West and I have been training together for three weeks and I’ve been impressed. He does possess raw talent and he’s a quick study, but when I start to contemplate how much he needs to learn to go against Conner, I grow nauseous. There’s no way it can be done.
As if I’m a prisoner searching for an escape, I survey the room again. West, West, West, West. I can’t stop thinking about him. His family asked him to return home and he did, but I can tell by the hurt in his eyes that things aren’t fixed.
Thinking of West causes me to sigh and Mrs. Collins squishes her mouth to the side. She lets it slide as she clicks her mouse and her computer springs to life. “If you don’t mind, I need to send a quick email.”
“Okay.” West and I have never discussed the night he stayed with me. It’s like it never happened and sometimes I wonder if I dreamed it. But the memory of his lips hot against my skin, of his hand on my stomach— My breathing hitches. It definitely happened.
Actually, West did mention that night the first day we trained together after he moved home. He only said, “It’ll be simple. For now. Until I know you’re ready for more.”
For now… Ready for more. My heart flutters. No. No fluttering is allowed. West and I work better together as simple. Not complicated, but the thought of his mouth near mine….
Stop it! Focus on something. Anything.
With her fingers still moving, Mrs. Collins glances at me from the corner of her eye. “Is there something you’d like to talk about?”
“No.” Not at all.
She finishes. “You seem a bit nervous. I promise—I’m completely harmless. Though I have one ex-student who claims I can’t drive, but no need to worry. We won’t be leaving the office.” She winks and grins like we’re friends.
Guess I’ve been as twitchy as a rat in a meth lab.
“I pulled you out of class because one of your teachers told me you’re trying to apply for the Longworth scholarship?”
I nod. Is it a crime to ask for teacher recommendations?
“It only pays for books,” she says.
Mrs. Collins opens a file, slips out a piece of paper and hands it to me. “This is the Evans scholarship. It’ll pay for four years of tuition for a person majoring in kinesiology.”
I sit straighter and handle the paper as if it’s gold. “A full ride?”
“Yes.” She brightens and I wait for rainbows to appear behind her and blue birds to land on her shoulder. Mrs. Collins definitely is too happy of a person or maybe I’ve been down for so long that I’ve forgotten what happiness is.
She loses a bit of the rainbow as she folds her hands on her desk and settles into her serious face. “But it’s an extremely competitive scholarship and this isn’t a simple essay and transcript situation. Students from across the nation will be sending in videos showing why they would be the best candidate.”
I scan the three pages while dread and hope battle for dominion. Oh, my God, I actually have a shot at winning this, but I’ll have to find some footage of my old fights and videotape me training West. I can show his training from beginning to end. And this is where the dread eats the hope. He’s going to need to spar, which means I will, too.
“Haley?” Mrs. Collins says. “Are you okay? You look a little pale.”
“I’m fine.” I run a hand through my hair. “Thank you for this. I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”
The smile on her face is so sincere that I relax in my chair. Maybe she’s not out to destroy me.
“Your grandfather speaks highly of you. He’s very proud of your accomplishments in his gym and at school.”
The relaxing turns to sagging. Great—guilt. One parent–teacher conference and they’re best friends for life. I pretend to read the application while she taps a pen against the desk. “When I first began social work, I was hired as a case worker in a homeless shelter.”
My eyes shoot to hers and she steadily holds my gaze. She knows. Dear God, she knows.
“It’s not easy to be without a home. It’s confusing and scary and if it’s that way for an adult, it has to be twice as terrifying for a teenager. I know you’re no longer there, but I also know things are still floating. Unfortunately, the state isn’t allowing me to take you on as a client, but because I work in this school you can talk to me anytime and my door will always be open.”
“How do you know?”
“Your parents didn’t sign up for the parent–teacher conference and then I couldn’t reach them by phone and the letter was returned, so I found your grandfather. Haley, he really does care about you.”
Care about me? I crave to crush his throat. He told her our family’s private business. Why didn’t he lie? Why didn’t he say it was a mistake? Why didn’t he tell her that we have a home?
I stand, wanting to leave, but not sure if I’m allowed. The scholarship application crackles in my hand. “Are you taking me away from my family?” The words slip out and I immediately wish I could take them back.
She shakes her head. “Regardless of what you believe, the state isn’t interested in destroying you or your family, and, from what I understand, you’re living in a safe environment. We’re here to help, Haley. I’m here to help.”
At the word safe, a bubble of hysterical laughter wells up inside me and bursts out of my mouth. The sound is definitely out of place and instead of making me feel better the laughter twists an already too-tight spring. Dizzy with the crazy emotions, I stumble for the door. Right as I touch the knob, I sober up and freeze.
Not that I’m complaining. “What do you mean you aren’t allowed to take me on?”
She leans back in her seat and the quirky set of her lips and eyes reminds me of how Jax stares at his opponent before entering the ring—as if she’s trying to figure out my next move. “My job at this school is to help those who the state believes need a little extra push in the right direction. Regardless of how I tried to convince the powers that be, you don’t fit the requirements for my program.”
I slump against the wall in relief. Oh, thank God, I can stop worrying about CPS arriving at the door and dragging me and Maggie away. “That’s good.”
“I guess,” she says. “But my gut says you need to talk to someone, and I have a sinking feeling once you walk out, I’ll never see you again.”