"We're moving to Linbury," Dad had announced, three weeks after my half-brother Neil died and our world fell apart. "We need a fresh start."
I had agreed. My life was a mess: my family didn't stop fighting, my friends and my boyfriend didn't know what to do or say around me anymore, and my stepmother was like a little child who'd lost a favorite toy. But I didn't think Linbury was the ideal place for a fresh start. My boyfriend Curtis had once described it as the Beverly Hills of New Jersey: a small town with nothing but gigantic houses, spoilt rich kids, Mercedes convertibles, and fancy private schools for miles. It was worlds apart from Manhattan, the big city I'd been born and brought up in. It had enormous white mansions atop rolling hills, antiseptic gardens that were cleaned and pruned within an inch of their lives, perfect-looking residents, and greenery that was so lush and so fresh that it made me feel like a dirty old tramp.
But it was the place my father's hospital had transferred him to, and it was where we moved a week after Dad's announcement, before I had a chance to talk to Curtis or my best friend Rachael. Although I doubted we'd have been able to talk properly anyway, because they'd begun to treat me like a stranger. They'd never in their lives experienced anything but normality, and by then, I had.
The day everything started, I was at Big Happy Family, the bakery in Linbury Airport I'd taken up a job waitressing at to pay for my books and clothes and Beethoven CDs. I'd taken a bus to the airport, walked inside the bakery, slipped into the staff toilets, and stopped in front of the sinks. The walls of the toilet were a dull green, but Jazz, my eighteen-year-old coworker, had dyed her hair neon yellow and the colour brightened up the room.
"Hey," Jazz said. "You're late, Sum. What's the excuse? Vicious dogs chasing you in Romania?"
I smiled. Jazz didn't know much about me, which was what I liked most about her.
"Something like that," I said, slipping on my apron over my denim shorts. "Nice tongue stud," I added, as Jazz made faces in the mirror.
"Hey, gotta have something new for the guys at Linbury Public," Jazz said, shrugging. "They expect that." She rubbed her hands together gleefully. "Senior year! Can you believe it? One more year with the locker graffiti and teachers who use too much hair gel, and then I'm out. Florida, baby!"
I eyed Jazz. She was wearing a hideous multicolored poncho that clashed heavily with her sweatpants and her frizzy yellow hair, and a sign on her back that said 'Mary-Jane Cohen'. Where the nickname Jazz came from, I didn't know. Sometimes Jazz reminded me of my Hadley, but without the attitude and the drinking that had been customary for my stepsister ever since we'd lost Neil.
"What do you think?" Jazz flourished her arms. "The poncho's cool, isn't it? Makes me look like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz."
"You're weird," I couldn't resist saying.
"Yeah, but I'm still cool, right?" Jazz smiled brightly. "Okay, kid, get out there and serve people their food. There's millions starving outside while we admire ourselves."
Not exactly. Big Happy Family was almost deserted – there was just a family with a small girl by the counter and a guy with his head bent over a book at a table at the back of the room. Androvich, the other waiter, had supplied the family with cakes and lemonade. I headed for the guy.
"Hey," I said, flashing my professional Big Happy Family smile.
He raised his head. He was, I noted distantly, extremely hot – long lanky body in tight black jeans that went on forever over long legs, a black leather jacket over a white t-shirt that showed off tight abs, messy dark hair that fell into dark eyes with the longest eyelashes I'd ever seen on a guy. And a scowl that was even more prominent than the rest of his lean face.
I sneaked a glance at the book he was bent over, reading. The cover told me that it was Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. And I'd thought I was the only teenager in America to have read that.
"What?" he snarled, annoyance written all over his features.
I took a step back, startled by the venom in his tone. There were things about my job I liked – Jazz, being at the airport, the fact that the bakery was deserted enough for us to have plenty of free time. But among the things I didn't like, rude customers who thought they were always right was at the top of the list, with the fact that we had to be nice to them coming a close second.
"What can I get you?" I said evenly, refusing to display offence at his tone.
He looked me up and down, the scowl giving way to a smirk. "A hotter waitress would be a good start."
I felt my eyebrows rise involuntarily. The jackass. The rude, arrogant jackass.
Except I didn't really care. My life had been torn apart a few months ago. An arrogant jackass taking out his bad mood on me wasn't going to be able to break my heart.
