Coveted, p.1
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       Coveted, p.1

           Tara K. Young
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  By Tara K. Young

  Published by Myriad Maia

  Copyright Tara K. Young 2014



  Christopher Pike, whose books transformed my life and my writing


  To the end of my life...

  ...And beyond the end of mine.

  Part I: The Raven

  Chapter 1

  "You are such a cheater!" I yelled, grabbing the deck of cards and tossing them across the coffee table.

  Michael ducked the flurry of Muppet faces amongst diamonds and spades. With a laugh, he ran his fingers through his dirty blond hair.

  I couldn't understand why he had never had a girlfriend. He might have been lanky but his shoulders were broad and he had a perfect smile. If he had filled out like he had wanted to, he could have made it as a leading man. As it was, he was a leading-man-in-progress, which was still impressive at seventeen.

  He had spent the entirety of last summer working out and drinking protein shakes but he was still my lean and stretched Michael. If he could have afforded to keep up with the shakes, there might have been a difference eventually. He claimed he had stopped voluntarily because he had learned to accept being a "tendony splendor." I knew better but he still seemed to think he could hide it from me. How could he, when we had been inseparable friends since we were four?

  I didn't know why his mother had moved in next door back then. Even Michael knew only that his dad was out of the picture. I still wondered why but had stopped bringing it up. What was the point? Years of speculating had never gotten us close to an answer. When we were eight, we thought his dad was a spy and his family was forced to flee after a Colombian drug lord had learned his true identity. But age tends to quench the fantastic with the depressing. Michael now suspected some kind of abuse and, at the very least, believed his dad was a deadbeat. The last time I mentioned his father, Michael went quiet.

  At least his father's sins had brought him to me. I revelled in the broad smile that now shone back at me. His eyes dazzled with mischief. "Maybe if you bothered to learn the rules, you'd have a chance," he teased.

  I locked my arms across my chest and glared at him. Despite what he said, I knew he must be cheating. It was why we had to stop playing blackjack. He had become adept at card counting; a skill he claimed he taught himself just to pass the time. I suspected he hoped to go to Vegas after graduation. He wouldn't admit it to me because he knew I would talk him out of it.

  "I know the rules," I pouted. "But you don't play fair. I had one card left. Just one!" I reached down to scratch Riley, my eight year old mutt, behind the ears. He was too sound asleep to notice. I combed my fingers through his thick fur and felt my desire to keep complaining wane. I looked down at him. Fuzz therapy was a miracle. Someone needed to figure out how to bottle it.

  "And now you have to pick up eight," Michael grinned back.

  "Jerk," I muttered. I had already given up but I did not need to surrender kindly. Would it kill him to let me win just once? Just to rebuild my ego the tiniest bit?

  He rolled his eyes. "If we're done playing cards, can I give you your present now?"

  I grunted assent. While he skipped over to the door, I pulled the cards back into a pile. He tugged on his boots, ignored his coat, and ran out the door. A waft of freezing air washed over me. I scratched Riley on the head again while staring at the stretch of barren floor along the wall that always seemed to draw my attention.

  "Where did Michael go?"

  I turned to see my mother putting on her parka. She was young for being the mother of an eighteen year old, which had much to do with the reason my own father wasn't around. Despite her youth, she looked middle-aged. Her skin was weathered from too much time in the outdoors and too much time caring for animals and not herself. Her graying brown hair was tied back into a ponytail. I knew what that meant.

  "Busy night at the clinic?" I asked.

  She nodded as she grabbed her scarf. She wrapped it around her head and face several times.

  She worked at the local veterinary emergency as a tech. On particularly busy nights, she would be called in to help even if it wasn't her shift. This meant she was almost always at the clinic instead of home. She never seemed to mind all the work but the crazy hours had created permanent dark circles under her eyes.

  "I'll be gone all night," she said as if I hadn't figured that out already. "Is Michael gone for the night?"

  I shook my head. "He went to grab my present."

  She pulled on her mittens. "Well, don't let him stay too late. You have a history test tomorrow, don't you?" Her voice was muffled by her scarf.

  Just then the door opened and Michael bolted inside, closing it quickly behind him. I was hit with another wave of frigid air.

  "Michael!" My mother yelled loud enough that the scarf could not hinder her outrage. "You did not just go out in this cold in a t-shirt!"

  He knew to look sheepish. "I was only in it for a second or two."

  She grumbled to herself. "You know better." She must have been in a hurry because she focused on her other mitten and grabbing her purse rather than lecturing him on winter safety.

  All dressed, she looked up at me. "Study," she ordered.

