The last place Alexandra Martin expected to see Luke Reed was at orientation for summer interns at the Museum Guild of Los Angeles.
Quite honestly, Alex hadn’t expected to see Luke anywhere after graduation, except maybe in the occasional news report about minor league baseball and eventually the majors. Rumor had it he’d already signed a contract with a major league team and was going to be playing in their minor league farm system starting that summer. Not that Alex paid any attention to rumors about Luke Reed.
And yet there he was, slouching in one of the museum’s ancient folding chairs, arms crossed behind his head as he gazed soulfully up at the ceiling. What he found so fascinating about the yellowing acoustic tiles Alex couldn’t even begin to fathom. A group of girls seated a row behind him, obviously destined for a summer of interning at the art museum if their black clothing and red lips were any indication, ogled him blatantly. It was entirely possible that he studied the tiles more to avoid their predatory gazes than from any real interest in the ceiling.
Alex lingered in the doorway and wondered for a single heartbeat if she could escape unnoticed. Maybe she could tell the receptionist she wasn’t feeling well and see if she could be excused from orientation. It was, after all, her fourth summer interning at the Gem and Mineral Museum; she was already fully oriented.
But that would be cowardly.
And he’d already lowered his gaze from his contemplation of the ceiling and spotted her.
“Hey Lex, saved you a seat,” Luke flashed her his trademark killer grin — a grin that caused most females of the species to swoon and giggle like they’d suddenly dropped twenty IQ points, but the only feeling it aroused in Alex was minor irritation.
Alex eyed the seat next to him. She supposed it would be horribly rude to sit anywhere else, seeing as he had just announced to the entire room that he had saved it for her. Alex had never been horribly rude to anyone in her life. She doubted she could even pull off horribly rude if she wanted to.
“Luke,” she acknowledged as she stepped over his long legs to reach the folding chair next to him, ignoring the incredulous, mildly jealous, stares from the gaggle of art interns. Alex sat, hugging her backpack in her lap in front of her and resting her chin on the top of it as she stared at the empty podium at the front of the meeting room.
“Aren’t you going to ask me what I’m doing here?” Luke teased her after a few moments of awkward silence.
Without looking over at him she answered, “I would think it was pretty obvious, as it’s summer intern orientation, that you’re here because you’re interning at one of the museums.”
“Hmm, yes, logic always has been your strong suit,” he replied. “You’re at the GeMMLA too, right?” He laughed as Alex’s head snapped towards him, her eyes widening at his use of the word “too.” “Of course you are, you’ve always had a thing for rocks.”
Alex stared at him, her brain refusing to wrap itself around the concept that Luke Reed of all people was going to be spending the entire summer at the Gem and Mineral Museum of Los Angeles.
“Luke,” she finally asked in bewilderment, “what in God’s name are you doing here?”
He flashed her another lethal grin, but Alex was already too off balance to feel her normal annoyance.
“I’m spending the next nine weeks doing all sorts of geeky rock stuff with you, short stuff.”
Alex winced at the old term of endearment. “Luke, you and I haven’t been friends since the seventh grade,” she pointed out. When everyone began to notice how talented he was on the baseball field, he had started getting popular, while Alex, who’d possessed no discernible talent other than for schoolwork and being slightly awkward, had remained as unpopular as ever. It wasn’t that Alex had been a social outcast: that would have required her peers taking enough notice of her to cast her out. She just sort of quietly existed, whereas Luke’s good looks, charm, and athletic talent had rocketed him into the popularity stratosphere. “We’ve barely even spoken to each other since middle school.”
“Lex, I asked you to the junior formal last year. Doesn’t exactly qualify as not talking to each other.”
“Your mother made you ask me.”
Luke laughed. “Is that why you said no? Because you think my mom made me ask you?”
Alex glared at him, silently daring him to lie to her. “Okay,” he conceded, “she may have mentioned that your mom told her you didn’t have a date to the dance, although I already knew that because you never go to dances . . .”
“There is no sense,” Alex interrupted irritably, “in a person like me ever attempting to go to a dance. That aside,” she continued when it looked as if he might argue with her, “I am sure there is an actual valid reason you’re planning on wasting your summer doing ‘geeky rock stuff.’”
“Yup, what?” Alex asked, exasperated.
“Yup, I do have a valid reason,” Luke answered.
Alex glared at him for a moment, but he didn’t seem inclined to elaborate. “Well, there you go,” she said sarcastically.
