I finished my homework within half an hour. I only had a little math homework, and it was too easy. My tutor had started teaching me calculus last year, and the calculus class at school was moving way too slowly.
I wasn’t about to complain and ask for more work though. Since my lessons with the four thieves weren’t going to start until next week, I decided to use my last week of free afternoons in the greenhouse with my beautiful plants. I made my rounds, watering all the plants, but focusing especially on the Lilium.
For about a year now, I’d been working on crossing several species of Lilium with each other to create a new species with possibly a more distinct fragrance that set it apart from the existing species, just as Daddy had done with the Rosa to create the Lockhart Winter. If I succeeded, the fragrance could be used to create a new perfume.
Once I’d finished watering the plants, I put on my glasses and observed the progress of my Lilium. After writing down a few initial observations in my notebook, I picked up some cotton swabs and a glass to collect some pollen for cross-pollination. I’d noticed that the yellow blooms had a stronger smell than the pink blooms, but I liked the sweet aroma of the pink ones a bit more.
My job today was to take the pollen from the stamens of the pink flowers and lightly brush that pollen on the carpels of the yellow flowers. Once I did this, I would just have to wait and see what flowers resulted from the cross. I predicted that the color of the new blooms would be somewhere between pink and yellow—maybe a light orange-gold—and hopefully the scent would be stronger than the current pink blooms as well.
I’d managed to just swab enough pollen into my glass when my peaceful environment was rudely interrupted by the slam of the glass door to the greenhouse followed by rowdy, obnoxious voices. I looked up to see the four thieves barging in, headed by Marlin. He was probably giving them a tour, which I didn’t have a problem with, but I wished they could be quieter. Loud noises upset my plants.
I saw Marlin gesture for them to be quiet. “Miss Emma’s working,” he whispered. But his reprimand did no good. The four thieves probably thought they were whispering, but in the greenhouse, the noises bounced off the walls.
“What’s Emma doing in here?” I heard Tony ask.
“She helps out with the research and development department in Splash and Spray,” Marlin said. “Miss Emma is a genius when it comes to plants, and she creates recipes for new perfumes. Her project now, however, is to develop a new species of lily by mixing other species together.”
The urge to correct was too hard to suppress. I was about to tell Marlin the word was cross-pollination when Marcus spoke up.
“Cross-pollination,” he said. “So you’re like Gregor Mendel and his pea plants.” I blinked at him, surprised that he knew a thing or two about the father of genetics.
“That’s so cool, Emma,” Stan said. “I didn’t know you were so smart.”
“Of course I am,” I told him. I knew I’d been planning never to speak to them, but now that they were talking about my favorite subject of all time—flowers and perfumes—I couldn’t resist. I’d go back to not talking to them later. “I helped mix the formulas for the Autumn Storm, the Garden Promenade, and the Secret Love. Now I’m taking it a step further by developing a new species of Lilium with a fragrance unlike any other.”
I wasn’t trying to brag. I was only stating the facts.
“You did all that?” Heath was impressed. “But you’re only sixteen.”
“I started helping my dad when I was seven.” I shrugged. “But now that you guys are here, I won’t be able to work as much. I don’t know what Grandmother will do without me.”
“Well, apparently she doesn’t consider it as much of a loss as you do, or she wouldn’t be making you take lessons from us,” Marcus said in a tone I didn’t like. I couldn’t explain why I didn’t like it, other than he sounded like he disapproved of everything I did.
“For your information, I’m an important asset to the company,” I told him.
“Miss Emma is indeed important,” Marlin said, supporting me.
“So I’m guessing you work with people in the company to develop products, and you go out and survey the consumers to see what they like,” Marcus said. “Heck, to do all that, it must mean you have plenty of social skills, so why do you need us for?”
“Why do you need us?” I corrected. “No preposition at the end. And no, there’s no need for me to work with people. I provide Grandmother with the flowers and suggested perfume formulas, and she takes them to the research and development department under her name for testing.”
