Bond

by Isabela Powers

Hello and welcome to my free story page for Bond, my unofficially publihsed story. My name is Isabela Powers, author of The Dragon's Prophecy and, you guessed it, Bond.

You can go ahead and start reading my story for free by scrolling down, or you can use the chapter menu to jump straight to where you left off.

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For more information about me and my stories, please visit my website by clicking on "Website" above.

Finally, a few FYIs. This story was originally written as a fanfiction years ago when I first began my writing journey. It has been rewritten and edited for you sanity and reading safety. However, it is not being professionally proofread and much of the original plot has been left fairly intact. This may result in a few grammatical errors and a few (okay, many) whimsical scenes.

I hope you enjoy my story.

Chapter 1

Creamy White Skin

Tristan Hobbes

Tristan Hobbes stared at the brightening ceiling above his bed. He had been staring at it for nearly an hour. He never could sleep well the night before the first day of school. He recalls fondly that his mother used to be aware of this. She would peek her head into his room long before it was time to get up, smile at him when she saw that he was awake, and stay with him until it was time to get up. He remembers that she always smelled of flowers.

It has been seven years since his mother and father died. He had forgotten a great deal about them; he could hardly picture them in his mind without the help of a photograph. But he could never forget the way his mother smelled.

With a sigh, Tristan reached over to his nightstand to turn off his alarm clock before making to get up. He should have known there was no point in turning it on last night.

A quick shower and two games of Call of Duty later, Tristan made his way down to the kitchen. He arrived to find his older brother staring intently at the brand new coffee maker, his arms crossed tightly over his chest. He was dressed in his usual shirt and tie, his long dark hair neatly tied in the back of his head.

Their mother always said that both of her sons were the spitting image of their father. They all shared the same dark hair, bright blue eyes, and sharp square noses. As Tristan grew older, he realized that there was one thing he didn’t inherit, but Joshua did; their father’s towering height. While Joshua shot up to the envious height of five feet and nine inches at the age of fifteen, Tristan was still shorter by a solid six inches.

A fact that torments him and seems to invite others to torment him too.

As Joshua rubbed his chin thoughtfully, he had that look on his face. The one he usually wore when he wanted people to think he was deep in thought when in actuality he didn’t have a clue.

Dropping his backpack by the kitchen entrance, Tristan went to stand next to his brother before taking a look at the coffee maker. The two brothers were quiet for a few moments.

“I swear, they keep making these things more complicated with each new model,” Joshua said quietly. “They say ‘better and improved,’ but it has to be a gimmick.”

This was nothing new. First of all, the coffee maker was new, bought last night when the old coffee maker gurgled and spewed its last brew of coffee that morning. Secondly, Joshua was utterly useless around anything electronic. A mathematician to boot.

“Can’t get it to work?” Tristan asked.

“I followed the instructions to a tee,” Joshua said, tearing his eyes finally from the coffee maker to look over the small instruction booklet on the counter.

“I think I know what the problems is,” Tristan said as he reached behind the coffee maker.

“Thank God,” Joshua said with obvious relief. It appeared that he had been at it for some time. “I thought I’d be here all morning.”

Pulling back the power cord, Tristan dangled the unplugged end in front of his brother’s face.

“You need to plug it in,” Tristan said before leaning over the counter to do just that.

Joshua was silent for a few moments before turning to beam a smile at Tristan.

“I was going to make a light joke about how tall you’ve grown over the summer, but on second thought I think I’ll keep it to myself,” he said.

“Right,” Tristan muttered, throwing his brother a hard look. He made sure everything was set correctly in the coffee maker before turning it on. “You could have just asked me to set it up last night,” Tristan said.

“I could have,” Joshua said as he handed Tristan a plate full of eggs and toast, complete with a tall glass of orange juice, no pulp like Tristan preferred. Joshua might not have been good with electronic devices, but he was definitely very good at cooking. The best in Tristan’s opinion.

“But I figured you had enough on your mind,” Joshua said.

“Like what?”

Joshua looked momentarily confused.

“Well, like school.”

“School’s overrated,” Tristan said dismissively as he went to sit at the kitchen’s small island that served as their dining table. “Thanks for breakfast.”

“You’re welcome. And schools’ not overrated. You’re just too damn smart for your own good.”

“Right. Coming from the world’s youngest actuary,” Tristan said through a mouthful of food.

“I’m a young actuary, not the world’s youngest,” Joshua corrected Tristan modestly. “Besides, twenty-five isn’t all that young anymore.”

While Joshua wasn’t in fact the world’s youngest actuary, he was the youngest actuary in the building he worked. Something he was very proud of.

“You’re right,” Tristan said, unable to hide his smirk. “You’re old. I can see the white hairs from here.”

“Shut up.”

At that moment, there was a brief knock on the kitchen door before it opened and Ethan, Tristan’s friend since fourth grade, poked his bright orange head in.

“Breakfast?”

“Hot off the pan,” Joshua said, flashing a smile at Ethan was he pointed at the extra plate on the counter before serving himself a cup of coffee.

“Excellent.”

Letting himself in, Ethan took the plate and helped himself to several forkfuls of eggs before greeting Tristan and sitting next to him on the island.

“Is that the new coffee maker?” Ethan asked.

“Yup,” Tristan answered.

“As you can see, I got it working just fine,” Joshua said proudly.

“How many hours?” Ethan asked Tristan.

“One?” Tristan asked Joshua. “Or two?”

“It wasn’t that long,” Joshua said, turning to give the two friends his back.

“Two, huh?” Ethan asked Tristan, not a hint of a smirk on his face.

“Probably,” Tristan answered seriously.

“I can hear you, you know.”

“I still don’t get how your cooking is way better than my mom’s,” Ethan said before stuffing his mouth with more eggs and toast.

“Don’t tell her that,” Joshua said, swinging around to give Ethan a warning look. “I haven’t gotten her brown bread recipe yet.”

“Won’t make a differenf. Fe like your cooking af much af I do,” Ethan said through a mouthful of food.

“I didn’t get any of that, but I take it your mom will give me the recipe anyway,” Joshua said with a smirk as he glanced at his watch. Ethan simply nodded his head.

“Better hurry up,” Joshua said as he walked out of the kitchen and into the living room. “It’s almost time for school.”

“Sure thing,” Ethan called after Joshua. Ethan paused for a few moments, looking after Joshua’s retreating back until he disappeared into the living room.

“Don’t tell Josh, but Mr. Brown asked if I knew if you guys were selling any time soon,” Ethan whispered when he was sure Joshua was out of earshot.

“He never gives up, does he,” Tristan said with a scowl.

Mr. Brown, their next door neighbor, had been pestering both Joshua and Tristan about when they would sell the house. Granted, the house was a far too big for the two brothers, but it was the house their parents bought when Joshua was still a baby and the house both brothers grew up in. More importantly, it was the house where their parents’ memories lived.

Mr. Brown and several other neighbors had long ago lost their sympathy for the brothers and their loss. To them, the house, and all the grand space inside and out, was being wasted on Joshua and Tristan.

“Yup. Gave him the finger before coming into the house.”

“Nice.”

“Wanna kill his hydrangea after school?”

As tempting as the offer sounded, Tristan knew better. Besides, Mr. Brown would immediately suspect Tristan and that would only make things worse.

“Forget it. Not worth our time,” Tristan replied.

“Have it your way,” Ethan said with a shrug.

Tristan and Ethan finished up their breakfast and were soon making their way out of the house, Joshua in tow.

“I’m probably going to come home late,” Tristan informed Joshua as Joshua locked the house.

“Sounds good,” Joshua replied good-naturedly.

“See you later, Josh,” Ethan said as they walked down the driveway. “Thanks for breakfast.”

“Sure thing. You guys sure you don’t want a ride? I’ve got some spare time,” Joshua offered.

“We’re fine,” Tristan assured his brother.

“Alrighty.”

“You need to tell him to stop saying that,” Ethan said to Tristan after Joshua drove away, his expression dead serious.

“What makes you think he’ll listen to me?”

“You’re right. He’s going to be a virgin for life,” Ethan said, looking after Joshua’s retreating car with pity. “The poor bastard.”

Tristan chuckled.

“So, did you hear? Sheila Vanderwink moved out of town,” Ethan began to say as the two friends traced the familiar commute to school.

Sheila Vanderwink was the girl Ethan had had a crush on her for nearly as long as he knew her. Despite becoming a basketball star practically overnight during junior high, he never got the nerve to ask her out.

“Too bad,” Tristan said sympathetically.

“Heard there are two new transfers this year, though.”

“Girls?”

“Only reason I’m mentioning it,” Ethan said, as if Tristan should have known better.

“Ren told you?”

“Do you need to ask?”

Ren Amaya Madison was Sandy Hill High’s second most popular girl in the entire school. She claimed to be Sandy Hill’s gossip queen, and for most of their middle school and high school years, she reigned supreme. Not even Susan Swift, president of the journalist club and captain of the cheerleading squad, could top, or topple, Ren. The only reason Ren wasn’t the most popular girl in school was because for six months last year she had to go away. During that time Susan Swift and her “cronies”, as Ren liked to call them, had done everything in their power to not only cement their position as the most popular girls in school, but attempted to ruin Ren’s reputation in every way imaginable. A feat that proved useless, for as soon as Ren returned near the end of their freshman year, she managed to snag the title of gossip queen from under Susan Swift. And she was now Sandy Hill High’s official second most popular girl.

Not that Tristan gave a flying hoot. He was certainly better off not knowing all the nitty gritty details of Ren’s social standing at school. But Ren cared. Which was why against his better judgement he knew as much as he did.

They were about to cross Amber Street&emdash;the same street Tristan and Ethan got their asses handed to them nearly seven years ago before becoming best friends&emdash;when a girl suddenly appeared from around the corner. She stopped when she caught sight of them, their arrival apparently startling her.

Like a deer caught in headlights, she seemed too stunned to react and simply stared at them. Long enough for Tristan to note that her skin was probably the creamiest white he had ever seen, her dark hair and dark eyes seeming to make the white of her skin stand out even more, and that she was several inches shorter than him. By nearly two inches, if he was guessing correctly.

And she was pretty.

Tristan was about to say hello, sure that they had all stared at one another long enough, when without warning she turned on her heel and marched across Amber Street as if the devil himself were hot on her heels.

“What just happened?” Ethan asked confusedly when she was nearly two blocks away from them not a few seconds later.

“I don’t know,” Tristan answered distractedly.

“Is she headed to our school?”

“Seems like it.”

“Hot?” Ethan asked curiously as they resumed their walk to school.

“In a book smart kind of way,” Tristan answered casually.

“Agreed.”

“Really creamy white skin.”

Ethan paused.

“Did you just say ‘creamy white skin’?”

“Forget it,” Tristan grumbled, embarrassed he even said anything.

They were quiet for a while.

“Is it me, or does Ren grow another bra size every year?” Ethan asked suddenly.

“Does she?”

“Tell me you’re joking,” Ethan said, throwing Tristan an incredulous look. Tristan smirked.

“They’re huge.”

“Probably have their own zip code.”

“Area code.”

“In a few years, they’ll each be named a new state.”

Unable to contain themselves, they burst into laughter.

“Do you think she’d be pissed if she knew we were talking about her boobs?” Ethan asked.

“Probably not,” Tristan said. “I think she likes people talking about her, especially about her boobs.”

“You’re probably right.”

They entered the school grounds and gathered around the usual bench next to Dominic’s favorite tree was their friends.

“We were just talking about Ren’s boobs,” Connor Jackson stated as soon as Tristan and Ethan arrived. Connor Jackson has been obsessed with Ren’s boobs for as long as she’s had them. Actually, he’s been obsessed with boobs since he discovered them back in sixth grade.

“No kidding,” Ethan deadpanned as he elbowed Tristan’s arm.

“I swear they get bigger and bigger every day,” Wei Sutton commented as he raised his cupped hands and flexed his fingers.

“Don’t do that, man,” Ethan said, shoving Wei to the side as he sat next to him on the bench. “It’s rude.”

“What’s wrong with you? Woke up feeling like a prude today?”

“I got sisters. That’s just… disrespectful.”

“I’m just kidding around,” Wei said, shoving Ethan’s shoulder playfully.

“So, is that all you’ve been talking about?” Tristan asked as he greeted Dominic Chavez, the giant of Sandy Hill. At sixteen, he was already six feet tall and growing. Tristan wanted to envy the towering teen, but couldn’t bring himself to. Not when Dominic singlehandedly horrified every single kid that bullied Tristan throughout grammar and middle school with his mere presence. And he was a good friend.

“No,” Dominic answered. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t elaborate.

“See the new chick?” Wei asked, leaning forward as he looked across the campus grounds.

“Kinda short?” Ethan asked.

“Dark hair?” Tristan offered.

“Creamy white skin,” Ethan remarked, grinning like an idiot when Tristan threw him a glare.

“Did you just say creamy white skin?” Tristan asked in mock surprise.

“Like, seriously, Ethan,” Connor said, quirking a brow at Ethan.

“Listening to you losers go on about creamy white skin, it’s no wonder you’re all virgins,” Wei stated as he leaned back on the bench and sighed heavily. As if it were some sort of burden to be around Tristan and the others.

“And what’s holding you back? Oh, that’s right. The Snot,” Ethan said with smirk, the comment earning him hoots from their friends.

“Aw, come on man,” Wei whined. He always whined whenever the Snot was brought up. Probably because once the Snot was mentioned, there was no end to the amount of teasing Wei feel victim to as a result.

As would be expected, the group of friends continued to tease Wei until the first bell run several minutes later.

“Come on, Snot Nose Wei,” Tristan teased as he walked past Wei, bumping Ethan’s fist as he went.

“It was an accident, okay?!” he called defensively behind them.

“Oh, there you are! Wait up!” a very familiar voice called.

They all turned to find Ren Amaya Madison make her way over to them, her very large breasts preceding her very tall form, something Tristan could no longer avoid noticing. At least, not anymore. Tristan quickly averted his eyes, not wanting to be caught looking. Ren would never let him hear the end of it.

A quick glance at her flushed face and he knew that what was coming was not going to be good. She had that look on her face. A look that didn’t spell trouble; it screamed trouble.

There was no doubt that Ren was among the prettiest girls Tristan had ever met. He won’t deny that once upon a time, he had a crush on her, as did every other boy he knew. She was tall with a head full of wavy strawberry blonde hair and icy blue eyes that always glittered no matter where she was. It helped that she was fairly charismatic and kindhearted… to a point.

Ren also had a very cruel streak. Ren Amaya Madison wasn’t crowned Gossip Queen for her caring heart, no matter how good her intentions were. She loved butting into everybody’s business and worse of all, she loved playing matchmaker. Mischief and mayhem followed her like bees were drawn to honey.

“Hey Ren,” Tristan, Ethan, Connor and Wei greeted simultaneously when she finally caught up to them.

“Hello boys” she said sultrily, putting her hand on her hips as she gave them her best smile. This had both Connor and Wei practically foaming at the mouth as they ogled her. Flicking her hair away from her face, she approached Tristan. Without warning, she threw her arm around his shoulder and began to steer him away from the others.

“Hey, Ren!” Connor called desperately behind them.

“Bye” Ren called back with a dismissive wave before giving Tristan her undivided attention. “I found the perfect girl for you, Titan.”

“Haven’t I told you not to call me that?” Tristan complained, sighing heavily. Just as he predicted, trouble was already brewing.

“You know you love it. Anyway, don’t you want to know who she is?” Ren asked.

Tristan gave her his most uninterested and hell-no look he could muster. She blinked back at him expectantly, ignoring his obvious answer.

“No,” Tristan said after a few moments, scowling.

“Don’t be such a puss, Titan. Trust me when I say you’re going to love her. She’s short, shorter than you, by the way. I asked.”

Tristan groaned.

“Long dark hair, just the way you like it. Go ahead. Ask me who,” Ren insisted.

“The new girl?” Tristan said with boredom when Ren began to shake his arm with unabated excitement.

“Of course the new girl!” Ren said with exasperation, as if he should have known all along. “Did Ethan give you the scoop?”

“No.”

“Of course not. I should know better than to rely on a man.”

“I take offense to that,” Tristan interjected.

“Of course you do. Anywho, you guys have homeroom together.”

“Who?”

“You and the new girl, silly,” Ren said with playful shove of his shoulder.

As if remembering what she waltz over to him for, she stopped suddenly and turned him to face her. She looked over his clothing critically, immediately frowning after a quick glance.

“What?” Tristan asked defensively, looking down at his plain tee under his short sleeve button down shirt and jeans.

“I guess it’ll do,” Ren said as she reached over and turned up the collar of his button down.

“Will you stop it,” Tristan said, now aggravated that he was being tidied up for a girl he didn’t even know, or even cared to meet. If she was handpicked by Ren with deliberate intentions of pairing her up with Tristan, he didn’t want to meet her.

“Tristan,” Ren said seriously suddenly. “You need to get over Sandra.”

“What?” Tristan asked incredulously, his voice cracking miserably. He quickly cleared his throat.

“Just as I suspected,” Ren said matter-of-factly, slipping her arm through his before steering him through the school doors. “So, she’s short. Did I mention that?”

