Chapter 3

We came out of the parlor when we finished our ice cream, both talking and laughing. I almost felt like we were . . . friends? Which was odd, because I'd been calling him a half-assed bastard just mere hours ago.

"That was fun, Vaughn," I said lightly. We were back at school, and I was sauntering on over to my car when his voice called out after me:

"Hey, can you call me Josh?"

I twisted around, my hair whipping around in a golden arc. I hated it when my hair did that; Kayla thought it was pretty. But I hated haircuts even more, so . . . yippee. "I could," I said, evaluating him coolly. "But I won't."

"Why?" he said, his expression rather wistful. Or maybe it was just me, reading too far into things. After all, what girl wouldn't want Josh Vaughn chasing after her? I didn't mind, that was fact.

Unless he turned out to be as stalker-like as Travis—ugh. I'd pass on that, then, because Travis was just so annoying. He'd follow you around like a lost puppy, continuing to try and get you on a date with him. It was impossible to shake the guy off.

"Because I only call people I care about by their first names," I blurted out, then instinctively jerked a hand to cover my mouth. Oh . . . Now I remembered why it was useful for people to have actual, working thought filters. Because, on the occasion that I actually talked to the ruler of the school, putting him down wasn't exactly the best of ideas.

His face suddenly became stony and closed-off. Josh nodded curtly at me. "I'll catch you later, Leigh," he said flatly, getting into his car. In a few moments, he was already long gone.

I groaned out loud and hit my head on the hood of my car. "Dammit," I groaned at the world, glad that nobody was in the school anymore—they'd all have been long gone by now. "Damn. It!"

"Scream a little louder, I don't think the people in Japan have heard you yet," came a dry, mocking voice. I froze. Oh, dipshit.

Turning around slowly, I silently begged for this person not to be one of the A-list centerpieces. At least, not a senior one. I could handle lower grade centers; they were all just stuck up pricks who thought they were better than everyone else. (Which wasn't true; they were only better than most people in their own grades.) "Uh." Then I blinked as I recognized the boy standing before me, his feet spread apart in a cocky, I-don't-care sort of way. "Hey, it's you!"

"Yeah, I noticed—hey! You're that bitchy senior from the lunchline!" exclaimed the freshman boy.

I accepted this gracefully; it wasn't that I was into verbal abuse, just that it was true—to a certain degree. "And you're the cocky fresher who spoke back to me," I noted. "Looks like it really is a small world." At this, I flashed him a grin. "Anyway. Can I help you?"

He stuck his hands into his pockets, scuffing the ground with his expensive-looking DC shoes. If it'd been me, I wouldn't have even let water touch those DC's, let alone drag them across the floor. "Eh, well, as disappointed as I am in him, you scared off my ride."

It took several minutes for me to register his words. Then: "Ride? I didn't scare off any ri—wait, was it Josh?" I said, now looking at the freshman boy in a new light. And I'd thought he was a computer geek, or some sort of boy band member.

"Yes." The fresher (who, unfortunately, seemed to be about half a foot taller than me) looked even more uncomfortable. "Josh is my older brother." He stuck his hand out for me to shake. "Judas Vaughn. I go by Jude."

I frowned, picturing Josh's face and comparing it to Jude's. "You two don't look alike," I said, noting Jude's dark hair and hazel-ish green eyes. Josh had blond hair and blue eyes. "At all."

Jude smiled wryly. "I've gotten that one more times than I can count. Josh takes after my mom. I look more like my dad." A brief flash of pain flickered across his facial features, but it quickly passed. "So, since you made Josh pissed enough to ditch me, can you give me a ride home?"

Looking him over, I decided that giving him a lift wouldn't kill me. "Yeah, okay. But you shouldn't ask strangers to give you rides; for all you know, I might be a serial killer." I pulled the car door open. "You're just in luck that I'm not."

"You're not a stranger," Jude said flatly, opening the door to the passenger side. "You're just a bitch."

Problem was, I couldn't deny it.

The first thing I did when I got home (after dropping Jude off) was change into sweats and an old T-shirt. Then I called Kayla up.

"Hey, so let me get this straight," said Kayla after I'd relayed the day's events to her. "You got ice cream with the hottest guy in the school, you felt like you were friends, and then you blew it by saying you didn't care about him. Then he left, and you gave his baby brother a ride home. Have I got it down?"

