Chapter Fifteen

"Saving Face"

"Oh for the love of God, it still smells like a freaking funeral parlor in here."

Codi glanced up from her homework and smiled at Aubrey, who had just pushed her bedroom door open. "I kind of like the smell," Codi answered, fingering the rose petals on her desk delicately. "You're just…eh."

"Great description, sis," Aubrey smirked, leaning back against Codi's door. "So. How are you?"

"Fine." Suspicion coated Codi's voice as she peered at Aubrey. "Should I not be?"

A sugary smile lit up Aubrey's face. "You better be. You're coming with me to the Chapmans' house." Moving toward her sister's desk, Aubrey grabbed Codi's arm and pulled her from the seat. "It's a Saturday, you're feeling fine, and you have no excuses. So come with me."

Codi pulled her arm away, wrinkling her brow. "Is something wrong? You really could have asked me before trying physical force. Is there a reason I should protest to going with you?"

"Nope."

Laughing at Aubrey's quickness, Codi shook her head. "Yeah, I just bet." She leaned back over her desk, closing her books and straightening the desktop. "But I'll go, for lack of a good excuse. Why are you going over there?"

"Austin invited me to watch Star Trek with him and his friend," Aubrey explained. "And I didn't want to be the only girl." Codi shot her a weird look, so Aubrey shrugged. "Plus, someone needs to restrain me from attacking Alex, and I actually think you stand a better chance than Austin and his friend. Now, you're not anything special, but we do share genes, so there has to be something brutal in you."

Codi went to her closet, opened the door, and pulled out her favorite Nike pink and white tennis shoes. With her pink long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans, Codi looked casual, and, surprisingly, Aubrey had dressed almost normal—in her favorite green hoodie and Blake's black basketball shorts that fell way past the middle of her calves.

After she'd put her shoes on, Codi followed Aubrey down the hall, down the stairs, and out the front door. "Hey Aub?" she said finally, once she and Aubrey were well on their way to the Chapman home. "You don't like Star Trek, and neither do I. Why were you invited?"

"Austin doesn't like it either," Aubrey supplied cheerfully, a frown on her face. She shrugged and started skipping. "I don't know. It was just something to do."

"Yeah, I guess."

"Why'd you agree if you don't like Star Trek either?"

A blush started creeping up Codi's cheeks, and both girls knew that her motive was Alex. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out, especially after how Codi had gushed to Aubrey about how sweet the 'roses for no reason' had been.

"No, don't answer that," Aubrey directed as the girls approached the Chapman house. She put on her best British accent and said, "I've got a feeling I wouldn't like it in the least, my darling."

Codi smiled her agreement, even if Aubrey didn't see it. "Probably not."

Aubrey walked onto the Chapmans' porch and rang the doorbell. As she waited, she sang under her breath, "And Aubrey was her name…a not so very ordinary girl or name…but who's to blame…"

Shooting her sister an odd glance, Codi rolled her eyes, already growing accustomed to her sister's newfound favorite song that shared her name. After a good thirty seconds, the front door swung open, and Austin appeared in the doorway, smiling at both Aubrey and Codi.

"Hi," he greeted, stepping back and letting the girls come in. "Tucker's getting the popcorn ready. We're all set to finally watch Star Trek."

"It's gonna suck," Aubrey commented offhandedly as she and Codi entered the house and made for the couch. "I've got a sixth sense about this kind of stuff." She paused and grinned. "Plus I've tried watching it before."

Austin laughed. "The Star Wars films are ready as a backup, just in case."

Codi sat down beside Aubrey on the couch in silence. Her eyes swept around the living room, looking at family portraits, and her eyes always seemed to land on Alex's image instantly. His smile brought chills to her.

"You're going to need them," Aubrey said. She tensed briefly when she heard someone approaching, but, fortunately, it was Tucker, not Alex, bringing popcorn. Aubrey decided to try out an Australian accent. "Hello, good mate."

Tucker looked at her oddly and answered bluntly, "I don't know why Austin hangs out with you."

Rolling her eyes, Aubrey gestured toward Codi grandly. "Tucker, this is my sister, Cobra Hair, but she'll answer to Astrid Vermetter, Ruler of Planet Zigoni, or even Queen Shrialla Bombassa of Planet of the Monkeys." Aubrey smirked. "All of that translates to 'Codi' on planet Earth. Cobra Hair, meet Tucker."

Austin laughed, but Tucker made a face. "You really are weird, Aubrey, but…" His eyes swept to Codi. "Nice to meet you."

