before, one in your very near future."
"Someone special?" I played along.
"Someone who loves you," she promised. Then she leaned forward and kissed my forehead. "How was your date last night?"
I groaned. "He kept calling me Jessica." It was an honest mistake, I guess. Not many girls are named Jesse. I was supposed to be Julia, after Julia Child. But Mom was so dopey from painkillers after she had me, Dad got to choose. He was a sportswriter who worshiped Jesse Owens, and when I paired up with track and field like peanut butter with jelly, it seemed I was fulfilling my namesake's destiny. Even Mom, food whiz extraordinaire, was excited to have a super jock for a daughter, and once the trophies started to pile up, she finally forgave Dad.
"Looked like you made up by the end," Grandma teased.
She'd been watching through the drapes, of course.
"Never kiss anyone good night after they've eaten a tub of flavoured movie popcorn," I told her. I could still picture him sprinkling two full packages of the fake seasoning. "He didn't even flinch when I warned him about the MSG."
She nodded like she was mentally cataloguing my advice. We sat quietly, and her gaze fell on my huge duffel bag, bursting with clothes.
"Chloe said she dropped off some outfits," I said.
She smoothed out the yellow chenille bedspread. "I put in a couple of extra things for you too," she said. I snuck a glance at the closet, wondering if she'd found my sneakers. My doubts about leaving for the whole summer began to creep back.
"I'm worried about Mom," I confessed.
"Of course," Grandma said. "But your mom needs this time too. Her grief is different from yours. She needs to go through all of his things, get rid of his clothes, organize papers —"
"But I can help her do that!"
"No, Legs, she needs to grieve without you watching or listening." She let me sort out what she had said. And the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Didn't I do all my real gut-wrenching crying when I was alone?
"She needs to cry, without being worried I'll hear her," I finally said. I hadn't been the only one in the house pretending all these months. I drew up my knees, hugging them under the bedspread.
Grandma looked at my door as if she expected Mom to walk in on us. "Can I give you some advice?"
My eyes flicked between the door and Grandma. "You've never asked before."
Then she leaned closer and made her voice soft. "Kiss as many boys as you can."
"Is this the same advice you gave to Mom when she was my age?"
"Of course not, you're completely different girls." She paused, and then brushed a stray hair away from my face. "Therefore, you get different advice."
Excerpted from "Girl on the Run"
Copyright © 2015 B. R. Myers.
Excerpted by permission of Nimbus Publishing Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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