What did he want? She didn’t want him to see her like this. With her hands, she angrily brushed at her tears. Then tried to use the wall to stand, but fell to the side, onto her arm. “Uuuhhh,” she snarled, pushing herself to her knees and moving her feet to stand. The tennis shoes Tawny had given her were too big and one of her feet slipped. Her knee slammed against the floor, sending a wave of pain through her body. “Ouch,” she whispered, a tear leaking onto the floor. Serves me right for taking off my boots. Venus wouldn’t make the same mistake again.

“What’s it to you?” she asked, acid ripping through every word. If he said anything rude, she’d find a way to destroy him and gladly suffer the penalty.

He sighed. “Nothing.” He came over and picked her up, settling her into his arms.

       Baffled, she checked his expression. “What’re you doing?”

“Apologizing. Now hold still. Tawny kicked you good, didn’t she?”

Venus nodded, too dazed to speak. How’d he know? She hadn’t seen him in the gym, but that didn’t mean anything. Soccer had her distracted. 

“I ditched class. Swimming isn’t my thing. Water and me don’t mix. Anyway, I was sitting in the bleachers. Watched the whole thing. What she did—that wasn’t cool. Your first day at South High has been great, hasn’t it?” he asked, grinning. 

“Ha,” she choked out bitterly. Didn’t sound much like a princess, but she was in pain. On the surface, he stunk of cigarette smoke, but beneath, she smelled warmed earth, sunshine and . . . pears.

Michael’s skin was soothing, like a summer breeze. She heard his heart beating, a steady thrum against her body. Venus couldn’t take her eyes off his face. Everything she’d seen of his life came back in a flood. A sudden urge to put her arms around him, hold him and tell him everything would be all right crossed her mind. Strange. She remembered his memories from last night, and her strong desires to help him find someone worth his love. 

“Do you wear contacts?” he asked, bringing her out of her reverie.

“No.” Venus spoke before thinking. “Yes.”

“Which is it? He chuckled. “Your eyes are amazing.”

“Thank you,” she whispered, unsure if she should say more. 

“You know, I’ve received similar injuries during football practice. I doubt the nurse is going to be able to do anything for you. You’re going to need heat then ice rotated back and forth for the next several hours. You’ll want to wrap it too, that’ll help with the swelling. You know, you ought to let me take care of you.” He stopped in the middle of the hall.

“I’m really not sure what to do.” And that was the truth. On Kelari, she wouldn’t be in this situation. “I need my clothes.” Mostly, she had to get her boots. No way would she leave without them. If she had her way, she’d never return to this helker of a hole again. 

“Right.” He started trotting back toward the gym.

Because of his pace, she had no choice but to put her arms around his neck, which pressed her body closer to his. When her hands touched his neck, she felt a hitch in the thumping of his heart before it started faster. Still unable to pull her eyes from his face, Venus watched his pupils dilate. A flush came to his cheeks. Deep inside, a change occurred in her as well.

Maybe he doesn’t hate me so much after all. She couldn’t hate him, not after what she’d seen of his life.

When they were in front of the girls locker room doors, he opened them. The acrid air smacked her, and she had to force a small breath.

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