Pause (Book 1)

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Chapter 14: Don't Knock Him 'Til You've Tried Him

“Please stop. I’ve literally resorted to begging. That’s how desperate I am. Please quit it,” Jay pleads from beside me as we walk to the bar.

I ignore him, increasing my pitch as I skip along beside, “I’ve got the magic in me! Every time I touch that track it turns into gold! Everybody knows I’ve got the magic in me! When I hit the floor the guys come snappin’ at me!” I sing loudly to the tune of the melody.

I begin to raise my hands only for Jay to swat them down when bystanders give us strange looks. I ignore Jay and begin to clap anyway. “Everybody now!” I say aloud and then begin again, alone. “I’ve got the magic in me! Everybody knows-“

I am cut off from singing any further when Jay slaps a hand over my mouth. He gives me a challenging stare as if to say ‘just try that again’, and so I do, much to his misfortune and much to my own amusement.

“I only agreed to show you my job because you begged me. Our agreement didn’t include you not shutting that mouth of yours. My ears are bleeding. I don’t pity deaf people anymore. Your singing is atrocious and that’s putting it lightly. Now shut up,” he insults me, trying to come off as intimidating.

“Buzzkill,” I say aloud and follow him into the bar.

“Jay, you’re late,” the one whom I assume to be his boss, and apparent friend, appears before us, unimpressed.

Jay shrugs and motions to me as if that is answer enough in itself.

His boss, muscular with tattoos here and there, nods in understanding. “This the crazy girl you always going on about?” he asks knowingly, shooting Jay a look.

My mouth falls agape as I turn to Jay for an explanation only to be met with a sheepish grin and another shrug. As pleased as I am that Jay actually talks about me, well, complains about me, I do not appreciate being called ‘crazy’.

I turn back to the boss with narrowed eyes, “And you must be the nobody that I’ve never heard of because Jay never talks of you. At all. Never. Never ever.” I emphasize the facts, trying to make him jealous, but failing miserably.

Maybe if he were female it would have worked better.

The boss chuckles, mouthing to Jay, ’Crazy.

Jay nods, mouthing back, ’I know.

“Well, did you know that I can see you two mouthing insults to each other about me?” I ask aloud, annoyed.

“We know, we just don’t care,” Jay retorts casually.

The boss laughs at my facial expression, amused. He waves the matter off, motioning to Jay to take his shift and get to work. I watch as Jay takes his place as the bartender at the front of the bar and starts preparing drinks like a pro.

I sit on the barstool and watch him work. It’s quite fascinating really - like seeing the beast operate in his natural habitat. I also notice his predators crowding around again, by that, I mean the females flocking about in order to get his attention.

I quickly write this vital piece of information down on the notepad in front of me.

I watch on intently as one blonde twirls a curl around her finger. “Hey, Jay,” she smiles sweetly up at him, seeking one-on-one time.

He brushes her off with iciness.

I jot this down in my notebook too. It is critical and relevant to the documentary on the life of Jay Taylor.

“Can I get you your usual, Sophia?” he asks blandly, not even bothering to spare her a smile or a second glance.

Her face falls. “Yeah,” she says with a glum expression as a result of receiving the cold shoulder.

If she only knew that he’s just trying to make ends meet.

“Okay,” he replies, turning his back on her to make the drink.

Sophia sighs and glances my way in dejection as if giving up on Jay and his unwillingness to give her his time of day.

I grin at her, offering her a tiny wave with my fingers.

She scoffs, rolling her eyes at me as she waits on Jay.

He finishes mixing the drinks and hands her the finished product before sending her off on her way. His gaze strays to me. He quirks an eyebrow at me when he realizes that I’m staring.

“Not interested?” I question.

He simply shakes his head.

I grin at this and add it to my notes.

A loud bang on the bar counter alerts me of his close presence. I jolt upright in my barstool, nearly falling off of it in fright.

I look up to find Jay’s hand grabbing at my notebook with a look of scorn in his eyes. “Would you stop writing about me in your notebook like I’m some kind of animal?! It’s irritating. This isn’t Animal Planet.”

“With that attitude, it might as well be,” I mutter inconspicuously.

His eyes flicker over my notebook as he skims over the words. I try to snatch it back from him, but he merely continues reading, using the hand not holding my notebook to push me back on the forehead with little effort as if I am nothing but a meddling fly.

