Chapter 1 - Hungry, Hungry Hippos

 

I’ve never believed in true love.

 

Honestly, what’s the point? You grow up thriving on trashy romance novels and then find the love of your life, only to realize he’s more suited to a sewer rat. I’ll save my disappointment, thank you very much, until I see the grade on my biology midterm. At least then I’ll have a use for it.

 

My best friend Devany doesn’t believe in true love, either, which is part of the reason we get on so well. Lust is the only true emotion we feel for the opposite sex, though pity and friendship do make a rare appearance.

 

Yes, rare.

 

I use this term in conjunction with the word “friendship” for a reason. If you’ve ever tried to be friends with a guy in the past, you’ve probably noticed that these attempts never work. On thing leads to another until you’re in love with him, sleeping with him, or running like the Kentucky Derby champion in the other direction because he’s in love with you. Anything to get away from that guy you didn’t mean to attract.  Sometimes screaming might be involved; it usually is with me.

 

You’re probably scoffing at me right now. I can see you shaking your head, telling me that it is possible to have a male friend and that you can prove it. Yeah, well, maybe for you. For those of us who tend to find ourselves in awkwardly romantic situations with males who have the gender equivalency of a turnip, it’s not that easy.

 

My tendency is to attract every male I don’t want -- which somehow manages to include every male friend I’ve ever had (well, except those who were checking the guys out right along with me) -- and none of the ones who catch my interest. This is why I ignored my other friend Jorja’s hissed exclamation.

 

“He’s looking at you!” she chortled, keeping a covert eye on the slightly too perfect male sitting only two tables away. Since she said this at least once a night, I took that as my cue to ignore her. “Chandle, I don’t think he’s looked away yet!”

 

My head snapped up. Yep, that’s me -- Chandle. I wish I could say something cute or give you a charming anecdote to go along with the name, but I have nothing. Only a name that is highly reminiscent of a scented wax candle and a child’s linguistic incapacity. I have asked my parents multiple times what possessed them to name me this, but the only common answer I get is that they just don’t know.

 

It must have been a cruel and sadistic punishment for the misdemeanors I would eventually commit while growing up.

 

But back to the story. Devany also sat with us, her perfect blond hair floating around her and draping directly over the formula for some chemical equation I was supposed to be studying. We exchanged an equally exasperated look, which effectively cleared the left column in my textbook for my viewing pleasure. I promptly returned my attention.

 

Without looking up again, I calmly asked (and not for the first time), “Have you ever considered a career in writing fiction?”

 

“Or matchmaking?” Dev chimed in. She, too, was more than used to Jory’s habitual attempts at pairing us with strangers.

 

A moment of hurt clouded Jorja’s striking blue eyes. I was jealous of those eyes. I know people talk or write about that luminous blue color that can only be seen during one instant of dawn or something ridiculous like that. Well, if it makes you feel any better, Jory’s eyes were the color of a teal crayon, with nothing supernatural or awe-inspiring about them at all. They were beautiful, definitely, but I was happy to say they were normal, too.

 

Right now those eyes wavered between narrowing in anger and widening in slightly more acute hurt. Anger won out. “I’m serious! If you would just look at him, you’d see for yourself!”

 

And, of course, Mr. Wonderful was looking at me. Gee, now maybe he’d come over to talk to me, we’d both learn that we wanted a white picket fence and three kids with a dog named Buffy, and we’d ride off into the sunset.

 

Or maybe I had food on my face. Either way, he’d taken far more of my attention than I’d meant to give.

 

“I did look,” I said noncommittally, while turning back to the Introductory Principles of Biochemistry. “And if his staring problem is anything indicative of his IQ, he should be wearing a bib by morning.”

 

Jory rolled her eyes. “I think you should go talk to him.”

 

“You would.”

 

Devany snickered at that, probably because she couldn’t help it. We had this same conversation -- almost word for word -- every time Jory saw someone looking in our general direction. It was almost as predictable as the sun’s daily routine.

 

She never, ever considered that the guys might be checking her out, because Jory had a boyfriend to whom she was disgustingly devoted. It was a shame, really, and something of a waste. If only Jory weren’t dating elsewhere, we’d never be thrown at random males because they’d all be stalking her.  But, meanwhile, she held this insane idea that you had to be in a relationship to be happy. I used to try to tell her how unhealthy that outlook was, until I realized she wasn’t listening.

