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Lorana Hoopes

Chemistry 101

Chemistry 101

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Have you ever had to pack all your belongings in a trash bag?

No? Just me then? Trust me, it's not glamorous, but it is the byproduct of being an orphan. This being said, I can't help but hope that this is my last foster home. After all, I'll be graduating soon, so I’m planning to keep my head down. No drama from the likes of snobs like Stephanie and her pack of raving narcissistic psychos, and most certainly, no boys.

Unfortunately, this whole plan of pushing through to the end without being noticed winds to a screeching halt the moment star quarterback Aaron Richards tumbles into my life. He needs help and while I don’t want to give it to him, the secretary has decided tutoring him can be part of my Occ Ed credits.

If only his girlfriend, ex-girlfriend according to him, wasn’t Stephanie, the girl who is not only the self-determined queen of the school, but also has begun to hate me with a passion. I never thought I would be the one to stand up to her, but I can't just let her walk all over me. Not only that, but this boy has begun to wiggle his way into my thoughts.

But I can’t, I won’t. I have to make it through to graduation, without distractions.

However, I can’t help but think, what if this year could be different?

Looking for a clean romance that's safe for the whole family? USA Today Best-selling author Lorana Hoopes has you covered with this heart-tingling romance that shows how God is ultimately in control. Grab your copy today by clicking the button above.

First Chapter

A white trash bag. That’s what they hand you when you’re a foster kid and it’s time to move from one home to the next. Not a backpack, not a tote bag, or even a pillowcase. A white trash bag. Sometimes a black one as if the color matters. It doesn’t. It could be purple zebra print and it still wouldn’t be anything more than a trash bag. A depressing symbol of my broken life.

I used to wonder why we only got trash bags. I mean, I know the state doesn’t spend a lot on us but I’ve seen some inexpensive bags that are a little less humiliating than trash bags. One time, I even got up the nerve to ask why. The social worker I had at the time, the one before Rhonda, who was meaner and always smelled of cigarettes and depression, told me it was because kids come from homes with bedbugs and lice and those bugs can live in regular bags or suitcases that are hard to wash.

The thought process she said, waving her hands in the air like she was some sort of symphony conductor, was that a suitcase might just sit for a while, allowing the bug infestation to grow and eventually take over the house. With a trash bag, you can simply throw the washable contents into the washer and dryer and throw away the bag, thus removing any bugs that might be there. It made sense at the time, I guess. Now that I’ve had time to really process her explanation, it no longer does because if you don’t burn the bag or you throw it away in the house, wouldn’t the bugs still infest the house? I have to assume she meant they threw it away in the dumpsters outside, but regardless, I wasn’t moving from a bug infested place. At least not this time. 

This time I was moving from a drunk man who spent all the foster money on booze, and a woman who tried to earn it back prostituting herself and had managed to get picked up by the police. Still, I could have made it work. After all, I only have one more year of this and then I’ll be eighteen and on my own. I was keeping my head down and minding my own business, but Darla had to go and get herself arrested. When the police ran her address, they found out she was a foster parent. Then they called Rhonda, who, unlike the first caseworker I had, actually cared about what happened to me. She showed up here half an hour ago, handed me a bag, and told me to pack my stuff.

My stuff. That’s a joke. I roll my eyes as I shove the few shirts I own into the bag. As if I have much. I was poor before I got thrown into foster care, but almost everything I owned was left when they plucked me from my parents’ house. The original case worker - Corinna, even her name still makes me shiver - told me to grab my things, but not knowing what she meant or how long I was going to be gone, I grabbed my favorite stuffed animal (I was twelve at the time), a few books, my favorite shirts and my pillow. She was mad as a hornet when she realized I’d barely brought anything with me, but I didn’t have the courage to tell her it was her fault for not being explicit with a twelve-year-old. For someone who worked with kids, she seemed to know little about them.

After that, the only additions to my meager stash of belongings were from the families I lived with. Some were better than others, but suffice it to say I now own exactly six shirts, two pairs of jeans, one pair of shorts and one pair of shoes - no sandals or dress shoes for me. My non-clothing items consist of a grand total of three books - two that I snuck from my last house and one that a previous teacher gave me. She said it was for doing so well and because she could tell I liked the book, but I’m pretty sure it was because I was a foster kid. I could see the pity in her eyes when she handed it to me, right before her eyes shifted to the floor like most people’s do when they find out. I used to get offended by it, but now I realize it’s their way of dealing with the cognitive dissonance. They can’t take me in, so they hope a book or a jacket will make up for it. It doesn’t, but at least it shows they’re trying a little. Sadly, they probably don’t do anything else to help, but that’s the messed up, self-obsessed system we live in.  Honestly, I’ll take those people any day over the ones who act like I have cooties and try to pretend I don’t exist. Those are the ones that really cut.

