Thank you for helping me celebrate my cover reveal and for reading Chapter 1 of Soulmated!

As promised...here's Chapter 2--told in my heroine's point of view!

 

soulmated - chapter 2

 

LAXSHMI

The longer I stared at the words, the faster my ability to read left me. With my mom and Mrs. Beacham staring at me, I was in the Indian-American version of hell.

I slid the Wake County Public High School Planning Guide back to the guidance counselor, a rush of air escaping my lips. School started on Monday, and Mrs. Beacham's desk was as clutter-free as I'd ever seen it. Her letter trays didn't look like our pot-bellied principal yet, and a green ficus tree, still sporting a dangling how-to-care-for-me label, had replaced the wilted brown one from the end of my sophomore year. With the halls devoid of students, the only sound came from the generic school clock ticking away. There wasn't even a window I could make a visual escape through.

I clenched my hands together in my lap.

Mrs. Beacham gave me a tight-lipped smile. Mom flicked her long braid over her shoulder and leaned forward in the chair beside me. Her face could've been one of those I Gave You Life and I Can Take It Away memes.

How could this be happening? I blinked back tears.

"If you're set on this course of action, Mrs. Kapadia, Laxshmi will have quite a bit of testing to show curricular competency before next June. But she'll also miss out on the social aspect of having a senior year."

"That is not important." Mom raised her chin. "This is what she needs to do."

"She could still finish out her last two years in high school and apply before her senior year," Mrs. Beacham said. "She seems to want—"

"Laxshmi will do what is expected of her."

Gee. Play the culture card, why don't you?

Mrs. Beacham gave me a what-else-can-I-do look with a tiny shrug.

"What do we need to do to start?" With Mom's accent, all her w's became v's. Most of those sitcom caricatures of Indian people weren't too far off. Was it terrible to think that? Maybe I was too Americanized, just like Mom had always said.

Mrs. Beacham told us about the letter Mom would have to write to declare her intent—one I'd have to draft and type up for her to sign, of course. She could speak English and read it well enough, but having to write anything more complicated than a grocery list was a chore for her. Mrs. Beacham pulled out what had to be the manila folder version of my life from her squeaky filing cabinet and began making a timeline of what I'd have to do to graduate early.

I ducked my head toward Mom and lowered my voice. "I don't want to do this, Mom. Please."

She stared at whatever Mrs. Beacham was writing, acting like I hadn't even uttered a word.

 

 

The air-conditioning in Mom's Camry had stopped working long ago. With the windows open, the wind had been whipping the loose end of the soft fabric headliner against my head—until I slammed my hand up to pin it in place. Mom spared a glance in my direction, but kept humming along with a stupid Bollywood movie tune as if she'd done me the world's biggest favor.

I sighed. "I don't want to miss my senior year. Why can't you understand that?"

"If you don't do this, then you will have to get married."

"God, Mom! What kind of choices are those? I'm only—"

"Choop. Quiet. Be thanking God, hunh? You won't have to worry about money every day like your mummy."

The culture card and now the money card. Lovely.

She hooked a right into our gravel driveway, and I looked past her to see a moving truck two doors down. As we pulled farther in, our house blocked my view. I dashed out and climbed the front porch steps, hoping to spot our new neighbors, but despite the truck, the house looked as abandoned as when it had stood empty all summer. They must be inside. Mom all but pushed me into the house.

She dropped her purse and keys on the dining table. "Did you make the batata nu shaak?"

"Yeah, but I didn't use all the potatoes." I stomped up the stairs.

"Then come back down and make the rotlis for lunch."

"Can't. Have to finish my summer reading," I called back down with my lie. She mumbled something in Gujarati while I climbed the pull-down stairs to my attic bedroom and yanked them back up like they were a shield protecting me from all evil. My butt hit the carpet hard enough for a shudder to reverberate through the floor and furniture.

Mom's voice echoed in my head. "What good Indian girl would study dance in the college? You will make no money. You are too smart to do dancing." With a flick of a tear, I dragged myself up to my window seat and dropped my head back against one of the bookcases that created my nook.

Four burly movers were unloading the truck on the other side of Mrs. Robertson's house. The faint sound of them hollering instructions at each other reached my ears. From my third-floor perch, the chance our new neighbors would see me spying on them was slim, which I liked just fine.

A man with a mop of curly, salt-and-pepper hair directed the team. Dressed in a blue sweater vest and white T-shirt over gray Bermuda shorts, he kept clapping his hands and rubbing them together. He completed his ensemble with white tube socks and some sort of brown sandals. I smiled for the first time today.

A shiny black Audi parked behind the moving truck, blocking an old-model Mercedes and some expensive-looking, white SUV in their driveway. An elegantly dressed blond woman and a dark-haired guy in shorts and a black T-shirt got out. From this distance he looked like he was about my age, but I couldn't tell for sure. He took a soccer ball out of the trunk.

Great. Just what the world needed—another jock.

But what were a Mercedes, some expensive SUV, and an Audi doing on our street? We lived in a neighborhood of small single-family homes, the kind with carports or the odd detached garage, like ours. It was homey. Our neighbors took care of their shrubs, put up holiday decorations, and carried pooper-scoopers for their dogs. It was rare to find a house whose paint wasn't peeling, whose gutters weren't blackened, or whose sidewalks weren't christened with initials whenever cracks were sealed over.

A newer Mercedes pulled up and parked in Mrs. Robertson's gravel driveway. A uniformed chauffeur got out and opened the back door. A young man in slacks and a button-down shirt stepped out. He hugged the adults and grabbed the soccer guy—his brother?—in a headlock. They knocked each other around for a bit while the chauffeur lifted a small suitcase and a messenger bag from the trunk before getting back into the Mercedes and leaving.

I hugged a cushion to my chest and settled in to spy. With the air-conditioning vents blowing right above my window seat, goose bumps chased each other across my arms.

The mother and the dressed-up young man moved toward the house and out of my view, leaving Mr. Clappy-Hands and the jock outside. Jock still hadn't turned around. He kicked the soccer ball between his knees and feet with almost dance-like skills. The few times he struggled to control the ball, I'd hold my breath until he resumed his self-assured, lazy rhythm. I was impressed with his dexterity and pressed my nose to the window to watch. Something about his movements warmed me, like the moment the morning sun burst above the horizon. I didn't dare turn away for a second in case I missed anything.

I wondered how tall he was compared to me and how broad his shoulders were. What color were his eyes? Was he a junior like me? And where would he be going to school?

The soccer ball flew into the air. He bounced it off his head and let it drop to his foot, and in one lithe movement, kicked it back to his knee, turning enough for me to get a good look at the front of him.

A black V-neck T-shirt stretched snug across his muscular chest. While his feet did their thing, he balanced himself with his arms outstretched, the curves of his biceps clearly visible. What would they feel like under my fingers? My hand went up to the window on its own, and a sizzle shot up my arm and settled behind my eyes. I yanked my hand back down with a yelp. Soccer guy jerked around as if he'd heard me, and I shrank back, my heart racing.

Don't be stupid. He can't see you. Maybe a noise had startled him.

He scanned his surroundings, but never looked up. He ran a hand through his dark hair, pushing back what fell over his forehead, and rubbed the back of his neck. What was he thinking about? He faced his front lawn again, and my shoulders slumped. The urge to touch the window again overwhelmed me. What is wrong with me?

I shook out my hand, balling it into a fist, and squeezed the cushion tighter against my chest. Falling for a neighbor when I was being forced to graduate early wasn't a choice I could afford to make.


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