Emma was doing very well. Maybe too well. After Dave, at least five other guys had asked her to dance. I couldn’t say I blamed them. Dressed the way she was, Emma was hot.
Truthfully, her dancing wasn’t too shabby. She was proving to be a good copycat, first with that roundhouse kick she’d applied on me and now with her imitation of the dancing teens surrounding her. But even if she had been the worst dancer at the party, I doubted any of the guys cared. They were too busy admiring her other…er, assets. I found myself growing more annoyed as the seconds ticked, especially since Emma had no idea where those idiots’ eyes were wandering. What had Mrs. Lockhart been thinking, letting her granddaughter wear a dress that low? The girl might as well be wearing a bikini top.
I felt a bit of pain in my hands and looked down to see that I had unconsciously clenched them into fists so tightly that my nails were digging into my palms. This was crazy. Some of the other girls were showing off even more bare skin and cleavage, so why should I be annoyed at what Emma was wearing? And why should I care if other guys were ogling her? It shouldn’t be bothering me, and it certainly shouldn’t be making me want to punch their faces in. Besides, this was a good thing. If they were interested in Emma, it meant her awkwardness was less obvious, and she was starting to be more like a normal girl.
I just had to stop looking at Emma and think about something else. I forced myself to look away, and my eyes honed in on something much worse than Emma and her hoard of slavering guys.
A middle-aged man was sneaking through the crowd of teenagers, trying to get past the party, and he was headed in the direction of the rose garden. Everyone was too busy having fun to notice him.
I recognized the man instantly because his son looked just like him. It was The Bulk’s dad.
I knew immediately the man was up to no good. There was only one legitimate excuse for an old person to be at a party for teenagers, and that was if he was a chaperone. But I knew for a fact that Mr. Lyons was no chaperone. Not when teachers all complained that he never even showed up for parent-teacher conferences.
It then occurred to me that Mr. Lyons had passed through security to get into this party. How could the guards have been so careless? And if they were already that ineffective at their job, what was stopping Mr. Lyons from going into the rose garden and stealing a real Lockhart Winter?
I knew that must be what the man was after. I stood up and decided to follow him. If there were no security guards around the rose garden, I’d have to stop the man by myself.
He moved past the crowd and into the darkness of the garden, blending into the shadows. I kept my eye on his every move, thankful that I’d always had good night vision. It also helped that the man wasn’t very light on his feet. He lumbered through the grass, cursing at the mud for staining his shoes.
There was one security guard at the rose garden. Only one. And he was talking on his cell phone to his girlfriend. Apparently, she was dumping him because she met someone during her first year of college somewhere across the country. The poor guy hung up his phone and actually started crying.
Mr. Lyons waltzed right up to the guy and patted his shoulder. “You all right?”
“Not really. My girlfriend just—just—” The guy dissolved into tears again.
“Go take a break kid. I’ll take up your shift.”
And the college dude left, without even making sure that he was being replaced by a real security guard. I mean, it was sad what his girlfriend did, but he shouldn’t have been talking to her during work in the first place. Incompetent fool. No wonder she left him.
Now Mr. Lyons retrieved a flashlight from his coat and began searching through the roses. “Where is the damned thing?” he muttered impatiently.
It was time to take him down before he found the rose. I made a quick call to Marlin.
“There’s an intruder in the rose garden,” I said as soon as the butler picked up. “Benjamin Lyons is trying to find the Lockhart Winter. The only security guard got his heart broken and is now probably crying in the bathroom somewhere.”
On the other end of the line, Marlin swore. “All right Marcus, I’m sending in more security, but it might take a moment more than I’d like. There seems to be an intruder in the mansion too. In the meantime, do what you can to make sure that fool doesn’t get the rose.”
Do what I could? So was Marlin giving me the liberty to beat up a middle-aged man?
Mr. Lyons was getting awfully close to the white roses. It was now or never.
I stepped out of the shadows. “Hey, you shouldn’t be doing that.”
The man spun around, completely spooked. When he saw I was only a teenage boy, he relaxed. “Mind your own business, kid. I’m a security guard. Go back to the party.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I know you’re not supposed to be here because I know you’re Ben Lyons’ dad, and you’re trying to steal the Lockhart Winter.”
“Look kid. There’re plenty of bitches at the party over there, so go find one and get laid instead of snooping around here bugging me.”
