My head hurt like hell as I slowly came to. There were literally a million birds swirling over my head. Who knew that cartoons had some truth to them? I sure felt like I’d been hit by an anvil or fallen off a cliff head first.
I slowly sat up and noticed I was on a bed in a strange room. Strange, but huge. It was about the size of my grandparents’ entire apartment.
As I tried to force my surroundings to stop spinning, I felt around my skull and touched a sensitive spot. The pain hit me again. A huge lump the size of a small asteroid was growing there. Then I recalled just who had put it there.
That girl in the garden had roundhouse kicked me before I could even react. Me, the kung fu kid who’d won several competitions and had trophies to show for it. A girl had beaten me. My friends would never let me live that one down.
But where were they? I looked around the room, but I was the only one there. By now, I’d already figured I was in the Lockhart Mansion. No other house would be big enough to store another house within it. So I’d been caught red-handed.
I wondered if I was the only one who’d been caught. I hoped Tony, Heath, and Stan had gotten away. They had more to lose if they’d been caught. The foster home wouldn’t tolerate that kind of behavior. I didn’t know what kind of punishment they would receive, but it wouldn’t be good, that was for sure.
Not that my punishment would be any better. My grandparents weren’t strict disciplinarians, but they’d call my dad, and he’d come home and yell at me for days. Then I probably wouldn’t see the light of day again until I graduated.
A knock sounded on the door, and I braced myself, knowing whoever was at that door was about to deliver judgment. The door opened, and in walked a tiny Asian lady. I couldn’t tell her age exactly, since Asians looked younger than they were, but she was definitely past her prime. I’d guess about my grandma’s age. She was a tiny thing, but there was also something very stately about her manner. I wondered if she was a maid, but she wasn’t dressed anything like one. Her clothes were fit more for a dowager empress than anyone.
“Young man, how is your head?” She spoke to me in perfect English, something that was surprising. Most Asian people her age had an accent. Except my own grandparents, but then again, they were both fourth generation Chinese-Americans, descended from railroad workers.
And that was completely unexpected. I thought she would berate me for trespassing, not ask about my wellbeing. “I think it’s getting better,” I said.
She gave a regal nod. “All right, let me introduce myself then. I am Mrs. Penelope Lockhart.”
“You’re Mrs. Lockhart?” I cried, in complete shock. “But you’re Asian!”
She cast me an annoyed look. “Third generation Japanese-American, as a matter of fact. Is that a problem?”
“N-no ma’am,” I said quickly, cursing myself for being completely tactless. I was already in deep trouble for breaking into the lady’s house, and now I’d just gone and offended her again. “I’m half Chinese, myself. It’s just that with your name being Lockhart, I didn’t expect…”
“If you’ll remember, Lockhart is my married name. Roland and I were the first mixed-race couple we knew. Caused a huge scandal. Both sides of the family disowned us, but we made it.” She gestured to our grandiose surroundings. “You kids these days take things for granted.”
She sighed, remembering the real reason she was here. “Anyway, let’s get down to business, shall we? Your friends told me everything. A bully insulted you and dared you to make him take it back.”
So they hadn’t gotten away after all. I stifled a groan. “You have to listen to me. They had nothing to do with this. It was all—”
“All your fault?” she interrupted. “Yes, they each tried to pin the blame solely on themselves, claiming the other three had nothing to do with it. Which only tells me all four of you had something to do with it.”
“No really, it was me. I accepted that dumb dare.” I almost dropped to my knees to beg. “You can’t let those three get dragged into this. They live at the foster home, and—”
“But you don’t.” She regarded me carefully. “They told me your name is Marcus Lew. Do your grandparents happen to be Thomas and Allison Lew?”
“How do you know my grandparents?”
“We play Bingo together on Tuesday nights and mahjong on Thursdays at the senior center,” she said. “Tom and Allie are nice folks. They always brag about you. It would break their hearts and their wallets if they had to bail you out of jail. And that’s the only reason I haven’t already called the police.”
