Broken Beautiful Hearts by Kami Garcia

  Hawk rescues the biscuits before they disappear and offers the basket to me. “Help yourself.”

  Now I know why they didn’t serve themselves right away. They were waiting for me.

  Is it because I’m a girl or a guest? I want to ask, but it seems rude to lecture them about gender equality when Hawk just made me dinner.

  For ten minutes, nobody says a word. Hawk and I eat at a normal pace, while the boys wolf down the family-size portions that are probably designed to feed ten people. They finally slow down after they kill what’s left of the mac and cheese.

  “We heard Titan was acting like an ass in the hall this morning before second period. Why didn’t you say something?” Cam asks, watching me over the chicken leg he’s eating.

  “Because I handled it.”

  Christian stabs a biscuit with the butter knife. “We warned Titan not to pull any of his Romeo bullshit with you.”

  “Language,” Hawk says.

  “Sorry, Pop.” Christian tears the biscuit in half and slathers it with butter, as if the conversation is over.

  Hawk puts down his fork. “Does someone want to fill me in?”

  I glare at Cam. “Nothing happened.”

  Christian snorts. “Yeah … Well, I nailed Titan at practice so that nothing won’t happen again.”

  “Is nailed a football term? Because if it isn’t, I’m about to get really upset.”

  “Not exactly.” Cam glances at his brother.

  “What did you do?” And how embarrassed am I going to be at school tomorrow because of it?

  Christian scratches the back of his head. “I said he’d better back off or we’d have a problem.”

  That’s not so bad.

  “Is that all?” I ask.

  “Yeah. Why are you getting so worked up?” Christian asks. “Titan was out of line.”

  “Out of line how?” Hawk leans forward and props his elbows on the table. Now we have his full attention.

  “I made the mistake of asking Titan how to get to my classroom. Instead of giving me directions, he picked me up and carried me there,” I explain. “It was ridiculous and embarrassing.”

  “He didn’t ask,” Christian adds, looking his dad in the eye. “He just grabbed Peyton and picked her up.”

  Hawk’s expression darkens.

  “He didn’t grab me in a forceful way.” I’m not making excuses for Titan. The guy is a total ass. I just don’t want to misrepresent the situation.

  “But you weren’t expecting it, right?” Cam asks. “After what happened with … your knee, it seems like that might freak you out.”

  “Yeah. A little.” I’m not sure what else to say. I didn’t expect the Twins to think about the situation from my point of view. It’s sweet.

  “Titan always goes too far,” my uncle says.

  “Exactly. He had it coming.” Christian takes another biscuit. “It was no big deal. Coach said it was a clean break.”

  I press my fingers against my temples. “You broke something?”

  “Just his nose,” Cam says calmly. “In football, we don’t really count that as a broken bone.”

  “I think it’s just cartilage anyhow,” Christian adds.

  “It’s not just cartilage.” I raise my voice and the Twins snap to attention. “Forget it.”

  Hawk looks Christian in the eyes. “Did Coach bench you?”

  “Nope.” Christian grins proudly. “He thinks Titan had it coming, too.”

  “You’re lucky.” Hawk’s expression doesn’t change. I can’t tell if he’s upset because Christian broke Titan’s nose or because his son could’ve been benched.

  “I know you two were just trying to help, but don’t you see how stupid I look now? People will think I went crying to my cousins because a guy carried me down the hall.” The leg brace already makes me look fragile and the Twins confirmed it by coming to my rescue in a situation that didn’t require a rescue effort.

  “Who cares what people think?” Christian asks, picking up a chicken bone.

  “I care,” I practically shout.

  Christian drops the bone and Cam’s eyes widen. Hawk raises his eyebrows and sits back in the chair as if he’s waiting to see what I’ll do next.

  “Then I guess you don’t want us to say anything to Owen?” Cam asks.

  “About what?”

  Cam clears his throat. “We heard you were arguing with him at the YMCA.”

  “Are you two spying on me?”

