I park my truck and get out of the car early Saturday morning humming “Die In Your Arms” under my breath. I’ll admit that I’ve never really cared for that particular Justin Bieber song—something about it has always irked me—but now I can’t imagine why. The beat, the rhythm, the backing vocals, the melody, the lyrics…all of it’s beautiful. And, okay, I’ll admit it, the song reminds me of Niall—of his left hand resting just above my hip; of his right hand clasped around mine; of my face pressed into his chest; of the sweet smell of the fabric of his t-shirt; of the warm sun seeping into my skin as we slowly danced in the middle of a crowded LA street; of how I forgot everything while he held me, even the possibility of my dad finding out about me and Niall, even the still-smarting bruises on my shoulder blades.
I’m still humming as I cross the street and walk into the Waffle, the restaurant Niall and I agreed to meet at for breakfast this morning, as a sort of make-up for our failed date last night. It’s only 7:40; we decided to meet so early because the Waffle gets incredibly busy on weekends and we wanted to beat the rush. Plus, One Direction’s got interviews starting at 10 o’clock sharp, and they’re expected to go until at least 8 tonight—early in the morning is the only time we’ve got today.
“Table for two, please,” I say to the hostess.
“Outside or inside?” she asks as she picks up two menus from the stack beside her.
“Um. Inside, please,” I say. The Waffle is right in the heart of Hollywood, across the street from Nickelodeon studios; the outside seats, though nice, are right on the street, in plain view of the sidewalk and the road. Niall and I are much more likely to be noticed if we sit outside than we are if we sit inside. I’d rather not take that chance.
“Right,” says the hostess. She leads me to the closest available table—which isn’t very far away, admittedly, it’s a pretty small restaurant—and puts one menu down at each empty seat. “Your waiter should be by in a minute.”
“Thank you,” I say.
The hostess walks away. I sit down and pick up the menu, searching sadly through the long list of tantalizing breakfast options for something healthy to eat. Biscuits and gravy have never sounded so good. Same thing with the chocolate chip waffle, and the hash browns, and the pancakes, and—
“Allie, you look so depressed right now.”
I look up, slightly alarmed, at the loud voice. My face relaxes into a grin when I see Niall walking across the restaurant towards me.
“This is not the restaurant to come when you’re on a diet,” I say as he sits down across from me. “My ballet teacher would have a heart attack just looking at most of the things on this menu.”
Niall picks up his menu and flips through it. “You’re probably right,” he says, laughing. “You can’t forget the diet just this once?”
“Only if I want to get skinned alive,” I say. But my eyes fall on the words “biscuits and gravy” again and I feel my mouth start to water. Geez, I must be hungry. And really craving something fatty and salty.
“How’s she gonna know?”
“She’s got like a sixth sense or something. She can just tell.”
Niall raises his eyebrows and looks up from his menu. “Oh yeah? How?”
“I don’t know, she just does, okay?”
He shakes his head and returns his attention to his menu. “You ballerinas are crazy.”
“You musicians are crazy,” I say.
He grins. “Fine.”
Silence falls between us as we read through the menu. I should just get scrambled eggs with fruit and multigrain toast, but my eyes keep falling on the biscuits and gravy again. Gosh darn it.
“What are you gonna get?” I ask Niall after a couple of minutes, hoping to divert my attention from my own food selection for a moment.
He shakes his head. “I can’t pick. I’m too hungry. Everything sounds good.”
“You should get the red velvet waffle,” I say.
He raises his eyebrows at me. “The what?”
“Red velvet waffle,” I say. “It’s a red waffle with cream cheese frosting.”
He makes a face. “I’m willing to try a lot of things, but that sounds gross.”
“Okay, it sounds weird, but Sam made me get it once and it was, like, the best thing ever. You have to try it.”
Niall glances at the menu, then at me, then at the menu again, then back at me. Slowly, a grin spread across his face. “Okay, I’ll get that waffle thing. But only if you get something that’ll break your diet.”
I frown at him. “That isn’t fair.”
“It’s totally fair.”
I sigh, thinking of biscuits and gravy again. My stomach growls, and Niall grins.
“Fine,” I say; I’m too hungry to put up much of a fight. “But if I get yelled at in rehearsal today, it’s your fault.”
Niall opens his mouth to say something, but right at that moment, our waiter walks up.