"Yup," I said, my expression mournful. "Except—I wouldn't go as far as calling Jude a baby. He must be at least five-nine. I mean, the kid's a freaking monster. Five-nine at the age of fourteen? Hell, I'm seventeen, and I don't even have the right to say that I'm five-four."

Kayla snorted elegantly into the phone. "Face it, Leigh. You're short as hell. I'm five-seven."

"Not all of us grow up to be giants, believe it or not," I sniffed, somewhat testily. My height (or, rather, lack thereof) was a touchy subject for me. I was a senior, and I barely cleared five foot three. Not exactly a whole lot of brownie points for me. Hell, I knew seventh graders taller than me.

"Sorry," snickered Kayla, not sounding particularly sorry at all. I heard the distinct clicking sounds of her fingers tapping away on a keyboard. "Look, I gotta go, I have an essay due tomorrow. Love ya, bye."

"'Later, Kay," I said, hanging up. Then, after a long, thoughtful hesitation, I dialed Travis O'Donor. "Travis, don't say anything until I tell you to," I said swiftly into the receiver, the moment he picked up. Didn't want to hear him making lewd comments. "Is Josh pissed at me? You can talk now."

Travis made a disapproving noise. "What am I, a lapdog? And yes, actually. His family's over for dinner—family friends and all—and he's been storming around for the past hour. Jude says it's your fault, by the way," said Travis, almost sounding bored. "Just so you know, you must be something special; Josh usually keeps a cool temper."

"Glad I could be a help," I said sarcastically, then sobered up. "Travis, could you tell him I'm sorry? Please?"

"Mm, maybe," said Travis enigmatically, sounding amused. I groaned and resisted the strong urge to throw my phone against the wall. "If you do me—"

I choked. "Wait, what?"

"—a favor," he finished, chuckling slightly. "Mind out of the gutter, Leigh. That's my job. So, if you need clarification, I'm not going to be your personal messenger-slash-lapdog unless you do me a favor."

"Which is?" I said suspiciously. You never knew with Travis.

His answer was prompt. "Kiss me, tomorrow morning, in the hallway. On the lips," he added just as I began to accept.

Well, damn. There went all my master plans. "Uh, definitely not."

"I'll tell Josh not to accept your apology."

"Then that'll be his problem," I said, shrugging. "See you at school, although I wish I didn't have to."

"Oh, Leigh, you wound me so," Travis said sardonically. "Okay, fine. A kiss on the cheek tomorrow, and I'll apologize for you. Admit it, that's a good deal, especially since it's coming from me."

I paused, my finger hovering right over the "End Call" button. That actually was a good deal, especially since this was Travis me were talking about. "Okay, I can live with this. Tell me what Josh says." I hung up, rolling my eyes. Ah, Travis and his antics.

"I apologized for you," Travis said when I found him leaning against my locker the next day. "Josh said 'okay.' Kiss on the cheek, kiddo. You owe me." He turned his right cheek to me, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.

I groaned. "Ugh, fine. If I must. Lean down, I'm not tall enough to reach you."

He chuckled, leaning down a bit. "If I must. Shorty girl." Travis tapped his cheek again, arching an eyebrow. "Now, Leigh, if you will . . ."

Making a face at him, I went up on my tiptoes and pecked him on the cheek. "Happy?" I said into his ear, smirking. I dropped back down onto my heels. "Now, can I have my locker back?" I nodded at my locker, which he was currently blocking.

"Oh, right." He stepped back and grinned. "I don't suppose your 'no dating' policy still applies to me?" Travis added, a hopeful expression in his face. I crushed that hope immediately with an are-you-serious look. I'd only dated one guy in my life, and it hadn't ended very well.

I sighed quietly to myself. Ah, Aden . . . He'd been something else entirely. Good-looking enough to catch my eye, popular enough to boost my status, and smart enough to hold a decent conversation. It was because of him that I didn't date.

Well, just partially. There was also the fact that asking me to commit to a relationship was like telling me not to breathe. Relationships just didn't mix with Jocelyn Leigh.

Josh sat down next to me in Trig. This surprised me; wasn't he supposed to be mad at me right now?

Maybe he wanted to get back at me, just like Stella. If he did, he'd probably do a better job than Stella was doing. She was mainly going for the petty insults thing, but she couldn't hurt me. I didn't have a problem with my appearance, and I was sure that the majority of the male population didn't either. Pardon my arrogance.