She glanced up at the clock, hoping orientation would start soon. The museums had staggered closed days. The only two days all six were open at the same time were Wednesdays and Saturdays. Even the organizers of the summer internship program realized the cruelty of asking teenagers to sit through an orientation on a Saturday in July. So here they all were, every teen within a thirty mile radius who had even thought of setting foot in a museum during the summer, about twenty-five of them, spending their Wednesday morning waiting to get sorted out and dispersed amongst the main museums.
The six museums were grouped together in a hodgepodge circle surrounding a large open grassy area referred to, quite creatively, as “the lawn.” Other than the occasional errand between museums, the lawn was the only place interns from different museums would ever run into each other. This usually happened during lunch breaks since most of the restaurants around the museum guild were priced out of the average high school student’s budget.
The Gem and Mineral Museum was definitely not the most glamorous museum in the Guild, and therefore it garnered the least amount of interest. Becca Ward, who had volunteered with Alex the last three summers, had waved exuberantly at Alex as she came into the room a few moments earlier. Becca had noticed mid-wave that Alex wasn’t sitting alone. She’d raised her eyebrows almost comically high at Alex as she walked by them and took a seat in the back corner with a group of interns from the Science Museum. Alex tried to flash her a “save me” look, but she was pretty sure Becca hadn’t seen it, or she’d just decided to abandon Alex to her fate.
Alex had figured this year, just like last, it would only be herself and Becca, who would end up at GeMMLA. But now, of course, there was Luke.
The clock slowly ticked down the last few moments to ten when the orientation was scheduled to start. Luke, wisely reading her last comment as signaling the end of the conversation, had resumed his perusal of the ceiling tiles. Alex wondered idly who would be doing this year’s presentation. It was pretty much the same material every year, an overview of the program, usually dryly presented by someone from the Art Museum, as they got the most interns, or occasionally by someone from Science. It was too much to hope it might be someone from GeMMLA, and definitely too much to hope that it might be him. As evidenced by the fact that she was sitting next to Luke Reed and therefore already feeling out of sorts and slightly inadequate, she was just not that lucky today.
Exactly one minute before ten, the door swung open and he walked in, a stack of stapled handouts tucked under one arm. Alex’s mouth went dry and her cheeks flushed as he caught sight of her and gave her a smile and a wave. She could hear the gaggle of art interns whispering furiously amongst themselves. Alex figured they must be wondering how she rated a saved seat from the hot blond athlete and a smile and a wave from the handsome dark-haired advisor. She had to consciously stop the almost frantic giggle that rose up in her throat, because she totally agreed with them.
Luke had also noticed the smile and wave, as well as Alex’s reaction to it. He gave her a little smile, different than his usually casual grin, and Alex had no idea what to make of it.
“Hey everyone, my name is Nicholas Hunt, and I am the intern advisor for the Gem and Mineral Museum.” Nicholas dropped his stack of papers on the podium with an audible thud, then leaned against it, ankles crossed with one arm casually draped across the top. In his dark jeans and sports coat over a t-shirt featuring the logo of a classic rock band, he was the epitome of academic chic. Alex could almost hear the art interns rethinking their museum choice.
“I’m also working on my doctoral thesis,” Nicholas continued, “so I’m a student just like you guys.”
Alex was pretty sure Nicholas could not honestly be compared to any of the high school students or soon-to-be-college students in the room. With the possible exception of Luke, no one else here was as comfortable in their own skin. Unlike Luke’s innate athletic grace, Nicholas radiated a sort of calm energy that came from maturity and experience.
“The information we are going to go over this morning is pretty basic and general, just a bit about the program and the six different museums that make up the Guild. You’ll get more detailed info from your respective intern advisors. I’ve got a list of all your names, so I’ll read it off and make sure everyone is here.”
He paused to pull out a pair of horn-rimmed glasses from his coat pocket and slipped them on. It was really unfair, Alex reflected, that Nicholas’s glasses managed to make him look even hotter, while hers just managed to obscure her eyes and highlight the too-small bridge of her nose by slipping down continuously.
“Alexandra, would you mind passing out these handouts while I take attendance?” Nicholas shot Alex another smile.
