Author's note: Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for sticking with me all this time. But I've made you all wait for the last chapter long enough... Happy (3 days early) Halloween!


Do I have school today? That's my first thought. My second is, Who set my alarm?

Finally I come around trying to figure out how I got into my own bed when the last thing I remember is eating pancakes…

"Knock, knock," snarls Rebecca. She lets herself into my room without actual knocking and throws clothes at my head. "Your laundry was in with mine. You're lucky that red shirt didn't ruin any of my stuff!"

I hold up the red shirt that reads in gray script TURQUOISE. I smile because the word turquoise always makes me smile, and Danny was so upset that I didn't even get the word printed in the corresponding color. Plus, gray and red should never be worn together—Duh.

"Who was that buff dude?"

Rebecca has moved on to rifling through my closet. She does this periodically, maybe once every couple months, but rarely finds anything worth stealing. The few exceptions, apparently, are my work clothes. And she only takes those when I really need them.


"The buff dude. The one who carried you in at two AM. Who was he?"

"Oh." My throat feels dry and his name won't come. I don't want to tell her. Rebecca chews up boys and spits them out like gum at a rate that would get any other girl labeled a whore. But why should I protect this one? "Derek," I say quietly. "Why?"

"Is he your boyfriend?"

She studies a yellow shirt with a purple octopus wearing a brown beret. She hates that shirt because she thinks it would be cute without the brown beret, so I know she's not really looking at it.

What would happen if I said yes?


She turns on her heel suddenly enough that normally I would flinch, but I'm prepared for it so I don't. "Geez," she snaps. "I was just trying to be nice! And you always shut me down!"


Then I stop and review the past two minutes. She's right. Except for throwing my clothes at me and reprimanding me for almost ruining her laundry, none of which was intentional, Rebecca was just asking a question that should have been simple. She could have just turned and left after the reprimand, but she's trying to show interest in my life, isn't she?

Maybe I am the one always shutting her out and not the other way around.

It's way too early to be having these self-discovering revelations.

"Look," I interrupt Rebecca's screechy rant before she can come up with more creative names for me. "You're right." A headache starts at my temples, but I hope it's just the concussion trying to kill me. "Sorry for getting all defensive. Derek is just a friend."

Rebecca misses one beat, two, and then takes up the inquisitive thread where she left off, "A friend who drives you home and carries you in, smelling like butter and sugar?"


I pull off the shirt I fell asleep in and pull on the red one that reads TURQUOISE. Just before my head breaks through the neck hole I get a good whiff of myself. I smell like chlorine. The chemical perfume makes me shiver as rushing water swirls through my head, more distant now but still a fresh memory.

Rebecca frowns at me. "Fine. Don't tell me."

"Fine," I mimic her perfectly, a talent I've perfected these sixteen years. "Don't believe me."

"GAH!" she screams and stomps out of my bedroom.

Well that was kind of a weird little interlude. What's with Rebecca trying to get all sisterly now? Is this my punishment for nearly dying last night?

I slip out of the shirt, repressing another shiver. Goosebumps rise all down my arms.

When I'm out of the shower ten minutes later, my phone is beeping with a message at my bedside. I don't remember leaving the house with my phone last night, but I do remember the last place I saw it was downstairs. What's it doing on my nightstand?

"It's Derek," the voicemail tells me. "I asked your sister for your number on my way out. Hope you don't mind. Anyway, I'm ditching class today because I have to take Gemma to the doctor and then she wants me to get groceries. Thought you might not want to go to school today…" There's a ten-second pause as he lets me consider all the whispers and mean-spirited laughter that's going to follow me around the halls. "So I'm outside. If you get this message within the next couple minutes, come see me."

The message ends without a goodbye. I hate when people don't use goodbyes. What if somebody died tomorrow without saying goodbye?

I throw open my window and scan the front yard. The moldy little Ford is parked curbside with Derek leaned against it.

He smiles, waves. I squint harder and manage to make out Gemma sitting in the front seat.

I throw on a jacket that probably isn't mine and some shoes in the entryway two minutes later. Derek opens the back door of the Ford and, since I don't know why I came out here in the first place or what to say, I get in.

Some soft jazzy tune plays through ancient speakers.

Gemma turns in the front seat, squints at me through huge bifocals. "Goodmorning," she says. Her smile is warm and welcoming, like all grandmothers' should be. "I'm Beatrice. Derek tells me your name is Jacqueline."

My stomach growls threateningly.

