Although Camille had grown accustomed to the written assignments that Mrs. Allen came up with every other week, they had done nothing to make her feel better about being on stage. She stood stage left shifting from foot-to-foot as Mrs. Allen pushed the chalkboard away in anticipation of the current day’s torture session.
“Now, in the past week, I’ve noticed that when I ask for pairs, most of you tend to pair with the same person over and over again. I understand that, but I think it’s time to move out of your comfort zone a little and start learning about the other people in the class.”
Camille’s fear shield flew up. No, comfort is good. Please. Comfort is fine.
“Rather than try to pair people myself, I’ve cut up numbers in this hat. You are to take a number and then find the other person with that number, and for today the two of you will be partners.”
For one brief second Camille thought she might be sick on her shoes, and at the moment that looked like a really good idea. It would solve so many problems. Mrs. Allen approached her with the hat, and with a short sigh, Camille reached in and pulled out a number. It really didn’t matter what the number was. If it was anything other than Nick’s number, it meant trouble.
“What’d you get?” Nick asked, holding his number out for her inspection. 7.
She unfolded her own. 3.
“Rats,” Nick said. “Well, see ya.” And he walked off to find his match.
Camille looked around as the trepidation rose in her chest. She didn’t want to be number 3. She didn’t want to be number anything. She wanted to leave. Now.
“Are you number 3?” a voice asked behind her.
“Yeah.” Camille turned and found herself gazing into a face framed by wispy brown hair and sporting perfectly gorgeous cheekbones. Jaylon. Instantly her gaze dropped to her clothes as her hand flew to her glasses and then to her hair. “Umm, yeah. I am.”
He smiled at her although she saw only the beginning of that smile as her eyes wanted nothing more than to force her feet to run.
“Okay,” Mrs. Allen said when the class had paired off. “Your exercise today is eye-to-eye contact.”
Camille squeezed her eyes closed and fought to make herself disappear. She should’ve paid more attention at that magic show she’d seen when she was five.
“I want you to face each other and count to fifty very slowly—looking directly into your partner’s eyes the entire time.”
Camille’s gaze was fixed on his shoes, and for the life of her she couldn’t figure out how she was ever going to get it to move again.
“It’s okay.” Jaylon tilted his head as if he were talking to a frightened animal. “I don’t bite.”
For a brief second her gaze traveled up to his as she laughed, but immediately it dropped back down again. Trying not to think about what she was about to do, she swallowed once and then forced her gaze back up to his as she pushed her glasses up on her nose.
“Go,” Mrs. Allen said.
Camille bit her bottom lip as she stared into his eyes—unable to look away even though she wanted to. The blue eyes, the high cheekbones, the wisps of hair—all met in perfect unison.
“Eight, nine, ten,” Jaylon counted as his mouth moved in slow methodical motion.
She shifted her shoulders struggling to break the spell his gaze cast over her, but there was no breaking this spell.
“Fifteen, sixteen,” he said as she forced the air into her lungs.
Never in her life had she looked into anyone’s eyes for a full minute. Most of the time she did everything she could not to get caught in someone else’s sights. Just keep moving, keep your head down, and they won’t notice you’re there. That was her motto. For most of the last ten years, they were the words she had lived by. Until this moment.
It was then that her thoughts shifted from her own thoughts to those staring back at her from his eyes. She wasn’t sure what she had expected to find in his eyes exactly—arrogance, cruelty, superiority—but not one of that was hidden anywhere in the pools of blue. Staring back from the depths of his eyes was the same fear and uneasiness her own spirit felt.
“Forty-two, forty-three,” he said, and her ears caught on the softness of his voice.
It sounded like a breeze brushing past her, and she wondered how she had ever lived before hearing his voice in this way.
“Forty-nine, fifty,” he said, and their gazes held for one more moment.
“Good,” Mrs. Allen said, breaking the spell between them and jerking both gazes across the stage.
Camille ran a damp palm down the front of her jeans and readjusted her glasses.
“Now I want the partners to find a place in the auditorium. Not necessarily on stage. I’m going to give you five minutes. I want you to find a topic and discuss it, but I want you to do it looking into each other’s eyes as much as possible.”
Camille’s toe made an arc around her other foot. She still hadn’t recovered from the first exercise, and five minutes was far different than one.
“How about if we go over here?” Jaylon asked, pointing to the stairs as he reached out and touched her elbow.
His touch carried a jolt of electricity with it, and she had to force herself to shrug and walk to the stage steps nonchalantly. She sat on the third step from the bottom, but when he followed her down, her knee tensed so as not to touch his.
“You may begin,” Mrs. Allen said.
“Any suggestions?” he asked, tilting his head to the side to look at her.
“Umm, I don’t know. Classes?” she asked, feeling the pained look cross her face as her hand tugged at the heel of her shoe.
“Okay,” he said and paused a beat. “Umm, you have to look at me, remember?”
“Oh, y-yeah.” She stumbled over the words as she forced her gaze back to his.
Looking back at her was sincere interest. “So, what’s your favorite class?”
She smiled as her entire body instantly relaxed. “Math.”
“Math?” he asked in surprise.
“Yeah. Why? Is that so hard to believe?”
“Well, no. I guess not, but I hate math.” He ran his fingers through his hair to push it back out of his face. “I’m just surprised anybody likes it.”
“You hate it?” she asked, forgetting this was supposed to be hard. “But it’s so fascinating.”
“Fascinating? I can think of another word for it,” he said, wrinkling his nose.
“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”
She laughed and shook her head. “No, now you’re talking about drama.”
“Huh?” he asked, and her gaze dropped from his to her shoestrings.
With a shove she forced her gaze back up although this time it didn’t lock on his. Instead it wandered around the stage and the auditorium at the other partners.
“How can you not like drama?” he asked in genuine confusion. “Drama is awesome.”
Her eyebrows raised as she looked back at him in open-eyed mortification. “Not when you’re me. It isn’t.”
His gaze immediately reflected concern. “Why not when you’re you?”
Mrs. Allen clapped her hands, which almost sent Camille tumbling backward off the steps.
“I’d like everyone to come back over to the seats again,” Mrs. Allen said.
Camille scrambled up from the steps and swiped at the dirt she was sure was on the back of her jeans. She turned and walked down past the front of the stage feeling him right behind her. Quickly she walked to her normal seat in the third row, and it wasn’t until she sat down and realized Jaylon had taken his usual spot on the other side of the auditorium that she began to breathe again.