Los Angeles, California

The thunder crashed in the afternoon sky as a backdrop to the rain that pelted against the bedroom window. Sam hated thunderstorms with a passion. In fact, for the past ten years, she hated almost every type of natural phenomenon known to man. The way they could end someone's life in a matter of seconds was almost unfathomable but, at the same time, all too real for her. Sam hugged her knees to her chest and couldn't decide whether it was the storm that was making her shiver or the fact that she only had on a tank top and shorts.

The voice in her ear brought her back to reality and Sam sighed into the phone when she heard the sadness in it. "Austin, you should go to the party. It's the end of summer bash and I don't want you to miss it because of me."

"Sam, I don't want to go if you're not going. We're leaving for Princeton in a week; don't you want to see everyone before we go?"

Sam bit back the 'hell no' comment that was on the tip of her tongue and attempted a response filled with a tad less bitch. "Austin, the majority of them are really your friends not mine. I'm not trying to be difficult, but honestly, dealing with everyone since we got together last fall has been a pain in the ass and I'm just not up for any more of it. I can't wait until we're on the other side of the country where, hopefully, no one will know us, judge us, or do everything in their power to tear us apart."

Austin's heart wrenched at her words. He knew she was right and no matter how much he stood up for them, confronted his friends and anyone else that had anything to say, he couldn't protect her from everything. And it wasn't even like she needed protecting. Since they started dating, Sam hadn't taken any crap from any of them, which was one of the many things that he loved about her. But nine months of fighting off the barracudas of North Valley High would take its toll on anyone. Austin thought about what he could do to make her feel better, but all he came up with was, "I'm sorry."

The defeated tone in his voice brought tears to Sam's eyes. "Austin, please don't apologize. Having you in my life is what makes it all worth it and, even though it's hard, I wouldn't have it any other way. And I don't blame you for any of this, you know that right?"

"Yeah, I know. I just … I just wish there was something I could do."

"There is. You can go to that party and have a good time. I will see the people that I care to see before we leave for college, don't worry."

Austin moved his cell phone to his left ear so that his right hand was free to turn down the radio of his Mercedes Grand Edition. "But Sam, I don't want to go if you aren't going to be with me. Maybe I'll just go home and work on the story that you roped me into."

"Roped you into! A big-time publisher is interested in one of your stories and you think it's a bad thing?"

"I don't think it's a bad thing, but I do think that you had no right to send it to them behind my back."

Sam pinched the bridge of her nose in a futile attempt to hold back her sigh of frustration, "I know Austin, but I don't understand why you think you aren't ready. You stories are amazing. You shouldn't need four years of college to figure that out. I mean, Beethoven already had some of his music published by the time he was twelve years old for crying out loud! Besides, I've apologized profusely for this. How many times do we have to have this fight?"

"I know, I'm sorry. But it's just so unreal. Plus, they like my story idea but they want me to turn it into something longer and that's a lot of pressure." Austin laughed lightly, "Besides, by throwing everything on you, I can throw the blame on you too if it doesn't work out."

Sam rolled her eyes, "Funny. Seriously Austin, I do not want you to regret not going to this party and I certainly don't want you resenting me because you didn't go. So go and have fun, then you can look forward to keeping me warm during those freezing cold New Jersey winters we have ahead of us over the next four years."

"Even though the thoughts of exactly what we could be doing to keep warm have me practically paralyzed right now, I still want you to go with me."

Sam giggled and ran her fingers through her blonde locks. "You know, now that I think about it, it is kind of chilly in here. Rhonda must have the AC on full blast today and all I have on is these teeny little shorts and a tank top that, sheesh, you can practically see right through this thing. Hmmm, what could I possibly do to warm up a little? If only I weren't all alone in this house, an extra person might generate some heat in here."

Austin couldn't stifle his groan. "That is so not fair." He adjusted his position in the driver's seat so that his jeans weren't so binding. "You're evil, you know that? Have I ever told you that?"

Sam pulled out her best southern accent, "Why Mr. Ames! And all this time you had me believing you were sweet on me. What a naïve, silly, little girl I am. How will I ever learn to wise up to the ways of you mischievous boys?"

At the sound of the doorbell, Sam rolled off her bed and headed to the front of the house as she listened to Austin laugh suggestively on the other end of the phone, "Oh I can think of a few things that will help you 'learn the ways'," he said. A few things that I would, most definitely, be willing to teach you."

