If you haven't read Chapter 1, find it here.
“Can I ask you something?”
It was just after second period on Friday, way before the whole jail thing appeared on the horizon. I didn’t want to deal with the owner of that voice, so I pretended not to hear Paxton as I trudged upstairs to Spanish.
“Rose!” Paxton shouted it in the stairwell, making everyone, including me, jump and turn to stare. I bit back a growl--did he have to cause a scene?--but crossed my arms and stayed put as student traffic resumed.
As Paxton approached, a junior girl passed him with an adoring smile. I rolled my eyes. An appalling segment of the school drooled over Paxton. I suppose objectively he was hot: wheat-blonde hair, broad shoulders, blah blah blah. He’d gotten that way sophomore year, when his skin cleared up and football practice built muscles on his previously scrawny frame. Junior year he’d reached his dad’s six-foot height, helped our team to a winning season, and split my lunch crowd down the middle when half defected to Paxton’s table. Upon Ryan’s arrival and refusal to choose between us the two groups had merged, which made everyone happy.
Everyone except me and Paxton, of course.
Holding the stairwell railing, I took one step down so I could look Paxton in the eye.
“What is it, princess?” I said sweetly.
“Can I ask you something?” he repeated, brown eyes hard. That meant his question was actually a verbal fist to the gut, but I wasn’t going to stand there for the punch.
“Only if you use your mime voice.” I pivoted and walked upstairs. Paxton fell in beside me as I turned down the foreign languages hallway.
“Then I’ll just give you a heads up about the pop quiz in calc.” His voice was mild, pretending he really was doing me a favor. “Don’t be late, or you’ll get a zero.”
I stopped ten paces from my Spanish sanctuario. Paxton had calculus first period. Shit.
There were only a few rules to our feud. Not that they were written down or anything, but to ward off mutual annihilation, some things were understood.
One: no tattling. Paxton learned that in eighth grade, when he’d told his parents, who told my parents, that I’d tripped him on the bus. My dad made me apologize. The next day I apologized again, in front of the whole cafeteria, said I was sorry Paxton was so weak he had to go crying to his parents. Our classmates laughed and called him names for weeks. That was the last time our parents heard anything about our feud. Rule one was ironclad now.
Rule two: no messing with grades. It required more careful scheming, but I think we were both afraid we’d get sent to boot camp (or in Paxton’s richer case, boarding school) if we started destroying each other’s college chances. I’d always been a little paranoid Paxton would break rule two right before a final or something. And here I’d just made him fail a calc quiz. Sloppy, Rose.
Of course, there was no way I could apologize, because of rule three: deny everything. He’d started that one.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
Paxton gave me a scathing look and moved past, then turned to face me as he walked backwards down the hall.
“I never accused you of anything,” he pointed out, and I flushed. “Just giving you a heads up.” He turned and disappeared into the crowd.
I slipped into Spanish class. Damn. I’d gotten a heads up, but it wasn’t for a pop quiz. “Shields at maximum,” I muttered as I sank into my chair. Not that I watched Star Trek anymore, hadn’t since the summer before eighth grade. Even then, it was only when I hung out at Paxton’s house.
It was so weird now, to think that Paxton and I had once been friends. He’d been a dork then, with a too-loud laugh, a fascination with science, even a freaking pocket protector his parents let him wear because they thought it was cute. I hadn’t cared; I was a dork too back in those days. But then my mom gave me my makeover, and Alina befriended me. It was so fun hanging out with someone who shared my newfound appreciation for fashion and makeup that I spent more and more time with Alina, until one day I said hi to Paxton and he dumped his cranberry punch on me.
Really mature, right? To this day it makes my blood boil. Not even a professional cleaner could get the stain out of that dress.
After school, I changed out of my uniform for practice. We’d fundraised all summer for practice shirts, cute red tanks with the panther mascot and our names on them. I thought I’d brought mine, but it wasn’t in my bag.
