“Julian’s heading over this way.”
Nila Ascott forced herself not to look the way her friend, Adreanna Hamlett was gesturing. Julian Siddell was probably coming to see Adreanna anyway, not her. And if he was, it probably wasn’t for any good reason. None of the white boys in Kurztown ever came near her with good intentions. “Let’s just go,” she told Adreanna. “We can meet the others at the diner.”
Adreanna squeezed her hand as if she understood. She probably did. She saw the way the others treated Nila. The Ascotts weren’t the only black family in the town. But, pretty close. And she took the brunt of the town’s ignorance. “Julian’s different. He’s never joined in with the others.”
He hadn’t, at least not to her face. But, that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Especially if his friends were with him. Not the ones she saw him with on the weekends, like Joel Holland and Patrick DiSalvo, they were decent to her, too. But, the ones he played baseball with after school, like Jakob Morrey and Caleb Sharrock, were ones she did her best to avoid. They didn’t always keep their mistreatment to taunts, either.
“Nila.” Julian’s voice was smooth behind her, and she couldn’t help but turn now. Only Patrick was with him. That had her relaxing a little bit.
“Julian, Patrick,” she greeted both of them, but she was already starting to fidget. She wasn’t afraid to walk down the street of her own town. But, just standing here talking made her nervous.
“Can I talk to you?” Julian asked her.
She swallowed and glanced over at Adreanna. “Uh, we were just heading to the diner to meet Diana and Natalie.”
Patrick’s eyes lit up a bit at that. “I’ll walk there with you, Adreanna,” he told her.
They weren’t leaving her with any excuses. But, Julian smiled softly at her. “We can follow right behind them if it makes you feel better.”
She knew Julian was a decent guy. He wouldn’t do anything to her right out here on the street. “It’s okay,” she said. “What did you want to talk to me about?”
He scratched at the back of his head and glanced away. She’d seen him do that in class, too, when the teacher called on him, and he wasn’t completely sure of the answer. She always thought it made him look a little sweet, it was even more endearing now.
“I actually wanted to ask you something,” he corrected.
“Okay,” she said, glancing from the corner of her eye. “What did you need to ask me?”
He was quiet for a moment, and they were already nearing the diner. She was about to turn to him when he blurted out, “Will you go out with me? We could get dinner, maybe catch a movie?”
He ended it on a question, as if he wasn’t quite sure. She wasn’t, either. “Why, Julian?”
“Why not, Nila?” he asked, one side of his mouth pulling up into the smile she loved to see.
“You know what people will say about you dating me?”
“I don’t care,” he said, turning fully to her. “I’ve wanted to ask you out for a long time. If they’ve got a problem with it, they can-”
She didn’t need to hear the rest of whatever he was going to say. “I’ll go to dinner with you, Julian.”
Nila stood at the doors, waiting for Julian to come out of the school after his practice. Usually she saw him during the day, but it seemed like he’d been avoiding her. She didn’t understand it. They’d gone out for dinner several times, and they’d spent almost every evening talking. Why the distance now?
She’d hung back when the rest of the players had come out. Why wasn’t he with them? Usually he was. Something wasn’t right, and it didn’t leave her with a good feeling.
Finally, she saw him coming, his hat pulled down low on his head, leaving his face in shadows. Nila stepped forward. “Julian.”
He jerked back, his eyes meeting hers for just a moment before dropping again. But, it had been enough. “What happened to your face?”
“I thought you would have gone home already,” he said, starting to walk past her.
He didn’t even attempt to answer her question, the sidestep obvious. She reached out for his sleeve. He stopped but didn’t turn to face her. So, she moved around in front of him and pushed his hat back on his head. And drew in a sharp breath. “Did you use your face as a glove at practice today?”
His lips quirked up, but then he winced. “Didn’t happen today,” he said. “And wasn’t baseballs hitting me.”
She ran her finger lightly along his jaw, where the worst of the bruising seemed to be centered. “It’s because of me, isn’t it? No one wants you dating me.”
He reached up and wrapped his fingers lightly around her wrist, bringing her hand down to his lips. “No,” he said. “Don’t say that, Nila. It’s because Morrey and Sharrock are dickheads, and no one else will stand up to them. But, there was no way I was going to let them talk about you like that.” He brought her hand down and pressed his lips to hers. “I love you, Nila. My mom loves you, and trust me, she doesn’t say that about everyone. My brother likes you. That’s all that matters. If the rest of the town has a problem with it, they can go to hell.”
Nila let out a little laugh then wrapped her arms around his neck. “I don’t want you fighting for me, Julian. Not like this. We can stand against them another way.”
“As long as we’re standing together.”
“Always,” she told him and hoped that time limit, or non-limit, never changed.
Note: For anyone who has read snippets from Scars and All(Book 2 in my Kurztown series), these are Cassie’s parents. So, this is sometime in the middle-ish ’80s. By the time Cassie and Doren get together, the town is at least a bit more tolerant.