Alex set her backpack on the floor and wiped her suddenly damp palms on the front of her jeans before she stood up, tripping over her discarded backpack. Before she could even react to the fact that she was tipping over, Luke’s arm shot out to the side and he snagged a finger through the back belt loop of her jeans, stopping her forward momentum. Three thoughts flashed simultaneously through Alex’s mind. The first was that she was glad her jeans, as well worn as they were, didn’t rip. The second was relief that Luke had been so quick that he had effectively prevented her from making a total fool of herself and had done it in such a way that only those sitting behind her could even tell there was a problem. Nicholas, standing as he was in front and to the left of her, couldn’t even see Luke’s arm steadying her or his hand gripping her waistband.
The third was that Luke was really, really strong.
“Easy, short stuff,” Luke said under his breath. “Make him guess at least a little.” Alex turned and glared at him with what she hoped was enough force to kill. He just chuckled under his breath and tugged on her belt loop once before letting her go.
Alex concentrated on taking careful, measured steps on her way to the podium and accepted the stack of handouts from Nicholas without fully meeting his eye. As she passed them out, she ignored the snide sideways glances from the art interns, who, being seated behind her, had unfortunately had a great view of her near mishap and the heroic save by Luke. She sat back in her chair and resumed her clock watching, this time counting down the seconds until the orientation was over and she could escape to the calming environs of GeMMLA. She made the mistake of glancing over at Luke once, and when he gave her a broad wink, she realized with a small sinking feeling that her sanctuary, the one place she felt relatively normal, was about to be invaded by the person in whose presence she tended to appear the most unspecial and inadequate. And this invasion was going to happen in front of the one person that she desperately wanted to see her as special and adequate.
“42a. Check. 43a, b, and c. Check.” Alex’s pen hovered over her spreadsheet for a moment as she scanned through the stack of small boxes in front of her. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of a storage room surrounded by stacks of boxes wasn’t the most exciting way to start out the first day of her internship, but there was something settling about the solitude and order. It also allowed her the opportunity to stick her earphones in and listen to music while she catalogued.
“44…44…Where the heck is 44?! Oh,” she muttered under her breath as she located the out-of-order box. Alex opened the lid and glanced inside at the contents, mineral samples from the museum’s recently closed display. “A and b…Check.” She sorted the box back into the stack, this time in the correct order. She paused for a moment to turn up the volume on her earphones, the driving beat of the music chasing all other thoughts from her mind as she picked her spreadsheet back up and tapped her pen against it in time with the music.
Lost in her task and her music, Alex didn’t hear her name being called. She was totally oblivious to anyone else in the room until she glanced up and saw denim-clad knees directly in front of her. Alex glanced up, startled, and saw Nicholas looking down at her bemusedly. As she pulled out her earphones, she fumbled to stop the music blaring from them.
“Hey Alexandra, didn’t mean to sneak up on you like that. You didn’t hear me talking to you,” Nicholas said.
“Sorry.” Alex blushed and resisted the urge to smooth down her bangs nervously. “I had my music up too loud. Sorry.”
Nicholas smiled down at her. “No need to be sorry. I know checking the catalog can be really boring.”
Alex nodded. She wasn’t sure if she should try to get up. It didn’t promise to be the most graceful thing she’d ever done as her leg was already starting to fall asleep, but her position sitting on the floor and looking up at Nicholas felt awkward. If she looked straight ahead she was speaking to his knee. If she looked up far enough to see his face her neck hurt. She desperately wanted to avoid appearing to be staring at his crotch, but every time she looked up she felt like that’s what she was doing. There was nothing to do but try to stand up and hope she didn’t look too clumsy. As she started to stand up, Nicholas offered her his hand. Alex took it, willing herself not to show any visible reaction, but of course she could feel her cheeks flushing.
Alex dropped Nicholas’s hand as soon as she was upright. Unsure of quite what to do with her hands, she eventually settled for putting them behind her back and lacing her fingers together.
Alex rushed to fill the awkward silence. “So, was there something you wanted to see me about?”
“I didn’t get a chance to chat with you after the orientation yesterday, I just wanted to touch base, congratulate you on graduating.”
“Oh, thanks. Yeah, glad that’s over. Although it means it’s my last summer interning here,” Alex said ruefully.
Nicholas laughed. “You never know, Alexandra. I’ve been out of high school for awhile and yet, I keep finding my way back here.”
Alex resisted the urge to point out that he was only seven years older. She considered seven years a very surmountable age gap, but she was pretty sure that Nicholas considered himself too old, or too worldly, to be interested in a recent high school graduate.
“I just wanted to thank you, again, for writing me the letter of recommendation. I really appreciate it,” she offered instead.
“No problem, I was more than happy to do it,” Nicholas said. “I hadn’t heard if you got into the program at Hastings?”
