Hey! I know, I know, I took a loong league of absence and I'm sorry! But I'm back now and that's what matters. Thanks so much to JT Fan, woodstock1969, Linzi, x-Kiss.and.Tell, Jmarit17, Tainted Petal, Annatari, Ice-Faerie, xXGod-Is-LifeXx, MiidKniight, Latch, irishbri, and Redberries. Your support is what kept me inspired during these hard writing times. I thank you, I thank you. Also thanks to Crewgar, A Reader, She Breaks Silence, PsychoEmoLove, Ollie May, pink.puff, Lavender L. C, Starienite, Shorty Baby, green flip-flops, alex, susie, Isabella22, and Holiday In Spain for your friendly encouragement when I was just starting this story. Thank you! In this chapter: Where exactly am I going with this story? Who knows...


It was too hot. Or humid. Or both.

I shifted, coming awake slowly. In my dream I had been dropped into a pit where thousands of snakes were having an orgy, and I was trapped, wrapped in coil after coil. It was difficult to breathe. Now even as I woke, it didn't get any easer, and I could still hardly move.

"Ouch," a sleepy male voice said beside me.

Ahh! There's a snake talking! declared the oh-so-logical voice in my head, which apparently wasn't so logical this early in the morning. I squeaked in surprise and struggled harder against whatever was holding me. Even when I opened my eyes, everything was dark. It was like waking up blind. I'm suffocating! It's too hot! There's a talking snake next to me! Ahh!

"Ouch! Emily!" said the sleepy male voice, louder now. It knows my name! "Stop it! You're elbowing me!"

"Snakes!" I squealed.

"Shh," said the voice, not so sleepy anymore. Sss, echoed the illogical voice. It's hissing at me! It's going to bite me! "Shh, Emily. Wake up. It's a bad dream. Ouch! I thought I told you to stop elbowing me!" Now the big thing beside me was wiggling, too. "Emily, dammit! It's me, Josh!"

I stopped moving. "'S too hot," I whispered breathlessly. "There're snakes, they were talking, and it's so hot. I can't breathe."

"Calm down, hang on."

I heard a zipping sound and suddenly found that I could see. It wasn't much lighter than it had been inside the sleeping bag, but the cloudy sky had lightened a touch so that everything had a silvery blue sheen, though it was clearly still nighttime. Probably not even 4am yet. I sucked in the clean, cool summer air greedily. It was still pretty humid, but growing up in North Carolina you got used to it.

"That better?" said Joshua's voice.

Closing my eyes, I shook my head. "Still too hot," I sighed.


And suddenly I was shirtless.

"Josh!" I gasped, rolling my head to look at him and at the same time bringing my arms up to crisscross over my white bra.

About that time, I realized Joshua and me were wrapped up in the same sleeping bag, the thermal, nonflammable, waterproof one I had taken out of his Ferrari's trunk last night. The outside of it was soaked with the early morning dew. Looking closer at my surroundings, I saw that we were still out in the foreign woods we had been last night, only we had found our way back to the clearing where the bonfire was being hosted. There were at least fourteen other lumps wrapped in sleeping bags that I assumed to be people. The bonfire itself had burned itself down to softly glowing red ashes. I flashed back to the third grade when the volunteer firefighters from the local department had come in to pound us all with the knowledge of how forest fires started and could easily get out of hand.

Now I was shirtless, and there was a fire hazard not ten full feet away.

Meanwhile, Joshua was chuckling and rolling up my turquoise-and-teddy bears scrub shirt to use for his pillow. His brown eyes were slitted, looking down at me tiredly. An instant later I felt a muscular arm encircle my waist, but the fingers ticked my bare back, trickling up my spine, and I shivered.

"How's that?" he asked, whispering.

I scowled, and commanded, "Take off yours."

He looked surprised. "Seriously?"

"Yes. I am not going to be the only person out here without a shirt on when the forest catches fire."

Joshua blinked at me. Then he smiled, "You're still half-asleep, huh."

"And I want a pillow."

Chuckling, he took his arm from around me and slithered out of his spandex/nylon shirt. The slithering reminded me of my dream and I shivered again. It was still too hot, but I wasn't willing to move.