“So the people who actually work for the company do the rest,” he interrupted. “You just work alone, never getting credit for anything you do.”
“That’s only because I prefer to remain anonymous to people,” I said. “Besides, Grandmother gets the credit from people, but I get credit on paper. And I do work for the company. I—”
“It doesn’t count as working for the company if you never interact with people besides your grandma.”
He was getting me so flustered, I had no idea what to say anymore. “I—you—”
“That’s a pity,” he said. “So much talent, never to be acknowledged by others.”
He left me speechless. I’d just explained that I didn’t care about being acknowledged by people. “I—I—”
“No wonder you don’t work with people, if you always stutter this way,” he said.
“Mr. Lew,” Marlin admonished. “How dare you speak to Miss Emma in this manner.”
“Only stating the facts. She can’t work in the company with people because she lacks people skills, and that’s why we’ve been hired to teach her.” He gave me a pointed stare. “Guess this proves you need us after all.”
I fumed, my mouth opening and closing from lack of words.
Marcus waved a hand as he started for the door. “Thank you for the tour, Marlin. But I think the four of us have to get working on our lesson plans for next week.”
And with that last remark, the four thieves left, leaving me stewing. I made a decision at that moment. I’d make life so difficult for Marcus Lew that he’d be so sorry he ever decided to step foot in my garden.
It was Monday morning, early enough that it was still completely dark outside, and my cell phone wouldn’t stop ringing. I rolled over groggily to look at the time. Four thirty. Nobody in their right mind would call that early except my dad.
“Hey kid,” the familiar voice felt like hot cocoa on a cold winter’s night, soothing and warm. I hadn’t heard Dad’s voice in such a long time. He only called once, or maybe twice a week at most because of his hectic work schedule. “Sorry, I know it’s early over there.”
“Only four thirty.”
I could actually hear him wince. “So sorry kid, and you have school too. But I really wanted to call before my flight to Guatemala. Last time I called, you were at school.”
“Where are you now?” I asked. “And when are you?”
“Macau. It’s 2030 over here. Anyway, I hear you got a new cell phone, so I just wanted to call the number to make sure it works.”
“It works just fine,” I said with a groan. “It was so loud that if it was a smoke alarm, it would have saved my life.”
He ignored my sarcasm. “I also hear you and your grandparents moved in with the Lockharts.”
“Yes, you didn’t tell Nai-nai and Ye-ye we couldn’t.”
“Well son, it’s the Lockharts,” he emphasized the name as though the mere sound of it would bring us wealth and good fortune. “Besides, your grandparents are in charge of you when I’m gone, and since they wanted to move in with their good, old friend Penny, it would be cruel of me to stop them.”
“Yes, cruel indeed,” I muttered.
“I also hear you’re becoming good friends with the granddaughter.” There was a hint of teasing in his voice.
“Don’t get any ideas, Dad,” I said. “I’ve been instructed to teach the girl, not date her. And Tony, Stan, and Heath are teaching her too.”
“We all know you’re the good-looking one,” he said. “Chip off the old block, after all.”
“I’m going back to sleep Dad. Good night.”
“Fine, be that way,” he fake-whined. “Good morning, son.”
As a result of that call, I slept in late. So by the time I left for school, Emma, Heath, Stan, and Tony had left without me. I was half an hour late to school, and I was so tired that I dozed off through my first three periods. It was not a good start to a new week, especially this being the first day we started our lessons with Emma. And I had an ominous feeling that falling asleep in class wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen today.
I hated people. Why did they have to be so mean? I’d already been shoved into the wall five times by the time I made it to second period.
When the four thieves were near, nobody dared to do anything mean, but as soon as I was by myself, it was like they all conspired to gang up against me. Last week had been torture. There had been a lot of shoving, hair pulling, and name calling, and this week proved to be no different.
By third period, I’d received three hate notes, calling me bitch, whore, and telling me to go back to my old school where freaks who mumbled to themselves belonged. Mumbling was something I couldn’t quite help. Sometimes when I was concentrating or thinking hard about something, I’d just start talking to myself without realizing it. Apparently, that was the behavior of a freak to normal people.