“You didn’t answer my question,” Tristan pointed out testily.

“Sweetheart, you didn’t ask one. Ooh, did I tell you that she likes literature? Big manga reader,” Ren said, throwing Tristan a sideway glance. She was well aware that he liked reading manga. Love it, actually.

“You’re lying.”

“Tristan, you should know by now that I wouldn’t lie to you. At least, not outright,” Ren said.

“She really said that?”

“Yup. She’s also addicted to Angry Birds which got me thinking that she could very well be your soulmate.”

“Because she’s addicted to Angry Birds?” Tristan asked monotonously.

“Honey, if there is anyone in this school with a nasty temper, it’s you. Ooh, there she is,” Ren said, whirling around to give him one last look.

“I’m not talking to her,” Tristan warned.

“Sure, sure,” Ren said dismissively, giving his collar one last tug before smiling widely at him. “Perfect. Now, be nice. She’s brand new and needs someone nice and caring to show her around. She’s the shy type.”

“I’m always nice,” Tristan said defensively, sure that he didn’t always have an attitude problem.

“If it helps you sleep at night, then sure, honey,” Ren said with a shrug.

She took a quick glace behind her before ducking her head. That made him very suspicious. Ren was a social butterfly, never one to shy away from any situation. Or anyone. Why was she hiding all of a sudden?

“Okay, she’s just a few feet away from us. Can’t miss her. Go make me proud, Titan.”

“I said not to call me that,” Tristan reminded her through gritted teeth as she moved behind him.

“Oh, and whatever you do, don’t mention my name.”

What?”

Before he could turn around to question her further, she gave him a hard shove and he was stumbling forward.

Right smack into the very pretty girl with creamy white skin.

Chapter 2

The New Girl

Mirabella Hoffman

Mirabella Hoffman hurried down the sidewalk, attempting to put as much distance between her and her stepfather as she could. She did not stop until she reached the small park just two block from her house. She hid behind the bushes that separated the park from the residential block before hugging her midsection and letting the tears she had been holding back spill.

She cried until there were no more tears to shed and the pain had ebbed into a dull feeling deep inside her chest. After two years of her stepfather's abuse, she should have developed an immunity to his insults and violence. But somehow he always managed to catch Mirabella off guard and hit her where it hurt the most.

This morning Salvatore felt the need to remind Mirabella of her mother's death and how it was Mirabella's fault. Mirabella could not count with her fingers the number of hours she spent glued to her computer screen, desperately researching the circumstances of her mother's death during childbirth to prove that Mirabella wasn't entirely responsible. That it wasn't her fault. Not really.

Despite the hard proof her research had provided since, there still existed a part of her that felt guilty and responsible. It only took a brief reminder to resurface that overwhelming guilt. The fact that the reminder was laced with her stepfather's poisonous words only made it worse.

Usually a good cry was all Mirabella needed before she had control again. But when it came to her mother, a good cry was never enough. Reaching into her shirt, Mirabella pulled out the small sterling silver cross her mother had given her when she was little and began to rub her thumb and forefinger over it. This always brought her a sense of relief and security. Its hard edges had smoothed and rounded over time, consequence of Mirabella's habit to rub her fingers over them. And though the fact that the cross' original shape would soon be lost, Mirabella could not stop herself from doing this. It was her last resort during these painful moments.

Closing her eyes, Mirabella concentrated on the comfort and peace the cross always brought her. Slowly but surely, Mirabella began to feel better. Carefully, she tucked it back into her shirt before reaching into her backpack and taking out the small tissue bag and cold bottle of water she had packed in its front pockets. After wiping her tears away, she dabbed cool water under her eyes in hopes of erasing the moment of weakness from her face. A quick glance into the small mirror she attached to her bag showed that her tactic worked. Lucky for her, it always worked.

Mirabella took a few more deep breaths before stepping out from the bushes and began tracing the route to school she mapped out a couple of days ago. This was the first time she was starting a new life in a new town. Her stepfather and his associates at the law firm had won a big case a few months ago, which Mirabella had hoped would have kept him occupied enough to forget about her, but that had been wistful thinking. The partners at the firm all agreed that it was the perfect opportunity to expand and opened a new firm several towns away with Salvatore as chief representative. Thus, the reason they moved away from the only home Mirabella had ever known.

To say she was nervous was an understatement; she was terrified. Nothing was more terrifying to her than to have to start all over again; start a new school, start a new life in a new town. It was too much to take in all at once, let alone figure out how to deal with it all. What was more, the only other teen she happened to meet had practically interrogated her about nearly every detail of her life. It turned out to be a horrifying encounter and Mirabella made a mental note to avoid Ren Madison like the plague.

Reaching into her bag, she pulled out the map of the school she had downloaded from the school's website three weeks ago when she and her stepfather first moved into the neighborhood. She had studied the map until she memorized all of the rooms her classes would be held in. There was no need to look at it any longer, but Mirabella hoped it would help distract her for the next few blocks.

When the map had done nothing for her but make her feel more anxious, she tucked it away with a sigh. At least she didn't feel the need to cry anymore.

Taking a turn to Amber Street, Mirabella thought about what her life would be like if her mother had not died. If her mother had lived long enough to see what a monster Salvatore DeLorento really was. Would she have left him? Would she have stayed? Mirabella liked to think that her mother would have thrown him out. Especially if he would dared raise his hand to Mirabella. In her fantasy world where her mother lived and her stepfather was thrown into gutter, she lived a happy life with her mother. Just the two of them. The way it had should have been.

Blinking away fresh tears, Mirabella focused on simply getting to school. She kept her head down and her eyes glued to the ground, not wanting to cross glances with any potential classmates she might encounter on the way. She succeeded the year before in being unnoticeable. And for most of the year, she was left alone by both teachers and classmates. She was hoping to do the same thing this year.

She reached the last intersection before she would turn to continue her commute to school when she suddenly came face to face with two fairly tall teens. Well, one of them was very tall.

For a few moments, Mirabella was too stunned to react. The very kind of confrontation she had been hoping to avoid happened. With two really good looking boys, to make matters worse. Most likely jocks if her luck was to be trusted.

Oh, great.

Both of them had rather perplexed looks on their faces, looks Mirabella had gotten accustomed to back in her old school. It was always followed by painful moments of awkwardness, or worse, pity. No one ever felt comfortable around a girl whose mother died. Some of the kids went so far as to call her “freak” and “weirdo”.

Not wanting to find out what these two jock-like guys thought about her, Mirabella turned on her heel and began to walk away from them as quickly as her legs could carry her. She didn't really pay attention to where she was going; she just needed to get away. When she felt she had gone far enough, she sneaked a glance behind her just to make sure. No jocks.

With a sigh, she looked around. Once, twice. She had taken a wrong turn somewhere. Mentally slapping herself—something she did with far more frequency than she cared to admit—she began to retrace her steps until getting back on route.

She arrived at the school gates a bit later than expected. Either that, or most of the student body arrived to school early. Crowds of bodies littered every corner and entrance. It appeared that the school's reputation as one of the most academically rigorous school was already showing in its students. Mirabella felt her anxiety start to spike.

With a deep breath, she tried not to think, at all, as she pushed forward. She kept her head down and eyes averted, bee-lining to the main building entrance doors. Hopefully, she would get through without too many mishaps.

And unicorns are real, she thought miserably, sure that her luck would only get her into more trouble. No sooner was the thought out of her head when she ran head long into someone. Someone short, but very sturdy.

As Mirabella stumbled back, her automatic apology was already tumbling from her lips.

“I'm so sorry!”

“Like, seriously, watch where you're going,” a rather snotty voice responded.

Mirabella felt her heart drop to her feet as the girl she bumped into turned around to quirk a perfectly manicured brow at Mirabella. Not only was she pretty, everything about her person—her stylishly short hair, brand name clothes, and bored expression—screamed rich snotty girl. Compared to Mirabella, who was still sporting clothes and accessories from junior high, it was clear who would reign supreme in this confrontation.

“It's fine,” the girl said suddenly, waving her hand dismissively as she occupied herself with her cellphone.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Mirabella began to inch past rich girl. The double doors of the main building were only a few feet away, after all.

“Is that a Hello Kitty chain?” rich girl asked suddenly, causing Mirabella to freeze in her tracks. She knew exactly what rich girl was talking about; it was the small key chain hanging from one of the zippers of her backpack, a gift from one of the friends Mirabella had to leave behind after the move.

“Oh… uh, I…”

“It is,” rich girl insisted, flashing Mirabella a wide grin as she lifted her white purse and dangled it inches from Mirabella's nose. As she adjusted her eyes, Mirabella was surprised to find that it was a Hello Kitty purse. With a bright satin pink bow tie and all. “I love Hello Kitty,” rich girl announced proudly.

“Oh… yeah, I do too,” Mirabella said awkwardly, unsure of what to make of the sudden turn of events, let alone the fact that a grown young woman was so into Hello Kitty she walked around with a Hello Kitty purse as if it were a Louis Vuitton purse.

“Excellent,” rich girl said, grinning rather impishly at Mirabella.

Mirabella had to admit that this was turning out to be an odd encounter. Her luck had never granted her an impish grin from anyone. Ever.

“Ro,” rich girl said suddenly, extending her hand to Mirabella. Mirabella looked at it for a few moments, surprised at how friendly rich girl was turning out to be.

“Hello?” Ro called impatiently.

“Oh, right,” Mirabella said quickly, snapping to attention. “I'm Mirabella,” she said, clasping Ro's very smooth and very soft hand, a sharp contrast to Mirabella's clammy one.

“Mirabella. That's a pretty name,” Ro commented.

“Thanks,” Mirabella said shyly, not sure anyone has ever told her that. “Um… so your name is just Ro?” she asked curiously.

“Go ahead and say it,” Ro said with a sigh as she occupied herself with her cellphone again. “It's a stupid name.”

“Oh, no,” Mirabella said quickly. “It's not stupid. I was just going to say that it was unusual is all.”

“It's Rosemund,” she said, wrinkling her nose in disgust.

“Rosemund is pretty,” Mirabella insisted. “Definitely prettier than Mirabella.”

“I disagree, but whatevs. I need to get to the main office. I'm new,” Rosemund said as she typed a few words into her phone and tucked it away before giving Mirabella her undivided attention. Now that Mirabella looked at her more closely, Rosemund had the strangest blue eyes Mirabella had ever seen. Almost violet.

“You think you can show me?” Rosemund asked, flashing Mirabella another impish grin.

“Actually, I'm new too,” Mirabella admitted.

“No kidding,” Rosemund said with a smirk. “Great. We can get lost together.”

Mirabella laughed out loud, her nerves getting the better of her, and immediately covered her mouth with her hand. It was reflex action. Salvatore hated loud sounds, which included laughter.

“You're weird. Do you always laugh like that?” Rosemund asked as she slipped her arm through Mirabella's before steering her forward. Mirabella was too stunned to answer. “I say,” Rosemund continued as if they had been friends all along, “let's cut class and hang out in the girls' bathroom. It'll be a whole lot more fun than going to class.”

“Oh no,” Mirabella exclaimed, horrified by the mere thought.

“I should have known you'd be a goody two-shoes,” Rosemund said with a roll of her eyes as they finally entered the main building. “Fine. Let's find the office. Any ideas?”

“Well…” Mirabella began to say tentatively, not sure of what to make of Rosemund… at all. “I… uh… I have a map.”

“Really? I didn't know there was a map,” Rosemund said, looking fairly impressed as she looked at Mirabella, her brows raised in surprise.

“Um… yeah. On the website,” Mirabella said as she reached into the back pocket of her jeans and pulled out her carefully folded map. Not that she needed it. She memorized it. But Rosemund didn't know that, and Mirabella thought it was better that way.

“Um… I think it's that way,” Mirabella said, pointing to the left at the upcoming intersection of hallways.

“Lead the way.”

They found the office in no time, but to Mirabella it was the longest walk of her life. Mirabella had never been on the receiving end of so much attention, and it was all Rosemund's doing. Inadvertently so. She was ogled by most of the boys that crossed their path, and looked over critically by nearly every girl they passed. All of which Rosemund paid no mind to. Mirabella couldn't decide if she was genuinely oblivious or if she was ignoring all the attention she was receiving on purpose. She certainly wasn't bothered by it.

“I still can't believe you managed to find a copy of the map on the school website,” Rosemund was saying as they entered the main office. “Or even managed to navigate the site. One look and I was done. I hate it when they stuff so much information on one page. I mean, how could anyone be expected to find anything on a page like that, right?”

“Right,” Mirabella answered automatically, not sure she wanted to disagree.

“You're obviously smart,” Rosemund said offhandedly, as if it were a fact of life and not an opinion.

“Oh, well, I had a lot of time on my hands during the summer,” Mirabella said shyly, caught off guard by the compliment. If it was one.

“I'm still impressed.”

“Um, thanks.”

“Maybe,” Rosemund whispered as she leaned closer to Mirabella. “You can learn how to hack into the school system so that we can change our grades to A's all the time.”

“What?” Mirabella blurted in surprise.

“Good morning girls,” the young woman sitting behind the large desk said when they arrived. “Checking in?”

“Uh…” Mirabella was too stunned to think properly.

“Yup,” Rosemund answered easily, smiling widely as she handed the secretary her id and forms.

“Thank you,” the secretary said as she began to look over the forms before typing into the keyboard of her computer.

Like a dork, Mirabella could only stare dumbfounded, Rosemund's words still pinging around in her head. Did she really mean what she said?

Rosemund nudged her shoulder and Mirabella found the secretary looking at her.

“Are you new too?” she asked.

“Oh, yes.” Fumbling, Mirabella dug her hand into her backpack before pulling out her own set of forms and id.

“Can I call you Mira?” Rosemund asked her as the secretary got to work on Mirabella's paperwork. Mirabella automatically frowned in distaste. Salvatore called her Mira whenever he was pointing out how stupid she was.

“I'll take that as a no,” Rosemund said with a chuckle. “Bella?”

Mirabella hesitated.

“Well… my mom used to call me Bells,” Mirabella admitted quietly. It was the first time she had ever mentioned the nickname to anyone. She was surprised she mentioned the precious nickname at all. Suddenly, she wasn't so sure about her willingness to share it.

“Bells. I like it,” Rosemund said with a smile.

“Thanks,” Mirabella said shyly.

“Rosemund Knight,” the secretary called suddenly as she handed back their paperwork. “You wouldn't be the daughter of Alan Knight, CEO of Tech Enterprises, would you?”

It took a few moments for that to sink in for Mirabella. She did a double take when it finally did.

“Your dad is CEO of Tech Enterprises?” she asked before she could stop herself.

“Pretty obvious, huh?” Rosemund said with a smirk. The smile didn't quite reach her eyes, however.

“Must be nice to have a celebrity as a dad,” the secretary said with a beaming smile.

“Not really,” Rosemund said as she put her papers away. “Thanks,” she said to the secretary before confiscating Mirabella's arm again and pulling her along as she made to exit.

Mirabella was unsure of what to say. She was an admirer of Alan Knight. Many of the innovations he made have been revolutionary. Though from the look on Rosemund's face as she tried to act like it wasn't big deal clearly indicated that it was a big deal to her, and not in a positive way.

“So… your dad is pretty important,” Mirabella said tentatively as they walked out of the office.

“He likes to think so,” Rosemund said with a shrug. “I'd appreciate it if you didn't go around and tell everyone you know. I mean, I'm sure the secret's going to get out eventually. But better later than sooner, right?” she then said.

“Oh, sure,” Mirabella said hurriedly. “I…I didn't mean to pry.”

“Don't worry about it. So, what does your dad do?” Rosemund then asked Mirabella.

Mirabella paused. She didn't like talking about her home life or her parents for obvious reasons. It was bad enough that her mother was dead, her real father was alive somewhere in the world, choosing to live a life that did not include Mirabella. And Mirabella never wanted to talk about her stepfather. He was an asshole.

“Sorry. Am I prying?” Rosemund said when Mirabella didn't answer immediately.

“What? No,” Mirabella said quickly, talking before she thought about her words properly. “No, my… uh…dad, well, he's…he's not really in the picture,” she then admitted awkwardly.

“Oh, both of your parents? That must be rough,” Rosemund said sympathetically.

“Wait… how did you know about my mom?” Mirabella asked in surprise.

“Oh,” Rosemund exclaimed, seeming to catch herself as she looked over at Mirabella. “I'm sorry. You said your mom used to call you Bells. I just assumed…”

“Oh, right. I did say that,” Mirabella said with a nervous laugh.

“Is she…” Rosemund left the unasked question hanging in the air.

“Um… yeah. She… she died,” Mirabella said quietly, the sting of sudden tears accompanying her statement.

“I'm really sorry to hear that, Mirabella,” Rosemund said, her sentiment seeming genuine as she wrapped her arm around Mirabella's shoulders and gave them a small squeeze.

“Thanks,” Mirabella said, emotion spilling into her voice. “Sorry,” she said as she quickly wiped away a stray tear from her cheek.

“Don't apologize. I understand,” Rosemund said as she reached into her purse and pulled out a small Hello Kitty tissue bag before handing a tissue to Mirabella.