“Hello, my name is Eddie and I’ll be taking care of you two this morning. Are you ready to order?” he asks cheerfully, pulling a pad of paper and a pen from his shirt pocket.
Niall looks at me. “Yeah, we’re ready. Right?”
I roll my eyes. “Yeah.”
Eddie the waiter uncaps his pen. “What can I get you?”
“I’ll have the red velvet waffle, please,” Niall says.
“Good choice. What about you?” Eddie asks, looking at me.
“Biscuits and gravy, please,” I say. Niall grins but I ignore him, preferring not to boost his ego anymore than I already have.
“Excellent. And would you like anything to drink, or is just water okay?” asks Eddie as he scribbles down my order.
I’m about to say that water is fine by me, but before I can even open my mouth, Niall says, “We’d both like a hot chocolate, please. With whipped cream.”
“Great. I’ll be back in a couple of minutes with your hot chocolates, then,” Eddie says. He puts his notepad and pen back in his pocket and walks away.
I stare at Niall. “Are you trying to get me kicked out of the show?” I ask.
“Oh, come on. If you’re going to eat biscuits and gravy, a hot chocolate isn’t going to hurt much,” he says.
I slump in my chair but don’t respond. He’s right, but I don’t particularly want to admit it.
“I’ve had that Justin Bieber song stuck in my head all morning,” Niall says.
I don’t know if he purposely changed the subject because he wanted me to be less annoyed, but it doesn’t really matter; it worked. I feel myself start to smile.
“Me too,” I say. “I was humming it when I got here.”
“It’s a good song.”
Niall suddenly grins. “I could sing it now, if you want.”
I roll my eyes. “Please don’t.”
“What, you don’t like my voice?”
“I happen to love your voice, thank you very much,” I say; heat rushes into my cheeks as I say the words, but I plow on like nothing’s changed. “It’s just that we’re already the loudest people in the restaurant and I don’t think we need to draw any more attention to ourselves.”
Niall chuckles. “You’ve got a point there,” he says.
Eddie brings us our hot chocolates a few minutes later. It’s sugary sweet and maybe it’s just because I haven’t had anything sweet since June, but it honestly tastes like one of the greatest things I’ve ever had in my life. Niall and I both finish our drinks within a few short minutes; we kill time waiting for our actual meals to arrive by trying to build a house out of the sugar packets at the center of the table.
“Allie, I’ve got a question for you,” Niall says as I carefully try to place another sugar packet on the already precariously teetering house.
“Go ahead,” I say, not taking my eyes off the sugar packets.
“Why do you wear so much makeup?”
My hand quivers, and the packets almost fall over, but I catch them at the last second.
“I don’t wear that much makeup,” I say, trying to keep the defensive and nervous edge from my voice. “I mean, I don’t wear false eyelashes or anything.”
“No, no, not your eyes. Your eyes are lovely,” he says, and my cheeks burn at the compliment. “I mean, like—don’t take this the wrong way, okay? But you wear a lot of foundation.”
My cheeks burn even more. There’s no denying that, definitely. But how else am I going to hide the lingering bruises?
“I’ve got a buttload of acne scars,” I say. “This is the only way to hide them.”
Niall sighs, his cheeks suddenly burning red, too. “I think you’d be pretty even with acne scars.”
I blush even harder, but I can’t help the faint smile that pulls at my cheeks. “Thanks,” I say.
The tables around us quickly fill up; soon, I can hear the hostess telling customers that there’s a forty minute wait for a table. I can’t help noticing the two teenage girls sitting at the table next to us, who finished their food at least twenty minutes ago and have been spending the time since giggling as they flip through a magazine.
“You weren’t kidding about this place filling up,” Niall says, looking around at the packed room.
“Nope,” I say, just as Eddie walks over carrying our food.
“Hallelujah, I’m starved,” Niall mutters under his breath. I bite my lip to keep from laughing out loud.
“Right, here’s an order of biscuits and gravy,” says Eddie, putting one of the plates down in front of me, “and here’s an order of red velvet waffles,” he adds, placing the other plate in front of Niall. “Do you think you need anything else?”
“No, I think we’re fine, thanks,” I say.
