I started coughing harshly, trying my best to cover up the noise Ashlyn was making. “Hear something? Yeah, one of my lights needs to be changed. It’s been making a weird buzzing noise lately. Anyway, I’ll meet you down in your office in a second.”
He frowned, staring at my ceiling before he thanked me and walked away. My hands ran over my face, trying to shake myself from my own nerves. I opened the closet and Ashlyn stepped out. I slid my hands into my pockets.
“He knows?” she whispered.
I shrugged. “It’s okay.” Her green eyes relaxed a bit. I gave her a sad grin. “We’re okay.”
“No. We’re not. You know, I imagined this before…” She shook her head. “Almost being caught in school. I thought it would be sexy and adventurous. But in all reality, you just shoved me into a closet.”
My mind was racing, trying to figure out a way to explain it to her. “I know. I’m sorry. It’s just—”
“If you were caught in a relationship with a student, there might be trouble,” she muttered. “I’m so stupid.”
“It’s my fault, really. I live in my books. I romanticized this whole thing. But the truth is, it’s not romantic—being someone’s secret.” Her long eyelashes blinked and she shifted her weight around. “You can’t do this. You can’t pull me into your classroom again.”
“I know!” I shouted a hair too loud, but my heart was pounding aggressively in my chest. I wanted to punch something because I was so damn confused. I hated how I couldn’t be seen with her. I hated how, when we were together, she would look at the other couples holding hands with a twitch of envy in her lips. I hated everything about our situation.
I walked to Henry’s office, where he already was, and I closed the door behind me. He took a seat behind his desk and cleared his throat. The first thing I noticed was the picture of Ryan and his sister sitting on his desk. Ashlyn and Gabby were nowhere to be found.
“Thanks for meeting with me…” He sounded nervous. A lot more nervous than a father would sound if he knew his daughter was involved with a teacher. He didn’t know. Holy shit, he didn’t know. “I wanted to ask you for a favor.”
I arched an eyebrow and sat back in my chair. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, as you know…” He lifted a picture frame that was facing him and stared at it. When he sat it back down, I got a glimpse of it—the twins. They’d been there all along, facing toward Henry. “Ashlyn is my daughter. She’s been going through a lot with the loss of her sister…”
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered and meant it.
He cleared his voice and strained to get his words out. “Thank you. But the thing is, Ashlyn’s mom is dealing with some personal issues and needed space. So Ashlyn came to stay with me. Her mom, Kim, just called me and told me that a letter came from Ashlyn’s dream college in California. They are asking for one more letter of recommendation. She’s just been through so much...”
The word played over and over in my head. It ran across my skin, trampling me with the truth behind it.
I nodded slowly, wanting to rush out of his office to find Ashlyn and hold her. I wanted to tell her that she couldn’t go. That she could stay with me. That after the school year, we could be together. But I couldn’t. Henry continued.
“And I know this may be out of line but…I don’t think she can handle another letdown. It’s too much. I plan to tell her about the letter later this week. But do you think—only if you feel like you can—do you think you could write her a letter of recommendation? Again, you do not have to. I just need her to have more ups than downs.”
I placed my hands on the edge of his desk. Could I write her a letter to help her get into her dream college in California? My throat dried and a sharp sting hit my eyes. I blinked repeatedly, wanting to scream, “No! She can’t go! She can’t leave me!”
My eyes shut again. And when they reopened, I said okay. I agreed to help send Ashlyn away to live her own life.
“It would be my honor.”
When I turned toward Ashlyn’s lunch table, she was looking my way. A sigh of relief left her lips as she realized that everything would be fine with Henry. My feet led me to her table, where Ryan and Hailey were eating with her.
“Hey, Mr. D, you joining us for lunch?” Ryan joked.
I smiled and shook my head. “Ah, no. On a scale of one to inappropriate…that would be at the top of the charts.” I saw Ashlyn lightly laugh at my comment, which made everything feel right. I missed that sound so f**king much. “Ashlyn, I’m supposed to take you to the assistant principal’s office.” Hailey asked why. I appeared stumped. “Don’t know. He just asked for her.”
“Maybe Henry saw the hickey,” Ryan smirked.
I watched as Ashlyn’s cheeks blushed over and she combed her hair down against her neck. She stood up from her seat, grabbed her backpack, and followed me out of the lunchroom.
“Follow me,” I whispered to her.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
I turned and saw the confusion in her eyes. A sad inquiry dwelled in her gaze. “Do you trust me?”
She released a breath. Her beautiful full lips turned up.
Yet she didn’t follow me.
She walked beside me, our footsteps in perfect sync.
We traveled down a stairway, which led us to another staircase, leading to the basement. The space was completely silent, minus the pipes and storage closest that held all the power switches inside. We walked to a dark corner where a few unhinged doors lay against a gated area.