Sometimes life can change in an instant. Sometimes you can point to a single event and say, ‘That’s where everything changed.’ And sometimes the change is so gradual you don’t even realize it happened until you're looking in the mirror one morning and no longer recognize the person staring back at you.
My name was Rylie Stark. And I had everything.
Even my very own Prince.
Everything, until . . .
The thing about being on top of the world is . . . it leaves you a long, long way to fall.
*This book contains issues not suitable for all readers, including drug use, prostitution, and instances of dubious consent.
Jamie Canosa is a full time author of YA/NA literature, which she absolutely loves! When she’s not writing or spending time with her family, she can usually be found with her nose in a book. Jamie currently reside in upstate NY with her wonderful husband and three crazy kids . . . plus the cats, the dog, and the rabbit.
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by Jamie Canosa
by Jamie Canosa
I flipped the paper over and I must have died because I know my heart stopped beating. Zero. I scored a big, fat, red zero with a note scrawled across the top of the page that read ‘See me after class.’ If there weren’t two of them in a one hundred, I may not have even recognized the number. I’d certainly never received one as a grade before. Or been asked to stay after class.
My eye caught Mr. Parson’s at the front of the room and an icy ball of nerves solidified in the pit of my stomach. He looked . . . pissed. What the hell did I ever do to him?
I didn’t hear another word for the rest of class, my mind too wrapped up in what could have happened. It must be some kind of mistake. I’d just explain to Mr. Parson that whatever he was thinking to make him look at me like that must be wrong and everything would go back to normal. He’d add a one and another zero to my exam and I’d take it home to show my parents. Everything would be fine. It had to be.
I glanced up to find Elijah standing beside my desk, surprised to find most of the class had already cleared out of the room. I needed to stop spacing out.
“I can’t. I need to talk to Mr. Parson for a minute.”
He eyed me curiously. “Everything all right. You look a little sick again. Are you allergic to chemistry?”
He was trying to make me smile, but it fell flat against the anxiety skyrocketing through my system. I needed to get this over with. Now. Before I had a stroke.
“I gotta talk to him. I’ll see ya later.”
“Do you want me to stick around?” He was actually starting to look a little concerned and Heaven only knew what I must have looked like.
“No. No, it’s fine. I’ll just be a minute.”
“Okay.” Elijah looked conflicted about his decision to go, but in the end he went, leaving me and Mr. Parson alone in the classroom.
Gathering my stuff haphazardly into my arms, I relocated to a desk at the front of the room.
“You wanted to talk to me?”
“I did.” Mr. Parson got up and slowly strolled to the door, shutting it with his foot and leaving me sitting on the edge of my seat.
He wasn’t a mean guy. Just out of college and not too much older than us, he was usually pretty cool, but he was torturing me now and I had no idea why.
“Rylie, we have a problem.” He took a seat on the front edge of his desk, stretching his denim clad legs out in front of him so that they nearly touch my own.
He definitely dressed better than most teachers in his button up shirts rolled up at the sleeves and left open in the front to display some pretty cool tees. I swear he only wore them at all to comply with the dress code, however loosely. I knew he had to be at least twenty-two or twenty-three, but with his light shaggy hair forever flopping into those bright blue eyes and that handsome baby face, he could have easily passed as a student here instead of a teacher.
“Cheating is not tolerated in my classroom, Ry.”
“Cheating? I didn’t—”
“I caught you looking at Mr. Prince more than once during the exam.”
Oh, God, I swear my cheeks turned ten shades of crimson. “I wasn’t cheating. I was just . . . looking.”
“I . . . sort of . . . have a little . . . crush . . . on Elijah. Maybe. A little.” Cripes, where the hell was the mute button when I needed it?
“A crush? On Mr. Prince? Are you two dating?”
“No.” Not yet, anyway.
“That’s good to hear.” Seriously, even the teachers were against me dating Elijah? “Maybe we can still work this out.”
“Yes. I’d like to work this out. I really wasn’t cheating.”
“And yet you both had the exact same answers.”
“The right answers! You can’t penalize us for both knowing the material we’re supposed to know.”
“This is my classroom, Rylie. I can do whatever I like.” There was a sudden shift in the room. A chill. Mr. Parson went from the laid back friendly teacher we all knew and loved to someone else. Someone . . . intimidating.
“I . . . I swear, I didn’t cheat. I studied. Hard. I don’t deserve a zero.”
“What grade do you think you deserve, Rylie?” Why did he keep saying my name like that? It gave me goose bumps, and not the good kind.
“I . . . Whatever I earned.”
“Would you like to earn a hundred?”
Was that a trick question? “Yes, of course.”
“There may be a way we could work that out.” He stood and meandered toward the desk where I was sitting.
My shoulders tensed as he circled around behind me, trailing a hand over them.
“You’re so tense.” Fingers pressed into my skin as he rubbed my muscles. “Relax. Just breathe.”
Breathing seemed impossible with what was happening. I couldn’t even process exactly what that was. “What . . .? What are you doing?”
“Working it out.”
“H-how can we do that?” My mouth had suddenly gone completely dry, making it difficult to speak.
“I’ve had my eye on you all year, Rylie. You’re a beautiful young woman.” His fingers dipped lower, rubbing deeper in my shoulder blades and clavicle. “You’ve left me pretty . . . tense, too. Maybe you could do something about that.”
“L-like w-what?” Why was I even asking? I already knew what he was implying. Some deep part of me was still desperately hoping I was completely overreacting to the situation. But I wasn’t.
“Something that would earn that hundred you so desperately want.”
Oh, my God. This was not happening. This stuff only happened on ridiculous after school specials. Not in real life. Not in my life.