Eddie walks away to help some other customers, and the second he’s gone, Niall and I pick up out forks and start digging into our food. The first bite of gravy-smothered biscuit and scrambled egg tastes like fatty, greasy, salty heaven. The guilt I had about this diet-breaking meal melts away with the taste. I swallow and find myself smiling.
“See, you’re glad I made you get that, aren’t you?” Niall asks.
“Yeah,” I reluctantly admit. He grins at me. “How are the waffles?” I ask.
“Oh my gosh. Absolutely incredible,” Niall says through a mouthful of bright red waffle. He swallows and adds, “So good!”
“And you didn’t believe me,” I say, smirking.
“Well, a red velvet waffle doesn’t sound that great at first, does it?”
My phone vibrates loudly. I pull it out of my pocket and groan as I read the new text from Sam: callie just texted me, extra rehearsal today, from 12-5 instead of 12-3, don’t be late
“What?” Niall asks, watching me.
“Two extra hours of rehearsal today,” I moan, putting my phone back in my pocket.
I nod and glumly take another bite of food. “It must be karma for eating this,” I say, gesturing to the biscuits and gravy.
Niall stabs another bite of cream cheese frosting-covered waffle and shoves it into his mouth. “You guys sure do rehearse a lot for one show,” he says.
“So does your band,” I point out.
“No, not the way you do. Not months and months of practice for one single show.”
“Well, that’s dance for you,” I say with a shrug.
“Do you like it?” Niall asks.
I don’t even have to think about it. “Yeah, I really do.”
Niall’s eyes are wide as he looks at me, curious, wanting to know more. “Have you always liked it?”
I laugh. “No. I hated it. I begged my parents to let me quit for years. They wouldn’t let me.”
He chuckles. “What changed, then?”
I shrug, my eyes moving self-consciously back to the plate in front of me. My face suddenly feels warm. “I guess…I guess it’s because my mom died. I missed her a lot. I was a total wreck, I spent half the time crying, no one, not even Sam, knew what to do with me…” I shiver slightly, remembering, simultaneously, the flashing ambulance lights and my mom’s blank, glassy, staring eyes on the night of the accident and the many days at school where I’d just sit in the back of the room and cry my eyes out and my teachers would stare at me, but wouldn’t say anything. “But when I went to ballet I felt better…not good, but better. Loads better. It’s because she used to dance too, I guess. I’d put on those ballet slippers and I just felt closer to her, you know? Like she was still here…and after a while, I realized I loved ballet. And that I was happy again.”
By the time I finish speaking, my face is so hot I’m sure I could fry an egg on it. Niall’s sure to think I’m such an idiot now.
When he speaks, though, he says, “I’d like to see you dance sometime.”
I laugh hesitantly. “No, you really don’t. I’m not that good.”
“Allie,” Niall says, raising his eyebrows sternly, “someone with as much passion as you’ve got has to be good at what they do. Plus, you’re the lead, for crying out loud!”
My face gets even hotter. “Well, you’ve never actually seen me dance, so your opinion doesn’t count, now does it?”
Niall rolls his eyes. “Let me come to one of your rehearsals, then, and I’ll say the same thing and it’ll actually count.”
“Can’t. Rehearsals are closed, no guests allowed,” I say. Madame Garcia is very strict about it. Callie tried to sneak her older brother into rehearsal once so he could see her dance before he left for college, but Madame Garcia caught him, kicked him out of the studio, and made Callie do 50 sit-ups (yes, sit-ups) as punishment.
Niall frowns. “Well, there’s got to be some way we can make this work.”
I take another bite of my food as I ponder the problem. Sneaking him into rehearsal is out of the question. But outside of rehearsal, maybe….
“Tell you what,” I say as I swallow my bite of food,” how about you come to the studio after rehearsal tomorrow?”
“Will that work?”
“Sure. I’ll just tell my teacher that I want to practice my solo a bit without anyone watching. She won’t care. She’ll probably tell me I need the extra practice anyway. Just come by at 3:30, everyone should be gone by then.”
“Sounds perfect,” Niall says with a warm smile that makes my stomach do a back flip. “We’ll be done by 4:30 though, right? Because I know for a fact we’ve got to be at a radio station for a performance at 5.”
“Oh yeah, definitely,” I say. I’ll probably be too exhausted after regular rehearsal to dance for much longer than an extra 30 minutes. But I’m not going to tell Niall that in case it makes him feel bad.
