Letters to You
She would never forget the day she'd dressed him in a coconut bra and a grass skirt.
Four years later, that was all she could think of as she stared across the desks they'd rearranged into pairs and straight into his unconcerned cyan eyes. Four years ago, any one of her classmates would have been seething with envy and vying to be in her position.
But that was four years ago, and Peyton Schulyer could only wonder at the intricacies of Fate that had left her cryptography partners with Jordan Cross.
It wasn't that she was upset about it. It was just that it was so very weird.
He flashed her a lopsided smile. "How's it going, Payday?"
They hadn't been friends in high school, but that was because they mostly just hadn't bothered with each other. Such was the joy of going to a small private school located in the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was small enough that everyone knew everyone, but just big enough that most people still stuck to their separate crowds.
Needless to say, she and Jordan had not run in the same one. They'd both been popular in their own ways, as much as one could be in such a small school, but she had been a Joiner, constantly seeking approval, and he had been a Stoner, constantly breaking the law. Their paths had rarely crossed beyond superficial social interaction. Even senior year, when the other girls in her crowd had squealed over his good looks and charming smile, she couldn't have exchanged more than a thousand words with him. And even then, most of them had been of the, "Hold still," and "Your bra is lopsided," variety.
That day, the final month of their senior year, during Spirit Week, she'd finally realized what the other girls in her class saw in him. It was only coincidence that it happened while he was wearing more makeup than a Las Vegas prostitute and an outfit only slightly less risqué than a stripper's.
She'd shrugged it off, knowing that while she might realize he was attractive, they had nothing in common, and had sent him off to peel himself out of the Hawaiian shirt he'd buttoned over the two hairy mounds taped to his chest. She hadn't seen him since they graduated.
Cryptography class was the last place she'd expected to.
"Cross," she acknowledged, ignoring the old high school nickname. "Didn't expect to see you here."
His smile widened. "In Cryptography or in college?"
"Both." She sighed and straightened her notebook. "So we're partners."
"For the rest of the semester," he agreed lazily. "Kind of funny, don't you think? Four years of high school and we never got thrown together on a project, but the first university class we share, and here we are."
The irony was not lost on her. "What are you doing here, anyway?" And as soon as the words left her mouth, she realized just how rude they sounded.
"Stalking you," he answered cheerfully. "Just found out you were still on campus." Her heart skipped a beat, but he laughed at the startled expression staining her features. "Just kidding, Payday. I want to work for the NSA."
"It's Peyton. No one has called me that in years," she said.
He raised an eyebrow, but didn't have a chance to respond as the professor called their attention to the front of the class. Matt Browning was young and still hadn't lost his idealism. It helped that most of the students in the class actually wanted to be there.
"Now that you've had some time to get to know your new best friend, let's get to work. The handouts that are going around the room show one of the oldest coding systems in history. Identify the cipher and decode the short paragraph at the end of the page."
Peyton took one of the handouts and passed the rest on. She glanced at the examples on the first half of the page while Cross did the same. But where she actually went back for a second look, he merely glanced at it before he tossed it on the desk.
She blinked up at him.
"It's probably a Caesar cipher," he shrugged. "It's the first week of class. He's not going to give us something difficult."
Now she scowled at him. "Then solve it, if you're so sure of yourself."
"I can't do all the work." His dimples flashed again.
No, they hadn't been friends in high school, but he'd always had more charm than he'd deserved. He'd captivated the queen bee senior year on a lark, broken her heart and moved on to the drama princess within a week. He hadn't been known for his fidelity.
She'd never pegged him as smart, either, but that was probably because he was always too busy flirting to focus much on school. And whatever girl he was charming that week was all too happy to do his assignments for him. Do all the work? Unless his ethics had changed in the last four years, she highly doubted he'd ever had that experience.
Her voice, when she answered him, was dry. "I wasn't asking you to."
He'd cut his hair sometime in the last four years. When they were seniors, he'd looked like a surfer, though the outskirts of Pittsburgh were a far distance from the coast. Now his hair was short and spiky, his eyes made brighter by the tan skin on his face. She'd never noticed the indigo ringing the lighter blue.
"You look good, Payday."
Pleasure at his words washed through her, but she only raised an eyebrow. "Thanks. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, can we get started on this?"