“Wow, you really like Hello Kitty,” Mirabella commented as she took the tissue.

“I wasn't kidding,” Rosemund said with a straight face. “Besides, you don't walk around with a Hello Kitty purse at the ripe age of fifteen unless you're really passionate about it.”

Unable to help herself, Mirabella laughed.

“So, where's your homeroom?” Rosemund asked, as she pulled out her schedule and checked it.

“Room 107,” Mirabella answered automatically as she quickly wiped away the last of her tears.

“Me too. Excellent,” Rosemund said, flashing Mirabella another wide smile. “So, where to, Map Leader.”

“That way,” Mirabella answered pointing to the left.

“Seriously. Scary how you memorized that map,” Rosemund said as she began walking in the direction Mirabella pointed.

The further they ventured into the building the more people they encountered. Crowds of people lined the lockers and the space between them to socialize. Sandy Hill High was, after all, the largest and prestigious high school in the state with a population of nearly eight hundred students. It also boasted the largest amount of high-profile students, evident by the number of expensive brands that flashed in and out of Mirabella's line of vision as she crossed paths with her classmates.

“And here I thought the rich only made up a small percentage of society,” Rosemund called back to Mirabella, turning her head to roll her eyes.

Though Mirabella still felt self-conscious and uneasy, she didn't feel as bad with Rosemund at her side. She exuded an air of confidence that Mirabella not only admired, but found a little contagious.

They were only a few feet away from their homeroom classroom when out nowhere, a boy crashed headlong into Mirabella. Caught off guard, Mirabella stumbled back and shot her hands forward as reflex, only succeeding in slapping the boy in the face as she went down. This was immediately followed by a few hoots from nearby onlookers.

“Whoa,” she heard Rosemund say before she felt a small, but sturdy hand take a firm hold of her arm and pull her back to safety. Quite suddenly, the danger of falling on her backside in front of her classmates was gone. Mirabella blinked in confusion when Rosemund asked her if she was okay.

“I'm fine,” Mirabella said, finally gaining control of her senses again. She looked at the boy that crashed into her and found him cradling his nose. She immediately felt horrified that she slapped him silly. And that a couple of their classmates were pointing and laughing at him, though a few patted his back sympathetically.

“Wow, you pack a slap,” he said as he pulled his hand away to check for blood. Thankfully, there wasn't any.

“I'm am so sorry,” Mirabella quickly apologized. “I really didn't mean to.”

“It's fine,” the boy said as he touched his fingers to his nose again.

“Don't apologize,” Rosemund said as she crossed her arms over her chest. “He crashed into you, remember?”

Despite the fact that Rosemund was right, Mirabella still felt bad. It didn't help that he looked remarkably familiar. When he finally lowered his hand and looked at her, she suddenly remembered; he was one of the boys from this morning. The shorter one.

“Are you okay?” he asked her.

“Oh, uh, yeah, I'm…I'm fine,” Mirabella assured him.

“Like, seriously,” Rosemund said. “Watch where you're going.”

“No, no,” Mirabella said quickly. “It's fine. I'm fine. Really, I'm sorry.”

He smirked, the action making him look more handsome that he already was. Mirabella immediately felt heat rise into her cheeks. She quickly averted her eyes from him, but not before she noticed that he had really nice eyes. Bright blue, like the sky.

“I should be the one that's sorry. I wasn't looking,” the blue eyed boy said, somewhat bashfully as he rubbed the back of his head. “Sorry.”

“Really, it was just an accident,” Mirabella said hurriedly.

“Quite frankly, I'd say you're both even. That was quite the impressive slap there, Bells,” Rosemund said.

“I'm really, really sorry,” Mirabella said as she reached her hands up to her cheeks in utter embarrassment.

“Don't worry about it,” the blue eyed boy said with a chuckle.

“Yo cuz, what's up?!” a new booming voice called suddenly before a tall and tanned Asian boy came up to Rosemund and captured her in a bear hug. “And you found homeroom all by yourself? I always said you were smart.”

“Ugh!” Rosemund cried in disgust. “Without your help,” she snapped as she pushed the Asian boy off of her. “Don't you answer your phone, you animal?”

“Details, schmetails,” the Asian boy said with a dismissive wave of his hand before putting his arm around her shoulders and steering her into their homeroom class. “Let me introduce you to my friends,” Mirabella heard him say as they disappeared inside. “Listen up! This here is my hot cousin, Ro.”

“You're so disgusting!” Rosemund practically screeched. “Don't introduce me like that!”

Unable to help herself, and despite feeling bad for her new friend, Mirabella chuckled into her fingers.

“My name is Tristan, by the way,” the blue eyed boy said, reminding Mirabella that they were still in the hallway and that she had slapped him in the face.

“Oh, hi,” she said, her face immediately flushing with heat. “I mean, my name is Mirabella.”

He chuckled, tipping his head slightly as he covered his mouth with his closed fist. He was really cute.

“Are you in this homeroom?” he asked her curiously.

“Oh, uh, I… I mean, yeah,” she said, nodding her head like an idiot. She felt it was time for her to make an escape. So far, she's managed to slap him in the face and stutter through her apology and greeting. She didn't want to find out just how bad it would get if she continued to linger in the hallway with him.

Before Mirabella make good on her escape, their homeroom teacher, a rather short, olive skinned young woman with long dark hair, stuck her head out the door before saying, “All right. Don't linger in the hallways. Come in.”

Tristan stepped aside and gestured for her to go first.

“Thanks,” Mirabella muttered shyly, bowing her head as she walked past him. As she stepped into homeroom and caught sight of her classmates, she remembered that she was brand new and didn't know a soul, save for Rosemund, who was kidnapped by her supposed cousin. Quite suddenly, she was anxious, nervous, and utterly self-conscious all at once.

“I left my friend outside...”

Mirabella glanced up to find Rosemund walking towards her, her tall Asian cousin in tow.

“Oh, well, hello,” the Asian boy said with a wide grin as he came to stand next to Mirabella, all the while looking her over. “It's such a pleasure to meet you,” he continued to say suavely, attempting to slip his arm around Mirabella's shoulders.

“Don't get your monkey hands on her, Wei,” Rosemund immediately snapped as she slapped his arm away before taking Mirabella's hand and pulling her after her. “You're sitting next to me,” she then announced. Mirabella was unsure of how to respond.

“Do you see how disrespectful she is, Titan,” Wei asked Tristan.

“Don't call me that,” was Tristan's immediate response as he took a seat not too far from where Rosemund was leading Mirabella. He glanced at Mirabella and Mirabella swore her heart skipped a beat.

“Alright, Sutton. Take a seat,” their homeroom teacher called to Wei.

“Yo, Miss Teach! How you been? Did you miss me?” Wei asked, changing direction as he diverted his attention to their homeroom teacher.

“It's Miss Rivera, and no, I certainly did not miss you calling me Miss Teach,” Miss Rivera said, not a hint of smile on her stern face.

“That's harsh, Miss Rivera. Real harsh,” Wei commented, clutching his chest as if his heart had been seriously wounded as he made his way to the nearest empty seat.

“Don't pay him any attention,” Rosemund said as she and Mirabella sat on adjacent desks. “He's an idiot.”

Mirabella couldn't help but giggle, her sudden doubts and fears forgotten.

“Mirabella Hoffman,” Miss Rivera called suddenly, startling Mirabella.

“Yes?”

Miss Rivera looked up from her roll book before flashing Mirabella a welcoming smile.

“Welcome to Sandy Hill High.”

“Oh. Thanks,” Mirabella said shyly.

Despite feeling sheepish, Mirabella smiled. A real smile. Sandy Hill High wasn't so bad after all.

Chapter 3

Protector

Rosemund Knight

“I actually like most of his plays,” Mirabella was saying as she and Rosemund walked into school.

“You are one of the few, Bells,” Rosemund replied as she checked her phone to find three unread texts from her father. A follow up, a reminder, and a reprimand. Just then, her phone dinged once to indicate an incoming message. Yet another reprimand from her father for not answering.

Convinced that her father was being a Nazi again, Rosemund replied “Get over it.”

There would be hell to pay for that later, but at the moment Rosemund felt fairly pleased with her reply. Her father was becoming even more overbearing than she remembered and she was becoming incredibly frustrated with his lack of trust in her. She signed his contract, didn’t she?

Turning off her phone, Rosemund tucked it away into her Hello Kitty purse before giving Mirabella her undivided attention.

Midnight Summer Dream is definitely not one of my favorites,” Mirabella was saying as she climbed the stairs after Rosemund.

“Really? I thought you’d be into the whole fantasy aspect. It’s got fairies and a cute little faun.”

“Okay, first of all, Puck is not cute at all. He’s annoying. And while I do like fairies, the play as a whole has no point.”

“Do any of his plays have a point?”

“Yes,” Mirabella stated defensively.

Rosemund turned to look at her friend to find a very defiant Mirabella staring back at her.

It wasn’t the first time Rosemund got a peek at the real Mirabella, the one who wasn’t inhibited by her shyness or timidness. The Mirabella that was passionate about books and writing, and determined to convince the world that PB&J was a real meal. And Rosemund adored the real Mirabella.

“Okay, Bells. Whatever you say,” Rosemund said with a smirk, giving Mirabella’s shoulder a playful shove.

“You know what I mean,” Mirabella said shyly, seeming to catch herself.

“I do. And there’s nothing wrong with being outspoken, Bells. You have to be if you want the rest of the world to know what you mean. The world out there is nasty, and you have to be nasty back if you want to go places,” Rosemund reminded her friend as they waded their way through the halls, heading towards homeroom.

“Okay, Ro. Whatever you say,” Mirabella said, giving Rosemund’s shoulder a light shove in return.

“I think you’re starting to understand what I mean.”

They reached homeroom and as planned, Rosemund walked past it.

“We just missed homeroom,” Mirabella pointed out.

“I know. I have to return Tristan his notes.”

“Oh.” Mirabella hesitated, falling behind.

“Yes, of course you can come with me,” Rosemund said with a roll of her eyes, turning around to take Mirabella’s arm.

“Actually, I was going to remind you that we have homeroom with him.”

“I don’t want our classmates to be privy to our interaction,” Rosemund clarified.

“You make it sound like you’re about to do something illegal.”

“You can say that.”

“You had a disagreement,” Mirabella said, bewildered. “That’s not illegal.”

“You clearly don’t understand the situation, Bells. He insulted my intellect.”

“He was just disagreeing with your point.”

“He was condescending. And even if he hadn’t meant to be condescending, he still needs to learn a lesson. Like, how not to be condescending. Besides,” she added as an afterthought. “I hate losing.”

“Clearly. But I really don’t think he meant to sound that way, Ro,” Mirabella insisted.

Rosemund stopped walking and turned to look at her friend.

“What?” Mirabella asked uncertainly, reaching up to tuck a few strands of hair behind her ears. It was a nervous tick.

“Whose side are you on?” Rosemund demanded.

“Is that a trick question?” Mirabella asked, looking genuinely confused.

“The answer should be obvious.”

Mirabella looked indecisive as she blinked at Rosemund, the tips of her ears turning pink the longer she stared.

“Really?” Rosemund asked monotonously. “You’re considering taking his side?”

“I’m not taking sides!” Mirabella exclaimed, flustered. “I… you… it’s… it’s an unfair question!”

“Fine. Don’t get your panties all tied up in a bunch,” Rosemund said, rolling her eyes again before continuing to Tristan’s locker. The lucky bastard’s locker was a mere two classroom doors away from homeroom. Rosemund’s, on the other hand, was four hallways, one staircase, and another two hallways away.

Tristan, as Rosemund expected, was already lounging by his locker, along with Ethan O’Connor and Dominic Chavez, the gentle giant as he was consistently referred to by both friends and teachers. Wei, thank the heavens, was nowhere to be seen. He would have made a big fuss over Rosemund and Tristan’s debate, and she wasn’t in the mood to relive the argument again.

Rosemund wasn’t particularly angry at Tristan; he had in fact made valid and legitimate arguments during their discussion of Romeo and Juliet during English class yesterday. What Rosemund did not appreciate was manner in which he spoke to her. As if she were an idiot to think what she thought. That was unforgivable.

Unfortunately, it so happened that he took excellent notes in physics and she had borrowed them before their heated debate.

Rosemund supposed she could have just given Mirabella the notes to give back to him. But that would have put Mirabella in an uncomfortable position, and that wasn’t fair to her friend. Even if she was taking his side. And had an unbelievable crush on him.

Needless to say, Rosemund knew how to be the better person. How to put aside her differences for the sake of civility.

“There she is,” Ethan announced when he caught sight of Mirabella, flashing her a wide smile as she and Rosemund approach.

Unlike his shorter friend, Rosemund liked Ethan. They hadn’t interacted much, but already Ethan seemed like a likable guy. He was very easy to talk to and there was less intensity to his personality than there was to Tristan’s. In her personal opinion, she thought Ethan was a better love interest for Mirabella than Tristan, but it wasn’t her place to tell her newfound friend who to like.

“Hi,” Mirabella said shyly, hiding the bottom half of her face behind the notebooks she carried in her arms, the tops of her ears immediately turning a bright pink color.

“All cooled down?” Ethan then asked Rosemund, amusement crinkling the corners of his eyes.

“Yes,” Rosemund said, throwing him a hard look before turning to Tristan. “I have your notes,” she said as civilly as possible as she handed him his notes.

“Thanks,” he replied, taking the notes and neatly putting them inside his backpack. “Still mad at me?” he asked as he stole a glance at her from the corner of his eye.

“Yes,” Rosemund said as she crossed her arms.

Tristan sighed heavily before straightening to face her.

This wasn’t their first confrontation. They’ve had several, albeit minor ones, over the course of the two weeks they’ve come to know each other. Yet, Rosemund wasn’t ready to write him off as the enemy. Tristan had yet to cower away from their confrontations and or make lame excuses for himself, which, in her experience, was what most boys his age were prone to do, especially when confronted with someone as strong minded as her.

She had to admit that she admired his fearlessness.

“I wasn’t trying to offend you,” he reminded Rosemund.

“It’s not your argument I was offended by,” Rosemund countered. He blinked in confusion at this. It appeared that he was unaware that he sounded condescending.

Rosemund sighed, not sure she wanted to waste energy explaining what she meant, not if he was completely clueless about it.

“Kissing and making up?” came the unexpected question from behind Rosemund, immediately making Rosemund blush against her will. She whirled around to find Ren Amaya Madison appear next to her. She draped her arm around Rosemund’s shoulders before flashing her a wide, mischievous grin.

“Far from it,” Tristan said with a frown.

“Oh really? The look on your face says otherwise, Rose,” Ren said, her evil smile widening.

“Actually, I’d appreciate it if you mind your own business,” Rosemund said with a scowl as she shrugged Ren’s arm off her shoulders.

“Ooh,” Ren said as she scrunched her face. “Zinger.”

“If you came to bother us, too late. Bell’s about to ring,” Tristan said as he tapped his finger to the top of his wristwatch. “I guess we’ll talk later,” he said to Rosemund, already moving away. It was clear he was itching to get away. Rosemund didn’t blame him. Ren teased him mercilessly.

“All right, Mr. Moody. I wasn’t here to see you anyway,” Ren said with a scoff. “I’m here to see Rose.” That evil smile was back.

Crossing her arms, Rosemund turned to face the towering strawberry blonde.

“Coming?” Ethan asked Mirabella, who was now cowering behind Rosemund. She was terrified of Ren.

“Oh, hey there, Mirabella. Didn’t see you back there,” Ren said to her sweetly, wiggling her fingers at Mirabella. Mirabella did not reply.

“You can go on ahead, Bells. I’ll catch up,” Rosemund said over her shoulder.

“Are you sure?” Mirabella asked uncertainly, still not coming out from behind Rosemund.

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

“Okay,” Mirabella replied hesitantly before scurrying after Ethan and Tristan.

“Bye,” Ren called after her sweetly. “They make a cute couple, huh?” Rosemund was unsure of who Ren was referring to

“What do you want?” Rosemund demanded.

“I heard you got into a very heated debate with Tristan yesterday,” Ren began to say, not missing a beat. “I wanted to invite you to the debate club.”

“Are you a recruiter?” Rosemund asked curiously.

“President, actually.”

“Really?”

“Surprised?” Ren asked, quirking a brow as she smirked. She also crossed her arms over her chest. Defensive.

“Impressed actually.”

“Good.”

“Is Tristan in it?” Rosemund asked.

“No. Do you like him?” Ren countered casually. Caught off guard, Rosemund felt herself blushing again as she sputtered to answer quickly.

“What? No!”

That evil smile was spreading across Ren’s face again, making Rosemund very apprehensive. So far, Ren had proven to have an abnormal affinity for gossip and playing matchmaker. Two very specific things that could work against Rosemund and everything she stood for if Ren felt like it.

The last thing Rosemund needed was for a rumor that she had a crush on Tristan, who at the moment was her temporary enemy, to spread around. It would discredit her recent debate with him entirely, and instead be viewed as a childish attempt to flirt with him.

As Tristan had warned her before their debate, Ren was proving to be trouble.