"I'm really sorry," I said lightly, offering a professional high-wattage smile to hide my thoughts. "We're out of stock for that. We do have cakes, though. And sandwiches. And coffee. Maybe you want some of that?"
His eyes dropped back down to his book. "A big fat coffee with all the milk and sugar you have." Funny, he seemed like the type to eschew milk and sugar and go for the blackest of black coffees.
"One tall regular with milk and sugar coming right up." My cheery tone sounded too fake, probably because it was. I walked back to the counter. Jazz was standing behind it, her gaze fixed on the rude customer, a strange expression on her round, open face.
"What's up?" I asked, adding sugar to the coffee I'd poured out.
"That guy's a fucking son of a bitch," Jazz said under her breath.
I looked at her, surprised that she felt so strongly about some random guy with a stick up his ass. "He's just a jerk," I said carefully.
"Zach Gellar isn't just anything." Jazz turned away abruptly. When she spoke again, her voice was as cheerful as usual. "Hey, you want to get that old dude who just came in? He looks like he could use some lemonade."
I bit my lip. There was a mystery here. I didn't want to probe into whatever it was that Jazz didn't want to talk about, but I couldn't help wanting to know more. I'd always been a sucker for secrets.
"Zach Gellar," I said cautiously. "That's his name?"
Jazz looked at me and let out a sigh. "You're going to start at Thornton Academy in September, right?"
"Yeah…" I wiped my hands on the rag by the counter. I had applied to Thornton, which was a private school ten minutes away from my new house, and to Lincoln Central, which was over in the next town. Both had accepted me, thanks to my grades and carefully-chosen extracurricular activities in Woodhouse High, but Thornton had offered me a scholarship that covered three-fourths of my tuition. "Registration is this afternoon."
"Well, be careful there," Jazz said quietly.
I glanced up sharply. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, be careful," said Jazz, arranging sandwiches on a plate. "Everything's going to seem just perfect there at first, okay? Beautiful and nice and tidy and well-ordered. But it isn't. At all."
How did she know? What was she hiding? I wanted to know, but I wasn't sure if I could ask. I wasn't Rachael, the girl who'd been my best friend back in the city. I didn't know how to intrude on people's privacy without offending them.
"I still don't get what you mean," I said instead.
Jazz fixed me with a gaze that was unusually serious for a bubbly, warm-hearted girl with dyed neon-yellow hair. "Just be careful." She paused for a long time. "And you'll see what I mean when you get there."
Decidedly ominous. But I was sure that whatever happened, I could handle it.
I went for registration at Thornton Academy right after my shift ended. It had been established by Lord William Jameson IV, a British army general, in 1739, as a military training ground for young boys; it had become a boarding school for white Americans in 1801, and had eventually transformed into a co-educational day school that was one of the most prestigious ones in the country in the 1950s. Now it had the pick of the brightest, richest, WASPiest kids and teachers on the East Coast, and standing outside it that sunny August morning, I wasn't at all sure what I was doing there.
The red brick main building was covered in ivy and surrounded by acres of lush green land. Towering black iron gates with a gold-plated plaque reading 'THORNTON ACADEMY' separated the long gravel pathway to the school from the main road outside. I had to flash my learner's permit as identification and have my picture taken by a small security camera atop the gates before the surly security guard opened a tiny door in one side of the wall and let me through. I felt even more intimidated once inside; I would never fit in here.
"Are you new?" The male voice came from behind me. I whirled to face a tall athletic-looking guy with curly brown hair, friendly brown eyes, and an innocent face. He was very cute in a boyish, easy way, but what really struck me about him was that he looked kind. Kindness, judging from the way immaculately-dressed strangers on the streets smirked at my clothes and from the rude asshole's comment at Big Happy Family in the morning, was not the prevalent character trait of people in Linbury.
"Yeah," I said cautiously.
"I thought so," the guy said, offering a frank smile. I was decidedly not single, but I couldn't help liking that smile. "I mean, I know pretty much everyone here – I'm a senior and on the Student Council and all – and I've never seen you before." He wiped his right palm on his worn blue jeans and reached out to shake my hand. "I'm Chris."
"Summer Ward," I said formally, allowing myself to smile politely back.