I knew she was purposely trying to make me feel guilty. Too bad it was working. “I’m really sorry, Mrs. Lockhart. Is there…is there any chance you could let us go just this once? I’ll do anything.” I held my breath for her answer.
Mrs. Lockhart wrinkled her brow, considering my question. “Anything?”
“Anything,” I vowed solemnly. “I can walk your dog for a year, come every day to clean your house until it sparkles, go grocery shopping for you.”
She waved my suggestions off and rolled her eyes. “Young man, have you forgotten I have servants to do those things? Why would I need you?”
“Oh.” My face fell. I felt so stupid. How could I have forgotten for a second that Mrs. Lockhart was one of the wealthiest women in the country?
“But I do have something in mind for you and your friends,” she said. “And if you agree to do this, I promise I won’t call the police or even tell your grandparents about this grand misadventure.”
“I agree,” I said eagerly. Whatever it was, I was willing to do it, just as long as Mrs. Lockhart let us go.
“You haven’t even heard me out,” she said.
“I’ll do anything to make sure my friends don’t get in trouble,” I told her.
She regarded me shrewdly for a moment. “Yes, I think you’ll do very well.” I had no idea what she meant by that, but a smile slowly spread across her face. “You’re very loyal. That’s a good trait. All right then, would you like to hear my proposal?” Without waiting for a reply, she continued. “I have a granddaughter named Emmaline. I believe you’ve already met her.”
She paused, observing how I would react to that. I gazed back at her, a bit confused. When had I met her granddaughter? The only girl I’d met around here had…
“She knocked me out?”
“Amazing, isn’t it? Anyway, I’ve decided to enroll my granddaughter at your school, starting tomorrow. She doesn’t know anyone yet, so I want you and your friends to help her adjust. Be her friends and help her make new friends. If you do this, then today’s incident will forever be erased from my memory.”
She was bargaining for us to be her granddaughter’s friends in exchange for her silence? I stared at her for a good, long moment, wondering if I’d heard correctly. If that was all she wanted, it would be a piece of cake. As long as the girl didn’t try to kick me in the face again, I wouldn’t mind having her tag along with the gang. And when she found her own friends, we’d be free of her.
“I accept,” I said, sticking out my hand to seal the deal with a handshake.
“Wait a minute,” she said. “I understand your friend, Heath, loves art but doesn’t have money for art school.”
I nodded, wondering just how much information she’d managed to dig up from my best buds. “None of my friends can afford college,” I told her. “Their grades aren’t exactly great enough for scholarships either. Even I don’t have much.”
My grandparents had put up a college fund for me using their entire life savings, but they weren’t young anymore, and I wanted them to have some money for emergency. And although my father worked extremely hard, he was still trying to pay back my mother’s gambling debts. Any extra money he had, I’d rather he saved it for retirement. “But what does that have to do with being your granddaughter’s friends?”
Her eyes twinkled, filled with mischief. “There’s something I haven’t told you about Emma. She tends to be a little awkward among her peers, but I think that may be due to her sheltered upbringing and some personal issues that I won’t divulge at the moment. She completely lacks social skills, and people tend to give her odd looks.”
Why was she telling me this? I’d already accepted her offer. “I won’t treat her like she’s weird,” I said. “Everyone has their quirks.”
“Not like Emma.” She shook her head wearily. “But I’m not worried about how you treat her. I’m worried about how she’ll survive. She lives in her own world, like some naïve little princess trapped in a tower.”
I didn’t bother to point out to Mrs. Lockhart that there wasn’t much of a difference between a princess trapped in a tower and a spoiled rich girl who never left her mansion.
“Emma doesn’t understand anything about the real world, and she doesn’t want to learn,” Mrs. Lockhart went on complaining. “She insists on talking to flowers instead of people, and she believes she can learn about the world through the fictional stories she reads. If she continues living in her own little world, I’m afraid one day, people will take advantage of her and hurt her.” Now Mrs. Lockhart focused her gaze upon me, desperation in her eyes. “I’m not getting any younger. I can’t protect her forever. One day, she’ll be expected to take over our family business, but she can’t do that if she’s not prepared to wake up and face reality.”