  I shrugged. "It's only a quiz. How much can I possibly be expected to know?"

  This was a game my mother and I played. I think it placated her guilt for working so much. She harped on my study habits as if they were a problem, and I whined as if I didn't like to study. Neither was true. My grades were almost top of the class, with the exception of physics. I liked learning new things. Academics was something I was good at. It was one of the many reasons why Michael and I got along so well.

  My mother's furrowed brow did not soften. "Lucina, you better work or I won't let Michael come over on week nights until after you graduate. And if you don't need to study, you should be filling out university applications," she scolded. She turned to Michael, who had just finished removing his boots. "By the way, dear, can you ask your mother if I can borrow her truck Saturday? I need to pick up a new door for the back."

  "Sure," he said, walking over to the couch, "But you'll have to have it back that night. She leaves for the oil patch Sunday morning." He flopped onto the cushion, which sunk at least half a foot under the pressure.

  She swung her large purse over her shoulder. "Thank you, dear. I will."

  He beamed at her. His smile always seemed to melt any of my mother's stress. I didn't blame her.

  Her eyes crinkled with the scarf-obscured smile she shot back at him. Even through her parka, I could see her shoulders had relaxed. As she walked out the door, she said over her shoulder, "Happy birthday, honey! Don't play cards too late!" She had closed the door without waiting for a response.

  I turned back to Michael whose eyes flashed with more of his characteristic mischief. He leaned across the table. "We could always play Mariokart again," he taunted.

  I glared. "No way. You definitely cheat at that one. I don't know how you do it but you get blue shells every. Single. Time. No one is that lucky."

  He shrugged before twisting around and pulling out several cards that had slipped between the couch cushions. "Well, I guess it is time for your present then," he said, leaning to one side and pulling a small wrapped box out of his back pocket. "I can't take much credit for this one," he said as he held it out.

  The gift barley took up the palm of his hand. The blue and green paper was topped with curled silver ribbon that tumbled over the sides. This was not one of his usual wrapping jobs. The paper crinkled under my touch as I took it.

  "It was my mom's idea," he explained, "And mostly her money too but she insisted because it's your eighteenth, so it's from both of us."

  I hesitated only be
cause getting such a pretty present was new and I wanted to enjoy it but then the anticipation overtook me. I ripped it open to expose the small tan box with a hinged lid. One of my eyebrows raised involuntarily.

  Michael seemed eager for my reaction because he had leaned forward on the couch.

  I set the box down and looked up at him. His brow furrowed. "What's wrong?" He asked.

  The corners of my mouth twitched but I refused to let a smile expose me. "I should probably just open it later, maybe even tomorrow, after our test."

  He stretched his arms behind his head as he leaned back. "If you insist. It is your birthday after all."

  Damn. He called my bluff. I picked up the box. No need to keep torturing myself for no reason. I opened it. Inside was a thick silver bracelet with a flat silver medallion in the middle.

  "It's a replica of one of Lady Mary's," he explained. "I think the one she's wearing when she marries Matthew."

  I just stared at it. I had never owned anything so pretty and to get me something from my favourite show was even better.

  Perhaps Michael was unsure how to take my silence, for he kept talking. "My mother had the inside engraved so I can't return it but if you want something else, just let me know."

  I turned the medallion over and read: To our perfect lady.

  Michael kept talking. "I guess my mother thought it was funny or something given the show but she is really proud of you. She thinks you're amazing."

  I did not look up but nodded. "Thank you and please thank her."

  He chuckled. "I will but you should know her exact words were, 'She never became a tittering moron.'"

  I chuckled and the involuntary outburst brought with it all the other emotions that had so far been restricted to my insides. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand and sniffed.

  "Well," Michael announced, "Since you don't want to play cards anymore and Mariokart's out, you might as well study."

  I groaned as I closed the jewellery box. While I loved learning, I hated to dwell on what I already knew. I'd rather keep exploring all the things I had yet to know. Given that it was also my birthday, I was feeling particularly resentful.

  It didn't help that we were studying a freshly traumatic period of human atrocities—the world wars and cold war. There was nothing like following the horrors of war mongering to make one lose all faith in humanity.

  "We don't need to study," I countered. "We both know this stuff. We've always been the top of the class in history. Somehow you managed it on the final last year without studying at all!"

  He leaned across the table and locked his eyes with mine. "Yes, because my mother is totally history obsessed. She's been lecturing me about this stuff since I was five. You, on the other hand, need to study."