Along with the books, I have the meager school supplies Rhonda managed to score for me before the year started. Frank and Darla couldn’t be bothered to get me supplies. Most days they couldn’t even be bothered to get me food. All of my items don’t even fill a trash bag, but then again, they rarely do.

“Sloane, are you ready? We need to go.” Rhonda checks her watch. It’s not a fancy watch, no Apple watch or anything techy for Rhonda - probably because she’s afraid some of the kids might steal it, and some of the rougher ones might - but it’s more than I have. I had a watch a few homes ago, nothing expensive or anything, just a discount one a foster parent had picked up for me, but the oldest girl at the home I ended up in decided she needed it more than I did. I fought her for it, and she got a black eye for her trouble, but I ended up having to give her the watch, and I haven’t had one since. Nor do I have a cell phone like most kids nowadays, but I make do. When I get out of high school, I plan to get a job for a few months to afford one.

“Yeah, I guess. Where are we going this time? Disneyland? Dollywood?” Okay, so I can be a little sarcastic sometimes, especially with Rhonda, but who wouldn’t toss some sarcasm if they were in my situation? I throw the dehumanizing white trash bag over my shoulder as she shoots me a glare and opens the front door.

“Good riddance,” Frank, the drunk, calls from his favorite recliner. It’s old and faded, much like Frank, and perfectly molded to his overweight frame. I rarely saw him out of the chair, and I often wondered how much time he spent in it before I arrived. He’s wearing his favorite once white tank top, the kind they call wife beaters because of people like Frank, and nursing a warm beer, his favorite beverage of choice. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him sober now that I think about it. 

“I’ll miss you too,” I mutter, rolling my eyes as we step onto the porch. 

Rhonda closes the door behind me. “You are too sassy for your own good sometimes,” she says as she clomps down the rickety steps. Rhonda always reminds me of comfort food - not fancy but filling. Her noisy footsteps aren’t due to her build or her gait though. It’s the hideous black shoes she’s always wearing. She swears they’re the most comfortable shoes ever, but I can’t see how. They’re ugly as sin and have to weigh twenty pounds. When I get older and can afford to buy my own shoes, I will never purchase clodhoppers. I don’t care how comfortable they are. 

I shrug. “It’s kept me alive so far.” Well, that and knowing how to blend in and when to keep my head down. Staying alive and sane as a foster kid is a balancing act of sugar and spice.

She opens the back door of the car and motions for me to throw my bag in the back before sliding into the driver’s seat. I toss it in, not caring how it lands. Nothing breakable in there anyway.

“So, tell me about the new family,” I say as I buckle my seatbelt. “Do they have a huge family? Is it another drunk man of the house or a handsy one this time?”

Rhonda glares at me, but she can’t say much because she knows I’m right. I’ve been in four foster homes since the state took me out of my parents’ home. That’s better than some kids, and none of the moves have been because of my behavior, but all of the previous homes have had one problem or another. “This is a new family. They just got approved to foster a few weeks ago, so you’ll be their first permanent child.”

“Great,” I say, sinking down in my seat, “a family who doesn’t know what they’re doing.” I guess a family like that could be better - at least they might not know how to play the system - but I also feel like they might be woefully unprepared like I was when I got thrown into these unnavigated waters. 

“They know what they’re doing,” Rhonda says, turning on her blinker. “They’ve had kids of their own and they’ve had a few short-term stays.”

“So, what’s the catch?” She doesn’t say the word, but I can feel it, hovering in the car like an unseen force. “Do I have to change schools again?”

I know this would be a big deal to most kids, but it really isn’t to me. It’s not like I have friends I’d be leaving. I don’t really do friends. And I certainly don’t need them. Friends want to come to your house, and not only would I not want to bring friends to the places I’ve lived, it’s not generally an option. And once kids find out you’re a foster kid, they’re less likely to want to come over, mainly because they don’t know what to expect. It stings, but I’ve gotten used to it by now. Plus, I don’t have time for relationships. My goal is to study hard, get a scholarship, and do something with my life. I’ve been dealt a pretty crappy hand, but I refuse to let it rule me. So, while I’ve got a pretty good routine at my current school, changing schools wouldn’t be that big of an issue.