"Hi," I mutter to the aged carpet under my feet. My knees squish into the back of Gemma's seat. I pull myself closer, trying to shrink every part that's been too long since the last growth-spurt in ninth grade.

"Shy thing, aren't you? Isn't that cute? And you're so tall! Is that your stomach, dear? Derek, drop me at the doctor's and then feed the poor thing. She's skin and bones!"

She slips him a wad of cash that I'll just bet she keeps hidden in a sock somewhere. I don't think I'm supposed to see her give him money, so I look out the window.

"Gemma called me in sick," Derek tells me. "She'll do the same for you, if you want?"

How weird is all of this? What am I even doing in this car, ditching school, taking Derek and Pharrel Clark's Gemma to the doctor?

"That's OK," I mutter.

Derek walks his grandma inside the hospital after I volunteer to wait in the car. The dude barely knows me, and yet he left me in his grandparent's car with the keys so I could turn on the heat if it gets too cold. What if I up and stole it? True, it'd be a really stupid move on my part because he'd know I stole it and he knows where I live. The point is that Derek barely knows me!

What am I doing here?

Before I can decide if home is too far of a walk, Derek is sliding back in the driver's seat. We stare at each other in the rearview mirror. Then he grins.

"Where to, Miss Daisy?" he asks in a harsher southern drawl than his normal one.

"How long is the appointment?" I ask, sitting back and pushing my knees up into the back of the front seat. My hands unconsciously fold over my grumbling stomach.

"I won't go into details, but it'll be at least an hour. Gemma says you need fattening up. Want to get something from the bakery while grocery shopping?"

I don't agree or disagree, but my stomach growls some more. Derek puts the car in gear and we head out of the lot. We end up at the grocery store without my input, and in the bakery aisle, with Derek drooling over the gourmet cupcake case.

"That's not really breakfast food," I remark.

He gives me a funny look. "Look at that," he says, and I glance around until he adds, "Somebody did teach you good manners. And here everybody said you might as well been raised by wolves."

What is it about that accent that makes an insult sound like a compliment?

He orders two cupcakes from an old woman in a chef hat. I take the one with blue frosting, leaving him with the pink. I can't bring myself to do more than lick frosting from my fingers, though. In my head I hear my grandmother, echoed by my mother and then each of my sisters, telling me baked goods in the morning will just make you tired the rest of the day and fat the rest of your life.

I notice Derek staring at me as we're hovering by a huge selection of breads. "What?"

"You don't know this, but you're killing me here. Can you stop licking frosting off your fingers?"

My face heats up and I curse my red-haired genes that makes it so easy for me to blush. Avoiding eye contact, I hold out the cupcake. "Take it then."

"But you licked all the frosting off!"

He takes it anyway when I don't answer and it's gone when I look over a bit later. I'll assume he ate it.

Derek pushes around a cart and squints at a list he tells me his Gemma wrote. Peanut butter, grape jelly, white bread, spaghetti noodles and marinara sauce, some apples and oranges. I would go in the opposite order if this was my list, getting fruits and veggies first, the bread last, but since I don't do much grocery shopping when Mom has our groceries delivered every two weeks, I keep my mouth shut.

"Can I ask you something?"

Derek has been quiet for so long that I actually start at the sound of his voice at my shoulder. I'm looking at pickles while he had been on the other side of the aisle picking out some very specific brand of sauce.

I start to turn my head but stop when I realize that he's right there, so close that his breath is warm on my neck. My voice doesn't come when my mouth opens so I just nod.

"Leaving the party last night, you got really upset when you saw some couple making out. Did you know that guy?"

I hear the question under the question, but only answer the one on the surface. "Yeah…" My throat feels tight as I think of the couple, the girl so solidly on top of him that I'm surprised I could tell who he was at all. But I'd spent weeks memorizing the profile of his face from the corners of my eyes, the back of his head as he sat on the couch watching our TV on my way through the living room. "Yeah, I know Jake."

"I guess everyone knew Jake Daly last night," Derek says, voice tense. "Not that anyone remembers him from the news, though."


"Didn't Phare tell you?" he asks, caught off-guard by my ignorance. "Jake was a huge bully at our old school." I flashback to a conversation just like this in Pharrel's dad's company van. "It was like how you and Marie get sometimes, except Pharrel didn't fight back much. Jake was meaner and Pharrel just doesn't like to fight."

I turn to him. Every exposed muscle is large and tense, pulsing with repressed anger. I take a moment to appreciate the contrast of those tight muscles against his gray v-neck tee. Later I might mention that Derek should start buying his clothes one or two sizes larger or stop wearing his brother's hand-me-downs, but for now I'm not sure I care.