"That's probably how turkey dinners die," I heard myself saying. Joshua was fully out of his shirt now, except for his forearms that he was still struggling with, and paused to look at me questioningly, so I concluded, "They got too comfortable in the oven."

He laughed again. "You're so weird in the morning," he said. Then he shoved his shirt against my ribs and grinned at me. "Good luck making a pillow with that." I felt the thin fabric between my fingers and figured he had a point. There wasn't enough substance to it to make a pillow with. I sighed miserably and felt Joshua stroking the side of my face. I looked up into the chocolate eyes that were hooded. "You could always use me," he murmured.

For some reason, I found myself watching his lips move.

"Say that again."

So he said it again, slowly this time, watching me watch his lips.

"Okay, I'm satisfied," I said, letting my eyes drop closed. I heard him laugh and leaned against him, appreciating the way his firm chest vibrated with the happy sound. Joshua's arms came around me and pulled me closer, until my head rested comfortably on his chest and I could slide my arm around his middle. "They should make more pillows like you," I mumbled. "All helpful-like."

The last thing I heard before drifting off back to sleep was Joshua's barking laughter.

At least an hour later I awoke in the same position, only I couldn't remember how I'd gotten into it. At the same time, I knew instantly that it was Joshua I was pressed so tenderly against. I wasn't sure how that worked out. My legs were intertwined with his, and something hard yet wriggling was pressed against my upper thigh. Instinctively I knew what it was and chose not to acknowledge it. Instead, I quickly but efficiently extracted myself from the sleeping bag. Strangely, Joshua didn't wake, only grunted and turned over toward the space where I had been, his arms closing over emptiness. It was such a childlike gesture, like a child in slumber who couldn't locate his teddy, that I stooped to brush a kiss over his forehead.

Then I stood and went into the surrounding forest. It was much lighter now and I felt sure that I could find my way back to what had become our campsite, though I didn't go far. I squatted down with my scrub pants around my ankles and relieved myself.

Suddenly I remembered two things. One, I was shirtless, and two, there was no toilet paper.

"Well shit," I cursed softly.

In the end, I just closed my eyes and pulled my pants back up. It was gross and probably unsanitary, but so were a lot of things, and this one I could fix with a long, hot bath once I got home plus a load of laundry. I headed back to the campsite, feeling more unclean than when I'd left it. Fortunately, I stumbled across the cooler within the first several steps. It was the large blue kind on wheels with a white top. I opened it up and plunged my hands into the melted ice, then wiped my wetted hands on my thighs.

"Best I could do," I muttered, and then strolled over to where Joshua remained sleeping.

Only now he was singing softly to himself and rolled onto his back.

"Gimme one reason to stay here and I'll turn right back around… Gimme one reason to stay here and I'll turn right back around. Said I don't wanna leave you lonely, you got to make me change my mind… Baby I got your number, ohh, and I know that you've got mine. You know that I called you, I called too many times. You can call me baby, you can call me anytime, you got to call me… Gimme one reason to stay here and I'll turn right back around…"

"I really hope you're awake," I said as I crouched down by his head.

Joshua stopped singing as his eyes slitted open, peering up at me through thick, long, dark lashes. "Where'd you go?" he asked, his voice deeper than usual.

"Pee," I answered honestly.

His slightly flattened nose wrinkled with disgust. "Oh really," he said. Then he blinked and opened his eyes a little more. "You sound different."

"So do you," I replied. "Your voice is deeper…"

"No," Joshua interrupted. "I meant, last time you were awake you talked like you were drunk." I blinked, suddenly a little uneasy. I said some pretty rash things when I was tipsy, things I didn't remember but people started rumors about. But I hadn't done any drinking last night, had I? I don't like the taste of beer, and that's all that was in the cooler. "Hm," muttered Joshua, rolling onto his side again. "Guess you're fully awake now. Too bad, I almost liked you better when you didn't know what you were saying…"

He didn't sound like he meant it as an insult, but it was hard to pretend not to take it as one.

"What did I say?"