I looked around. Some juniors on the track team were changing too, and one of them was Paxton’s sister Juliette. She was much cooler than her brother, in my opinion; she even sometimes gave me intel on Paxton’s schedule or whereabouts so I could coordinate my pranks.
“Hey, Jules,” I said. “You got an extra T-shirt?”
Juliette paused. “Yeah,” she said, but made no move towards her bag.
“Can I borrow it?” I asked.
Juliette bent down to tie her shoes.
“You know,” she said, “Paxton was supposed to drive me to school this morning.”
Oh, no. “Don’t you usually ride with your friends?”
Juliette shot me an annoyed glance, then left. I winced. So she’d been late today too, because of me. I owed her a basket of cookies. Faced with a month’s supply of her favorite cranberry-oatmeal drops, baked from scratch by yours truly, Juliette never stayed mad long.
I found a shirt to borrow, then warmed up with the rest of the squad and, as usual lately, argued with Natalie Vincent, who’d lost the Captain vote to me and now acted as second-in-command. She thought we should stick with our old routine for the Homecoming game.
“Nat, that routine is boring,” I said. “Why do same old, same old when we’ve got a sparkling, kick-ass routine to debut?”
“The time for experimentation is not at Homecoming,” Natalie said. Did she even care what routine we did, or was she was just trying to undermine me as usual? Behind her, Lindsay Bonner, the junior who wanted the captainship next year, trotted out of the locker room.
“Mad chalk skills, Linds,” I said, remembering the roses by my car. Lindsay grinned, confirming my guess, and joined the circle of stretching girls.
“Homecoming is about tradition,” Natalie was saying when I tuned back in. I opened my mouth to respond, then heard a familiar voice say my name from the edge of the gym.
“It’s my call,” I said firmly. “We’re doing the new routine.” I ended the conversation by turning to the doorway with a smile. Ryan couldn’t be too mad if he were visiting me at practice, right? I jogged over. He looked so cute in his soccer shin guards, shorts and gray T-shirt--he must be on his way to practice--that I went into a mock-swoon pose.
“If it isn’t the leader of the Hot Panther brigade,” I teased. “To what do I owe the honor?”
Ryan’s mouth curved upwards, but only a little.
“Gotta cancel our date tonight,” he said.
My smile slipped.
“Is this about--”
“No, it’s--Dane’s in town for the weekend. I found out when I checked my voicemail ten minutes ago. He wants to hang out tonight, just us guys.” Ryan’s green eyes searched mine. “I told him you’d understand.”
Dane was Ryan’s older brother, nearly out of college. Must be fall break. Glad the cancellation wasn’t because of my stupid inability to keep love letters private, I flipped my hair.
“Lucky for you, my understanding score is in the 98th percentile.”
Ryan’s shoulders eased. I was about to lean in for a kiss when I heard my name again. Georgette Richmond walked up to us, along with her twin sister Francesca and two other girls I recognized as juniors who sometimes hung out with Juliette.
“Hey there, Homecoming candidates.” Georgette smiled at Ryan and me. “I voted for you guys.” In last period everyone had voted on the Homecoming Court. I was, of course, up for Queen, and Ryan for King.
I grinned at Georgette. “That’s because you’re awesome.”
Her twin, Francesca, wouldn’t quite meet my gaze, which ... damn. That meant she’d voted for Paxton and his girlfriend Hayley, one of the other senior cheerleaders.
Francesca waved a hand at one of the juniors, a redhead. “Kayla here is doing a yearbook spread on the Homecoming royalty, and Samantha--” she indicated the other girl, a freckled brunette, “--is writing an article for the newspaper. We promised them interviews with you guys.”
Francesca helped run our school paper, while Georgette was a senior yearbook editor. They were both dressed for track: Georgette ran, while Francesca pole vaulted. Georgette told me once they each wanted their own niche, so they didn’t have to compete with each other.
“They’ll be quick, I promise,” Georgette said. “Alright, minions, get to interviewing!” she told the juniors, and she and Francesca left.