I wasn’t exactly sure where this was going, but I was kind of getting the feeling that Mrs. Lockhart wanted me to fix everything. “And you want me to help her?” I ventured to guess. Did I have to change Emma’s entire personality before Mrs. Lockhart agreed not to press charges against us? It seemed like an impossible task, from the way the woman had described her granddaughter.
She must have read the panic in my expression because she quickly said, “Don’t worry. You’ve already promised to be Emma’s friend, so word of today’s incident will never leave this house. However—” She paused for dramatic effect. “I’m willing to make you a second deal. If you can help Emma become part of the real world, make her less socially awkward, and get her to make friends with humans, not plants or comic book characters, I’ll provide the college tuition money for you and your three friends.
My mouth fell open. Immediately, I fiddled with my ears, thinking they must be filled with earwax or something. Because I couldn’t have heard that correctly. “All four of us?”
“Four years. The college of your choosing,” she affirmed. “Room, board and any living expenses included.”
What a huge opportunity. I couldn’t pass this up. Heath would finally have the chance to attend art school. Tony and Stan would become something better than just bagger boys at Green-Mart. And my grandparents could leave their life savings untouched, while my dad could just focus on paying back all our debts.
“Of course, there will be final test for Emma and for you,” Mrs. Lockhart said, dismantling my daydreams.
“And what would the final test be?” I sensed a flutter of dread somewhere in the pit of my stomach.
“Several of my company’s important investors are complaining about having never seen Emma, even though she’s the heiress of Splash and Spray. Some of them doubt she even exists.” The lady sighed in frustration, rolling her eyes, and I knew why. People actually believed those crazy rumors that because Emmaline Lockhart had never been seen outside the mansion, she had to have either died or was bedridden with some terminal disease.
I couldn’t blame anyone for believing those rumors though. Even I had to admit wondering if they were true. Of course, now it made perfect sense why Emmaline never left the mansion. If she was as socially awkward as her grandmother claimed and preferred talking to fictional comic book characters and flowers, Mrs. Lockhart was probably ashamed to have her granddaughter meet the rest of society.
“I’m not ashamed of my granddaughter, mind you.” Mrs. Lockhart gave me a pointed look and cast her mouth in a thin line. Maybe she really was psychic. “I’m just…afraid for Emma’s sake. The girl’s not just awkward, she has a very low sense of self-esteem.” The woman folded her hands gravely. “As of now, I can’t let Emma face those critics; they’d skewer her alive and think I was crazy for bequeathing the company to her. Emma would never recover from that humiliation.
“But I’ve recently realized I can’t keep hiding her forever. At the end of this year, Emma needs to make a speech to the whole company, telling them the real reason she’s been hiding away was because of her social impediments but also proving that she’s grown this year and is capable to be Splash and Spray’s heiress. If you can get her to be, well, socially acceptable, then you four will also pass your final exam. If not, then I’m sorry, but you’re back to paying your own tuition.”
This bit of news was a little jilting. I didn’t know Emma at all, other than the fact that she’d managed to knock me out and that she looked like she could be one of the creatures from Where the Wild Things Are, but those observations along with her grandmother’s description of her were enough to know this would be a difficult, if not impossible task. But I had to try. For Heath and Stan and Tony. For my family.
“I’ll do it,” I said.
“You’ll all do it,” she said. “Your friends have to agree too.”
“Oh, they will.” I knew they would. Once they knew there was hope for a college degree after all, hope that they’d be able to get out of Orchid Beach, they wouldn’t pass the opportunity.
Mrs. Lockhart nodded. “If you’re sure about that, I’ll make the arrangements.”
“You’ll see.” Her eyes glittered deviously. Should I be afraid? I kinda believed I did. “Now, you’ll all stay for dinner won’t you? I have some papers for you to sign, and you’ll have to meet my granddaughter, this time without the worry that she’ll send you into an unconscious state again. Although with her, I can’t guarantee anything.”
“But my grandparents expect me home for dinner.” I looked around for a clock nervously. How long had I been sleeping? It had to be late. “The home has a curfew. Heath, Tony, and Stan have to get back by eight.”