It was a Thornton tradition that during Registration, the principal met each and every student individually to give them their schedules and impart choice words of wisdom. This was why Registration went on for about a week, since he or she couldn't meet all four hundred and eighty students at one go. I had already been nervous about it, and seeing Chris didn't make things any better. He looked so comfortable standing there, as if he belonged and knew he did.
The tourist brochures called Linbury 'a kind of paradise'. If that was the case, then paradise wasn't very welcoming.
"So which grade are you in?" Chris asked as I looked around uncertainly, trying to figure out which path to take to get to the administration building, located half a mile away from the main school building.
"Starting sophomore year," I responded, feeling impatient. I didn't have time to stand around talking idly to some rich boy who was probably just being friendly out of pity, no matter how nice he looked. "Could you please tell me where the principal's office is?"
"Sure," Chris said. "In fact, I can take you there. I'm going there myself."
I shrugged reluctantly and followed him down the walkway. Gigantic trees lined each side, and in one corner of the manicured lawns was a marble fountain. Chris kept up a running commentary as I fell into step beside him. "The stables are behind that pond, along with the tennis and basketball courts. The football, soccer, athletics, field hockey, and lax fields are over there. There's an indoor gym and a swimming pool inside the school building. See that glass building over there? That's the greenhouse. The kitchen is just a few steps away from that." I already knew all of that from the brochures, but I let him talk; if he did, I wouldn't have to, and if I didn't have to, there would be no risk of me blurting out my secrets to him. Not that I would anyway – but I didn't want to take any chances.
"Well, here we are," Chris said finally, pushing open a glass door of a smaller red brick building. Inside was a soft-carpeted room with mahogany furniture, wooden walls, a buttery leather couch against a wall from which hung a painting, a desk behind which sat a platinum-blonde skinny woman, and a wooden door leading to the principal's inner sanctum. One of the most gorgeous girls I had ever seen sat on the leather couch.
"Christopher Raymond Fitzgerald!" the girl shrieked, jumping off the couch to fling her slender tanned arms around my companion's neck. She drew back, a seductive smile on her full, pouty, highly-glossed mouth. She was tall and curvy, with glossy black hair cascading in a straight waterfall down to her lightly-freckled red-halter-top-clad shoulder and gleaming long-lashed dark eyes. "I've missed you so much!"
"That's good to know, Roxanne," Chris laughed, gently disentangling her arms from his neck. I did a quick mental assessment. Jazz, who mysteriously knew quite a lot about Thornton, had told me a little bit about the students after Zach Gellar had left the bakery, and Roxanne Vivienne Cartwright's name had cropped up quite often. This gorgeous girl, I realized, was Roxanne, Principal Cartwright's daughter and the undisputed Queen of the school. Evidently, Chris – Christopher Raymond Fitzgerald, Roxanne had called him – was popular enough to be good friends with her.
Neither of them paid any attention to me, which suited me just fine. I sat down on a chair by the door and waited for whoever was closeted with the principal to come out so that I could have my turn.
"How was riding camp up in Maine, Chris?" Roxanne was asking. "You look so tanned and gorgeous. I would so consider hitting on you if you weren't taken by one of my best friends."
I'd been wondering whether Chris was gay – in my experience, no straight guy was as nice as he had been to strangers, unless the stranger was five foot six, blond, and female enough to have breasts like Pamela Anderson's. I had my answer now: he had a girlfriend.
"I'm flattered," said Chris, grinning. "Where've you been, Roxy?"
"Oh, you know – Paris, Venice, a week in Rome – it's all so blah." Roxanne waved a dismissive hand. "I'm kind of sick of all that crap. Next year, I'm going to Hawaii. Or even Miami. Europe is so done – I swear, there were so many Americans trying to look French when they were dressed in shit from The Gap, I wanted to set off an atomic bomb or something."
"You're such a snob," Chris teased good-naturedly.
"Please, sweetie. I can't help it if I have high standards, can I? Oh my God, Evelyn, hi!"
The door to the principal's office had opened, and a girl even more beautiful than Roxanne was had stepped out. I felt my breath catch with envy in her throat as I took in the sheer beauty of the girl. She was tall and slender, perfectly formed, with lustrous blond hair glistening in the sunlight descending down to her waist and enormous, icy blue eyes. Her flawless skin and chiseled features made her face look graceful and open and sweet but her elegant posture suggested that she was anything but pure and open.
