This post is for my hard-core fans (all three of you). If you’ve read Fair Game, you might enjoy this little scene that I wrote to ground myself in the two protagonists’ backstory. It was written back in the summer of 2005, before I started the book, while I was developing characters and plot.
FAIR GAME – PROLOGUE
Jana Baldwin decided to take her peanut-butter-and-jelly-on-white-bread sandwich out to one of the picnic tables on the patio outside the cafeteria. If middle school had been a scary place, high school was positively terrifying. Her brother Quinn might have eased the way, but he was in class. As a junior, he was on the opposite lunch wave.
She’d braved two weeks of this excruciating loneliness, and she was ready to give up. Just go off to the woods behind the school and smoke a joint. She didn’t crave the narcotic exactly, she was just bored. And she wanted to see if she could get the possum that lived in the hollow log in the center of Grandpa’s land, which adjoined the school property, to come out without hissing at her.
She stood outside the back door, scanning the students gathering at the concrete tables. Miranda Gonzales and her crowd of JV cheerleaders had commandeered the table farthest away from the building. There were five of them, all pretty and well-dressed, with perfect make-up and hair. Jana considered for a crazy second walking up and introducing herself.
“Hi, I’m Jana Baldwin,” she’d say. “Anybody want to trade a PBJ for some fettuccini Alfredo?”
This summer she’d been given a scholarship to the youth camp sponsored by the Baptist church. Miranda had befriended her, made sure she had someone to sit with during meals, even shared a bunk. But once they’d returned home, it became clear that Miranda’s attack of guilt-induced compassion had only been temporary. There were no invitations to hang out at the mall, or anyplace else for that matter. Jana had become invisible again.
So what chance would there be of companionship here in the shark pit that was Vancleave High School?
Hitching the gym bag that served as her backpack a little higher on her shoulder, Jana swiped her sweaty hands down the sides of her jeans. They were last year’s style, bought at a store in Mobile that was going out of business. Thank goodness T-shirts from Goodwill were in style, so nobody cared how old this one was. Her off-brand tennis shoes were pretty ratty, too. She wished she could just go barefoot like she did all summer. That would solve the problem.
Okay, just sit down somewhere and let people give you dirty looks. What are they gonna do, shoot you?
No, but being shot would be preferable to people getting up and moving when you sat down.
Jana wasn’t the only kid from a dysfunctional, poor family in this school, but if she were honest she didn’t want to sit with any of them either. She wanted to be whole and loved and cared-for.
She leaned over, watching as Miranda opened a paper lunch sack and took out a packaged burrito.
“Ooh, you’re going to eat that cold?” asked one of the other girls.
Miranda tore the cellophane. “Too long a line for the microwave. I’m hungry.”
Miranda had been so nice this summer. She probably didn’t mean to be snooty. She’d just gotten busy and forgot to call.
There was one seat left at the cheerleader table. Were they saving it for somebody else? Jana edged closer. She watched Miranda laugh and toss her curly dark-blonde hair when somebody teased her about having a crush on a band geek.
“I live with a band geek,” Miranda said. “I’m immune to geekiness.”
“Yeah, but your brother’s cute,” sighed the first girl, who had about five pounds of make-up globbed on her face. “And he’s a senior.”
“Grant won’t pay attention to any female unless she’s a doe in the sites of his gun,” Miranda said with a shudder. Her pert nose wrinkled. “Speaking of geeks, there’s the great white hunter himself.”
Jana stood just behind a brick column and watched Grant Gonzales approach his sister, whistling, both hands in the pockets of his jeans. “Hey, Squirt,” he said, stopping at the table. “Got any money?”
“Matter of fact I do, but you don’t get it. Mom gave it to me for my cheerleader pictures.”
Grant scowled. “No fair, she dumps money on you whenever you ask.”
“You have a job,” Miranda said. “You can pay your own way.”