Meanwhile Derek is still ranting, adding hand motions that swing on either side of me but have no real meaning. "Then one night before some stupid school dance, Jake goes and paralyzes my brother. They had to cut Pharrel out of the car that that drunk ass Jake Daly ran into. Pharrel's girlfriend died instantly."

My body goes cold. I'd thrown that in Pharrel's face when he tried to kiss me. He lied, then. Of course he lied. I would have lied, too, if someone had thrown that memory to the front when I was trying to create a romantic moment with said someone. He didn't want my pity. And I would have pitied him. I would have kissed him out of pity, but not out of anything else. I knew now that Pharrel and I wouldn't have made a good couple. It would have always been him forcing cheerfulness down my throat, trying to change my bitchy nature, or purposely annoying me because he thought it was cute or something equally repulsive.

Derek continues over my thoughts, "And you know what happens to Jake? Nothing. He's underage so he goes to jail for two years, gets out, gets his G.E.D. and goes straight to college to become a model student." He grabs something off the shelf behind me and I'm not sure why I take his arm, stopping him from throwing it back on the shelf or slamming it on the floor.

A woman down the aisle behind Derek stares at us. The jar of some type of jam is forgotten in her hand and her mouth is slightly agape.

"What?" I snap. Her mouth closes as she focuses on me. "You never seen a guy have a nervous breakdown before?"

She puts the jam back on the shelf, shoots me the devil's eye, and then pushes her cart out of our aisle. Derek has turned slightly to watch her go. He turns his head back my way with a smile that Crest commercials would kill for. Hell, I wish my teeth were that white. I kind of feel like killing him for that smile.

"You're awesome. You know that, right?"

"Of course," I say, smiling back.

He steps close, the arm I'm holding dropping to loop around my middle. I know what's going to happen, and it feels like I have all the time in the world to stop it.

Derek's expression changes; he looks down, steps back. "My bro," he says to the floor, "Were you interested in him? Or were you into that Jake guy? I mean, I saw that way you looked at Carla when he was talking to you. I could see you in the side rearview mirror when you turned back around. And when we were in the lobby, you got this awful look on your face when you saw Jake making out with that girl…"

Cue awkward pause. Why am I standing here letting him hold me, even now with a foot of space between us?

"Jake is—was?—dating my sister," I say, hesitantly, not sure why I feel compelled to answer at all. It's not like any of this is Derek's business. "I-I don't know if they broke up. If they did, hey, that's his own deal. But if he was cheating on my sister, it opens up a whole new can of hate for that family."

"That family?" Derek echoes, half-smiling.

"Jake Daly is Marie's cousin."

The smile drops off his face. "What?!"

"Anyway," I press on, trying to avoid another very public temper tantrum. "Pharrel should've told you that I'm a cold ass bitch. I don't have feelings."

"Jake is Marie's cousin? How did I miss this? How was I dating the devil's cousin?"

I'm surprised into laughing. "I think they're all devil spawn."

Derek is solemn three seconds longer and then starts chuckling.

We must look like the biggest weirdos ever. We're just standing here, less than a foot apart, laughing hysterically. At least I'm feeling a little hysterical. I almost died, my sister's boyfriend that I may or may not have had a crush on is possibly cheating on her, Rebecca is trying to get all sisterly, and I'm standing in the middle of a grocery store with some guy I hardly know after dropping off his grandmother at the hospital. There's so much wrong with this picture that I don't know if I can find my way back to right.


Back at the hospital fifty bucks later, we're wandering around looking for Geriatrics. We started out knowing where to go because of the neat little color-coded signs. Then Derek got distracted by the yellow signs instead of the blue signs and we ended up at the cafeteria. I'm halfway sure this was on purpose.

"Well," Derek says, gesturing over one broad shoulder at the golden arches. "Since we're here, we might as get some vittles, right?"

"You ate two cupcakes at the grocery store and three bananas while waiting in the check-out line! How are you still hungry?" A pause. "Did you just say vittles?"

Derek looks blank. "Two cupcakes and three bananas wouldn't fill up a monkey," he explains, reasonably.

"Not even a tiny monkey?"

He grins. "Okay, well not a monkey my size."

I hold up my hands, "You said it, not me."

"Come on, don't you want a Big Mac?"

"I don't eat fast food."