With a shy smile, Codi gave him a little nod. "You too."

Footsteps pounding down the stairs gave way to Alex Chapman standing at the bottom of the stairs. Codi thought he looked particularly handsome and smiled at him. Appearing surprised, Alex was briefly flustered but quickly smiled back. "Hey."

Aubrey scowled. "Go away, Pretty Boy. You have hair to comb."

Smirking, Alex answered, "Don't worry. I'm on my way out." He paused and tipped his head at Codi, clearly addressing her and only her. "Actually, I'm on my way to a friend's surprise birthday party at Jessica Waverly's house. Why don't you come with me, Codi?"

Extremely taken aback, Codi stared at Alex in blank silence.

"Ew, God, no!" Aubrey protested, twisting her face into a horrified expression. She didn't even have to look at Austin to know that he was also horrified. "We're watching movies, and she's not going anywhere."

Alex ignored Aubrey and walked toward Codi. "It'd give you an opportunity to meet some people, and I can give you a little tour of the area." Alex's smile turned more charming, and he held his hand out to Codi. "What do you say?"

"No way!" Aubrey answered for her, shoving Alex's hand aside.

Codi shot Aubrey a glance and stood up quickly. "That's, um, act-actually a sweet offer," she sheepishly said. "Um, if it w-won't be an inconvenience…I'd love to go."

Aubrey's eyes widened to an enormous size, and the splitting headache she was getting from exposure to Pretty Boy made it impossible for her to listen to Codi chatting with Alex. Instead, she focused on how she'd violently murder Alex. Turning to the side, Aubrey's eyes met Austin's, and she saw his horrified expression confirmed. Oh, this was the last thing that Aubrey expected.

Even after Alex and Codi had disappeared, Austin kept staring at Aubrey with a mixture of horror, anger, and shock on his face. With Aubrey's composure, she merely looked back at him with a straight face, waiting for him to go psycho and curse Alex's very existence as he so tended to do.

But it didn't come. So Aubrey took the liberty of speaking first. "Well. More popcorn for us, huh?"

"I hate him!" Austin predictably snapped, almost making Aubrey laugh. He began to pace angrily, wringing his hands in frustration. "What the hell am I supposed to do to get that girl to notice me instead?"

Tucker rolled his eyes. "Talk to her?"

Rounding on him, Austin looked very much like he could throttle his best friend, and if one asked Aubrey, she would have said he could've been the second atomic bomb. But apparently choosing to ignore Tucker, Austin turned to Aubrey, glaring. "Do you know anything about your sister? You said that flowers were overrated! And Alex gave them to her in front of the entire cafeteria! Where is that mortification you promised? She's falling for him!"

"Don't yell at me," Aubrey commanded, crossing her arms over her narrow chest. "It's not my fault that Codi left, okay? Flowers are overrated, and Codi was embarrassed. I don't know what she sees in your brother, but whatever it is, you're lacking in it."

Austin looked struck. Of course he knew that he was second to his brother, but hearing it from Aubrey…that stung. It stung badly. Austin had lost all of his senses in trying to snag Codi, and Alex just opened his mouth to make her run to him. It wasn't fair. He sat down on the couch hard and sighed from deep inside. "I don't know what to do."

"Uh, isn't it obvious?" Tucker asked, his brow furrowed. "Dude, even I can see what Alex is doing."

Aubrey's eyebrows rose. "You think you know why Codi is following him around like a lapdog?" she sneered. As if some random could read her sister better than Aubrey could herself. "I could rob a bank just by asking nicely, and you think you know why—"

"Alex is trying to be her friend," Tucker interrupted impatiently. He rolled his eyes dramatically. "Austin, you haven't talked to her, and Alex puts energy and effort into including her. That's where you're going wrong."

Taken aback, Aubrey stared at Tucker, and then her eyes went toward Austin's. He was staring back at her expectantly, waiting for confirmation. Considering that lengthily, Aubrey nodded slowly. "Okay. You may be onto something, kid."

Tucker smiled smugly. "I know I am."

- - - - - - - - - -

Melody's green eyes lit up when she saw Alex walk into Jessica Waverly's house. She and Jessica had been chatting near the back of the foyer when she saw Alex stepping through the door, but her excitement was quickly dashed by the appearance of Codi behind him. Then Melody saw red.

"Oh my God, he brought her." Melody's voice was barely over a strained whisper, but Jessica managed to hear it, and she looked toward the door. "What is he doing with her?"