"I have a better idea. Why don't we catch up now and do the assignment over coffee later?"
She laughed incredulously. "Cross, are you hitting on me?"
"Is there someone who will kick my ass if I say yes?"
"Yes," she said, her eyes sparkling. "Me."
He sighed dramatically. "You always were a tough one. Well, then, let's get started."
She watched as he turned his full attention to the paper as if he hadn't just asked her on a pseudo-date and been rejected. He whipped out a notebook and turned to a clean page, his pencil poised expectantly. "Where?"
"Henley Hall, second floor, room 210, third seat from the back." He glanced up. "Or did you want GPS coordinates?"
"No, I meant—"
"I know what you meant. What happened to your sense of humor?"
She pulled his notebook closer. "Right, then. If you think it's a Caesar cipher, we should probably look at the frequencies. Let's make a table—"
He interrupted her again. "The L is probably an E."
She stared at him open-mouthed for a minute. "How do you figure?"
"Look how many times it shows up in the sequence," he said, running one finger across the first sentence. "One, two, three, four, five… The letter 'E' appears more frequently per thousand letters than any other letter, with a relative frequency of 0.13."
"I know that," she answered impatiently, "but how can you tell just from looking at it?"
"How can you not?" he countered.
"I'm just saying – you can't just assume that because it's got the highest frequency, it's automatically the letter E. It could be a fluke."
He didn't look at her as he started jotting the alphabet on the pristine sheet in striking, spiky letters. "We'll see."
She swallowed an incredulous laugh. "I guess we will."
Shaking her head, she watched him count the numbers and scrawl the tally next to each respective letter. She flashed back again to that day senior year. The highlight of Spirit Week at their high school had always been the performances by the boy cheerleaders – a role reversal that was always entertaining, if not rehearsed or full of talent. Usually the most popular guys in each grade level were elected to form a "squad." It was mostly a way for them to make complete and utter fools of themselves, but it was also usually the highlight of the week.
Their senior year, their theme had been Hawaiian, and the boy cheerleading routine had snowballed from there. In the end, they had shimmied out to a famous beach-themed song in grass skirts and Hawaiian shirts, only to strip down to fake coconut bras while they danced their way around the gymnasium. If the school had been smart, they would have used it as a fundraiser, because there had been all too many girls who would have been willing to part with a dollar or five during the striptease.
Jordan, she remembered, had been particularly shameless. But since he'd often been the center of attention, no one had really been surprised.
She was jolted out of her reverie when he pushed the notebook across the desk at her. "Your turn." He let her work silently for a few minutes before his patience wore thin. "So who do you keep in touch with, Payday?"
"No one. Will you please stop calling me that?"
She counted the letter A. Maybe if she ignored him, he'd go away. He poked her with his pencil. Maybe not. She sighed. "No, no one. Why would I?"
He tsked at her, shaking his head. "Stop playing coy. If anyone was going to keep in touch with every member of the senior class, it was you."
She rolled her eyes and set down her pen. "Now why would you say something ridiculous like that?"
"Ridiculous?" He laughed, tucking an errant strand of hair behind her ear. "That's a riot. Don't pretend that everyone didn't love you. You and your fan club."
Her head snapped up as she absentmindedly followed the path his fingers had taken with her own. "Say what?"
He flicked her with his pencil. "Oh, you know. Like how you always had four or five of guys hovering around. They were all enamored by you."
"All those drugs you did in high school must have made you delusional."
"Fine. Let me give you an example. What about Dave Priest?"
"What are you talking about?"
"Oh, I know you never noticed. But poor little Davey had a crush on you right up until we graduated."
She stared at him blankly. She heard the words. She even understood them. They just didn't make any sense. "Cross, I know you never went to class, so you are hardly an expert on the social dynamics of that prison we called high school."
"Most of the action didn't happen in class, Payday."
"Dave Priest never even spoke to me."
He raised an eyebrow. "That's because he was scared shitless of you."
She snatched her pen up again. "You are so full of shit, Cross. Can we please finish this?"
"Just because it makes you uncomfortable doesn't make it any less true." He pulled the notebook between them so that they could both see it. "Fine. Did you finish counting this out?"
Pointing wordlessly at the list of letters, she tried not to let her irritation show through. The corner of his mouth curled in amusement, and for a moment they just stared at each other.
