About Torched: Cheerleader Rose Whitfield's senior year goes up in smoke when she's framed for arson. Sure the culprit is her neighbor Paxton, with whom she's been feuding since middle school, she sets out to clear her name and take Paxton down hard--not necessarily in that order.
By Andrea Lynn Colt
Usually you feel flames before they burn you. You smell them: the post-Homecoming bonfire in the woods, the love letters in a trash can, the cookies forgotten in the oven (which is also what grounded for two weeks smells like, by the way).
The only scents tickling my nose on Friday morning, however, were coffee and wind. I set my latte back into its cup-holder, then swerved into Alina's ludicrously expensive driveway. It wasn't literally paved with money, but considering the textured Italian marble under my tires, moolah-blocks might have been cheaper. I gunned the engine to get up the hill, then slammed on the brakes when I reached the stone lion snarling from the corner of the mansion. Almost before the wheels even stopped I was texting Alina.
Vroom vroom. I punched send, abandoned my phone to the center console, and ran through a cheer routine--well, as much as I could without actually getting out of my seat--while I waited. The Homecoming game was a scant week away, and as head cheerleader, it was on my bared shoulders if our new choreography fell flatter than a punctured football.
I punched the air, pretending it was the face of the drive-thru barista who'd given me the stink-eye along with my grande this morning. It was the cheerleading uniform, obviously, because usually she rewarded my smile with professional-grade apathy.
She must be one of those people. You know, the ones who buy into all the stereotypes about cheerleaders: we're mean, vapid bottle blondes who carve up the lower rungs of the high school social ladder with our stilettos to distract ourselves from our hollow centers. We care about the girl in the mirror first, money second, and our star-quarterback boyfriend third.
I've heard it all, and I'm sure there are cheerleaders who feed that image. I've tangled with a couple myself, at competitions. But you know what? I'm not that girl. First of all, no one wears stilettos at my school unless she wants to break her idiot neck on the cobblestone courtyard, and my strawberry-blonde hair is completely natural. Well, except for a tiny bit of highlighting, but in California that totally counts.
Second, if you check out the GPA rankings, the name at the top belongs to yours truly: Rose Whitfield. Yup, if all goes well, this May the Petalina Panthers will crown a cheerleader valedictorian. Stick that in your Never Thought I'd See The Day file.
And third, I wouldn't date the quarterback if you paid me.
No, my boyfriend co-captains the soccer team. And the debate team. Yeah, he's an overachiever, but so am I. We were made for each other.
I finished mouthing my cheer as Alina ran through the mansion's massive double doors. She tossed her bag into the back of my convertible, then threw herself into the passenger seat.
"Thank the freaking pixies you're here, Rose," she said. "Seven A.M. and my parents are already fighting like caged monkeys." She slumped against the leather headrest.
"Orangutans or gorillas?" I studied what I could see of my best friend's face. Her designer sunglasses were hot enough to make all other shades melt from envy, but their oversized proportions weren't helping me figure out how upset Alina was.
"Whatever kind throw shit at each other." She sounded tired. Battered. I tensed.
"Like vases-and-dishes shit, or metaphorical?" I tried not to sound too worried, but Alina slid her sunglasses down to glare at me.
"Relax, social worker. Mom just thinks dad shagged his secretary." She reached for her coffee, wedged as always with two sugar packets in the cup-holder. The glimpse of her eyes told me today hadn't been a crying day, at least, and she sounded better already. Relieved, I grabbed my coffee again too.
"Ouch. Did he?"
"Hope not. So cliché, you know?" Alina tore the tops off her packets and dumped the sugar in her coffee. "He'll probably crash on the boat this weekend, give mom some space to cool down. Which means she's going to want me to hang out with her tonight." She groaned theatrically as I put the car in gear.
"You want me to launch Operation Moral Support?" Alina's mom usually didn't sob around company, so even my almost-family presence would help. Besides, her strawberry margaritas were beyond tasty, and she didn't bother pretending to care that we were only seventeen.