"Roxanne," she said, her tone well-bred, her accent polished, her voice sweet and clear. "Chris. Hello."
"Hello, you moron?" Roxanne gave the beautiful blond girl an affectionate hug. "You see us after eight weeks and that's all you can say to us? What've you been doing in Linbury all by yourself?"
"She went to Atlanta," said Chris, embracing the girl – Evelyn, Roxanne had said her name was – lightly. "Hey, sis."
I felt my jaw drop. The Greek goddess-slash-Ice Queen and nice guy Chris were related?
"Hi, Chris," Evelyn said coolly, kissing him on the cheek. "How was Europe, Roxy?"
"Excruciatingly boring." Roxanne wrapped one arm around Chris and the other around Evelyn and surveyed herself in the mirror opposite them. "All I did was talk about you guys to the girls I met in Spain. She said a gang like ours is stuff storybooks are written about. You know what she named us? The Champagne Gang."
"The Champagne Gang?" Chris echoed, looking amused.
"Hell, yes. We're rich, famous, hot, and hard to imitate. We're like Dom Perignon. Right, Eve?" She nudged Evelyn's waist with her own.
"You sound like a strange commercial, Roxy," said Evelyn. "I'm honoured that you go around telling people in Europe about your friends, though."
Roxanne smiled. "It was because I was missing you guys so much. Remember last summer? We pulled off so much fun shit, but this year...God, all I did was sit around. Well, I guess I should go butter up my father now."
"Summer Ward, you're up after Evelyn Priscilla Fitzgerald," the platinum-blond female – presumably the school secretary – at the desk intoned.
Roxanne raised her thin arched eyebrows and looked at the secretary with disdain. "Excuse me. The last time I checked, my name was Roxanne Cartwright."
The secretary looked intimidated. "I – I'm sorry, Miss Cartwright," she stammered. "But the names on my list say Summer Ward registered first, and then Roxanne Vivienne Cartwright."
"I don't give a fuck about your – who the hell is Summer Ward?" Roxanne said irritably.
"Um." I sat up in my chair, wondering how I could be so invisible to Roxanne when I was sitting just a few feet away from her. Maybe people wearing sneakers and no-name jeans simply didn't register in Roxanne's line of vision. "That's me."
Roxanne swiveled her head around so fast that I regretted having said anything. The last thing I wanted to do, besides attracting attention, was alienate someone as powerful and bitchy as Roxanne Cartwright seemed to be. But I seemed to be doing both already, without even intending to.
"Right," Roxanne said, a sneer forming on her perfect face as she took in my unfashionable clothes and unruly boring brown hair. I wasn't the beauty of my family by any means : I had waist-length hair and boring brown eyes and an average face. "And may I ask where the hell you've come from to take my place on my father's list? Wait, don't tell me. Some shitty small town in Indiana, ri – "
"Hey," Chris interrupted. His pleasant smile had vanished. "Cut it out, Roxanne."
"I beg your pardon?" Roxanne looked at him incredulously.
"She's new," Chris said. He dropped his voice, but I could still hear every word he said. I bit my lip anxiously. "Cut her some slack."
"What's with the knight-in-shining-armor act, Christopher?" Roxanne hissed. "Do you even know her?"
"It doesn't matter, does it?" There was scorn in Eve's light, high voice. "We all know what a nice, chivalrous guy my brother is."
I swallowed uncomfortably. It was interesting to see that my family didn't seem to be the only one suffering from extreme tension, but it was beyond horrible to be stuck in the middle of some kind of internal power play the trio seemed to be having. "You know what? I don't really care. You can go first."
"Summer Ward?" The door to the principal's office opened and Principal Cartwright looked out. He was a short, thin, distinguished-looking man with hair graying at the temples wearing an impeccable designer-looking suit. "Is she here?"
"I'm here," I said softly, trying to compress myself into the smallest area of space available.
"No, she isn't." Roxanne flung me an angry glance. "Daddy, I've been waiting here for like an hour. You've got to see me first."
"Don't make a scene, Roxanne," said Principal Cartwright quietly. He appraised me thoughtfully. "Miss Ward. If you would just step into my office."
I didn't dare to disobey him. "Chris, do you like that creature or something?" I heard Roxanne demand as the door closed behind her and Principal Cartwright. "You have a girlfriend, you know. That girl - she probably lives in Rochester Cottage or something."