“You better not be getting the wrong idea,” Rosemund warned Ren, pointing a threatening finger at her nose.

“I don’t know whatever you mean, Rose,” Ren said with feigned innocence. Rosemund glowered at her, knowing that Ren knew full well what Rosemund meant.

At that moment, the homeroom bell rung.

“Ooh, we late homeroom,” Ren said, not looking in the least bit upset or worried about the fact as she continued to smile.

Rosemund continued glower at her as Ren blew her a kiss before making her way down the hallway.

Several moments later, Rosemund was reprimanded for being late when she arrived to homeroom. Not that she cared. A few minutes late wasn’t really a big deal.

“Two more times and you get detention,” Ms. Rivera informed her as she took her seat next to Mirabella.

Rosemund frowned. That was bad news. Detention was sure to get her father’s attention, and that was always bad news.

“It won’t happen again,” Rosemund reassured Ms. Rivera.

Later, as they made their way to first period, Mirabella sulked, feeling bad about having left Rosemund alone, sure that she had she stuck around, she would have prevented Rosemund from being late. Not only was that very sweet of her to worry, but she was proving to be a more valuable friend than Rosemund anticipated.

“Don’t feel bad, Bells,” Rosemund said as she wrapped her arm around Mirabella’s thin shoulders, giving them a reassuring squeeze. “Besides, would you have really asserted yourself with Ren around?”

“No, I guess not,” Mirabella muttered, dipping her chin in defeat.

“Aw, you’re so cute when you’re sad,” Wei said as he appeared next to Mirabella, giving her dipped chin a playful tap with his closed fist. Almost immediately, color spilled into Mirabella’s cheeks.

“Leave her alone,” Rosemund demanded, giving his shoulder a shove.

“Did you know that once upon a time, Ro and I were inseparable?” Wei said to Mirabella. “Like two peas in a pod.”

“I find that hard to believe,” Tristan remarked, appearing next to Rosemund with Ethan. Rosemund quirked a brow at him, sure that they were not yet on speaking terms. Seeming to realize it too, Tristan turned his face away, but not before Rosemund saw that his ears had turned a bright pink color.

“So how are you two related again?” Ethan asked curiously.

“She’s adopted,” Wei said.

“Really?” Mirabella asked immediately, perking up.

“Bells, you should know by now not to listen to a word he says,” Rosemund said.

“I could have sworn you were the adopted one, Wei,” Ethan said.

“What can I say,” Wei said with a shrug of his shoulders as he smirked. “My parents couldn’t resist this adorable face.”

“Right,” Ethan remarked straightfaced.

“Hey, so why do you keep call her Bells?” Wei asked Rosemund, seemingly genuinely perplexed. “Is that like an inside joke or something?”

“None of your business,” Rosemund replied, smirking at him.

“Fine, be that way,” Wei said, not looking nearly as offended as Rosemund expected. He leaned towards Mirabella, a good for nothing smile spreading across his face. “Wanna know which pop star got Ro’s heart to turn to mush?” he asked Mirabella.

“Shut up!” Rosemund yelled, shoving him away. “Go away, you traitor!”

“We’ll talk later, Bells,” Wei said with a grin as he mimicked a phone with one hand while snapping his fingers and pointing at Mirabella with his other. Like it was a cool thing to do.

The four friends were quiet as they watched him retreat down one of the intersecting hallways.

“I’m pretty sure Wei and I have algebra together now,” Rosemund remarked. “And he’s going the wrong way.”

“I’m going that way,” Mirabella said as she pointed in the opposite direction, looking rather shell shocked.

“See you at lunch,” Rosemund called after her. Mirabella gave her a little wave as Tristan made his way to her side.

“You’re going that way, right?” Ethan asked, pointing ahead.

“Yeah.”

“So, how do you like Sandy Hill so far?”

“It’s fine, I guess,” Rosemund said with a shrug of her shoulders.

“You made one good friend.”

“You mean Mirabella?”

“Sure do,” he answered good-naturedly, his expression neutral.

“Well, that’s because she’s different.”

“Agreed.”

Rosemund glanced at Ethan. He clung to the shoulder straps of his backpack as he stared ahead with a seemingly blank look on his face, his bright orange hair a hot mess atop his head. He seemed like a happy-go-lucky kind of guy. Though, Rosemund had a nagging suspicion that there was more to him than met the eye. Something a bit more intense just under the neutral mask he seemed to wear at all times.

“Mr. Howard or Mrs. Spencer?” Ethan asked suddenly.

“What?” she asked, confused by the sudden change of topic.

“If you had to choose the last teacher in the world to teach you, who would it be, Mr. Howard or Mrs. Spencer?”

It was an odd question, but she humored him. Mr. Howard was the physics teacher and Rosemund was convinced the man was insane. He also had a very heavy accent making it hard to understand a word he said. Mrs. Spencer, on the other hand, didn’t have an accent nor was she crazy. Though what she lacked in the crazy department she made up for in strictness. Nazi style.

“Mrs. Spencer,” Rosemund answered.

“Sure you don’t need to think about that one?” Ethan asked, quirking a brow at her.

“No. English is my strongest subject, in case you didn’t notice.”

“Not really,” he said with a straight face, seeming to have forgotten yesterday’s heated debate. She couldn’t tell if he was kidding or not. Regardless, she couldn’t help but laugh.

“Mr. Howard is crazy,” she reasoned.

“Brilliant people are usually misunderstood,” Ethan pointed out.

“You’d pick Mr. Howard?” Rosemund asked in surprise.

“In a heartbeat.”

“Can I assume you’re passing physics?”

“Failing already, actually. Can’t understand a word he’s saying,” Ethan said, smirking at her. “This is you, right?” he then asked, pointing at her next class. She hadn’t realized they had arrived.

“Yeah,” Rosemund answered, unable to hold back a smile as she looked after him.

“See you later,” he said with a small wave before turning to head to his next class.

“Yeah, later,” Rosemund said, more to herself than to Ethan.

Shaking her head, she stepped into her algebra class.

“Whoa!” she heard someone yell behind her before two pairs of long arms wrapped around her midsection and she was lifted two feet into the air.

“Wei!” Rosemund yelled as he twirled her around.

“Sorry,” he said, not sounding the least bit sorry as he set her down. She whirled around to glare at him. “I was running into class and nearly ran into you. But did you see that? Totally saved you from eminent disaster.”

Rosemund blinked at him incredulously. Not because he thought that he saved her, but because he actually thought that lifting her into the air and twirling her around was an actual save.

“Who’s your favorite cousin?” he then asked cockily.

“Mr. Sutton,” Mr. Falco called sternly.

“Sir,” Wei answered, swiveling around to salute their algebra teacher, earning him several chuckles from his peers. Mr. Falco, who seemed on the verge of issuing Wei detention, struggled to keep a smile from twisting his lips before he gestured to an empty seat.

“Just take your seat.”

“Yes sir,” Wei answered obediently before doing as told. He truly was an idiot.

Rosemund took her own seat, straightening her uniform as she did so. No sooner had she taken her seat when Tamara, a coffee skinned girl with the best set of natural curls Rosemund had ever seen, turned around in the seat in front of her and slapped a piece of paper atop Rosemund’s desk.

“Okay,” Tamara began to say, quirking a brow as she spoke. It was a natural facial gesture that made her appear far too business-like. “I wasn’t sure if you’d be a good candidate, but after witnessing how well you held up just now, I’m sure you are.”

Rosemund blinked at her classmate in confusion, sure she didn’t have the slightest clue as to what Tamara was talking about.

“I’ll make this quick. I’m president of the Karate Club and I want you to join,” Tamara said. “Or else,” she added, lifting her quirked brow a bit higher for emphasis. She appeared very serious and not in the least bit amused as she waited for Rosemund’s response.

“Or else what?” Rosemund asked, startled.

“I’m kidding,” Tamara said as she fell prey to a fit of giggles. The Karate Club president. Giggling. “The look on your face was priceless.”

“I’m so glad you thought so,” Rosemund said sarcastically.

“But seriously. Join my club,” Tamara said, serious again.

“Can I think about it?” Rosemund asked.

“Oh. Yeah. Sure.”

“Ms. Williamson,” Mr. Fortuna called.

“Turning around,” Tamara called, quirking her brow at Rosemund again as she whispered, “Join,” before turning around.

Rosemund scoffed in disbelief as she looked down at the paper Tamara had slapped onto her desk. It was a Karate Club flier. Of course it was.

Rosemund folded the flier and placed it in her backpack, making a mental note to seriously consider the offer. It would certainly disappoint her father on a number of levels.

At the end of the day, Rosemund put away the books she didn’t need into her locker, slamming it shut with more force than she intended. She wasn’t particularly angry, but the fact that she would soon be walking out to a nondescript black car with a personal driver at the wheel was starting to make her irritable. It always did. She didn’t understand why her father just didn’t let her live a normal life, like she wanted.

Speaking of her father…

Rosemund checked her phone. She expected an angry text, or worse yet an angry call, after this morning’s sassy reply. Like clockwork, there was one single text waiting in her inbox.

We need to talk.”

Lovely.

The need to rebel made her take the long way around to the main school entrance, where her personal driver would be waiting for her. The long way being a walk down the labyrinth like hallways of the main building until arriving to one of the side doors on the far north of the building, a solid five minute walk from the main entrance. Hopefully, the walk would give her enough time for her to qualm her mounting anger. Outbursts were not only futile, they usually got her in trouble. If she recalled correctly it was an angry outburst that landed her in the “rehabilitation spa,” fancy for a behavioral correction facility, about a year and a half ago. It was a place Rosemund never wanted to experience again.

She was rounding one of the many corners when a loud thud caused her to pause. Walking backwards, towards one of the narrow hallways that led to a hidden classroom to her left—there were a couple of those. Rosemund wondered what kind of classes were held there and why they were hidden—where next to a long line of lockers a towering teen was hovering over a smaller one.

“I asked if you had a problem, nerd,” the towering, buffed teen asked angrily.

Rosemund frowned. She couldn’t think of a more cliché thing for a bully to say. As a matter of fact, she couldn’t think of a more cliché scene, period.

As she looked on, Rosemund was torn. It was against her every fiber of being to allow someone to get picked on. She understood it wasn’t her battle to fight, but if there was something she hated more than her father’s endless lectures and contracts, it was the injustice of a bully’s torment.

She couldn’t walk away.

“I said I-I-I…” the kid on the other end began to say bravely.

The beast of a teen that hovered over him laughed, turning to someone behind him as he said, “Listen to him. C-c-can’t even talk right.”

Not thinking twice, Rosemund turned into the hallway and stormed towards the aggressor. She had no clue what she was going to say or do, but that didn’t matter. Anger was roiling deep in her gut and when that happened, she didn’t think; she just did.

Dropping her purse and backpack on the floor, Rosemund practically ran towards the meaty teen and shoved him back and away from his chosen victim with all her might. Caught off guard, the beastly bully stumbled back before losing his balance completely and toppling to the ground. He hit the floor with a satisfying and resounding thud that nearly made Rosemund smile.

“Pick on someone your own size, you jerk,” Rosemund said, breathing heavy.

As the bully attempted to get back on his feet as quickly as possible, and failing miserably, the stuttering kid, a tall lanky boy with glasses—really stylish looking ones too—immediately pushed off the wall and made to escape, bumping harshly into Rosemund’s shoulder as he said, “I d-don’t need y-your help.”

Rosemund stared after him in surprise, shocked he would be so rude when she was clearly helping him. She got angry all over again at his lack of balls to not only thank her, but stand up to his aggressors with her.

“You have some nerve, bitch,” a menacing voice said far too close behind her. Rosemund turned to find the towering teen now towering over her, two other boys Rosemund had failed to notice flanking his sides. She recognized the bully: Donovan Davis, a senior and the school’s lacrosse star player. His picture and name hunt next to the lacrosse trophy display case at the school entrance. It was hard to miss.

She didn’t immediately recognize the other teens, but they looked familiar. Probably lacrosse players too.

“It’s the new girl everyone’s been talking about,” the boy to the left of Donovan said, not looking nearly as happy about the revelation as he probably meant. This was no surprise to Rosemund. It was one of the perks, if one wanted to call it that, of having such a powerful and well-known businessman as a father.

“Rich daddy’s little girl,” the other boy said, smirking. He didn’t look hesitant at all. As a matter of fact, he looked happy about the fact.

It appeared that Rosemund was dealing with first-rate bullies.

“And you have some nerve picking on someone that can’t match your strength,” Rosemund said angrily to Donovan, ignoring the other two boys as she squared her shoulders and jutted out her chin. “You know what we call people like that? Cowards.”

Donovan stared her down, the play of a smirk twisting his lips.

“Bet you think you’re hot shit because daddy is the all-powerful Alan Knight, huh?” he said, stepping closer to her. Rosemund refused to appear scared or weak and stood her ground.

“Who cares?” Donovan continued. “My dad is Roland Davis. Know who that is?”

Rosemund did not respond. She could honestly care less about who his father was.

“Of course you don’t. Rich pretty girls like you don’t care about anybody else but yourselves, isn’t that right.”

“No,” Rosemund said defensively.

“Yeah right,” Donovan said with a scowl.

“Oh, I see,” she then said as she crossed her arms over her chest. “You guys are just pissed your own daddies aren’t rich and famous. Boring,” she said as she yawned dramatically.

“Boring, huh?” Donovan asked, his scowl seeming to deepen as he took another step towards her.

Rosemund immediately felt apprehensive. A small shiver of fear ran down her spine as she saw his eyes darken with something akin to malice. She made to take a step back, but Donovan snapped a hand forward and clamped his meaty fingers around her arm before yanking her towards him. Stumbling forward, Rosemund crashed against his rock hard chest.

“Let go of me!” Rosemund yelled, her voice shrill as he caught her off guard.

Seeming to derive satisfaction from the sudden fear in her voice, a crooked smile twisted his lips.

“Is daddy’s little rich girl scared?” he taunted as he gave her arm another yank.

“I said let go of me!” Rosemund demanded as she struggled against his hold.

“Hey!” a new voice called behind her. Whirling her head around, Rosemund found two boys several steps behind her, one of them Ethan. She felt relief wash over her at the familiar sight of him.

“Getting your hands dirty already?” the other boy said when he noted Donovan’s hand around her arm.

It took Rosemund a few moments to recognize him. Kingsley Martin, captain of the basketball team. Though he was a junior and wasn’t in any of Rosemund’s classes, Kingsley hung around Ethan enough times for Rosemund to be introduced to him.

With new prey to occupy his attention, Donovan discarded Rosemund with a shove, walking past her as he made his way over to Ethan and Kingsley, his two followers close behind. Rosemund massaged her arm as she scowled at his retreating back.

“I don’t remember inviting you over,” Donovan said, stopping a breath away from Kingsley’s nose.

“I don’t remember needing an invitation to do as I pleased,” Kingsley replied, tipping his head back as he smirked down at Donovan.

“Why don’t you basketball freaks go mind you own business,” Donovan said threateningly, his two lackeys closing in on Ethan and Kingsley.

“Actually, Rose happens to be a good friend of mine,” Ethan said, his tone surprisingly threatening despite the rather nonchalant look about his face. “And I always look out for my good friends.”

Startled by his remark, Rosemund tore glowering eyes from the back of Donovan’s head to look at Ethan. There was a hard edge to the look in his eyes as he looked at Donovan and Rosemund wondered if it was truly because he was worried about her wellbeing or because there was more to the seemingly animosity between him and Donovan.

“Aw, how cute,” the boy to the left of Donovan said as he patted Donovan’s shoulder and pointed at Ethan with his thumb. “He’s worried about his girlfriend.”

“I’m not his girlfriend,” Rosemund felt the need to clarify.

“Boy, you guys are dumb and deaf,” Kingsley said, nudging Ethan’s arm as he continued to smirk. “Ethan said she was his friend.”

“Jealous one of your teammates isn’t into you?” Donovan’s other pal said. “Not into your gay tendencies?”

No sooner were the words out of his mouth than Kingsley was grabbing a handful of his shirt and pulling his fist back, ready to pound him senseless. The amused smile he sported just moments before was replaced with a vicious sneer, the change so violently drastic, it took Rosemund a few moments to realize what was happening.

Before he could land a punch, Ethan was pulling him back, an arm looped around Kingsley’s fisted hand.

“Hey! What’s going on here?”

Mr. Holland, the music teacher, appeared behind Ethan and Kingsley, a look of surprise pulling his thick bushy brows high on his forehead. It appeared that he had been heading into the hidden classrooms and had certainly not expected to walk into the middle of fight.

“What are you boys doing?” he asked, his face turning red as he took in Kingsley’s raised fist and the lacrosse players’ handfuls of his shirt.

Realizing that they were now in the presence of a teacher, all five boys backed away from each other, busying themselves with straightening their uniforms as they looked everywhere but at each other or Mr. Holland.

“I hope you boys aren’t fighting,” Mr. Holland said sternly as he tentatively stepped closer to the group.

“No, sir, we weren’t,” Donovan said quickly as he dug his hands into his pockets.

Mr. Holland looked over at Kingsley and Ethan. Kingsley swiped the back of his hand over his nose as he stared daggers at Donovan and his friends while Ethan reluctantly nodded his head.

