Love On Line – First Chapter

Chapter 1

“Has the guilt set in yet?” Terry Schneider asked Nancy Drew as they ducked out the side door of Wilder University’s Hewlitt Performing Arts Center and into the windy night.

Nancy drew in a deep breath of winter air and looked up at the sky, bright with stars. The cold energized her, and she felt light and happy — so happy that she almost didn’t miss being with her boyfriend, Jake Collins. Almost.

“Why should I feel guilty?” Nancy replied cheerfully, stopping to button her navy blue pea coat and trying to put aside all thoughts of Jake. After all, she had asked him to join her tonight for the opening of the Focus Film Society’s Italian movie festival, and Jake had turned her down.

“You just kidnapped the president of the FFS,” Terry teased. He wore a thick woolen sweater with holes in the elbows, and no coat, but he seemed perfectly warm. His cheeks were a healthy pink and his eyes sparkled.

“Rescued, not kidnapped,” Nancy said, tossing her red-blond hair off her face. “I just saved you from a fate worse than death — inside that overheated screening room, leading a postfilm discussion group.”

“I love watching movies and talking about them, but sometimes the film freaks get way too serious. You should have heard the discussion after the cartoon festival this fall.”

“How much could they find to pick apart about Bugs Bunny?” Nancy asked, matching her stride to his as they headed for Java Joe’s.

“They totally killed ‘dat wabbit.'” He clutched at his heart and staggered toward the coffeehouse.

“You’re nuts,” Nancy said. She smiled and shook her head as Terry held the door to the coffee shop open.

“I did want to talk about tonight’s movie,” she added, stepping in from the cold and letting the warm fragrance of espresso envelop her.

“Me, too.” Terry looked around the crowded hangout. “But talking privately over cappuccino and Italian pastries sounds more interesting than an intellectual group discussion.”

Nancy raised her eyebrows. “Private? Here?” Terry smiled. “Skip private. Let’s settle for one-on-one.”

While Terry went to the counter to order two cappuccinos and biscotti, Nancy grabbed a table by the window and took off her coat. After smoothing her black miniskirt over her tights, she crossed her long legs.

“Did anyone ever tell you you always look great?” Terry said, setting their drinks down.

Nancy blushed at his compliment and lowered her gaze. She’d known Terry for a couple of months now; even though she considered him just a friend, she had to admit she was attracted to him. Except for his light sandy hair, Terry was a dead ringer for Nancy’s ex-boyfriend, Ned Nickerson. Nancy was beginning to wonder if Terry’s allure had something — or everything — to do with the similarities.

“You seem a little down.” Terry reached out and touched Nancy’s arm. “The sad ending got to you?”

“Sad ending?” Nancy snapped out of her thoughts. “Oh, of the movie, you mean. No, no. Not that.” She moved her arm away and warmed her fingers around her cup. “Besides, I’m not sad.”

“Come on, Nancy. I can see you’re unhappy. If it’s not the movie, then it must be Jake.”

Nancy looked up quickly. Terry met her gaze and held it. Terry had made it clear just after they’d met that he was definitely interested in her. But Nancy had told him Jake and she were serious. At the time it seemed impossible that she’d ever have problems with Jake. “It is Saturday night….” Terry added, a hopeful note in his voice.

“Nothing’s wrong between me and Jake, Terry. He’s just not into foreign films.”

Nancy decided she wasn’t going to waste one more second of the evening worrying about Jake. It was his fault he was missing out on the fun tonight, not hers.

She lifted her mug of cappuccino toward Terry. “Let’s toast the first night of your film festival.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Terry said.

They clinked their cups together. Feeling more relaxed, Nancy sat back, sipped her coffee, and began to talk movies with someone who shared her enthusiasm.

“I thought by the time I was a senior I’d have the whole guy thing figured out.” Janie Covington confided to Bess Marvin. The two girls were sprawled on the thick rug in front of the living room fireplace of the Kappa sorority house.

Unlike everyone else in the house, neither of them had plans for the evening, and Bess was thoroughly enjoying sorting out Janie’s guy troubles. Talking about someone else’s dating problems took Bess’s mind off her own broken heart. Her boyfriend, Paul Cody, had died recently in a tragic accident, and whenever she thought about him, the hurt inside was almost unbearable.