Derek claps his hands over his ears. "I didn't hear that!" He stalks away stiff-legged to the McDonald's and orders a Big Mac, I assume. I stay where I am, trying to find the blue signs that were supposed to lead us to Geriatrics.


I'm so dead.

"Mom," I say, turning slowly. "I can explain."

"Are you feeling OK?" Her hand goes to my forehead, my cheeks, and then touches my chin and tilts my head toward the lights so she can see into my eyes. Not finding any of the usual signs of sickness, her hand drops away while her eyes scan the rest of me. "Are you here for an appointment? Or are you here with Rebecca again?"

I clamp my mouth shut.

Mom's eyes narrow when she remembers that she's pissed at me. "Yes, I suppose you and Becky think I'm stupid not to hear down the hospital's grape vine that one of my daughter's is pregnant."

"Becky's pregnant?"

"You brought her here. I only have the one red-headed daughter who'd sit in the waiting room and then come home and lie to my face."

I start to snap What face? You weren't around! When I feel the warm breath on my neck again.

"Hi," Derek says, a beefy hand appearing at the corner of my vision. He holds it out to my mom, who stares at it, bedside manners forgotten in the confusion of who this person is interrupting and why he's standing so close to the person she's mad at. "I'm Derek, Jackie's friend. You look like another one of her sister's."

Did he seriously just use that line on my mom?

Although it does do the job nicely. Mom smiles and takes his hand, giving it a delicate shake before slipping hers away. "Actually I'm Jackie's mother," she says with a little laugh that could almost be flirty, except it's her Professional Laugh that puts her patients at ease. "Good to meet you, Derek." Her Valrico green eyes flick to me, a question in the look that she doesn't mean to ask. Is he more than a friend to my daughter?

For the first time since the separation was announced and I watched him pack his suitcase, I let myself miss Dad. He would read the questions in Mom's face and ask them aloud. They could do that for longer than I could remember, read each other's minds by just the slightest twitch of the eyebrows or turn of the lips. I loved this so much about my parents, loved how none of my classmates' parents did this.

"We're just picking up my grandma," Derek explains while I'm off in Mopey Land. "We didn't go to school on account of Jackie almost drowning yesterday, and I thought someone who knows her should keep an eye on her in case one of those dry-drowning things happens and she inhaled water or something."

Mom's eyes widen.

"What were you doing near that much water?" she snaps. Her hands flutter over my face, opening my eyelids wide and checking pupil dilation. Without waiting for my answer she grabs my hands, drags me off toward a green sign that will eventually direct us to Pediatrics. "You need to be checked out. Your friend is right. If water got in your lungs, you could be dying right now and we wouldn't know it until it's too late."

I send a glare over my shoulder. Clearly my sisters didn't tell Mom about me nearly dying. Why did Derek have to go and mention it?

He's following close behind, catches the glare, shrugs.

A half hour later we're alone in a patient room in Pediatrics. Mom had me change into a lavender gown with a sheet tucked around my legs and we've been to the x-ray room and back.

Derek sits in the only other chair in the room aside from the doctor's cushy stool.

As kids, during after-hours while Mom was doing paperwork and letting Rebecca and I run wild since our grandmother dropped us off after daycare, we used to lie on our stomachs on those stools and race up and down the halls. Last time I tried that I was nine and Mom said I was far too old for it. Not long after she arranged for a babysitter to keep us after-hours after daycare while Mom stayed at the hospital finishing paperwork.

"Sorry I mentioned it to your mom." I drag myself out of these memories to study Derek. He gives me a half-smile. "I figured your sisters would have called her after it happened."

"We try not to worry Mom," I snap, defensive. "Otherwise she does stuff like this. Overreacts."

Derek stands, does a full-body stretch. His fingertips nearly brush the ceiling.

Then he looks at me as he drops his arms, grins. "You look like a little kid, you know? All pouty and wearing that kids' gown."

"It's not a kids' gown! I'm just tall. And I'm not pouting."

"Do you like fighting?" Derek says. He's a few steps closer now. "You know that's a kids' gown. Your mom works in Pediatrics. I think you just don't want me to be right because then that's admitting you do look kind of vulnerable." He pushes some hair out of my face. "And God forbid Jackie Valrico ever be vulnerable."

I pinch his arm and Derek laughs, flinching away.

There's a soft knock on the door and then it opens. Mom walks in, greets Derek and gives me her Professional Smile.