“Just a disagreement,” Ethan said stiffly.

“Good. Well, get to where you need to,” Mr. Holland said, ushering them out of the hallway.

Donovan and his crew immediately made their way out, but not before throwing Ethan and Kingsley a threatening look.

“And what are you doing?” Mr. Holland asked Rosemund in surprise, noticing her for the first time.

“Getting my things,” Rosemund mumbled, making her way to her discarded bag and purse, which were sitting idly next to Kingsley’s long legs.

Ethan and Kingsley waited for her before following her out of the hallway. Rosemund walked quickly, hoping to get away from them all, but given her short height and their long legs, that was wistful thinking.

“You okay, Knight?” Kingsley asked her.

“I’m fine,” Rosemund called. “I really have to get home,” she said, flashing him and Ethan a stiff smile before turning at the end of the narrow hallway and speeding towards the side exit. When she didn’t hear their response, or their following footsteps, she was sure they were leaving her alone. She was pretty shaken by what just occurred and needed time to herself before she could face anyone. Much less Kingsley or Ethan.

She almost reached the double doors when Ethan called out to her.

“Hey, wait up, Rose,” she then him say.

“I said I’m fine,” Rosemund called over her shoulder, no longer able to mask her irritation.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” he asked when he reached her, sounding genuinely mystified.

Rosemund paused, taking a breath before she turned to face him.

“Look,” she said, turning to face him. “Thanks for standing up for me. Really. But I don’t need your help anymore. I just need to be alone, okay?”

He blinked at her for a few breaths, not showing any signs of a reaction. Then, for a few more breaths.

“Hello? Did you hear me?” she asked him impatiently.

“I heard you,” he said finally, his expression indiscernible. “I just don’t understand why you’re mad. Did he say something to you?”

“I didn’t say I was mad,” Rosemund reminded him angrily.

“You sound angry.”

“I’m not—”

Rosemund took another breath, though it was more of a huff.

“He did say something, didn’t he?” Ethan insisted, concern now clouding his eyes. For some reason, that made her even angrier.

“I said no,” she snapped. “Why do you even care?”

“Because he’s an asshole,” he answered with a forwn, as if the answer should have been obvious. “And because you’re my friend,” he added. As if that too should have been obvious.

Rosemund stared at him in surprise. She had expected him to be irritated with her. That was usually the response from her peers when she gave them an attitude. But Ethan was proving to be a whole different kind of stubborn.

“Are we not friends?” he asked, his tone uncertain now as he quirked a questioning brow at her.

“No,” Rosemund said quickly. “I mean, yes.”

Once again, she felt herself blushing.

“Good,” he said, smirking. “Come on. I’ll walk you home.”

“What? No,” Rosemund said confusedly. “I mean, don’t you have practice.”

“I’ll just come back,” he said with a casual shrug of his shoulders, as if it weren’t a big deal.

“Don’t be stupid, Ethan,” Rosemund remarked with a frown. “Isn’t Mr. Kennedy your coach? He’ll eat you alive.”

“And here I thought you didn’t care,” he said with another lazy smile.

“I don’t,” Rosemund answered defensively, feeling another blush heat her cheeks. “I mean, I have a ride.”

“Oh. Good,” he said, nodding his head. “Then I guess I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Yeah. Sure.”

There was a few moments of awkward silence as they stood there and stared at one another. Then at everywhere else but at each other. Realizing that he was probably waiting for her to turn and go—after all it was her who was heading out and he heading back to gym—Rosemund felt another wave off heat spread across her face before she turned and practically barreled through the double doors. She desperately needed time to think. She didn’t remember ever blushing as many times as she did today.

“Stay out of trouble, princess,” Ethan called behind her, the seemingly benign nickname stirring her blood.

“Hope you have a brutal practice, O’Conor,” Rosemund called back haughtily. She learned not too long ago that he hated to be called by his last name. Something about it reminding him of his father.

“Sure thing.”

He sounded too chirpy for her likes and she stole a glance at him to find him smirking at her through the narrowing gap of the closing double doors. She was about to deliver another blow to his ego when he turned and disappeared into the building, leaving her words teetering on her tongue.

Pissed that he had the last word, she turned with a huff and began making her way to her ride. She had more pressing matters to worry about. Her father and his wrath in particular.

She was a few feet away from the black town car, parked patiently just after the bright red and white sign that read “NO PARKING”, when the back passenger door opened suddenly. Rosemund stopped abruptly, dread immediately filling her insides. In the two weeks since she has had a personal driver, never had the back passenger door opened on its own.

As she watched a pair of legs, clad in an expensive pair of suit pants, swivel out before the rest of the expensive suit clad body followed, she realized very slowly that the worst case scenario was slowly unfolding before her.

Dressed in his best Armani suit, the very one her mother fondly reminded Rosemund was his favorite since Rosemund had picked it out, Alan Knight gave his suit jacket a light tug to straighten it before turning to face her at last.

She was told often that she resembled her father a great deal. They had the same dark hair and the same dark blue eyes. But that was as far as their similarities went. Rosemund actually resembled her mother the most, their heart shaped faces, small noses, and cupids bow lips practically identical.

“Come in, Rose,” Alan said smoothly, motioning her to climb into the car.

Rosemund hesitated, panicking suddenly as she realized that he must have witnessed her interaction with Ethan. Then she remembered that it didn’t matter. If he was picking her up personally, she was already in trouble. Big trouble.

“Yeah,” she said quickly, composing herself as she took the remaining steps to the car and climbed in.

“It’s yes, Rosemund,” her father corrected as he climbed in after her. “Let’s go home, John,” he called to the driver after closing the passenger door.

“Sure thing, boss.”

Rosemund busied herself with fixing her hair and her shirt as she watched her father from the corner of her eye. She wasn’t exactly sure why he felt the need to retrieve her and she didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of being intimidated by his sudden appearance. Despite the fact that she was freaking out on the inside.

“You’re clearly avoiding the issue, Rose,” Alan said after a few moments of silence.

“I don’t know what the issue is, father,” Rose said insufferably, flicking her hair just the way he hated it before turning her head to frown at him.

“Watch your tone,” Alan warned, his voice dropping dangerously. Rosemund’s heart skipped a beat. “You clearly failed to show up to the car in the agreed time.”

“It’s not like it was an hour or anything,” Rosemund said dismissively.

“You failed to meet the terms of the contract, Rose,” Alan pointed out impatiently.

Rosemund paused.

“That’s not why you’re here,” she said slowly.

“This morning’s insolent text was a clear indication that you are falling back to your rebellious ways,” Alan said, composed once again.

“It was one text,” Rosemund could not help but argue.

“You’ve been pushing boundaries for a while, and apparently you’ve been picking fights in class,” he countered calmly, though disapproval flashed in his eyes.

What?” Rosemund asked, losing her composure completely as her voice rang shrilly inside the small space of the backseat.

“Keep your voice down,” Alan warned.

Rosemund racked her brain, trying to deduce how her father found out about the fight in the hallway, which was only a few moments ago. There was no way he could have found out about it. It took her a few moments to realize that he said “class” and not “school”, most likely indicating the heated discussion she had with Tristan yesterday. She should have felt relieved by the realization, but instead felt outrage that he was keeping tabs on her. This wasn’t particularly a surprise, but she was pissed anyway.

“It wasn’t a fight, okay?” she explain as she attempted to reign in her anger. “We were just discussing a book. No big deal,” she added with a dismissive wave of her hand, trying her best to seem as unbothered by the news as possible.

“It is a big deal, and you should know better,” Alan snapped.

It was clear that his mind was made up. There was nothing she could say or do that would change his mind.

Sucking her teeth, Rosemund crossed her arms and hunched down in her seat, something her father always disapproved of. A proper young lady should never suck her teeth or slouch in her seat. She hoped with all her might that this made him just as angry as she was with him.

Next to her, Alan remained silent for a very long stretch of time.

“You’re grounded,” he said finally.

“Fine.”

She could do without her laptop, or her phone, or her tablet, or whatever else he felt the need take away for the next couple of days. She had her books after all.

“For a month.”

Rosemund closed her eyes, her irritation with her father immediately morphing into rage at the injustice of his harsh punishment. But she didn’t dare argue. There was no point arguing. She never won any of their arguments. Besides, it might land her in the “rehabilitation spa” again, and she would rather suffer through a thousand punishments first.

“Fine,” she said, not caring that emotion had spilled into her voice.

She turned her face away from her father and stared out the car window as frustrated tears gathered in her eyes.

“Rose,” her father called quietly, shifting in his seat. He was uncomfortable. He always was whenever she cried. She was glad. He should feel uncomfortable. He deserved it.

“I’d rather speak to mom,” she informed him, her voice cracking miserably. Though her father never showed it, she knew that this line always bothered him.

He shifted again, but did not say anything. The rest of the car ride was quiet, and later, when they finally arrived home, though her mother hugged her and kissed her and made the effort to explain, an empathetically as she could, her father’s motives, it did very little to improve the growing resentment Rosemund felt towards him. Despite doing her best to change, her father was far from changing. His old ways were still intact.

How had she ever thought things would be different this time around?

Chapter 4

Secrets

Ethan O'Connell

Ethan padded into the kitchen to find his mother in front of the stove, three sets of lunches neatly stacked on the counter next to her. A sparkling Frozen tin lunch box sat behind one stack, while a Star Wars tin lunch box sat behind another. Behind the last stack was a simple paper brown bag, his mother’s secret message neatly printed on the front in black marker.

Ethan stared at it for a few minutes, deciphering the message in his head.

“PB&J is a real meal?” Ethan asked.

Not having realized that he had entered the kitchen, his mother gave a startled yelp before whirling around to stare at him wide eyed.

“Ethan!” she exclaimed as she clutched her heart with her free hand.

“Sorry,” Ethan said apologetically. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”

“You’re so quiet,” his mother said as she let him kiss her cheek. “What are you doing up so early?”

“Avoiding dad,” Ethan explained as he inspected the lunch his mother prepared for him.

As if on cue, there was a number of thumps on the floor above them followed by his sisters’ squeals and their father’s booming laughter.

“Well, at least they enjoy your father,” Mariam said with a chuckle as she turned and began packing the finished lunches into the lunch boxes.

“Are you rethinking why you married such a goofball?”

“I love that your father is such a goofball,” his mother said with a smile. “Can you imagine if he was a stuck up, stuffy, and boring doctor?” She shuddered for emphasis.

“True.” He looked at the coded message again, before flicking his fingers over it. “Mirabella is going to have a field day with this,” Ethan remarked as he placed the lunch his mother carefully prepared into the bag.

“Well, the lazy part of me agrees with her,” Mariam said, flashing Ethan a smile.

“You’re not lazy, mom,” Ethan said.

“Well, I’m slowly getting my energy back. Finally,” she said as she closed the last lunch box.

Ethan looked over at her and studied her profile as wiped her hands on the dish towel before moving to wash the dishes in the sink. She looked… alive. A stark difference to a few months ago when she could barely lift her hand, let alone bounce around in the kitchen. She now had a bounce to her step. It helped that her orange curls, recently grown back, were bouncing along with her.

“You look energized,” Ethan said, flicking his fingers over a few of her curls.

“They’re growing back,” she pointed out as she fluffed her curls.

Ethan was quiet for a few moments.

“I’m glad it’s over,” Ethan said quietly, speaking about it for the first time since she was first diagnosed with cancer. He fiddled with his lunch bag as his mother turned to look at him. It took a fair amount of willpower to meet her gaze. For the longest time, he couldn’t look at her without the overwhelming fear that it might be the last time he did.

She wiped her hands before approaching him and reaching up to cradle his face, a tender smile lifting the corners of her lips.

“You don’t need to worry anymore, Ethan. I’m not going anywhere,” she reassured him, pulling him down to kiss his forehead. They looked at one another few a few moments before she patted his shoulder. “Now, go have some toast.”

Turning his head, he saw a plate full of toasted bread on the adjacent counter, the small tub of butter sitting patiently next it.

“I take it back,” Ethan said.

“Take back what?” Marian asked.

“You are getting lazy,” he said, motioning to the toast.

With a chuckle, his mother hit him lightly on the shoulder before getting back to washing dishes.

Not long after, the peaceful silence was disrupted when the twins came barreling down the stairs, followed closely by their father, running past Ethan, nearly knocking his toast from his hand, before attacking their mother with hugs on all sides.

“Is that all you’re eating?” Ethan’s father asked him as he paused to catch his breath. Ethan turned to find him looking at Ethan’s buttered toast critically. “A growing man like you should have eggs along with that toast. And orange juice. Though I would suggest milk for you bones, but I know how you feel about it. Sure you wouldn’t prefer chocolate milk? Or how about strawberry?” he suggested after opening the fridge door and peering inside.

“I’m good, dad,” Ethan said, placing a hand on his father’s shoulder before steering him away from the refrigerator. If allowed to follow through with his suggestions, Ethan would be forced to eat and drink everything his father thought a growing young man should have.

“All right, all right,” his father said in defeat. “I mean, you’re up early. The least you can do is make yourself a well-rounded breakfast. Haven’t I been telling him this for years, Marian?”

“Yes, dear,” Marian answered distractedly.

“Oh, look at that. I have to go to Tristan’s,” Ethan said as he glanced at his watch. There was only so much he could take of his overbearing father. Regardless of how well intended he meant to be.

Patting his father’s back, Ethan made his way to the kitchen door, his mother’s lunch firmly in his hand. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it too far before his tomboy sister appeared in front of him. Without warning, she delivered a death blow to his gut, complete with a grunt that could rival the meanest mouse alive. Thankfully, Karen was only ten and her punches were akin to a mosquito bite. Not that he would tell her that.

“Ow,” Ethan enunciated, frowning down at his dark haired sister.

“Did it really hurt?” Karen asked hopefully, her chocolate brown eyes wide with hope.

“No.”

“Then why you’d say ’Ow’?” Karen demanded.

“Because you shouldn’t go around punching people.”

ldquo;I only practice on you.”

“Karen, I hope you’re not hitting your brother again,” Mariam said, looking very stern as she crossed her arms and looked down at her middle child before ushering her to the table for breakfast.

“I’m heading out,” Ethan called as he grabbed his backpack.

“Tell Joshua I said thank you,” his mother called.

“For what?” Ethan asked, confused.

“For your second breakfast,” Mariam said, winking at him once before her attention was seized by the twins.

“That’s an insult to your mother,” Isaac called, miffed.

“It didn’t sound like she was insulted,” Ethan remarked.

“Still.”

“Weren’t you the one that said that I should have a well-rounded meal?”

“Oh, well… yes… but…”

Ethan quirked a brow at his father before disappearing behind the kitchen door. He walked until his house was out of sight and then jogged the rest of the way to Tristan’s house, needing to put as much space between himself and his family.

It wasn’t that he couldn’t stand being with his family. He loved them. More than he could tell. But after the cancer scare, he couldn’t quite go back to how things were. The possibility that the cancer might come back still lingered in the air. And the stress, tension, and fear would come rushing back as if the cancer had never been obliterated at all. As a matter of fact, Ethan felt the tension and fear hiding just under his surface. Like he was holding his breath, waiting for the nightmare to start all over again.

The others didn’t seem to be tense as he was. As a matter of fact, they all seemed happier than ever, now that his mother was back on her feet and bustling about. He supposed he couldn’t blame them. For the first time in what felt like forever, they were a normal family again.

As Ethan walked up the stoop to Tristan and Joshua’s house, he tried to convince himself that everything was back to normal. That everything was going to be okay. A mantra that was becoming part of a daily routine.

“What’s wrong?” was Tristan’s immediate question when Ethan settled next to him on the kitchen table, Joshua’s plate of omelet perfection in his hand.

“What do you mean?” Ethan asked in surprise.

“You look like your cat died,” Tristan explained. “If you had a cat.”

“Nice analogy,” Ethan remarked, digging into Joshua’s breakfast.

“Terrible analogy,” Joshua commented, shaking his head as he took a sip of his coffee, his attention glued to his smartphone as he leaned against the counter across from them. He was transitioning from reading the actual newspaper to reading the newspaper online. It took him a while, but Tristan managed to convince him to give it a try.

After a few moments of silence, Tristan asked Ethan, “So?”

“So, what?”

“What’s bothering you?”

“Nothing.”

Tristan stared at Ethan for a few moments before shrugging his shoulders and digging into his food.

“I know,” Joshua chimed, setting down his cup of coffee before typing a few words into his phone. After a few minutes of typing and scrolling, he gave a satisfied nod before turning his phone around to show them a video. A cat video.

“I’m done,” Tristan said not a few seconds after the fuzzy face of a kitten filled the screen of Joshua’s phone, pushing his finished plate away and standing up.

“How can you walk away from that adorable face?” Joshua asked as he peeked at the screen. Behind him, Tristan grimaced as he carried his empty plate to the sink. “Don’t you feel better, Ethan, now that you’ve watched this?”

“I think I do. Is this one of your saved videos?”

“Yup,” Joshua answered happily, not a trace of shame or guilt on his face.

“Share it with me.”

“Done.”

“Seriously?” Tristan asked Ethan.