“Yeah, and I also have a truck that guzzles gas. Come on, Miranda, all I need is thirty cents for a Dr. Pepper.” He gave the girls at the table a cajoling smile, as if to ask, How can she possibly resist me? He had a shallow dimple in one cheek that wasn’t the least bit feminine. If anything it emphasized the hardness of his sharp cheekbones and jaw. Three of the girls reached for their purses.
Jana herself was mesmerized. If she’d had thirty cents she would have given it to him just to see that smile turned her way. His long hair, the same color and texture as Miranda’s, shone like burnished bronze in the strong sunlight. He still had a summer tan that made his contrasting white T-shirt glow like neon. His eyes, deep-lidded and sleepy, made her think of the dark pralines on the counter of Uncle Elvin’s store.
Suddenly Miranda laughed and unsnapped her saddlebag purse, removing a small coin pocket. “All right, you turkey, but this is the last time.” She handed the money to her brother, but grabbed his wrist before he could pull away. “Listen, have you seen Jana Baldwin around today?”
Jana started, and shrank further behind the column. What on earth?
Grant raised a golden-brown eyebrow. “Who?”
“You remember, the girl with the dark, curly hair I bunked with at camp? Quinn’s sister.”
Quinn was the pitcher of the baseball team and was headed for the pros. Everybody knew him. Grant’s expression cleared. “Oh yeah. The wild child in the dorky clothes that followed you around all week—Ow!” Miranda had whacked him hard in the abdomen with her purse. “Isn’t she the one that always has a ferret or a kitten or something in her pocket?”
“That’s her.” It didn’t seem to bother Miranda that she’d injured her gorgeous big brother. “I’ve been looking for her since school started, but she’s been hiding. She’s pretty shy, but I thought you might have seen her.”
“Sorry, kiddo.” Grant stuffed his quarters into his jeans pockets and took a step back out of the reach of Miranda’s weapon. “Guess she’s the kind of girl that blends into the scenery.”
He slouched away in the direction of the dining hall, walking right past Jana without seeing her. She stood flattened against the warm roughness of the bricks, trying to catch her breath.
Dorky clothes. Blends into the scenery.
Fighting tears, she didn’t stay to hear Miranda’s next remark.
# # #
Jana was late for senior prom. In the last three years of high school she had established her reputation well. She’d been dating Richie Cutrere since Christmas, and she was thrilled that someone from the Gonzales family had noticed her, even if he was a rather distant relation. Richie was older and good-looking in a flamboyant sort of way, with his wide flashing smile and bleached blond hair. He dressed like a cowboy because he loved country-western music better than life itself. In fact, he kept his guitar case behind the seat of his truck and would pull it out to sing with little or no provocation.
Jana loved to hear Richie sing. When he sang, she was reminded of all the sweet love stories she’d ever heard, all the dreams she longed to live, and she could forget the times he didn’t call her, the times his voice got rough like her daddy’s, the times he was a little stoned and made fun of her.
His band was performing at the prom tonight, so she was going to meet him at the VFW. Since she didn’t have a car, she’d have to walk. She’d put her high-heeled sandals in her gym bag so she wouldn’t ruin them. Sneakers looked a little funny with her pink lace formal, and the skirt wanted to drag the ground. But she held it up off the road as best she could and pretended she was Cinderella in a golden-pumpkin carriage. And just like Cinderella, she had mice in her bag. Well, technically a gerbil named Gino. Gino the Coachman. Cool.
She unzipped the bag and peeked in on him.
“You doing all right, buddy?” she asked him. He twitched his whiskers and went back to sleep.
She hadn’t dared leave him at home. Daddy had threatened to set a trap for the gerbil if he saw him outside the cage again. She didn’t trust Daddy. At all.
The lit parking lot of the VFW came into view, just past Lynn’s Yard Art on the right and the Kountry Karioke on the left. The gravel lot was full of students’ trucks and souped-up cars, as well as a few of the teachers’ sedans and minivans. There was the decrepit van Richie’s drummer drove, and Richie’s pick-up, backed up to the side door.