During lunch, before the four thieves came to the cafeteria, someone tripped me and dumped cheese fries on my hair. I looked behind to catch a glimpse of those two girls from that first day when Marcus had told them to stop spreading rumors about him and me. What were their names? Oh yeah, Lindsey and Darlene. They might not be gossiping about Marcus and me being a couple, but it seemed they wouldn’t stop bullying me any time soon.
I went to the restroom to wash the cheese out of my hair before the four thieves could see. I was determined not to let them find out I was still being bullied. I had my pride too, and I didn’t want them to think I couldn’t fix this situation by myself.
After wiping up the mess from my hair, I hid in one of the stalls, just to get some quiet time. I heard two girls come in, talking loudly about some teacher named Miss Cora.
“Did you see the rose on her desk?” some girl with an extremely high voice shrilled.
“How could I not?” her friend replied. “She’s been showing it off ever since last Monday. I can’t believe she actually got a genuine Lockhart Winter.”
My ears instantly perked up at the words Lockhart Winter.
“She claims The Bulk gave it to her. Apparently, his father is a good friend of Penelope Lockhart’s.”
That’s a lie, I thought. The four thieves had given that bulky boy the roses.
“Some people are saying it’s just a Lockhart Mimic,” the girl with the piercing voice said. “Anyone can buy those at the florist.”
“For about eighty bucks a rose. Do you honestly think The Bulk could afford that? Besides, it smells exactly like the Midnight Rose collection. It has to be a Winter.”
Not exactly. Mimics and Winters smelled exactly the same. There was practically no way to distinguish the two unless the rose went through testing. Only the fragrance of the Lockhart Winter was heat-resistant and would last through the perfume-making process, while the fragrance of the Lockhart Mimic would disappear in the heat, or about two weeks after being plucked from the bush.
The girls finished their restroom business and left. Meanwhile, I wondered if the four thieves really had been telling the truth. Last week, I’d thought to give them the benefit of the doubt, but what if I was being naïve to do so? After all, they hadn’t exactly proven themselves to be trustworthy when they’d broken into my home to steal from our garden. And they were willing to do anything for money, even be the school freak’s fake friends.
Oh my God, I was such a fool. If they’d given that hulking boy the rose, and his father worked for Cantin, our company could be ruined. And it would be my fault for trusting the thieves instead of asking Grandmother to confirm their story.
I came out of the restroom in a foul mood. I had to talk to Grandmother alone as soon as I got home.
After school, Emma was waiting for us on the brick steps outside the library. In her hands, she cradled, of course, her manga. He lips moved as she read to herself, oblivious to her surroundings. The wind blew her hair, and she unconsciously brushed it behind her ear. If I hadn’t known what a handful she could be, I would have thought she was kind of cute and sweet.
I cleared my throat, letting her know of our presence. That docile expression was wiped clean immediately as she looked up, replaced by displeasure.
“I’m just as happy to see you too,” I said. “Now let’s go.”
We walked to the bus stop. Only Tony and Stan were talking, recounting some anecdote that had happened during gym. Heath stared straight ahead to where Emma was walking, or rather, running ahead of us. For a tiny thing, she sure was fast. It was good that our walking strides almost matched hers, or she’d have disappeared into the distance.
It didn’t take long for the bus to come, but it was pretty crowded, and most of the seats were already taken. Luckily for Emma, there was one last seat up in front. She stole it quickly, proving herself to be the little princess she was. As for the rest of us, we were forced to stand. At each stop, more passengers boarded, until by the third stop, we were squished way at the back. Emma remained in the same seat, reading her manga, completely oblivious to her surroundings.
“So what’s the plan, Marcus?” Tony asked.
“What do you mean, what’s the plan?”
“Well, we’re supposed to teach Emma social skills,” he said. “But how are we supposed to teach her when she’s stubbornly gonna stay mad at us forever? Anything we do won’t be effective.”