  The Twins look confused, like they can’t figure out why they didn’t come up with the idea themselves.

  “Boys?” Hawk asks.

  “No,” Christian says. “Rusty Thompson boxes at the Y. We ran into him at Circle K and he brought it up.” Sometimes I forget how small this town really is, and how fast news travels.

  “It sounded weird because Owen is so laid-back,” Cam says. “Did something happen between you two?”

  Short of a zombie apocalypse, nothing could get me to tell them what happened.


  A Girl Like You

  THE SILENT TREATMENT is my superpower. It drives people crazy, and the Twins are no exception. On the way to school, they took a tag-team approach, alternating between cracking jokes and apologizing. By the time we pulled into the school parking lot, they were begging me to talk to them.

  I remained stone-faced through it all. The silent treatment only works if I hold out long enough to make a point, and subtlety doesn’t seem to have any effect on my cousins.

  Starting the school day with precalculus and the Weasel sucks. Despite the dirty looks I throw his way, the Weasel continues to roll his Rs every time he calls me Miss Rios just like he did yesterday. One of us might not survive the next four months.

  He’ll hit the wall before I do.

  After class, the Twins are loitering across from my locker, talking to Grace. They try to make eye contact with me, but I ignore them and put away my books as quickly as possible.

  Grace sees me and crosses to my side of the hall. Today she’s dressed in a white V-neck tee, a fitted black leather jacket, and skinny jeans—a combination my friends back home wear all the time. Except none of them could rock red leather cowboy boots with it.

  “Hey,” she says. “The Twins told me about Christian’s chivalrous behavior at football practice yesterday. Sometimes they act like idiots.”

  “I can’t believe he broke his friend’s nose. Who does that?”

  “Christian just reacts. He doesn’t think first. Cam is the levelheaded one. He usually talks Christian out of doing crazy things, but Cam wasn’t happy with Titan, either. They’re sorry for embarrassing you.”

  They do look pretty pathetic.

  “I know they mean well. But they’re like puppies. If I don’t lay down the law now they’ll be out of control, swinging at every guy who talks at me.”

  “You have to forgive them, or one of them will be texting me every five minutes. Consider this a purely selfish request.”

  “Okay. I just want them to suffer a little bit longer.”

  Grace laughs and keeps walking. “Deal.”

  I stop in front of my English classroom. I’m about to spend the next fifty minutes in the same room as Owen. The way I left things yesterday didn’t mark the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

  Owen is already sitting at a desk in the back corner when I walk in. He’s stretched out in his chair, and my mind flashes to the sweatier and shirtless version of him. He looks up from the notebook he’s scribbling in and tries to make eye contact.

  I choose the desk in the opposite corner of the classroom and pretend to check my email until the bell rings. Miss Ives walks around to the front of her desk. Today her blond dreadlocks are arranged on top of her head in an intricate bun and the metallic oxblood lipstick she’s wearing gives her light brown skin a golden glow. “I hope everyone brought in at least one object that holds special meaning for you.”

  Several students reach for their backpacks w
hile the rest of us remain frozen in place.

  Miss Ives scans the room. “If you forgot, find something in the next five minutes—or expect a zero for this assignment.” The threat mobilizes us. My backpack has nothing in it except pens, two notebooks, a Dr Pepper Lip Smacker that Mom swears is the holy grail of lip products, my wallet, Ibuprofen in case my knee swells, and my cell phone. Unless I convince Miss Ives that my driver’s license has sentimental value, I’ve got nothing.

  My fingers reach for the dog tags around my neck out of habit. I’ll just say they’re my dad’s. I don’t have to cough up any details. Dead parents make people uncomfortable. Lifting the chain over my head, I gently lay them on the desk.

  “Find your partner from yesterday and get started,” Miss Ives calls over her shoulder as she scribbles furiously on the board.

  English has officially dropped below precalc on the list of classes that suck.

  Chair legs scrape across the floor and bags zip and unzip as the other students swap seats and find their partners. Not me. I’m hoping I’ll be granted with the power of invisibility before Owen comes over here.