 

Besides, we’re back to that thing about how none of the guys I want want me.

Now, I wasn’t trying to be down on myself or anything like that. I knew full well that I was popular, but not in the traditional horror film way. I wasn’t a prom queen, I didn’t have a gaggle of guys following my every move, I wasn’t drop dead gorgeous, and I didn’t belong to a group. I just sort of… belonged. It was almost like having an All Day pass at an amusement park. You traveled to one place and went on the ride, but when it was over, you hopped off and moved on to the next.

I *liked* it that way.

On the other hand, this type of patterned behavior usually led to one thing – guys became “friends.”  Refer to the beginning paragraphs if you don’t remember my feelings on that concept. Unfortunately, half of guys used this as an excuse not to date me, while I did the same with the other half. Two halves equal a whole, which leaves zero males. Lucky me.

Jory, who knew this, didn’t let it get in her way. Actually, she never let anything get in her way. “Give up the anti-male act for one night, Chand. He’s gorgeous. What’s it going to hurt?”

Oh, it could hurt a lot. The three of us went to a small private school – uniforms and all – and there was only one other school in the area. Hythornch High. Sounds like somewhere haunted, doesn’t it? We weren’t sure it was that far from the truth.

Since I didn’t recognize this guy, he could only be a Hungry Hippo (our affectionate nickname for the students at HHS). We avoided the Hungry Hippos like the Ebola virus and the mall the day after Christmas, or anything else particularly distasteful. They took too much pleasure in making our lives miserable. But not all of them were bad… just the ones who walked and breathed.

They seemed to think we were all stuck up and snobby, a stereotype that is well known to those who attend private schools. And I’m not even going to pretend that the stereotype didn’t fit some of our fellow classmates. Still, they treated each and every one of us the same, so we helped them out by promoting the stereotype, then laughing ourselves silly behind their backs.

If nothing else, it was amusing. See, I figure if they really cared – which they don’t – they might actually approach us in a way that is slightly less insulting than undressing us with their eyes. Apparently, guys have a thing for fifteen-year-old schoolgirls. Even though the three of us are seventeen, the uniform seems to produce the same effect. So, taking the leering into account, it was easy to see why the brainless, “I’m better than you” act seemed like viable alternative to letting them drool.

I figured Dev would realize this, something that would lead to her direct support against Jory’s logic. To my complete and utter shock, she did the exact opposite. “He is gorgeous, Chandle, and he is staring at you. Besides, he seems to be studying – well, when he’s not looking over here. I say go for it.”

Glaring at her briefly, I refocused on my biochemistry. “I came here to do work, not to pick up some guy.”

I could feel Devany and Jorja exchange calculating looks and probably mouth something to each other over the table. A sly peek at Mr. Wonderful yielded the realization that he was still staring. I was not about to go over there just so he could tell me that he’d been staring at the lovely food stain smeared across my shirt, or something equally insulting. Not that there was food on my shirt, but you get the point.

“Well, if you won’t talk to him, I will,” Jory announced.

Panic flared to life inside me. She obviously wasn’t going over there to get him for herself, since she did have Kevin. And Devany had an odd relationship with a basketball player named Will. If Jorja went over there, it would be to tell Mr. Wonderful a pack of lies I’d most likely want to kill her for.

Jory was probably the most manipulative person I’ve ever encountered in my life.  She did it so well. And for some reason, I was letting her get away with it. Could it have anything to do with the fact that he was better looking than anyone I’d seen in my life? Better not to dwell on those thoughts too deeply. I’d hate to realize what I was really feeling right then.

I took a moment to make my displeasure known before standing up. “If he gives me the rejection speech, you’ll owe me a rejection sundae. With sprinkles and strawberries.”

She rolled her eyes and motioned me in his direction. I couldn’t believe I was doing this. Mr. Wonderful had conveniently transferred his attention to whatever book he had in front of him and was no longer staring in my direction. In fact, he seemed to have forgotten I existed. How odd…

Since when did guys play coy?

Gathering up the last shreds of my courage, I walked slowly over to his table and slid into the seat across from him. He still didn’t look up, though I’m sure he knew I was there. Hungry Hippos – 1, Chandle – 0. I wondered how I could up the score.

“Hi,” I said simply, then waited for him to respond.