“Yes, I did.” She smiled shyly up at him.
“That’s great, Alexandra. Well deserved, of course. You are a brilliant student. I’ve been glad to have you here at GeMMLA.”
Alex cheeks pinked at the compliment. She looked down at the tops of her Converse high tops, and allowed the piece of dark blond hair she had tucked behind her ear to fall forward and hide her face. “I wouldn’t say brilliant, but thanks,” she said shyly.
“Try not to underestimate yourself, Alexandra,”
Alex had absolutely no idea how to respond to that, so she changed the topic. “How is your thesis coming?”
Nicholas grimaced. “Could be better honestly. I sometimes feel I am just repeating things that have already been said and done, not contributing anything new to the field. Haven’t really found a ‘hook’ yet.”
“I’m sure it’s great,” Alex said encouragingly. “Your research is always impeccable.”
Nicholas looked as if he were about to respond, but he was preempted by the sound of someone clearing their throat, loudly, from the open door of the storage room.
“Hey, it’s Mr. Hunt right?” Luke’s voice came from the doorway. Alex couldn’t tell if the fleeting look of irritation that passed across Nicholas’s face was from being interrupted, or from Luke’s emphasis on “Mister.” She hoped it was the former, that he hadn’t wanted his conversation with her to be cut short.
“Yes it is, but feel free to call me Nicholas,” he replied turning toward the door. Alex continued staring at her shoes, afraid that if she looked over at Luke she would either bite his head off or burst out in nervous laughter.
“The lady in the office, Maureen, I think her name is? She’s looking for you, something about a donor list, and mailing labels? She asked me to come get you.”
Nicholas sighed, “Well, I’d better go see what she wants. I’ll talk to you later Alexandra. It’s good to have you back.” He walked out past Luke, and Alex noticed with surprise that Luke was several inches taller than Nicholas, although both towered over her.
Luke watched Nicholas walk past him and out into the hall. “See ya, Lex,” he said loudly, and then looking back at Alex he added under his breath “Seriously, ‘your research is impeccable?’ You really need to work on the whole flirting thing.”
Alex’s eyes darted to Nicholas’s retreating back, but he didn’t appear to have heard Luke’s comment. She glared at Luke and made a slashing motion across her throat. He just laughed and waggled his eyebrows at her suggestively, then turned to follow Nicholas down the hallway.
Alex sat shakily back down among the stacks of boxes. I am going to kill him, she thought. Before the summer is out Luke Reed is going to be dead by my hands.
The bus ride home from GeMMLA usually took Alex about forty minutes. Los Angeles was not the most public transportation friendly city. Everyone had at least one car. Those who didn’t were stuck using the Metro, in Alex’s opinion the world’s most inefficient public transportation system.
The city sprawled in every direction, bleeding out into the surrounding cities so that you couldn’t tell where one ended and the others began. In the midst of the urban sprawl there were still small neighborhoods. Hundreds and thousands of them, each with their own distinct culture. Alex always thought of it as a series of living cells, each separate but dependent on the others, being fed a constant stream of vehicles from the major arteries of the freeways. During her bus ride, Alex passed through at least twenty of these neighborhoods. It was funny that in a city of millions she could almost always guarantee seeing the same people involved in the same events day after day outside the bus windows.
Alex loved her neighborhood. It was a hybrid between urban and suburban, offering the best of both worlds. The tree-lined streets boasted a mix of tract homes and apartment buildings, a few small parks and some really great restaurants. If you walked up Alex’s street to the major intersection you were once again in the heart of the city.
“Hey Mom,” Alex said in surprise as she let herself in the front door of the apartment she shared with her mom. “What are you doing home so early?” Usually her mother, Jennifer, who worked as a paralegal for a law firm downtown wasn’t ever home before eight, and sometimes later depending on her caseload.
Jennifer looked up from the couch where she was currently curled up with a romance novel and a large bowl of popcorn. She and Alex looked so much alike that they often were mistaken for sisters. They shared the same dark blond hair and gray eyes, though Alex was more than an inch taller than her mom. This was a source of pride for her, since it wasn’t often that she stood taller than anyone other than children.
“Oh, one of the partners won a big case today, so to celebrate he let everyone off at five. Thank God too, because I have to go in early all next week. Can I just say though, traffic is so much worse at this time of day. Took me twice as long to get home.”