“Girls dig the cat videos.”

“Now we’re talking,” Joshua said encouragingly.

“I’m leaving,” Tristan huffed as he slung his backpack over his shoulder and made to exit.

“Hey! I’m not finished!” Ethan called just as the front door closed loudly.

“So moody,” Joshua muttered as he gave his coffee his undivided attention again.

A few minutes later, Ethan clambered out of the Hobbes residence to find Tristan sitting on the porch steps.

“Are you really upset?” Ethan asked him curiously.

“No. I just hate those videos.”

“Triggering past horrors?”

Tristan gave Ethan a hard look.

“Fine. Forget it,” Ethan said as he climbed down the steps. “Let’s get going. Mirabella is probably already waiting for us.”

“We’re actually on time,” Tristan pointed out as he checked his watch. Ethan didn’t miss how meticulously his friend was keeping track of time lately.

“So, what’s bothering you?” Tristan asked again as they started walking.

“Like I said before, nothing,” Ethan answered.

“I know that look on your face,” Tristan insisted.

Ethan was quiet as he thought about what to say.

“I’m not really sure I want to talk about it,” he said finally.

Tristan was quiet. After a few moments, Ethan was sure that the conversation was over.

“Well, I’ll listen when you do.”

“Thanks,” Ethan said, meaning it.

They arrived at the corner where Mirabella was waiting for them.

“Hey,” Tristan greeted. There was a merry ring to his greeting, a merry ring that was noticeably absent pre-Mirabella.

“Good morning,” Mirabella greeted shyly, her chin already dipping behind the books she always hugged close to her chest. Ethan flashed her a smile before they started walking together.

Ethan liked Mirabella. She was smart and insightful, already having offered them each sound advice on homework, teachers, and a few of their friends. Though, more on homework than anything else. And she was cute. Very cute. Especially when she blushed.

Stealing a look at her again, Ethan saw that she was nearly as into Tristan as he was into her. Specifically because she was paying attention only to Tristan.

“Right Ethan?” Mirabella asked suddenly.

“Sure,” was Ethan’s immediate answer, despite having no idea of what they were talking about.

“You don’t have a clue, do you?” Tristan asked, completely throwing Ethan under the bus. Some friend.

“Sure I do. Mirabella’s always right.” Mirabella dipped her head shyly at this.

“Right,” Tristan said, sarcasm thick in his tone.

A dark car suddenly pulled up next to them before the lightly tinted window on the passenger side lowered and the man within greeted them with a toothy smile.

“Hello,” he said smoothly, his toothy smile widening. Ethan’s immediate thought was creepy.

“Mirabella, I didn’t know you walked with your friends to school,” the man said.

Ethan and Tristan looked back to Mirabella to find a look of pure horror petrifying her features.

“I’m Salvatore,” the man in the car said, causing both Ethan and Tristan to look back at him. “Mirabella’s father. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Hello, sir,” was Ethan’s automatic response, not trusting himself to say anything else.

“Hi,” Tristan called next to him. “I’m Tristan.”

“Ethan.”

“Tristan and Ethan. And you’re good friends with Mirabella?” Salvatore asked.

“We are, sir,” Tristan answered.

As the shock of meeting Mirabella’s father so unexpectedly wore off slowly, Ethan began to take note of Mr. Hoffman’s person. Right off the back, Ethan saw that he was a meticulously put together man. His hair was neatly combed back, his face clean shaven, and his suit and tie carefully in place. Ethan also noted that his car was very shiny, very new, and very expensive. A Mercedes Benz.

Mr. Hoffman also had a slight accent. Spanish or Italian, Ethan couldn’t tell. Which made him think of Mirabella’s nationality. He hadn’t been aware that she was Spanish or Italian.

“Good. Well then, I expect you boys to take good care of my Mirabella. Bye, Mira,” he then called to Mirabella, waving at her. Ethan glanced back at her to find her give her father a weak wave in return.

With one last creepy smile, Mr. Hoffman took off.

The teens were quiet as they watched his car drive away.

“Your dad drives a nice car,” Tristan commented.

“Um… yeah,” Mirabella said distractedly.

“You okay?” Ethan asked her.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she answered quickly, attempting a half-hearted smile before turning to continue down their route. “Um… we should get going. Or we’ll be late,” she called stiffly, already several paces ahead of them.

Tristan and Ethan exchanged surprised looks before they made to catch up to her.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Tristan insisted.

“I’m fine,” was Mirabella’s uncharacteristically snippy response.

The rest of the walk was uncomfortable and awkward. Mirabella walked just a step ahead of them and was quiet the entire time as she hid behind her books. Neither Ethan nor Tristan spoke or tried to ask her anymore questions. It was clear that she didn’t want to talk about what it was that was bothering her.

Upon arriving at the school gates, Mirabella gave them a hasty goodbye before scurrying into the main building, muttering something about the bathroom.

“That was… weird,” Tristan remarked as he looked after her.

“What do you think that was about?”

“Dad was creepy.”

“Creepy as hell.”

“Hey, what’s up?” came Wei’s cool greeting as he came to stand next to them, following their gaze when they didn’t answer immediately. “What are we looking at?”

“Hey,” Ethan said as he tapped Wei’s shoulder with the back of his hand. “Where are my math notes?”

“Don’t worry, O’Connell. Got them right here,” Wei said with a grin as he began to shrug his backpack off. His attention was immediately thwarted, as it was prone to be, by a girl. Isabel Johnson specifically.

“Hi Ethan,” she called, flashing him a smile as she passed him. Ethan gave her a small wave, making a mental note to catch up with her later. He and Tristan have known Isabel since they were kids, but Ethan didn’t become friends with her until last year, when she asked for his advice and help. She had wanted to try out for the girls’ basketball team and he was more than happy to give her a few pointers. They have been good friends since.

“Isabel!” Wei called as she started walking away, Ethan’s notes completely forgotten as he chased after her.

“Hey man! My notes!” Ethan called after him.

“Later!”

“Can’t keep it in his pants, can he?” Tristan asked.

“Come on,” Ethan said. “Let’s find the guys.”

After the homeroom bell rung, Ethan and Tristan, along with Dominic, Connor and Wei, made their way into homeroom. Mirabella was already there, her nose dug into a book, while Rosemund was nowhere to be seen. Which was nothing out of the ordinary; whenever Rosemund was absent, Mirabella found company in books. After this morning, however, Ethan wasn’t so sure Mirabella was acting ordinarily.

“Hey,” Ethan said when he and Tristan approached her desk. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” she said, the edge gone from her voice as she tipped her head to smile at them.

“I’m here!” came Rosemund’s sudden exclamation behind them just as the homeroom bell rung. Ethan turned to find her arms spread wide, as if she had just halted to a stop.

“Done like a pro,” Wei said at the other side of the room.

“Good save, Rose,” someone else complimented her.

As if catching herself, Rose immediately dropped her arms, smiling triumphantly nevertheless, before making her way to her seat next to Mirabella.

“Hey guys. What’d I miss?” she said, all business now, as she straightened her uniform.

“We were just keeping Bells company until you got here,” Ethan said, nudging Tristan’s arm with the back of his hand. “Come on.”

Tristan gave him a questioning look before folllowing him to their usual seats.

“I figured Rose would know what to say,” Ethan whispered to him.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Tristan said after a few moments.

“Guess what?” Connor asked when Ethan and Tristan took their seats, his eyes bright with excitement as he gripped the back of his seat in front of Ethan.

“You grew a backbone?” Dominic suggested.

“That’s what I was going to say,” Wei said as he nudge Dominic’s trunk for an arm.

“You got your first A?” Tristan asked.

“You asked a girl out?” Ethan offered.

“Get out,” Wei said, shoving Ethan’s shoulder.

“Okay, you guys are jerks. I hate you all,” Connor announced with a frown. “Except you, Ethan,” he added, patting his shoulder.

“Good to know,” Ethan said.

“Hey man, I was going to celebrate the fact that you grew a backbone,” Wei said, looking very serious.

“I have a date for the homecoming dance,” Connor revealed with a wide grin, clearly unable to hold back as he talked over Wei.

“Nice,” Dominic said.

“Dude, it’s September. Homecoming dance isn’t ’til March,” Wei pointed out.

“I’m impressed,” Tristan said, nodding his head in approval.

“Who’s the lucky girl?” Ethan asked.

“Caroline Martinez.”

“Do we know a Caroline Martinez?” Wei asked the group.

“She’s a freshman,” Connor explained.

“Ah. That explains it.”

Ethan turned to give Tristan a look, a look that only Tristan would understand, to find his friend’s attention focused on Mirabella across the room.

The friends continued to tease Connor and ask him about his new date until the morning announcements began and Ms. Rivera asked them to be quiet.

The rest of the morning was fairly uneventful. That is, until the end of third period. After a particularly agonizing forty minutes of US Government during third period, Ethan escaped from his class only to come face to face with Rosemund’s fierce scowl.

“What?” he asked, taking a step back and away from her, her ugly scowl nearly scaring him out of his skin.

“What did you and Tristan do to Mirabella?” she demanded.

“What?” he asked, bewildered this time.

“You know what,” Rosemund answered as she crossed her arms. “Mirabella is clearly upset and you and Tristan were the last ones to talk to her.”

It took him a few moments to understand what she was implying.

“First of all, thanks for the vote of confidence,” he pointed out, frowning at her. “Secondly, we didn’t do or say anything to her. What did she tell you?”

“That’s beside the point,” she dismissed.

“No,” Ethan interrupted her. “She did accuse us?”

Rosemund paused for a few moments.

“No,” she answered grudgingly.

“What did she say?”

This time, Rosemund didn’t have an answer.

“She didn’t tell you, did she?”

“Not exactly,” Rosemund began to say, her eyes darting to the side as she shifted on her feet uncomfortably.

“You mean not at all. And you just assumed it was us?”

He didn’t wait for her answer and pushed past her, angry that she would be so quick to blame him and Tristan for something that wasn’t even her business in the first place.

“Hey!” she called, following after him. “You’re being rude.”

“And you were being nice? I’d hate to see you on a bad day.”

Just who did she think she was, interrogating him like that? But worse yet, assuming he would hurt Mirabella’s feelings on purpose. Hadn’t she learned anything in the time they have known each other?

“Ethan wait,” Rosemund called behind him. He ignored her and kept walking, his anger escalating the more he thought about her rude accusation. “Ethan, I’m sorry, okay?”

He paused. She placed a hand on his arm when she finally reached him, tugging him to turn to face her.

“I shouldn’t have assumed it was you that hurt her feelings,” she said, worry stressing her features. “And you’re right. I was being rude.”

He was caught off guard, both her apology and admittance a bit out of place. In the course of the short time he’s known her, Rosemund had proven to be a very proud, a very stubborn person. Her apology and admittance were very unlike her.

“It’s fine,” he muttered.

“Do… you know what happened to her?” Rosemund asked tentatively after a few moments.

“Her dad pulled over to say hi,” Ethan explained.

“Okay,” she said, confused.

Ethan then explained the bizarre events of that morning and how dramatically they changed Mirabella’s demeanor as they made their way to Rosemund’s next class.

“Hmm…” Using her arm as a prop, she began to tap her fingers to her lips as she stared down the hallway, deep in thought.

“What do you think?” he asked her.

Blinking, she looked at him again. “I don’t know,” she then answered as she looked away. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought she was lying.

“What are you going to say to her?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Rosemund answered distractedly.

“Well … let me know what she says.”

Focused again, Rosemund gave Ethan a curious look.

“Sure,” she said, her eyes lingering on him for a few moments longer before she turned to make her way into her class.

“I’ll talk you later,” she called as she gave him a small wave.

“Good luck.”

“Talking to Mirabella isn’t that hard,” she stated, turning around to quirk a brow at him.

“I mean on your test.”

Startled, she opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out.

“How did you know?” she finally asked after a few moments of looking like a fish out of water. He had to admit, it was a priceless moment.

He smirked at her before pointing a finger at his temple. “I have superpowers. It’s a secret, though.”

“Yeah, right,” Rosemund immediately dismissed with a frown, though she still looked rather confused.

He had to admit that he was very proud of himself. First, he succeeded in making her apologize and admit she was wrong—the fact that he had done so unknowingly was beside the point—and then managed to trick her into thinking he really did have superpowers. If the twisted look of utter confusion on her face was anything to go by.

“See you later,” he said before turning to head to his own class.

Obviously, he didn’t have superpowers. He had the same class with the same teacher earlier during the day, and the algebra test turned out to be fairly easy. He was certain that he had mentioned this to her before. It appeared that she had forgotten.

At the end of the day, as he made his way to the boys’ locker room to change for basketball practice, he found his thoughts drifting to Mirabella. During the few classes they had together, Mirabella wasn’t herself. She barely spoke to anyone, not even her teachers, which she was known to do at the end of most of her classes. She didn’t even allow anyone to walk to her class, save for Rosemund.

Ethan then wondered if Rosemund had been able to get to the bottom of what was bothering Mirabella. He hoped she was feeling better.

After a quick glance at his watch, he walked a bit faster. He wanted to see Mirabella before going to basketball practice. She always waited for him and Tristan by the main doors at the end of the day. Granted, she would be walking home with Tristan today, and though that bothered Ethan a little, he wanted to make sure she was all right.

“Going the wrong way, buddy,” Grant, a fellow teammate, said as he passed him.

“Be there in a sec.”

“Want me to make up an excuse?” Grant asked, wiggling his thick, bushy brows at Ethan.

“Please don’t,” Ethan pleaded. Grant was infamous for coming up with the most ridiculous excuses that no one in their right mind would believe, the one with his dog, cat, and lizard earning him a special spot in their eighth grade yearbook, it’s caption reading “Worst Liar Ever”. A title Grant recounts with pride for reasons unknown to Ethan.

“Your loss then,” Grant called as he continued towards gym.

“Right,” Ethan muttered as he shook his head.

He was almost at the main doors when he came across Rosemund.

“Oh, hey.”

“Hey back. Is Mirabella with you?” Ethan asked her curiously, his eyes already searching for her friend.

“No. She left already,” Rosemund answered as she checked her phone.

“By herself?” he asked in surprise, sure that it wasn’t like Mirabella at all to just leave without giving him or Tristan a heads up.

“Her dad came to pick her up.”

“Oh. Did… you get to talk to her?”

“Yes. She assured me that she was just caught off guard. Her dad is really strict apparently,” Rosemund said with a shrug.

Ethan nodded his head as he studied her. There was a seemingly guarded manner in which she shrugged her shoulders and refused to meet his gaze as she spoke. Then again, she was a standoff-ish sort of person. Perhaps she was just being her charming self.

“Oh, and real funny with the superpower thing,” she said with a roll of her eyes.

“How long did it take you to figure it out?” he asked with a smirk.

Rosemund responded with a scowl.

“That long, huh?”

“There you are. Are you coming to the meeting?”

Ethan turned to find Ren approaching them, a wide grin stretching across her lips when she saw him. “Oh, well, fancy meeting you two here,” she then commented as she looked back and forth between them.

“Can’t come to the club meeting today, remember?” Rosemund answered Ren, her brows furrowing as she gave Ren a meaningful look.

“What? Why not?” Ren demanded, her grin disappearing instantly. “I was going to use your argument with Tristan as an example today. You have to come.”

“Are you kidding me? No way am I going to let you use me as an example. I thought you were holding a routine meeting?”

“Of course I am. But that’s beside the point. Why can’t you come?” Ren asked, crossing her arms as she scowled at Rosemund. It was a rare moment in which Ren wasn’t in total control of the situation, which was something she prided herself in accomplishing at all times. Or so she claimed.

Ethan definitely wasn’t one to linger around an argument between girls, but watching Ren lose her cool was definitely something he couldn’t miss.

Groaning, Rosemund threw Ethan a glare before grabbing Ren’s arm and steering her away.

“I’ll tell you later, okay?” Ethan heard Rosemund tell Ren through gritted teeth.

“Does this have something to do with your new boyfriend?” Ren asked rather loudly. Ethan perked up at that. He wasn’t aware Rosemund had a new boyfriend. He had to admit that she acquired one pretty quickly. It’s only been three weeks since she started school after all. Then again, she was not only pretty but managed to become fairly popular in that short amount of time.

Needless to say, Ethan pitied the poor fool that voluntarily decided to date her. She was a good person, no doubt, but her temper was like a bomb ready to go off at even the tiniest provocation.

“What boyfriend?” Rosemund asked outrageously.

“Obviously, I’m talking about Ethan.”

That took a few moments to sink in.

“Wait, what?” Ethan asked.

His question, however, was completely drowned out by Rosemund’s ear piercing screech.

What?! Have you lost your mind?!”

“Oh, is it a secret?” Ren asked, clearly amused by both Rosemund and Ethan’s reaction if that evil smile of hers was anything to go by.

“Now, hold on just a minute,” Ethan began to say.

“How the hell did you arrive at that conclusion?” Rosemund demanded, once again drowning out his words.

“Well, I thought it was obvious,” Ren said matter-of-factly. “Ethan walks you to most of your classes—”

“I walk with a lot of people to and from my classes,” Ethan felt the need to explain.