"Don't you and Ryan have a date?" Alina said.
"He'd understand." Coffee in one hand, I eased the car around the fountain in the driveway loop. Ryan Appleton, aforementioned boyfriend, was the other half of my soul. We'd met over the summer, at Alina's family's Fourth of July party, and it was swoon at first sight for me. Ryan is tall, lean and deliciously broody when he's not flashing his high-voltage smile. And when he noticed me ... well, let's just say I clean up nice too: Ryan tripped over a chair and spilled Coke all over his twelve-year-old sister. I found towels, helped Ryan's sister raid Alina's closet for a clean skirt, and wound up kissing Ryan by the time the fireworks faded.
Like I said. Made for each other.
Alina grinned. "Because your love is like an oak tree, right?"
I sighed. "I never should have shown you that poem." But I couldn't hide my smile. Ryan had written the sonnet to celebrate our three-month anniversary.
"It grows in dirt!" Alina crowed.
"It has deep roots," I corrected, trying for a scowl and failing. The poem was kind of ridiculous, but totally sweet nonetheless. "You want me to come over or not? I can always walk over to see Ryan after your mom goes to bed." How fabulous was it that his family had moved next door to Alina? So convenient.
"Nah, go be all blissy-kissy," Alina said as I turned out of her driveway. "I'll make my mom take me shopping. Retail therapy always puts her in a forgiving mood. Plus, I need new slouchy boots. My grey ones have a scratch." She shivered. "Little cold for top-down, isn't it?"
"No point in having a convertible if you're not going to flaunt it, right?" I grinned. The car was second-hand, but well-maintained and a powder blue that matched my eyes. I loved it more than Alina loved slouchy boots, and that was saying something. I'd even named it.
"That's my girl." Alina drummed her teal manicured nails on the armrest. "We're driving the Jag next week though. Yearbook is going to go photo-crazy."
"My Cloudmonster isn't good enough for Spirit Week?" I pouted, but I wasn't really mad. Whenever delusions of grandeur swamped my head, Alina and her racks of designer clothes, her costs-more-than-some-houses car and her three-figure weekly allowance knocked me back to earth. I ought to be jealous, but Alina thought it was as ludicrous as I did when her parents took private jets to Maui for the weekend.
Alina shivered again. "Why is it so cold this morning?" She took off her sunglasses, and I saw she'd matched her eyeliner to her nail polish. No mascara, though--she didn't need it. She'd inherited her mom's long, thick lashes, along with Hispanic genes that gave Alina an effortless year-round tan I'd never match no matter how I tried.
"It'll heat up by noon," I said. "Besides, why are you complaining? I'm the one in a skirt."
"Yeah, about that." Alina eyed me askance. "You do remember Homecoming isn't until next Friday, right?"
"We're giving a demo for the middle school squad during lunch. No time to change."
Behind us, a car horn blared. I recognized the tone, and since we hadn't made the turn from Alina's street onto the main road yet I slammed on the brakes. Alina yelled a curse as coffee slopped onto her jeans, but I was already twisting in my seat and grinning at the figure that hopped out of the SUV now idling behind us.
"Morning, ladies," Ryan called as he jogged over. He wore an olive long-sleeve tee and smelled like French toast as he leaned on the top of my door. He'd probably made his sister breakfast; how adorable was that? "I wanted to kiss you hello, since I won't be seeing you in the parking lot before school." Ryan arched a brow. "Seems someone siphoned the gas out of Paxton's car last night, so I have to go pick him up."
"Aw, do you have to?" Paxton Callaway was my neighbor, and Ryan's friend from summer camp a couple years ago. I was not pleased about either of these facts, and hadn't known about the latter when I met Ryan. Paxton and I had been enemies ever since he threw cranberry juice all over me in eighth grade. I'd responded to his senseless violence by planting gum on his bus seat. Relations had only grown chillier with time.