Jessica's head tipped, but her red hair was secured back in a messy bun. "Hey, she's in my French class." Melody looked at her furiously, so Jessica shrugged. "But I didn't invite her. I've never even talked to her."

Melody sighed deeply and shook her head gently. "Every time I see Alex these days, he's with her." She'd lowered her voice, and a sense of depression settled around her. "What the hell is Alex's problem? He's supposed to want me."

With a sad sort of smile, Jessica shrugged. "I guess the stuff with Curtis didn't make Alex jealous? You were so sure he'd fall at your feet then."

"I know," Melody scowled, not fond of hearing how wrong she'd been. "Curtis and Alex always competed, you know? Alex should have tried harder to steal me from him." Her scowl deepened. "But no, he's off with that dwarf girl."

Jessica tipped her head back and laughed. "Dwarf girl, Mel?"

"Yes." Melody fidgeted with her hair and glanced in Alex's direction. He looked as amazing as he ever did, particularly when he laughed at something Jason Templin said. The usual gang of guys had gathered—Jason, Matt, and Aaron—around Alex, making Codi the only girl there. Of course, that angered Melody further, as Codi wasn't special enough to be the only girl with guys that good looking.

Apparently Jessica had followed Melody's gaze and must have understood the reason for her distracted answer since a sympathetic expression had appeared on her face. It was brief, however. "Oh my God, Mel," she hissed suddenly. "Pamela's on her way over here."

"Oh, now that's just what I want to hear," Melody griped lowly. "She is so stupid, Jess! I don't know how you put up with her as much as you do. I'd have killed myself by now." Tossing her hair cockily, Melody rolled her eyes. "I have no respect for people that ignorant."

Before Jessica had the opportunity to answer, Pamela appeared in front of the girls, smiling brightly. "Hi guys!" she chirped happily. She held up a plastic cup of punch at Jessica. "This is amazing."

Jessica laughed. "I bet it's been spiked then."

"Probably," Pamela giggled, and the shine in her eyes suggested that Jessica was probably correct. Pamela's eyes widened at Melody suddenly. "Did you see Alex? He's here with Codi."

Seething with more bitterness than Melody thought she could contain, she stiffly nodded, resisting the desire to snatch Pamela's drink, down it, and follow up with a bottle of pure vodka. "I saw him."

Pamela's nose wrinkled, and she glanced at Jessica. "You're not going to believe what I heard about her." When Jessica's eyes lit up with interest, Pamela went on. "Apparently, before she moved here, her family, like, made trips to check out the town and the house and stuff, right? Well, I guess she and Alex met and started hooking up—and had a particularly intimate rendezvous. Several maybe." Lowering her voice, Pamela leaned into Jessica closely, "Codi's carrying his baby, and that's why Alex is, like, toting her around everywhere."

Jessica's eyes went huge. "No way!"

Playing along, Melody also expanded her eyes. "Are you serious?" she demanded of Pamela. "Where did you hear that?"

"Around," Pamela answered cryptically. "But it's totally valid. One of the guys heard it straight from Alex himself."

"That means Alex cheated on you more than once," Jessica pointed out, sounding a little doubtful. Melody thought she saw brief panic in Pamela's eyes. "I can't believe you're not pissed about it, Pam."

Pamela lowered her eyes sadly. "It's depressing, but, I mean, cheating happens all the time." She shrugged. "I'm not gonna get mad at him though because he seriously has his hands full now. A baby? Me being pissed is the last thing he needs on top of all of that stress."

"His poor mom," Jessica murmured quietly, blatantly staring at Codi and Alex. "I bet his family's crushed that their firstborn is so screwed up now. Hers too."

"I can't believe we didn't see it before though," Melody spoke up, also openly looking at Codi and Alex. "Really, look at her stomach. Isn't it a little puffy already?"

Pamela answered almost too fast. "It so totally is!"

"This is insane!" Jessica brushed back some of her hair and continued to observe Alex. "Our very own Alex Chapman is going to have his very own baby. Wow."

"Maybe we should go congratulate the happy couple," Melody suggested with a viperous smile. She knew that in order to convince Jessica that Pamela's claim was believable, she'd have to act like she believed it herself and react the way she would if it was true. "What a little whore."

"Aw, play nice," Jessica said with a light laugh. A crash sounded from the dining room, and Jessica's eyes widened hugely all over again. "Oh God, I better go check on that. It sounded expensive."