"Snakes," he murmured. "And that you wanted to use me as a pillow." Suddenly he smiled, though closed his eyes. "And that you wanted to have hot, passionate intercourse with me. You talk pretty dirty when you're sleepy."

I punched his shoulder. "Stop lying," I grumbled.

He laughed and lifted his arms out of the sleeping bag, somehow even with his eyes closed getting his hands on my shoulders. I gasped in surprise as he pulled me down beside him, atop the sleeping bag while he remained within it. Before I could even think about struggling, he had wrapped his arms around my middle, keeping me in place. Once the shock passed I managed to wriggle into a sitting position, only now I was sitting on his lap, making Joshua gasp and shut his eyes tight. Feeling embarrassed, I quickly began scooting back, away from the sensitive area.

"No, no," he whispered breathlessly. "Stop moving for a minute." I froze. A few seconds later he opened his eyes again, looking to the side. "Maybe I should keep the flirting down to a verbal exchange while its this early," Joshua said, mostly to himself. He looked at me then. "What time is it, anyway?"

Rolling my eyes, I said, "Hang on while I check the position of the sun." I looked up at the bright gray sky. "Oh, that's right," I said, still sarcastic as I looked back down at him. "It isn't out yet."

Joshua smiled. "Well good morning to you too, Sunshine." I merely nodded in reply. He lifted a hand, stroking my cheek. "Do you want me to take you home now?" I bobbed my head again, up and down once. "All right. Get off me and I'll… go get ready."

I snorted doubtfully, but got off of him.

"What?" he said as he stood in one graceful movement it would take me years of ballet to match, and I wasn't even enrolled in ballet lessons. Still, Joshua kept the sleeping bag pulled up to his hips. "You don't think guys get a little primped in the morning?"

Stepping close to him, I ran my hand down the lower half of the sleeping bag hanging over his pelvis, meeting his gaze levelly. Or as on the level as I could with someone eight whole inches taller than me. "I'll believe it when I see it," I murmured, making my voice husky.

Was I flirting with Joshua Amado?

A single, strong arm wrapped around my middle, tugged me so that my front was firmly squashed against his. I was once again overly aware that I was shirtless, standing here in only a white bra with a blue bow at its center, with a bare-chested Joshua holding me. His brown eyes burrowed into my gray set so intensely that I was tempted to look away, but found when I tried that I couldn't. I was spellbound. Then he lowered his head and pressed his lips to mine, slipped his tongue past my lips before I could think about closing them after I'd gasped. My knees turned instantly to liquid and I collapsed against Joshua, but he held me up easily, holding me closer and probing my mouth deeper.

When he lifted his head a moment later, my eyes were closed and I couldn't catch my breath.

His voice was husky and fierce, deep and gravelly when he whispered, "Don't start something you're not going to finish."

Despite the heat in his voice, he waited until I got my feet under me before pulling his arm from around me. Then he turned and hopped off into the forest, still within the sleeping bag, which startled a laugh out of me as I watched him go.

By the time he returned, at least fifteen minutes later, I had tracked down my shirt and was seated on the grass near the deadened fire, gazing into its gray depths. Hopefully it would rain as soon as we left and kill the final live embers. I was sitting with my knees pulled up to my chin and my arms wrapped around my shins, thinking about a long jog around the block once I got home, when Joshua nudged me in the butt with his foot. Wordlessly, I stood and turned, following Joshua, who had already moved off with the sleeping bag slung over his shoulder.

I almost tripped over two small mounds of freshly churned earth and flashed back to my and Joshua's return to the campsite last night. He had knelt suddenly and started digging with a stick he assumedly found near his feet. Looking back, it was bizarre, but what was especially funny was that I'd treated it as a normal thing and only crouched down beside him, picking up a stick and helping him dig. On a subconscious level, I understood he was doing it for me. I didn't know why or when Joshua had developed this abrupt, potent interest in me, or even how, really, since we had never talked civilly with one another a day in our lives because of the human barrier that was Christine King. But in its own weird way, our history was sort of endearing.

