I DIDN’T KNOW HOW TO REACT TO NOAH IN CLASS the next day. The costume party seemed like a lifetime ago, but my humiliation was fresh. I was grateful for the long-sleeved dress shirt I had to wear—it minimized the impact of the bandage on my left arm, at least. My mother had become the Keeper of the Pills, and she doled out the Tylenol with codeine before I left that morning. I ached all over but I didn’t take it, and didn’t plan on starting the Zyprexa just yet, either. I needed a clear head.
When I walked into English, Noah was already there. Our eyes met for a second before I dropped my gaze and walked past him. I had to find out about Mabel—was it only a week since I’d taken her?—and figure out how to spring her on my parents now, considering what had happened. But I didn’t know how to bring it up to Noah, how to talk to him after the party. I sat down at a desk on the other side of the room, but he stood and followed me, sitting behind my chair. As Ms. Leib began her lecture, I found myself tapping my pencil on my desk. Noah cracked his knuckles behind me, setting my teeth on edge.
When the bell rang, I threaded through the students, eager for Algebra for the first time in my life. Noah drove girls crazy, and I was already crazy. I needed to let it go. Let him go. As Jamie had so astutely said, I had enough problems.
I was so relieved to see Jamie in Algebra that I might have actually smiled. With teeth. But the glimmer of my good mood didn’t last; Noah caught up with me as soon as the bell rang.
“Hey,” he said, as he fell into a graceful lope beside me.
“Hey.” I gave him the stare-ahead. Ask about the dog. Ask about the dog. I tried to find the words but clenched my teeth instead.
“Mabel isn’t doing so well,” Noah said, his voice even.
My stomach dropped and I slowed my pace by a fraction. “Is she going to be okay?”
“Think so, but it’s probably better if she stays with us for a while. So my mother can care for her,” he said, as he ran his hand over the back of his neck. “Do you mind?”
“No,” I said, shifting the weight of my bag on my shoulder as I approached my next class. “That’s probably the best thing.”
“I wanted to ask—” Noah started, then lifted a hand to his hair, twisting the strands. “My mother wanted to know if maybe we could keep her? She’s gotten attached.”
I tilted my head sideways to see him. He either didn’t notice my bandaged hand or was ignoring it. He seemed indifferent to everything. Remote. His words didn’t match his tone.
“I mean, she’s your dog,” he said, “whatever you want we’ll do—”
“It’s okay,” I cut him off. I remembered the way Mabel had curled into his chest as he carried her. She’d be better off with him. Definitely. “Tell your mom I said it’s fine.”
“I was going to ask you when I saw you at the party, but you left.”
“I had somewhere else to be,” I said, avoiding his eyes.
“Right. What’s wrong?” he asked, still sounding utterly disinterested.
“Nothing,” I said.
“I don’t believe you.”
“I don’t care.” Not true.
“All right. Have lunch with me, then,” he said casually.
I paused, torn between yes and no. “No,” I said finally.
“I have a study date,” I said. Hopefully Jamie would oblige.
“Why do you care?” I asked with an edge. We could have been discussing molecular physics for all the interest he seemed to be paying to the conversation.
“I’m starting to wonder that myself,” Noah said, and walked away. He didn’t look back.
I drew my bandaged hand in Art, even though we were supposed to be working on faces. And when lunch arrived, I didn’t look for Jamie, choosing solitude instead. I withdrew the banana I brought, peeled it, and took a slow bite as I wandered to my locker, letting my teeth graze against the flesh. I was glad to be free of Noah. Relieved, even, as I went to exchange my books.
Until I saw the note.
Folded so that it fit through the slats of my locker, innocently perched on a tower of my books. A thick piece of paper with my name on it.
Acid free, bright white paper.
I unfolded the note and recognized one of my drawings of Noah immediately. The other side simply said:
I HAVE SOMETHING THAT BELONGS TO YOU.
MEET AT THE VENDING MACHINES AT LUNCH IF YOU WANT IT BACK.
A rush of heat ignited my skin. Did Noah steal my sketchbook? My sudden fury surprised me. I’d never punched anyone before, but there was a first time for everything. I punctuated the thought with a ringing, metallic slam of my locker door.