“That’s why I told you to be more sensitive,” Heath said. “Marcus, I know you meant well last week when you yelled at Lindsey and implied you would beat up anyone who made fun of Emma. But you also told Lindsey nothing was going on between you and Emma.”
“So?” I shrugged. “Nothing is going on between us.”
“As in girlfriend, boyfriend,” he told me. “But from what Mrs. Lockhart said, it seems Emma takes everything very literally. Most likely she thought you meant you didn’t want to be her friend either.”
The bus lurched at the next stop, almost making me stumble. “Well, I probably wouldn’t be her friend if it wasn’t for the money.”
Heath sighed, brows furling in annoyance. “And that’s the problem. Emma knows that. The real reason she’s mad is because she knows we’re only doing this for the money.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do about that?” I was becoming a little irritated with Heath’s insightful nature.
“You can do a lot,” Heath snapped back. “You can stop thinking about just the money and be her real friend.”
Stan poked at me. “Umm…guys…”
“What?” Both Heath and I glared at him.
“Well, I hate to interrupt this argument, but I don’t see Emma anymore.”
My head snapped to the front of the bus to where Emma had just been sitting. In her place was some old woman, knitting a sweater. Emma wasn’t anywhere in sight.
“Oh shit,” Tony swore. “Her grandma’s gonna kill us if we lose her. She doesn’t know the way back to her house. Someone call her cell phone.”
“I doubt that’ll help,” Stan said. “She won’t answer her phone when she’s trying to avoid us. If she calls her grandmother, we’re screwed.”
I pulled on the cord to signal the driver to stop the bus. “Not if we find her first. She probably just got off at that last stop when we got distracted. She couldn’t have gone too far.”
We pushed our way through the crowded bus. Back on the sidewalk, I took note of our surroundings. We were smack in the middle of Bellflower Avenue, which was one of Orchid Beach’s main tourist attractions. The beach was a mile away, and all the gift shops were located along this street.
“We’ll split up,” I said. “Heath, you stay here.”
He looked offended. “Just because I have a limp doesn’t mean—”
“No, stay at the bus stop in case she comes back,” I said. “Tony, Stan, search the beach. I’ll run down the street and see if she stopped at any of the gift shops. We’ll meet here in half an hour even if we don’t find her.”
I broke into a run, muttering a curse. That girl was becoming the bane of my life. Being her babysitter hadn’t been in the job description, but Mrs. Lockhart would definitely not appreciate it if something happened to her granddaughter on our watch.
I’d waited for the perfect opportunity to escape their ever watchful gazes. One minute, they’d all been watching me, but the next minute, they’d been arguing about something. And that’s when I’d pulled the cord, just as I’d observed the other people doing when they wanted to get off the bus.
Take that Grandmother. I could learn things all by myself.
So as soon as the bus had stopped, I darted off, making sure the four thieves were still bickering. They didn’t notice at all. The bus drove off, and I let out a big sigh of relief.
I had to get home and tell Grandmother about the roses. I needed to find out if the thieves were telling the truth—that she’d given them the Lockhart Mimic, not the Lockhart Winter. But I couldn’t have the thieves around when I asked her. If it wasn’t true, they’d make up some grand story with their smooth talking and try to turn me into the liar. Then I wouldn’t be able to think clearly to defend myself, and Grandmother would think I was only trying to get them in trouble so I wouldn’t have to endure their tutoring.
At least if I got to Grandmother first, I’d be able to think clearly when I explained what I’d seen them do, and I would have more of a chance of making her believe me.
I started down the street, unsure of where I was. Ever since my dad died, I’d never left the premises of the mansion. I wished I had brought my cell phone with me to call Grandmother, but I’d forgotten it in my room since I rarely used it either. It wasn’t like I had friends to call or to call me.
The street was filled with souvenir and gift shops, and I decided to go into the first one I saw to ask for directions. The shop I entered sold nothing but seashells. Everything looked so fragile, I was afraid to even walk through the aisles to the cash register. The middle-aged woman behind the counter didn’t look very happy to see me.