“Don’t you worry about that,” she said. “I’ve already sent someone to pick your grandparents up and bring them here for dinner. That way I can explain to them that I’ve hired you to be Emma’s tutor, and you’ll be spending your afternoons here. As for the foster home, I’ve taken care of that too.”
Although she didn’t clarify how she’d taken care of it, I believed her. This woman was amazingly influential, not only in Orchid Beach, but probably in more than one country of the world. Most people lived to kiss her feet. And now I was one of them.
“One more thing before we go to dinner,” she said. She clapped twice, and the door opened. In walked a servant, pushing a cart, and on that cart was a vase, holding a dozen white roses.
I’d totally forgotten about those roses, which was funny, considering they were the reason I’d gotten into this mess. “Are those the roses I took?” I asked guiltily.
“Actually, no,” Mrs. Lockhart said. “But these are the roses you’ll give to that rude, little Ben Lyons to make him take back everything he said about your friend, Heath. You didn’t think I would let him win, did you?”
It was nice of her to provide the roses, but I remembered what The Bulk had said about recognizing the scent of the roses he wanted. He would know these weren’t the real ones.
“He’ll never know,” Mrs. Lockhart said, amazing me with her talent to read minds. “Unfortunately, I can’t give you the Lockhart Winter roses. Turns out you and I have a common enemy. This isn’t the first time Benjamin Lyons, senior, tried to steal something from me. He just never learns.” Her laughing eyes told me she was finding humor in the situation. “He works for The Fragrance Stop. Both Mike Cantin and I have been trying for years to catch him in the act, but he never does his dirty work himself.”
Mike Cantin, the CEO of Splash and Spray’s rival company? Why would he be working with Mrs. Lockhart to catch Benjamin Lyons? I would have thought the CEO of The Fragrance Stop would have ordered his employees to steal secrets from his rival company.
She walked to the vase and took one of the flowers in her hands, then brought it over to me. “Take a sniff.”
I did, and instantly, I was flooded with the familiar fragrance that I’d smelled from the Lockhart Winter rose. I would never forget that smell, or so I thought. “Are you sure this isn’t the same rose?”
“I’m sure,” she said, beaming. “This is the Lockhart Mimic. It smells like the Lockhart Winter, looks like it, but its fragrance won’t hold up in the perfume-making process. In other words, Benjamin Lyons, Junior, that nasty croaker, won’t know the difference when he takes back every horrible word he said about your friend, Heath.” She cackled softly, and if I hadn’t already feared the lady, I would have feared her now. Good thing she was on my side. She was not a woman to be crossed.
I sat at the dinner table alone, reading volume eleven of my favorite manga, The Ugly Duckling of Heir High School. Grandmother still hadn’t arrived, and it was already seven minutes past our normal dinner time. We usually ate dinner at 6:30 sharp, and Grandmother was never late. She abided by a strict schedule and did not tolerate tardiness in anyone. So I wondered where she was.
I’d changed into a clean dress, black with white lace that decorated the edges in frivolous frills. Frills and frivolous sounded similar, and I wondered if one word had been derived from another. I made a mental note to look that up later. But for now, I was too occupied feeling uncomfortable in this silly dress. The lace was poking me in places I couldn’t reach, making it impossible to scratch the itches. My maid, Betsy, had practically shoved the thing on me, as unwilling as I was to put it on. She claimed it outlined my figure perfectly, and I had to look my best because we had company for dinner.
We never had company for dinner. If we did, I cooped myself up in my room and took dinner there, and Grandmother never forced me to come down. She was just as ashamed as I was about my awkwardness. But the fact that she was making me join these guests tonight was strange. It was the first time in years that Grandmother was deviating from her normal behavior.
Hopefully, the guests would just ask me the polite surface-level questions and then ignore me for the rest of dinner. They probably would ignore me after one word came out of my mouth and they realized how odd I was. Then I’d just ask to be excused earlier. But if Grandmother denied my request, I was prepared with manga to read under the table.
