He turned around and smiled at me with those kind, warm eyes, and the pain I just forced down rose to the surface again. I flattened the front of my dress, blinking rapidly until, as the tears receded, David’s arm landed around my shoulder. “Are you okay?”

He stood back up slowly, his jaw stiff, and looked at the two girls from the bathroom—now whispering to each other by an open locker in the corner. “You’re not okay. I can tell.”

“Or perils of gossip,” he said, checking over his shoulder before looking back at me. “Do you mind if I teach those girls a lesson?”

“Why would you want to do that?”

“Just go with it, okay?” he whispered in my ear, so close that his breath tickled my cheek. “Are they watching?”

I cast my eyes to them; they stared on with arched brows, lips curled in disgust. “Yeah. They’re watching.”

“This.” He gently wrapped his fingers around my arms and walked me backward, past our bags and the stack of books, until my spine pressed against the cold wall.

“What are you doing, David?”

“Giving them something to talk about.” He propped his forearm on the wall, bending at the knees, hiding us behind his shoulder as his face came in line with mine. And my eyes stayed on him, locked to his every move, trying to predict his next. But even though he moved his hand slowly to my face, my heart still skipped when his thumb touched my cheek, gently sliding down, then across my bottom lip. I could taste something sweet on his skin, and I wanted so badly to make a joke, wanted to run or hide, or close my eyes and breathe him in. In fact, I thought I was holding my breath, but as his lips hovered in front of mine, the warmth he exhaled went into my lungs. But he didn't kiss me. He just smiled into me, speaking with his eyes. I knew what he was doing, and he knew, if he had any sense at all, he knew what this closeness was doing to me. I swallowed, my mouth watering.

But the good feeling slinked away as the two girls walked off in a huff, flipping their hair. I looked up at David, who smiled in a way that made me feel I belonged here. “Why did you do that?”

“Do what?” He leaned a little closer; I stopped him with a hand to his firm, cool chest.

“You—you made them think we were kissing.”

“But, don’t you get it? They’ll spread this around to everyone—tell the whole school you were kissing me!” I swallowed the lump in my throat.

“But—” Against everything inside me, I pressed my hand more firmly to his chest and shoved him away, then rolled out from the wall and flung myself across the corridor.

“What does it matter if they tell everyone?” He slowly turned around, holding his arms out wide.

I looked into the sunny courtyard below, leaning my elbows over the cold, metal bar. “Well, do you want people thinking you like me?”

“Ara.” He appeared beside me, and as he wrapped his fingers over the railing, our elbows touched. “What would be so wrong about liking you?”

I shook my head, refusing to point out the obvious.

“You’re a very sweet girl. And you don't deserve to be the entity of other people’s cruelty. I would rather they told the whole school I was kissing you in the corridor than to have them talk about you like that.” He pointed back to the bathroom.

“You heard that?” Everything suspended in slow motion around me. “How did—”

It felt like a hot-air balloon had just been let off in my face. I bit my quivering lip tightly. “I can’t believe you heard that.”

“Don’t worry about it.” David gently grabbed my wrist and started walking, dragging me along behind him. “They’re not nice people. I’m just sorry that of all the girls you had to run into in there, it was those two.”

“Well, thank you—” I stopped and pulled my arm from his grip, “—for standing up for me. No one’s…ever done that before.”

“Really?” He looked amazed, or maybe mortified.

“I never needed it.” I reached down and picked up my bag as an excuse to avoid eye contact. “Thick skin and quick wit were kind of a requirement at an all girls’ school. But…I guess I just lost my nerve.”

“You shouldn’t have to stand up for yourself, Ara. People should mind their tongues.” David softened a bit then, quickly bending to grab our books off the floor by his feet. “And for the record, mon amie, despite what those girls just said—” He took a step closer, “—I think you are very pretty.”

Yep, that did it. Cheeks hot; heart tumbling down the stairwell; lust-meter at fifty. “So, you—you speak French?”

“Seulement quand je parle avec mon coeur.” David started walking, but I caught a glimpse of a smile as he turned, shouldering his bag.

A second passed before I forced myself to run after him. “I will, you know—look it up.”

He just stared ahead, his dimpled smile making my heart race as we walked in silence.

The bell tolled before we even made it to the cafeteria. David smiled gently and jerked his head in the other direction. “Come on, your next class is this way.”

“How do you know that?” I asked, running after him.

“Yeah, but, how did you retain all that info? I can’t even remember what classes I actually signed up for.”

David said nothing, just smiled—a kind of secret smile—as we headed back up the stairs, past a waving carrot-top girl.

“That’s Ellie.” David leaned in. “She’s in our music class.”

“Oh, okay.” I looked back down the stairwell at her just as she glanced up to gush over David. “She likes you.”

“No, she doesn't. She’s just…I don't know.” He shrugged once. “I think they all suffer from a ‘desire the unattainable’ disease around here.”

“Oh, so you think you’re too good for them?” I challenged playfully.

He fanned the collar of his shirt, humour lighting the smugness on his face. “I don't think I am. I know I am.”

I laughed. “So…you’ve never dated any of the girls—ever?”

“Oh,” I said, falling suddenly through the earth.

David’s head whipped up as he came to an abrupt halt. “Um—I, uh—I really didn’t mean it like that. I—”

“Dave? Ditching class, man?” the same jock from earlier said, slapping David on the shoulder again.