Last night we'd buried the meat in four-inch deep and eight-inch wide holes, just far enough away and downwind from camp that if a predator did come along to dig them up then they hopefully wouldn't sense the human flesh moving around the clearing. The little mounds this morning appeared undisturbed.

I caught up beside Joshua. "I'm sorry I teased you," I said quietly.

"Fair is fair, I guess," he replied. Before I could begin puzzling over that, he continued, "We're going to stop at my house. It's on the way and we have time."

"Okay," I said.

Not that my answering was called for. It appeared Joshua was calling all the shots, probably because he had the car. Besides that, he never left any room for argument. The Amado family's house was on the way, if I had correctly judged the direction we'd gone last night, and we did have time, seeing as I didn't work until nine this morning. He probably listened to the logical voice in his head more often than I listened to the one in mine.

When we finally found our way back to the Ferrari five minutes later, I remembered the stereo we'd left behind and told Joshua.

He shrugged indifferently as he unlocked the car. "One of the guys will pick it up," he said.

Then he slid into the driver's seat without another word, closing the door after him, and I wondered at this sudden change in attitude. Last night he had been uncommonly nice. This morning, at least in the past twenty minutes, he acted almost cold toward me. Had it been my teasing, or was this something that had nothing to do with me? Maybe he just wasn't a morning person and I was reading too much into it. The Ferrari's V8 engine purred to life as I opened the passenger's door and slid in the bucket seat.

Music was already playing. Instead of classical there was modern rock. Another visible sign of a definite mood swing.

On the ride home, he drove faster than he had last night or any night I'd ridden with him. We got pulled over twenty minutes into the drive.

"What's wrong with you?" I asked while the policeman was off checking out Joshua's license.

"Nothing," he snapped, looking out his rolled-down window.

"You've been weird since we woke up. Did something happen last night that I missed? Did I say something, or did somebody else?" I looked at the dashboard and drew shy circles on my right knee. He remained in stony silence. Since the squad car's sirens, the music had been turned down and the quiet now was almost stifling. "Tell me, Josh," I murmured. "I don't like seeing you this way."

"What do you care? We're not even friends."

My defenses went up instantly, but not in time to deflect his surprise attack. I felt my shoulders drop, my head lower, and heard my voice go quiet. "Fine," I whispered tonelessly. "You want to take that route? Go ahead. This spoiled attitude suits you much better than the almost gentlemanly one I saw in you last night."

Joshua looked at me, his expression incredulous. "Are you picking a fight?" he half-shouted. "With me? Over what!"

The louder and angrier he got, the quieter and calmer I became.

"I'm not picking a fight with you, Joshua." Even to me, I sounded incredibly condescending. "All I said was that you make a much better child than an adult."

"No wonder you ex-boyfriend used to hit you around," he spat.

Something inside of me shutdown, turned off, closed up. It was such an unexpectedly vicious thing to say that for thirty seconds all I could do was stare at him. Then I smiled, hacking out a soft laugh as I shook my head slowly, disbelievingly, and looked out my window. There were plenty of insults in my arsenal just as vicious, but for once I kept my mouth clamped tightly shut.

Give a dog a bone, and he'll beat you. Story of my life. That's what I get for trusting Joshua Amado for as long as a split-second.

Apparently this just wasn't going to be my summer for love.

One speeding ticket and twenty-two minutes later, the Ferrari pulled up in front of the Amado family's humble abode. Only it wasn't all that humble. Rosins Street and Briar Avenue were paved roads built into a rolling hill, atop which were some of the most expensive, lofty houses in Mapleton. They weren't quite mansions, but close. The Amado's house was three-levels, partially built into the side of the hill it sat atop, with a suspended, glassed-in patio in back that looked down over the town. The entire home was wooden and painted a warm, amber-brown, with a steeped black roof as well as a section of solar panels. Whereas the Windsor family's house was built for quantity over quality, the Amado family's house was obviously built specifically for quality. Every window was large and clear, with mahogany-slatted shades. There was a wraparound front porch with a bench swing, and dotted with other stylish patio furniture.

It was difficult to put into words exactly how grand and beautiful the Amado's home was.

