And wait.

What are you waiting for, Maggie? I ask myself.

I stand and go inside, feeling defiant. I get ready for bed, then peek outside. Kendra's car is still parked out front. Damn. I talk to my mom about my night, then peek outside again.

Sure enough, that sports car is still out front.

I toss and turn all night, resisting the urge to look out my window and check whether Kendra is staying the entire night.

Right now, I wish Caleb and I didn't live next door to each other.

In the morning, her car is gone. Caleb is sitting on his porch as I leave to go to the grocery store.

"Hi," I say curtly when he sees me.

"Hi," he says back.

I head toward my car. "Have a good night last night?"

"Yep. You?"

"The best. Robert's amazing."

"You trying to make me jealous?"

"Why? Are you jealous?"

"I didn't like his hands on you."

"He's my physical therapist," I say. "He just touched my leg."

Caleb jumps off his porch and heads my way. "Regardless, I still didn't like it."

I can't help but ask. "What really made you come back to Paradise? Was it Kendra?"

"No, it was Lenny, my parents, my sister." He shrugs. "You."

"Can we go for a walk?" I ask, putting my keys back in my purse. Without talking, we fall into step next to each other. Instinctively, we head for Paradise Park. "I was ready to let you go. I moved on."

"I know."

"And then I saw you hugging Kendra last night. When I saw her go into your house ... I've never felt more possessive in my life."

"Don't," he says. "She's marrying Brian in two weeks. They're engaged."

"I think she still wants to be with you."

"Well, that's not gonna happen. Nothing happened last night. We talked. That's it."

We stop when we get to the big oak tree. Caleb and I kissed here for the first time. I'll never forget how lonely and lost I felt until that kiss. It changed me.

He changed me.

Caleb looks up at the thick branches and green leaves waving at us from above. "This is our tree, you know."

"You used to climb it until you broke your arm when you fell off it. I watched you from afar back then." I give a short laugh. "I used to always watch you. I liked you for so long."


"Because you were popular and smart and cute and weren't afraid of anything or anyone. When Leah and I made you watch our dance shows, you pretended to be interested. You were selfless. When you took the blame for me breaking your mom's ceramic owl statue, you were my hero. I loved watching you, even if you didn't notice me then."

"And what about now?"

I sit on the ground with my back resting against the tree. "I still can't keep my eyes off of you. God, if my mom knew I was here with you admitting that fact, she'd freak out.

"You want to know what I realized last night?"

"That you miss having Kendra in your life?"

"No." He crouches on the ground, facing me. "I miss having you in my life. You're my best friend, Maggie. Call me crazy, but I want you to be my girlfriend-"

Oh, God, how I dreamed this day would come. But it's too late, isn't it? I reach out and cup his beautiful face in my palm. "Caleb, I'm leaving in two weeks. I'll be gone for almost a year."

"I know. But we're here now, right?" He looks determined, as if he knows we can do this. "Why don't we test drive being a couple the next two weeks? Let's not think about what's gonna happen after that. What do you say, Maggie?"



fter I ask Maggie to be my girlfriend, she looks nervous. "What about your parents, my mom ... and Leah?" Her eyebrows are furrowed in worry.

Maggie and I are nothing like Kendra and Brian. I think my old best friend and my ex-girlfriend make each other weaker. Maggie and I, together, are one strong team.

"We're going to tell them about us."

Her eyes go wide. "Remember how upset they were last time? I can't."

"Maybe you can't, but together we can." I lean and kiss her on the lips. "Don't be afraid."

When I pull away, our eyes meet.

This is the girl I draw strength from. She's got more power than she thinks, and she taught me the definition of resilience.

A slow smile crosses her lips. "You really think we can do this?"

"Yeah, I do." For the time being, I do.

In the evening, we decide to meet at the park after dark. Maggie's still nervous about telling people about us.

The moonlight glows on her beautiful face as she comes up to me. I sling my arm around her and we walk quietly. "What happens after I leave for Spain?" she finally asks.

Her trip does kind of throw a monkey wrench into the girlfriend plan. But can't we just live for today and not worry about the future? "I don't know. I guess we'll figure it out as we go along."

Maggie smacks her sweet lips together and holds her chin high. She looks ready for a challenge.

For the first time in forever, I feel like I can handle being in Paradise. I stroke her shoulder and slowly trail my fingers down her arm until our fingers touch. I love it when I touch her and hear her breathe harder and faster. It's a total turn-on. It makes me want to see just how much I can please her. "I wish we were back at the cabin right now."

"Me too," she whispers. "I'd make out with you all night."

I chuckle. "I got to be honest with you, Mags. I'd try to do a lot more than make out."

I like just being with Maggie, talking to Maggie, doing stuff with Maggie ... but I also like fooling around with Maggie. It drives me nuts that she doesn't realize how much sex appeal she's got.

