Life is Like A Bowl Of Cherries | Chapter 7

- - - - -

"So how did it go last night?"

Sage wordlessly turned to him. Then she looked back out the window.

"Ouch. That good, huh?"

Sighing heavily, she reached down into her bag and scribbled on a piece of paper. She then handed it to him and closed her eyes.

'Tired. Stop. Talking. Please.'

He grinned and drove the rest of the way in silence.

* * *

Sage woke up to the rich scent of coffee. She opened her eyes and nearly jumped out of her skin.

There was a giant cup hovering in front of her face. She blinked and followed the hand connected to the cup.

"Wake up, Sleepyhead."

Jesse was crouched beside her, eyes dancing as he smiled widely. She couldn't stop from replying in turn as she gratefully accepted the caffeine.

"How long was I out for?"

"About twenty minutes," he replied, watching as her brain woke up. It was almost as if clouds literally cleared from her eyes and he swore he could see the gears turning as she thought. "We've got 10 minutes before homeroom. Thought I'd jumpstart your morning a bit. Plus-I'm bribing you."

"Oh?" A wisp of a smile played on her lips as she drank.

For the first time all morning, he took his gaze off her. Sage would remember it later as one of the few times she'd ever seen his confidence falter. "Sage. I don't want to pressure you into anything. And I don't want you to feel obligated to be with me."

Her brow rose. "Castleback, where are you going with this?"

"Why don't you call me Jesse?" He asked abruptly, avoiding her question and just as skillfully asking one of his own.

Sage blinked. "I don't know. You always call me Raines."

He slowly shook his head. "Not anymore."

Inwardly taking a deep breath, she lifted her hand to his cheek and locked directly in his eyes. "Jesse." A tiny grin appeared on his lips and she felt his cheek move under her hand. "What do you want form me?"

They stayed like that for what seemed like hours. She waited for him to make a move; to step forward or pull back.

"Yo, Castle-back!"

Startled, Sage jumped slightly and would have pulled away, if he hadn't been holding her hand in place. "Don't move," he ordered, his voice distractingly low, sending shivers down her back. She felt like there was a ten-ton weight on her chest as he ignored his friend and gently tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "The ball, Sage," he finally moved to stand up, pulling her out of the car, "is in your court."

Sage leaned up on her tiptoes and kissed the precise place her hand had been moments earlier. "I'll see you in English. Go talked to your friend."

Jesse watched her walk away with an inner confidence he noticed from the first day she'd walked in the door. Sage Raines didn't know it just yet, but they were a very dangerous combination.

* * *

Sage didn't allow her muscles to unclench until she was safe inside the girls' bathroom. It was the one place Jesse couldn't follow her. Hopefully.

Though, judging from the present set of girls making more use than necessary of the mirrors, they probably wouldn't object too much.

Needing to blend in so as not to further rouse their suspicious, Sage leaned forward and examined her eyes in the mirror. They looked weary, lacking the familiar silver luster she'd grown accustomed to over the course of the past 16 years, and she sighed. How had she gone from being happily adrift, passing her classes, content to write her essays and be quietly ignored, to this?

This was scary. Everything had changed, and she wasn't sure how she felt about it. Here, she wanted to not only excel in her classes, but participate all the time. Speaking up would have been unheard of two months ago-but here. Of course, it didn't hurt that Jesse was in nearly all of her classes. She found that she met his eyes more often than not, that the comfort level between them was undeniably present and equally unexplainable, but that she really wouldn't have it any other way.

She was very, very close to falling in love with him.

And Sage Raines didn't let anyone into her heart without a fight.

* * *

English was, surprisingly uneventful. She watched from her seat as Jesse walked in the door and immediately locked eyes. He winked and took his seat behind her. All throughout the class, she could feel his eyes burning into her, but it wasn't until Ms. Nichols was handing out the homework that she could look back at him.

"What's going on?"

He shrugged. "Nothing."

Her brow arched and the look she gave him was priceless.

"Tell you after class." She sensed he wasn't yet finished and was proved right when he tapped her nose and added, "Turn around."

Sage rolled her eyes and tried to focus until the end of the period. She was all but ready to jump out of her skin when she heard her name being called.