Bess forced her mind off Paul and back to her sorority sister’s problems. “I think you should just ask him out,” she declared.

“How? I barely know him. He’s in one of my classes, but I never see him anywhere else. And I have a feeling he doesn’t even know I exist.”

Bess thought a moment, studying Janie. She didn’t know the Kappa senior well, but she liked her. Janie was a little quiet and definitely a little offbeat. A performance artist, she really dressed the part, with a thrift-shop wardrobe that was mismatched and funky. Bess was impressed that Janie could pull it off with such flair.

Janie’s curly dark hair framed her big green eyes and delicate features. Bess envied her lean body, even though some of the Kappa sisters thought Janie was a little too thin. She wondered why the guys in Janie’s classes didn’t fall all over her.

“Take a chance,” Bess declared. “Next time you see him, walk up to him and ask him out.”

“You’re right,” Janie said. Then abruptly she wailed and buried her face in her hands. “I can’t! I don’t have the nerve.”

“Sure you do,” Bess said. “Invite him to brunch at the Bumblebee Diner or coffee at Java Joe’s.”

Janie groaned. “You make it sound so easy.”

“It’s easier than worrying about how to get to know him,” Bess said.

“That might be true for you, Bess,” Janie said, getting up and putting another log on the fire. “but not for me. I can’t even speak to a guy I don’t know without blushing.” Janie gave an embarrassed laugh and rearranged the fire screen.

Bess wasn’t sure what to say. She had seen Janie, with an installation artist, perform at Hewlitt a couple of months ago, and Janie had been outrageously funny, loud, and uninhibited. But in small groups, even among her sorority sisters, she was shy, sometimes even defensive.

Bess watched the flames dance in the fireplace and basked in the warmth of the fire. She loved the Kappa house and the warm feeling she got from hanging out with her sorority sisters. Bess kicked off her shoes and propped her feet up on the sofa. “If I were an upperclassman, I’d live here,” she said. “How come you don’t?”

Janie hesitated. “By the time you’re a senior, group living wears kind of thin,” she said stiffly. “There’s no privacy in a sorority house.”

Personally, Bess adored the commotion and liveliness of the old Victorian mansion. She couldn’t wait until sophomore year, when she’d have a chance to move in.

“Anyone want to sample some brownies?” a voice asked from the kitchen door.

Bess looked up and saw a plump, pretty girl, a Kappa sister she didn’t know very well.

Janie’s face lit up. “Leila, don’t tell me you’re still trying to fatten up the Kappas!” Janie turned to Bess. “Have you guys met? Leila’s a voice major.”

“Would-be opera singer!” Leila smiled warmly at Bess and offered her a brownie. “And I’m not trying to fatten anyone up. I baked two batches of these to bring to the guys in Mitch’s band.”

She turned to Bess. “He’s a jazz pianist I’ve worked with — “

“Who happens to be gorgeous and her boyfriend,” Darcy Flanagan informed Bess as she walked up to snag a brownie from the tray. The leggy dance major joined Bess and Janie around the fire.

“He’s playing at Club Z tonight, and I promised I’d bring these for a party afterward.” Leila set down the tray and settled on the couch behind Bess.

“Actually, it’s payback. He got passes to the club and some of us are tagging along with Leila. Want to come?” Darcy said in invitation to Bess and Janie.

“Can’t,” Janie said. “I’m heading straight home from here to work out the kinks in the computer program for the visuals in my next piece.”

“And it’s time for me to hit the books back at the dorm,” Bess said, not in the mood for a night at Club Z.

“I knew I smelled brownies!” Soozie Beckerman cried, coming down the stairs. She tossed her beige cashmere sweater onto a chair next to Darcy, sat down, and helped herself to a brownie.

“Your cast is off,” Soozie said to Bess, a flicker of sympathy lighting her ice blue eyes. “How’s your arm?”

“Not bad,” Bess said, rubbing her arm. She had broken it in the same accident that had killed Paul.

Soozie shifted her gaze from Bess to Janie. “Can’t stay away, can you?” she said in a cool, amused voice.

“All Kappas are free to use the house, whether they live here or not,” Janie replied tersely. “Or have you forgotten?”

“You seem to be the one with the bad memory. Have you forgotten that you’re not welcome here?”

Bess groaned softly. She didn’t know the source of the bad blood between them, but Janie and Soozie were always arguing about something. She jumped up, happy to see Holly Thornton coming in the front door.