Roxanne's guess was correct. I knew Rochester Cottage was several classes below the rest of the enormous, elaborate, expensive houses crowning Rochester Lane. In the colonial days, it had been occupied by groups of servants working in the other houses. All things considered, I could understand why she sounded so disgusted.
"Good morning, Miss Ward," said Principal Cartwright. "Have a seat."
I forced a smile as I absorbed my surroundings. The principal's office at my old school had been a tiny room on the top floor of a red-brick building, with puce green walls, a frayed old carpet on the floor, and a bright maroon chair behind a plastic gray desk. Principal Cartwright's office was a spacious study with polished wooden walls and floors, a soft carpet on the floor, and priceless paintings adorning the walls. There were magnificent curios scattered around the room – a silver-topped table with a gleaming golden statue of the Buddha on it, a tasteful golden lamp, an antique-looking desk behind which the principal sat on a plush armchair.
"'Morning," I said uncomfortably, perching on the edge of a low silk-sheet-covered divan in front of his desk.
"Welcome to Thornton Academy," he said kindly, holding out his hand.
"Thanks." I shook his hand for politeness' sake and pulled it back immediately.
"Miss Ward, I see you have excellent references from Woodhouse High. Very good grades, on the school newspaper – are you inclined towards journalism?"
"Not really." I licked my lips nervously, staring at the painting behind his head. An original by some Renaissance artist, I bet. "I just liked it more than the other extracurricular activities at Woodhouse – the choices were kind of limited."
"I see," said Principal Cartwright. "Well, Thornton is the opposite. We offer plenty of choices. It's compulsory to join a sports team, and we have a Student Council, a newspaper, a literary magazine, and the yearbook committee, of course, but we also have Drama, Debate, Nature, Feng Shui, sewing, accounting, flower-arranging, and Art Clubs. To name a few."
"Great," I said politely, not sure why he needed to tell me that. I'd seen it in the brochures.
"Miss Ward." He sat up straighter. "I'd like to talk to you about a rather – ahem – difficult topic."
I nodded. In normal circumstances, I would have said, "Go ahead," but it somehow seemed disrespectful to say that to Principal Cartwright.
"You're a scholarship student, with the Daniella Phillips Scholarship covering about three-fourths of your tuition."
I wished I could raise my eyebrows as expressively as Roxanne had. Instead, I settled for saying, "Yes, but I don't see why – "
"Please, let me finish. Here at Thornton Academy we pride ourselves on – equality, but I'm afraid some of our students are not very – sensitive. They might have some trouble accepting you as one of them, at first. Now, you and I both know that you wouldn't be here if you weren't worthy of this school, but they don't."
I nodded again. I liked his honesty, the way he'd gone straight to the point. So many people would have just hedged about and expressed themselves in insulting hints and insinuations.
"I would like to ask you – are you ready for all the trouble they might cause you?"
I frowned. "Excuse me. I see why they might not accept me as one of their friends, but I don't see why they would want to cause me any trouble."
"Let me be honest with you, Miss Ward. Children can be brutal. I'm sure you know that. If they think that you don't have a right to be here, then they're going to do all they can to make sure that you don't remain here."
I placed my palms on my lap. "All right."
He observed me critically for a second. "If you can – as they say – stick it out here, you might get an immense lot out of Thornton. I believe you have some potential. If you're willing to work hard and develop a thick skin, I think we can do quite a bit for you. But I ask you – are you willing?"
I considered. I could say honestly that I wasn't, and walk out of the room and go back to Manhattan. But I knew that was just a fantasy. I wasn't going to disappoint my father, and I wasn't going to disappoint Principal Cartwright. At least, not yet. Besides, how bad could things get? "Yes," I said quietly.
"All right then, Miss Ward, I'll let you go." He handed me a thick folder. "Your schedule is in here, along with your map of the school and a list of everything you need to buy. You know we have six school houses – Cartwright, Thornton, Jameson, Humphrey, Dean, and Galloway. You're in Cartwright, which makes me your house master and an advisor of sorts. I'll see you on the second of September." He gestured towards the door. "I see you've already met my daughter and her friends."
I couldn't hide a wry smile. "Yes, sir."
He smiled back, looking half-amused. "Be careful. And good luck, Miss Ward."
I smiled stiffly, thinking that I was going to need all the luck I could get.