"My, my Mr. Ames. Where are your manners?" Sam reached for the handle and began to open the door. "You are certainly not living up to the gentlemanly reputation with which you have everyone fooled and … "

The piercing blue eyes that stared down at her from the other side of the threshold had Sam frozen where she stood. "Right now," Austin's voice was low and husky as he snapped his cell phone shut, "I don't give a damn about my reputation."

Austin's lips had claimed Sam's in a matter of seconds as he moved his body against hers in the direction of her bedroom at the back of the house, kicking the door shut with his foot as an afterthought. As they fell onto her bed, Austin caught himself with his hands so that he wouldn't crush her and, looking down into the gaze of her beautiful brown eyes, he was suddenly motionless. They had been here before – fooling around on her bed – at least a hundred times but they hadn't taken that final step in their relationship yet. Looking at her now though, Austin felt like there was something different about this time and for some reason he was unsure and very nervous. Austin gently placed his hand on Sam's cheek as his eyes took in every curve and shadow in the features on her face.

"It's okay Austin," she whispered putting her hand over his that was on her cheek. Sam reached up with her other hand and placed it on the back of Austin's head, pulling him down to her. The growing desire within him was too much to suppress now. His pulse was racing, his heart was pumping a mile a minute, and he was now completely hard and throbbing in need. A small sigh escaped his lips before he took a deep, shaky breath then looked from her eyes to her lips and back to her eyes. Austin leaned closer to her but then waited – he thought that she would stop him and wanted to be absolutely sure, so he waited. But the deep brown eyes below him radiated nothing but want and need.

At the tugging of her fingers at the hem of his shirt, Austin raised his arms so she could pull the fabric over his head. He couldn't keep his body from shaking when Sam ran her fingers across his shoulders and down over the muscles in his back. Austin's breathing was now heavy and raspy as he traced her hairline with his fingers while he slowly leaned forward, drawing closer to her until their lips were just barely together.

Slowly, Austin moved closer and feathered his lips back and forth over hers with his warm breath covering her face. When he heard her breath catch and felt her nails run gently down the side of his neck, his control was gone. Austin slid his hand underneath her head lifting her up to him, and captured her mouth with his. They held their lips together without moving – their eyes closed tightly, breathing heavily into each other, both reveling in the passion that was exploding in them. Sam broke the kiss first, moving to kiss across his jaw and up to his ear while lightly licking him every inch or so. Then she took his earlobe between her lips and bit down on it softly before trailing her tongue down his neck and into the hollow of his throat where it outlined the indentation there. She finally took his lips in hers again, sucking and licking them softly, causing Austin to growl when he felt her tongue run across his bottom lip. He pulled away and looked at her briefly, but she was addicting and he needed more of her. Austin held her face in his hands and pressed his mouth to hers again, pushing his tongue between her lips in a fury of passion.

"Sam honey! Are you home?" They froze at the sound of Rhonda's voice and realized that, in their haste, they had neglected to even close her bedroom door let alone lock it. The two bodies scrambled away from each other and Austin flew off the bed in search of his shirt. After finding it crumpled in the corner that Sam had thrown it into, Austin pulled it over his head. He sat down in a chair as far away from the bed as possible while Sam remained on the bed with her legs crossed underneath her; the two of them trying to look casual.

"Sam, are you here?" Rhonda screamed through the house while she moved closer to Sam's bedroom. "I saw Austin's car outside."

Sam's eyebrows rose as she realized that Rhonda was yelling a little louder than she really needed to. "We're in here Rhonda," Sam finally answered.

Rhonda appeared in the doorway where she looked at Sam sitting on the bed and giving her the most innocent expression possible. Then she looked at Austin who was as red as the Christmas mistletoe and refused to meet her eyes. "Umm hmm." Rhonda put her hands on her hips while she looked back and forth between the two of them. "It's a good thing I made a point of announcing that I was home. I don't want to know what I would've witnessed."

"But Rhonda, we were …"

Rhonda held her hand in the air to stop Sam from going any further. "Like I said, I don't want to know. I am not your mother, I am not Austin's mother and you are both over eighteen now so I don't feel it's my place to tell you what you can and cannot do. But, I do want it known that I do not approve of it."