“Observing the beast in his natural habitat?” he reads aloud in a sharp tone, before glowering at me accusingly. I shrug innocently. He glances back down to read more before lifting his face to me a second time. “What the hell is this?” he asks, point-blank.

“Paper,” I answer wittily.

His eyes fume with rage as he slams the notepad down before me, not startling me in the least as I expected it this time. “I know it’s paper! I meant…” he sighs in defeat, “forget it, there’s no winning with you.”

“Hey, you said it, not me,” I point out with a graceful smile much to his budding irritation.

“Could you at least take the glasses off? It doesn’t make you look any more like a journalist,” he says, pointing to the thick, rimmed spectacles that I purposely wore when I started my thesis on him.

They were in my bag all along. I knew they’d come in handy some day.

“Yes, it does!” I snap. “And I’m not a journalist. I am a professional reporter and you’re the rare specimen that I am documenting,” I clarify, annoyed at his misconceptions.

He doesn’t say anything. Instead, in the blink of an eye, he reaches forward and grabs my specs, pulling them right off of my face.

“Hey!” I yell out in anger and reach forward to get my glasses back.

Jay responds by flicking me on the forehead, unfazed by my interference.

“These don’t suit you,” he says calmly, glancing at me. “You look so much better without glasses.”

“Don’t tell me what to do. I do what I want.” I scowl at him as he holds the glasses up in front of his face as if to inspect them.

“You’re not SpongeBob SquarePants.” He dangles the specs before me tauntingly, “You can’t work these.”

“I can so too!” I argue, offended.

“Fine,” he shrugs carelessly, “when you have them on you look just like that stupid square head.”

“Resembling SpongeBob was kind of the aim, so thanks for acknowledging it,” I wink at him just as his boss comes around to check on his progress, or lack thereof - he’s been distracted by my feminine charm.

The boss guy glances at the spectacles in Jay’s hands. He shakes his head at him in response, misreading the situation, “No Jay. Just no. It won’t suit you.”

“It’s not mine!” Jay snaps in shame as he flings the glasses into a nearby trash can.

Wasn’t it him who told me to respect other people’s stuff? Something about it being a felony to destroy someone else’s property, as in my SpongeBob spectacles? Then again, call us even because I damaged two of his infamous leather jackets.

“Sure it isn’t,” I say sarcastically, adding to his humiliation. “Don’t hide from us, Jay.”

The boss bursts out in laughter as a result and I smile, satisfied.

“Even if I did, you’d somehow find me,” Jay retaliates in turn, much to my own amusement. He’s not wrong.

I turn to the boss for assistance. “Boss Man, I am technically still a customer here and Jay won’t see to my orders,” I lie, having not ordered anything yet.

Jay’s fury filled eyes snap to mine accusingly.

His boss grins at me, setting me straight, “You do know that my name isn’t actually ‘boss man’, right?”

“Why bother?” Jay asks him. “Not like she’ll listen anyway, Greg.”

Ding, ding, ding! Right again. We have a winner. It’s me!

Boss Man turns to face Jay, immediately reprimanding him, “Stop being rude and just take the order, Jay. It’s protocol. Follow our rules or I’ll have to follow our disciplinary procedures,” he says in warning before leaving to check on the rest of his customers.

“You heard him, Jay,” I repeat, spinning around in circles on the bar chair, “stop being rude.”

“I can’t,” he defends himself with a smirk, “it’s part of my nature. It’s who I am. Can’t be changed.”

“Anyway,” I change topics, bored, “I’ll take a Tequila.” I add in a demanding voice, “And make it snappy!”

“No way,” is his polite and courteous reply.

I grab my spectacles from the empty trash can and place them back on my face to punish him further. I begin speaking in a British accent, “Well, poppet, if you do not comply and get me my cup of tea then I will have no choice but to inform your manager,” I threaten.

“You didn’t order tea,” he says quietly, restraining himself from lashing out.

He sends me a deadpanned stare, waiting for me to break. I shrug and stare back at him, both of us waiting for the other to break first. It’s an intense competition and I am afraid to even blink in fear of losing to him.

“Cave, cave, cave, cave, cave!” I chant repetitively.

