Jez and I turned around to look at Taryn and her two minions, Violet and Harper, as the three cornered us in the girls’ restrooms. “Oh, slut,” Jez responded dryly. “Have you lost your way? The brothel is the other way.”
Taryn narrowed her eyes. “Very funny, Smith,” she spat Jez’s surname like it was a curse. “Going to help your ugly friend again?” She smirked evilly at me.
“It’s better than lowering myself to talk to someone like you,” I told her frankly. “You can call me whatever you want, Torres, but we both know that you are the slutty one.”
Taryn didn’t seem to listen to anything I said. She had a purpose, which was revealed when she hissed, “Stay away from him.”
“From whom?” I asked innocently.
“Chase,” Taryn’s voice was dangerous. “You touch him, and say goodbye to anything you have, ’cause I will destroy you!”
“Wow, Torres,” Jez folded her arms. “We’re so scared of your fruitless threats. Got anything else? Something scarier? Bring it on.”
“Mark my words, whores,” Taryn glared at us. “He’s mine. You touch him, you’re dead.”
I rolled my eyes. “Get a life, Torres.”
She smiled wickedly. “I should say that to you, ugly.” She then exited the restroom dramatically, Violet and Harper right after her.
Jez washed her face. “Why does she hate you so much, O’Reilly?” She asked, eyeing me through the mirror.
“It’s an excellent question,” I said, washing my hands. “I’ve been trying to figure that one out for, like, ever.”
“Jesus, she needs to chill, honestly,” Jez said as she wiped her face from lingering drops. “I don’t get it what’s with mean-girls nowadays. When I was in high-school, at least they had something to be mean about.”
That made me stare at her. “You’ve been bullied at high-school?” I asked, disbelieving.
Jez glanced at me. “Well, yeah,” she replied and winced a little. “Not that it matters anymore. I’m twenty now, and the real high-school life is behind me.”
Her voice was too collected, too calm, and I knew there was more to this story than she said so. I’d never in million years would’ve thought Jezebel Smith, the beauty queen, had been bullied in high-school. Maybe it was one of the reasons she had been so irrationally upset to go back to school when she had been told that.
Maybe it was the reason she’d hated me, despite the Gunner issue and everything.
Lunch break came eventually and we sat with Chase again. Everyone was still trying to get used to Chase being with us, the two loners. Jez seemed to find his presence funny and I guessed she wanted something to happened between us – probably to distance me from Gunner, which meant less competition for her. Like I could be any competition for someone like Gunner – and it’s not like she herself still managed to make him interested in her.
“Taryn’s talking shit about you,” Chase told me. “Says you’re a whore or whatever.”
“That’s fantastic,” I said flatly. “She’s such a good-hearted girl.” Inside, I wondered where the Taryn I’d come to know had gone to. She’d never been so openly mean. She wanted Chase to like her and tried to be “nice” for him. Why did she show her true face now?
Maybe she wanted him to like her for who she really was... if it really was the reason, it’s pathetic. But I guess nobody’s perfect.
“What have you done to her that she hates you so much?” He asked in curiosity.
“That’s what I asked,” Jez said. “But apparently she’s just mean for meanness’s sake.”
“Which means she hates me for existing,” I said, sending a meaningful look to Jez, who glared at me. Once upon a time – it seemed so far now – Jez said she hated me for existing. I didn’t know what triggered in her such a hatred.
“Hey, it was a long time ago,” Jez said. “Now I know you’re not that bad as I firstly thought you were, O’Reilly - “
“Yet you keep calling me ‘O’Reilly’,” I pointed out.
She sighed. “Fine, I’ll call you Rae, happy?” She scowled and I chuckled.
“That would be nice of you, thanks,” I winked at her and she rolled her eyes but her lips twitched. She hated me no more now. Score one for me.
“You guys are strange,” Chase said fondly with a smile.
“That’s why you like hanging with us,” I informed him. “You’re just as strange, even if you’re in denial.”
“I am not in denial!” He protested with a grin.
“You’re so cute,” Jez grinned wickedly and pinched Chase’s cheek, like an old aunt. Chase pinked a little and murmured something that sounded like “I’m not cute”.
“Yes you are,” I grinned, sharing an evil look with Jez.
Chase glanced at me. “Do you really think I’m cute?” He asked seriously, but I couldn’t really take him seriously with his pink cheeks.
“Um-hm,” I stifled a giggle.