  I rested my elbow on the table and propped up my chin with my hand as I stared at him. I hoped that would make him realize I was not impressed by his lecture. I drummed my fingertips on the table. Instead of indulging me, he smirked and began to rattle off questions. I missed only one and that didn't even count. I knew the right answer, the Truman Doctrine, but had blurted the wrong thing before my brain had engaged because I was getting too impatient with this entire procedure. When he was finally satisfied, he let his smug smile fade and looked around.

  "Now what?" he asked.

  I shrugged. "Stare at each other until our eyes bleed?"

  "You suck at staring contests. Maybe if you'd get some better games, we'd have more fun," he muttered.

  I glared at him. "If you take pleasure in watching someone's head being forcibly removed from their body and their blood spurt everywhere, then you can do that at home."

  "Not without your system I can't," he grumbled. His mother had never let him get a gaming system lest it corrupt his morals or interfere with his studying, both irrelevant concerns in my opinion.

  "Too bad. My house, my rules," I said smugly.

  He pushed himself to his feet. "Fine, let's go get some snacks then. I'm sure we can find something to watch online. I saw this amazing shadow puppet movie someone made for a film school project. I think you'd love it."

  He was already by the door grabbing our coats off the rack by the time I had gotten to my feet. He tossed my jacket at my face. "Gee, thanks," I grunted. "You're such a gentleman."

  He laughed as he zipped up his coat. "Like I'd waste my chivalry on you. I'm saving it all for the perfect woman."

  I raised a brow as I zipped up my own coat. "You mean the woman who actually notices you exist?"

  He pulled open the door and the winter chill shot its way up my legs and back. The crisp, frozen smell pushed away the lingering scents of spaghetti and birthday candles. Riley, disgusted with the draft, got up and trotted down the hall towards the bedrooms. Michael poked his head out the door and looked left and right. "I guess the line of your suitors all went home."

  I tickled his side, he tickled back.

  We headed out into the piercing wind. The snow that had fallen that morning had yet to be packed down and we only knew where the path was from years of making the walk. The store was only two blocks away but my cheeks had already frozen by the time we got there. My mother would have been yelling if she had seen I wasn't wearing my hat in this wind-chill. She would have had a point. It wasn't like I had any extra insulation on my bones. "We're nuts to be out in this," I said through tight lips, unable to make my mouth move properly in the cold.

  "Just think of the Twizzlers," Michael urged as he reached the door.

  Inside, he headed straight for the Twizzlers and grabbed three bags of gummy worms. He looked over his shoulder. "What do you want?"

  I reached into the nearest box and grabbed a ring pop.

  "Weak," he said with a role of his eyes.

  "Some of us don't have trouble gaining any weight." I was trying to be lighthearted but the comment made us both fall into an awkward silence as we walked to the counter.

  While the clerk was ringing in our snacks, two girls from school walked in: Samantha and Amanda. They were as poorly dressed as we were and looked just as cold. The tips of Samantha's blond bangs were covered in frost. Amanda rubbed her hands together for warmth, causing her black hair to bob on her shoulders.

  My muscles tensed and I felt the urge to vomit. I looked in every direction except theirs. Michael moved to shield me from their view. I tried to shrink and failed. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my roll of antacids to pop a couple.

  "Well, at least you got a good look at him," Samantha said. "It sounds like he's hot."

  "Holy crap, is he ever," Amanda gushed on queue. The cold had not dampened her boy obsession. "I think he's foreign or something. He talks a little funny."

  "Probably with a full vocabulary," Michael muttered out the side of his mouth as he looked through his wallet for his money before handing it to the clerk.

  I tried not to laugh as I grabbed my ring pop from the counter. So far, the girls hadn't noticed me. I had only recently achieved my good-enough-to-be-ignored status so I was not going to sabotage it if I could help it.

  "Maybe he has a speech immediment or whatever it's called," Samantha suggested.

  "No," Amanda countered. "He's got an accent or something and he uses funny words for things. He had a big argument with the school secretary over what the first floor meant. It sounds like he just moved here this week."

  Samantha sighed. "If he's as nice as you say, I hope he's in some of my classes."

  Michael kept me out of view as we dodged around them and left the store. The cold, even this extreme, was welcome refreshment when it meant escaping their conversation. I let out a large puff of breath as we rounded the corner. Yet another uneventful encounter. That would make it a full month since any snide comments. Well, to be fair, two of those weeks were Christmas holidays. Still, it was something.

  Michael ripped open one of his bags of gummy worms. "Five bucks, Maria Wallace, by Wednesday next week," he said.

  "You are so on!" I challenged befor
e making my counter bet. "Bethany McGee, Friday, and I say we make it interesting this time. Twenty bucks instead of ten."