Now he finally looked up, revealing gorgeous, indescribable green eyes. Had I said I was jealous of Jorja’s eyes? I lied. That emotion was paltry in comparison to what I was feeling now. These were the type of eyes I wanted my children to inherit.

In the middle of trying to snatch that thought back – from where I don’t know – he answered, “Hi.”

Well, I considered this a good start. Neither of us was running away screaming yet. Then, cringing, I realized I’d done it again. A good start to what?  Damn Dev and Jor for putting ideas in my head. I was seriously going to kill them later on that evening. But in the meantime, I had to stop sitting here, looking like an idiot.

Introduction, take two. “My name is Chandle,” I continued and held out my hand.

He didn’t respond like a normal guy should have. Instead of shaking my hand, he raised it to his lips and kissed just the fingertips. I could feel that touch shooting through my nerves. “I’m Austin,” he replied.

If I hadn’t been in so much shock over the part where he’d just kissed my hand – and the part where I hadn’t found it corny, just cute – I might have scoffed over the predictable name. He looked like an Austin. He had the preppy, spiky blond hair to go with the preppy name, and the preppy clothes to go with the rest of his preppy self.  The students from Hythornch High called us snobs for the way we dressed, but this guy looked like he’d just stepped off the pages of an Abercrombie catalog. Read: he was way, way, way out of my league.

Okay, good, I told myself. Now say something stupid so you can leave.

Unfortunately, the words wouldn’t come. Instead (and even worse), I sat in the other side of the booth and stared, much like he’d done earlier except at a much closer proximity. I didn’t understand it, but I couldn’t get my mouth to move. I could always think of something to say!

The longer I was silent, the more amused he became, until finally, he must have taken pity on me. Or at least I thought until he started talking. “So did you come over here to stare at me or did you have something to say?”

Cue in the blush. “I came over here because if I didn’t, my friend Jory would have and I didn’t think anyone deserved such a cruel and unusual punishment.”

He laughed at that, his green eyes lighting up with flecks of gold. It’s amazing how much more you notice about a person when everything seems to be going in slow motion, like my life was right now. “Maybe we should try again,” he suggested. “I’m Austin Jeffries.”

“Chandle Holden,” I said, then smiled. Maybe he wasn’t so bad, after all.

Predictably, one golden eyebrow lifted in question. “Like candle with an ‘h?’”

You have no idea how many times I’ve heard this in my seventeen years on the planet. It was Not Original. Of course, most people didn’t start making this comment until they learned how to spell it, because no one spelled it correctly at first.

No one, apparently, except Austin.

“Exactly like that,” I confirmed with a sigh. I silently thanked my parents once again for smoking crack when I was born. “And before you ask, no, they weren’t hippies. Just unconventional.”

 

He digested this information well. “So, Candle with an ‘h,’ what do you do?”

 

Part of me wanted to kick him for that little dig, while a different part of me wanted to laugh and thank him for not making fun of me. Hey, it’s happened in the past. My brain chose to do neither. “I go to school,” I said instead, tucking a strand of notably dull brown hair behind my ear.

 

“What a coincidence. So do I.”

 

I couldn’t stop the wry look from escaping this time. “Yeah, the textbooks didn’t give that away at all. Where do you go?”

 

“Hythornch,” he replied, shrugging. Considering that it was one of the only two schools, he probably didn’t expect me to be that surprised. And I wasn’t. “You?”

 

“Sacred Heart,” I said. Four, three, two... where was the look of derision and disgust I usually witnessed at this point? Besides suspiciously missing?

 

He nodded, no sneer creeping over his face, no sudden deliberation over my reputation (who *really* believed Catholic school girls were innocent?), and no grief over being a goody-goody. My opinion of him shot straight for the ceiling. “I have a cousin that goes there.”

 

Uh-oh. He had to pick the one topic that spelled potential trouble. “Really?” I asked brightly. It was amazing how perky I could sound sometimes. “What’s his name?”

 

“Her name is -- actually, here she comes now.” He smiled over my shoulder at some unknown female, a feeling of trepidation mounting inside of me. That grin was almost too angelic to be real. Directed at someone else -- even a cousin -- it was jealousy inducing.

 

Sure enough, I had to suppress a groan only moments later. Out of the nearly four hundred people enrolled at Sacred Heart Catholic High School, his cousin had to be the one and only Alienor DeSalles. Now, I’m not going to be cliché here and say that I hated Allie DeSalles. I didn’t. We weren’t friends, but we weren’t enemies, either.