"You're going to be alright," she says. "The x-rays are clear. I called your sisters while waiting for the results and the general consensus was that you were underwater for less than thirty seconds." She steps close to Derek. He's just three or four inches taller, not a full head like his brother. Looking at them, I realize Mom and I are the same height. Have I always known that? "Thank you," she says, taking his hands in hers. "Thanks for getting her out as fast as you did."

Derek's face flushes red and he looks anywhere but at my mom. "I, uh, I was just the closest person. The oldest one—uh, Sarah I think—was the one who did CPR."

I feel myself smiling. So the big buff monkey dude can get flustered, too.

Mom pats his hands and then politely drops them. "Do you mind if I have a moment alone with my daughter?"

Derek mumbles something about his Gemma and ducks out of the room.

Mom and I regard each other.

"Jackie," she says.

My eyes fill.

"I was so scared," I murmur, covering my face like she won't hear the tears in my voice. Warm, thin, white fabric-covered arms wrap around me.

We stay like that a while.

When I feel less like every time I open my mouth I'll burst into tears again, I finally manage to spit out, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry for everything. I'm sorry for the things I said. I'm just so mad at you and Dad. It hurts so much that he moved out." The words gush out faster than I can think of them. At least half are probably incomprehensible to Mom. "It just…" I gasp, catching my breath, trying to catch the words before I admit how absolutely right Derek is, "It hurts."

She strokes my straight red hair so much like her own. Just as it did when I was four years old, the petting soothes me. In another minute I'm calm and feeling slightly ashamed

"I'm sorry, too," she whispers.

We leave it at that. Valricos aren't big on apologies, so best to take what one can get when the opportunity presents itself.

Mom walks me out to the lobby where Derek and Gemma are waiting. Gemma and Mom make polite chatter while Derek follows me out into the hall.

"You OK?"

I shrug.

"Hey," he says as warm arms close around me. He pulls me to him before I can think to resist, but he must still have expected me to pull away because he pulls harder than he means to and we both fly into the wall. His back hits the wall with an audible thud.

For a second we're both too stunned to react.

Derek chuckles. A small smile curls my lips.

When it's quiet between us once more, he says, "Jackie?"

I start to look up but catch a little old lady staring at us. Starting, I realize it's Gemma. Derek's arms don't budge when I straighten to try moving away.

"Ready to go?" Derek asks his grandmother.

"Didn't want to interrupt," she answers with a sly smile my way, "But yes. Yes, I'm ready."

Derek's arms finally return to his sides. I walk out ahead of them, furious.

What's he playing at? What am I playing at? He's Marie's newly ex-boyfriend! He's Pharrel's brother! I don't care that Marie probably never truly returned his feelings. The point is that he dated the devil. Is he trying to get with me just to get back at Marie?

The thought physically stops me.

Gemma brushes past as Derek bumps into my back with a soft, "Omf!"

Not now, I think, watching Gemma find the car and waiting beside it for Derek to come unlock it. She looks cold but patient. If she were my grandmother she'd be giving me a look that could set me to flame on the spot, but Gemma simply studies the fog her breath makes. It's probably time I buy a winter jacket since I have no idea to which of my sisters the one I'm wearing currently belongs.


I start forward again, go to the car. Derek unlocks it manually, unlocking Gemma's door first and then walking around to the driver's side. He reaches across the front bench seat to unlock my door.

We end up at the humble Clark abode. I don't know why I let him bring me here, except that I don't feel like being at my empty home.

Gemma seems not to realize anything is amiss and gets out of the car, heads inside. Derek turns in the driver's chair to look at me, his eyebrows near his hairline. He studies me a long moment.

Then, eyebrows sinking, he says on a sigh, "I know it's kind of sudden, me hanging out with you, Danny and Anthony." My thoughts freeze. How is he reading me that easily? Not even Danny reads me that easily. "Now you and me are ditching school together, and… Today? This morning has been great. For me, I mean, and I was hoping for you. 'Cause lately, at school and especially last night, you looked like you could use a break."

Silence fills the vehicle.

"I hardly ever see you at school," is all I can think of to say. Actually I want to snap, You think I need a break? That's it? This calling me at the crack of dawn, taking your grandma to the hospital, grocery shopping, hugging me, you consider this giving me a break? I'm not sure why I don't say any of it aloud.

"Well, that's your fault." He smiles. "'Cause I see you around a lot." The smile vanishes, he looks down. "And towards the end, after you and Marie had that huge fight at the hotel… I had to keep track of you. Marie kept trying to get you alone. The way she talked sometimes, it was almost, no, I mean it was seriously psychotic. She really wanted to hurt you." Derek's eyes find mind, tentative, a question in his. Why does she hate you so much? "Maybe you don't even realize this, but you're alone a lot."

