Authors: Melissa Pearl
Tags: #coming of age, #justice, #young adult, #fugitive, #contemporary romance
Loading my fork, I spied Dani out of the corner of my eye and watched her wolf down the meal. She still ate elegantly, but you could tell she was hungry, like this was her only meal for the day or something. That girl could put away the food, that’s for sure. Her plate was getting close to empty much faster than the rest of us.
Elliot reached for the ketchup.
AJ slapped his hand over Elliot’s before he could pick up the bottle. “Dude, what are you doing?”
Elliot let out a long winded sigh. “Do we have to go through this every time we eat your food?”
Dani’s eyes popped up and whipped between the two of them. We were all used to this conversation, knowing there was a certain amount of theatrics to it. The guys always got mad, a little huffy and within ten minutes it was as if the tiff never happened.
AJ’s fingers squeezed Elliot’s knuckles. “The meal doesn’t need ketchup.”
“Well, that’s where you’re wrong. Every meal needs ketchup.”
“I have put enough flavor in that food to satisfy your taste buds for a year. Now let go of the ketchup bottle.”
Liesl pressed her lips together, obviously fighting a grin.
Elliot narrowed his eyes and went to lift the ketchup, but AJ slammed his hand back down. “Do not bastardize my food with ketchup.”
“Let go of the bottle!” Elliot warned between gritted teeth.
And the little tug and slam routine began. I tuned out and kept munching on my meal with an entertained smirk. “Don’t worry, it’ll be over soon.” I winked at Dani.
Her bemused expression softened a little, but she continued to watch, almost fascinated. Her bright blue eyes soaked it all in, her lips twitching as the boys scuffled it out.
“AJ! We need you back in the kitchen!” The main sous chef popped his head through the swinging double doors.
“Coming.” AJ grunted.
“Damn it, Elliot! Every time.” AJ let go of the bottle and huffed. With a triumphant grin, Elliot watched AJ stalk back to the kitchen as he whacked a large dollop of ketchup onto his plate.
Jaeda giggled. “I love it when he gets mad over food. It’s so cute.”
“Stop it.” Liesl’s reprimand was lost within her giggles. “You shouldn’t do that to him, Elliot.”
“He can take it.” Elliot shoveled a huge mouthful onto his fork and dipped it into the ketchup.
“So, how mad is he really?” Dani twirled the fork in her hand, sounding uncertain.
“Oh, don’t worry, sweetie.” Liesl waved her hand. “It’s just an act. He’ll come out chirping in a minute. He and Elliot go way back.”
“Yeah, they’re broskis all the way.” Jaeda nodded. “Since like first grade. They love each other.” She batted her eyelashes, which were colored pink today.
I laughed at Elliot’s warning look to Jae. She just giggled and slapped his arm.
Dani didn’t quite know what to make of my friends. She eyed them all carefully as she finished her meal, maybe assessing like I always did. I guess we weren’t like normal high school kids. We didn’t put on a show for anyone. We were like a little family and really didn’t care what anyone else thought. No matter what, we were always there for each other and there was no judging involved. We’d nursed Jaeda’s broken heart when her dad and sister left, we’d been there for Elliot when his grandma, the woman who raised him, died. We’d watched the blossoming romance between Liesl and AJ and had quickly figured out when to push and when to back off.
I liked that we were a tight group and I couldn’t imagine ever losing my friendship with any of them. Jaeda ran her finger over her empty plate to get the last of the sauce. Sticking her finger in her mouth, she shot me a wink.
Dani noticed, her eyes jerking to the side so she could see me. Maybe she thought there was something going on with me and Jae, but… I grimaced. That would be like dating a sister. Eww.
“What’s your problem?” Jaeda frowned.
“Nothing.” I shook my head.
She brushed me off and pulled the group in with her energetic eyes and a sweep of her hand. “So, this weekend I was thinking…” Pause for effect. She always did that. “Movie-a-thon at the Zacksters tomorrow night and then maybe head into San Fran on Sunday. Go look around Chinatown or something.”