I’d stashed volume twelve in the bodice of my dress just in case I finished volume eleven before dinner was over. Since I was a fast reader, I would have taken volume thirteen too, but the dress was so tight that I was amazed I’d even managed to stuff in one volume. The trick of the night would be to retrieve the comic without letting our guests see me. If I was caught, Grandmother would do a lot more than lecture me the rest of the night.
Just then, Grandmother appeared through the double doors of the dining room, her arms extended in a grand, welcome gesture. “Come, come, make yourselves at home.”
In popped an elderly Asian couple, dressed nothing like the usual business partners I saw at the occasional party I attended. They looked like regular old people I’d seen when I’d once visited the senior center where Grandmother went to play Bingo and mahjong every week. Their clothes looked incredibly comfortable, and I was envious. They’d be able to eat so much more with their elastic pants.
The couple gazed all around them, looking as though they were lost in some daze. The man eyed our chandelier, made from real diamonds, and his mouth dropped, while the woman just stared at Tesner, the servant man pulling back a chair and gesturing for her to sit.
“Emmaline, these are my friends, Mr. and Mrs. Lew,” Grandmother said.
I fumbled with my chair, trying to stuff volume eleven somewhere behind me, where Grandmother wouldn’t see. Then I stood rather abruptly, extending my hand towards the couple. Only I’d misjudged the distance, and rather unfortunately, Mr. Lew stood from his chair at the same moment. But thankfully, Mr. Lew had rather quick reflexes for an old man, and his head swung back at the last moment, so I barely missed poking him in the eye.
“Emma!” Grandmother exclaimed. She quickly went to Mr. Lew and apologized. “I’m so sorry. Emma tends to be rather accident-prone.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean—”
“Don’t worry about it, miss,” Mr. Lew said. His eyes sparkled charmingly.
A squeak came from somewhere behind me. It sounded as though someone were choking on their laughter at an inopportune moment.
“Stop that,” someone else whispered. A boy’s voice.
I turned around and blinked at the four guys standing under the entranceway. The same four perpetrators behind the destruction of twelve of my precious Lockhart Winter roses. What were they doing here? I thought Grandmother had taken care of them. They should be rotting in jail by now, not polluting my house.
Were they here for dinner? They certainly weren’t dressed for it. They wore extremely loose fitting pants that in my opinion were in danger of falling down. Their shirts weren’t any better—black and far too tight. It was like they couldn’t get any piece of clothing that fit them just right. The tall guy had a dragon tattoo on his left arm and several piercings on his ears, while the short boy wore a chain around his neck. I frowned, wondering if he’d ever used it to kill anyone. His right eye looked like a raccoon’s. The boy I’d kicked didn’t have any body art or piercings, but he still dressed sloppily. Only the beautiful boy with heterochromia was dressed semi-normal. While he did wear a black tee, he also wore a button-down shirt over it like a jacket, and his pants were appropriately fit around his waist.
“Boys,” Grandmother announced, “This is my granddaughter, Miss Emmaline Lockhart.” Then she turned to me. “Emma, let me introduce you to Mr. Anthony Mercer—” This was the short boy who was now looking at me with an almost constipated look, as though he wanted to burst out in hysterical laughter. His expression certainly didn’t match his clothing. To me, he looked more like a court jester than a murderer. Obliviously, Grandmother continued down the list of introductions. “Mr. Stanley Ryder—” This was the tall, African-American kid. He looked a bit peeved with the short boy, whom he nudged with his elbow when he thought Grandmother wasn’t looking. Which she wasn’t, since she was already introducing the third boy. The beautiful one with golden hair and the heterochromic eyes. I just couldn’t get over his eyes. I’d never seen anyone with his condition before. “Mr. Heath Renway.”
Heath. What a beautiful name. And so appropriate. The purple flowers of Calluna vulgaris were a wondrous sight, just like him.
As I daydreamed, Grandmother had already named the fourth boy, and cleared her throat, noticing that I hadn’t been paying attention. I snapped out of my reverie, and my eyes shifted to the last boy, whom I recognized immediately as the one I’d knocked out. I could see the huge bump growing on the side of his scalp. “Emma, pay attention,” Grandmother said. “As I just said, this is Mr. Marcus Lew. I understand you were responsible for his earlier..uhm…misfortune. I believe you owe him an apology.”