Being late was good. She wasn’t going to blend into the scenery ever again. She had picked the tightest loud-pink, lowest-cut dress she could find, and she was going to laugh and dance and make Richie proud of her. She’d taken Grant Gonzales’s assessment—wild child—and made it her standard, her banner for high school. She hadn’t been back to church since that ninth-grade summer camp, but she’d kept up with Grant’s career in college. Her brother Quinn played baseball at Mississippi State, where Grant attended college. It was too bad he wouldn’t be here to see the transformation.
Jana stopped at Richie’s truck, where she opened the unlocked door and sat down to take off her tennis shoes. She slipped on her sandals, admiring her polished opalescent toenails. Pretty. Leaving Gino’s bag in the truck, she wobbled across the parking lot.
She could hear country-rock music blaring from the open door. Richie’s band might not be good, but they were loud. She wouldn’t get to dance with him, but she was his date, and she was going to dance with everybody else whether he liked it or not.
Dancing already, Jana stood in the doorway clutching her little beaded handbag. She’d worked over Spring break in the Quick-Stop to save money for her dress, shoes, and purse. She’d bought them second-hand, but she knew she was eye-catching.
Mrs. Davenport sat at a table just inside the door with a cash box, taking up tickets. She had on her church dress, with suntan pantyhose and a butterfly barrette in her gray hair. She looked ridiculous, but at least there was a smile on her round face, something you didn’t see in Senior English very often. It was clear she enjoyed doing something besides explaining the three-act structure of Shakespearean drama to people who barely knew how to put together a coherent sentence.
Jana smiled at the teacher as she handed over her ticket. Richie had paid for it, with the understanding that he wanted to see her after the dance. She dreaded those groping, awkward sessions in Richie’s truck, parked out in the woods where things should have been safe and quiet. But she enjoyed knowing she had his undivided attention, even if it was for only about twenty minutes. Longer if she could hold him off with just kissing.
Her eyes quickly adjusted to the strobing light inside the dark room, and she found Richie fronting the band onstage. He looked great in tight jeans, western shirt, and cowboy boots, his long blond hair flying and acoustic guitar rocking. Satisfied that he’d seen her come in, she looked around. Small round tables had been set up, with folding chairs around them and lined up along the walls. The room was full, and nobody else had noticed her.
She tip-tapped, awkward in her high heels, toward a table occupied by her girlfriends, Ema and Grace, and their boyfriends. It looked to Jana like there was something besides punch in those cups on the table. The whole group was loud. Obnoxious.
Jana wanted to make an entrance, but she didn’t want to do it in a group. She changed direction and walked through the center of the room, where the cheerleader-and-football crowd had gathered. A spotlight hit her as it swung through, blinding her. Throwing up a hand, she stumbled against someone, felt big hands close around her upper arms and hold on until she regained her balance. It was someone tall, in a black tux and a blindingly white shirt. Looking up, she recognized Grant Gonzales.
“What are you doing here?” she blurted. “You’re supposed to be in college.”
He looked amused and a bit puzzled. “I was invited.” He nodded toward a table where his sister Miranda sat with Tony Mullins and another senior cheerleader named Jasmine Guerry. “Um, do I know you?”
Recovering, she looked pointedly down at his hand on her arm—which he quickly dropped—and shook back her long hair. She’d left it streaming around her shoulders and down her bare back for effect. “I doubt it,” she said flatly. “Excuse me.”
She would have loved to remain where she was and pursue the interest she’d seen in Grant’s eyes, but she’d accidentally caught Richie’s eye, and he was motioning her toward him.
But Grant shifted so that she could no longer see Richie. “Wait a minute. Didn’t you used to come to our church? Would you like to dance?” He gave her the charming half-shy smile he cultivated, one which she suspected came rooted in bone-deep self-confidence.
Wild child, she thought, looking away. Jasmine was giggling at something Miranda said, but her eyes kept cutting toward her missing date. Who had just asked Jana to dance.
An imp of something vindictive brought Jana’s chin up. All those years of being labeled. Of being lumped with the trouble-makers. Of being pushed to the bottom of the class. She could even the score, right here, right now. She could dance with Miranda’s brother—Jasmine’s date.