For lack of a better example, though, there was a black Mercedes stretch limousine in the driveway. Lives of the rich and famous may not always be the most pleasant, but they are definitely the most glamorous.

"That's my grandparents' limousine," murmured Joshua, sounding sullen. "They're from Morocco."

"I thought you were Mexican?" I said.

"Most people think that." He paused, as if considering leaving it there and getting out of the car. Instead he let out a breath and pressed on, "These are my mother's parents. My father's live in Spain. My parents came to the Americas in the 1970's for college, where they met, married in the mid-80's, and later conceived me and my brothers. Their parents never approved." He paused again, took a breath, let it out. "Anyway," he concluded, "my mother's parents are visiting for the week. Joseph thinks they're looking for an heir, but I think that's just wishful thinking on his part. If Jacob knows anything, which he usually does, he's keeping his mouth shut, which is normal, too. I want you to come in and have breakfast with us."

As surprised as I was by the invitation, I merely continued gazing out my window, not allowing the emotion to show on my face incase Joshua could see my reflection.

"I have to work at nine," I said, raking my brain for a better excuse. Of course it was an honor ever to be invited into the Amado's mansion, as it happened so rarely to anyone. But after our little fight out on the highway, I wasn't looking forward to being trapped inside any building that could be related to the Spanish/Arabic boy sitting beside me. "I really should be getting home to get ready."

Joshua was already getting out of the car, not leaving me room to argue, as I was learning he never did. "It's seven," he said simply.

"But, Joshua—"

The car door slammed behind him. Damn! I looked down at myself. How was I supposed to go in there like this, dressed in turquoise scrubs with little teddy bears printed on them? I tugged a hand through my hair, which was thankfully short but at the same time tousled and matted, not to mention the several dead leaves and twigs I pulled out. It wouldn't be that long of a walk home, only three miles. I would arrive home just in time to shower and change into my Barbie's uniform, then turn around and head out the door.

My car door opened with Joshua standing on the other side, ending my mental protests. I looked up at him, holding out an open-palmed hand to me, his face entirely blank.

Breathing out heavily and averting my gaze, I unbuckled my seatbelt and stepped out of the Ferrari, ignoring the proffered hand.

"Fine," he snapped, then spun on his heel and headed for the enormous house.

I wondered if I was supposed to follow or if he expected me to turn around and walk home. Somehow I was driven forward, though, following in his wake without knowing what had possessed me. A subconscious part of me just wanted to piss him off, because that part of me never knew when to call it quits, and obviously it was a large enough part of me that I would listen to it without much consideration of my other options. Of course there was the logical voice in my brain screaming at me to turn tail and get the hell out of there, but lately I'd grown so accustomed to doing the complete opposite of its bidding that I was spurned faster. I caught up to Joshua before he reached the main entrance. He looked a little surprised at first, and I wondered again if he had meant for me to walk home, or if he'd been simply as curious as me to see which direction my pride commanded me.

We didn't speak as we stepped onto the porch and strolled over to the front door. Joshua extracted his keychain from a back pocket of his long beige shorts. He flipped through the first several keys on the circlet, an instant later apparently locating the one he wanted and stuck it in the lock, twisting it to the right. Then he shoved the door open and I was greeted by a blast of cold air, unmistakably scented with French vanilla.

"Cold," muttered Joshua, folding his arms over his chest and stepping into the house.

He looked to his left and right. Stepping inside after him, I saw it was a long corridor. A very long corridor, actually, with a high ceiling, which split off at least a couple ways before opening at the very end into what I assumed to be a very large room. There was no grand staircase in my immediate sight, which oddly disappointed me. What was the point of having a house this big if there was no grand staircase with those long, smooth wooden banisters to slide down in the early mornings?

"Hello?" Joshua called into the depths of the corridor, striding forward and looking into each hallway that split off from the entryway corridor. Not the subtlest guy even at 7am, is he? "Jacob? Joseph? Yo! Somebody answer me!" He looked back at me with a crooked grin. "A guy could go crazy living here," he said.

I looked away, busying myself with closing the door behind me.

