“I . . . I did feel like I lost control,” I admitted, and I liked the idea that I was empowering myself by doing this. I wasn’t just going to hide in my room or go about my life like nothing had happened. I was doing something at least.

“I know, Ella. This will help. It will bring only good things, and in the unlikely situation something happens again, even later in life, you’ll be better prepared. That’s real empowerment, making that choice to not be a statistic no matter what.”

While I liked everything she was preaching—girl power, roar!—my brain got hung up on one thing. “Again?” I whispered, thinking about my belief in the statistical improbability of that occurring.

Ms. Reed’s smile faded as she slipped her glasses back on. “Better safe than sorry, Ella.”

I GLANCED DOWN at the slip of paper Ms. Reed had handed to me as I shuffled out the back door of the school, following the steady stream of students walking to the parking lot. I’d swung by her office after classes had ended, got another sermon on empowerment, and then was on my way. There was an address to a warehouse off of Airport Road and a cellphone number I didn’t recognize in case I got lost.

My throat went dry as the paper fluttered between my fingers. Was I really going to do this? Ms. Reed told me my ‘instructor’ would be waiting for me after school and had been ‘extremely willing’ to help out.

Self-defense classes.

I almost laughed because the only form of exercise I had done recently was walking from my front door to my car, and I imagined that self-defense lessons were going to be one hell of a workout.

An almost familiar buzz of excitement trilled through my veins. I recognized the feeling before it could slip away from me. It was the same sensation I got when I used to lace up my running sneakers.

A sudden whooping drew my attention to the weight and locker rooms. The football team barreled out the door, heading to the football field on the hill for practice. Some carried their shoulder pads, others wore them over white shirts.

Brock was among them—the one hollering. He was pushing a scrawny boy, laughing as one of the towels he carried floated into the air and fell to the ground.

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Shaking my head, I picked up my pace and then stumbled a step when I saw my Jetta. A small smile broke out across my face.

Gavin Grimes was leaning against my car, his hands shoved into the pockets of his khaki shorts. It had been at least two months since I’d seen him. Even though he lived on the same street as me, he hadn’t really been around during the summer.

When he saw me, he pulled a hand out of his pocket and smiled, thrusting his hand through his coppery colored hair. A dimple appeared in his left cheek and he pushed away from my car. I opened my mouth, but his arms went around me, sweeping me up in a mammoth bear hug that didn’t feel that great on my bruised ribs.

The hug caught me a little off guard. Our breakup had been totally civil, but we hadn’t so much as brushed arms since then. But the hug felt good on an emotional level—great, even. It was warm and familiar and so damn easy.

Gavin was half a head taller than me—he wasn’t as tall as Jensen, but he was broader and longer limbed, something that he had trouble dealing with in middle school. The kids used to call him spider boy. Well, namely it had been Brock and Mason calling him that, but Gavin had grown into it. He was a cutie and he was all tan from the beach. As he hugged me tighter, my face was mushed against the top of his chest.

“Good God, Ella, I heard what happened to you,” he said, and as I leaned back I could see others watching us as they got into their cars. “Are you okay?” Then his gaze moved to my cheek and below, to my neck. “Shit. You can’t be okay.”

“I’m totally fine,” I told him, which is what I told everyone who had asked today—teachers, classmates, and the school resource officer who I’d ran into after lunch.

“But you—”

“Gavin, I’m okay. Just a little scratched and bruised. Not a big deal.” The clown mask formed in the back of my thoughts, and I violently pushed it aside. “You weren’t in class today. They called your name in English.”

His arms were still around me. “Yeah, we didn’t get back from the beach until late and I decided to skip today. I was going to call you later, but I needed to see that you were okay. I figured you went to school when I didn’t see your car in front of your house.” He paused, scanning my face and stopping on the strawberry mark. “Damn, Ella . . .”

I drew in a breath, but it got stuck in my throat. Heat flashed across my skin, and suddenly I was too hot. Slipping out of his embrace, I took a step back, needing space. Tugging a lock of hair around my finger, I fixed my gaze on an old Mustang a few spaces down. The engine kept turning over but not kicking on. “So . . . we have AP English together, and I’m on A lunch. Are you?”

He scrunched up his face, a habit when he was thinking hard. “I think I have B lunch.”

“That sucks.” I forced a smile as my gaze shifted back to him. “I want to chat . . . catch up, but I have to get going.” I raised the piece of paper. “I’m going to take a self-defense class.”

His brows shot up and his light green eyes widened. “You’re what?”

I cringed. “I know I’m as coordinated as a two-legged llama, but don’t tell me it’s stupid because I think it’s a smart thing to do. All things considered, you know?”

He coughed out a laugh as he shoved his hands into his pockets. “Yeah, that’s kind of true, the whole llama thing, but I don’t think it’s stupid.”

Relief sparked in my chest. “Really?”

“Yeah, why not?” He shifted his weight. “Where are you doing it at?”

I shrugged. “I really have no idea. Some kind of private lessons Ms. Reed took or something.”

“That’s cool. You’re going to have let me know how it turns out for you,” he said, idly scratching his jaw. “I’ve got to go. Dad wants me to help out tonight. I think it’s payback for skipping school today.”

I smiled at that. Gavin’s parents owned a successful cleaning business considering they were pretty much the only ones in town. Every so often, his father had him help out. Something about learning responsibility. Gavin hated it—and the smell of cleaner and disinfectant—but he also got paid when he helped out, so he dealt with it.

“Call me later?” I asked, squinting into the sun.

“Of course.” He stepped forward, hugging me again, and this time I relaxed into his embrace. “I wouldn’t know what to do if something happened to you. Please be careful.”

My face flushed as I squeezed my eyes shut. Before Gavin and I tried to do the couple thing, we had been best friends. When we were eight years old, he helped me rescue a box turtle with a cracked shell we’d found in Back Creek. For Halloween one year, we dressed up as Jack and Jill. And when my grandmother passed away my freshman year, he’d brought me a plate of red velvet cupcakes and didn’t wig out when I started crying.

And when the entire town had been turned upside down while we were in the seventh grade, he’d been there right along with me. I would never, ever forget that.

“I’ll be careful,” I said, hugging him back just as tightly. “I promise.”

We broke apart then, promising to call each other later, and when I got into my car, I glanced out my window to see him still standing there. I wiggled my fingers.

Gavin waved back.

For the hundredth time since we broke up, I wished so hard that things hadn’t been so easy with him—that I felt more, because he was a good guy—a great guy. And as I pulled out of the parking lot, I wished I were seeing him later tonight, curling up on the couch together and watching stupid movies. It would be nice to have him there right now, and if I asked, he’d be there, but that wasn’t fair. The last thing I wanted to do was mislead him if he still had more than friendly feelings for me. Our relationship hadn’t been the same since we broke up, and I’d give anything for it to go back to the way it was before we dated. Back to middle school actually, when we had this perfect little group of friends.