My smile is without humor. "One minute you're spouting off about how I'm the most popular girl, besides Rebecca," I say. "The next you're telling me I'm the biggest loner ever at Eagle Heights."

He shrugs, and then suddenly gets out of the car.

What? Did I piss him off? Do I care?

My door opens and I almost tumble out, except for Derek's hand on my shoulder. He shoves me aside, sits down where I'd been sitting, and pushes his knees up into the back of the front seat the way I'd been sitting since Gemma got out of the car. I glare at him since I'm not half-sprawled across the rest of the backseat.

"Jerk," I spit.

He sticks out his tongue at me, then says, "My neck was getting a cramp trying to talk to you from up there."

Why is it so easy to accept this? He just shoved me and took my spot!

But I'm not even mad. His story about protecting me from Marie is also pretty acceptable. I mean, I am alone a lot at school. I was alone a lot on the walks home whenever Rebecca left me. Sometimes I was alone waiting for the bus. How many times could Marie have cornered me with her friends and really done some damage?

I remember the day after the fight, Dad dropping me off at school. Derek standing next to Marie at the main entrance. Every time after that, every time I saw her across the hall, I could just remember Derek there as well. I used to think it was sickeningly sweet that he would wait for Marie outside of the classroom every time Marie and I had class together. I guess I did see Derek around school a lot, I simply never actually noticed him.

Protecting me? That was farfetched. He might have been protecting Marie from me. But did that make as much sense? I wasn't the one with twenty cronies at my beck and call. I had Danny and Anthony, and the past couple weeks I hadn't even had them.

"You've been quiet for like ten minutes," Derek says now. "It's starting to creep me out. And your face keeps changing. Are you mad at me or not?"

"You've been quiet for ten minutes," I respond automatically. "Out of the two of us, your quiet is much weirder."

He grins, but it doesn't quite reach his eyes. "Seriously," he says. "What are you thinking?"

I don't want to ask, but the question forces itself out anyway.

"Why would you protect me instead of your girlfriend? Because Pharrel had a crush on me?"

Derek throws up his hands making a frustrated noise that sounds something like, "Gah!" Then, "No! It's just that… Dating Marie was like dating you. All she talked about was you and 'the Valrico sisters.' Yeah, none of the stuff she said was terribly flattering, a lot of it was violent, but I got to know a lot about you through her. It was like her whole existence centered on how much she hates you. And my brother talked about you. Everywhere I turned, I kept hearing about Jackie, Jackie, Jackie. At first it was just super annoying. Now…"

Trailing off, his face flushes and he nudges the seat hard with his knee. I keep my own counsel. This dude has a serious motor-mouth. He doesn't need help from me to continue.

"This sounds stalker-ish," he mutters, "But the last couple weeks? Watching out for you? I started to like you. I don't even know why, because it's not what anyone's said to me. Yeah, my brother is right and you've got great legs. But what I like is your non-sequoiter t-shirts and the way you walked around school alone even knowing Marie wanted to kill you. I mean, I know why I like you now, 'cause you're cool and you're easy to get along with and you don't outwardly hate anybody, except maybe Anthony—but back at the beginning, I got really confused."

He looks at me.

"Your turn," he says.

I let my eyebrows rise. "What 'my turn'?"

"I just opened up my heart and soul to you, and you just sat there staring at me like I'm a wild animal you're not sure if you should be afraid of. That's all I get? Don't I get some deep, heart-felt confession?"

I laugh when he gets to the heart-and-soul bit, almost doubling over I'm laughing so hard.

"Come on!"

Why is it so easy to like Derek Clark?

I calm down.

"You're okay," I say.

Derek grabs the hand I used to brace myself against the seat while laughing, pulls it out from under me. I almost tumble into his lap except that his arm wraps around my middle, pulling the rest of me over to him before my face could land anywhere compromising. In an instant I'm sitting on his lap, my head ducked close to his because of the low ceiling.

"Your breath smells like mints and frosting," he says.

"Yours stinks."

He throws his head back and laughs. I dip my head to rest my forehead on his shoulder, hiding my smile against his neck. His laughter chokes off suddenly, his breath catching, hands tightening on my sides.

"Jackie," he murmurs, breathless, "You're killing me here."

I don't know why, but I breathe into his ear.

"Nobody ever said I was very nice," I whisper.


The end...?