I apologize to him? I almost gasped in outrage. He was the one who snuck into my garden to steal my roses. I didn’t care what Grandmother said. If she was going to force me to apologize, I’d…I’d throw a tantrum right now, all her guests be damned.
“No apology necessary,” Marcus said quickly, surprising me. “I’m the one who startled Emma, so I’m sorry for that.”
His words appeased me somewhat. At least I no longer had the urge to throw a tantrum.
An awkward silence followed, as all eyes turned to me. Were they expecting me to say something? I shrugged, sitting back down. There was no reason for all of us to just stand there.
I heard Grandmother sigh. “I’ll accept your apology on Emma’s behalf,” she told Marcus, and I guessed that was what everyone had been waiting for—my acceptance of his apology. Oh well. “Although she really should be the one to apologize for that awful bump on your head.” Somehow, I resisted the urge to glower at her.
As all the guests took their seats, Grandmother clapped her hands twice, signaling for the servants to bring dinner to the table. “And now we eat.”
The seating arrangements had been made so that all four boys surrounded me, while Grandmother sat with Mr. and Mrs. Lew, whom I assumed by now were Marcus’s grandparents. Just my luck that Grandmother was acquainted with that rotten thief’s grandparents. No wonder she hadn’t called the cops. Now my poor, dead roses would never be avenged.
There was nothing I could do about that now. I’d just have to plant new roses. But if those boys ever tried stealing them again, I wouldn’t hesitate to punch their lights out.
As we ate our appetizer course—an orchard salad with apples, arugula, walnuts, and several other types of lettuces, all topped with a light vinaigrette dressing—Grandmother engaged Mr. and Mrs. Lew in polite conversation, leaving me to fend for myself.
Instead of initiating conversation with the boys, as Grandmother had intended with the obvious seating arrangement, I decided to ignore them and wrestled volume eleven from behind my back. Then I proceeded to read under the table, occasionally taking a bite out of my salad. Hopefully, the guys would get the message, leave me alone, and talk amongst themselves.
But just as I was getting to an interesting twist in the plot—Mina had been trapped in the locker room by the school’s Queen Bee and needed some serious saving by the hero—I was taken abruptly out of the story as the boy named Marcus cleared his throat and decided to start a conversation. “So, I heard you’re really into gardening.”
“Yup,” I said, not bothering to look up. Maybe if I kept ignoring him, he would stop trying eventually.
But my hopes came crashing down an instant later, as the short kid started in on the discussion. “Well, I’ve heard you’re really into martial arts. It would please me greatly if you could show me your famous roundhouse kick that knocked our kung fu expert here off his feet.”
Now I was forced to look up. Were they laughing at me? My face instantly heated up in mortification.
But Marcus punched the kid’s shoulder. “Shut up, Tony. She just caught me off guard. And at least I wasn’t the one who tried to hop the fence and ended up with a black eye.” I relaxed a bit, realizing he felt more embarrassed than me.
I returned to reading, but only several seconds passed when the tall kid perked up. “So is that the manga your grandma was talking about? The one where you learned that awesome move?” I looked up to see him pointing to my lap.
“Shut up about that kick already.” Marcus scowled, looking highly annoyed.
I didn’t know why, but seeing him all annoyed made me feel better. Maybe it was because I knew he believed I couldn’t plant a kick on his head again. “The main character uses that move on anyone who creeps up on her,” I told them. “She can’t help it. As a result, she scares everyone away.”
“It’s a defense mechanism,” the beautiful boy named Heath said softly. “Someone probably frightened her in the past.”
I looked at him curiously. He’d just stated the very reason why Mina was so jumpy. As a child, she’d always had to hide from her mother, who always came home in a bitter mood and took it out by beating Mina. So Mina hid in small places, waiting for the moment she heard the click in the door. Sometimes her mother found her, sometimes she didn’t. But Mina always had to be ready.