She chews on her lip. “No, you won’t have to change schools.” It’s not a question, but her voice lilts up at the end, and I can tell whatever the issue is, it’s big. 

“Okay, so what is it? Are they planning to move in a month? Is it a farm where I’m going to have to learn to milk cows?” I’m not particularly outdoorsy, but I could think of worse things.

She glances over at me and then turns back to the road. Her hands tighten on the steering wheel. “They’re Christian, and part of their conditions are that any kid in their home will go to church with them.”

Church? No, thank you. I’d rather milk a cow every day. “What? Nuh uh.” I shake my head sharply, my nose scrunching up in disgust. “Just pull over now and drop me off in the street. I’m not going to church, Rhonda. What’s God ever done for me?” I pull on the door handle, but it won’t open while we’re driving. I scowl at the door. Stupid safety features.

“There is nowhere else, Sloane. Every other home is either full or…” 

She doesn’t finish her sentence, but I know what she was going to say. I’ve already been to the other homes, and more importantly, been removed from them.

“Besides, church isn’t all that bad. It’s only an hour or two once a week, and maybe you’ll even make some friends.”

“Doubtful,” I say, wishing I had a hat I could pull low over my eyes. I keep my hair long so I can use it to hide my face, but it’s not perfect, unfortunately.  I’d rather have no one see me at all. 

“Well, you’ll have to give it a shot,” Rhonda says as she pulls into the driveway of a blue and white two-story home. An American flag waves proudly from the porch, the grass is short and manicured, and the flower bed appears well taken care of. It’s actually a nice-looking house - one of the nicer ones I’ve been at, at least from the outside - but I’ll never say that out loud.

“They better not be like the Brady Bunch,” I mumble under my breath as I open the car door and grab my bag from the back. Rhonda appears at my side and leads the way to the front door. She rings the bell, and I drop my gaze to my worn-out sneakers. I hate meeting new families for the first time. I hate the way I look. I hate how worn my clothes are, and I hate that they generally open with fake smiles for the social workers before reality sets in.

The door opens, and I can’t help but glance up at the sound of the warm voice. “Hello, you must be Sloane. I’m Linda Chase.”

Linda makes me think of sugar. Her hair is mostly dark and cut short, but strands of gray are clearly winning some battles. The lines on her face appear etched where she smiles, but she doesn’t look that old. Late forties or early fifties maybe, and her eyes are kind.

Her clothes, however, leave a lot to be desired, and that’s saying a lot coming from a girl who has nothing. Her shirt is a flowery blouse monstrosity and her pants are a pale blue color of some fabric that is clearly not denim. It matches, but it turns my stomach like spinning toys on playgrounds do.

Rhonda nudges me. “Say hello, Sloane.”

“Why? I doubt I’ll be here long enough for it to matter.” That’s actually not true, and I’m not sure why my sarcasm is coming out now. Usually, I save it until I get to know the family better. 

“Oh, I think you’ll be here longer than you think.” Linda tosses a conspiratorial wink at me like we’re two buddies sharing a secret or something. “Come on in and I’ll show you your room.”

I look up at Rhonda with one final desperate pleading look, but she shakes her head and motions for me to follow Linda. With a sigh, I step into the house. The scent of freshly baked cookies wafts through the air and my stomach rumbles as I realize I haven’t eaten all day.

“Someone sounds hungry,” Linda says with a wide smile. “We were just about to have dinner, and I have cookies for dessert, so how about we get you set up and then get you fed?”

I shrug nonchalantly, but the rumbling of my stomach calls me out for the liar I am. The sparkle in Linda’s eyes tells me she has me, at least for now. She leads the way upstairs and Rhonda falls into place beside me as I follow. Though she always checks out the houses before she places me, she still accompanies me to the room the families set up for me as well. It’s probably her job, but I like to think it’s her way of trying to look out for me as much as possible. Rhonda’s the closest thing I’ve had to a mother in years.

“This was my oldest daughter’s room,” Linda says, opening the door, “She went through a bit of a goth stage, but she’s been out of the house for ten years now, so you’re welcome to redecorate it.”