“Mr. . . . Mr. Parson,” I leaned as far forward as I could behind that desk, pulling away from his touch. “M-maybe I could take a retest, or—”
“No retest. There’s one way to get the grade you want. The question is . . . how badly do you want it?”
I wanted it. I wanted it so bad. The thought of bringing home a zero and carrying the stigma of cheating through my senior year was almost too much to bear. I was going to be physically ill. His arm reached around from behind me, brushing across my chest and the tops of my breasts, causing me to recoil violently. I didn’t want it that bad.
“I can’t. I won’t! Don’t touch me.” Tears pooled in my eyes, making it hard to see my stuff as I jumped from the seat and piled it into my arms as quickly as I could. “Don’t touch me.”
When they spilled over, clearing my vision slightly, I found Mr. Parson leaning against the door. I stopped short waiting for him to move out of my way. Not certain that he would.
“Then, you keep the zero and I report you to the board of ethics.” My entire body shuddered at the thought. This could easily destroy my college prospects. “Get out of my classroom.”
He stepped aside, but only far enough that I had to squeeze by him to get out of the door.
When my arm bumped against his chest, he grabbed ahold of it and leaned over to whisper in my ear. “Cheating can be the least of your problems. Breathe a word of what happened here today and it will be. It’s your word against mine and I can make your life very difficult, Miss. Stark.”
I locked up at his touch and couldn’t move—or breathe—again until he released me. Then, I moved. Ran like the room was on fire all the way to the closest bathroom.
“Rylie?” I hadn’t even realized I’d blown right by Elijah in the hallway. “Rylie, are you okay?”
In complete disregard to the ‘Women’s’ sign on the door, he barged into the bathroom to find me hunched over a toilet. I hadn’t even had time to shut the stall door before losing my lunch.
“What the hell happened in there?” He balled up a wad of toilet paper and handed it to me to wipe my mouth, not skeeved out in the least by my display.
“This is a girl’s bathroom, Elijah.”
“Yeah, and we’re the only ones in it, so what? You guys hiding some kind of secret handbook or something in here?” He ducked, like he was actually searching for something below the sinks, dragging out a small smile from me.
“There you go.” He smiled, but it wasn’t his usual self-amused grin. It was almost . . . gentle. “Now tell me what happened.”
My stomach heaved again and I considered diving back into the stall and slamming the door before it settled. “I-I can’t.”
I didn’t even realize my hands were shaking until Elijah folded them both in his. “You’re terrified. What the hell is going on? You better start talking, Ry, or I’m gonna go ask Mr. Parson.”
“No! No, you can’t do that. Don’t-don’t say anything to him. Please.”
Elijah’s eyes narrowed along with his lips. “Did he do something to you?”
“No.” I shook my head hard enough to give myself a headache before one of Elijah’s hands cupped my cheek, stopping me. “Not really.”
“What does ‘not really’ mean?” He ducked his head, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. “Rylie, talk to me.”
“He . . . He accused me of cheating.”
“I can see why that would upset you, but not like this. There’s more. What is it?”
I licked my dry, chapping lips and flicked my eyes to his before dropping them again when the concern shining through quickly became too much to handle.
“Just tell me.”
“Nothing. I just . . . I don’t feel well. Must be that whole chemistry allergy thing.”
“Bullshit. It’s real simple, Ry. Either you tell me or he does.”
“Elijah, just forget about it. Please?”
“Not gonna happen, Princess. You’ve got ten seconds to start talking.”
“I can’t. I have to—”
“I have to get home. My parents will be—”
“Three, two, one.” Elijah’s booted foot slid backward and I panicked.
“He . . . offered me a way to make it up.”
“A retest?” Elijah’s confusion was obvious.
I shook my head again as much as his steady touch would allow. “A way to e-earn it.”
“Earn it?” His face hardened as understanding stared to set in. “How did he want you to earn it, Rylie?”
“By . . . By . . .” A sob I was unprepared for tore from my throat as the tears sprung up again. “I don’t know. He didn’t give me details.”
“Son of a bitch. Did that asshole put his hands on you?”
I couldn’t look at him, but the tremor that shook my body at the memory of Mr. Parson’s touch was all the answer he needed.
“Bastard!” Elijah pulled me to him, wrapping me tight enough in his arms that I could feel the way his chest heaved against mine. I was terrified of what he planned to do, but I couldn’t stop crying long enough to ask him. “Shh. It’s okay.” His hand glided carefully up and down my back. “I’m gonna fix this. It’s going to be okay. Shh.”
It took until my hysterics quieted into erratic sniffles for my brain to process his words. “What do you mean you’re going to fix this? Elijah, you can’t—”
His hands framed my face again, forcing me to look at him. “Don’t worry about it.”
“But he said if I told anyone, cheating would be the least of my problems. He could ruin everything. It would be my word against his. No one would believe—”
“Don’t. Worry. About it. I will handle this. I promise.” He planted brief warm kiss on my forehead and—unlike Mr. Parson’s—Elijah’s touch brought out all the right kinds of goose bumps. “Now get cleaned up and I’ll drive you home.”
“You got your car back already?”
“Replacement. Don’t ask.”
I wasn’t planning to. “My car’s in the lot.”
I flipped on the sink and splashed cold water on my face, trying to ease away some of the atrocious red splotches.
“I’ll drop it at your place later. You're in no condition to drive right now.”
“You don’t have to—” The sink shut off and I turned to face Elijah, just to have his index finger pressed to my lips, effectively silencing my feeble protest.
“Let’s go. Do you need anything from your locker?”
I shook my head and he nodded, scooping my bag and excess books from the bathroom tile where I’d dumped them and led the way out into the hall. Thank goodness they were empty. Who knew what people would think if they saw the two of us coming out of a bathroom together.