I wondered how Heath knew this. He looked at me with such sympathy that I wondered if he could see through to my heart.
Quickly, I looked away, focusing my attention on my food. This was why I hated talking to people. My awkwardness always showed.
“May I see what you’re reading?” Heath asked. “I’d love to see that artist’s drawing style.”
“Heath is an artist himself,” said Marcus, sounding proud of his friend. “I’ve never met anyone more talented.”
“I’d like to see it too,” Tony smirked. “I want to read all about that special kick.”
Marcus glared at him again.
“I’m still reading this volume,” I said. “But I have the next volume with me. You can look at that.”
Hopefully, it would keep them busy, and they wouldn’t have to bother me with this useless small talk anymore.
I darted a quick gaze in Grandmother’s direction, making sure she was still absorbed in conversation with Marcus’s grandparents. She was. So I made my move, grabbing the bodice of my dress away from my chest. I looked down into my bra and saw that the book had slipped a bit deeper than where I’d left it. Now it was resting nearer to my stomach. Shifting my dress lower, I managed to reach a hand inside and pulled the manga out.
When it was safely in my hands, I noticed my dress had gone askew and one of my boobs was about ready to pop out. Quickly, I adjusted myself to rights again.
I handed the manga to Heath. “There you go.” But when he didn’t take it, I looked up at his face. He was staring at me strangely. So were the others.
Great, what had I done now?
“I think I’m in love,” Tony sighed dreamily.
“Shut up, Mercer,” Stan snapped. “And stop gawking.”
“But she flashed me first.”
I looked between the four of them questioningly. “He’s in love with me? But we just met.” I looked at Tony. “Sorry, but I don’t think I can return the sentiment.”
He blinked at me oddly. “Umm…I was joking.”
Then Heath snapped out of his daze. “Never mind him.” He smiled and took volume twelve from my hands, beginning to flip through the pages. As he did so, he made a few comments about the art. “Nice use of shadowing. It makes the style seem more gothic. Looks interesting. I kind of want to read this myself.”
Marcus leaned over and whispered hoarsely, although I could still hear him. “Heath, we’re not supposed to be encouraging her to read that. Give it back.”
I scrunched my brow, wondering what he was talking about. “What do you mean you’re not supposed to be encouraging me to read this?”
Heath didn’t answer, but he looked past my shoulder, relief suddenly forming on his face. “Oh, well you look at that. Main course is here.” He handed me back the manga. “Thank you.”
I nodded, taking it back, and was about to stuff it down my dress again, but Marcus shook his head at me. “If you want to hide it, why don’t you just sit on it?” he suggested.
The disapproval was written on his face. I could already tell he thought I was odd. I scowled, thinking I didn’t really care. He wasn’t one I wanted to impress anyway. I’d already decided I didn’t like him either.
I wished I could tell the annoying guy that I didn’t like to sit on my manga because it made the paper crinkle. But the kitchen staff was already placing the plates in front of us, and Grandmother was looking, so I had no choice but to keep quiet and stuff the volume under me.
I stole another look at Heath, who was already digging into his salmon with mango salsa. Now he was a different story. I definitely liked him. I could already tell he was different and wouldn’t make fun of my awkward habits. It was just too bad I wouldn’t have the opportunity to talk to him again after this dinner.
We ate in silence for awhile, as the guys were too busy enjoying their food to talk. I was glad for that. Everyone slowly cleaned their plates, until we couldn’t eat another bite. I made sure to save some room for dessert. On Sundays, Chef Gillies always made something with chocolate.
As the servants came to clear the table, Grandmother cleared her throat loudly and stood from the table. “I have an announcement.” She beamed down at me. “Emma, tomorrow will be your first day at Orchid Beach High School.”
I almost choked on my own spit. When had she decided this, and why was she mentioning it in front of all these people?
“I’ve already talked to everyone here,” Grandmother continued. “And we’ve agreed. These four young men will help you adjust to life at public school. They will also be your tutors to help you acquire social skills.”