She listened for a second as the band began a slow song, one of Richie’s trademark croon-till-you-swoon ballads, and almost reconsidered. A rock-and-roll fast dance would be less awkward. Then she looked at Grant’s face again and saw he was thinking about backing off.
“I’d love to,” she said quickly and stepped close to him.
“Aren’t you going to tell me your name?” he asked, drawing her into his arms.
She gulped. He was a lot bigger than Richie, towering over her like a tree. She could feel those big hands on her waist all the way through the silky fabric of her dress. “I don’t think so,” she said.
He looked amused again. “Oh, the Cinderella gig. I get it.”
“Yeah.” She laughed nervously, thinking of Gino in her bag out in the truck. Richie was going to have a cow when he saw that.
“Well, since I’m Prince Charming I get a kiss at the end, right?”
She looked up at him wide-eyed.
“Relax, I was kidding.” His dimple appeared.
Jana did not relax. She’d never been so nervous in her life. Well, except for the first two weeks of high school. This guy wore a tux that cost more than her entire wardrobe, including the dress she had on. And he was so good-looking she kept forgetting to breathe.
They danced in silence, swaying really, for a few minutes, while Richie sang through the speakers, the whole situation surreal. Jana noticed that he had a small cut on his chin and he smelled like Coast soap. His nose wasn’t exactly straight, but it was slim and strong, with fine-cut nostrils, and arched like a bow. Intriguing. She could see the muscles of his jaw and hollow cheeks work occasionally as if he were thinking, and she wondered what was going through his head.
“Uh-oh,” he said as the music suddenly changed. He stopped moving.
Jana tensed. “What?”
“Is Richie Cutrere your boyfriend?”
Then she realized the vocals and guitar had dropped out, though the keyboard and rhythm had continued. “He—we’re sort of going out.” Jana turned to see what Grant was looking at.
And felt her heart zoom sickeningly into her throat. Richie had put down his guitar and jumped off the stage. He was shoving through people to get to her.
“I wish you’d said something,” Grant said mildly, but he kept hold of her hand, placing her behind him. “Hang on.”
Jana peered around Grant’s arm to see Richie swaggering toward them. He stopped with both fists knotted at his waist. “What do you think you’re doing?” Richie said.
Jana didn’t know if he was talking to her or to Grant, but she opened her mouth to sass back.
“Enjoying the music,” Grant said before she could say a word.
“Well enjoy it with somebody else’s girlfriend. Come here, Jan.” Calling her an ugly name, Richie reached for her arm.
Jana hated being called “Jan.” She was about to say so when Grant shifted his body again, coming between her and Richie. “Don’t talk to her that way.”
“Mind your own business.” Richie frowned, one fist lifting closer to his chest. He wasn’t big, but he was fearless as a banty rooster, and he’d been known to start fights. He was also swaying a little, which meant he’d probably smoked a joint before going on stage. He wasn’t going to be doing much rational thinking anytime soon.
Grant glanced back at Jana as if to gauge her reaction. Scared and thrilled beyond coherent thought, she said the first thing that came into her head.
“I came to the prom to dance, Richie.”
“Then you can dance with me.” He reached for her again.
She dodged. “You’re playing. You better get back onstage.”
“The set’s over. I paid for your ticket, so you don’t dance with nobody else, ‘specially a doctor’s boy that’s too old to be here.”
“Well…” Jana waffled. Richie had paid for her ticket. She supposed she owed him some loyalty. Still, she didn’t like his presumption, and she’d enjoyed dancing with Grant. She gave Grant a doubtful look.
He shrugged. “Whatever. You want to go with him, go on. I was just trying to help.”
She glared at Richie. “Richie, it’s not like we’re married or anything. I was just dancing.”
Richie cursed. “I was gonna ask you tonight, but you messed it up.”
“Ask me what?”
“To marry me.”
She gaped at him. “Are you crazy? I’m not even out of high school yet!”
Grant started laughing. “You’d really marry this twerp?”