Eventually, he sighs and does exactly that. He gives in with the faint shaking of his head, him going on to mutter, “I hate you, Aqueela Lawson.”

“Love you too, JT. Now get my drink,” I reply, showing off my pearly whites in a massive grin of victory.

I spin around on the bar chair, facing the other customers, and begin to sing at the top of my voice, enthusiastically beating my fist through the air, “Jay’s got the magic in him! When he hits the floor the girls come snappin’ at him.” I raise my hands, encouraging to them to all join, “Everybody now!”

“Have mercy,” Jay groans as people begin to sing along.


“Are you satisfied with yourself? You saw me work and successfully destroyed my rep,” Jay lectures me as we walk side-by-side to the ice cream store.

I thought I deserved a treat after that incredible performance.

“What rep? Jay, your only reputation is being mean. You ignored all those poor girls,” I state, pointing out the obvious as I happily skip down the path beside him, my energy not quite diminished as of yet.

“Maybe it’s because I am not interested,” he replies solemnly. “Now, I beg of you, take those damn glasses off already.”

I did give him a hard time at his work today, especially when half the customers began to sing ‘Jay’s got the magic’ with me. To say that I embarrassed Jay would be an understatement, in fact, I am surprised that he’s even still talking to me.

“Alright. Fine. I’ll let you win, just this once, so don’t get used to it,” I say and remove the glasses.

He lets out a sigh of relief. “So much better. Thank you.”

“You are very welcome, Sir,” I respond in the same high-pitched British accent that I had used earlier.

“And do me a favor and drop the tone…and the accent…and the voice altogether. In fact, just stop talking,” he orders, entering the ice cream store before me. “Stop breathing,” he adds under his breath, meaning for me to hear.

Well, I have no idea what’s gotten him so cranky. No, wait, I do, it’s me. Well done me!

I quickly enter after him and catch up with his long strides.

“Jay!” Simo belches out in excitement upon seeing him.

“’Sup, my man,” Jay greets casually, holding out his fist to the big guy.

Simo all too eagerly fist bumps him in turn, a big grin on his face, as always.

I raise an eyebrow in question, “When did you two get so cozy?”

“Since the guy bought me a new jacket after this idiot I know ruined my last two,” Jay reminds me with a pointed glare.

Who’s he looking at? He must be looking at someone behind me.

I tap my chin in mock thought. “Who was that legend again?” I ask and then laugh at Jay’s angry facial expression. “Oh, right,” I say giddily, “it was me.”

“You’re so annoying,” he shakes his head in disapproval.

“Simo,” I nod curtly, addressing him courteously.

“I said drop the British accent!” Jay complains.

I burst out laughing at his expense, that is until Simo opens his mouth and ruins it all:

“Sprinkle!”

My head snaps to the easily excitable puppy in warning. “Shut it, Simo. I know you know my name!”

“Sprinkle! Sprinkle! Sprinkle!” he hums all too happily to himself, doing a joyful jiggle here and there.

“I have to kill you now,” I sigh in aggravation, reaching over the counter to strangle him, only to be pulled back by Jay before I can get my hands on him.

Jay takes me aside, against my will. “Go easy on the guy. If it isn’t clear enough, he has a thing for you. Don’t ask me why. I can’t come up with anything that is remotely appealing about you.”

I mimic him like a child in response to his insult.

“I’m serious,” Jay says, “for some reason beyond me, he likes you, so cut out the cocky attitude. Alright?”

“I will when you do.” I push him away from me, not wanting him in close proximity anymore. “And how do you know this?”

“He loves to tease you because he enjoys seeing you worked up. He calls everyone by their names except you. Plus, he is constantly smiling when you are around,” he answers, opening my eyes up to the truth. He poses some valid points. “He favors you above the rest of us, hence the special treatment.”

Says the one who got a brand new jacket from him.

“Simo always smiles!” I stomp my foot like a kid in determination, throwing a semi-tantrum, refusing to believe it. The thought just doesn’t sit well with me.

He shakes his head. “Not when you’re not around. He was frowning the other day when I came by. You’ve never seen him stop smiling because all it takes is you and suddenly he is the happiest guy on the planet.”

“Kind of like our situation then,” I grin, already knowing the response that I’d get.

“No! Nothing like our situation,” Jay answers, infuriated, just as expected.