 

If she had any brain cells, I might even spend time with her.  Too bad the stupidity factor killed any chance that idea might have had. So my dread about the impending interaction really didn’t have anything to do with Allie’s attitude, with any jealousy I might have, or with a long-standing hatred between the two of us. I’ve just had more interesting conversations with walls than I usually do with her.

 

“Hey, Allie.” I couldn’t quite match my earlier level of perkiness. Wonder why.

 

Allie didn’t have the same problem, any semblance of lucidity scattering to the four corners of the restaurant. “Chandle!” she squealed. I’ve heard the same sound come from pigs at feeding time. “How are you? And how do you know Austin?”

 

Now came the embarrassing part, where I get to inform Allie-the-Gossip that I’m hitting on her cousin. Damn Jory and Devany for the second time around. And speaking of them...

 

Hesitating to answer, I twisted in my seat, only to find my two friends laughing at me from where I should be sitting. I glared uselessly at them. First, they sent me over here to make a complete ass out of myself -- which I was accomplishing brilliantly -- and now they laugh because I have the further torture of explaining to Allie what I’m doing there. Luckily, Fate and Austin chose that moment to step in.

 

“She lent me a pencil,” he said cheerfully, flashing a writing utensil I had never seen before in front of our faces. Apparently Austin was both gorgeous and intuitive, a combination rare in the general population and nearly extinct (assuming it existed) in guys. Okay, so I was impressed. “And I promised her a drink in return, but she won’t tell me what she wants.”

 

At about the same time I was realizing I was stuck here -- at least for another few minutes -- Allie was trying to discern how much of this was truth and how much of it was fiction. Not that she had a lot to go on, but with a cousin that good-looking, she was probably used to groupies constantly hanging around.

 

But you’re not a groupie, my brain reminded me calmly. Then, completely of its own free will, my mouth opened and informed Austin that I would like an iced caramel chai latte with no whipped cream. Amazing how your own body can betray you like that. 

 

Allie’s mouth hung open, one perfect eyebrow raised over one perfectly made-up hazel eye. Perfection must be a family trait. And apparently, things like this just didn’t happen in her well-ordered life. Austin chatting with someone like me? Never mind hell freezing over, Satan must have switched his colors to pink and become a sex kitten. I’d definitely just been classified as a groupie, at least in her mind.

 

“Well, that’s sweet of you,” she finally managed. She made it sound like he was donating food to the homeless.

 

Neither Austin nor I missed the subtle insult in her voice and he grinned at me over his own mug of whatever. I’m glad he thought it was funny. Had I said maybe Allie and I could be friends if she had a brain? Add personality to that list, too.

 

I somehow found myself forcing a smile in her direction, and even though it looked more like I was snarling, she smiled back innocently. Or with full-blown naïveté. Take your pick.

 

She didn’t usually grate on my nerves quite as badly as she was right now. I knew she was acting like this because she thought I was hitting on her cousin (which I was) and not because of anything personal against me. I’d seen her do the same thing with the girls who flocked around her brother Alex. Still, it didn’t mean I had to like it.

 

“Meeting your cousin for dinner, Allie?” I kept my voice and my question neutral. I definitely preferred brainless Allie over suspicious Allie. If it took all night, I was going to convince her that I was not a threat to her perfect life. That or I’d be paying for it for the next month.

 

She looked startled for a minute. “Actually, no. I want him to come to Jackson’s with us tonight.”

 

 Ah, Jackson’s. The land of never-ending idio -- I caught that word in mid-thought. I was being way, way too hard on Allie and too mean in general. Jackson’s was a local hangout for those of us who were still under the legal drinking age, which I knew we all were. I tried to avoid the place as much as possible, because a) it was dirty and b) I had more fun watching paint dry.

 

See, Jackson’s had a tendency to find really lousy local bands to play every Wednesday through Saturday night at ear-splitting decibels. And they were usually of the cheesy pop variety. Now, don’t get me wrong. I listen to everything from punk to pop, the only exception being country. The difference between the bands on the radio and the bands that play at Jackson’s is that the local bands were usually missing one key ingredient -- talent.

 

Austin seemed mildly queasy at this suggestion. He must have had the same feelings I did. “I have to study,” he said, tapping a finger against the page of his book. I couldn’t help but notice the veins playing in his forearm.