Richie hit him in the stomach.
Jana screamed as everything jerked out of control.
Twenty minutes later, she stood alone outside the VFW, leaning against the cinderblock wall and watching the sheriff drive away with Richie in the rear of his patrol car. There was blood all over the pink lace skirt of her formal, where Richie’s nose had splattered her.
Of all the awful things that had happened in her short life, this was the most humiliating. Her heart still pounded—oddly enough, not in fear for Richie, and not even for herself, though more than likely her dad would take the belt to her for causing trouble again.
No, what really upset her was the sight of Grant Gonzales leaning against his truck, tucking his shirttail in. She noticed a “Jesus is the Answer” bumper sticker on the tailgate and wondered if he really believed that. She sure didn’t. Grant straightened his tie, reattaching a couple of studs that had come loose. His hair stood out in a wild bronze mane. Beside him stood a daintily hysterical Jasmine Guerry, boo-hooing into a tissue and peeking over it to assess the effect. Miranda hovered close by, patting Jasmine’s back and fielding questions from her date.
Nobody had threatened to arrest Grant; it was assumed that Dr. Gonzales’s son would never provoke a fight. Found under the influence, Richie would be charged with drunken and disorderly conduct. Which left Jana alone and without a ride home. It would serve Richie right if she confiscated his truck, except for the fact that he still had the keys.
Jesus is the answer. Yeah, right.
With a disgusted sigh, she shoved away from the wall and crunched across the gravel to retrieve her tennis shoes and the gerbil. She and Gino would just have to walk home in the dark.
She studiously avoided looking at the Gonzaleses as she passed them, but Miranda stopped her. “Jana, you aren’t walking home are you?”
I thought about flying, she wanted to say, but I left my Tinkerbell wand at home. Jana knew her hair was a wild mess, not to mention the blood all over her dress. She’d changed back to her tennis shoes, and Gino squirmed inside the bag with her sandals. Cinderella was changing back to her rags.
“I’ll be fine,” she said and headed for the road again.
“You’re not walking home,” said a deep voice behind her.
She turned to find Grant reaching for her elbow. Thoroughly sick of being manhandled, Jana began to walk faster.
“Wait, Jana! I’m sorry about what happened. I wouldn’t have embarrassed you for anything.” He caught up to her. “Come on, let me take you home.”
“It wasn’t your fault.” She stopped, but bent her head so that her hair hid her face. “So now you know who I am, why are you bothering to be nice? I’m the girl who blends in with the scenery.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That’s what you said. When I was in the ninth grade and you were a senior. You called me a wild child with dorky clothes.”
“I did not.”
“Maybe you don’t remember, but I sure do.” She threw her hair back and looked up at him. In her tennis shoes, the top of her head came just under his chin. Even in the milky light of the moonlit parking lot, he was so beautiful it made her eyes hurt, and tears suddenly stung her throat. “That’s why it’s so ironic that you didn’t want Richie being disrespectful to me. That summer I almost thought God loved me enough to give me a friend like your sister. Then—” She gave a frustrated circle of one hand—“then I got back to school and saw how cock-eyed that idea was.”
“That’s a crock,” he said, looking like he wished a meteor would strike. “Of course God loves you.”
“No. And thank you for another big dose of reality tonight. Jesus has answers for people like you and your sister, but He apparently hung up the phone on me and Richie.” She could hear Gino beginning to squeal with discomfort, so she unzipped him and brought him out for a cuddle. “I’m just the animal girl. Since Richie loves me like I am, as soon as he gets out of jail we’re going to get married.”
“I got news for you.” Grant’s unflappable charm seemed to have finally exploded. He leaned in close to Jana’s face, his voice tense. “Richie doesn’t love you. He was just mad at somebody moving in on his territory. It’s no skin off my nose, but if I were you I’d think real hard about letting him get within ten miles of you again.”
Jana stamped her foot. “You don’t know anything.” She spun and began to march down the side of the highway.
The next thing she knew Grant’s truck was creeping along beside her. He had the passenger window down. “Get in,” he said.