"I thought you guys promised to play nice." Ryan's mouth was smiley, but his voice held a serious note. I widened my eyes.
"What makes you think I had anything to do with this ghastly crime?"
Okay, so Paxton and I had been forced to bury the hatchet when Ryan asked us to for his sake, but we hadn't shoveled too much dirt on top. I'd thought our unwritten agreement drew the line just after verbal insults thinly disguised as humor, but the rotting egg in my gym bag last week certainly hadn't put itself there.
Ryan was trying to keep his serious face, but finally he grinned and kissed me. "You are way too cute in that uniform for me to yell at you."
Oh, his voice got all rumbly when he said that. I sighed against his lips.
"Thanks a lot, Rose," Alina said next to me. "Look at my damn jeans." I could hear rustling, as though she were blotting Breakfast Blend with a napkin. I probably shouldn’t have stomped on the brakes so hard.
"Sorry," I said, looking up into Ryan's green, green eyes. "Love made me do it."
"I'm going to chop down your freaking love-oak and mulch it," Alina muttered.
Ryan's gaze cut to Alina, then back to me. Oh, crap. He was mad now, and I knew why. The air felt stuck in my lungs. Ryan straightened up from the door.
"You showed her my letter?" It wasn't really a question. He started to say something more, then shut his mouth and walked away. I tore off my seatbelt and scrambled from the car.
"Ryan, wait." Halfway back to his SUV, he turned as I caught up. "It was really sweet. I couldn't help but tell her." Ryan hated the whole girls-gab-about-everything concept the rest of the world took for granted. I wanted to shout how awesome he was from the roof of the school, but he liked to keep things private. Not that we didn't engage in our share of PDA, but showing his letter to Alina? Not on the Allowed list.
"I didn't write it for her. I wrote it for you." Ryan shoved his hands in his pockets. "We've talked about this, Rose."
We had, several times, though the verb I'd have used was "fought." I tended to be an open book to my friends, but Ryan had Boundaries. Learning them, and sticking to them, sometimes felt like walking around a maze of prickly-bush hedges. Blindfolded.
"She's my best friend," I said. And she'd promised on her beloved pug Piper's life never to let on that I'd shown her that damn poem. "I don't understand why the poem has to be a secret. You meant it, right?"
"That's not the point, Rose." Behind Ryan, his little sister rapped on the windshield. "I have to go. We're gonna be late already." He turned away without a goodbye kiss. I walked quickly back to Cloudmonster and hid my hurt as the SUV roared past.
"Is he mad?" Alina asked as I jerked my car into drive.
"No, he's buying me flowers," I snapped. "I think the note will read, 'Your friends suck, and so do you. Hate, Ryan.'"
"It slipped. I didn't mean to."
Too furious to respond, I drove in silence. I shouldn't have shown Alina the letter. Why couldn't I just savor Ryan's awesomeness on my own? Then again, even though I knew it was kind of typecast cheerleader-ish, I liked showing off, whether it was my stellar backflip, my curve-breaking test grades, or the fact that the hands-down most amazing guy in school loved me. Why should I have to keep quiet just because Ryan was afraid of the word "whipped"?
"Spaghetti," Alina said suddenly.
Was that supposed to make sense? Sometimes we had contests about who could name the most types of something--Alina was the reigning champion in the cheese category, but I'd smothered her in trees--but I was way too mad to play now.
Thirty seconds later, my willpower broke like an egg. "Manicotti," I said, loading my voice with acid to make it clear I was still upset. But Alina shook her head.
"My mom threw a Tupperware of spaghetti and sauce at my dad this morning," she said. "Nothing shattered, so at least they're learning, right? But my favorite jeans got splattered."
Oh. And then I'd stained her second favorite jeans. It wasn't really about the jeans, though. I got that. The coffee spill had just tipped her over the edge. I wanted to get Alina to talk about it--she tended to bottle things up if I let her--but just before school was not a good time for a crying jag.