 

I decided now might be a good time to help Allie out, or at least do something before I started drooling. Helping her would accomplish two things. First, I could (hopefully) remove her suspicions about why I was sitting with her cousin, and second, it would remove his presence from the coffee shop, allowing me to focus on my Biochem.

 

“I think you should go,” I chimed in, before Allie could say anything. She had a determined look on her face that meant she was about to get annoying. Time for an on-topic subject change. “What band is playing?”

 

After eyeing me suspiciously for several seconds, she suddenly remembered the question required an answer. “The Wifebeaters.”

 

I tried to strangle a gagging noise, but it ended up sounding more like I was coughing up a hairball. The cousins stared at me, alarmed, but neither moved to help. Austin seemed to realize my reaction related to the band and I wasn’t really choking, while Allie wasn’t aware of much at all.

 

The Wifebeaters were a group of sixteen-year-old students from Sacred Heart -- and they were named after the type of shirt, not because they were proponents of physical abuse. Wife beaters were the band’s unofficial uniform, which they thought made them look sexy, but really only emphasized their lack of muscles. It probably fit, staying in theme with their lack of musical talent.

 

Future note for any up and coming music stars:  pop did not mesh well with punk, jazz, and techno at the same time. Well, at least not when the Wifebeaters played it. Then it ended up sounding more like an electric keyboard set to some crazy beat, accompanied by some kid with an electric guitar strumming Kenny G, and a third member pounding wildly on the lid of a trash can. The singer crooned along to this cacophony of noise just like any cardboard cutout boy band member.

 

Please, kids, don’t try this at home.

 

When I finally managed to regain my composure, I turned back to Austin. “Have you ever seen them before?”

 

I was hoping he hadn’t. We had a much better chance of convincing him to go if he didn’t know what they really sounded like. And if he never talked to me again after the experience, I wouldn’t blame him.

 

He nodded blankly. I don’t know if he was trying to spare Allie’s feelings or if he’d been temporarily without hearing during the concert, but he didn’t show an ounce of reaction... at least, not until I saw the horror glinting in the depths of those grass-green eyes. “I’ve seen them.”

 

“Well, I’m sure you want to see them again,” Allie said cheerfully, reaching next to her to pat him on the wrist like she would a child. “You can study later.”

 

Shaking his head firmly, he refused to budge. “I have a test tomorrow, Alienor.” My eyebrows shot to my scalp. I didn’t know anyone who got away with calling her Alienor -- including most of the teachers. “I’m not going to Jackson’s.”

 

Oh, that did *not* gain him any popularity points. I recognized the pout flitting over her face; I’d seen it just before Marc Summers told her he already had a date for the fall dance. Three minutes later, he was asking her what kind of flowers she wanted. Believe me, guys would do anything to stop that high-pitched whine.

 

Steeling myself, I waited for it to break loose. Allie didn’t disappoint me, probably for the first time since I’d met her. It helped that I wasn’t expecting her to erupt from her Playboy Bunny role.

 

“Austin,” and I winced when she drew his name into four syllables instead of two, “I wanted to introduce you to my friend!”

 

This might surprise you, but I knew when to cut my losses. I was just at the point of sliding out of the booth -- sans phone number -- when the waitress plopped my highly caloric chai in front of me. Could I get away with taking it back to my table?

 

From the way Austin was frowning at me, I guessed not.

 

He switched his attention to Allie, who trained puppy-dog eyes on him and pouted. I expected her to bark in about two seconds. Oddly, he didn’t appear any more tolerant than I felt.

 

“Maybe some other time,” he said. Somehow those words translated into “never.”

 

“Why not tonight?” she scowled.

 

Have I mentioned her bulldog-like tenacity?  Giving up was not her strong point, apparently even with family members. It was not my place to be in the middle of this argument. Too bad an escape route was not clearly marked in red ink on the wall. I quickly began scanning around the coffee shop for other reasons to duck away from the table.

 

Austin put a stop to that by clamping his hand over my wrist. So much for leaving. He didn’t look at me when he said, “I have a test.”

 

“But, Austin,” she whispered, glancing at me but ignoring his hand over mine, “I wanted to set you up for the spring dance. Do you remember what a great time you had last year?”

 

Either Allie was rewriting history or I was misreading the expression on Austin’s face. Even with the little I knew about him, I felt much more comfortable going with the latter option. Of course, this could have something to do with knowing Allie, too.