“Yeah Mom, that’s ‘cause every other person in the greater Los Angeles area is getting off work now.” Alex closed the front door behind her, sliding the extra chain lock into place out of habit before dumping her backpack in the corner and flopping down on the love seat opposite the couch.
“There’s lasagna in the fridge if you want some,” Jennifer said. “I stopped off at Ricci’s on the way home.”
“Oh yum, I’ll have to get some in a minute. I’m too tired to move, even for Ricci’s lasagna.” Alex kicked her shoes off and propped her sock clad feet up on the coffee table, then leaned back closing her eyes. After the cramped bus ride and the ten minute walk from the bus stop to the apartment, it felt good to stretch out.
“How’s it going at the museum? Everything the same as last year?” Jennifer asked.
“Hmm, yeah pretty much,” Alex mumbled, eyes still closed. Suddenly, it occurred to her that her mother’s tone had been just a little too disinterested. “Mom, did you know Luke was going to be interning at the museum this summer?” She asked, sitting up abruptly.
There was a long pause while Jennifer crunched some popcorn and attempted to look innocent, but Alex knew her mom too well to be fooled by her wide, guileless eyes. “Mom?”
“Sherry may have mentioned something about Luke doing something at the museum this summer,” Jennifer admitted.
“Luke’s mom told you he was going to be at GeMMLA and you didn’t think warning me was a good idea?” Alex squeaked in disbelief.
“Warning you? Isn’t that a little dramatic sweetie? You two used to be the best of friends.”
“Oh my god, Mom, ‘used to be’ being the key phrase here. And ‘used to be’ was five years ago.” Alex got up off the love seat and started pacing.
“Honey, I know that you and Luke had some problems, I’m not sure how he acted toward you at the beginning of high school, because you don’t ever want to talk about it, but I know it hurt you and I know he regrets it. Sherry said –”
“Mom!” Alex interrupted holding up a hand. “I don’t want to know what Sherry said, or what she thinks she knows that Luke thinks. I know you guys are friends but please, please, please could you both stop trying to fix things between me and Luke? It’s not fixable. I don’t want it to be fixable.”
Alex couldn’t remember the last time she’d raised her voice to her mom, and judging from the look on her face, neither could her mom. “I’m sorry Alex,” she said. “I didn’t realize it would be that much of a problem.”
Alex leveled a disbelieving stare at her mom. “Then why not tell me about it?”
“You’re right,” Jennifer looked back up at Alex with a mixture of concern and regret, “I should have warned you that he was going to be in the museum program this summer.”
“Thanks Mom,” Alex sighed “Sorry I yelled.” She picked up her backpack and headed down the hall toward her room.
“Aren’t you going to have some lasagna?” her mom called after her.
“Maybe later,” she called back before ducking into her room and closing the door.
Sinking into the oversized bean bag chair wedged between the foot of her bed and the wall, Alex almost instantly regretted getting so emotional with her mom. It would only make her worry. The whole Luke-being-around-for-the-summer thing could have been a lot worse she supposed. Although they’d drifted apart in middle school as Luke had gotten more involved in sports, the “incident” as Alex referred to it privately, had happened at the beginning of ninth grade. And ninth grade was far behind them. By the middle of sophomore year they seemed to have reached a disinterested acquaintances phase, and since junior year, Luke had made more of an effort to at least appear more friendly. The inexplicable junior formal invitation aside, they’d managed as much friendly conversation as a popular jock and a quiet nerd who shared a few classes and one group project could ever be expected to have, which meant a grand total of about fourteen sentences spread over two years.
Senior year he had actually gone out of his way to say “hello” to her in the halls, a fact that she was sure didn’t go over well with the revolving door of cheerleaders he had dated. There had been three, or was it four, different cheerleaders senior year. Well actually, Alex was pretty sure one had been on the drill team, so it was unfair to lump them all together. The conversation she and Luke had at orientation the day before had probably been the longest one since they were thirteen.
Alex opened up her backpack and fished out a spiral-bound notebook, trying to banish from her mind thoughts of Luke and his semi-heroic rescue of her during orientation. Her scholarship to Hastings was based on grade point average as well as extracurricular involvement in subject matter. The university required scholarship students to take an extra class each semester. This seemed a little bit overwhelming for a first-year student, but money for college was money for college. Alex needed to work on the essay she was expected to turn in the first week of school on the absolutely loathsome topic of “what defines me as a student.” The last thing she needed, or wanted, to do was think about Luke’s warm, strong hand, resting on the small of her back as he held onto her belt loop.