"Rigatoni?" I offered, accepting her tacit apology. Alina smiled.
By the time we reached the parking lot of the Petalina Panthers, I'd stumped her with Rotelle. Alina practically tore her hair out trying to name another pasta in time, but then the clock ticked forward and she officially lost. I let out a whoop, startling some juniors, and pulled into our spot.
I cut the engine and hit the button to slide Cloudmonster's top into place.
"You think if I seduce Ryan after the Homecoming dance he'll forgive me?" I said as the machinery hummed. Alina twisted to retrieve our bags from the backseat.
"You were already planning to do that." She handed me my messenger bag. I hugged it.
"Not as far as he knows."
"Why you won't just wait until prom to lose your virginity like normal people, I don't know."
"Prom is passé. Besides, half our class has lost theirs already." I desperately wanted to be closer to Ryan, and we'd done almost everything anyway. His SUV had a very comfy backseat, but Homecoming weekend my parents were going out of town. They were away this weekend too, but empty house plus a dance? It was fate.
We got out of the car, and I patted Cloudmonster as I locked him. Just as the beep sounded, I noticed Mr. Haverton, my AP Psych teacher, walking towards us wearing his habitual frown. He pointed at the ground.
"Girls, chalking isn't permitted until Spirit Week," he said.
When I saw what he was talking about, I smiled. In front of Cloudmonster's bumper, the sidewalk was decorated with two red flowers, along with "The Roses" in elaborate script.
Did I mention that Alina's last name was Rose? Yeah, it led to punning by people who thought they were clever, but my first name being Alina's last was actually what brought us together in middle school. My mom had splurged on a designer bag for me, a black backpack emblazoned with Rose in pink.
Alina had stopped me at the entrance to the cafeteria. "Cool bag," she'd said, and asked where I got it. This was a Huge Deal, since Alina was as popular then as she was now, and since I was officially a dork for all of sixth and seventh grade. I'd stammered out the designer name, then added, "My name's Rose," as if Alina wouldn't know.
Maybe she didn't, because Alina had given me a once-over, like she'd never seen me even though we'd had chorus together the year before. The summer before eighth grade, however, I'd done the caterpillar to butterfly thing--braces finally off, hair tamed by a flat iron, and new clothes that shouted style the way my ratty T-shirts decidedly hadn't. I think my mom finally took her gaze away from her reflection long enough to be horrified that her only child was unsightly. She hadn't wasted time fixing the problem, but until that day, when Alina asked if I wanted to sit with her, no one at school had bought my transformation.
I shrugged at Mr. Haverton. "We plead not guilty, officer."
"Then who's behind this?"
The only person I knew with enough artistic talent and suck-up-itude to do this was Lindsay Bonner, a junior cheerleader angling to be my sidekick in the run-up to nationals, which would put her in a prime spot to take over the squad captainship next year. I don't know if Alina came to the same conclusion, but she tossed her head.
"What can I say? We've got fans, Mr. H." Alina snapped her fingers and turned to me. "Linguini! Damn, how could I forget linguini?"
Mr. Haverton frowned at her in confusion, then sighed and walked away. I shouldered my bag and glanced around, but Ryan's SUV didn't show. It was getting close to bell-time. He was going to be late, and I felt bad. Ryan wasn't supposed to be a casualty in my latest skirmish with Paxton, and with the whole oak-poem debacle, I had a lot of apologizing to do.
"We'd better hustle," Alina said, then noticed my expression. "Don't worry, Rose. Ryan loves you. And with the Homecoming thing, you're golden."
I bit my lip, then pictured Ryan's green eyes and relaxed. Alina was right: I was worrying over nothing. Straightening, I gave her a cocky grin. "Gold? Try platinum."
Alina rolled her eyes, and we booked it to homeroom.
Twenty-four hours later, though, I wasn't platinum, or gold, or even silver.
And neither was my jail cell.
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