As Jessica disappeared, Pamela moved closer to Melody and eyed her with absolute dedication. "How was that? Do you think she bought it?"

"I think so," Melody replied with her gaze trained on Alex and his delicious body. She began to smile suddenly and tugged on Pamela's forearm. "Come here. Let's go have some fun."

Pamela's brow furrowed. "What? What are—"

By the time Pamela could get a full protest out, Melody was half-dragging her across the room to where Alex and his posse were grouped together. Putting on a brilliant smile, Melody sashayed right up to Alex and kissed his cheek, making sure she invaded his space for a second longer than necessary.

"Hello, beautiful girls," Aaron greeted charmingly, giving his blond hair a tousle. "How are you doing?"

"Just fine," Melody replied sweetly as she gave Alex's bicep a gentle squeeze. She smiled at him flirtatiously. "I hope you plan on saving me a dance. If not, I'm about to change your plans."

Alex offered Melody a very faint smile and then turned his gaze to Codi, whose face turned red automatically. "We'll see, Melody," Alex muttered quietly. "Maybe."

"You're turning down a girl as fine as Mel here?" Aaron questioned, sounding both incredulous and amused. "Boy, have I taught you nothing?"

"I hope not," Matt answered grimly. "But, Alex, how about I teach you some manners?" His eyes swept over all three girls. "Would you girls care for a drink?"

Pamela had been toying with her hair obliviously, not at all sure why Melody had taken an interest in mingling with the enemy, but the mention of drinks snapped her to attention. "Yes!" she exclaimed at Matt. "Yes, please, I mean."

Alex was now smiling, but his smile was only offered to Codi. "How about you, Codi? Can I get you a drink?"

"Uh, s-sure," Codi stammered, managing a smile. "Th-thanks."

Matt smiled. "And you too, Mel?"

New fury washed over Melody. Not only had she been left as last, she'd been given the brush-off by Alex. Oh, he was so going down. But Melody covered her anger with a smile. "Definitely. You're such a sweetie."

"Agreed," Aaron laughed, showing off a cocky grin. "I'm being left alone—well, with Jason, but eh—with the three most gorgeous girls in town." His grin widened. "Promise you won't fight over me, girls."

Melody's natural response was to inform Aaron that if she wanted him, there would be no competition in getting him, but since Alex was going off with Matt, there was no reason to show herself off. "That's a promise I can keep easily, Aaron," she said anyway.

"You wound my soul," Aaron replied while feigning a wince.

Pamela giggled and rested a hand on Aaron's wrist. "I couldn't keep that promise, baby."

Assured that Pamela's attention would be occupied by flirting with Aaron, Melody sent her own attention to Codi, who had shied almost into the corner. "How do you like the party?" Melody asked with a smile. "Not too exciting, is it?"

Nervously, Codi returned the smile. "It-it's nice, I think. Who's th-the birthday boy?"

Melody scanned the living room quickly and pointed toward a loveseat. "Zack's over there—in the orange shirt." She laughed a little, hoping it sounded real. "He's probably getting lap dance after lap dance."

That made Codi's face heat up even hotter, and she ducked her head in an attempt to hide it. Alex had said something about his friends trying to hook up with as many people as possible; it appeared as though he wasn't lying. "Oh."

Codi's blushing amused Melody more than she could have expressed, and if she'd been able to think of something more explicit to say—oh. She had it. "It's better than Aaron's birthday party," Melody smiled. "With him, he lines up girls for blowjobs as his birthday present. I think he has a rating scale and everything that he uses to determine his next conquest."

Digging her nails into her palms, Codi wished for Alex and Matt to hurry back with their drinks. But at the rate her blush was increasing, Codi would have been happy if a tornado forced everyone into chaos. "Um, I-I'm going to g-go find the restroom," Codi murmured softly. "I'll b-be back."

Melody's smile was icy. "Of course. Go down that hallway."

The further Codi got away, the icier Melody's smile became. Honestly, Alex thought he could satisfy himself with this prude? Codi couldn't carry on a conversation to save her life, and now all of Melody's suspicions that Alex's interest lied in sexual favors disappeared. But instead of feeling glad that Codi had nothing to offer Alex, Melody grew more frustrated. If Codi lacked everything, why wasn't Alex with Melody, who lacked nothing?

Then it suddenly hit Melody that she probably wasn't doing a very good job of befriending Codi.

- - - - - - - - - -

"So what's the deal, man?" Matt George asked Alex as they walked into the kitchen to get drinks. "This Codi girl that you brought. What's up there?"