I watch, entertained, as he storms off to go order ice cream.

“Well, let’s put it to test shall we?” I murmur deviously to myself as I approach Simo while Jay is distracted by the flavors - I don’t know why he doesn’t just pick strawberry. It’s his favorite after all. The hypocritical, bubblegum hater!

I lean over the counter toward him. “Hey, Sims,” I bat my eyes at him, “can I get bubblegum flavored ice cream on the house today?” I ask flirtatiously, tossing my hair over one shoulder as I wink at him.

Simo tenses and gulps slowly as if actually contemplating it. But then his eyes flicker over to someone behind me. I turn around, already knowing who it is, only to meet his frown. I give him a sheepish wave, in turn, feigning ignorance.

Jay steps forward and yanks me back by my arm whilst still balancing his strawberry ice cream in the other hand. “I told you so that you can treat him better, not for you to exploit his weaknesses and take advantage of him,” he scolds.

“But, Jay, I want ice cream and I don’t have money on me,” I whine.

He closes his eyes before sighing in frustration. “I’ll pay for you,” he eventually says, opening his eyes to look at me.

I smile in gratitude when he buys me bubblegum ice cream without having to ask what flavor I want. He hands me my ice cream and I practically snatch it out of his hands, eager to devour it.

“A ‘thank you’ always suffices,” he mumbles and heads for the exit.

I act on instincts, grabbing him by his arm to stop him from leaving. “Thank you,” I say without warning, moving past him to throw my arms around his neck.

When he stiffens, I regret it and quickly release him before I get another lecture on ‘personal space’ like the last time I did something impulsive.

“Stop doing that,” he glowers at me, pulling me along after him as we exit the store, only for us to run into the sexy hot manager dude (whose name I still do not know) on the way out.

I mutter a shy ‘hello’ to him.

Jay, judging by his smirk, seems to find my coyness hilarious. He doesn’t get that I somehow always embarrass myself in front of this manager guy.

Mr. Manager smiles warmly at me. “Hey. Long time no see. I think the last time I bumped into you was when you were crying-“

I cut off manager dude before he reveals too much in front of Jay. “I love you!” I blurt out, reacting quickly. I grab Jay by the hand as fast as humanly possible before forcefully dragging him after me.

“What was that about?” Jay asks once we’re out of earshot.

“Nothing. Just my future husband,” I say, brushing off the whole ordeal. I continue to rattle on nervously, “So as fun as today has been, I think it’s about time we go home, well, go home separately, not that you’d go home with me, or that I’d go home with you. Wow, it is cold. Are you cold? I’m cold-“

“Aqueela, shut up for a sec’!” Jay raises his tone in the hopes of capturing my full attention, cutting off my rambling. His eyes soften a fraction as his gaze flickers over my face. “Why were you crying?”

“I have no idea what you are talking about. Like I told manager dude, it was just wind because it was a windy day, city of wind and all, wait no, that’s Chicago, but maybe we should also be called the city of wind…” I trail off once I realize the trash that I’m sprouting, “because you know…we have a lot of wind,” I conclude dryly.

Jay nods before speaking up, “Other than the ferocious wind blowing that day, why else were you crying?”

I sigh, knowing that there is no way out of this one. I either come clean or…

“Just drop it, Jay. It was nothing. Just female hormones,” I insist, trying to change the subject.

Unfortunately for me, Jay is stubborn, hard-headed and relentless in his pursuit. “You wanted us to be friends and I agreed, but now it’s your turn to let me be a friend. That was the deal. Now stop lying to my face and tell me why you were so upset that day.”

“There are some things that friends share with each other and then there are things that friends never share with each other, this is the latter,” I tell him sharply, knowing fully well that he has no expertise in the friend department.

He frowns slightly, taken back my harsh tone. “Fine. Have it your way,” he says quietly, turning his back on me as he begins to walk in the opposite direction.

“Jay, wait!” I call after him, suddenly feeling guilty. He turns around to face me with an expecting gaze. “Where are you going?” I ask softly, wanting him to stay for a little while longer.

“Consider us not friends until you can talk to me. And to answer your question, away,” he answers before he starts walking again.

This time, I don’t try to stop him.

I suck in a deep breath, the memories that I’ve tried blocking now resurfacing at the reminder. Slowly, I roll up one of my sleeves to glance down at the latest scar tainting my skin.