“Can we get pictures of each of you separately, then together?” Samantha asked, so Ryan and I answered questions and mugged for the camera Kayla wielded. “You guys look so cute together,” Samantha gushed.
“Yeah.” Kayla looked from me to Ryan. “Do you think you’ll be together forever?”
Ryan looped his arm around my shoulder.
“Absolutely,” he said.
I thought I saw Kayla roll her eyes, but I was too busy grinning at Ryan to care.
“Come on, Rose, cheer’s a-wasting!” Lindsay yelled from the middle of the gym.
“Last one: is it awkward being up against a fellow cheerleader?” Samantha asked me.
“Not really,” I lied. “Hayley and I both care about the squad, and would never let the Homecoming race get in the way.” I hid my irritation. Hayley was actually very sweet and worked hard, but the pretty brunette would not have been competition without Paxton’s sway. Not that it mattered; with Alina pushing my name and Ryan’s, we were set.
Some people wondered why Alina wasn’t on the candidate list, but we had a deal: Alina got Prom Queen, I got Homecoming. So she’d stumped for me at lunch today since I’d been cartwheeling at the middle school.
That was one of the things I loved about Alina. Gorgeous, rich and stylish, she owned the school--almost literally, since her grandfather helped found it--but she ruled with benevolence, and everyone adored her for it. For example, the drama teacher tried to award Alina the lead in every play, but Alina only accepted them for the spring musicals, taking supporting roles in the fall to give other actors a chance. And so she could helm the Homecoming Float crew.
“I’m busy all Saturday helping Alina and everyone with the float,” I told Ryan after the juniors left. “See you Sunday?”
He nodded, then dropped a short kiss on my lips. Ryan’s kisses were very expressive, and I could tell that despite his affection during the interview he was still annoyed with me, but at least he smiled before jogging off toward the soccer fields.
“Why does a chicken coop have two doors?” Whitney Shepherd said as I rejoined the stretch circle. Everyone rolled their eyes. “Because if it had four doors, it would be a sedan!” She cracked up. Half the girls laughed, more because Whitney’s laugh was hilariously snorty than because the joke was funny. The other half of us groaned.
“I don’t get it,” Hayley said, and then we were all laughing. That was Hayley. Sweet as honey, slow as molasses. Someone explained it to her, and she giggled.
“Alright, ladies, let’s do some warm-up tumbles,” I yelled, and we got to work.
After practice, I headed home. The house was empty, but I was used to that. Whenever my mom complained that we weren’t as rich as the other families in their circle, my dad whisked her away on vacation. As manager of the Petalina Country Club to which all their friends belonged, he could stay for free at any of the sister-clubs in the world. Came in handy for keeping mom pampered. They were in Aspen this weekend.
A shower and a microwave burrito later, I found myself with the odd realization that it was Friday night and I had nothing to do. Eyeing the fading light outside, I called Alina.
“You and your mom making margaritas?” I asked hopefully.
She laughed. “I’m sure that would be legal at the mall.”
Oh, right, shopping. “Which mall?”
She named a place in downtown San Francisco, about a forty minute drive away. “We’re gonna hit a movie in twenty minutes. Why, do you and Ryan want to join? Share date-night with me and my mom?” she joked. “Super romantic.”
“Oh, hey, my mom wants me to try on a dress. It’s so freaking pink I might morph into bubblegum just from touching it. Can I call you back?” She sounded like she was having fun. In the movies rich kids always hate their families, but Alina was a lot closer to her parents than I was to mine. Your mom having chemotherapy when you’re in middle school will do that, I guess.
Getting to the mall before their movie started would require a jet-pack, so I told her not to worry about it. “I just wanted to know what time to show tomorrow.”
“Ten AM, so don’t stay out too late with Ryan! See you, chica.” Alina hung up before I could tell her Ryan cancelled our date.
I called some other friends, but it was one of those weird, off nights when everyone’s busy and there’s no party going on. After eight strikeouts I gave up. Next weekend was going to be crazy in about a hundred ways, so maybe I should rest up and conserve my strength.
