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“All right, then,” the man with the clipboard called, shuffling through his papers. “Isabella Trigiani?”
“Yes,” Bella said, setting her magazine aside and standing. Her weak knees nearly buckled under her, earning her several stares from the people around the waiting room. She reached for the wall to steady herself and grimaced as she took a few deep breaths. She could do this. Ignoring the open stares, she stalked across the gray-carpeted waiting room.
“Hi there,” the man said as she reached him. He looked only a few years older than she was, which surprised her. Tucking the clipboard under one arm, he held out the other for her to shake. She took it, hoping that he wouldn’t notice how sweaty her hand was. “I’m Maverick.”
“Hi,” she said, dropping her hand and wiping it on her jeans. “Bella.”
“Nice to meet you, Bella,” Maverick said politely. If he had noticed her sweaty palmsâ€”or the beads of moisture on her foreheadâ€”he gave no sign. He took out his clipboard again and read it over quickly. “It says here that you’re here to take your test. Is that right?”
Bella swallowed. “Yes,” she said, her voice coming out a raspy whisper. She cleared her throat. “Yes,” she said again, louder this time. Maverick smiled kindly.
“The big test, huh? I remember mine,” he gave a low chuckle. “You’ll do fine.”
“Thanks,” Bella said shortly. She didn’t bother to tell him about the butterflies that had been eating at her insides all day. Or the fact that she had thrown up in the toilet that morning.
“Well, we’d better get started,” he said, grinning at her. “The cars are back this way.” He jerked his head toward a pair of gray double doors. They loomed in front of Bella like the jaws of a monster. She forced her legs to move until she was wrenching mechanically off after Maverick. Right. Left. Right. Left.
“Hey, are you okay?”
Bella jerked her head up as they came to a halt outside and caught Maverick looking at her with concern. He must have noticed her ashen face. She nodded, not trusting herself with words. He gave her another strange look, then turned away. She breathed a slow sigh of relief.
“This is us,” he said, pointing at a shiny silver Volvo. Bella ran a slow eye along its length, taking in every detail, from the smooth hood to the yellow Student Driver sticker on the bumper. She shuddered.
Maverick grinned at her. “Nice, isn’t it?” he said, unlocking it and opening the driver’s door. He turned toward her, holding the door wide. Bella’s mind was racing; it wasn’t too late to get out of this. She could back away, go home, try again later. She had almost opened her mouth to make her excuses when a shadow of true concern passed over Maverick’s face.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked, his hand still on the door. He paused, then said softly, “You don’t have to do this, you know.”
Bella glanced up, startled by the quiet sincerity in his voice. If there had been any sense left in her, she would have taken him up on his offer and gone home. But something in his gentle words struck Bella as a challenge. So, setting her jaw, she took a deep breath and crawled in.
Maverick shut the door behind her with a quiet snap, and Bella watched as he jogged around to the passenger side and slid in, closing the door after himself.
“Here you go,” he said, clicking his seat belt into place and handing her the keys. Bella took them and inserted them, hands shaking, into the ignition.
“Seat belt,” he reminded gently. Bella flushed, fumbling with the buckle. What was she doing? She couldn’t do this!
“Relax, Bella,” Maverick’s voice was surprisingly low and calming. Bella closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Now,” Maverick was speaking slowly, soothingly. “Open your eyes.”
Bella’s eyes fluttered open. Out the windshield, she saw a roadâ€”not the sunny DMV parking lot, but a dark country highway. It was raining; the windshield wipers were pumping so fast they threatened to fly away. Bella let out a strangled cry and buried her head in her hands.
“Bella.” Maverick’s hand was warm on her shoulder. “Tell me what you see.”
“The headlights,” she whispered. “Iâ€”I can’t stop.” The memories flooded her, like they did in her dreams. The screeching of wet tires, the hornâ€”hers or the other car’s, she didn’t knowâ€”the scream. High, piercing terror.
Bella looked up, eyes burning with tears. Maverick met her gaze, and for one perfect moment, she knew that he saw what she saw, and that he understood.
“I couldn’t save her,” she rasped. She saw the ambulance, the blood, the eyes of her father, hollow and haunted.
They sat in the charged silence, eyes locked, words gone. Maverick stared at her silently, his eyes full. She could feel, as he looked at her, that he wanted to bring her closer, to hold her and rock her until all the pain went away. But he didn’t know her well enough. Yet.
Slowly, Bella broke away. Reaching for the keys, she turned them until the engine rumbled to life. She felt wonderfully released, and she took the wheel with a new, firm grip.
“Why did you come back?” Maverick asked quietly. “To take the test, I mean.”
Bella took a deep breath and turned out into the parking lot.
“Someone once told me,” she said, remembering her mother’s wise eyes, “that once bitten by a snake, you are scared all your life at the mere sight of a rope.”
She gave Maverick a shaky smile. “I had to defeat the rope.”