  Scooping the dog tags off the desk, I clutch them in a death grip.

  Owen flips a chair around and pulls it up to my desk. He sits on the edge of the chair and leans forward, arms resting on his knees and hands clasped.

  “I heard about what happened between Christian and Titan yesterday at practice. I feel like a jerk for giving you a hard time about him.”

  At least we agree on one thing.

  “An asshole like Titan couldn’t score a girl like you.”

  The comment takes me by surprise and I look up. Huge mistake. Owen smiles at me and my anger dissolves.

  “Is that a compliment?” I ask, hoping the question will distract him. If he keeps staring at me, I’ll forget that I’m supposed to be angry.

  He stops fidgeting with his hands and the corner of his mouth turns up. “Why? Are you one of those girls who can’t take a compliment?”

  I cover my mouth to hide a smile. “I have no issue taking one. I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t another cheap shot.”

  Owen smiles, and my stomach flutters.

  “You’re not going to let me off easy, are you?” he asks.

  “Not a chance.”

  Miss Ives walks down the center aisle toward us.

  I kick Owen’s foot under the desk, and he notices her a second before she descends on us.

  “I don’t see anything on the desk except pencils.” She sounds disappointed.

  Reluctantly, I open my hand. “I brought these.”

  Miss Ives sees the dog tags and her face brightens. “Excellent, Peyton. How about you, Owen?”

  “I was getting mine.” He digs through his backpack and pulls out a clean white hand wrap.

  “Carry on.” Miss Ives waves her hand and moves to the next group.

  I point at the wrap. “Nice save.”

  Owen leans forward, so we’re eye-to-eye. “You too. Except yours looks legit. That means you get to go first.”

  “You’re not serious.” I swallow hard.

  He glances over his shoulder. “If we don’t turn in something, we fail, right?”

  I rub a stainless-steel tag between my fingers, and the raised letters that form my father’s name press against my skin. I’ve touched them so many times that I recognize the shape of every letter and number stamped into the metal.

  “These were my dad’s.”

  Owen reaches across the desk and touches the edge of the tag I’m not holding. “Were?”

  So much for avoiding the topic of dead parents.

  “He was in the Marine Corps. He died in Iraq.” The back of my throat burns. I don’t trust myself to keep talking. It feels like someone punched a hole in my chest.

  “When did it happen?” His finger is still touching the tag, and it grazes the curve of my thumb. Warmth spreads through me, and I feel safe enough to answer.

  “A year and a half ago.” I change the subject. “Is your dad around?”

  His smile falls and his lips form a hard line. “My parents split up a couple years back. My dad and I don’t really talk.”

  “Sorry.” Now we’re both uncomfortable.

  I pick up the hand wrap on the desk. “Maybe you should tell me why this is important to you. Miss Ives is still making the rounds.”

  The tension in Owen’s expression fades. “You don’t think it will go over well if I say it was the only thing I could find in my bag?”

  I tap on the cloth and pretend to give him a stern look.

  Owen slips his thumb through the hole at one end. “I use these to wrap my hands before I train.” He loops the cloth around his knuckles a few times. “I love kickboxing and my knuckles would get torn up without these.”

  I resist the urge to tell him that I know why he uses them. I wrapped Reed’s hands for him all the time.

  “You probably don’t want to hear about anything related to kickboxing. Since you hate fighters.” He glances at me, and my stomach somersaults.

  My body needs to get the message that Owen is off-limits.

  “I said I don’t like fighters.”

  “That changes everything,” he teases. “So what’s the deal? There must be a reason. Do you puke at the sight of blood?”

  “I’m a soccer player. I get scrapes and cuts all the time. Blood doesn’t bother me.”

  “Do you think kickboxing and MMA are too violent?” Owen asks.

  “Something like that.”

  “Kickboxing isn’t about hurting people. It started as a form of self-defense in Thailand. For me, it’s also a way to get out of my head.” When I don’t say anything right away, Owen gives me a sheepish smile. “That was a lame explanation.”