“Who’s that?” Leila murmured.

Behind Holly was a guy with black hair and amazing sky blue eyes. Bess hadn’t been introduced to him, but she had seen him once, the day Holly first met him at Java Joe’s.

“Hey, guys!” Holly said. She wore black heels and a short black dress. Her golden hair hung almost to her waist and her brown eyes glowed. She touched the guy’s shoulder lightly and said, “I want you to meet Jean-Marc Chenier.”

“Not the guy you met on-line!” Soozie blurted. The usually cool, controlled Soozie looked so surprised, Bess had to bite back a laugh.

Holly smiled sweetly at Soozie. “One and the same. This is the guy who ‘wasn’t worth meeting’ — that is how you put it, isn’t it?” Holly said, lacing her fingers through Jean-Marc’s.

“Not exactly,” Soozie said, coloring slightly. “I just said I didn’t think on-line dating was such a great idea.”

“Oh. Why not?” Jean-Marc asked.

Soozie seemed at a loss for words but after a moment mustered up a thin smile. “Because you never know whom you might meet.”

“And you’re the authority,” Janie said in a mocking tone.

Soozie glanced at her scornfully. “Any creep could be surfing the Net, you know.”

Jean-Marc nodded. “True. So you have to be careful when you first meet in person. But in our case, it was worth the risk,” he said. He turned back to Soozie and said earnestly, “You should try it sometime. It is a good way to make friends.”

Bess winced and stole a glance at Soozie. Soozie ‘s lips were pursed. Bess could tell Jean-Marc’s comment was perfectly innocent, but Soozie looked insulted. Before she could respond, Jean-Marc whispered something in Holly’s ear. Then he said to the other girls with a smile, “It was good meeting you, but we’ve got reservations for dinner.”

“At Les Peches,” Holly added, a tiny note of triumph in her voice. Jean-Marc zipped up his brown bomber jacket and followed Holly into the hall. As soon as the front door banged shut, Darcy pretended to fall back in a faint on the sofa. “Whoa, is he gorgeous!”

Leila nodded her agreement. “If I didn’t have Mitch, I’d be tempted to try the Net myself.”

“I still can’t believe they met on-line,” Soozie said, sounding a little sour. “And what did he mean by a good place to make friends? Does he think I have a problem meeting people?”

“I’m sure he didn’t mean anything,” Darcy said, hurrying to assure her.

Soozie laughed. “Launching a manhunt on the Net is not about to become my favorite pastime. But, Janie, maybe you should try it. You’re the one too scared to ask your ‘mystery guy’ out.”

“How do you know about him?” Janie blurted out, sending a panicky glance toward Bess.

“If something’s private, don’t talk about it in the sorority common room,” Soozie shot back.

“It’s true,” Darcy said. “The walls have ears.” She checked her watch. “Hey, it’s getting late, and I want to get to Club Z to see what’s happening in the guy department. I’m with Sooz on this one — I’d rather do my flirting in person,” Darcy said, getting up.

“But you’ve got to admit, Holly did pretty well,” Leila added.

Soozie shrugged. “Holly could use a little excitement in her life. She’s been dateless for months now.”

“And your datebook is jammed, I’m sure,” Janie said sarcastically.

Soozie rose, picking up her sweater. “I’m sorry I can’t stay for more of this fascinating conversation,” she declared, and marched out of the room, her chin high. Bess watched her flounce upstairs. A moment later the door to her room slammed shut.

The girls exchanged glances.

“Was it something I said?” Janie asked innocently.

Everyone cracked up.

Darcy laughed, too, but shook her head. “You guys are too hard on her. Soozie’s competitive and a bit of a snob, but she’s a good person, really.”

“You’re entitled to your opinion,” Leila said. “You two have been friends for ages.”

“And Soozie needs all the friends she can get,” Janie added.

Bess giggled with everyone else, but she wondered why Janie was so bitter.

Ray Johansson leaned into the microphone, and his dark eyes locked with Karin Messer’s blue ones. His gravelly voice blended in perfect harmony with Karin’s haunting mellow alto as they sang.

“Flame of love, fire or ice

Love like ours won’t happen twice

I’ll follow the rider of my dark dreams

Love, like the moon, is not what it seems.”