  This was a little tradition of ours. Anytime there was a new student, particularly if that new student was considered attractive, we would make bets on who they might hook up with and when.

  Michael popped a gummy worm into his mouth. The end of it drooped over the edge of his lip. "Deal."

  Aside from us and the vapid twins in the store, no one had been insane enough to venture outside. The path was empty. The calm silence around us began to soothe my nerves. I was able to focus upon finding my previously laid tracks.

  "Sounds like the new guy's British," he added as we turned onto our street. "Never had a Brit in the school before. I'd pay money to see the look on his face when Amanda throws herself at him and asks, 'Like, are you foreign?'"

  Michael's ditzy impression was exact. I couldn't help but laugh. The humour cleansed me of the last of my stress from seeing the girls who had made high school the bane of my existence. He always knew just how to lift my spirits. He was the best friend anyone could ever have.

  He noticed the package first as we walked up to my house. He pointed out the small box with the bow on top. "Looks like someone dropped off a birthday present," he said around a mouthful of gummy worms.

  I couldn't figure out who. I only ever got two presents; one from my mother and one from Michael and his mother. My mother had gotten me a book about the production of Downton Abbey and I had gotten the bracelet from Michael and his mother.

  As we reached the step, I looked down at the package. It was wrapped with shiny blue paper and finished with green ribbons and a bow that looked like it had either cost a fortune or had been handmade.

  "Aren't you going to pick it up?" Michael asked. "I want to get inside. I'm freezing!"

  Despite the cold, I hesitated. Surprises had never boded well for me. Michael rolled his eyes and picked it up with a disgruntled sigh as he waited for me to open the door.

  Once inside, he examined it more closely. A small tag fell out from under the bow. "Whoever it was, they must love calligraphy."

  He held it out. I deliberately took longer than necessary to remove my parka and hang it up. I hadn't even removed my boots when he lost patience and thrust it at me. I looked down at the exposed tag. My name was scrawled across it in large, arches.

  "Open it!" Michael demanded with all the maturity of a two-year-old.

  The bow was satin. I tried to pull it loose but evidently, all the immaculately placed loops had been made by hand. I had to pull on the end of the ribbon to release them. Michael gave an impatient snort. I stuck my tongue out at him before draping the freed ribbon over his head so that it felt in front of his face. I carefully pulled the paper off the small box inside. The box had no marks on it. It was plain beige, though the beige was stained on some of the bottom corners. A notecard had been taped to the lid.

  He is coming. Remember.

  I looked up at Michael. "Who is coming?" I asked.

  He looked back at me with a shrug before staring down at the box again. I opened the box and blinked down at what I was seeing. My brow furrowed.

  A perfect disk of black and white stone was inside. The top surface was inlayed with a silver symbol I did not recognize. It was a spiral with a line connecting the outer end with the centre. Above the spiral were several small symbols in a line. They looked like runes, though my familiarity with runes was admittedly restricted to pop culture.

  I looked up at Michael who was now focused upon opening his Twizzlers. "Throw it out," he said. "It was probably some joke from Samantha and Amanda. They probably dropped it off right after we left."

  "You really think so?" I asked, looking down at it again.

  He gnawed the ends off several Twizzlers at once. "Of course. They are probably trying to scare you. Seriously, 'He is coming', who writes that?" He walked over and flopped down onto the couch.

  The note had also said: Remember. I put the lid back on the box but I did not throw it out. I removed my boots before setting it on the coffee table and plopping down next to Michael.

  I couldn't recall what we had ended up watching. I had spent the entire evening staring at that box.

  The next morning, my alarm clock triggered a minor heart attack. While it was enough to make me fall out of bed and wish for death, it was not enough to deliver. The least it could do was finish the job and let me get out of school. If I could have a private tutor, I would be a student for life. Sitting in a room with other teenagers was a torture that should have been against the Geneva Convention.

  Panting, I pushed myself off the floor and stumbled to the bathroom in the dark. "I hate winter," I grunted. That wasn't entirely true. I loved having fun in winter. I hated getting up before the sun.

  I washed and dressed quietly, trying to avoid waking my mother. Riley's snores reverberated down the hall from her room.

  Michael wasn't waiting for me at the front door by the time I was ready. With a grumble, I trudged over to his house and knocked on the door. "Wake up, sleepy head," I called.

  I waited in the cold. I tried the doorknob. It was locked. With a sigh, I banged the door with my fist. I pulled out my cell and called his house. I could hear the phone ringing inside but no one picked up. I banged on the door again until it opened several minutes later. Michael zipped up his jeans as he greeted me.