“Every time I see you guys, you’re always together—”

“We are not!” Rosemund exclaimed.

“And just now,” Ren continued as if she had not been interrupted, her cruel smile widening into an all-out evil grin, “you were huddling so close together, I could have sworn you were trying to kiss.”

What?!” came Rosemund’s second screech.

“You don’t have to yell, Rose. Everyone will hear the news,” Ren said calmly.

Rosemund’s mouth opened and closed, probably too shocked to even form the words in her mind. Ethan, on the other hand, recovered quickly, all too familiar with Ren’s evil ways.

“You’re depravity has no bounds, Ren,” Ethan accused as he scowled at her.

“Oh, come on, Ethan. I’m just having a little fun,” Ren said with a shrug, actually giggling behind her fingers.

“Wait, you’re in on this?!” Rosemund demanded as she rounded on Ethan.

“No,” Ethan answered, now scowling at her. “But I know Ren. She’s just pulling our legs,” he explained.

“I can’t believe you,” Rosemund said to Ren, the tone of her voice dropping dangerously. “You know what, screw your stupid meeting.”

Turning on her heel, Rosemund stormed away.

“Aw, don’t be such a puss, Rose. I’ll pick on Mirabella next time,” Ren called. Rosemund turned around at that, but Ethan spoke first.

“Leave Mirabella alone,” Ethan said, his tone even.

“Oh, don’t get all worked up. I won’t tease her too much—”

“I’m serious, Madison,” Ethan said, using her last name purposefully. That got her attention. “Leave her alone.”

Ren blinked at him in surprise, both his tone and the use of her last name, which she hated, finally getting through to her.

“Okay,” she said simply.

With that, he turned to make his way to the boys’ locker room. Rosemund was looking at him curiously as he passed her. He gave her a stiff nod before continuing, not wanting to be a total jerk.

He rarely lost his cool, especially around girls. But Mirabella was another matter entirely. She was too sweet and too nice to be picked on by Ren.

“Good luck at practice,” Rosemund called.

“Thanks.”

“You two sure you’re not dating?” Ren called.

“Oh my God!” Rosemund practically yelled.

Ethan expected her teasing. If she couldn’t tease Mirabella because Ethan asked her not to, then she would tease him instead. He couldn’t say he minded; he was used to it. Besides, Ren didn’t actually mean any harm by it. It was definitely a sadistic kind of pastime of hers, but she was all right.

After changing into his gym clothes and meeting the other guys at the basketball court, Ethan cleared his mind of all the girl drama he had fallen victim to and simply focused on the game. It felt really good to just play.

Chapter 5

Girlfriends and Ex-Boyfriends

Ren Amaya Madison

Ren fiddled with the bright red scarf around her neck, twisting and pulling it until it sat perfectly puffed over her generous breasts. She then pull up the collar of her faux leather jacket —which she got on sale at the local boutique along with the bedazzled glasses she was soon going to complete her outfit with —before zipping it up just below the scarf.

After running her fingers through her strawberry blonde hair, she looked at herself in the mirror one last time.

Perfect.

Ren went to her small vanity set, fished for her favorite lip gloss in the basket full of her favorite cosmetics, and applied a thick amount over her pouty lips. As she looked into the small vanity mirror, her eyes were immediately drawn to the small picture of her mother, wedged between the mirror and its frame. Her mother was a glowing young woman in the picture, her smile wide and showing off a perfect row of white teeth. Her eyes, the eyes that Ren inherited, were wide and bright and full of promise. It was Ren’s favorite picture. It was proof that her mother was once full of life. And it was a better memory than of the last Ren had of her mother on her deathbed.

Rebecca Katz died four years ago, and though she had just turned thirty, she looked close to fifty when she breathed her last breaths, thin, frail, and sunken. It was a memory that continued to haunt Ren’s dreams.

Shaking her head, Ren expelled the memory from her mind as she reached for the small picture and plucked it gently from the frame. She stared at it for a few moments, recalling instead happier times.

“I’ll be better than you, mama,” Ren whispered before blowing her mother’s picture a kiss. Carefully, she put the picture back.

Ren exited her room a few moments later to hear her father make a ruckus in the kitchen. A number of his colorful words drifted into the hallway that connected the apartment’s living room, kitchen, two bedrooms and single bath. Ren peered into the kitchen to find her father sucking his thumb.

“Old man, aren’t you too old to be sucking your thumb?” she asked him as she walked in to inspect the damage.

A number of pans littered the floor, the cabinet that housed them under the sink wide open. Within, Ren could see that her well organized pans within were now a mess.

“Oh, hey Ren,” Tommy Madison said sheepishly, offering Ren a wide grin.

Tommy and Ren hardly looked alike. Tommy was tall with dark hair, a strong jaw, and a set of thick brows over dark blue eyes. Ren, on the other hand, was a bright contrast with her blonde hair and light blue eyes. As a matter of fact, for the longest time, Tommy’s family refused to accept Ren as his daughter, sure that Ren’s mother had been fooling Tommy into thinking that Ren was truly his daughter. So much so, Tommy was forced to take a DNA test.

Ren couldn’t say she blame them, especially given Rebecca’s life choices. But as Ren frowned at her father as he tried to swoon her with his signature smile, it was hard to miss the resemblance they had in this regard. Of the few things she inherited from him, that dazzling smile, the very one that won most people over, was one of them.

Except that at the moment, it was doing nothing to win her over.

“Please tell me you’re not trying to surprise me by cooking again. Have you learned nothing from all the disasters of the past times you’ve tried?” Ren said with an exasperated sigh.

“Actually, I was just trying to boil water,” Tommy said, sounding suspiciously sheepish.

“Really?” Ren asked, quirking a brow at him. “With a pan?” she asked, pointing at the large pan in his hand.

“Sweetheart, you say you keep your pots and pans organized, but clearly you don’t,” Tommy began to say, gesturing with his hands. “The pot I needed was underneath this pan.”

“Right,” Ren said, not in the least bit convinced as she placed her fists on her hips. “Because the pots aren’t on one side of the cabinet while the pans are on the other,” Ren said, pointing to all the pots sitting idly on the other side of the cabinet, not a single one out of place. “Seriously, dad. You’re supposed to be an attorney.”

“Oh, all right,” Tommy said in defeat. “I was trying to make cheesesteaks.”

“Cheesesteaks?”

“I printed the recipe and watched a few videos. It looks very easy.”

“Dad, haven’t I told you to leave the cooking to me,” Ren said with another exasperated sigh.

“I know. But a man has to fend for himself every once in a while,” Tommy tried to argue.

“That’s what Micky D’s is for,” Ren pointed out, bending to pick up the mess.

“No, no,” Tommy said, shooing her away. “I made the mess. I’ll clean it.”

“Fine. Tell me again why you were trying to make cheesesteaks,” Ren prompted.

“I was hungry. And I wanted to surprise you. I could have sworn you were listening to your music.”

“Actually, I forgot to tell you. I’m going out,” Ren informed him.

“With who?” her father demanded, the sheepish look on his face immediately replaced with a stern one as he straightened.

“Relax, I’m just going to watch Wei, Kingsley, and maybe a few of the other guys play basketball.”

“Oh.” He relaxed a little. He liked Wei. “Will Tristan be there?” he then asked, hopeful. It was a known fact that Tommy Madison wanted nothing more than for Ren to date Tristan. Forget graduating high school. If she managed to marry Tristan, she was set for life. Tristan had a very high potential for success, and as such, had a high potential to provide for her for the rest of her life. Or so her father believed.

Where her father got these ridiculous notions was beyond Ren. But she couldn’t say she minded his meddling very much. She rather liked that he cared enough to meddle into her love life.

“Maybe. And admit it already. You only like him because he calls you sir,” Ren pointed out as she placed her hands on her hips.

“He’s a very respectful boy. And he keeps you out of trouble.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, dad.”

“You were saying, sweetheart,” her father said, all smiles again.

“I wasn’t saying anything, old man,” Ren said, unable to hold back a smile as she gave his shoulder playful shove. “How about this. We’ll make the cheesesteaks together when I get back.”

Her father was thoughtful for a few moments.

Or,” he began to say, his expression hopeful again, “I can make it while you’re gone and surprise you.”

“Dad, don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re a hot mess in the kitchen. And I always have to it clean up, and I’d rather not. Besides, you might burn something,” she said, exiting the kitchen and heading to her room to pick up her purse.

“I don’t always burn something,” her father called after her.

“You burned water that one time, remember?” she reminded him. He was silent and she was sure he was trying to remember when was it exactly that he burned water. Which only further proved her point: he should not cook unsupervised.

“So what should I eat in the meantime?” he asked her when she reappeared, looking genuinely mystified. For an attorney, he could be pretty dense sometimes.

“Eat the sandwich I made you,” Ren said, going to the fridge and taking out the two sandwiches she prepared earlier that morning.

“You’re the best, Ren,” he said gratefully, grabbing her head with both hands and kissing her forehead.

“Yeah, yeah. No cooking until I get back,” she warned, pointing a finger at his nose.

“No getting into trouble in the meantime,” he warned, pointing a finger back at her.

“Deal.”

“Tell Wei I said hi!” he called as she walked out the door.

“Sure thing,” she called back before closing the door behind her.

Upon arriving to the town’s communal basketball court, which neighbored the town’s children’s park and recreation center, she saw that the usual suspects were already hashing out a game at the court. And as usual, Kingsley and Wei were hurling friendly obscenities at each other as they each tried to outdo the other. Playing with them were Emmanuel and Grant, fellow classmates.

Having noticed her arrival, Wei actually tore his attention from his and Kingsley’s intense bantering to wave at her. He was always sweet that way.

As Ren made her way to one of the many squared metal tables, complete with small metal benches, she was surprised to find Rosemund sitting graciously by herself. She wore a bright baby pink jacket with a black scarf wrapped around her neck. She appeared to be enjoying the game until she caught sight of Ren. Like a true stuck up, she stuck her nose into the air when Ren approached her.

“I’m not talking to you,” Rosemund announced when Ren was close enough to hear.

“Still mad about the whole Ethan thing?” Ren asked as she sat next to her anyway.

“That’s an understatement.”

“You know, you would only be this angry if you were really into him.”

“You just never know when to quit, do you?” Rosemund accused, anger flashing dangerously in her dark blue eyes.

“Well, I’ve never been accused of being a quitter,” Ren said, flashing Rosemund her father’s dazzling smile.

Rosemund glared at her for a few moments before swishing her head back towards the game.

“You shouldn’t beat yourself up about it,” Ren said as she too turned her attention to the game. “Lots of girls have a crush on Ethan. He’s a pretty hot guy.”

“I don’t care,” Rosemund stated stubbornly. Though, she was far too quick to respond to not really care.

“You’re a really hot chick too, you know,” Ren then stated.

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” Rosemund stated. Though the blush that immediately spread across her face stated otherwise.

“So, what’s your deal?” Ren then asked casually.

“What do you mean?” Rosemund asked, her expression guarded when she whirled her head to look at Ren. Far too defensive.

“I don’t mean anything. I was just asking about you. Loosen up, you’re so tense,” Ren said, bumping Rosemund’s shoulder with her own.

“I’m not tense,” Rosemund said defensively, turning to watch the game again with a huff.

“Really?” Ren asked, quirking a brow at her. She then laughed before nudging Rosemund’s arm. “Come on. Loosen up. I don’t bite.”

“Right,” Rosemund replied dubiously.

When Rosemund didn’t speak, Ren decided to leave her alone for the time being.

“So, what’s the deal with you and Tristan?” Rosemund asked suddenly.

“Excuse me?” Ren asked, pleasantly surprised by the seemingly accusatory question.

“There’s rumors about you and him. That you once dated. And I’ve seen how you act around him. You treat him different than the other guys.”

“You’ve heard rumors?” Ren asked, wondering who exactly was talking about her. She wouldn’t put it past Susan Swift to be the culprit. They have been bitter enemies since junior high.

“Well?” Rosemund demanded, looking at Ren square in the eye as she waited for Ren’s answer.

There was no doubt about it; Rosemund was her father’s daughter.

Ever since she heard about Rosemund Knight, Ren was curious to know what the daughter of the business tycoon was like. She had watched a few of his interviews over the years and he had proven to be a rigid, but direct businessman. The kind that wasn’t afraid to speak his mind or the truth.

Rosemund was proving to be just as rigid and direct as her father. Ren wondered briefly if Rosemund would take the comparison as a compliment or an insult.

“We’re never dated,” Ren answered Rosemund simply with a shrug. “He and I have been good friends for a very long time. When his parents died, I was there for him. And when my mom died, he was there for me. Simple as that.”

“Oh,” Rosemund said, deflated.

She was quiet for a few beats.

“I’m sorry about your mom.”

“Thanks,” Ren said, sincerely.

As the silence stretched between them again, Rosemund shifted in her seat, appearing uncomfortable.

“What was your mom like?” Rosemund asked after a few moments.

“She was a drug addict and sold her body to get money for drugs,” Ren said plainly. The look on Rosemund’s face as she whirled around to look at Ren was priceless; her eyes looked ready to pop right out of their sockets as her mouth hung open like a fish out of water. Unable to hold back, Ren burst into laughter.

“Wait, you’re kidding?” Rosemund asked, bewildered.

“No…” Ren managed to say between guffaws as she doubled over. “It’s true… I promise.”

“You know that’s a terrible thing to say about your deceased mother,” Rosemund accused, sounding very much like a mother hen. “And if it is true, you’re laughing about it like a hyena. What kind of monster are you anyway?”

“I’m not laughing about my mom,” Ren said as she wiped a few tears from her eyes. “I’m laughing at you.”

“Oh. Okay. That makes it so much better,” Rosemund said sarcastically, scowling at Ren again.

“I’m sorry. It was just… your face,” Ren managed to say before falling prey to another fit of laughter.

“You should try keeping a straight face after hearing something like that about someone’s mom.”

After Ren calmed down, she turned to find Rosemund giving her a very angry glare.

“Oh, calm down. You would have laughed too if you saw your face.”

Rosemund didn’t answer as she continued to stare.

“What I said was true. I suppose I could be all depressing about it and give you some sob story about how her life choices and passing screwed up my life, but I prefer laughing at people’s expressions instead. You should have seen Wei’s face when I told him the story.”

Rosemund attempted to keep a straight face, pity softening her blue eyes, but the hint of a smirk chased it away.

“You’re thinking about it and laughing on the inside, aren’t you?”

“No,” Rosemund insisted, scowling as she turned to watch the game again.

“Well, you seemed to turn out just fine, didn’t you,” Rosemund said after a while, the compliment surprising Ren.

“You don’t even know me,” Ren pointed out, poking Rosemund’s arm.

“Stop it,” Rosemund said as she slapped Ren’s hand away. “I’ve known you long enough. And you’re okay.”

“Even if I told you I spent the better part of my freshman year in rehab?”

As Ren expected, Rosemund was shocked by the news, turning to give Ren another wide eyed, surprised look. She quickly recovered, however, and turned her face away.

“No one’s perfect,” she remarked.

Though delivered casually, the line caused Ren to become very suspicious. Rosemund was as straight edge as they came, and her tendency to jump into conclusions at a speed that would put Ren’s gossiping neighbors to shame more than proved this. The fact that she not only recovered far too quickly from the news, but dismissed it just as quickly made Ren wonder if Rosemund had some experience with drugs and rehabilitation. Perhaps a close family member or friend spent time in rehab.

Then again, she could just be sympathizing with Ren, what with her mother being a drug addict and a prostitute. Which was generous of her given that most people immediately assumed that Ren would simply follow in her mother’s footsteps in time.

“I’m surprised you’re not judging me,” Ren then baited. “I almost expected you to write me off.”

“I’m not that judgmental,” Rosemund stated defensively, her eyes fierce as she threw Ren another glare.

“Really?” Ren asked, feigning doubt.

Rosemund looked indecisive as she looked at Ren, uncertainty flashing in her violet blue eyes.

“I was in rehab too,” she finally admitted, looking away.

Now it was Ren’s turn to be shocked. She most certainly didn’t expect the confession. Anyone else, Ren would believe. But not straight-edge, Rosemund Knight, daughter to the most uptight man Ren even had the pleasure of meeting on the television.

“Drugs?” Ren asked curiously.

“Behavior,” Rosemund said, resentment slipping into her tone.

That Ren could believe.

“Correctional facility?”

“Yeah.”

“Sucks, doesn’t it?” Ren then asked, sympathetic.

“You don’t know the half of it.”

“Actually, I do,” Ren admitted. “I refused to go to rehab at first when my father signed me up.”

“So many rules,” Rosemund said, grimacing as she looked at Ren.

“So many stupid rules,” Ren corrected her. “And no privacy, right?”

“None. At all.” Rosemund was quiet as she looked away. “I never want to go back.”

“I know what you mean,” Ren said, meaning it. If she never had to see the inside of a rehabilitation center or correctional facility again, she would be all too happy.

It was strangely comforting to share this experience with Rosemund, the most unlikely person. It also felt… relieving.

As she looked out towards the court again, she caught sight of Ethan and Tristan as they made their way over to their table.