"So," I said, not looking at him.

"So," he said quietly, not looking at me either. Some people were starting to stare, a few even snapping photos. I stifled a sigh. My own personal paparazzi. "I guess I forgive you for dissing me and wounding my ego?"

"Yeah, about that . . ." I stared straight ahead, running a hand through my hair. "I'm really sorry. I—well, things just come out of my mouth when I don't mean for them to. Like when I called you hot, it just—" I gesticulated aimlessly, keeping my eyes on the chalkboard. "I'm sorry . . . Josh."

I saw him raise an eyebrow in my peripheral vision. "Not Vaughn anymore?" he said mutedly.

"No," I said quietly. "I guess not. By the way, I met your little brother." I turned to look at him, grinning a little. "He's a real sweetheart. Called me a bitch a few times. I like him. Bet he's the It Guy in his grade, yeah?"

Josh suddenly looked uncomfortable. He shifted his feet. "Er, no, actually. Jude likes to keep to himself. He's not the social type. Actually, he's got a minor case of autism—doesn't like people in general. I'm actually surprised that he even talked to you."

Jude was autistic? I never would have guessed it. He was definitely bold enough to stand up to an older girl with a higher social status. Didn't kids these days like bold people? "That's odd," I said. "He seemed perfectly normal to me. Pretty smart, actually. Jude was almost as witty as me. Almost, mind you."

"Almost," Josh said in a high, mocking voice. I smacked him on the arm and turned my attention back to our Trig teacher. "But really," he persisted in a quieter voice, "are you really that self-absorbed? I mean, listen to yourself, Leigh! Do you even realize how self-centered you sound when you talk? I mean, I'm not perfect, but even I don't talk like that."

"Well, I'm sorry for offending you, O Gracious King," I said sarcastically, flipping my long, straight hair over my shoulder. By now, the whole of the class was whispering and watching us almost stalkerishly. Honestly, you'd think that we were Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie or some other Hollywood celeb couple. And I didn't even like Brangelina.

Josh's eyes narrowed. "Like that," he said angrily. "You act like we're all beneath you. Well, let me break it to you—we're not. You think that you're all the rage, but in reality, you're just a crapped-up bit—"

My hand connected with his cheek at the same moment that two fists smashed into his nose.

"OW!" Josh roared, one hand going to his cheek and the other flying to his nose, which looked broken. It was bleeding. "You freaking bastards! That's my face, morons! What the hell—" he swore.

I snorted. "I think I noticed. We were kind of aiming for your face, douchebag. What did you want, for us to hit you in the 'crown jewels'?" I said the last bit mockingly, then slung my arms around Lucas and Hayden, my ever-faithful A-list buddies in Trig. "I owe you guys one, by the way."

"No problem," they said in unison. The two fists that had broken Josh's nose had belonged to them. "Nobody messes with my favorite girl," Hayden added, nudging me lightly in the shoulder. "Especially not Josh Vaughn." His expression hardened, and he spoke to Josh. "I suppose you would know about being a stuck-up jerk, wouldn't you, Vaughn?"

Our teacher, who'd been standing flabbergasted, leapt into action. "Mr. Davies, Mr. Chaser!" she barked, looking furious. "Office, now. Mr. Vaughn, get to the nurse's office. Miss Leigh, I suppose you ought to accompany him," she added on afterthought.

My jaw dropped open. "You want me to go with him to the nurse?" I said, jerking a thumb at Josh. "No. No way. He's a jerk. Besides, it's not like he's an invalid; he's not going to die from a nosebleed if I don't go with him." Josh sent a glare my way, and I responded with a quirked eyebrow. So much for making up.

Pursing her lips together, the teacher interrupted our glare-fest and narrowed her eyes at us. "That's enough, Miss Leigh. Take Mr. Vaughn to the nurse." She turned to face the rest of the class to yell at them. I scowled again at Josh, sighing in resignation.

"Alright, come on, Vaughn," I said sullenly. "Let's get your sorry ass to the nurse's."

"So," said Travis, jogging to keep up with me at the same time that I said, "Shove off, Travis."

He paused, then continued, undaunted by the fact I'd just told him to shove off. Only him. "So I guess all chances of you being a friend to Josh are crushed?" Travis persisted. This boy just didn't know when to shut up. Honestly.

