Author's Note: July 10, 2012: A Harper's Education has been published by WorldMaker Media, a division of Booksie.com. The published version has been totally edited and includes several new scenes, including Laila, Julian, Kalyn, Randy, and Sterling visiting a homeless shelter and causing mayhem. The published book is now available from Amazon and other major online publishers. The original version of A Harper's Education received over 200,000 reads on Booksie. Thank you to all of my fans for helping make this happen. Think Pink.
"What?" Laila responded sharply.
"I need to ask you a few questions, if that's all right."
She looked around her dorm room at the well-made bed, the poster of Yo-Yo Ma that Tennille had above her dresser, and over on her side of the room, his picture in the heart frame. Tears blurred her vision. Where was he? He said he would be right back. "I don't think so." Maybe the officer didn't hear her. Perhaps she hadn't really said anything? Or, he simply chose to ignore her answer.
"I understand you knew the deceased."
"They have names," Laila said, irritated. She didn't want to answer any questions. Laila wished she could hide away somewhere and forget everything she had just seen.
"Most people find it easier to keep things less personal," the officer said quietly.
"Would you find it easier? What if it was someone you knew?" She finally looked up at the young police officer, directly into his sympathetic brown eyes. His radio squawked and he turned down the volume. "I know this is difficult. I promise I only have a few questions for you."
Laila took a deep breath and attempted to push the images out of her mind - blood, pale skin, sprawled bodies. Her own screams echoed through her head. She started shaking and felt the bile moving up from her stomach. She closed her eyes and hugged herself tight.
"Do you remember what time it was when you heard the shots?"
Laila shuddered and shook her head. "I don't know. Around nine I guess."
"Do you know what might have caused this to happen?"
Was he serious? He knew what had gone on at Harper's Prep. No one had seen this coming though. Three dead students in the span of two weeks.
Laila closed her eyes again. The last two weeks had felt like a dream. Everything else seemed so insignificant now. "Things at Harper's have been fucked up since I've been here." She almost never swore but why bother holding back?
The officer raised one eyebrow and gave her a moment to wipe away her tears.
"Was this related to the incident last week? Did they all know each other?"
Laila nodded her head. "Yes."
"Were they all friends, enemies?"
"At Harper's you don't really know," she mumbled. Her body started to shake again and she looked around, trying to find something to steady her, someone to help her. Sterling, she thought, as grief overcame her. Why did he leave her alone? Was he okay?
"I think we should leave this until tomorrow," the young officer said, catching her look and understanding she couldn't go on. "Get some rest. I'm sorry for the loss," he said, before turning and walking out the door.
She sobbed and wanted to run into his strong arms. The world had collapsed around them but in his arms she felt safe. She felt a familiar touch; she didn't feel afraid to cry.
Seven months earlier…
The bass from a jacked up stereo pounded through Laila's body. Her new roommate, Tennille, had dressed her up, dragged her to the party, and forced her onto the dance floor. "I'm not in San Francisco anymore," she whispered to herself, descending the stairs. A couple kissed passionately in a corner and a tall blonde guy with cargo pants and a t-shirt gulped down something in a red cup. Yup, definitely not her old school.
She looked around the crowded basement. The bottom floor of the Wellsworth Hall dormitories opened from the stairs into a large room where the students danced and socialized. Fat, gothic pillars spiraled up from the foundation. Long, dark hallways crept from the main room and disappeared back around the building. Students relaxed and chatted on expensive looking couches and chairs. Blue and gold banners hung from the ceiling and the walls, proudly displaying the school colors and crest. That crest. Laila had been studying it ever since she had received her acceptance letter from Harper's. A horse and lion standing erect on their hind legs at either side of a shield, a knight's helmet above them, and the word consciencia bannered below. Laila assumed the founding fathers of Harper's had designed such an intricate crest with the intention of instilling a sense of pride and honor in all those who were deemed worthy of wearing it. Needless to say, she felt she had a lot to live up to.
Laila knew the aristocratic elite of the United States counted on Harper's to educate their children and prepare them for college - mostly Ivy League Universities. When her parents had suggested she attend the school, Laila had almost choked.