Roxanne sprang up from her couch as I exited the principal's office. Chris and Eve were nowhere to be seen. I felt a pang of apprehension, but to my surprise, Roxanne walked straight up to me and gave me a friendly smile. "Hey. I'm Roxanne. Chris said your name was Samantha."
"Summer," I corrected, then wished I hadn't.
"Right. Summer. Listen, I'm sorry if I wasn't too gracious about letting you go in first – "
"It's fine," I cut her off. I didn't trust Roxanne, and I was certain the dark-haired sex goddess had an agenda for apologizing.
"No, it isn't," Roxanne persisted. "I really feel bad. You're new, and we must have given you such a bad idea of this place. I want to make it up to you."
"Right…" I looked at her suspiciously. But as hard as I looked, Roxanne's angelic smile gave nothing away.
"We're having a little end-of-summer reunion at Rochester Park tomorrow evening. Me and my friends. It would be nice if you could come, Summer."
"It's Christopher's idea," Roxanne added. "Think about it, all right? Nine-fifteen, the park."
Christopher's idea. Chris seemed like a genuinely nice, trustworthy guy. Besides, there was no harm in at least pretending to accept Roxanne's invitation. "All right," I said reluctantly.
"Great. I'll see you then. Oh, and Summer. Don't wear sneakers."
She pushed past me and disappeared into the principal's office.
That night, I couldn't sleep. I was too busy worrying about Principal Cartwright's vague, cryptic warnings. At seven in the morning, I decided to give up on sleep and go downtown for coffee instead. It was a nice morning; orange and yellow and a few green leaves crowned the sidewalks, the wind was pleasantly cold, and it felt and smelled like the beginning of a crisp fall. The nearest Starbucks was by Lincoln River. Conveniently, it was the kind of day that was perfect for a walk along the river.
I got my coffee and sat down on one of the picnic tables scattered around the riverside. I was used to the hustle and bustle of the city, and the quiet and emptiness was a pleasant change. The peace felt good. Sipping my espresso, I felt surprisingly good.
"Oh, God. Oh, God." The moan floated over from just a few feet away.
Glancing over was an automatic reflex action, and I wasn't prepared for what I saw. Linbury wasn't the type of town that promoted public displays of affection. Yet, on a red-and-white checked picnic blanket spread over the grass, were a guy and a girl, all but swallowing each other's tongues.
For a moment, the bottom dropped out of my stomach as I thought of Curtis, my boyfriend back in Manhttan. I missed him so keenly that the pain was almost physical. I reached for my cell phone, fiddling with the speed-dial menu, trying frantically to remember his number.
The guy raised his head, and I glanced away from the phone, distracted. More and more, Linbury was turning out to be Hottie Central.
This guy on the picnic blanket was off-the-scale gorgeous. He had long, fine dark blond hair; he had the kind of sharp, chiseled, beautiful face that would have had Rachael panting with longing the moment she saw it; even from the distance, I could make out the piercing intensity of the smirk he wore; and to top it all off, he had a perfectly-sculpted, broad-shouldered body that could rival any male stripper's…
Shit. I couldn't believe that I'd let some stranger, however handsome he was, sidetrack my attention from my longtime boyfriend. What was wrong with me?
The girl on the blanket pulled the guy down on top of her, and then rolled slightly onto her side. I recognized the shiny dark hair and the lightly-freckled shoulder encased in a strapless white top. Triple shit. It was Roxanne Cartwright having a moment that was probably…private. A moment that she would probably kill me for witnessing.
I got to my feet fast enough to break my ankle and took off in the opposite direction with speed I hadn't even known I possessed. Without realizing where I was going, I charged into Starbucks again and skidded to a stop by the counter, peering frantically outside to check if Roxanne or the gorgeous guy was anywhere around.
"Back already?" The girl behind the counter at Starbucks grinned at me. She had a vaguely British accent. "Didn't have you down as a caffeine junkie."
"What?" I looked at her cluelessly. My hands felt clammy.
"Are you okay?" The girl looked concerned.
I took a deep breath, struggling to pull myself together. "I just saw my friend…making out with a guy I don't know."