  "You should really buy an alarm clock," I said.

  Michael's mother wouldn't be back from the oil patch until Thursday. Even when she worked near town, her shifts started at five. Despite more than five years of this unchanging fact, if she wasn't there to wake up Michael, he didn't.

  "And deprive you of the opportunity to get out your morning aggression?" He asked innocently as he threw on his coat and grabbed his bag.

  I snorted. "Would I have any morning aggression if it weren't for you?"

  He grinned before turning to lock the door. "You wouldn't if you'd just find a man already. I'm getting sick of babysitting your behind."

  "Excuse me, but I don't need a babysitter and if men aren't going to be interested in me, why bother?"

  He looked over his shoulder with a raised brow. "So you're a young independent woman and not just a pathetic nerd?"

  "Hello, pot."

  We bantered all the way to school. It was a morning custom of ours and helped us get ready for the war zone that was public education.

  To be honest, our senior year had shown some improvement over previous years. We were now viewed as benign nerds rather than weird geeks. The teasing had been less severe in the fall and had tapered off entirely in recent weeks. For the most part, we were not noticed by others at all, which made life so much more bearable. We stuck to ourselves. Neither of us had any desire to be popular. Samantha and Amanda were popular.

  The familiar scent of melted, dirty snow and sweaty parkas hit us as we entered the old brick school. This lingering odor was another reason I was beginning to develop a hatred of the cold. The melted snow also made for treacherous floors inside the school, which increased my chances of making a fool of myself.

  I dropped my coat off at my locker and grabbed my first period books before parting ways with Michael. We did not have homeroom together but we did share most of our classes. He headed straight down the hall while I headed upstairs.

  This was one of the worst parts of my day. I didn't have my lovable shield to joke with so the world seemed so much more threatening. I hugged my books to my chest and kept my head down and eyes forward. It was a trick that usually worked quite well.

  I walked into the classroom and headed for my seat near the window. In one fluid movement, I slipped off my backpack and slid it under my chair as I sat down.

  A moment later, Samantha and Amanda entered and sat down next to each other near the front. I rested my hands on my desk and stared at them. I tapped my fingers in a random rhythm.

  Most of the students were sitting down already when Mr. Du
nn entered. My mouth fell open and my heartburn roared at who followed him. The boy was tall, broad shouldered, and—Amanda was right—hot as Hell. Even under the oppressive glare of the fluorescent lights, he looked amazing. No one looked amazing under fluorescents! His deep brown hair was just long enough that the wavy locks fell down either side of his face. Unlike most of the guys in the school, he let his hands fall loose and not stuffed into his pockets. He held his head up and walked as if nothing could touch him.

  "Good morning, everyone," Mr. Dunn said cheerfully, bringing me back to reality. I popped two antacids.

  No one should be that happy this early on a winter morning. I looked out the window. It was still dark for crap's sake. He insisted on continuing in the same bright tone. "Before I take attendance, I just wanted to introduce a new student. His name is Brad."

  "Bran," the boy corrected with a lilted tone.

  He leisurely scanned the faces in the room. His eyes locked with mine and stopped. I blinked and looked away as I tried to pull my head back into my neck. I was fairly certain my attempt at hiding was failing. I needed a turtle neck.

  Mr. Dunn was looking over the papers in his hands. "Oh yes, that's right. Sorry," he said. "Bran is from England."

  "Scotland," Bran corrected again.

  "Uh, yes," Mr. Dunn agreed with less enthusiasm. "Everyone, please make Bran feel welcome. It can't be easy moving to a new country."

  There was a pathetic smattering of claps. Bran took no notice. He did not appear to be bothered by moving to a new country. His imposing presence said he owned whatever room he entered, whether it was a castle in distant Scotland or this meagre classroom.

  He did not sit down right away. He kept his eyes on me. I tried to hide more but my turtle maneuvers had maxed out their effectiveness. I did not need anyone to notice me, especially not anyone who was so difficult to ignore.

  He was still watching me. How much time had passed? No one else seemed to have noticed anything amiss. Why was he staring at me? He was probably some kind of jock who could sense the easy nerd prey before him.

  He finally blinked and looked for an empty desk. He found one that was mercifully across the room and in the row ahead of me. At least he couldn't stare at me there.

  That did not help. As Mr. Dunn began our social studies class, discussing agriculture in world economies, I found my eyes drifting over to Bran involuntarily. I never caught him looking at me but it felt like he was looking at me. I gave my head a shake. That was wishful thinking at best and a sign of insanity at worst. When the bell ran, I looked down at my notebook to see the page under the date completely blank.