"Let me tell you who's who," Tennille said, breaking her thoughts.
"That guy over there, the one with the leather jacket and black hair, that's Julian Polk, kind of the leader of the popular crowd. His parents own Polk Industries, one of the largest makers of plastics and tapes in the country. The blonde girl standing next to him is Kalyn Andretti, his sometimes girlfriend, soon to be fiancée unless he impregnates someone else before graduation. Her parents are also filthy rich."
"Wait," Laila stopped her, trying to grasp the concept without laughing. "Why is she his soon to be fiancée if she's only his sometimes girlfriend?"
Tennille smiled at her question. "Welcome to Harper's, girl, where old money means old tradition. Kalyn's family and Julian's go way back. They aren't allowed to call it an arranged marriage, but that's essentially what it is."
"Are you serious?"
"Hmm, afraid so," Tennille said. "Pretty archaic, don't you think?"
Laila nodded in disbelief. Her friends back home were going to love the stories she would have for them. They had all warned her about going to an East Coast school, but even they couldn't have imagined arranged marriages.
"Okay, so who else is here?"
"That guy standing next to Julian, staring at you like you're a perfect piece of filet mignon, that's Chase Nichols."
Laila squirmed in discomfort as she caught Chase's eye. His tall, lanky figure was slouched at the shoulders and his eyes looked red and swollen even from across the room. He wore his chestnut hair slicked back and he ran his tongue over his pale lips as he stared at the two girls.
"Chase gets away with almost everything because his parents donate an obscene amount of money to the school every year. His mother is a Harding, one of the founding families of the school and supposedly descended from someone on the Mayflower. He has a massive sense of entitlement that stretches into the female population, although he usually ends up with Julian's left-overs.
"Now, on the other side of the spectrum," Tennille continued, taking Laila's hand and spinning her around, "are the ones you don't have to look out for. The kid sitting alone in the corner, the one with red hair, that's Randy. He's one of two seniors here on scholarship, which means he doesn't have many friends."
"Who's the other one?"
"That would be yours truly." Tennille smiled proudly. "Although, I've managed to stay under the radar for the past three years."
"And Randy hasn't?"
"He used to be really bothered by all the ridicule. During his freshman year they almost expelled him for fighting because Julian and Chase and all their friends wouldn't leave him alone. I guess he just didn't know how to deal with it."
"He doesn't look like the type of guy who would get into a fight."
"He might not have money like everyone else here, but he can hold his own, that's for sure. But I think he's calmed down now. Either he doesn't let it bother him as much or he's become better at suppressing his anger."
"Oh, don't even think about feeling sorry for him," Tennille said. "He hates that more than anything. Randy's the most down-to-earth person in the school. That's probably why we're such great friends. We tell each other everything."
Tennille didn't really have a censor when it came to her opinions. "And what about you? How do you survive?" Laila asked.
"Me? I'm a novelty at this school. Harper's administrators are always looking to impress the board with their recruits. I'm a music prodigy with the added bonus of being, how did they put it, 'culturally diverse.'" Tennille sure didn't lack in the confidence department and there was no reason that she should. Her long black hair flowed like one continuous wave down her back and dark, thick lashes fluttered around her large brown eyes. Laila would have killed for Tennille's flawless mocha colored skin, but as it was, she was stuck wearing SPF 50 on a daily basis.
"And there they are," Tennille pointed to the stairs. Three figures entered the room, the dark light of the basement shadowing their silhouettes. The music almost seemed coordinated for their entrance and nearly all of the girls threw them sideways glances.
The boy in front had dark hair and towered over the rest of the students. His eyes searched the crowd. Two blonde boys trailed him, their ashy hair picking up the colors of the strobe lights. The closer of the two had a wide grin on his face and deep dimples. His twin brother looked more somber, his eyes fixed calmly on the crowd.
"Who are they?" Laila yelled, only to have the song end as she shouted the last words. Two girls next to them snickered. A slow song started playing.