The girl looked puzzled. I realized that I sounded like some psychotic possessive lesbian stalker and blushed, the words tumbling out of my mouth in a bid to explain myself. "See, this girl, she's a total bitch and she hates me, and the guy she was with is totally gorgeous and…"
"Right," the girl behind the counter cut me off. "Why don't you go ahead and take a seat and try to calm down?"
I nodded. I wasn't the kind of girl who watched porn and read romance novels. Barging in on someone else caught up in a – delicate – moment embarrassed me deeply. And when it was someone I knew – someone who didn't exactly wish me well – then it really, really freaked me out. "That's probably a good idea."
"Yeah." The girl was still studying me suspiciously, so I backed off and crashed into the nearest table. The girl rolled her eyes, and I felt my cheeks flame. What was wrong with me? Things didn't normally faze me quite so much.
"Hi," said a deep voice behind me.
I turned around hastily and crashed into a hot guy with sandy blond hair and piercing green eyes. As in, Roxanne's make-out buddy. As in, the guy on the picnic blanket. As in, the gorgeous guy who'd made me forget about my longtime boyfriend for a few seconds.
"Hi," I squeaked.
He wore chinos and a crumpled white t-shirt he looked indecently good in. He also wore a wide grin that was almost ingratiating. I didn't like it, but I had to admit that it was a hot grin. "You forgot something on the picnic table."
I composed myself and tried my best to look innocent. "I'm sorry. Do I know you?"
"No, you don't." He leaned closer. "I'm trying to change that. A little help would be appreciated."
I needed to get out of this sticky situation without mentioning…where was Roxanne, anyway? "Where's Roxanne?" I blurted.
"Who?" he said with a blank stare.
Was it possible that he didn't know the name of the girl he'd been making out with so vociferously? "The girl you were…" I trailed off and bit my lip in frustration as I realized his motive for looking blank. He'd wanted to make me admit that I'd been watching him on the picnic blanket.
Okay. I inhaled deeply. What did it even matter? I squared my shoulders. I didn't care what he thought of me, because I didn't need him. Or Roxanne.
"What did I forget?" I asked, adopting my most business-like tone.
"How about we do an exchange?" He crossed his arms over his broad, muscular chest.
"What kind of exchange?" I asked suspiciously.
"An exchange of information." He flashed me a dazzling smile, and I obliged his intentions by being dazzled in spite of my best instincts. "You tell me your name, and I'll tell you what you forgot."
I didn't have the time or the inclination to flirt with this guy, hot as he was. "Summer Ward. What did I forget?"
"Something I expect to be thanked for bringing back." He held up something tiny and silver. My cell phone. The essential tool that I needed to contact Curtis and Rachael and everyone else I cared about.
I reached up, snatching it out of his grip. It was easy, because he hadn't been expecting me to. He gave me a look of mock surprise. "Aren't you going to ask me my name?"
Patience was one of my virtues, but I was running out of it now. Who did he think he was? He'd been making out with one of the most gorgeous girls I'd ever seen a few minutes ago; now he was trying to flirt with me. Well, I wasn't falling for it. He was nothing but a cocky, annoying asshole.
"Look, whoever you are." I held up my hand. "Thanks for bringing me back my cell phone, and I'm sorry I made you leave your girlfriend behind, but I really need to leave now."
He was watching me with a small smile on his lips. "My name's Nathan. Nathaniel Alexander Wellington, actually. Your dad probably works for mine. Everybody in this town does."
Was this Roxanne in pants or what? Maybe his easy arrogance would charm the hell out of some other girl, but it wasn't going to work on me. I had a boyfriend I loved, even though he seemed to be afraid of me nowadays, and I had instincts that told me not to trust him. Those two things had always kept me safe from boys who could crush my heart if I got involved with them. "Whatever," I said, starting to move towards the door.
"Listen – Summer."
I turned around. "What?" I said, exasperation seeping into my voice.
"Roxanne isn't my girlfriend. And I need a favor."
"Right." I knew he hadn't been flirting with me just for the heck of it. I wasn't that pretty.
He stepped closer, the charming smile flitting back to his face. "I can already tell you're good at keeping secrets."
"Right." I folded my arms over my chest. "Look…Nathan. Stop trying to butter me up and just tell me what you want." I didn't know where the courage to tell him off was coming from, but I had an inkling it was from the utter impatience pervading my being.
He shrugged. "Hey, just trying to be friendly. But I'll stop if that's what you want." He gave me a calculating look. "Roxanne told me you're starting Thornton."