The others nodded, open to the suggestions.
“Wanna come?” I nudged Dani’s elbow.
She looked at me, her expression pale. Blinking her eyes, she forced a grin…one filled with a regret I couldn’t quite buy into. “I can’t this weekend. My dad has plans, so…”
“What plans?” Jaeda asked.
Dani drew in a breath. “He likes to do a daughter/father hang out for the weekend every month. Probably to make up for the fact that he works such long hours.” Her chuckle was dry and void of emotion. “So, he’s got some surprise planned.”
“That is so cool.” Liesl smiled. “I wonder what it will be.”
“Both days?” Elliot looked skeptical. “He has the entire weekend planned?”
I wished I could see Dani’s eyes as she turned to face my untrusting friend. “It won’t be the whole weekend, but I don’t know which days he has planned yet. I don’t want to commit to something with you guys and then not show.”
Elliot’s nod was small and non-committal, like he didn’t really believe her. I wanted to kick him under the table for being rude, but I couldn’t help feeling like he was right. She was lying. I hated that. I wished people would just come out and say it.
I don’t want to hang with your lame ass friends all weekend.
I didn’t know if she was really thinking that, but either way, the lie was there and I burned to know why.
“Well give me your number, I can just text you and if you want to join us, you can.” Liesl pulled out her phone.
“I don’t—” Dani shot me a look before admitting, “I don’t have a cellphone.”
“What?” Jaeda and Elliot, both tech geeks, looked ready to keel over.
“How can you not have a cellphone?” Even I had to frown at that one.
“Well, I kept losing mine and when I got to Danville phoneless, my dad threw a fit. He says I’m not allowed another one until I can pay for the monthly plan…and a new phone. So…” She shrugged.
“You need a job,” Jaeda said.
“Yeah, I guess.” Her perfect nose wrinkled. “But I kind of want to spend the last few months upping my grades. I don’t want a job to distract me, so I’m cool without the phone.”
“But how do you stay in touch with people?”
“I talk to them, face to face.” Dani’s eyebrows rose to emphasize her point.
Jaeda shook her head with a sheepish grin and slumped back in her seat, folding her arms.
“Well, do you have a home number?” Liesl’s thumb was still hovering over her phone screen.
“Why don’t I just call you.” Dani’s voice was pleasant. She had a way of doing that. Declining something with a smile. It kind of took the sting out of the rejection to be honest.
Liesl reneged, slipping her phone back into her bag as Dani tried to stand.
“You okay?” I shuffled out of the booth so she could get out.
“I need to get going.”
“Well, here, let me drive you.” I reached into my pocket for the keys, but she touched my elbow to stop me.
“I like walking, remember?”
I paused. “Yeah, I remember.” I decided to let my disappointment show. She gave me an apologetic smile as she hefted her bag onto her shoulder.
She looked at my friends with a grin and waved. “See you later guys. It was really great to meet you.”
My friends all lifted their hands, their smiles genuine and kind, except for Elliot. He so needed to work on his people skills. If he wasn’t such a loyal friend, I don’t know what I’d do with him. “Say goodbye to AJ for me.” She glanced at the kitchen then back to Liesl. “And thank him for the best food I’ve tasted in a really long time.”
She meant that, her eyes beaming.
“I will.” Liesl’s dark eyes shone with warmth. “Make sure you join us again.”
She smiled, patted my shoulder then walked out of the diner. As soon as she was out the door Elliot yanked on my shirt, pulling me back into the booth.
They were all staring at me, their heads leaning in, wanting more.
“You brought her to Friday night dinner. Why aren’t you asking us our opinion, all needy, and wanting our approval.” Jaeda frowned.
“I…” Shaking my head, a slow smile spread across my lips. “I don’t care what you guys think this time…because I’m not into her that way. Intrigue, remember.”