  I panicked. That would come back to bite me on test day. How had I let that happen? I never daydreamed in class. Paying attention was the best way to tune out the rest of the world. This time, I had tuned out my teacher.

  I worked even harder at eyes forward as I rushed to my second class. French class gave me sweaty palms. It was not the subject. I liked learning languages and, when I dared to let myself dream, knew it would help me become a foreign diplomat stationed in Paris someday. I had also picked up the language without any trouble but I did have trouble breathing anytime I was called on by Mme Martin. Today, however, I needed to see Michael more than I feared class participation.

  After I sat down, the bell rang. I looked up and was relieved to see that Bran had not come into the room after me. That coupled with Michael by my side helped me feel less stupidly vulnerable.

  Today we were to write a letter to a fictional French pen pal. There were quiet murmurings in the room as students asked each other how to say certain phrases and the teacher walked around to help them. I took the opportunity to tell Michael about the creepy stares of the new guy but he was not very sympathetic.

  "Maybe it's just a cultural thing," he reasoned. "I hear staring is considered acceptable in some places."

  I looked up from my paper to give him an incredulous purse of my lips. "Cultural difference or not, why was he staring at me?"

  Michael looked right at me and bat his eyelashes. "Maybe he likes yoooou." He drew out the last word as he morphed it into kissy faces.

  I tried to turtle myself in my shirt and Michael tickled my side. Automatically, I tickled him back. Sometimes I wondered if having girlfriends wouldn't be so bad; people who could understand the female perspective. Then I would think of Samantha and Amanda and feel much better about my friend being male.

  We didn't talk about Bran again that morning. There was no opportunity to talk in the following English period. At lunch, we opted to discuss the last episode of Downton Abbey. It was our usual topic and had proven effective in helping distract us from the flavour of the substances they had the nerve to call food.

  Michael wasn't sure he liked the latest hookup because he felt it ignored certain social conventions of the period. I thought he was insane. Our simple conversation devolved into a heated debate as we sat in the horribly open cafeteria. I finally relented just to get him to lower his voice.

  There was a lull in the surrounding conversations at the same time. Dread and heartburn swept over me at the thought that everyone had been watching us. Michael and I looked around but it was not me that had drawn attention. Bran had entered and the gossips were now enthralled with the novel injection into their world. For his part, he seemed to ignore the masses ogling him.

  Amanda and Samantha pounced, blocking his way as they attempted to engage him in conversation. He brushed passed them as if simply dodging between two bothersomely placed potted plants. Amanda looked confused; Samantha affronted.

  He joined the line at the counter but seemed unconcerned with the food. He was still looking around the room. Despite his constant surveying of the student body, he seemed uninterested in any of them—his eyes found me and stopped again—except for me, that is.

  What was this guy's problem? I looked back at Michael, hoping my deliberate snubbing would encourage him to stop staring. From the corner of my eye, I could tell it hadn't.

  "Want to go for a walk?" I asked, eager to leave the cafeteria and Mr. McCreepy behind.

  Michael raised a brow. "Where? In the freezing cold?"

  "Anywhere but here," I groaned.

  He rolled his eyes. "Fine, let's go to the library. I need to get a book for that English paper anyway."

  Bran was through the line and walking in the direction of our table but Michael and I were already leaving. I guided us the long way around to the exit so we wouldn't cross paths.

  "You really don't like him, do you?" Michael asked.

  "Why would I like him?"

  He shrugged. "He's good looking and mysterious. All the other girls are falling over themselves to talk to him." He scratched his chin. "I saw Bethany eyeing him quite fervently. You might actually win our bet."

  My jaw tensed involuntarily. I wished my heartburn would calm down. I reached into my pocket and popped two antacids. They didn't help. "I don't see why Bethany or anyone else is interested in him. He seems like a genuine snob. Did you see how he blew off Amanda and Samantha?"

  Michael looked confused. "Wait. You think it's odd that someone would want to blow them off? Wouldn't we do that?"

  I said nothing. I did not want to admit he was right. Did he have to win at everything?

  He chuckled. "Maybe you do like him and that's the problem."

  I glared. "Absolutely not! He's been staring at me since he got here. What kind of person just stares like that? I bet he's some kind of stalker. Maybe he ran away from Scotland because he's a fugitive from the law."

  He started to rummage around in his pocket. "Wow, you enjoy huge leaps, don't you?" he said sardonically. Discovering an unfinished bag of gummy worms, he held it out to offer me one. I ignored it. He sighed. "Have you ever considered that he really does just like you and that maybe he's new here and that's why he isn't comfortable stopping to chat with every flake swooning over him?"