Alex shrugged, subtly indicating to the others in the kitchen. "She's sweet," he stated simply, watching Matt round up plastic cups. "Plus, she's new and doesn't have too many friends. Figured I'd be nice."

Matt's eyebrows rose. "Yeah, because everyone knows you go out of your way to be nice every day," he commented quietly to prevent the bystanders from overhearing. He rolled his hazel eyes. "If you did, you would have taken some pity on your brother by now, Alex."

"Touché." Alex glanced around briefly and then cocked his head toward the backdoor. Receiving a nod from Matt, both guys started toward outdoors, where they were bound to attain some privacy.

Slowly sipping punch from his cup, Matt surveyed Alex. "So."

Shrugging, Alex didn't meet his friend's eyes. Instead, he looked at anything but Matt and became swiftly very interested in a tree in the backyard. "You're going to think I'm a prick."

"Like I don't already, man?"

Alex laughed but just barely. "I cheated on Pamela with Melody. You know that. And the next day, Melody screws around with Lynch. You also know that." Alex's blue eyes finally met Matt's gaze. "That's enough right there to condemn me to a lifetime of mockery and humiliation."

Puzzled, Matt nodded. "Yeah. Probably."

"No, definitely, and I'm not going to take that." Alex crossed his arms stubbornly. "I'm not going to let Melody and Curtis make a fool of me. Melody wants to play mind games with me? That's not okay."

"I agree, but why not just beat the crap out of Curtis?" Matt took a long drink from his cup and shrugged. "Then trash Melody and expose her for being a frigid bitch. That's what I'd do."

"And at one point, that's what I would have done too." Alex sighed deeply and looked at Matt seriously. "But what's that going to solve? It's just going to let people talk about how bitter I am or something like that."

Studying Alex lengthily, Matt remained silent, apparently not sure what to say. "I still don't understand how this concerns Codi," Matt said finally. "What does she have to do with the Melody and Pamela stuff? You gave her flowers, dude. And you've never even taken her out before."

"This is the part where you tell me I'm a prick," Alex remarked, looking somewhat sheepish. He certainly felt sheepish; in fact, he felt like the worst person to grace the planet. "Codi… She makes me look good. Me hanging out with her? It proves I'm not crying in the corner because of Melody."

Matt's mouth dropped open, and he nearly spilled his punch. Doing a double take at Alex, he shook his head. "You're right. You are a prick. What the hell, Alex? If you want to turn the tables and make Melody pissed, why not go charm your way back into Pamela's good graces to show you don't care about her?"

"I'm not crawling back to that whiney brat," Alex scoffed. He shook his head in disgust. "Hell no. That's where Codi comes in. She's pretty, she lacks baggage, and her reputation is sparkling clean. If I show up places with her, nobody can tag me as the lonely guy who cheated on his girlfriend for a girl that was messing around with his enemy."

Matt winced. "You're using Codi to protect your reputation. Dude, that's seriously low. Smart but freaking low."

"I know." Alex buried his head in his hands and sighed deeply. "And the worst part? I don't even know how I got here. I was determined to be friends with Codi, honestly. But now…she's just such a convenience."

Now Matt was glaring. "A convenience? Alex, you gave her flowers, which is something you've never done. You're playing with her emotions just to protect yours. I wouldn't care so much if she was like the rest of us, but Codi seems like a really nice girl."

Wryly, Alex replied, "Which makes it even sweeter, doesn't it?"

"I can't believe you, I really can't." Matt scoffed lightly and glared more at Alex furiously. "This is beyond low."

Alex glanced up miserably. "Are you going to rat me out, Matt? Tell Codi and spare her feelings? Tell Melody and let her gloat?"

"You know what? I hate myself for this, but no, I'm not going to," Matt answered. "No, the way I see it, Alex, you're going to get what's coming to you. By the end of this charade of yours, the shit's going to hit the fan, and I hope you get burnt bad."

Irately, Matt turned around and went back inside, leaving Alex in the darkness to wallow in his guilt. He liked Codi—he genuinely did—and it wasn't like he planned on messing with her feelings on purpose. Giving her a little attention to get back at Melody was…well, it was exactly the same thing Melody was doing to Alex with Curtis. But Alex's intentions weren't to hurt anyone but Melody, so that had to make things okay, right?

Even Alex knew he was lying to himself, but his pride was a precious thing, and he'd be dead before he'd let Melody get the better of him. Oh no, this was war.