The two girls at the table next to ours get up and walk towards the door. Only after they’ve already left do I realize that they left the magazine they were flipping through earlier on the table. I pick it up to give it back to them, but they’re already long gone.
“Give it to the hostess,” Niall says. “Maybe they’ll come back looking for it.”
“Yeah,” I say, but just as I go to do so, one of the smaller headlines on the magazine’s cover catches my eye: “Who is Niall Horan’s mystery girl? See page 52!”
I flip to page 52 with my heart feeling like it’s beating in my throat instead of my chest.
“Allie? Is something wrong?” Niall asks.
Page 52 contains a lot of pictures, titled with “Celeb Sightings!” Most of the pictures are of people like Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, but about halfway down the page, there are two pictures of me and Niall—one of us at the Italian restaurant, wearing our accidentally matching outfits, plainly holding hands even though we tried to hide it; another of us slow dancing in the street. The tiny caption beneath the picture says, “Niall Horan of One Direction was spotted with the same mystery girl TWICE this past week. Are they a couple, or just friends? We’ll have to keep an eye out to know for sure—but those matching outfits certainly are adorable!”
I realize my hands are shaking, causing the magazine pages to tremble, too. I try to steady my fingers so Niall won’t see.
“Niall?” I ask, laying the magazine on the table for him to see. “Have you seen this?”
His eyebrows scrunch together as he searches the page. They narrow slightly as he finds the pictures and the caption.
“Do you—do you think your dad will see this?”
I bite the inside of my cheek, trying to think it through logically. The odds of my dad seeing this particular magazine and reading this particular article and seeing those particular pictures are very, very slim. All the same, the fact that those pictures are out there makes me very nervous.
“I don’t think so,” I say. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
But my heart is still beating very anxiously in my chest.
* * *
I go to Sam’s house for dinner after rehearsal that afternoon; after dinner, we spend several hours watching random shows on the Food Network. I don’t get home until almost ten o’clock, and by that time, I’ve completely forgotten about the magazine article and the pictures of me and Niall. I don’t even notice that my dad’s car is parked in the driveway as I walk up the path, open the front door, and go into the house.
At least, I forget until the door swings closed behind me and my dad yells, “What is this!?”
My fingers tighten around the strap of my dance bag as I see my dad sitting at the couch in the living room, clutching a full wine glass in one hand and a magazine—the same magazine I saw at the Waffle—in the other.
I decide to play stupid. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking,” my dad says, his words slurring already, “about these pictures of you with some boy.”
“He’s just—he’s just a friend—”
“JUST A FRIEND?” he screams, throwing the magazine to the ground. “FRIENDS DON’T HOLD HANDS WITH FRIENDS! FRIENDS DON’T SLOW DANCE TOGETHER!”
“Dad,” I say, my heart beating a violent tattoo against the inside of my chest, “Just—just calm down, let me explain—”
“DON’T TELL ME TO CALM DOWN!” he bellows. He throws the wine glass at me; I jump out of the way just in time; the glass shatters against the wall and the dark red liquid soaks into the white carpet, staining it.
But he jumps up from the couch and before I know it he’s hitting me, my skin buckling beneath his knuckles. My dance bag slides from my shoulder and I find myself pressed against the wall, curling into a ball, trying to shield as much as my body as possible from my dad’s angry fists. Tears well in my eyes and slide down my cheeks.
“Dad, please,” I say, but my voice comes out choked and weak. “He’s just my friend, I swear, I—”
He hand strikes my eye; it waters even more than before.
“Allie, if you’re lying to me—”
“I’m not, I promise!”
His foot hits my stomach, causing my back to slam against the wall, further aggravating the massive bruise that’s already there. I gasp in pain, more tears filling my eyes. I can’t see straight anymore.
“You’d better not be, or I swear, I’ll make you wish you’d never been born,” my dad growls as he stalks off to the kitchen.
Get up, Allie, I tell myself. If I’m still lying here when my dad comes back from the kitchen, he’ll certainly call me weak and make fun of me for crying; he might even hit me again. But every inch if my body is shaking from a combination of pain and tears and I can’t muster the strength to push myself up.
Rehearsal tomorrow, I think, and a new wave of pain washes over me at the thought. Niall. Oh, no.
What am I going to do?