"Hands off the dark-haired one, he's mine," Tennille laughed and waved her hand in the air. The boy with the dark hair gave her a crooked smile and pushed his way through the crowd.
"You're finally here!"
"I told you I would be," he said in a deep voice as Tennille threw her arms around his neck to kiss him. It wasn't indecent or prolonged, but it made Laila blush. She had never shown any public displays of affection but she supposed that was because she never had a boyfriend for long enough to display much of anything. At her old Catholic school, boys were scarce.
"Tate, this is my new roommate, Laila."
Tate extended his hand. "Welcome to Harper's Preparatory," he said with a bow.
"Thank you," Laila smiled.
"And this is Alistair and Sterling," Tennille said, before returning her attention to Tate.
"Laila, what a beautiful name." The cheerier of the blonde twins took her hand and brought it gently to his lips. "I'm Alistair, the more handsome of the Pierce twins."
His brother rolled his eyes behind Alistair's back. Laila smiled at his dimples. "You two look identical to me," she admitted.
"Almost, but not quite," Alistair continued.
"How am I supposed to tell the difference?"
"Sterling's got the crazy eyes. I've got the dimples." Alistair glanced at a group of girls standing a few feet away. "If you'll excuse me…"
Laila watched him leave, impressed by his confidence and ease. She turned back to his brother, a little disappointed to find Tennille and Tate dancing in what appeared to be a world of their own.
"So, I guess it's just you and me," Sterling said and Laila suddenly felt very hot. His voice, unlike his twin brother's, was deep and silky. Laila looked up at him. Although not as tall as Tate, he still towered over her. He had a flawless complexion, a tan from the summer sun, and short, ashen hair pushed messily away from his eyes, making him appear as though he had just rolled out of bed looking this handsome.
"I guess so," Laila smiled at him, unsure of what to think. He appeared so stereotypically preppy when broken down to the basics: blonde hair, athletic build, simple blue button up shirt paired with expensive jeans. But he seemed to have an edge, a glint in his eye that attracted her attention.
Laila struggled to find something interesting to say to Sterling when she felt a tap on her shoulder.
"Hey," a voice said from behind her. She turned around and forced a smile when she saw Julian and his friend Chase.
"You're new here, aren't you?" Julian asked, chewing on a piece of gum while he spoke.
"Yeah. I mean, yes, I am," she said trying to sound as if she belonged at this East Coast preparatory school. They both snickered.
"I'm Julian. This is Chase," he said, taking her hand and kissing it, much like Alistair had done. But unlike Alistair's innocent touch, Laila felt Julian's tongue run between her knuckles, his fingers tightening around hers. She pulled her hand away softly but with enough force to break free.
"I'm Laila. It's nice to meet you." She nodded at each of them, rubbing the back of her hand against her side, suddenly incredibly uncomfortable under Chase's constant stare and Julian's playfully devilish grin.
"Where are you from?" Julian asked.
"Surprise, surprise," she heard a voice from beside her say with a whiny, slightly slurred drawl. Kalyn and another girl stepped in beside Julian. "A blonde with blue eyes from California. I'm guessing she's a Democrat as well."
The smile faded from Laila's face. Kalyn looked like she had stepped out of Vogue, with teased and highlighted hair, flawlessly applied makeup, and a designer dress. She was model beautiful. Kalyn looked Laila up and down.
"It must be an uncommon thing around these parts, I suppose." Laila said before she could stop herself.
"What, Democrats?" Kalyn laughed and Julian smirked.
"No. Natural blondes."
Sterling, Julian, and Chase laughed. Kalyn simply glared at her.
"Can I get you something to drink?" Julian asked, taking a step toward her and reaching for her waist. Kalyn scoffed and turned away, dragging her friend by the hand toward the exit.
"No, I'm fine, thank you," Laila replied quickly, moving backwards and stepping on Sterling's feet.
"Are you sure?" Julian looked at her through narrowed eyes, glancing at Sterling.
"She said she's fine." Sterling put a hand around Laila's thin arm, taking a few steps back and pulling her with him. "We were just about to sit down before you interrupted us. Why don't you spend some time with Kalyn?"
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