Though I try to play it cool, my eyes widen when I step into the room. I don’t often get my own room at foster homes, and when I do, they’re about the size of a closet and not a walk-in closet, one of those single door, only-holds-about-twenty-hangers-well, monstrosities. This room is bigger than any I’ve had before. The bed is probably a full if not a queen, and it’s on an actual frame unlike the last bed which consisted of a mattress on the floor. It’s not even a cheap simple frame. No, it’s one of those canopy beds - super princessy and something I would claim to hate but have always secretly wanted. Especially since this canopy bed doesn’t have white frilly curtain stuff, but a black and purple panel curtain. The color scheme is carried throughout the rest of the room as well with small touches. The walls are a light lavender color, but all the frames are black. Even the desk and dresser are black. This is quite possibly the coolest room I’ve ever seen, yet I can’t say that. “It’ll do,” is what comes out instead.

Linda and Rhonda exchange a look. They aren’t buying my act, but I have to keep it up. Walls are built for a reason, and as soon as they start getting holes in them, they crumble much easier.

“I’m glad it’ll do,” Linda says. “Cady probably left some clothes in the closet. Feel free to keep them or toss them out. Would you like a few minutes to unpack before dinner?” 

Her gaze drifts to the white trash bag and embarrassment floods me again. Has she heard about the bugs? Is she wondering if I’m infested? Or maybe she just feels sorry for me having so little. I’m used to the looks, but for some reason, it feels different coming from Linda, and the fact that I don’t know why freaks me out.

“Sure, I’ll take a few minutes.” I struggle to keep the emotion from my voice.

She nods. “Okay, the kitchen is just to the right when you go down the stairs. The house isn’t that big, and I’m sure if you follow your nose, you’ll have no trouble finding it.”

“Thanks,” I say and wait for her to leave.

“So, not so bad, right?” Rhonda asks when Linda is gone.

I shrug again though ‘not so bad’ is definitely not the phrase coming to mind. “I guess not, but I haven’t had to go to church yet.”

A long sigh spills from her lips. “It will be fine, and this room, this house,” she waves her hands to indicate it all, “You couldn’t ask for a nicer place.”

Well, I probably could, but there’s no way I’d actually get it, and she’s right. This place is definitely a step up from the other homes I’ve been in. Three to four flights of steps up, actually. “I’m sure it will be fine.” 

I can tell she was hoping for more excitement, more gratitude, but that’s all I can muster and still retain my image. Still, I don’t miss the flash of relief that crosses her face. “You have my number. If you have any issues, you know you can call, but give them a chance, Sloane. I think you could be really happy here.” She touches my shoulder, which is the closest we’ve ever come to a hug, and then she too leaves the room, and I’m left alone.

The first thing I do is dump my belongings on the bed and wad up the trash bag and throw it away. Good riddance, and I hope I never have to see or use one again though I probably will.

I cross to the dresser and run my hand across the top. It’s mostly clear except for an old wooden jewelry box with a cross engraved on the top. I open the box, expecting to find it empty, but a myriad of bracelets stare up at me. Did Linda’s daughter leave all this? And if so, why did Linda leave it for me? Does she want me to wear it or is she testing to see if I’ll steal it?

I close the box and move to the window. The curtains covering the window are purple but black lace has been sewn on top of them. I pull the curtains aside and find myself staring into a big backyard complete with a pool and a hammock swinging lazily between two trees. This has got to be a dream. There’s no way people with a place this nice would foster. I pinch my arm and grimace at the pain. It sure doesn’t feel like a dream.

Letting the curtains close, I turn to the nightstand. It holds two drawers. The bottom one is empty, but the top one contains a single book. A black leather-bound Bible with a gold embossed cross on the front. Ah yes, here’s the nightmare part. Is she going to expect me to read this and discuss it or something? Will I be required to bring it to church?

I shove the Bible back in the drawer and close it. Out of sight, out of mind, right? I cross to the closet and pull open the door. It’s mostly empty, but there are a few items hanging on the bars. I skim them and then add my belongings to the group. When I’m done, it’s still not much, but it’s something. I take one last look around the room and then my stomach growls again. Guess it’s time to face the music and see what this family is like without Rhonda around. Flicking off the light, I exit the room.

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Lorana Hoopes

Lorana Hoopes is a USA Today Best Selling Author and now an Award Winning Author as well. She's had two books earn a Page Turner Award Finalist badge and she recently won the Reader's Favorite Book Award for Romantic Suspense.