I don’t remember how I got to the bottom of the stairs. One minute I was by my locker, and the next minute I was rounding the corner by the vending machines. And then a horrible thought occurred to me; what if it wasn’t Noah? What if it was someone else? Like—oh, no. Like Anna. I imagined her dissolving into a fit of giggles as she showed my sketches of Noah to her friends.
Sure enough, when I arrived, Anna stood waiting with a smug, satisfied sneer on her generically pretty face. Flanked by Aiden, they blocked my way, dripping with gloat.
When I saw them there, I was still confident I could handle it. I’d almost come to expect her bullshit.
What I didn’t expect were the dozens of students assembled to watch this train wreck unfold.
And what sent a piercing scream through my spine was the sight of Noah, centered in a halo of admirers, male and female.
At that moment, the magnitude of Anna’s machinations insulted my mind. My stomach turned as it all snapped into place; why everyone was there, why Noah was there. Anna had been constructing this three-ring circus since Noah first spoke to me on day one. It was her black Mercedes I almost hit last week—she saw me get out of Noah’s car. And now, all she needed to complete her ringmaster role was a top hat and a monocle.
Oh, Anna. I underestimated you.
All eyes were on me. My move. If I played.
My eyes scanned the assembled students as I stood there, debating. Finally, I simply looked at Anna and dared her to speak. She who speaks first loses. She didn’t disappoint.
“Looking for this?” she chirped innocently, as she held up my sketchbook.
I reached for it but she snatched it away. “You crotch-pheasant,” I said through gritted teeth.
Anna feigned shock. “My, my, Mara. What language! I’m simply returning a lost item to its rightful owner. You are the rightful owner, aren’t you?” she asked, as she flipped the sketchbook open to the inside cover. “ ‘Mara Dyer,’ “ she read loudly. “That’s you,” she added with emphasis, punctuating the declaration with a sneer. I said nothing. “Aiden here was nice enough to pick it up when you left it in Algebra by mistake.”
Aiden smiled on cue. He must have snatched it from my bag.
“Actually, he stole it.”
“I’m afraid not, Mara. You must have carelessly misplaced it,” she said, and tsked.
Now that she had set the stage, Anna began to flip through my sketchbook. If I hit her, Aiden would snatch the sketchbook and Noah would still see what I’d drawn. And let’s be honest, I’ve never hit anyone in my life. There would be nothing I could say to minimize the damage, either. The sketches were so accurate, snapshots of him so adoringly rendered that they’d betray my obsessive infatuation the second they were revealed. The humiliation would be perfect, and she knew it.
Defeat bloomed in my cheeks, staining my throat and my collarbone. I could do nothing but suffer through the emotional skinning and stand there, flayed before the entire school until Anna was drunk on her overdose of cruelty.
And collect my sketchbook when she was finished. Because it was mine, and I would get it back.
I didn’t want to see Noah’s face when Anna finally turned to the page where he made his first appearance. Seeing him smirk or smile or laugh or roll his eyes would undo me and I could not cry here today. So I fixed my stare on Anna’s face, and watched her tremble with gleeful malice as she held the sketchbook and made her way over to him. The crowd shifted from a rough semicircle into a wedge, with Noah at the point.
“Noah?” she cooed.
“Anna,” he replied flatly.
She flipped from page to page and I could hear the whispers rise into a murmur and could hear a ringing laugh somewhere from the far side of the tiki hut, but it died down. Anna turned the pages slowly for effect, and like some demonic schoolmarm, held the book at an angle to provide maximum exposure to the assembled crowd. Everyone needed to have the opportunity to catch a long, languorous glimpse of my disgrace.
“This looks so much like you,” she said to Noah, pressing her body against his.
“My girl is talented,” Noah said.
My heart stopped beating.
Anna’s heart stopped beating.
Everyone’s heart stopped beating. The buzzing of a solitary gnat would have sounded obscene in the stillness.
“Bullshit,” Anna whispered finally, but it was loud enough for everyone to hear. She hadn’t moved an inch.
Noah shrugged. “I’m a vain bastard, and Mara indulges me.” After a pause, he added, “I’m just glad you didn’t get your greedy little claws on the other sketchbook. That would have been embarrassing.” His lips curved into a sly smile as he slid from the picnic table he’d been sitting on. “Now, get the fuck off me,” he said calmly to a dumbfounded, speechless Anna as he pushed past her, plucking the sketchbook roughly from her hands.