He found it insulting, apparently, as he said, “I’m supposed to be ‘seriously hot’ or ‘sexy’ or something like that. Cute is childish.”
“But you are a child,” Jez pointed out, and I rolled my eyes. In her eyes, everyone who was more than a year younger than her was a child. Of course, no one here knew Jez was actually twenty, although she looked like that, so Chase couldn’t know the hidden meaning in her statement.
“You’re hurting my fledgling ego,” Chase melodramatically put a hand on his heart with mocked-pained expression.
“Oh, your ego is fledgling no more, mister,” I said, chuckling.
“You’re so mean, Rae.” He shot me a feigned glare.
“But you like ’em mean, don’t you, Chase?” I winked at him, flirting openly. I was now running operation Forgetting Gunner At All Costs, or just Operation Chase for short.
It took Chase by surprise; it was the first time I flirted with him, since it was only Monday and my decision took place at Saturday. But he recovered quickly and sent me a flirtatious smirk. “Well yeah, Rae, I like ’em very mean.” Thank God, he flirted back. It meant he at least found the situation intriguing, which was something.
Jez, who wasn’t stupid, caught the flirting and shot me a questioning look. I ignored it and kept an eye-contact with Chase’s deep-blues. “See? Told you we’re kindred souls.”
“Nope, you told me I’m strange,” his smirk grew, “but it’s good to know you think we’re kindred souls, Rae.”
I leaned toward him. “Is it?” I cocked my head, as if I found him interesting. Then I did what I saw Isobel do to Marcus many times and what Taryn had done to many guys, and looked at him beyond hooded eyes, blinking slowly. I felt foolish, like I was trying too hard, and I was quiet self-conscious about how I looked. Sure, I thought I was cute, but I didn’t know if he thought I was cute, too. But I hoped that the make-up I’d applied this morning would pay off.
Please feel at least a spark of interest in me, I begged silently. Please help me forget about that asshole.
When Chase’s eyes didn’t leave mine and his breathing grew heavier, I felt a tiny sense of victory, but it wasn’t as sweet as I wanted it to be. While Chase looked at me as if it was the first time he really saw me, I was thinking about someone else, someone with sea-like eyes and tousled black hair, who looked back at me with the realization that I was actually a girl-going-woman. And as I tried my best to seduce Chase Montgomery, my body ached for Gunner Murray.
I was seriously going insane.
Deciding it was enough for today, I leaned back and ate my sandwich as if nothing had just happened. Chase blinked in surprise, shook his head and grinned at me. I forced a grin back, and saw Jez’s confused expression from the corner of my eye.
But no matter how many times she’d asked me what was happening at the cafeteria when we were at our afternoon classes, I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. I felt wrong flirting with someone whom I wasn’t interested in a bit. But I knew that for my sake, it needed to be done.
Didn’t mean it made me feel good.
Eventually Jez dropped it, but I knew it wouldn’t be the end of it, because I was going to flirt with Chase again, and I was going to be involved with him.
I was tired of hopelessly wanting to be with Gunner.
Back at the mansion, when Danger, who picked me up today like every other day from school, Jez and I walked into the building, Ryder, Maddox, Henry and Gunner were waiting for us.
“What’s this all about?” Jez asked as we let two servants take out backpacks.
“A little field-trip,” Henry announced. “Maddox returning home, to Evelyn, and we’re doing a goodbye-picnic.”
“Oh,” Jez turned to look at Maddox. “Well, that’s cool.”
“Let’s go,” Maddox said with a grin and we all went out of the mansion. I sticked to Danger’s side, talking with him lightly about casual stuff, and ignored the hurt in my chest whenever I heard Gunner voice saying something to Ryder and Jez, whom he talked to.
We went to the backyard, where I had bittersweet memories from Gunner, when we’d sat on the swinging bench and he teased me, using my attraction to frustrate me sexually. It made a knot in my stomach to remember that, but there was nothing I could do about it.
We passed the backyard into the woods, which started getting dark with the sun setting at the horizon. But we hadn’t lingered in the woods for so long, because we arrived some sort of a meadow, or rather, a valley. Everyone stopped and I stopped with them, looking at the green-covered valley, with so many flowers and fireflies. I was shocked by the most beautiful sight I’d ever seem – even more beautiful than the landscape from my balcony – and I just stood there, stunned, with wide eyes and mouth hanging open with wonder.
“Oh, right,” I heard Henry’s amused voice like from afar. “We’ve never taken her here.”