"Roxanne saw me?" This was worse than I had thought at first. Roxanne hated me already, and she probably hated me even more now. Having the queen of the school loathe me wouldn't exactly be conductive to a successful and happy time at Thornton.
"She saw your shoes." He looked amused as he glanced down at my dirty sneakers.
Go figure. I doubted any of the girls Roxanne and Nathan went to school with ventured out in public without being decked out head-to-toe in designer wear. Belong here I did not.
"I go to Thornton too. I'm a senior. Anyway, Roxanne and I aren't dating. We're just friends." He looked at me with that piercing-eyed gaze. "With benefits."
"Okay…" Why was he telling me that? I hadn't asked, and I didn't want to know.
"And I personally don't care who knows it, but she has a boyfriend she'd like to hold on to for a while, and if I think about it, I honestly don't want all the girls I could maybe fall for someday to look at me, think of Roxanne, and run in the opposite direction."
I bit my lip, starting to get what he was trying to say. "Your point?"
"The point is…" He took a deep breath and flashed me a smile that was sexy enough to make me forget all about Curtis for five seconds again. "She – we – would really appreciate it if you kept what you just saw to yourself."
I was pretty sure the guy was delusional, or plain crazy, or both. He'd been making out with Roxanne in full public view. Anyone could have seen them. And then he'd bothered to run after some sophomore girl he didn't even know, just to ask her not to spread rumours about what she'd seen them doing, even though they'd been doing it in full public view.
Why did he think anybody would believe my word over his? I was new and dorky. He was powerful, rich, gorgeous, and seemed to think he'd been ruling the town forever. Did it have anything to do with Chris? Was it simply that Roxanne didn't want Chris to know, and she thought Chris would believe what I said?
None of it mattered. I'd come here for coffee and peace, not mystery and drama.
"Fine by me," I said, shrugging.
"Great," he said. He leaned even closer and grinned his dazzling grin. "See you around, Summer."
And then he was gone.
Linbury wasn't just Hottie Central; it was also Confusion Central.
I hadn't planned to go to Rochester Park. I didn't need Roxanne and Chris and Nathan and all their secrets and whatever they were hiding. I had Rachael and Curtis in the only place I could truly call home. I had planned to spend the night trying to mend my relationship with them, showing them I was the same girl they'd always known and loved. I wasn't going to chase after a bunch of rich kids with my tongue lolling out of my mouth. I would hang out long-distance with the kids I truly cared about and hadn't talked to for so long.
Except I didn't.
Curtis was out playing basketball, according to his mother, who asked me sympathetically how I was and then seemed offended when I gave her a terse answer. Nobody even picked up the phone at Rachael's house. I wasn't surprised, really. Rachael and I had first bonded over the fact that, in the third grade, we'd been the only two girls in our elementary school who hadn't received Valentine's Day cards, since I'd been the gawky geek with the prettier older sister and she'd been the dweeby new kid from Arkansas. But over the years, things had changed for her – she had become gorgeous and exotic and striking, her body turning long and supple, her dramatic caramel-coloured skin and almond-shaped amber eyes standing out against her high cheekbones, and she'd received twenty-three cards my freshman year, while I'd only received one from Curtis. And although our bond had stuck on, it was undeniable that our ideas of a good time were polar opposites – she liked clubbing, I liked reading. By the end of freshman year, she'd stopped asking me if I wanted to go dancing with her. I had no doubt that she was out with her friends – it was summer, after all.
At nine-thirty, I found myself strolling into Rochester Park. I settled down on one of the swings, looking up at the tree-tops above me. I'd expected balloons, noise, shouts, laughter, something that signified a party or at least a gathering. Instead, all that surrounded me was darkness and a few stars twinkling in the night sky. I presumed they were late, and I waited. And waited. As I did, I thought about the three guys I'd met today – rude, hot Zach Gellar, whom Jazz hated and who seemed to be into reading. Nathan Wellington, who was just as arrogant and hot, but in a completely different way. And Chris Fitzgerald, with his nice smile – but he probably wasn't all that different from the other two.
At ten-thirty, I realized they weren't coming. I should have listened to my instincts about not trusting Roxanne. I got off the swing and walked slowly back to my new house. Damn Linbury and its occupants to hell.
I wanted to go back home.