It was the first day of the last year Rachel would ever attend cheerleading practice.
And she was so over it.
“God, what is up with you today, Green?” her co-captain, Tina, snapped. “Get focused, and get up on that pyramid like, now.”
Okay, so maybe Rachel wasn’t really over it. She was actually still fuming over that jerkwad Chip, who’d cheated on her with someone she thought was a friend. Rachel huffed loudly and let her co-captain and a nervous freshman newbie lift her up.
Rachel raised her arms and said, “Um... Gimme a G?”
“P, Green, P!”
Scandalized, Rachel put one hand on her hip. “Ugh, no, I’m not doing that right here!”
Tina groaned. “The cheer starts with P, remember? And a little enthusiasm would go a long way.”
“Oh, fine.” Rachel raised her arms again and shouted sarcastically, “Gimme a P!”
“P!” the other cheerleaders shouted as they got into formation around Rachel. A couple of smokers laughed at them from the bleachers, and several football players made rude gestures at the cheer squad while heading off the same field toward the locker room. On the far side of the bleachers, Monica sat in the first row with her tall, geeky brother Ross, who was, as usual, visiting home from college. Rachel was glad to see Monica grinning and waving a tiny pendant, but then flushed with embarrassment when she realized Ross was snapping pictures of her with his new Polaroid camera.
“Green! Next letter!” Tina wheezed, still supporting Rachel's right foot, but starting to shake.
Rachel began to shake too, but for a different reason. She shook with irritation over Chip, irritation at herself for being irritated at Chip, and for having to lead the dumb cheer Tina had written.
“Rachel!” Tina cried, and Rachel knew she was in deep trouble, because Tina only used her first name when she was really ticked off at her, “What are you —”
“— Just give me a second!” Rachel snapped, then suddenly, her feet began to waver and the freshman holding onto her left foot buckled. Rachel screamed as her field of vision tilted and she fell over, putting her hands over her face to keep it from hitting the grass.
But instead of landing on grass and dirt, she landed in a pair of arms.
Strong, muscular arms.
Rachel pulled her hands away from her face and gazed up at the sky. She’d fallen over backwards and was a bit stunned at having fallen, then being caught at the last second.
As she panted from the shock, the face of the person who caught her blotted out the clouds.
And Rachel’s breath caught in her throat.
“Hey,” the face said again, and wow, what a face. “You okay?”
Below the face wasn't one of the high school team jerseys; instead, there was just a grey T-shirt covered with smudge marks and a ragged hemline that normally would’ve made Rachel recoil in horror – but she could tell he was one of the football players. She glanced back up, at dark hair that fell into eyes which were big, brown, and incredibly warm.
But what Rachel fixated on the most were his lips.
“Are you okay?” he repeated, his eyebrows furrowed in worry.
“Wow...” she said dreamily. “I am now!”
The football player’s expression changed from worry to amusement as he laughed, making Rachel shiver with excitement. He set Rachel down as Tina stormed over to her, and the other cheerleaders crowded around the newbie freshman who had been holding Rachel’s other foot and was now curled up on the ground, sobbing.
“No,” Tina growled, jabbing a finger in Rachel’s face, “No, you are not okay. Melody’s gonna have to see the school nurse, and I’m putting you in the back for the next two games!”
“Wha – the back? Why?”
“Because your head is obviously in a whole different universe right now, and I can’t risk any of our other girls. Go home, Green. And when you come back here tomorrow, you better be here, with the rest of us.” Tina whirled around and marched back to the circle of girls, clearing out a space to pick up Melody.
“Bossy bi...” Rachel started to mutter, then, realizing that the football player who had caught her was still standing beside her – and that she was holding onto his jacket – she lowered her arms sheepishly and corrected herself. “Uh, Bigfoot.”
“Huh?” he said, confusion screwing up his handsome face. So he had fast reflexes, but otherwise wasn’t that fast.
“Oh, uh, never mind.” Rachel suddenly noticed Chip hanging onto the fence near the bleachers, laughing at her with his friends. She narrowed her eyes at him and was about to march on over to give him a piece of her mind, but Hero Guy said, “Well, I’m taking off. Need a ride home?”
Rachel had been around guys long enough to detect the underlying message in his question. She smoothed down her uniform and turned toward him, grinning. This was perfect. She’d never seen this guy before, but he was cute, he just saved her life, and he made the perfect opportunity for her to get back at Chip. Rachel was just going to pull her best flirty moves on him, and was already prepping herself to get him alone and give him the best —
“— Yeah, yeah, blow me, you jerks. Rachel!”
“Rach, are you okay?”
Monica and Ross had parted the sea of rudely shouting football players to get to Rachel, panting from running all the way over onto the field from the bleachers. Monica nearly tackled Rachel, hugging her tightly, and Ross ran his hand through his thick hair, looking scared out of his mind.
“Yes, I’m fine! New guy saved me,” Rachel said, and Monica pulled away from her to gaze at the cutie.
“That was amazing!” Monica gushed. “Like it was right out of a movie, or something!”
“Oh, it was no big deal - I'm just glad you didn't hit your head or anything. That ground can get pretty hard, you know? Well, if you’re good here, I’m gonna take off.” The football player grabbed his helmet, which he had dropped to catch Rachel, and started heading off the field.
“Yeah,” Rachel heard Ross mutter, “you do that.”
Ignoring him, Rachel managed to wrench one of her arms out of Monica's vise-like grip, and raised her free hand to cup around her mouth, calling after the football player, “Wait! What’s your name?”
He turned around, his hair tousled by the wind, and he grinned when he met her eyes.
“Joey,” he said, and for the first time in a long time – okay, two months, but still, long time! – Rachel Green felt butterflies.