I looked around the room, but apparently nobody else was surprised by this news. It seemed Grandmother had gone behind my back and decided all of this with these people without consulting me at all. That meant she’d told them all about my awkwardness and odd quirks. I wanted to run out of the room and hide. Not even the promise of chocolate made me feel any bit better.
After that speech, I remained silent until our guests had left. Nothing they said could make me talk. My heart had decidedly hardened against them. I was going to public school, and it was all because of them. If they hadn’t barged into my garden today, Grandmother wouldn’t have made that decision. I felt nothing but pure loathing for them. Even for Heath.
Here I’d thought they were actually talking to me because they wanted to be friends. But in reality, Grandmother had bought their friendship and kindness. I didn’t know how much they were getting paid or what deal they’d made with her, but I knew it must have been very tempting. Because nobody ever wanted to be friends with a weird, gawky girl like me.
After Grandmother had seen her guests out, I stalked her to her study. I wanted to know the exact price she’d paid to buy me phony friends.
Grandmother was seated at her desk, but she instantly lifted her gaze at my approach. She’d been expecting me.
“Sit down, Emma,” she said, gesturing to the chair across her desk.
I remained standing. Tears immediately came to my eyes, and I felt one of my horrible tantrums coming along. It took all my effort to control myself.
“Listen darling. I know you probably hate me right now, but this is for your own good.”
“But I don’t want to attend public school.” My shoulders trembled as it took every effort not to break down. “I don’t want to talk to kids my own age. They always look at me like I’m a freak.” And I especially didn’t want her to buy friends for me. It was like she was giving up on me, finally accepting that I’d never make friends on my own.
“They wouldn’t look at you like that if you’d stop living in your own world,” Grandmother said. “That’s why I’ve asked those boys to help you. I have a good feeling about them.”
“A good feeling?” I sniffed. “They only decided to be my friends because you bought them.”
“I only provided an incentive,” she said. “Once they get to know you, I’m sure they’ll like you for you. Not for the money.”
“Or they’ll decide your incentive isn’t worth me. So what was this great incentive?” I shot back, again feeling the start of a tantrum. I gritted my teeth and struggled for power over my body.
She gave me a squelching look. “Don’t you dare throw one of those fits of yours, young lady. But all right, I’ll tell you what’s in it for them. A chance for a future that involves more than minimum wage. I’ve offered them the tuition they need for an education they can’t afford on their own. Because unlike you, they were never spoiled with riches and great opportunities. Unlike you, they actually want something more from life.”
I was put back by her reprimand. She’d just accused me of being a spoiled brat. I knew I was surrounded by money, but I’d never thought about it. And I’d never gone on shopping sprees or flaunted that money around. I didn’t think I was a spoiled brat. But was this really how Grandmother viewed me? The knowledge of this caused a horrid pain in my heart. I pressed a hand there, trying to soothe it.
Grandmother’s expression softened. “Those boys grew up having to fend for themselves. They wish they could go to college, but they can’t afford it. Even without my money, I’m sure they would find a way to get the education they want. They’re determined, and they’re willing to take risks. They face bullies too, but they won’t let those bullies get away without a good fight.
“Meanwhile, you darling, have tons of servants to protect you. Even though people might give you strange looks, they would never dare say anything mean to your face because of who you are. You have everything at your fingertips. Finding a way to pay for college is far from your mind. Yet, you don’t want to venture out into the world because you’re scared. You’re letting the world defeat you before you even have the chance to experience it.
“So all I want is for you to experience a little of what it’s like to be in those boys’ shoes. I’m hoping that by spending time with them, you’ll be able to learn from them. All I want is for you to open your eyes to the real world.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that. So I ended up saying nothing and walked out of the study without so much as a glance at Grandmother. She didn’t try to call me back.
Upon returning to my room, I threw myself onto the bed and thought about what Grandmother had said. I’d never thought I was scared of the world, only tired of people. But if she really thought I was letting the world defeat me before I experienced it, I’d prove to Grandmother that I could experience things on my own. I didn’t need any help from anyone, especially boys who would pretend to be my friends just for money.
I’d make Grandmother sorry that she gave up on me so easily.