She looked away first. "The 'z,' the 'a,' and the 'b,' all occur more frequently than the rest of the letters. Maybe they're substituted for the 'r,' the 's,' and the 't?' Really, though, shouldn't we do a chi-square to be sure?"
"I'm not doing a twenty-six chi squares by hand."
Pursing her lips, she sighed heavily. "Then I guess we'll just have to hope words come out, won't we?"
"Have some faith, Payday."
It took a significant effort not to snap at him again. "My name is Peyton."
"Yeah, the fact that you share the name with a pro-football player makes it sort of hard to forget that," he answered, without bothering to look up. "Weren't you the one who wanted to work?"
They fell silent, Peyton plugging in letters and Jordan watching diligently while she worked. She couldn't even complain, because she'd snatched the paper out of his hand when he'd attempted to start writing. If she didn't have something to concentrate on, she was likely to stab him with her pen.
Three minutes later, she couldn't concentrate, and he was still staring at her. "Don't you have something better to do?"
He shrugged. Without taking his eyes off of her, he leaned over and extracted a pristine sheet of white paper, which he settled in front of himself on the desk. They ignored each other for the next five minutes.
Professor Browning called their attention to the front. "If you haven't finished breaking your codes, work on it on your own time. I'll pass out solutions at the beginning of next class. And next week, I'll assign your semester projects. Have a nice weekend, everyone."
She slapped her notebook shut and shoved it into her bookbag with her pen, her main objective to get away from Jordan Cross, where she could digest the events of the last half hour. Jordan Cross partnered with her? Hitting on her? Honestly, what the hell?
Jordan hadn't moved. "Did you get it done?"
"Mostly." She zipped her bag shut and avoided his eyes. "I'll double-check it for Tuesday."
He leaned back in his seat. "Then we should have that coffee date without the work."
She straightened, blinking at him incredulously. "Cross, do you know why I don't keep in contact with anyone from high school? Want to hazard a guess?"
Steepling his fingers, he made a deliberate show out of considering the answer. He cocked his head and ventured, "You got tired of being stalked?"
Her breath expelled in a whoosh of frustration. "Stop that."
A slow grin crept across his dimpled cheeks. "It was a guess and it could have been a hazard. I was just taking a stab at it, Payday."
"Well, you suck at guessing. The reason I don't keep in touch with anyone from high school is because I don't want anything to do with them. A real shocker, I know. But you see, I expanded my circle. Jumped ship, so to speak. And while it might be nice to know that I could still count on Tricia or Christina if I needed to, the bulk of my conversation does not center around who from our senior class got pregnant last year."
She blinked at him. "What?"
"Melinda Davis got pregnant last year. She did not, however, get married, much to her parents' dismay." He sent her another blinding smile. Then he pushed the piece of paper across the desk. "This is for you."
Bewildered and still just a little behind on the flow of conversation, she looked down at the garbled text scrawled across the notebook paper. "What is it?"
"It's a gift."
Then, while she stared, open-mouthed, he slung his backpack over his shoulder and strode, whistling, out of the classroom.
She thought briefly about chasing after him, but instead gathered the rest of her things and followed his path out of the building more slowly. On the plus side – or the downside, she supposed – at least he remembered her. The paper he'd given her remained clutched in her hand. It was in code, and couldn't have taken him more than five minutes to complete. She frowned down at it. It wasn't very long.
"Weird," she said.
She meandered down the steps and across the campus' weaving walkways, chewing on her lower lip and running on autopilot while she lost herself in her thoughts.
"Yo, Peyton!" Her head snapped up. Marcus Thompson jogged toward her, a bright red bandana tied around his bald head, a startling diamond earring sparkling in his left ear. "How many times do I have to call your name before you answer me, girl?"
He shook his head and fell into step beside her. "Try five. Whatcha up to?"
"Sorry, I'm a little out of it." She was silent for a moment, her frown deepening. "I just ran into this guy from high school. Jordan Cross."
"The soccer player?" he squinted at her.
She shrugged. "When I knew him, he was a stoner. He might play soccer."
If he did, Marcus would know. He knew all the athletes on campus. Actually, it was probably more accurate to say that all the other athletes on campus knew him – not to mention that most of the other students did as well. Marcus was the starting quarterback for their football team and had led their team to a national title last year. The team was expected to do no less this season. Marcus would be the first round draft pick for the pros as soon as he graduated.