“If you aren’t going to buy anything, please leave,” she said.
“How do you know I’m not going to buy anything?” I asked.
She scowled at me. “You’re not a tourist. Kids always loiter here after school, and one of them almost smashed one of my shells last week.”
I didn’t want her to shoo me away before I could ask my question, so I took out my wallet. “I’ll buy something,” I said. “If you tell me how to get to Poppy Ranch from here.”
“Why don’t you just take the bus?” she grumbled, not any friendlier than before.
“Because I’d rather walk,” I said.
She narrowed her eyes, regarding me with the same look everyone gave me when they thought I was strange. “Then you’ll have to walk a very long time. But that’s not my problem, I guess.” She shrugged. “Walk straight up this street until you hit Lemon, turn right, right again on Turtle, left on Fern, a right on Golden View and just keep going until you get there. Does that answer your question?”
I nodded, thanking her.
She eyed me. “Now are you buying something or what?”
I looked at the different items around the shop and pointed to a seashell necklace. “How much is that?”
The woman snorted. “Way too cheap, in my opinion, but my husband refuses to adjust the price. He’s such a softie when it comes to tourists. Should be at least fifteen, but we only sell them for five each.”
I pulled out five bills from my wallet. “Here you go, five hundred.”
“Five hun—” Her jaw gaped, and she stared at me in disbelief. “I think you misunderstood. I meant five doll—”
“I can give you fifteen hundred if you want,” I said, hoping it might cheer her up. Maybe if she liked me, I could use her as proof to Grandmother that I could make friends on my own.
The woman continued to stare at me for several seconds before finally snapping out of it. Then her whole demeanor changed, as her mouth spread into a wide, open grin. “No, I couldn’t do that to you. But if you’d like, I can throw in one more necklace and some pretty wind chimes made from seashells for that fifteen hundred.”
Maybe she was nicer than I’d thought. I smiled and was about to agree, when a male voice answered for me. “No, she would not like to.”
I whirled around and groaned. Marcus had found me. He marched forward and swiped the money from the woman’s hand. “She’s not interested in buying anything from a cheat like you. How dare you try to scam an innocent girl.”
“I did no such thing,” the woman exclaimed in outrage. “She handed me the money.”
He paid her no attention, only grabbed my hand and tugged, giving me no choice but to follow.
As soon as we were outside, he spun me around to face him. “Are you an idiot?”
The question was so insulting that I completely forgot two things: one, I was giving him the silent treatment, and two, I wasn’t comfortable talking to people my age. “No, I’m not an idiot. My IQ was tested to be way above average, I have extremely proficient memory skills, and I know all the growing conditions, blooming periods, and pest problems for over 2000 species of plants.”
He stared at me in disbelief. “That was a rhetorical question. But that’s beside the point, because you may be book smart, but you suck at being street smart. What were you thinking, paying that woman five hundred bucks for a stupid necklace?”
“She said it cost five.”
Marcus shook his head as though he had no idea what to do with me. “She must have meant five dollars. Not five hundred dollars. But then you offered her that much, and she decided to go with it. Clearly, you’re not a rich girl who spends her time studying the quality and brand names of clothes and jewelry.”
“Of course I’m not,” I exclaimed. “Nobody would waste their time doing that.”
He ran his fingers through his hair in frustration, thoroughly messing it up. “Never mind. We need to get back to the bus stop. The guys are waiting for us.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you,” I told him firmly. “I don’t trust you one bit, and I’m walking home by myself. You’re a thief and a liar, and I—I…despise you.” I gasped, covering my mouth at the realization that I’d just spoken those horrible things out loud. I’d never told anyone I hated them. I thought about it, but I’d never had the courage to voice it out loud. Usually, I just handed them the flower that symbolized how I felt, figuring they wouldn’t know what it meant, but at least I’d still get the satisfaction of releasing my feelings.
I didn’t know where I was getting all this confidence to scream at him, but it felt as natural as the blooming of tulips in the spring.