  I sped up. The sooner we got to the library and had to be si
lent, the better. "Why do you like him so much?" I asked. "It's like you are trying to get me to go out with him."

  He shrugged. "Don't really feel one way or the other about him right now. I just love getting you riled up."

  I tickled his side. He laughed and tickled back.

  Our very next class was math. I let out an audible groan when Bran walked through the door. Again, he was the last to arrive and again he had to take a seat closer to the front.

  I took two more antacids. I wasn't sure why. they hadn't been working all day. I stuffed the rest back into my pocket. Michael winked at me. I tried to hide behind my math book.

  As Mr. Taylor talked about probabilities, I noticed Bran sneaking glances our way. This time, it was not just me he was watching but Michael. In fact, he seemed to be spending even more time focusing on Michael than me. I had no idea how to take this but I was becoming increasingly stressed about my next class because I did not share it with Michael.

  To my relief, it appeared I did not share chemistry with Bran either and I was able to sit alone, free to focus on the material. Despite Bran's creepy glares, my day might just turn out uneventful. Just one more class to go and I could run home to hide.

  It was time for my history test. Michael and I sat together as usual. He was teasing me about how I could use some last minute cramming into that puny brain of mine.

  Mr. Pearson, the history teacher, was writing test rules on the board: don't cheat, no talking, leave exam papers with him before going to the bathroom. Despite what I had told my mother, it really was more of an exam, but I always stressed when I thought of tests as such. A quiz was so much less daunting.

  Bran walked into the room just as the bell rang. Mr. Pearson looked over at him.

  "Oh yes, Mr. Sheehy," he said. "There's a test today so you can sit and read quietly. I don't expect you to have the material."

  Bran shrugged. "I can take the test."

  Mr. Pearson blinked back at him. His chalk hand lowered. "It's on the first half of the Cold War. Are you sure you are prepared for it?"

  Bran nodded. "Sure," he said.

  Shaking his head in disbelief, Mr. Pearson instructed Bran to take a seat. Unfortunately, the only available seat was just behind Michael. I did my best to keep my eyes locked onto the instructions on the blackboard but I could feel Bran's eyes on me. I swallowed an excess of bile. My chest was aching.

  Mr. Pearson stood in front of the class with the test papers in hand. "Once you are finished and have handed in your paper, you may leave." He raised his hand as if to quell a non-existent cacophony. "But do not rush through these questions. This test is worth fifteen percent of your final grade and I will be strict in my marking. Take your time and dazzle me with what impressive historians you have become."

  Within twenty minutes, Michael had finished his test and was leaning back in his chair, staring at the ceiling. I wished he would just hand in his tests right away and wait in the hall. It always felt like he was rubbing it in when he waited for me in the classroom.

  I knew the material but it was still taking me longer to sort through my thoughts. I was only two-thirds of the way through and feeling my mental acuity fading rapidly. Bran's presence was searing my side closest to him. Maybe I had been wrong about him. Having him close wasn't so bad, though my heartburn would soon be eating through my chest cavity.

  "Five minutes left," Mr. Pearson called out.

  I jumped and looked up. Half the class was gone already. Michael was still sitting beside me though his relaxed faced had turned confused. I could see in the corner of my eye that Bran had finished too but, like Michael, seemed to be waiting to hand in his paper.

  I looked down at my half-finished sentence. When had I gotten so far in the exam? I was on the second last question. I did my best to force everything else from my mind to finish my answer about McCarthy.

  "One minute," Mr. Pearson announced.

  I wrote as fast as I could, finishing the last question—I had no time to read the bonus question—just as he called an end to the exam. Melissa Eastman was in the front row and looked close to tears as the teacher took her paper from her. Jeremy Gent tossed his paper on the teacher's desk before stomping from the room.

  "You ok?" Michael whispered as we got up to leave.

  "Zoned out for a bit," I replied, feeling too odd about myself to admit what had been going through my mind.

  "You need some Mariokart," he suggested with a grin.

  I groaned. "Enough with the Mariokart. I'm not playing that with you again. Why can't we find some other kind of game to play together?"

  His grin broadened. "I hear the Dead or Alive games can be pretty fun."

  "Yeah, no. You can watch bikini clad skanks on your own time."

  We stopped by our lockers to drop off our books. I refused to bring home history books after an exam. It was a matter of principle.