"But Rhonda, I'm trying to tell you that we weren't do …"

Rhonda had moved a few steps down the hall, but her hand reappeared in the doorway, again interrupting what Sam was trying to say. "No, no. You shush. Rhonda has spoken and that's all you need to know." Then suddenly her head reappeared in the doorway as well, "But I absolutely forbid you to get pregnant in this house, do you understand?" Rhonda looked at Sam, "Okay?" then she looked at Austin, "Okay?" and without waiting for either one of them to reply, she said "Okay" again in confirmation before heading to the bathroom at the end of the hall.

Sam looked at Austin who now sat, completely mortified, with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands and she couldn't help but laugh at him.

Austin's head shot up and he glared at Sam in amazement. "What are you laughing at? What could possibly be funny about this?" Austin stood and began pacing the small bedroom.

Sam reached for his hand and pulled him until he was sitting next to her on the bed. "Austin, calm down really. It's no big deal. Rhonda's cool about everything, she knows what's going on with us."

Austin stared at her again, "What do you mean 'she knows'?"

"Well she doesn't know everything, but she's like one of my best friends – I do talk to her about stuff."

"Oh good grief," Austin groaned as he ran his hands through his hair.

"Listen Charlie Brown, would you rather have me tell her or Carter all of my inner secrets?"

"It's a toss up." Austin sat up and took her hands in his. "Sam, it's not really a big deal. It's just that the guy, who in this scenario is me remember, always comes off looking like the creep. I don't want Rhonda thinking that I'm forcing you into situations you aren't ready for."

"Austin, Rhonda does not think that and I would never let her think that. Besides, remind me again who it was that showed up on my doorstep then corralled me into my bedroom?"

Austin gave Sam a sheepish grin, "Well, if I recall correctly, you started it with all of your 'keep me warm' innuendos and you weren't complaining at all once I was here."

"No Mr. Ames, I wasn't complaining at all and I'm still not complaining." Sam crawled closer to him and rose up on her knees in order to kiss him. She felt Austin tense before she ran her tongue between his lips. Sam was just about to deepen the pressure when Austin pulled away from her.

"Ahem." They both turned to see Rhonda walk by the door as she cleared her throat.

Austin looked down at their still intertwined fingers, "I think we should get out of here and go to the party before we get in any more trouble."

Sam gave him a questioning look, "We?"

"Oh come on Sam."

Sam mimicked his whine, "Oh come on Austin."

"Sam, please come with me."

"I don't want to Austin. Please just go and I'll talk to you later."

Austin pouted like a three-year-old, "Fine I'll go. But I won't have any fun without you there."

Sam kissed him again, "Well I should hope you wouldn't have too much fun when I'm not around."

They both rose from the bed and headed to the front door where Austin turned and pulled Sam into one, last, lingering kiss. When he pulled away, he placed his hand on the side of her face and ran his thumb across her cheekbone. Austin looked deep into her eyes before quietly whispering, "I love you babygirl."

Sam smiled contentedly before replying, "I love you too Austin."

One Week Later

The baby blue mustang sat in Rhonda's driveway packed with as much stuff that could physically be crammed into it while Austin and Sam said their last minute goodbyes.

"Well David, it's definitely been … well, an experience getting to know you this year. I wish I could say that I'll miss you, but who am I to blow smoke up your you-know-what." Sam and David hadn't become close by any means but they didn't completely hate each other either. Each was usually the butt of the other's jokes, but it was mostly all in fun and they tolerated each other for Austin's sake. "Good luck at Notre Dame."

"Right back at ya' diner girl." David slapped Sam on the shoulder and leaned closer to her to continue in a semi-whisper, "and listen, if you ever do need anything to blow … well, you know who to call."

"Dave!" They both turned to see the feigned look of astonishment on Austin's face.

"What? I'm just trying to offer my support should she ever need it."

"Dude, first of all, I can hear you. Second of all, don't be disrespecting my girlfriend."

As Sam watched David and Austin begin their goodbyes with a manly hand-grab and shoulder-to-shoulder hug, she hoped that since Notre Dame was almost an hour away from Princeton maybe she wouldn't have to deal with David too much.

"How are you holding up?"

Sam turned to see Ryan behind her and she immediately wrapped her arms tightly around his neck. "Oh Ry, I really am going to miss you. As much as I want to put everyone here behind us, you are definitely my favorite one of his friends."

Ryan held on to her as he whispered, "Don't worry Sam. No one knows you in Jersey so you'll be able to start fresh with each other. And if you do run in to some assholes, just remember what I always say, keep your friends close and your enemies closer."

Sam pulled back and gave him a questioning look but then dismissed it. "You'll call me right? I don't want to miss out on any of those long talks we have."