“Well, you’re not exactly a walk in the park yourself,” he said.
“What does that mean?” I stared at him, confused. Of course I wasn’t a walk in the park. I was a person.
“It means,” he said, “I’ll let you walk home by yourself only when hell freezes over.” I opened my mouth to speak, but he cut me off before I could. “And you don’t have to tell me hell would never freeze over because I know that. It’s a figure of speech, meaning I’ll never let you walk home by yourself.”
“I don’t need your permission.” I scowled at him, daring him to try and contradict me.
“Your grandmother wouldn’t like it if I told her you defied my authority as your teacher,” he said, and my face fell. It was true. He’d go and tell Grandmother I’d tried to run away, and she’d take his side.
“She also wouldn’t approve of the fact that you almost handed that woman fifteen hundred dollars,” he added. “And if you tried to walk home, we’d beat you there anyway. It’s about a seven mile hike, which would take you about…” he tapped his chin thoughtfully, “Oh, I’d say about two hours if you walked fast. Which you don’t.”
Seven miles? I’d had no idea. Marcus’s argument was getting stronger with each point he made, and I realized I really hadn’t thought through my plan too carefully.
I couldn’t admit this to him though. “I don’t care. I’m still walking.” And with that final remark, I started down the street, holding my head up with all the dignity I could muster.
“You’re going the wrong way,” he called after me.
I stopped and turned around, avoiding his gaze, and tried to salvage the little pride I had left. I heard Marcus sigh as he followed.
“Emma, what do I have to do get you to stop being angry with me?” he asked. “I don’t even know why you’re mad. Is it because you still think we gave The Bulk your special roses? Or is it because of what I said in the greenhouse last week? Because I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have been so harsh.”
I paused in my stride, wondering if I should answer. All I really wanted to do was make sure the Lockhart Winter was still safe from the hands of the enemy. He probably sensed my hesitation because he ran to catch up.
“Did you really give The Bulk the Lockhart Mimic?” I asked.
He nodded. “Just ask your grandma. She’s the one who gave us the Lockhart Mimic.”
“Fine, I’ll ask her,” I said. “But I want to talk to her alone.”
“Because if you’re there, you might try to convince her I’m lying about seeing you give that horrible boy the roses just to get you fired. And then I’ll get nervous and won’t know how to defend myself, and she’ll take your side.”
“Okaayyy,” he drawled out. “That was nowhere near my thoughts. Now I know you not only lack social skills, you’re extremely paranoid too.”
“It’s not paranoia. It’s the truth,” I said. “I lose my ability to speak whenever someone talks over me. They’re always louder, and I end up fading into the background.”
“And how do you know your grandma wouldn’t try to listen to your side of the argument?”
“Because I’ve been blamed for things before,” I said. Back when I’d been very little, my mother had taken her boyfriend’s side over mine. He’d stolen some jewelry from her and blamed me for losing it. And I’d tried to tell Mother I hadn’t done it, but Pete had talked so loudly, I couldn’t defend myself. I got so nervous I couldn’t even think of the words when Mother had asked me if it was true, so she’d assumed Pete was telling the truth.
I couldn’t let the same thing happen with Grandmother. If she took someone’s side over mine, I couldn’t bear it. She was the only real family I had left and the only one in this world who still loved me.
I looked up to see Marcus staring at me with those clear, brown eyes, and it made me nervous. It was as though he was trying to read my mind, but I didn’t want him to know what I was thinking. It was too personal.
Quickly averting my gaze, I nervously asked, “S-so will you let me talk to her alone?”
“I wasn’t intending on being there when you talked to her anyway,” he said. “You can talk to her privately for as long as you want. I promise. As long as you promise to take the bus with us and not try to run away again.”
“All right,” I agreed. It was worth it to sacrifice this one battle, just as long as I could talk to Grandmother and find out the truth on my own. But I was beginning to think I’d been wrong the four thieves, at least about the rose incident. And as much as I wanted them to be rid of them, a part of me wanted them to be telling the truth.