"Whatever," I heard Joshua say. "Wait here, Em. I'm going to go find them. You can wander around, just try not to get lost. I lose all sense of direction in this place, so I probably won't find you until sometime next month."

When I looked up again, he was gone.

Tentatively, I shuffled a few steps forward. He did say I could explore, so long as I didn't go far.

The floors were all hard dark cedar, the walls scarlet with cedar borders, and there were expensive rugs allover, assumedly hand-woven and perhaps Moroccan. I checked down the first hallway, which wasn't half as long as I expected it to be and appeared to curve around out of sight at the end, presumably connecting with another corridor like the entryway. There were three doors, two on one side and one on the other. All the doors were closed. I tried the next hallway, and it was a mirror of the first only there were four doors, two on one side and two on the other. The far right door was ajar, and I crept toward it, furtively checking over my shoulder, feeling like a burglar.

I should have been looking ahead of me, I learned fast when the door flew open before I'd reached it and out stepped an expensively dressed woman.

Note to self: Next time, go after the closed doors.

The outfit itself wasn't all that posh, being a simple white-on-black pinstriped dress suit worn with dark nylons, though the open-toed black high heels were stylish all by themselves. What made the outfit expensive was that it was so obviously designer-labeled that I didn't bother estimating its exact price. A diamond necklace dangled from her throat, probably to match the triple-layered diamond bracelet, not to mention the dangling diamond earrings. There were two rings on her left hand's ring-finger, but other than that her hands were unburdened. It took me a moment to realize the woman was elderly, her sleek, black hair pulled back into a loose bun at the nape of her neck, dappled with gray. Her eyes were round and so brown they looked black. She had a mostly unwrinkled face, though how she managed it under a Moroccan sun I didn't know. Perhaps I had been dazzled by all that money.

She saw me before I saw her.

Immediately she was screaming in some foreign language. I knew some Spanish, so that wasn't it. It almost sounded French, but I knew French from the four years Christine and I took of it in high school. Not nearly as much French as I should know after four years, but enough to know right now that this woman wasn't speaking it. So... Arabic?

I never claimed to be much of a linguist.

"Mama?" said a voice behind me, not quite Joshua's.

I spun around and Jacob was there at the end of the hallway. I identified him by the long, tousled chestnut brown hair that hung unabashed to his broad shoulders.

He blinked at me. "Emily?"

Then he saw the screaming woman behind me and that was the last word I understood. He started speaking fast Arabic, or whatever, as he strode purposely forward and stopped beside me. I tried to keep track of the conversation by watching his hand gestures. First he signaled at himself with his thumb, then at me, and then made some settling down motions, and when those didn't work he slung an arm around my middle and with his freehand continued pointing to himself.

Abruptly, the woman stopped screaming. Her voice was crisp and cold, and when I turned back to her she was glaring at me so hatefully that I felt like running. I pressed my side against Jacob's, feeling her attempts to intimidate me take effect.

"Joshua invited me in," I murmured. Jacob looked down at me and I looked down at the rug beneath us. "I tried to tell him I had to be home to get ready for work. He said it would only take a minute, and I was curious anyway, so I caved in. He went to find you guys, and said I could explore. I didn't break in, if that's what she thinks."

"That is what she thinks," Jacob said, his usual calm, cool, and slightly spaced-out self. "I told her you're Joshua's girlfriend."

"Am not," I spat out too quickly.

He smiled for the first time I'd ever witnessed, inside school or out of it. I'd seen him laugh at the carnival, but not smile. It was oddly comforting, and when added with the way he squeezed my middle just then, I half-hoped he'd never let go. At least not in front of the crazy old woman.

"Sure," he said. Then he looked to the woman again and spoke another language. To me, he added, "Emily, this is my grandmother. She only understands a handful of English, so don't bother with greetings. Just bow your head like a good peasant and all will be well."

He said something else entirely to the woman.

In the meantime, I bowed my head like a good peasant.

Soon after, the woman said something to Jacob in her other language. Then she departed, brushing past us down the hall. I nearly collapsed against Jacob with relief. Thankfully, he didn't right away take his arm from around me.