I baked some cookies to give to Juliette tomorrow, then munched on one while watching TV in the living room. On the street outside, a car headed towards the Callaways’ place, and I remembered Paxton’s “heads up” from earlier. I’d crushed that pop quiz.
I sighed. Maybe I shouldn’t have siphoned the gas out of Paxton’s car, but I’d just learned how to siphon in physics on Monday, and I’d kind of wanted to see if it would really work. With Paxton’s rotten egg making my cheerleading clothes reek last week, the timing had seemed perfect. But ...
“He’s going to retaliate, isn’t he?” I said aloud. The hanging portrait of my parents, airbrushed within an inch of their lives, didn’t answer, but as I thought about it I got more and more nervous. A botched test now could be the difference between valedictorian and failure. It killed me to go against Rule #3, but unless I wanted to go crazy-paranoid every time a quiz, project or test date loomed, I needed to vomit up an apology to derail Paxton from the war path.
Retrieving my phone, I paused. Was I really going to do this? Could I do this? I hadn’t apologized to Paxton for anything, ever. To psych myself up for it I called Alina again, though she’d probably silenced her ringer for the movie.
“You’re not going to believe what I’m about to do,” I told her voicemail. “It’s nuts! You will be shocked to your little teal toes. And I’m not going to tell you what it is, because you’ll find out soon enough.”
Now buzzing with energy, I called Paxton’s cell ...
But he didn’t answer. No one picked up his house phone either. I padded into the dining room and gazed out the window, where a row of evergreens stood between my house and the Callaway’s land. Though we were neighbors, it was actually about a quarter-mile walk to their house. Through a gap in the trees I could see a light in one of the upstairs rooms, but not in Paxton’s window. I couldn’t see his car.
Oh. He was probably out, like I should be. I put my phone down. And now that I thought about it, what was the point in offering an apology? I could just picture Paxton’s sneer as he told me where I could shove it.
Without the TV on, the empty house mocked me. I thought about calling Ryan, but decided against it. Needy was not an attractive adjective.
I chewed my lip. Well, if tonight was going to be crappy, I might as well load on the awfulness so another day might be spared. I grabbed my schoolbag and headed up to my room. Turning my favorite playlist on loud, I pulled out my AP History homework and settled down on my bed.
~ ~ ~
The pounding woke me.
Loud, angry. Downstairs. I sat up clutching the covers. My alarm clock glowed: 5:04 AM.
The knocking came again. I jumped out of bed, threw a sweatshirt and pajama pants over my camisole and silk shorts, then crept out of my room to the top of the stairs.
My heart raced like I’d just finished a dozen backflips. What should I do? Answer? Hide? Through the narrow windows flanking the door, red lights flashed. I tried to think. Where the hell does Dad keep his baseball bat?!
“Petalina Police,” a male voice shouted. “Open up!”
All the air rushed from my lungs, and I felt about to faint with relief. That would explain the flashing lights. I went downstairs and peeked out the window. The cars were official black-and-whites, so the likelihood of this being the kind of scam you sometimes hear about, of fake police officers robbing people and such, was small.
Then came a new, more frightening fear.
“Mom. Dad.” I threw the deadbolt free and yanked open the door. “What’s happened? Are they okay?” I asked the two policemen on the stoop. “My parents, are they okay?”
“Are you Rose Whitfield?” one of the policemen asked. Frantically, I nodded. Visions of car crashes, skiing accidents, or even terrorist attacks flashed through my head. I was almost in tears when the second officer held out handcuffs.
“Rose Whitfield,” he said, “you’re under arrest for second-degree arson. You have the right to ...” The words kept coming in a wave but, stunned, I didn’t really hear. The only thing that stuck in my head at that moment was, If they’re arresting me, my parents must be okay. An idiotic thought while you’re being carted off to jail, right? But there it was.
Torn between shock, bewilderment and relief, I let them bundle me like a marionette into a police cruiser.
Thanks for reading!
For an extended preview (130 pages), go back the the My Books page.