“You need to tell someone about that.”

I jump when I see Mason standing behind me. I glare at him in turn. “First off, don’t sneak up on me, and secondly, get lost. I didn’t need you back then and I sure as hell don’t need you now.”

Mason cocks his head to the side, observing me from head to toe to check if I’m coping. “You look like a mess.”

“Gee, thanks,” I mutter almost inaudibly.

“Clearly you’re not sleeping. Self-inflicted insomnia perhaps? Quite frankly, it’s not healthy. You. Need. Help.” He takes a daring step forward, boldly emphasizing the last three words.

“I can handle myself,” I argue, persistent. “You. Need. To. Leave.”

Mason studies me for a second longer than necessary. “I didn’t come all this way to just leave,” he clarifies. “If I am leaving then you’re coming with me,” he commands, and before I can protest he is already dragging me away with him.


I find myself beside Mason on the Bensten’s front doorstep.

“I’m not going in there,” I say, stubbornly crossing my arms over my chest.

Mason ignores me and continues to try and convince me to go inside and confide in Bells. He’s doing it in the hopes that Bells will persuade me into reporting the abuse to the authorities. That way, I can be removed from Yolanda. But then, who will take me in? Where will I go? My father has, on several occasions, made it crystal clear that he wants nothing to do with me. I know of no one willing to take a seventeen-year-old in.

Of course, there are my grandparents, but they live far away and are practically insane.

Mason’s warm brown eyes fill with anguish as he glances down at me in desperation. “Please. I am begging you, Aqueela. Please just speak to someone about this. It doesn’t have to be me, or even Bells, but you need someone to help you get through this.”

“I am perfectly fine, Mason!” I snap at him, tired of arguing, mostly because he is winning. “And it wouldn’t help if I told Bells now in any case. She’s not talking to me, or have you forgotten? After the stunt you pulled in the cafeteria the other day she is convinced that there’s something going on between us.”

Mason falls quiet at hearing the latest revelation.

Suddenly the door swings open only to reveal Bells, a surprised look on her face when she sees the two of us on her doorstep. Our commotion and racket must have led her to opening the door.

She glances back and forth from Mason to me. “What do you two want?” she huffs, clearly still annoyed with us.

The idiot drags me through the mud with him. I should not have to be on her bad side right now.

Mason shoots me a look but I pay no heed to it.

“Nothing,” I answer Bell’s question, turning on my heel to leave.

Mason tugs me back, eyes still on his girlfriend. “Can we come in?” he asks, only for her to slam the door shut in his face.

Guess that makes two of us that’s she’s not talking to…


I grin when I see Jay sitting in his usual place under my tree.

I approach him with a smile, holding out a jar of butterscotch cookies to him. “Cookie?” I ask, trying to patch things over and restore the start of the friendship.

Without Bells, I have no one to turn to. In fact, the only one I seem to have is this brutal outcast himself and I can only hope that he isn’t as brutal as he makes himself out to be.

“Really?” he arches a brow at me. “You honestly thought that would work? I don’t even like butterscotch, you do,” he reminds me, not that I needed any reminding - it was worth the shot. I regret nothing.

Seeing as I know little to nothing about Jay, I decided to bake my favorite cookies, as an apology, in the hopes of him liking them. If not, it would still be a win-win situation for me. I get to stuff my face with the butterscotch cookies when I’m all depressed as a result of him not liking the cookies.

“That’s my point. I don’t even know what snacks you like and here you are demanding for me to tell you about something that I haven’t even shared with anyone yet,” I explain, needing him to understand.

“Anyone but Mason right?” he asks, catching me off guard.

I am taken aback. “How did you-“

He cuts me off with the answer. “I realized that what I was asking was unfair on you, so I went back to find you, but then there was Montry and the two of you were disputing over something serious.” He shrugs, “So I left.”

“I’m just going through some problems,” I reluctantly open up, “that’s all. Mason found out on accident. Nothing serious.”

“Alright,” he nods, weighing it out in his head as he leans back against the tree.

“We good?” I ask him.

“Look,” he starts, distancing himself on instinct, “I got problems too. Too many to count. I don’t want to drag you further down. I don’t know if I can ever pull off ‘friends’.”