They all looked skeptical as they eased back into their seats and they should.
I had serious doubts about Dani’s truthfulness. Lost her phone? After seeing her organized binder and working with her on this Sociology assignment, she just didn’t seem the type to misplace anything. She was thoughtful, and considered every move she made. And why wouldn’t she let me drive her home? She liked running to school, but walking home from Vincenzo’s?
“So, where does she live?” Elliot flicked my shoulder, adding to my mounting doubts.
“Not sure.” I shrugged.
“You’re not sure and you’re letting her walk home?” Jaeda looked horrified. “What kind of suck date are you?”
“It’s wasn’t a date. I was just being nice and I wanted you guys to meet her. She doesn’t have any friends yet. Besides, she doesn’t want a ride home. I’ve already tried.”
“I wonder why.” Elliot’s eyes were on the door where Dani had retreated and I didn’t want to add to his growing suspicions.
I slapped his chest with the back of my hand. “Come on, man. Maybe she’s private about her house or something. It’s not a big deal.”
I said the words, but I didn’t mean them. Her lies, at least I think they were lies, only confirmed it. Danielle Harrison was a girl with secrets and I desperately wanted to know what they were.
“Well, I like her.” Liesl tucked a strand of dark hair behind her ear.
“Liesl, you like everyone,” Elliot muttered.
She shrugged with a giggle and Elliot rolled his eyes.
I could tell he was unsettled about me liking…I mean being intrigued by Dani. He liked to protect our little group, was always the first there when anything bad happened. He could tell there was something up with Dani and although I was all about the intrigue, Elliot was all about the suspicion. I didn’t want it to be that way. I wanted to prove him wrong about the blue-eyed, mystery girl.
I wanted her to be a freaking saint.
I wanted whatever secrets she had to be harmless things that were all to do with her own need for privacy. Unfortunately I couldn’t shake the feeling that they weren’t.
Dani’s secrets were so much more than the little anecdotes girls wrote in their diaries.
Lucy bumped into the man in front of her. He was tall and lanky, wearing a pale brown shirt and baggy jeans.
“I’m so sorry.” She squeezed his shoulder and he grinned at her.
“Not a problem, young lady.”
With a nod, she squeezed his shoulder one last time before turning in the opposite direction and quietly sliding his wallet into her jacket pocket.
She’d been at the fair ground for an hour now and this was her third score for the evening. She’d managed to snatch a purse, a bracelet and this wallet. Making her way past the row of shoot ‘em games, she passed a group of girls giggling together as their friend tried to knock over a stack of bottles with a ball. She was a pretty bad shot and her friends were having fun teasing her. She was taking it all with a good-natured smile.
Lucy’s heart squeezed as she watched them. That should be her. They looked to be about fourteen. She should be the one laughing with her friends, not pilfering pockets so she could pay for her next meal. She should be out for a carefree weekend, not ducking in and out of shadows.
A uniform flashed past her periphery vision and she flinched. Two policemen eased their way through the crowd, their eyes scanning for trouble as they quietly monitored the action. Pulling her hoodie up, she turned in the opposite direction and weaved through the pressing crowd, aiming for the end of the row.
Breaking out of the human traffic, she shot a glance over her shoulder, her heart hammering like it did whenever she spotted law enforcement. Slinking into the shadows around the corner, she leaned against the back of the fortune teller’s booth trying to convince herself that she was safe, that the police officers hadn’t seen her and even if they had, they wouldn’t automatically think pickpocket or even worse, parent killer.
Marlin had told her to wait here when she was done. She hoped she’d got the right spot, because she was definitely finished for the night. The dark solitude of the nearby forest was beckoning her, promising safety. As usual, her partner in crime had been slightly vague as they entered the fair ground that night. She’d also been a little caught up soaking in all the lights at first. The ferris wheel looked amazing and she really wanted a ride, but Marlin had told her they were there to work.