Ms. Nichols was looking at her expectantly. An elbow jabbed into her from behind.

"Um, yes?"

A smirk seemed to wavering on their teacher's lips. "Can I talk to you for a minute?"

Sage nodded and headed to the desk, Jesse trailed not far behind. The smirk grew full-fledged when Ms. Nichols noticed his actions. "Alone," she added, giving her student a reproving look.

He took the hint, grabbed the books out of her arms and headed out the door.

"Yes?"

The older woman rose from her chair. "I have a conference scheduled at the end of the week with your father," she kept her eyes on Sage's face, "apparently, our secretaries have gotten to know each other quite well by now."

Sage nodded distractedly. "Right." Then she realized her teacher was waiting for a reply. "Oh-so, right, secretaries. I didn't know teachers got their own secretaries."

The brunette gave her an odd look. "I just want to stress upon you the importance of this conference. Your dad needs to be there. Given his track record-"

Sage snapped to attention. "-Whoa! What do you mean, his track record? What are you talking about?"

Ms. Nichols looked taken aback at her sudden vehemence. "The past few times I've tried to get in touch with him," she spoke slowly, her brows raised in warning, "he has neglected to return the message."

The teen shook her head slightly. "No. He got the message. He just doesn't care." Fleetingly, she thought of her car, and the brief time they'd spent last night, but angrily brushed it aside. "With all due respect, Ms. Nichols, I appreciate what you're trying to do, but don't be shocked if my father doesn't show on Friday. I won't."

She'd had enough experience reading difficult students before Sage, but there were times when it seemed the young woman had all the personality and emotion of a black hole. Obviously, the relationship between father and daughter was strained, but she had no idea it was quite so troubled. And it appeared that only Sage was the one allowed to criticize her father. Heaven help the next one who spoke badly of Randall Raines. She might not acknowledge it, but there was no one on earth Sage loved more than her father.

She glared defiantly back at her and probably would have continued glaring if a slight buzz hadn't startled them both out of their standoff. Sage let one more venomous look at her before retrieving her cell phone.

'Hey. What's going on? Chem's lonely w/o you. J.'

Ms. Nichols watched as Sage's entire face transformed at what appeared to be a text message from someone important.

"How did he get this number?" she whispered under her breath, staring at her phone incredulously, halfheartedly returning her attention to her teacher.

"Someone important?"

As if she had personally commanded it, she watched as Sage's defensive walls went up. "Doesn't matter. Are we through? I'm going to be late for Chemistry and my partner-" a brief smile broke through of its own accord, "- doesn't take very legible notes." 'If he takes them at all,' she thought sarcastically.

They both knew that her disrespectful attitude and demeanor was enough to get written up-not to mention, having a phone on during school hours was against school policy.

'At least she's got guts.' An almost devious smile appeared on Ms. Nichols lips. "Tell you what, Sage. You come with me, and I won't write you up for you behavior and that phone. I'm sure Mr. Castleback will manage in Chemistry without you."

Sage's jaw dropped slightly, though whether from correctly guessing the mystery caller's identity or the fact that she wasn't getting written up, she wasn't sure.

She tried to regain her composure. "Where?"

"Does it matter? You're getting out of class. With a *teacher*. It's considered excused." She gave her a bland look, "Unless you'd prefer spending this Friday in detention?"

"You wouldn't."

"Try me." Her dark eyes glittered and Sage decided she didn't want to push the issue any further.

That didn't stop her from making one last attempt at escape, though. "What is it with people and wanting me to go places with them? Do I have 'kidnap me' written on my forehead?"

Ms. Nichols unexpectedly stopped in the process of locking the classroom door. "What do you mean?"

There was a look in her eyes Sage couldn't identify, and wasn't sure she wanted to. "It's nothing. Really." It was eerie, the way this woman's eyes bore into her and made her want to blurt out what had happened the past few days.

Saving her-or damning her, depending on your point of view-was the timely arrival of a certain guidance counselor.

"Ms. Raines. Astraea. What have we here?"

The two turned to look at Ms. Ward and she was momentarily taken aback by the matching expression on their faces.