  I had only to read three chapters of a Tale of Two Cities for English and complete a chemistry worksheet. I stuffed the novel and the worksheet into my backpack and crammed as much of everything else that would fit into my locker. Several pieces of sheet music fluttered out and had to be stuffed back into the pile. As I attempted to hold the door shut with my shoulder to put the lock back on, Michael announced he had to pee and walked off.

  I opened my locker again to rearrange some things before a body check finally closed it. It threatened a resurgence and I struggled to get the lock in place while holding it shut. I wished my heartburn would stop.

  "I'll help ye," came a Scottish lilt. A rich scent hit my nose. It smelled of wood, streams, and something else I could not place. I faltered at the sudden intrusion, dropping my lock on the floor with a clatter. Bran's large hand was already against the top of my locker door, keeping it shut.

  "Uh, thank you," I muttered, trying to ignore him even as I began to feel warmed by his presence.

  His body was so close. His warmth penetrated my flesh. I leaned closer to him.

  Had I really had a problem with him? What was so bad about staring? The logic centre of my brain was fighting to regain control. Yes, you idiot, it was bad. Don't give Ted Bundy any help! I fumbled to get the lock secured. Why did everything take three times as long when you needed it done fast?

  "We have some classes together," he said.

  I nodded without looking at him, pretending I was now double checking the contents of my backpack.

  "I'm Bran Sheehy," he said as if we both didn't already know I knew that.

  With a sigh, I gave him what he wanted. "Lucina Colomen." I had exhausted my fake search efforts beyond decency and he was still standing so close. I looked up into his eyes.

  They were a dark blue-green, the colour of a dense forest. The blue and green swirled together. Could eyes even do that? My knees weakened but my sense had not totally abandoned me. I recovered before any visible humiliation could happen. I stepped a half inch closer to him.

  "Well, Lucina Colomen," he said, "It was nice to meet you. Maybe we'll be seeing more of each other."

  "Uh, maybe." I had no coherent grasp of my thoughts. Disgust and desire fought within me. Even as I kept leaning closer for just a touch, maybe, I also wanted to run away screaming. That desire to escape was fading rapidly. I should commit myself to a mental institution.

  He smiled, a perfect crooked smile that could rival Michael's... almost. "Bye, dove," he said. "I'll see you in homeroom tomorrow." He walked away, leaving me to ponder why he had called me dove and how I could resolidify my muscles.

  "Niiiice," Michael whistled. "I knew it."

  I glared at him. He already had his parka on and was leaning against a locker several over. He had obviously seen everything. My cheeks were burning.

  "Knew what?" I demanded. "You said you didn't know anything one way or the other."

  He sauntered towards me. He lifted a finger as if he were about to explain something elementary. "I said I didn't feel anything one way or the other, as in, I haven't decided if I
like the guy yet, but he totally likes you. That is definitely why he has been staring."

  I put on my parka, pulled up the hood, and flung my backpack over my shoulder. "Well, I wish he would stop. It's creepy, even if it's because he likes me. In fact, especially then."

  Michael shrugged. "Maybe it's time I kept my distance from you a little more often. You know, give the guy a chance to talk to you."

  The idea of Michael keeping his distance for any reason did not sit well with me. "What, are you my matchmaker now?" I shot at him.

  His brow furrowed. "You want me to keep all the guys away?" He asked.

  We walked down the hall towards the main doors. I did not answer him.

  I'd never really thought of his presence as a hindrance to my love life. I had never dated or been kissed but I had always just figured it was because I was undesirable. No boys except Michael tended to notice me. Bran would be the first. He was definitely the first to show any non-abusive interest. As much as I wanted to deny it, that did give me a small thrill.

  Michael would not let it go. "Listen," he said, "I'm just saying you deserve a chance. You don't have to go out with the guy if you don't want to. I'm definitely not saying to marry him and have little Scottish babies but you should be keeping an open mind. I don't have a chance with any of the girls here—I'm too skinny—but you'd have a chance with the guys."

  The sneers and jeers of "flat-chested," "scarfs and barfs," and a host of other horrid insults from junior year flipped through my mind. I snorted. "Yeah, right."

  "Have you looked in the mirror lately?" His tone lacked his usual good-natured teasing.

  I eyed him suspiciously as I pushed through the doors. The cold air instantly froze the inside of my nose. I tightened my hood around my face. The sun was already setting and casting red-yellow streaks onto the snow. I looked up at the clear sky. It would be another cold night.

  "What do you want?" I asked Michael, referencing his complimentary tone.

  He raised his hands defensively. "Nothing. I'm just saying that puberty has been good to you. You're getting a nice butt."

  I receded further back into my hood. It had nothing to do with the cold and he knew it. He chuckled and rubbed my back.


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