That brings a shy smile to her face. "I like what we did at the cabin. It was hard to leave you in the morning."

"Tell me what you liked. You know, so I know for next time.

"I'm too embarrassed." I watch as she nibbles her lip, then cocks her head to the side, thinking. She turns to face me. "Urn ... how about if I show you?"

This girl never ceases to amaze me. The more comfortable she is in our relationship, the more her feisty spirit comes out.

"Bring it on."

Without hesitation, she leans forward and brings her face right up to mine. Hoping nobody can see us, I grab her butt and back her up against the tree. "You okay?" I murmur.

"Mmm." Her legs instinctively go around me, and I press into her as she moans against my lips.

Damn, her kisses are hot and sexy. I feel her energy and eagerness as if it's my own.

I definitely don't have to wait long this time for her tongue to come out and play with mine.

When her soft hands reach under my shirt and toy with the waistband of my jeans, it feels so different than it has with any other girl. Sure, I lust after Maggie. But she makes me nervous, because I also love her. I love her for everything she is and wants to be. She challenges me to forgive others.

She's my best friend. That thought is humbling.

"Get a room," I hear a voice say from behind me.

Damn. One day Maggie and I are going to get some alone time even if I have to save up money to take her to Lake Geneva or Rockford for a weekend like my parents used to do.

I give a frustrated moan as I look over at the spawn of Satan, who can only be named Lenny. What I wasn't expecting was my old cellmate Julio to be standing beside him.

I gently release Maggie and stand in front of her. It's a sorry attempt at protecting her from Lenny's ridicule, but we're kind of caught in a compromising position.

"Hey, what're you doing here?" I ask Julio.

"Thought I'd pay you a little visit."

I assumed he'd go back to Chicago when he got released, to see his family and hang with old friends. I never really believed he'd come to see me.

Oh, man, what is Maggie going to think of Julio? I'm kind of glad it's dark, so she doesn't see all his tattoos. His shaved head makes him look like a badass, but his crazy tats are even more intimidating.

"Maggie, this is Julio. We shared a cell when I was in the DOC."

"Nice to meet you," Maggie says, holding out her hand and smiling.

Julio slaps her hand and shakes it like she's one of his homegirls. I'm amused that she doesn't seem fazed in the least. Julio nods at our obvious disheveled appearance. Maggie's hair is a mess from my fingers running through it, and I think she somehow managed to get my jeans unzipped without me even knowing. "Sorry to interrupt whatever you two were doin'... or about to do."

As long as I've got an entourage, I might as well lay down the line. "Next time, if either of you catch me making out with my girlfriend, just pretend we don't exist and walk away."

"Girlfriend?"Lenny asks. "Since when did that become official?"

"Since just now," Maggie says.

"I can't imagine you came here just for a visit," I tell Julio.

Julio, as always, looks and acts cool. In his neighborhood, guys are afraid to screw around with guys who have swagger. You play the game and you don't get messed with.

"You know I don't like taking nothin' from nobody, but I need a place to stay."

If it was only up to me, no problem. Julio's not as crazy as he looks, and his being here is a sign he's breaking away from his gang ties. "I need to ask my dad. We'll work something out."

We walk to my house. The entire time I'm thinking about how I'm going to break the news to my dad that there's another friend of mine who needs a roof over his head.

Hell, I was just getting revved up to break the news that Maggie and I are a couple. Now I have to deal with Julio needing a place to stay. I feel like an intruder or guest in my own house as it is. Bringing a second random guy to stay might cause my dad to freak out.

Maggie squeezes my hand. It's a silent message that everything will be okay. Somehow I believe her. In the end everything will be okay. But hurdles have to be jumped through first.

When we get to my house, I find my sister watching television in the living room. She looks surprised when all four of us walk in.

"Hi," she says as she clicks the television off. Her focus immediately goes to Julio.

"'Sup?" he says, nodding to her.

"Leah, this is Julio. Julio, Leah."

"Hi," she says.

"Where's Dad?" I ask her.

"He's either watching TV in his room, or sleeping."

I should have known. "Be right back," I tell everyone, then take the stairs two at a time and knock on my parent's bedroom door.

"Come in."

I open the door and find my dad lying on his big kingsized bed watching television. He turns it off when he sees me come into the room.

"Hey, Dad."

"Did you have a good time tonight?" he asks.

I think of Maggie and me. I don't know what the future holds with us, but I feel good about it. I feel the best I've ever felt about us, actually. "Yeah. I had a great time, thanks. Listen, I've got to ask you a favor. This guy who I roomed with at juvie stopped by." I clear my throat, because I don't know how to proceed with asking for yet another favor from my dad. "He needs a place to crash."

"For how long?" Dad asks. I can't read his reaction, so I tread carefully. I'm at his mercy here. It's his house. Just before I left Paradise he'd said to follow his rules or leave. I left, because I couldn't pretend to be a perfect son when I clearly wasn't one.