“What’s the real problem?” I question, sensing that there’s more to his story.

“You’re lying,” he says bluntly. “I can tell that it’s something serious, and I’m prepared to handle it.”

“I’m still not prepared to tell you,” I sigh, already able to see where this is going.

“Let me help you,” he insists. “I got this.”

“No,” I shake my head without having to think twice, “I can’t.”

“Then don’t expect me to stick around.”


I ring the bell five times before Bell herself opens the door.

“I come bearing gifts!” I say aloud and hold the jar out to her, a sheepish yet hopeful grin on my face.

She takes one look at me before the door slams shut. She opens the door a second later, grabs the cookies from me before the door bangs closed a second time.

At least, someone accepted my cookies…

I ring the doorbell a few more times before she finally opens the door again, having given in. “What?!” she asks, exasperated.

“Why can’t we be friends?” I hum, not missing a beat.

She rolls her eyes before moving out the doorway so that I can come in. “Mason explained everything. You don’t have to say anything. I just need time to register it all.”

I raise a weary eyebrow. “What did Mason tell you exactly?”

“He told me about the fight between you guys. He said that there’s nothing going on. He told me that you’re dealing with something in your life that he accidentally found out about. He’s just trying to help you through this and overcome it, whatever it’ is,” she says, her curiosity evident in her tone.

She’s gone out fishing.

“I asked,” she admits, “but he refused to say, told me that it wasn’t his secret to share. So, if you’re wondering if we cool, we are indeed cool, doesn’t change the fact that you can’t find it within yourself to open up to me.”

I’m kind of surprised to hear that Mason went through all the trouble to clear my name and mend my friendship with his girlfriend. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t appreciate it.

“Bells, I’m sorry,” I apologize for keeping it from her.

“You don’t owe me an explanation,” she embraces me. “I jumped to conclusions all on my own. If anything, I owe you an apology. I just wish you felt that you could tell me…” she falters in her words when I slowly begin to lift my sleeve.

Her eyes widen in shock at the sight of my arm traced in white scars. “Oh my gosh! Aqueela, what happened?!” she asks, now in hysterics.

“Yolanda,” I say quietly, quickly pulling my sleeve back down.

“Your stepmom did this to you?” she asks as if struggling to wrap her head around it.

I nod, confirming it. “Don’t be mad at Mason. He was only trying to protect me,” I say weakly, feeling vulnerable with the news out and about in the open.

“I know,” she acknowledges, “and I’m not mad.” She pats my back in a comforting manner. “We’ll get through this together, m’kay? I’m here with you all the way.”

“Thank you,” I reply, pulling myself together before telling her everything from start up until the finish.


Two days later…

“See. I told you it will all get better with time. Don’t you feel like a huge burden has been lifted off of your shoulders?” Bells asks as we make our way to the cafeteria.

Distracted, I glance to Jay’s locker hoping to see him, but he’s nowhere in sight, nor has he been for the past two days. I can’t help but feel responsible for his absence.

“Thanks for being here for me, Bells. It means the world,” I say, sincere, as we sit down at her table of popular kids - I tune them out entirely.

“I, personally, still think you should tell your gramps or grams,” she repeats for the millionth, trying to persuade me into doing it.

Then I become their burden. It’s not fair to them. They don’t need this kind of stress at their age. Also, Grams will destroy Yolanda. I’m not even kidding.

“I will, in time,” I lie, hoping she’d drop it. “Can we change the subject?” I don’t like dwelling on the negative in my life when I’m surrounded by so much more positive.

“Sure,” Bell smiles warmly. “So, how’s Jay? You two friends yet?”

I shake my head. “Not anymore.”

I sigh. She has a knack for changing bad subjects to worse subjects.

Okay…” she drawls out, not wanting to prod, “how about you and Max then?”

I groan at the reminder.

She giggles in amusement. “I heard he’s been looking for you. Everyone is claiming that you two are fakes, and with good reason. He is still hopelessly trying to save the MMA fanbase, but they’re dropping like flies.”

“Max gives me migraines. I don’t even know why I agreed to the MMAs in the first place. I am going to put an end to this. I’m not cut out to be a warrior,” I confess, a shot at my ego.

Mason comes walking in, bending slightly to place a kiss on Bell’s cheek. He gives me a once-over before holding up a shirt. “Thought you might want to see this. Max just went to the extreme.”