Karin tried to hold Ray’s gaze as they let the last notes die out. Ray pointedly looked away, and as he strummed the final chord sequence, he signaled the end of the song with a nod toward Cory McDermott.

“Great!” Cory declared from behind his drum set. “That tune’s really shaping up.”

Karin shook her long bangs out of her eyes and winked at Ray. He shifted uncomfortably and tried to figure out when Karin had developed a crush on him. “It did go well,” she agreed. “Our voices are a perfect fit, Ray.”

“Time for a break? I’m starved,” Cory said, casting a quick glance at Austin Rusche.

“Whatever!” Austin answered, vaguely annoyed. Ray watched, troubled, as Austin put down his guitar and ambled to the far side of the loft. Cory pulled sodas from the cooler and joined Austin. That left Ray paired up with Karin once again.

Bad move, Ray thought, straddling a chair. He smiled weakly as Karin handed him a cold drink. “Thanks.” He studied Radical Moves’ new vocalist as she hunted down a snack in her backpack. Karin was a terrific singer, an excellent musician, and a really great person. Her voice, like his, was dark and haunting; they did seem born to sing together. But Ray was beginning to think she spelled disaster for his new band.

Before Ray had joined Radical Moves, Karin had been dating Austin. Their breakup had wrecked the band, and the decision to let her rejoin after Ray came on board had not been easy. She and Austin had agreed to be civil, but Karin’s version of being civil was to pretend that Austin didn’t exist while she flirted with Ray.

Maybe it was his own fault. In his efforts to keep Karin and Austin apart, he had befriended the singer. But she’s been acting more than friendly.

“What do you say we check out that late-night jazz club over in East Weston after rehearsal tonight?”

Karin’s suggestion jolted Ray. For a second the idea appealed to him. He was too wound up to go back to his dorm, but going out with Karin would give her the wrong idea. “Can’t,” he said.

“Studying on a Saturday night? You don’t seem the type.” Her strong voice echoed across the loft.

Ray wished she’d keep her voice down.

“Careful, or I might get the idea that you don’t want to spend time with me,” Karin said, pouting prettily.

“Karin, I’m busy, that’s all.” Ray ignored his instinct to reassure her. He was determined not to jeopardize his relationship with this band. Besides, there was Ginny. In the depths of his heart, Ray was sure that some way, someday Ginny Yuen would be back with him. Karin might be the woman he sang his love songs with, but Ginny was the one he’d always sing them to.

Soozie sat in her room and stared bleakly at the last words she’d written in her diary: “When I’m Kappa president, I’m going to see to it that no one ever pledges this house who’s a would be opera singer — especially those who spend half their time baking. Leila Como has the wrong image for Kappa.

“Who are you kidding?” Soozie said to herself. Leila might be overweight, but she was talented and beautiful and she went with one of the cutest and coolest guys in Zeta. And Soozie, like it or not, was dateless for the third week in a row. As dateless as pathetic Janie Covington.

Thinking of Janie, Soozie quickly suppressed a pang of guilt. Last year she’d played a trick on Janie before Kappa’s Spring Fling. Soozie thought it was pretty funny, but apparently Janie didn’t have much of a sense of humor. Instead of laughing it off, Janie had ultimately moved out of the house. Soozie bit her lip, then shrugged. Some girls were just too thin skinned.

Soozie got up and walked over to her dresser. The face that met her eyes in the mirror was the stuff prom queens were made of: chiseled, angular cheekbones, wide-set blue eyes, a flawless creamy complexion, pale blond silky hair. Even after a good cry, her eyes were barely red, and her makeup was still perfect. But Leila and Holly had dates tonight; Soozie didn’t.

She wasn’t sure why, either. She had dated heavily her first two years at Wilder, and she’d gone out now and then this fall, but the guys seemed too young or unsophisticated. For the past three weeks, no one had even asked her out. Weird.

The memory of Janie’s jibes about her empty datebook made her stomach knot up and thinking about her archrival, Holly Thornton, meeting a gorgeous guy on-line made it even worse. A moment later her hurt inspired her. She capped her fountain pen, closed the hand-bound journal and placed it under her checkbook, then she shut the desk drawer.

She touched up her lipstick and grabbed her coat. “‘I’ll show them!” she said, sweeping down the side stairs and out the back door. How dare Janie lump her with the chronically dateless!

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