“You can run freely if you want,” Danger told me. “Be our guest.”
I didn’t need to be told twice. With the hugest, truest smile I’d smiled since long time ago, I ran like a little girl again down the hill, toward the valley, jumping and skipping and smiling and laughing openly, feeling for once really, truly happy. The setting sun warmed the cold November air and I felt like all the worries I had, all the thoughts, were gone for now.
I walked around in circles, my hands spread as if to feel the more of this magical place. The fireflies flew around me and it almost felt like I was blessed or something. It made me feel special and important, even if for just a small period, and I smiled even wider.
Suddenly someone caught me by the waist. I didn’t even realize I was about to fall until that someone wrapped a muscular arm around my slim waist. I looked up and saw Gunner giving me an odd look. I straightened up, glanced away, and fought the attraction I felt for him, but it was so hard when my skin was taut and my whole being was hyperaware of him.
He let me go and I felt his absence immediately, which made me feel all kinds of bothered. “Sorry,” he said with a very unapologetic tone. “You were about to fall.”
I glowered at him, wondering why he didn’t sound sorry at all. Instead, he was scowling, which made no sense, because Gunner didn’t scowl. It was simply not his character. So why was he now? And why did he seem angry?
“Fine,” I spat, not feeling the tug of a true smile anymore. In fact, even my happiness dissipated as quickly and brutally as it’d come. All Gunner’s fault.
“Let’s go, guys,” Maddox called us, and both Gunner and I turned to look at the group who was now down the valley. It embarrassed me a little to think they all saw my foolishness and childish happiness, but I kept my head straight and walked to them, very aware of Gunner coming right after me.
Maddox, Danger and Gunner gave me all very strange looks throughout the picnic. I had no idea why; Danger was always kind and smirking, Gunner a nonchalant bastard and Maddox a carefree businessman. Now Danger looked odd all the meal, Gunner seemed angry and Maddox was strange. All of them were staring at me, though, so it had something to do with me.
I wished I had any idea what was that all about. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one confused. “What’s wrong with them?” Ryder asked quietly. I sat now with Jez and Ryder because Danger weirded me out and he took a seat with Gunner and Maddox, all of them talking in low tones about something.
“No idea,” I mumbled. “I wish you knew, though.”
“They’re acting weird,” Jez frowned. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen them acting like that ever since...” she stopped suddenly, and then looked at me, searching my face.
I tensed. “Since what?” I asked.
Jez didn’t answer; she just made an order. “Smile.”
Both Ryder and I looked at her as if she was nuts. “Ha?” I was completely baffled.
“Just smile, like you did earlier,” she insisted. “When you were in your little world, dancing in circles with the fireflies? Smile like that.”
“I don’t get it,” Ryder said, and I tried to put on a smile, which was hard but not too hard. But the smile was fake and didn’t come from the heart and it was noticeable. Jez sighed.
“Well, I have no idea, but whatever’s going on with those three, it probably has something to do with...” she looked around, as if to be sure everyone didn’t listen to her, and then whispered, like she whispered some sinful word, “Willow.”
Ryder was quick to understand. “Shit,” he spat. “I can’t believe they’re still talking about her. That witch should’ve been out of our lives already - “
“Shh!!!” Jez hissed. “Don’t say that, especially not here.” She looked worriedly at the strange trio, who were now looking right at me again.
I averted my gaze away. “You talked about her before,” I said in a low voice to Jez and Ryder. “When Maddox first came to town and I said something to trigger a memory within him or something.”
Ryder and Jez were silent, and when I gazed up at them, they wouldn’t look at me. I pressed on. “Who is she anyway, this Willow?”
The two exchange glances, and then turned to look at me. “She and her older sister, Arabella, are... were... our colleagues.” Jez offered quietly. “We worked with the Andela women as part of a cooperation between big companies and smaller ones.”
“So why’s Willow name a taboo?” I asked, whispering.
Ryder was the one to answer, sudden sadness in his gold eyes. “Because Willow was Mad’s girlfriend, before he met Evelyn and got married, and both Gunner and Danger were in love with her, too.”
It made me look at him, completely lost and confused. Night had already fallen, and I was able to see both Jez and Ryder dimly because of the candles we’d put around our picnic. “I get that it’d probably hurt them,” I kept on asking, because I had a bad feeling about this story. “But why would it be so - “
“She cheated on Maddox,” Jez cut me, looking right into my eyes with her sky-blue ones. “With both Gunner and Danger.”