 

“I remember some vapid blond named Denise,” he frowned, looking puzzled, while I wondered how someone related to Allie knew an obscure five letter word like “vapid,” as well as how to use it in a sentence. Definitely impressive.  Then he continued, “I also remember that she disappeared with a football player when I wouldn’t spend the night making out with her.”

 

Allie sniffed haughtily. “She was consoling herself because you rejected her.”

 

At this point, my discomfort had spiraled so far into the pit of my stomach that I felt myself sinking into it. Why was I still sitting here? Even distracted like I was, I knew why.  Only half on my concentration focused on this sick feeling, while the other half tottered in and out of shock from the weight of his hand on my own.

 

Wait. Just wait...  you weren’t expecting me to mention sparks, were you? Or some deeper emotion? Don’t get me wrong; physical contact with this guy definitely set my nerves on fire, but I knew full well it was due to a combination of his attractiveness and his proximity. Didn’t I already say I didn’t believe in all that extraneous tripe like love?

 

That included the fairy tale paradigm, where your hero -- your one true love -- came to save you from whatever evils you happened to be experiencing.  Or in this case, Allie.  We’ve already discussed my feelings in detail, I believe, something that should explain why I was counting this attraction as purely physical.

 

Even the disgusted way he eyed his cousin made me ache. Ugh, this was revolting. In a few more minutes, I’d be a puddle of drool on the table. Focus on what they’re saying, Chandle...

 

“I didn’t reject -- Allie, just because I’m not into public displays of affection doesn’t mean my date should throw herself at the next available candidate.” He ran a frustrated hand through his spiky blond hair. I could appreciate his sentiments. “I’m not going the Spring Fling or whatever the hell it is with one of your cheerleader friends.”

 

“But--“

 

He cut her off with a sharp sweep of his hand. Luckily for my heart rate, it was the one he’d had resting on mine.  “I’ll go to the dance, but I’m going with Chandle.”

 

I swear I stopped breathing. I know people say that all the time when they’re completely and utterly shocked about something, but I really did, at least for a few seconds. Did I even get a say in this? How did he know I didn’t already have a date?!

 

About to protest, I opened my mouth angrily, and then snapped it shut. I seriously needed to reconsider before I protested this arrangement. I didn’t have a date, after all, and wouldn’t find one nearly as attractive as Austin if I did. But still, I wasn’t happy about his presumption.

 

Realization dawned over his face at about the same time I came to the conclusion he needed a set down. “That is, if she doesn’t have a date.”

 

Slightly mollified by this concession, I failed to say something before Allie glared at him suspiciously and asked, “Austin, are you hitting on Chandle Holden?”

 

Gritting my teeth, I tried not to be insulted by her tone. I mean, really, really tried not to be insulted. It wasn’t easy. Okay, so I wasn’t part of the Pretty, Pretty Princess crowd like Allie, but I wasn’t *that* offensive, was I? I glanced down at myself to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.

 

Nope. Perfectly normal, just like always. I guess the jeans and baby-tee weren’t exactly what a fashion plate would be wearing, but I didn’t look skuzzy. Hey, at least I showered. Narrowing my eyes, I rethought my earlier charitable feelings toward Allie’s personality.

 

“Maybe.” His green eyes challenged her hazel, like he was daring her to say something bad about me. Of course, I had no illusions about what was going on in front of me. I’m sure he’d get the whole scoop on my life and me within the next twenty-four hours, even if he didn’t ask. Allie wasn’t one to keep her mouth shut. Plus, she wanted to set him up with her friend.

 

That meant only bad things for my reputation.

 

Allie didn’t seem to know how to respond, another first. She was just full of them tonight. I couldn’t really blame her, though, because I didn’t know how to react to that, either. Honestly, I’d just come to talk to Austin because I figured he’d blow me off and I could go back to studying. I hadn’t expected him to actually like me.

 

Now, I had my reasons for this. A first impression is made within four minutes of initial contact. During my first four minutes, he’d called me “Candle with an ‘h,’” learned that his cousin and I are not at the same social status (although in retrospect, this might be a good thing), and let me completely bungle the introductions by losing my voice to spend my time staring.

 

And, of course, there was the part where I wasn’t supermodel material. Austin looked like he should be walking next to Cindy Crawford or modeling for Calvin Klein. We weren’t even close to a match.