"None of your concern, *Sarah*," and Sage was shocked at the malice in her teacher's voice, "so why don't you stay out of matters that don't concern you."

The counselor's lips twisted. "Whatever you say. Does Ms. Raines' father know you're pulling her out of class so unexpectedly?"

"Of course he does," she confidently replied, sneaking a glance at Sage, willing her to agree. "I always run my plans by him first."

"Always?" Her tone of voice made the hair stand up on the back of Sage's neck.

Ms. Nichols stiffened and replied in a dangerously low voice, "*Always*."

The blonde sniffed disdainfully as if she'd suddenly became aware that it was two against one. "Please be careful with Ms. Raines. She has a test in Trig that I'm sure she won't want to miss."

The cold fire in Sage's eyes was unmistakable as she stepped in between the two teachers. "I don't know what your deal is with my father, or why you suddenly know everything about me, but I am going to ask you-nicely-to *back the hell off*. This behavior crosses the line of guidance counselor and fits very nicely into *stalker*. I would appreciate if you kept your opinions to yourself and bring any issues you have with my dad to him personally. I'm sure he'd love to meet you."

Ms. Ward paled. "That won't be necessary. I apologize for freaking you out."

"Accepted. If you'll excuse us?" Sage brushed past her counselor and out the door, automatically heading for the teacher lot. It wasn't until she felt a hand on her shoulder that she stopped and turned to look into the eyes of her companion. Before she could speak, Sage held up her hand. "I don't know what the hell that was, but you had better do some explaining and fast-because Ms. Ward wasn't the only one crossing the line back there." She bit her lip to keep from grinning, "Astraea."

She acknowledged the name with a nod. "Let's get something to eat first. All this cat-fighting had made me hungry."

When they stopped in front of a black Ferrari convertible, Sage's jaw dropped for the second time that day. "Ms. Nichols, you're kidding."

She shook her head and tossed the keys to her. "It's Rae, and get in."

* * *

They ended up at an outdoor bistro just past main street. After ordering lunch-at Rae's persistence-Sage twirled a breadstick while looking at her companion, waiting for her to start talking.

"Can I just say one thing first?" Sage nodded. "Do you know what you're getting into with Jesse Castleback? Because while I think he's got a good heart-I'm not so sure the two of you is one of his better ideas."

"What makes you think it was his idea?" Sage asked dryly.

"Because I've known him longer than I've known you-but you remind me a lot like myself when I was younger. Tall, dark and handsome isn't always a picnic."

Sage sighed and leaned back in the wicker chair. "I just want you to know this whole situation is weird. I don't normally allow myself to snap at two adults, much less one who wants to take me out to lunch. That having been said. I don't know what's going on with Jesse. Do I think he's cute? No. He is quite possibly the most handsome boy I've ever met-and charismatic to boot. But he's a football player. Granted, he's got brains, and while that's unheard of, he seems to be yet another person taking an interest in me, which leads me to believe-"

"-you're doing something wrong." Rae finished for her, trying not to smile at her young guest. "I told you that you remind me of myself. I'm going to take a wild guess here, but-judging from what I gathered from your transcripts-you got your work done, hung out with the wrong crowd to dispel any bit of a 'good girl' image, and when you got a little too 'bad girl' for comfort, you backed off. Or, in this case, moved to Long Beach." She leaned on the table and tilted her head. "Am I right?"

Sage nodded mutely.

Rae grinned, tucked back some of her dark hair. "Thought so. Before I scare you *completely* away, let's get into those explanations, okay?"

The server interrupted briefly to set down their salads and while Sage dug into hers, Rae used the opportunity to speak without interruption.

"What you witnessed back at school was a mutual dislike Sarah-Ms. Ward-and I have for each other. Why she's suddenly obsessed with you and your father, I don't know. What I *do* know is that she's hated me from the first day I came to work here, and I don't know why."

"Maybe you look like someone she didn't like." At her arched look, Sage added, "What? Trust me, it's more feasible than you think. Really."

"You want to talk about it?"

The teen shook her head once. "Not now. Maybe after you're finished explaining."