He smiled down at her, "You can count on it. And NYU is practically a stone's throw from Princeton so I'm sure we'll be seeing each other a lot." Sam hugged him again before he moved to say goodbye to Austin as well.

That left her with Carter and as soon as she looked at him, Sam started to cry.

"Don't cry Sam." Carter pulled her into his arms and smoothed the back of her hair.

"I can't help it Carter. I'm going to miss you so much. You and all of your characters; especially Snoop Dizzle, he was my favorite."

Carter laughed as he held her at arms length. "Sam, we're going to see each other because if we don't, you know I will walk to Jersey if I have to and beat your skinny little white ass."

Sam laughed and wiped the tears from her cheeks. "I am so proud of you Carter. You're going to do so well at Juilliard, I just know it. You're definitely gonna make it, I have a sixth sense about these things you know."

"Yeah, you keep telling me that." Carter pulled her into another hug and he could feel her body start to shake again. "Stop it. No more crying." Carter pulled away to look at her again, "Call me as soon as you get there so that I know you're safe."

"Yes dad."

"I'm serious. If you don't call me by Monday, I'm calling the police and telling them that you were kidnapped. I don't think Austin will like that too much."

"What won't I like too much?" Austin came up to Sam's side and slid his arm around her lower back.

"Oh, I was just telling Sam that if she doesn't call me by Monday to let me know you got in okay, I am going to call the police and tell them she has been kidnapped."

Austin gave Carter a strange look. He liked Carter because he was always there for Sam no matter what and he would do absolutely anything for her, but there was just something about him that made Austin think he was a couple french fries short of a Happy Meal. "She'll call you, don't worry." Austin offered his hand to Carter who shook it genially. "Thanks for seeing us off man." Carter nodded and gave Sam one last hug before letting her go say goodbye to Eleanor, Bobby and Rhonda.

Austin climbed into the driver's seat and chatted with everyone while Sam was talking to Rhonda. He had already said goodbye to her and wanted to give the two girls some time alone, which was good because it seemed as if Sam was now crying uncontrollably on Rhonda's shoulder.

"Oh Rhonda, as much as I want to go I don't want to go. I'm going to miss all of you too much and it's so far away. Maybe I should just go to UCLA or something."

Rhonda looked at Sam knowingly. "Sam honey, all of those people right there," Rhonda waved her hand in the direction of the car around which everyone was standing, "are going to be on the east coast with you so I don't know why you would want to stay here."

"That's right Sam. And you need to be with your friends, not with us old fogies." Sam smiled at Bobby as he pulled her away from Rhonda and into a hug.

Sam then turned to hug Eleanor as well, "But what about the diner?"

Eleanor laughed, "Honey, the diner will be fine. Don't you trust Rhonda not to run it into the ground?"

Sam looked horrified and turned quickly back to Rhonda. "Of course I do. Oh Rhonda, I didn't mean it that way. I just meant that I could help if I were …"

"I know what you meant Sam, it's okay." Rhonda's eyes glassed over despite her attempts to remain calm. "Sam, I know it's scary, but you are the bravest, strongest person I know and going to Princeton has been your dream since you were nine. Besides, what would your dad say right now?"

Sam laughed through her tears as she answered, "Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game."

"That's right." Rhonda hugged her yet again, "Now you go and make your dad proud. I know you'll make the rest of us proud. I'll miss you sweetie."

Sam nodded, "Thank you so much for everything Rhonda. I can't even begin to tell you how much you and everything you've done means to me. I've always considered you like a surrogate mother, even long before I moved in here."

Rhonda's tears were flowing freely now. "Oh baby, I'm going to miss you so much. We all are. Be careful, okay?"

Sam nodded before finally heading towards the car and then climbing into the passenger's seat. Looking around at all of the faces before her, she memorized every expression and every detail of the people she was leaving so that she could forever etch this picture in her brain. When she felt Austin grab her hand, she looked over at him wanting to remember every detail of his face as well.

Sam waved to everyone as they all yelled goodbye again and the car backed out of the driveway. When they were finally at a point where they couldn't see Rhonda's house or any of the people standing in the driveway anymore, Sam leaned over to rest her head on Austin's shoulder and squeezed his hand tighter. He leaned over to kiss the top of her head and, as corny as it was, while Austin was steering the car in the direction of the I-10 East on-ramp, Sam couldn't help but think that this was the first day of the rest of their lives together.