 

The silence seemed to be getting to Allie. What a surprise. I swear if she didn’t hear herself talking for more than three minutes, she’d go into shock. “Well, I’m going to Jackson’s.” Apparently Austin’s announcement that he might be hitting on me was too much for her. “Have a nice night.”

 

As she picked up her tiny, fashionable, senseless purse, she looked blankly in my direction. I smiled sweetly at her, with all the saccharine I could muster. “Have fun,” I said cheerfully, adding a chipper wave for good measure.

 

That blankness faltered into something like astonishment. “You, too,” she murmured automatically. I knew she really didn’t mean it. “Maybe you should let Austin study now.” 

 

I knew a threat when I heard one, veiled as it was. My smile stayed plastered to my face, even though I wanted to string together a list of choice words and hurl them in her direction. My basic sentiment being that she could mind her own business, of course, despite whatever filler words also happened to make an appearance. “Absolutely,” I agreed, sliding out of the booth.

 

Maybe I didn’t like her interference, but I was grateful for the excuse to leave. I still reeled from his announcement, and since a relationship was not a possibility -- thanks to Allie -- leaving seemed to be the best bet for all of us. If I stayed, I might as well not even show up for school on Monday. Allie would make sure I was a social pariah.

 

Before Austin could protest or Allie could make any suggestions, I quickly turned and walked back to my table. I wish I could say Dev and Jor were inconspicuously studying whatever they’d brought with them, but instead they were openly staring. A quick glance at Allie showed her glaring at them, just before she started arguing with Austin in a disturbingly cheery manner. Public disagreements weren’t something she went for; she always tried to make it look good, like she was only flirting.

 

That brought up disturbing images of Allie flirting with her cousin. I crushed that thought quickly and slid into the booth next to Jory. They stared at me like I’d just sprouted antlers, but I didn’t let that bother me. “Thanks, guys,” I said. “I needed my daily dose of disappointment.”

 

Jory put on her trademark expression of disbelief, the one that made lesser mortals squirm. Lucky me, I was used to it. “It didn’t look like he was rejecting you from this angle,” she retorted, tapping her fingers against the table in the way that meant she was about to start fishing for information. “What’s he doing with Allie-the-Brainless DeSalles?”

 

I sighed. “Guess.”

 

Devany piped up at this point, still looking in their direction and not bothering to pretend she wasn’t watching them. “I’d have to go with arguing. Anyone else want to bet she’s trying to get his support for her new branch of Sluts’R Us?”

 

“Wrong answer,” I said, making every effort not to look in their direction. I picked up my highlighter and realigned the textbook for maximum viewing ease. “They’re cousins. She wants him to go to Jackson’s so she can hook him up with one of her friends.”

 

Groans sounded from across the table and next to me. Wow, a coffee shop that has surround sound. Careful not to let my eyes stray, I calmly glanced up to see Devany in the midst of some very interesting facial contortions. She made a half groaning, half gagging noise, and then said, “I wouldn’t subject my dog to that.”

 

“Which part?” Jory asked dryly, “Jackson’s or Allie’s friend?”

 

“Both?”

 

Dropping my highlighter, I was about to say something stunningly devastating and nasty to shut them up -- well, not really, but I did want them to be quiet -- when I realized the cousins were walking in our direction. I sent each of my friends a warning glare and bent my head over my Biochem. As expected, Allie didn’t bother to acknowledge me when she walked by.

 

Unfortunately, neither did Austin.

 

I kept my head lowered while they exited the coffee shop -- I guess Allie had convinced him to go after all -- but watched them from beneath the fall of my hair. At least it was good for something. When they were finally gone, I sighed and sat back. “Well, so much for that.”

 

Devany gave me an odd look, for what I didn’t know. “Are you so sure about that?” she questioned, leaning over to pick something up off the floor. A smug grin crept its way onto her face as she handed it to me.

 

“What is this?”

 

Jory shrugged. “I don’t know, but Mr. Not-Interested dropped it on the table as he walked by. You must have missed it falling on the floor.”

 

Suspicion rose in me, but I took the piece of paper anyway. They were probably just harassing me and making me think he’d dropped it. Who knows what I’d find when I opened it? I bit into my lower lip, slowly unfolding the ripped sheet of notebook paper. Pale blue lines stretched across the white, only one other thing marring the pristine page.

 

Austin Jeffries’ phone number was scrawled in spiky black figures.

 

 

 

 

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