Peyton had known Marcus since her sophomore year, before he'd been the star football player and hero on campus. Then he'd just been a tall, gangly freshman with a little more muscle than he knew what to do with and one hell of a passing arm. He'd also been failing Spanish 101.
Three years later, he still talked to her whenever he saw her, invited her out to parties, and included her as much as possible. She was still wondering how she'd made the cut.
"Yeah, Cross is on the soccer team." His earring caught the sun every time he nodded. "You went to high school with that dude?"
She scowled. "High school, yeah."
"I guess. I never talked to him." A pause. "Okay, once or twice, maybe."
Marcus peered down at her. "What's up, Peyton?"
"Sorry." She sighed. "Lots of old memories. He kept calling me by my high school nickname." When he just looked at her, waiting, she continued, "I used to play soccer, too. They called me 'Payday.'"
His teeth were a blinding white against the dark skin of his face. "You never told me you played any sports, bitch."
She sent him a withering glare. "You had me pegged as a cheerleader."
With a raised eyebrow, he appraised her thoroughly. "Hell, yeah, I did."
"Behave." She knew she was flushed a dull red. "Anyway, it was a bad joke. One of the juniors freshman year didn't think I was any good, so she nicknamed me 'Payday' to be a bitch. It was okay, though. I took her position as sweeper before the season was over."
Marcus just laughed. "Cheerleader, my ass." He slung an arm over her shoulder and steered her toward the student union. "I'm starving, yo. Let's get some lunch."
She nodded, walking beside him silently as just about everyone on campus yelled out greetings and acknowledgement. Some of her friends thought he was an ass, which she supposed he was, but then again, she couldn't blame him much. Everyone on campus catered to his whim and made exceptions for him. You are a product of your environment, she thought. Still, he'd never been anything but cool to her.
Four burgers, three orders of fries, a chocolate milkshake, and a diet soda later, Marcus had paid for her meal and conned her into attending some party or the other that night.
He was in the process of trying to talk her into playing a round of Madden with him when she put her foot down. "Marcus, if you want me at that party, I've got to get some of my work done now."
"It's the weekend, baby," he complained.
"And I've got other shit going on."
He sulked, but caved, wrapping her in a quick hug. "Peace, yo."
"Yeah, I'll see you tonight." She waved and ducked away from the table they'd co-opted before he had a chance to change his mind.
Luckily, the way campus was set up, the apartment she shared with her friends Jonathan and Tim was only a five minute walk from the student union if you cut through the English and the Biology buildings, so it didn't take her long to get back. Neither of the guys' cars was there, so she assumed they'd already left for the weekend. Jon to visit his girlfriend at a nearby university and Tim to visit his family.
Sure enough, a note on the kitchen table confirmed this. She grinned at Jon's written promise to clean the upstairs bathroom upon his return, followed by Tim's scrawled rejoinder that he'd already done it, because they both knew Jon would "forget." And then, in typical older brother fashion, they warned her to be careful and let Marcus and the football team watch out for her if she was going out. They'd see her sometime Sunday.
Glancing around the room, she was both surprised and pleased to see one of them had even done the dishes. Wonders really would never cease.
In other news, I completely and totally blame Myrika for the fact that I am posting, because I hadn't even thought about it until she mentioned it, and then I thought it might not be such a bad idea. Except I know it will be, because finding time to write usually means not doing something else I actually really do need to do. The good news is that – and the blame for this goes to Lord Iron-Balls – I have a few of the next pieces done, so that will help. That said, thanks, you two.
This will work in the same basic style as Catch You and One Crowded Hour, which means that each part will be a section. Unlike those two, I was not forcing myself to write a particular number of words prior to finishing the section, so some will be very long, and some will be very short. I apologize for the short ones in advance, but that's just how the story worked out.
And last but not least – to anyone who has reviewed in the last two months and I haven't responded to, I'm really sorry. Things have been hella busy and I'm lucky I even find (make) any time to write. I'm planning on getting back to you, I promise.
Oh, and another part of Désenchantée will go up as soon as I can get Morgan and Quinn out of bed. Hopefully that will be soon. ;) Anyway, I hope you enjoy this – I've certainly been having fun writing it!