Rae rolled her eyes. "Okay, so, Sarah? She hates me. We've got that. I pulled you out of school because you looked like you needed a break and while I bet that if I hadn't done it, Jesse would have-he's part of the problem, isn't he?" Sage nodded. "Thought so. Besides. You didn't really want to take a trig test, did you?"

* * *

"Ah. Sleeping Beauty awakens."

Kip looked up at his best friend and scowled. "Shut up, Tumbler. Where's Otto?"

"Like I'm going to tell you." He must have read something in Kip's eyes, for he hastily added, "in his office."

Kip snagged a mug of coffee-and winced. 'Note to self: Never let Mirror near a coffeepot again.' He leaned in the doorframe of the office, letting his gaze wander the shelves.

"You look upset." Otto noted, pushing aside the papers on his desk and motioning for Kip to come in and close the door behind him.

"Well, maybe that's because I am." He daringly sipped again at the coffee and somehow resisted spitting it back out. The effort must have shown on his face, though, for the next thing he knew, he was sitting with a fresh mug of Otto's coffee, in the chair reserved for potential clients.

The older man watched him carefully. "So. What brings you to my office? Shouldn't you be gallivanting about with that old gang of yours?"

Kip shook his head, setting down his mug. "That's part of the problem. Sage was here yesterday, wasn't she?" Otto nodded silently. "Who was she with?" When Otto didn't answer right away, Kip pressed, "She didn't come by herself. Who did she come with?"

After a long period of silence, during which Kip was hard-pressed to not say anything, Otto finally evasively answered, "I had Toby do a plate- check."

Which, given his skill with a computer, and the many years he'd had to sharpen those skills, should have been a cake job. Even so, Kip couldn't keep from asking, "And?"

"The car was registered to a Jesse Castleback."

He let loose a long string of curses so strident that had Donny, who was passing by, raise a brow and stop in his tracks. Otto waved him on and continued to wait out Kip's foul language. When he stopped, apparently running out of options, he looked utterly defeated.

"How does my niece wind up getting involved with a Castleback?"

Otto examined his paperwork. "I'm sure the good detective is asking his son the very same thing."

* * *

Roland Castleback was not, as a matter of fact, asking his son what he was doing with a Raines.

"Why did Robbie pull me over yesterday after lunch and tell my that my son was speeding down the freeway at precisely 1:47 PM, when my son was supposedly in school, in the middle of a chemistry lab?"

Jesse stared at his father, gauging how much truth to let slip in the whopper of a lie he was about to tell. "Dad. A friend of mine was. sick. And I had to get them away from school before something bad happened."

Whether from being a cop for over three decades, or knowing his son as well as he did, Roland Castleback picked up on two things in his son's statement. The use of a non-descriptive pronoun and the evasive end to the answer. "This friend. Is it a girl, by any chance?"

"Maybe."

His eyes pinned Jesse down. "And what kind of trouble was she in?"

"She wasn't in trouble!" Jesse protested a little too strongly. "Or, at least, I got her out of there before she could be." When he noticed that he didn't look very convinced, he added, "Look, Dad. She's. important to me. And she wasn't having a very good day."

"You know that doesn't excuse the speeding. I don't care who she is."

'You would if you knew who her father was.' Jesse thought, immediately banishing the thought from his mind before his dad decided to give him an impromptu lie test.

"Jesse. Are we clear?"

"Yes, sir."

Castleback rolled his shoulders and exhaled loudly. "Good. Now do you want to tell me why I was called to the principal's office?"

* * *

Lunch had been fun, and when Sage looked at her watch, she was more than certain she'd missed her trig quiz; and that Rae had planned it that way. It was weird to think of her favorite teacher as 'Rae,' weirder still to replay the morning's events in her mind. Sage though that she was probably the only girl in California who could honestly say she had two teachers and a quarterback vying for her attention.

Speaking of the quarterback, she looked down at her phone and groaned.

"What's wrong?" Rae asked, taking her eyes off the road briefly.

"Jesse. left me a few messages."

"Oh." If more amusement could have been injected into that single word, Sage would have been surprised.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Rae snatched the phone out of her hands and kept her knee on the wheel, steering with such precision it momentarily left Sage speechless. "Holy crap! You have 19 missed calls and 16 new text messages!" She whistled admiringly. "I'll say this for him; that boy is nothing if not persistent."