  “No. It made sense. I’ve just never heard anyone describe it that way. But I get it. Soccer is my escape—at least it was, before this.” I tap on the brace and look away.

  “Hey? Your injury doesn’t change anything. You’ll play again. You just need time to heal.”

  Owen isn’t the first person to say I just need time, but the words mean more coming from him because he didn’t have to say them.

  I’ll do whatever it takes to get back on the soccer field.

  My knee will heal. Deep down, I believe that. But I’m not sure about the rest of me.


  Wishing, Wondering, and What Ifs

  AFTER SCHOOL, CAM drives me to the Y without saying a single word the entire way there. I grab my bag the second the truck stops. “The reverse silent treatment, Cam? I’m impressed.” I must be rubbing off on him. I reach for the door handle. “Thanks for the ride.”

  “Hold on.” He takes an energy bar out of the center console and hands it to me. “You didn’t eat lunch.”

  “I’m not a fan of cafeterias.”

  Cam taps the steering wheel. “Is that why you were hiding out in the library?”

  “I wasn’t hiding.” I sink back against the seat.

  The Twins noticed when I didn’t show up at lunch, and they made Grace check the girls’ bathrooms in case I’d fallen like the old lady from a Life Alert commercial.

  “They’re the same way with me,” Grace said. “Especially Cameron.”

  The Twins were standing in the hall next to the library when I came out with Grace, and they practically tripped over each other trying to make it look as if they hadn’t been waiting.

  Cam didn’t speak to me for the rest of the afternoon—until a minute ago.

  “Don’t you need to get to practice?” I ask.

  Driving me to the Y after school means one of the Twins has to miss the first fifteen minutes of football practice—an exception their coach isn’t willing to make on a regular basis.

  Cam checks the time on his phone. “Yeah. I’ve gotta go. Coach is already annoyed. We’ll pick you up as soon as practice ends.”

  “Okay.” I step on the running board below the door and lower myself to the grou

  “You forgot this.” Cam leans over the passenger seat, holding out the energy bar. I take it and shove it into my bag.

  Inside, I check in and go straight to find Cutter. Today, the boxing gym looks empty. I spot Lazarus sitting at a card table next to the ring, playing chess. He has his back to me and he’s studying the board.

  “Cutter is on the phone,” Lazarus says without turning around. “She’ll be out in a minute.”

  “Thanks.” I inch closer and watch as Lazarus captures a rook. “Is it hard to play alone?”

  He rubs the salt-and-pepper stubble along his jaw. “It depends. I like studying the board from both sides of the table. It reminds me of the old days when I used to box. Before the internet and fancy coffee with names nobody can pronounce.”

  Lazarus’ dark brown skin is so smooth that it’s hard to guess his age.

  “Boxing and chess.” He winks at me. “Two of my three great loves. They both require strategic thinking. You have to plan your next move and figure out what your opponent is going to do at the same time. But it’s a lot harder when someone comes at you with a right hook.”

  Boxing and chess? Boxing seems more like a test of speed, strength, and stamina than a game of chess in the ring.

  “Were you good?” I ask.

  Lazarus removes a stopwatch from his pocket and loops it around his neck. He winks at me. “One of the best.”

  “The best what?” Owen’s voice catches me off guard.

  I steal a look in his direction and the butterflies in my stomach do more than flutter. They nose-dive like fighter planes in a dogfight.

  Owen is barefoot—and for some reason it’s sexy. Black gym shorts hang low on his hips, and the fabric of the faded gray T-shirt he’s wearing is thinner in some places, revealing the outline of the muscles underneath. It feels like the temperature in the gym just rose by thirty degrees.

  Lazarus shakes his head at Owen. “I was telling Peyton that I’m the best padman and cutman on the East Coast. Start stretching. Then get your tail in the ring and I’ll prove it.”

  Owen looks over at the man old enough to be his grandfather and grins. “Somebody is fired up today. And you’re the best padman and cutman on both coasts.”

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