My jaw drops at the sight. I didn’t think he was serious.

Bells pulls her own shirt out of her bag, a sheepish smile filtering over her lips. “I was just about to show you.”

I glance between the two identical T-shirts, stunned to the core. “Max is selling shirts with my face imprinted on?!” I all but shout. “And without my permission too!”

Mason presses his lips into a thin line and nods at me. “Indeed. Except, he gave ours,” he gestures from himself to Bells, “for free because, apparently, we’re your biggest fans.” He stifles a grin, clearly hiding his amusement with the ordeal. “We’re getting front row seats and everything - backstage passes, VIP section and all that.”

“It’s not funny!” I hiss at him, only for him to crack out into laughter, proving me wrong.

Bells leaves us be, standing up to refill her water bottle.

Mason wastes no time in asking me the dreaded question, “Am I correct to assume that you’ve finally told Bells?”

I nod. “Not that it’s any of your business, but that I did. So you can go back to not caring now. I will gladly welcome it.”

“Phew! Thank goodness!” he blows out a breath of relief, pretending to wipe a bead of sweat off of his brow. “That’s great news on my part. Now I don’t have to spend any more time with you than I already have too.”

The dynamics haven’t changed too much, but yet, his insults still feel forced.

I make another vain attempt in starting an argument. It’s the only way I know how to speak to him. “So you’re my biggest fan?” I tease. “Totally saw that one coming.”

He doesn’t respond with a snide remark, instead, he smiles faintly at me. “I’ve always been your number one fan, you’ve just never realized it.”

I take in his words and shake my head at his unusual sweet side, not appreciating his pity. My eyes dart over to Bells, wishing for her to be back already. It’s just plain awkward trying to converse with her boyfriend. We’re too different.

“Later, loser,” Mason winks at me, moving to the end of the table to speak to Laiken and his other buddies before they all stand up and leave.

Bells returns with a peppy grin, instantly lifting my spirit with her cheerfulness.

“So tell me why you even bothered to join the MMAs in the first place,” she asks as she takes her seat again, glancing around, in search of where Mason disappeared to.

I shrug. “Jay was mad at me that day, kind of like now. I was feeling down, so when Max mentioned MMAs, I jumped at the opportunity to get my mind off everything,” I explain, well, try to, seeing as I am not quite sure myself as to why I joined the MMAs.

Bell stares at me, skeptical. “You mean to get your mind off Jay?” she asks, correcting me.

I nod. “I guess so.”

“Since when do you give a damn if people are mad at you, unless, of course, you care for these certain people?” she raises her eyebrows at me, biting back a grin.

“Since always. Duh,” I lie, not having anything else to say to that.

Bell laughs softly before a kind smile washes over her features. Her eyes brighten as she leans toward me knowingly. “Aqueela, I think you might just have a thing for JT.”

Jay,” I correct her absentmindedly. “He doesn’t like being called JT.”

As soon as the words leave my mouth, it hits me. She may just be right.

“So defensive,” she giggles. “Your every action is based on that boy.”

Considering how he has the ability to change my mood from happy to sad in a split second, her theory could very well be an accurate possibility.

I begin to shake my head profusely. “No! No, no, no, no, no! Nuh-uh! No! Just no!”

“You’re in denial,” she laughs again.

“This is all your fault! You should’ve warned me to stay away from him!” I blame her.

“I’m so sorry that I forced you into liking him, Aqueels,” she remarks in sarcasm, rolling her eyes at me playfully.

“You should be! Shame on you!” I continue on ranting, “I’m not supposed to have feelings or fall for people! People have feelings, people fall, not Aqueelas! We’re supposed to be the powerful nation!” I stop and take a second to process it all. “I can’t like Jay. He won’t ever reciprocate the feelings.”

“You never know. You are rather oblivious, daft, if I do say so myself,” she teases, meaning only well.

I glower at her.

“He only smiles when in your company. He only laughs at stupid stuff you say. In fact, you’re the only person he ever talks to,” she points out with a giddy grin.

“I don’t say stupid stuff!” I defend myself, refusing to see the big picture.

She holds her hands up in surrender, not looking apologetic at all. “I’m just saying,” she grins, “don’t knock him ’til you’ve tried him, kiddo.”

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