“Listen,” Rosemund began to say, looking uneasy as she too caught sight of the two friends.

“Your secret is safe with me,” Ren assured her as she stretched her pinky out to her. “Pinky promise.”

“Seriously?” Rosemund asked as she eyed Ren’s pinky with distaste. “Pinky promise?”

“It’s the most sacred promise of all promises,” Ren said seriously.

It took Rosemund a few minutes, but she finally relented, smirking as she wrapped her pinky finger around Ren’s. Ren offered her a dazzling smile in return. Though they were only promising to keep a shared secret, Ren felt that they were also initiating a friendship. A real friendship.

“Is that a pinky promise?” Ethan asked when he and Tristan reached them, dropping their things on the bench adjacent to Ren and Rosemund’s. “That’s the most sacred promise of promises,” he said to Tristan, elbowing him on the arm.

“See?” Ren said to Rosemund. They shared giggle.

“Hey,” Tristan called, tapping Ren’s shoulder. “You’re getting out of hand again.”

“What ever do you mean?” Ren asked him innocently, knowing perfectly well what he was talking about. Took him long enough.

“You know what. And why are you adding cats? You’re getting off point,” he complained, a deep scowl knitting his dark brows together as he crossed his arms over his chest.

“What’s he talking about?” Ethan asked Rosemund.

“I dunno,” Rosemund replied with a shrug.

“Actually, I was going to come over to get Josh’s input,” Ren said, leaning towards Rosemund as she added, “Joshua is his older brother. Loves kittens.”

“You better not dare,” Tristan practically growled. As a matter of fact, she was sure he was using his Batman voice. She wondered if he noticed.

“Whoa,” Rosemund exclaimed. “Just what did you do, Ren?”

“It’s just a project we’re working on in English. You know, the narrative. I was just adding a few pictures to illustrate my point and Batman here is getting his boxers all twisted in a knot about it.”

Sucking his teeth, he flashed Ren a deathly glare before turning to storm off towards the court.

“I think Joshua drives him nuts with cat videos,” Ethan commented as he looked after his friend. “You really shouldn’t push his buttons like that,” Ethan remarked, looking at Ren. “He might lose his temper again.”

“Is that a bad thing?” Rosemund asked curiously.

“Upended our classroom back in eighth grade,” Ethan informed her. “Don’t tell him I told you,” he added as an afterthought. Then smirking, he leaned towards Rosemund as he whispered loudly, “if anyone asks, Ren told you.”

“Ha, ha, O’Connell,” Ren said. “And it’s not that serious. He’s got it under control. He’s come a long way.”

“True. But I wouldn’t push it if I were you.”

“Anger issues, huh?” Rosemund commented, watching Tristan across the court.

“It’s a surprise seeing you here,” Ethan commented to Rosemund. She looked up at him in surprise and immediately averted her eyes, a light blush immediately spreading across her cheeks.

“Oh, well, I had some free time,” Rosemund said with a shrug, trying very hard to act casual. She was failing. “Wei’s been asking me to come for ages now.”

“Nice.”

“What’s nice about it, Ethan?” Ren asked him innocently.

“And that’s my cue to go. Enjoy the game,” he called to them as he turned to join Tristan, Wei, and the others on the court.

“He’s such a spoilsport,” Ren huffed, pouting as she sat back in her seat. This earned her a glare from her newfound friend.

She and Rosemund were quiet again as they watched the boys split into teams and start a new game. Ren watched Tristan as he moved deftly across the court, moving as if he had been playing his whole life. Ren liked to think he was a beautiful player, having told him this on several occasions. It helped that he loved the game. But it did little to convince him to join the team. He claimed that he just wasn’t into the game, but watching him play certainly proved otherwise.

Ren had a mind that it had something to do with his father. His father was part of the team back in his day and he was very good at it. He had set a number of records, if Ren remembered correctly. Ren was almost sure that Tristan was very scared of not being able to measure up and in turn disappoint the spirit of his father. He hadn’t admitted as much to Ren, but Ren was aware that his father’s approval had been very important to Tristan.

Ren was sure that if a girl he liked were to tell him what an amazing player he was and that he should join the team, he might actually consider it. Kingsley would be beside himself with glee if Ren somehow made that happen.

A twisted smile curled her lips as she thought of the perfect girl to help her…

“I’m sorry I called you a monster before,” Rosemund said quietly, interrupting Ren’s thoughts.

“What?” Ren asked, confused.

“I called you a monster before, when I thought you were laughing about your… mom thing. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ren said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I’m used to it. You should have heard some of the things the girls in junior high used to call me. Would make your toes curl.”

When Rosemund didn’t respond, Ren turned to find her looking at her with both pity and horror.

It was rather sweet of her.

“Wait, are you going to cry at my misfortune?” Ren asked, perking up. “Let me get my phone,” Ren said, already reaching for her cellphone.

“Oh my God, no,” Rosemund said, reaching over to stop Ren from taking a picture. “Do you ever take anything seriously?”

“Of course not. Life would be so boring if I did,” Ren said matter-of-factly as she put her phone away. “Ooh, don’t look now, but I think Ethan’s checking you out.”

What?” Rosemund hissed, straightening and actually running a hand through her hair before sneaking a glance at him.

“Aha! I knew you liked him,” Ren said, feeling rather proud of herself for catching Rosemund in the act of trying to look pretty for her crush. It was kind of cute.

That is until Rosemund turned around and gave Ren the scariest look Ren had ever had the displeasure of witnessing before reaching forward with both hands and grabbing two fist full of Ren’s jacket before pulling her forward, jabbing Ren’s nose with her own.

“I. Will. Kill. You. If you breathe just one word,” Rosemund threatened, fire practically burning in her eyes. She also looked very serious. Ren actually felt a tinge of fear as she looked back into the eyes of what she was sure was now a demonized Rosemund.

“Pinky promise,” Ren said quickly, flashing her pinky in front of Rosemund’s face. Rosemund stared at her for a few moments before she finally let Ren go and caught Ren’s wiggling finger in the vice grip of her own pinky.

“You really should try out for Karate. You’d be very good at it,” Ren suggested as she straightened the front of her jacket after Rosemund had let her finger go.

“Hmph,” was all Rosemund said.

It took Ren a few minutes to compose herself.

“You know, you could just ask him out on a date. I’m sure he’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

The look Rosemund gave Ren was so fierce that Ren was almost sure her heart stopped for a few beats. Thankfully, the game ended early and the boys were making their way over, complaining about the fact that Emmanuel and Grant had to leave early.

Behind Rosemund and Ren, a car horn sounded twice. They turned around to find a nondescript black card pulling up on the curb behind them.

“Oh, great,” Rosemund said unenthusiastically as she turned around and began gathering her things.

“Is that you?” Ren asked curiously, squinting her eyes in a poor attempt to see past the tinted windows.

“Yeah,” Rosemund grumbled.

“Is that your dad?” Ren now asked, straightening and fixing her jacket.

“No. And don’t do that,” Rosemund said, frowning at Ren.

“What? I want to look my best.”

“Anyway, I’ll see you at school.”

“Friends?” Ren asked, leaning back and offering Rosemund her best smile.

“If you don’t say a word, sure,” Rosemund answered smartly, turning to give Ren a satisfied smirk.

“I pinky promised, remember?”

“Leaving already?” Ethan asked her as he came up behind her, a hot, sweaty mess.

“Yeah,” Rosemund answered casually as she pushed back a few locks of hair behind her ear. Ren could hear the disappointment in her voice. “I’ll see you guys later.”

“Aw, come here and give me a hug,” Wei called, opening his arms wide as he approached her, also a hot, sweaty mess.

“Ew, no! Get away from me, you disgusting animal!” Rosemund yelled as she kicked up her leg to keep him away. Of course, it didn’t work. Catching her in a bear hug, Wei rubbed his face all over her hair, making even Ren cringe at the thought.

“Stop it! Ugh! You’re so DISGUSTING!”

“That should be illegal,” Tristan commented as he came to stand in front of Ren.

“Hey man, leave her alone,” Ethan said to Wei, tapping his shoulder. Always the hero.

“Male sweat is considered an aphrodisiac in some cultures,” Emmanuel chimed before taking a long drink from his water bottle, winking at Ren when she looked at him. Across from her, Tristan rolled his eyes.

“I’m very upset you made time for the boys but not for me,” Ren reproached Emmanuel.

“I do have a cellphone, you know. If you bothered to call me, I would have set up a date with you ages ago,” Emmanuel said, using his free hand to illustrate his meaning as he swung it around, the joint in his wrist appearing non-existent.

“Okay,” Ren said, smirking at him.

“Tell your mom I said hi,” Wei said to Rosemund, letting her go finally. She looked on the verge of tears.

“I’m going to tell my father just how much of an idiot you really are. Fat chance of ever winning his favor. I’m never inviting you to dinner again!” Rosemund grumbled as she walked away with her arms extended away from her as if she were doused in slime. Which was not too far from the truth.

“Aw, don’t be like that,” Wei said as he trailed after her. “I was just showing you my love. Come on, Ro. Don’t tell him that… Ro? Ro!”

Wei stumbled after her, his poor attempts at reconciling with her falling on deaf ears.

“How are they related again?” Kingsley asked, looking mystified as he stared after them.

“He was adopted into the family,” Ethan answered.

“That makes a lot of sense,” Kingsley said. “Hey,” he then called to Tristan. “Join the team already.”

“No,” Tristan answered flatly as he turned to gather his things.

Kingsley looked at Ethan and Ethan only shrugged in response.

“Sandy Hill High’s basketball team will never know what an amazing player they never got,” Emmanuel commented. Kingsley looked at Emmanuel for a few beats, his expression unreadable, before turning to Ren.

“Hey,” he called, much in the same manner he called to Tristan. “Go on a date with me already.”

“And we were all witness to how well that line worked with Tristan,” Ren answered, quirking a brow at him. While he smirked back at her, Tristan, on the other hand, scowled at her. Probably not appreciating how she used him in her rebuttal.

“I’m leaving,” Grant stated, giving them all a wave before walking away.

“Wait for me,” Emmanuel called, running after him. He had a very cute run. And if Ren didn’t know him any better, she was sure he was literally running away from a certain somebody. And that certain somebody didn’t give Emmanuel a second glance.

“Who’s that?” Kingsley asked Ethan, looking past Ren and across the street. Across from her, Tristan frowned as he too glanced past Ren.

“Isn’t that Graham?” Wei asked as he joined them, squinting as he looked across the street.

Ren tried to stay calm and collected. As if the sound of Graham’s name hadn’t set her heart into a frenzy, or caught her breath in her throat, or make her remember the time they spent together. Or force her to remember how he had ditched her after she went off to rehab and broke her heart into tiny little pieces.

When Tristan finally looked at her, his face said it all.

Straightening, she turned her head and looked back to find that it was in fact Graham who was casually leaning against the small fence that surrounded the children’s park across the street, his hands stuffed into his jean pockets. His blond hair was now long and nearly covering his face and his leather jacket screamed cool, suave, and laid-back. Everything she had fallen for.

“I thought he was kicked out of school,” Wei said.

“You mean the school across town that none of us that go to Sandy Hill High care about?” Kingsley said sarcastically.

“Shut up, you know what I mean,” Wei muttered, glancing at Ren.

“Come on, let’s get out of here,” Kingsley said, already turning to exit the court. “That ice cream joint still open, right?”

“You want ice cream, captain?” Ethan asked him curiously. “Like a fluffy strawberry ice cream on an adorable waffle cone with a cherry on top?”

“No, no, Ethan. You got it all wrong,” Wei said, tearing his gaze from Ren before falling into step with Ethan. “He likes fluffy chocolate ice cream on an adorable waffle cone with rainbow sprinkles. Lots of rainbow sprinkles.”

“You forgot the cherry,” Ethan pointed out.

“He likes two,” Wei said, laughing.

“You’re both idiots,” Kingsley called, already several steps ahead of them.

“Coming Ren?” Tristan asked her, looking at her intently. He was trying to communicate his disapproval to her, and she was well aware of it. But he didn’t understand, not really.

“I’ll catch up with you guys later,” Ren said as she stood, her body already gravitating towards him despite all that he had done.

Tristan looked after her, a frown knitting his brows together.

“I promise,” she called as she turned away from him.

She ran her fingers through her hair and straightened her jacket. She kept her features neutral, furrowing her brows just slightly. She didn’t want to let him know that she still had feelings for him. He abandoned her, after all.

She was nearly at the sidewalk when Tristan suddenly appeared next to her.

“He’s bad news, Ren,” he warned her.

“Listen, I’m just going to talk to him —”

“Rehab sucked, remember?” he interrupted her. “And he wasn’t there.”

“Tristan,” Ren called, turning and placing a hand on his shoulder. “I know. But sometimes a girl needs answers. That’s all I’m going to ask for, okay? I’ll meet you at your place later. Pinky promise.”

She wiggled her pinky at him as she smiled at him from under her lashes, but he ignored it, scowling at her instead.

“You better be there,” he said before turning and walking away from her. As she watched him, she suddenly felt uncertain about what she had been so sure she was about to do just moments before. She hated that Tristan did this to her. Such inept timing.

Turning again, she continued making her way over to Graham. He shifted, running his hand through his hair and lifting it up and away from his face. He then smiled at her. And it was the same smile that captivated her heart so long ago.

“Hey,” she called casually, stopping several paces from him before crossing her arms over her chest.

“Ooh, the angry pose. Still angry at me?” Graham asked as he pushed off the fence and shifted on his feet. He continued to smile at her, as if that was somehow supposed to make everything better.

“Well, I was sent to rehab and you weren’t. Then after I came out, you were nowhere to be found. What do you think?”

“I suck, huh?” he said, actually looking sheepish as he looked down at his feet, the motion dropping his hair into his face again. “I’m sorry Ren.”

“I’m sorry doesn’t make the hell I went through any better,” Ren stated, angry now.

He was quiet as he continued to shift back and forth on his feet.

“You really don’t have anything to say?” she snapped.

“What do you want me to say, Ren?” Graham snapped back, agitated now as the smile disappeared from his face at last. “I can’t go back and change things. Besides, I would have been thrown into juvy. If you’ve forgotten, I had enough on me to get me into serious trouble.”

Ren kept a straight face, not allowing his words to bother her. A long time ago, she would have felt guilty for even questioning him. Now, his words sounded petty. He sounded petty.

“You still got it on you?” she asked him, quirking a brow.

“No,” he said, sounding just the tiniest bit defensive. “I gave all that shit up. Walking the straight and narrow now. Even going to school,” he added, as if that would impress her. “This is my last year, you know. Getting my diploma.”

He paused, probably waiting for her reply. Probably waiting for her to praise him.

When she didn’t, he asked, “You’re still going to Sandy Hill High?” he asked.

“Of course I am. I was the brains, remember?” she snapped, turning to walk away. She had gotten the answers she wanted.

“Hey,” he called her back, angry. “I was the brains too. I practically got into Sandy Hill High back in junior high. Best entrance exam scores, remember?”

“But you didn’t, did you?” she called back as she crossed the street.

“You should have gotten kicked out of that preppy school,” he called, causing her to pause.

Whirling around, she stared daggers at him. “Excuse me?”

Stepping back, he dipped his head as he ran his hand through his hair, looking sheepish again. “That came out wrong. I mean, I’m glad you didn’t. You deserve to be in a great school. What —”

“Why don’t you go crawl back into the shitty hole you hid into and leave me the hell alone,” she practically growl, whirling around and storming across the street. She began to make her way back home, where her real friends were waiting.

Graham didn’t follow after her and really, she hadn’t wanted him to. But somehow it hurt that he didn’t, and unwanted, unsolicited tears spilled from her eyes.

She arrived home to find Tristan sitting on the front stoop, his basketball under his legs and his elbows on his knees as he swiped his thumb lazily over the screen of his cell phone. He stopped immediately upon spotting her.

“What’d he have to say for himself?” he asked with a frown as he watched her face.

She didn’t answer him as she sat next to him on the stoop, looking out towards the front lawn. He was quiet for a few moments before saying quietly, “Did you really expect anything honorable from him?” He was actually trying to be comforting, but as usual he was failing.

“You’re doing a stellar job at helping me feel better,” she pointed out.

“Sorry,” he said, looking away. They were quiet for a while before he asked, “Want to talk about it?”

“Not really,” she said, leaning towards him and resting her head on his shoulder.

When she didn’t speak, he sighed and went back to scrolling through his phone. Several minutes later, he didn’t complain or move, not even when her father opened the door behind them and was pleasantly surprised to find them sitting together.

“Please tell me you’re dating,” he said, looking for all the world hopeful. Next to her, Tristan groaned as he dipped his head and squeezed the bridge of his nose. Ren couldn’t help herself and giggled.

While meeting Graham after so many months of his cruel absence and silence didn’t go exactly as she envisioned, it wasn’t a total loss of a day. She finally met the real Rosemund and was glad they were now true friends. And her dear friend Tristan was proving, once again, to be her greatest ally and friend, going so far as to continue calling her father “sir” even after her father embarrassed him further by interrogating him mercilessly about his feelings towards Ren.

She might not have won in the love department, but she totally did in the friend department.

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