Sage grabbed the wheel before she steered them right into a ditch. "Watch the road! You're going to get us killed, here!"

She kept the phone out of reach but did allow her right hand to regain its position on the wheel. "So. Are you and Castleback an item?"

She closed her eyes and let her head fall back against the headrest defeatedly. "My god, you don't let it go."

"Nope."

Sage then remembered she was driving in a very fast car with a woman who preferred a 'Look, ma! No hands!" approach. Her eyes flew open.

"Hey, wait. These aren't all from him. You've got a number of calls from someone else."

She grabbed the phone back. "Great. My dad. And my day is officially complete."

"Your dad called? Give me that-I'm going to make sure he's coming on Friday."

"You are really obsessed about this conference, you know that?"

A pause. "Well. I don't have many students who come in halfway through the year, manage to keep a stellar GPA, single-handedly catch the eye of who is probably the most desired boy in the school, and disrespect two teachers within a five-minute period. I'd say that's quite a string of accomplishments."

When Sage didn't reply for a long time, Rae thought she'd gone too far.

"You forgot the phone. I'm not supposed to have a phone on in school."

They shared a glance briefly and started laughing.

* * *

"Sarah?"

The blonde looked up from her computer screen.

The short secretary--she had personally nicknamed her Glenda--was expectantly waiting at the door.

"Yes? What is it?"

"I have Mr. Raines on line one for you."

An evil grin curved her lips. "Thank you." She reached for her phone and depressed the hold button. "Mr. Raines? It's Sarah Ward, Sage's guidance counselor. Good, how you are? Oh no, Sage's fine. I just wanted to know if you were aware of her frequent outings with Astraea Nichols. Ms. Nichols is her English teacher. Yes, I do believe you have a conference with her this Friday." She paused and the light in her blue eyes grew chilly. "Certainly. I'd love to be there."

* * *

He nearly launched himself off the bed when the phone rang. "Hello?"

"Jesse?"

"Oh, thank god, Sage. I thought you were dead."

A dry silence greeted him on the other end.

He tried again. "You still there?"

"Mmm hmm." She was clearly trying to keep a cool demeanor.

Jesse decided he would shock her. "Hey Sage?"

"Yeah?"

He bit back a grin and hoped he could keep his facts straight. "Today, after I was talking to my friend, we wanted to know who had left lipstick marks all over my cheek." He ignored her gasp of outrage and continued, "so instead of trashing your reputation, I just. told him you were my girlfriend."

"You *what*?"

"Which, I suppose, isn't really a lie, because you *are* a girl-- least you were last time *I* checked--and we are. technically speaking, friends."

He heard her sigh clearly filtering over the phone lines. "Castleback?"

"Yeah?"

"You are *so* dead."

"See you up at quarter to seven."

* * *

She replaced the phone with a lingering smile, running the day's events through her mind. All in all, it hadn't gone bad. In fact, it could have been worse. Much worse. Her dad hadn't been home when she'd finally gotten in--Rae had dropped her off--and so she'd pretty much retreated to her room until it occurred to her that she would probably call Jesse. In some ways, their relationship was kind of weird. She would have had to be blind not to see his overprotective attitude, and while it would have normally annoyed her, that yet another man in her life was trying to take care of her, she found it didn't bother her as much coming from him.

And that probably should have sent up warning flags, but she didn't care.

Something, however, wasn't sitting right with her. Some part of the day just felt. *off*. Again, she ran the day though her mind, trying to ascertain just what was unsettling her. Another six tries saw her collapsing on the pillow and admitting defeat. It wasn't until she woke out of a sound sleep well after everyone sane was asleep in their bed when she realized what had troubled her so much.

When Ms. Ward had said 'Ms. Raines' in the hallway before, they had both turned to face her.

* * *

Chapter eight is going to be the conference and the party Jesse and Sage go to. Also, we're going to get to what Ms. Ward's been stirring up.

Jeez. 10 pages? This is too much. I think I need to take a break or something. The story has taken a life of its own.