"Yes," I said, growing more and more irritated. "Now go to hell, Travis. I'm never going to like you, and I'm never going to date you. Now stop trying, and get the hell out of my life. This whole day has been a load of bull, and you're not making it any better. Go away. I. Am. Not. Interested."

"Why?" he said, looking a bit like a kicked puppy. "Is it the hair? Because I can get that changed—"

I interrupted him angrily, that cursed English accent of mine hinting its way into my voice. "You see? You'd actually want to change yourself for a girl who's only going to end up breaking your heart? That isn't how it works. You don't understand. We have nothing in common. Girls flock to you for your looks. Boys flock to me for my looks and my confidence. When I do something, my attitude's 'Hey, dumbarse, I'm right and you're wrong.' Even if I am wrong, people won't notice. But you, you're nothing like me." Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to calm down. God, I hated it when I lost control; my voice took on the most annoying British accent.

"How do you know I won't break your heart?" Travis said.

That wasn't what I'd been expecting. Blinking in confusion, I said slowly, "Er . . . pardon?"

"You said that I shouldn't change for you because you'd break my heart. How do you know it won't be vice-versa? I've been told that I'm a heartbreaker," said Travis, shrugging.

I opened my mouth to deliver a cutting reply, but then decided to come out clean. He wouldn't understand anyway. "You can't break a heart that's already been broken," I said, making a failed attempt at sounding nonchalant and airy. Then I brushed past him and continued toward the parking lot. Travis made a grab for my arm, but I maneuvered out of his reach, continuing to walk. Aden . . .

"Leigh!" Travis shouted after me. "Hold on! What the hell did that mean?" He caught up to me, grabbing my shoulder and forcing me to turn around. "What the hell was that, Jocelyn?"

I flinched when he used my first name, but I boldly looked him square in the eye. "You heard me. Breaking my heart is impossible. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a ride to catch." Ignoring his protests, I shoved past him and broke into a run, slamming my car door shut. Then I proceeded to have a complete breakdown.

It was pathetic. Aden was just a memory by now, and it'd been four years. But his face was still fresh in my mind, and how could I forget how brutally he'd broken my heart? I squeezed my eyes shut, burying my face in my knees. Hopefully no one looked through the windows of my car.

Tap, tap. Tap.

My hand searched blindly for the snooze button of my alarm clock. Then I realized that my alarm clock didn't make a tapping noise.

"Oh, sh—!" I yelled, jumping to my feet and hitting my head on the roof of my car. "Ow." I glanced out the window, where a hooded figure in black was standing. It was dark, probably ten PM or later. Freezing, I narrowed my eyes at the person in black. Who . . . ? Shit, I really didn't want to be killed by a mad-ax man. I was only seventeen, I couldn't die now—

The person pulled his hood down, and I gave a sigh of relief. I opened the door, smiling sheepishly at him. "Hi, Jude." He's autistic? He doesn't seem like it. "What—why're you here?"

He shrugged, his expression melancholy. "Figured you'd like some company. Saw your car after school. I thought about knocking, but then I realized that you were crying, so I walked home. Got bored, though, so I came back."

"Walked? What about your brother?" I said sharply. Argument or no argument, I wasn't just going to let Josh ditch Jude twenty-four/seven. Wasn't Josh Jude's ride home?

Jude shrugged again. "Broken nose. He left early."

Oh, right. I felt the smallest twinge of guilt, then brushed it away. "Oh. Okay. But really, why are you here? It must be at least ten, you don't just 'drop by' the school parking lot."

For a moment, Jude looked indecisive. Then he bowed his head and said quietly, "Josh came home just now. It's one AM." He suddenly looked very vulnerable, and my heart went out to him. "He's been clubbing for a while now, and it really bothers me." Jude ran a hand through his tousled brown hair, his face illuminated by a streetlight. For the first time, he actually looked like a fourteen year old.

I smiled halfheartedly. "Looks like we're both having crap days, huh?" On a whim, I held my arms out. "Need a hug?"

He seemed surprised for a moment, then enveloped me in his arms. I leaned against his chest and sighed. "Why do you have to be so tall?" I grumbled into his sweatshirt. I heard him laugh, then rest his chin on the top of my head.

"Why do you have to be so short?" he said snarkily. I "hmph"ed into his jacket, making a face that he couldn't see. But he'd walked all the way over here, just for me, so I decided to let him off for the shorty jibe. After all, I couldn't spend all of my time arguing, right?

Well. That was debatable.