“Hey, you know the code, bro.” David grinned, pointing down the hall at him.

“Ditch school; ditch life,” they both said, and laughed.

As soon as the boy disappeared around the corner, so did David’s smile. “I—”

“I need my books.” I pointed to them.

He gently drew them from the stack and placed them in my waiting hand.

We stood looking at each other for a moment, surrounded by the sound of a teacher’s voice talking about today’s lesson in history.

“So, this is your class,” David said.

“I figured.” I smiled softly, but my heart was completely broken. “Well, thanks.”

“Hey, Ara.” He grabbed my arm. I looked up from his hand to his lovely green eyes. He let go. “When I said I don’t plan to date, I wasn’t talking about y—”

“It’s okay, David, you don’t owe me an explanation.” I tried to grin. “I only just met you, after all. And I hadn’t placed myself in that category, anyway.”

David’s jaw set stiff, his eyes fixing on the ground.

“So, I’ll see ya later?” I said, slowly backing in through the doorway.

“Ah,” the teacher said. “Ladies and gentlemen, we finally have a new student.”

I turned away from David, leaving our conversation before his response, but felt better suddenly seeing a familiar face in the room. “Hi, Dad,” I whispered so no one else would hear, then stole a quick glance at the now empty corridor.

“Attention please.” Dad’s voice rose above the chatter. Everyone hushed. “This is Ara-Rose. I’m sure some of you have already met her—”

He looked sideways at me for a second. “Okay, this is just Ara.”

“Nice to meet you, Just Ara,” someone called from the back of the room, and a low hum of laughter erupted over the entire class.

“Thanks a lot, Dad,” I said under my breath.

“Uh, Emily?” he called to a girl in the front row of the raised, auditorium-style seating.

Without hesitation, the same girl I met this morning, with her swinging ponytail, bounded over. “Yes, Mr Thompson?”

“You’ve met Ara?” Dad aimed his thumb at me.

“Yes, sir.” She added a little too much ‘cutesy’ to that eyelash batting, and my mouth fell open. She totally had a crush on my dad.

“Right. I want you to help—” he looked at me as he passed some papers to Emily. “Just Ara?”

“Help Ara get up to date with our lessons, please?”

“Sure thing, Mr Thompson.” Emily grabbed my hand and dragged me to sit next to her—right in the front—right where Dad would be able to see my every move.

“Um, do you always sit here?” I asked, plonking down.

“Yup. I can see the teacher better.” She watched Dad walk across the room and push the antique gramophone, normally in our attic, out of the way.

“Why would that be a good thing?”

“Are you kidding me?” She motioned her open palm to my dad. “Look at him.”

“Isn’t he cute?” she continued. “Don’t you think he looks just like Harrison Ford—but, like, Indiana Jones Harrison Ford?”

I glanced at my dad, my nose crinkling as I took notice of his greying, light-brown hair and the creases he’d get around his kind eyes when he smiled. I guess he did sort of look like Indiana Jones. “Emily,” I whispered again.

“Yeah.” She sighed, dreamily gazing up at him.

There was no easy way around it. I had to tell her before she embarrassed herself further. “He’s…my dad.”

She spun around so quickly that I jumped. “You are kidding me. Oh my God, Ara. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I’m so sorry, I just, I didn’t realise you were—”

“We are so having a sleepover at your house.” She practically jumped in her seat. “I’ve had a crush on Mr Thompson for, like—” she flipped her head to one side, “—two years.”

My tongue pushed into the side of my cheek. I really did not expect that. I thought she might be a little humiliated at the least, but I guess it was better this way. “Two years, huh?”

“Not really.” She shrugged, gnawing the tip of her pen. “You could look at it as though your dad is inspiring my education.”

I wondered if he’d feel the same way. Instead of rolling my eyes at her, I turned my head back to watch Dad writing the words ‘Religious History’ on the board.

“Oh, come now, it’ll be fun and you know it,” he announced to the groaners around the room, then turned back to write on the board again.

Emily leaned in. “He’s right,” she whispered. “He always makes boring topics fun.”

“I know.” I smiled to myself. “He even used to do all the voices of characters when he’d read to me.”

“He does that in class—” Emily laughed, “—when he reads direct from text books. Sometimes he puts on different accents.”

As I went to laugh, my eyes darted quickly from my dad to a boy beside me, who jolted forward in his seat, a scrunched-up piece of paper bouncing off his desk, landing on his schoolbag a second later. He spun around, presenting his middle finger to the boys up the back, while my dad remained oblivious, glancing from a textbook to the whiteboard.

“What a loser,” one of the boys said.

I turned away and leaned closer to Emily. “Do they know that by making that L sign on their own heads, they’re technically making themselves look like losers?”

She rolled her eyes. “They are losers.”

In the seat across from me, the boy scrunched up a sheet of paper, hiding it under his desk, keeping his eyes on my dad the whole time. I looked back at the jocks, who watched the kid with an amused kind of interest, until they broke formation suddenly, launching to their feet as he sent a paper cannon into enemy territory.

“Oh, crap.” Emily covered her head with her notepad, smiling. “He just started a war.”

I went to duck too, but Dad started in with something about Greek gods, forcing a cease-fire; the jocks sat down, and the boy knocked the ammo into his open backpack.