"That," I said, looking up at him, "was scary."

He smiled again, briefly. "She has that affect on most people. Are you fighting with Joshua?"

The abrupt change in topic made my head spin.

"What?" Then the question registered and my temper flared. I straightened from against Jacob, shoving his arm from around me. "Is that what he said?" I snarled quietly, checking behind me, but the intimidating woman had gone. "That ass! He started it—"

"I'll take that as a yes," Jacob cut me off. He took my hand gently and started leading me down the hall, back the way we had come. I fell into step beside him because I didn't know where else to go, and I didn't want another scary elderly person popping out and screaming at me. "Anyway, you should get over it."


"Josh is upset because our grandparents are here, whom he despises with a passion and they despise him, and he was taking his aggression out on you," Jacob continued almost lazily, yet without pause. "The reason he brought you here at all is that he was already supposed to have been here to come with us to the airport, to greet our grandparents. He was two hours late." We reached the end of the hall, turned, and I soon lost track of all the hallways we passed through before reaching a set of disappointingly normal stairs. We started up them. "Wherever you both were, it must have been on the way, or else I'm sure he would have dropped you off first."

"How would you know I was with—"

"I don't know. I'm guessing."

"Why are you—"

"Whatever Josh said, just get over it and forgive him. Josh has problems apologizing. You've probably noticed."

"Stop interrupting me!" I shouted, startling myself with my volume. Jacob smiled briefly to himself. "You know," I continued, voice lowered, "in your own way you're pretty irritating."

"In your own way, you're pretty easily irritated. In here," he added, not giving me a chance to protest as he steered me inside a room.

It was a bedroom. The carpet was blue, the walls light green, the sheets of the queen-sized bed gray. There was a giant aquarium in one corner of the room, and by giant I meant huge, with a baby tiger shark zooming around inside. I pointed at it, my mouth agape, and Jacob again smiled. I was already getting sick of his smiles. A huge doublewide window was on the opposite side of the room from the aquarium, and a moment later I realized they weren't windows but doors leading out onto the back patio. There was a walk-in closet with the door ajar, three large bookcases along the walls filled with variously sized texts, and a ping-pong table set up in the middle of the room.

We bypassed all of this, and headed for the window/doors that led out onto the glassed-in patio. Jacob half-tugged, half-pushed me through the doors. The patio was surprisingly carpeted, in gray, and about three times as large as the bedroom, which was saying something because the bedroom itself had been about half the size of the Windsor house. The patio's walls were all lightly tinted glass, looking down into the town of Mapleton. There were several arcade games and three desks, and then a small, round card table in the center of the room, which looked the most out of place. There were three luxury chairs made of black leather set up around it, and in two of them was Joshua and Joseph. They were eating breakfast: Belgian waffles, extra crispy hash browns drenched in ketchup, and an assortment of fruit. There were several clear glasses of what appeared to be orange juice as well as a couple with milk scattered about the table in no particular order, with no particular owner as Joseph reached across Joshua in order to take a glass of milk he'd been drinking from and chug it down. Joshua looked indignant, but then he saw me and went blank.

"The shark is Ziggy," Jacob said lazily as he half-tugged, half-shoved me over to the table. I wondered how he knew I'd been wondering. "His mom was killed by some activists in the zoo, you probably heard about it in the news. They managed to save Ziggy, but thought it best to hide him away for a while. Josh heard about it and begged me to take him because Josh is a big shark fan, so I adopted him. Josh's room is too crowded for the aquarium, and he sucks at responsibility anyway. Once Ziggy outgrows the tank, he'll go back to the zoo. The bedroom was mine." Then we stood beside the table. Jacob left me to stand where I was while he slid into the final luxury chair.

Joseph grinned up at me and said, "And this is the Amado triplets' den. Boys only. Not even the maid is allowed in here, so consider this an honor."

I looked around at the three of them, feeling the testosterone in the air. This wasn't a place for girls. I wanted out of there, now.

"Um…" I replied intelligently. "Thanks?"