And walked over to me.
“Let’s go,” Noah ordered gently, once he was at my side. His body brushed the line of my shoulder and arm protectively. And then he held out his hand.
I wanted to take it and I wanted to spit in Anna’s face and I wanted to kiss him and I wanted to knee Aiden Davis in the groin. Civilization won out, and I willed each individual nerve to respond to the signal I sent with my brain and placed my fingers in his. A current traveled from my fingertips through to the hollow where my stomach used to be.
And just like that, I was completely, utterly, and entirely,
Neither of us spoke until we were out of earshot and out of sight of the shocked and awed student body. We were standing next to a bench by the basketball court when Noah stopped, finally letting go of my hand. It felt empty, but I barely had time to process the loss.
“Are you all right?” he asked softly.
I nodded, staring past him. My tongue felt numb.
“Are you sure?”
I nodded again.
“Are you positive?”
I glared at him. “I’m fine,” I said.
“That’s my girl.”
“I am not your girl,” I said, with more venom than I intended.
“Right, then,” Noah said, and looked at me with a curious stare. He raised an eyebrow. “About that.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.
“You like me,” he finally said. “You like me, like me.” He was trying not to smile.
“No. I hate you,” I said, hoping that saying it would make it so.
“And yet, you draw me.” Noah was still smug, completely undeterred by my declaration.
This was torture; worse somehow than what just happened, even though it was only the two of us. Or because it was only the two of us.
“Why?” he asked.
“Why what?” What could I say? Noah, despite you being an asshole, or maybe because of it, I’d like to rip off your clothes and have your babies. Don’t tell.
“Why everything,” he continued. “Start with why you hate me. And then continue until you get to the part about the drawings.”
“I don’t really hate you,” I said in defeat.
“Then why are you asking?”
“Because I wanted you to admit it,” he said, grinning crookedly.
“Done,” I said, feeling hopeless. “Are we finished?”
“You’re the most ungrateful person alive,” he mused.
“You’re right,” I said, my voice flat. “Thanks for the save. I should go.” I started to walk away.
“Not so fast.” Noah reached for my good wrist. He took it gently and I turned around. My heart was sickeningly aflutter. “We still have a problem.”
I looked at him, uncomprehending. He was still holding my wrist and the contact interfered with my cerebral functioning.
“Everyone thinks we’re together,” Noah said.
Oh. Noah needed a way out. Of course he did; we weren’t, in fact, together. I was just—I don’t know what I was to him. I looked at the ground, digging the toe of my sneaker into the paved walkway like a sullen child while I thought about what to say.
“Tell your friends you dumped me on Monday,” I said finally.
Noah let go of my wrist, and looked genuinely confused. “What?”
“If you tell them that you broke up with me over the weekend, everyone will forget about this eventually. Tell them I was too needy or something,” I said.
Noah arched his eyebrows slightly. “That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.”
“Fine,” I said, confused myself. “I’ll go along with whatever you want, okay?”
“I want Sunday. My parents are having a thing on Saturday, but Sunday I’m free.”
I didn’t understand. “And?”
“And you’re going to spend the day with me.”
That was not what I expected. “I am?” “Yes. You owe me,” he said. And he was right; I did. Noah wouldn’t have had to do anything to make Anna’s dream and my nightmare come true. He could have sat there and shrugged and stared, and it would have been enough to perfect my school-wide humiliation.
But he didn’t. He saved me, and I could not fathom why.
“Is there any point asking what you’re going to make me do on Sunday?”
Okay. “Is there any point asking what you’re going to do to me?”
He grinned wickedly. “Not really.”
Fabulous. “Does it involve the use of a safe word?”
“That will depend entirely on you.” Noah moved impossibly closer, just inches away. A few freckles disappeared into the scruff on his jaw. “I’ll be gentle,” Noah added. My breath caught in my throat as he looked at me from beneath those lashes, ruining me.
I narrowed my eyes at him. “You’re evil.”
In response, Noah smiled, and raised his finger to gently tap the tip of my nose.
“And you’re mine,” he said, then walked away.