“Get in or I’ll get out and haul you in.”
“Then they’ll put you in jail. For kidnapping.”
“The sheriff is my Uncle Dewey.”
She stopped, and so did the truck. “No wonder he didn’t take you with Richie.”
“He didn’t take me because I didn’t start it,” Grant said, “and I wasn’t high on weed. Everybody saw Richie swing at me.”
Jana did not want Grant Gonzales to see where she lived. But neither did she want to walk the nearly two miles alone in the dark. She opened the door of the truck and climbed in, hiking her skirt up to her knees. The tennis shoes looked absurd with her bare legs. Nobody wore stockings except Mrs. Davenport.
Grant peeled off without another word, his face grim. Which was ridiculous, because she hadn’t done anything except dance with him.
“Where’s your date?” she asked. Maybe her voice sounded truculent, but she was nervous.
“I let Miranda and Tony take her home. She was enjoying the drama just a little too much.”
“What in the world were you doing at a high school prom anyway? You aren’t dating that little twit regularly, are you?”
“She’s a cute twit, and I came as a favor to my sister. Miranda’s date backed out at the last minute, so I volunteered Tony for her. Then she asked me to bring Jasmine. Didn’t have anything on this weekend, so I thought why not.” He paused, uttering a short laugh. “Now I know why not.”
“I’m sorry,” Jana muttered.
He sighed. “Well, I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, when was it? Three years ago? I swear I don’t remember.”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t.”
“What is that thing in your bag?”
“A gerbil. The pet store was getting rid of them, so I brought him home.”
“I had a hamster one time when I was a little kid. Dumb as a rock, so we named him Barney, after Barney Fife on the old Andy Griffith Show.”
Jana giggled, minutely relaxing. “This is Gino Vanillo.”
“An Italian gerbil. Now I’ve heard it all.”
Jana suddenly wished Grant didn’t have to go back to college. He really had tried to protect her. Better yet, she wished she had the money to go to college with him. Mississippi State would be her choice of schools. She’d take pre-vet and go right into the vet school. She supposed drearily that instead she’d wind up marrying Richie for real and having a bunch of babies.
“Take the next paved road to the right,” she said.
“Magnolia Road,” he said, reading the cock-eyed road sign. The only thing on it was the seediest trailer park in the county.
“Yeah.” She didn’t feel like elaborating.
“I’ve seen your brother Quinn on campus once or twice. He’s a great pitcher. Do you ever come to the games?”
“No.” She didn’t have the money to travel. Or the clothes either for that matter, but she had no intention of saying so.
“That’s too bad.”
The cab of the truck was dark, but Jana could tell from his voice that he wanted to say something else. Quickly she said, “Turn here. Third trailer on the left.” He pulled into the dirt drive, and she got out fast, before he could come around to open the door for her. She knew instinctively that he would have beautiful manners. “Grant, I’m sorry I spoiled your date. Thanks for the ride home.”
But he leaned across to stop the door before she could shut it. “Wait, Jana.”
She looked over her shoulder. If her father came to the door drunk and yelling she was just going to die. Enough violence for one night. “What is it?” she asked hurriedly.
“Are you going to be all right?”
Now what made him ask that? “Of course,” she said, trying to sound nonchalant. “I’ve got to go.”
“My dad used to talk about getting you and your brothers out of here when you were little.”
“What?” She heard her voice rise in disbelief. “How would he know—what business—”
“I don’t know, but Quinn always had more bruises than anybody else on the team. I sort of wondered…”
Jana stood there, heart pounding, pushing the door against Grant’s hand. She’d thought nobody knew or cared about the beatings.
“Listen to me,” he said awkwardly. “If you need anything, call me. Or call my parents. They’ll help if they can.”
“Well. Well, that’s nice, Grant. But don’t worry, I’m graduating in May and I’ll be gone.”
Grant hesitated, as if he were trying to see her face in the dark, then at last released the door. “Okay. If you say so. But remember—you can call any of us Gonzaleses if you need us.”