Joshua reached out to me, expression remaining blank. Feeling my face flash hot and scowling because of it, I accepted his hand. He pulled me closer, until I had been pulled down onto his lap. Joseph and Jacob acted as if they were used to this sort of thing and busied themselves with eating everything in sight.

"Breakfast," Joshua murmured in my ear. "Vegetarian-friendly." He lifted a strawberry to my lips. "Eat."

I looked behind me and considered what Jacob had said.

Then I grinned. "Your grandmother is completely bonkers." Saying this, I ducked my head and accepted the strawberry between my lips, still watching him.

Joshua finally grinned back, already reaching around me for more food. "What happened?" he asked.

I told it from my point of view, and Joseph joined in his brother's laughter. Even Jacob was snickering softly as he reminisced.

Jacob added at one point, voice soft, almost mumbling, "It was Arabic, but she speaks French and Spanish also. Most Moroccans can, I think. Morocco was under French rule for a long time. It was a required subject to learn in school."

"Our Jacob the scholar," said Joseph, raising a glass of milk to his long-haired twin. "Not only does he speak fluent Spanish, Arabic, and English, but French and Italian as well. Bravo, brother dear."

Grinning for once, Jacob tipped a glass of orange juice back.

By the end of my story, I was actually eating on my own. It'd been ages since I had waffles, and there was syrup of all kinds, all of which I insisted on trying, even when the boys tried to stop me. Soon, my awareness of all the male testosterone wore off and I was actually comfortable in the Amado triplets' den. I forgot for a moment that I had ever been Christine King's best friend and we had spent eleven years hating these three young men.

"Shit!" said Joshua abruptly some time later as he launched out of his chair, nearly sending me sprawling except that his arm remained around my waist. I looked up at him with a glare, but he was looking at something on a wall behind me. "It's ten o'clock!"

The blood drained out of my face, I could feel it.

I punched Joshua in the shoulder. "You stupid ass!" I snarled at him. "I told you I had to be to work at nine!"

"I lost track of time!" he shouted back. "Haven't you punched me enough for today?"

"Aren't they cute?" Joseph asked Jacob.

"Perfect couple," Jacob replied coolly, but I noticed looking at me solemnly.

Something about his look or tone should have bugged me, but by then Joshua grabbed my hand and was sprinting for a different door than the one Jacob had led me through. I got a glimpse of white carpet, orange walls, and a dark blue bedspread, not to mention a lot of clutter that was mostly exercise equipment, before I was pulled out of the room and down a hallway that looked like every other hallway I'd been through this morning. Within forty seconds we were outside, running down the porch steps, down to the Ferrari parked in the driveway. Somewhere, I could hear Joseph hollering encouragement.

Joshua and I had hardly hit the seats in his Ferrari when the engine roared to life and he was throwing it in reverse.

"Put on your seatbelt!" I snapped before he hit the gas. He looked at me, eyes wide with disbelief, and then scowled and did as bid.

We shot back out of the driveway.

Six minutes later, the Ferrari screeched to a stop in front of the Windsor's humble abode. It looked smaller than it was after being inside the Amado's castle.

"I'll wait here," Joshua said as I hopped out of the car.

I nodded absently, not really hearing, and sprinted up the front steps, disappearing through the front door. I dismissed any thoughts of a shower and lathered on deodorant, ran a comb through my hair, once again grateful for its being so short, and got dressed in my Barbie's uniform at record speed. I forgot my skates and had to double-back for them. Then I forgot my shoes entirely but kept going. I'd almost run right past the Ferrari idling in front of the house. It hadn't moved an inch since I'd left it, and it was still running. I hopped in without a second thought and after exchanging mildly surprised grins with Joshua, we raced off.

Two minutes later, the Ferrari screeched to a stop in front of Barbie's Bopping Diner.

In the rush of the moment, not knowing what I was doing, I leaned over and took Joshua's face in my hands, kissing him full on the lips. When I pulled back a second later, we looked at each other in shock. I pulled my hands away quickly.

"Sorry," I said, and scrambled out of the car.

I hopped out, shut the door behind me, and ran inside the diner without a backwards glance.

Avery Cardell was waiting for me.