“Can’t do that,” I said. “The Lockharts are my friends, and I can’t let you steal their roses.”
“And just how’re ya gonna stop me?” he taunted. He brushed his hand over the roses. “Ooo…I’m touching them, look at me. You can’t stop me.”
I hadn’t thought it possible, but this guy was even more annoying than his son. I was actually feeling kind of sorry for The Bulk. Now the man plucked a rose from the bush and crumpled the petals in his hand. “Oops, I destroyed one.”
All right, I’d had enough of that. “You keep doing that, and you’ll be sorry,” I warned.
He ripped another rose off, dropped it, and stomped on it. Then he marched up to me and tried to use his height to intimidate. He was a good four inches taller, but height wasn’t everything. He reached out and pushed me back. “And just how are you planning on making me sorry?” He pushed me again.
I had warned him. Before he could push me a third time, I struck out, turning him away from me and trapped his arms behind his back until there was an audible crunch. He yelped in pain. “Stop, stop! You’re breaking them.”
By now, I saw several security guards heading in my direction, so I let go of Mr. Lyons, intending on letting the guards deal with him. But as soon as I let go, he tried to slug me one. I ducked just in time, and directed a punch right into his face. He went out cold.
“All right guys,” I told the guards. “You’d better take him out of here before he wakes up. And make sure nobody else crashes this party. It’s an important night for Miss Lockhart, you know.”
And with that taken care of, I walked back to the party.
I’d just finished dancing with some vampire named Hank. I’d actually been having a little fun, until I’d accidently bumped into some girl, who’d given me a dirty look. After that, I’d started feeling overheated, and now I wanted nothing more than to escape the crowd. I dodged the crazy hoard of teenagers and crept away, deciding nobody would notice if I was gone for a little while. Only a few guys had bothered asking me to dance, and they were all dancing with other girls now or playing games. And Marcus and the other three thieves were nowhere in sight.
It was the perfect opportunity to sneak away to my greenhouse. I missed my plants. They were the only ones who knew the real me. I could be myself around them, and it would be a relief. I was tired of masquerading as this heiress, pretending to be this perfect paradigm of beauty at a dumb party, where nobody even cared to get to know the real me.
Besides, I hadn’t been able to work with my lilies for over a month, and it was torture. While Grandmother had promised she would make sure someone tended to them, I had been forbidden to even enter the greenhouse until Christmas break. Break was still six weeks away, and I couldn’t wait any longer. I wanted to see how my lilies were doing. By now the new cross should have grown.
I walked by the grove of orange trees, where people were laughing at other people stuff their faces with candy. It was some game where one was blindfolded and had to guess the name of the candy one was eating. If the guesser was correct in guessing ten types of candy in a row, the prize was a year’s supply of the candy of his or her choice.
I heard a voice call me from behind and turned around to see Dave the magician.
“Emma, there you are. I wanted to ask you to dance again, but you went off in such a hurry.”
“Oh, I just got tired,” I said.
Then he saw the game booth. “Oh awesome, the prize is a year’s supply of candy. That’s a hell of a lot of chocolate for me to eat. Let’s go for it, Emma. If either of us wins, we can share the profits.”
“Actually, I kind of have a headache,” I said. “I think I’ll take a little walk around the garden to clear my head for awhile.”
He was already eyeing the stacks of chocolate bars and fruity candy at the booth and didn’t seem to hear me. “All right, catch you later then.”
Beyond the orangery lay the herb garden, where the gazebo, a pastel green and white painted structure, lay. To the right of that was the maze. I could hear the horrified shrieks coming from that direction, which meant the phony zombies were being successful at spooking their prey.
Straight beyond the gazebo was the greenhouse. It was quiet as I walked past—the party was pretty much contained closer to the house, with the exception of the maze. There wouldn’t be security guards around there either. They were all set up where the party was. I didn’t think any of the guests would venture here anyway. Everyone wanted to be where the party was, so they wouldn’t wander into the quiet, unknown parts of the garden. Except maybe the couples who wanted to be alone to hook up.
I spotted such a couple in the gazebo. They were so absorbed in animalistic kissing that they didn’t even notice as I quickly sauntered past. Finally, I reached my hiding place.
The sight of all the greenery through the glass windows instantly relieved my headache. I quietly closed the door behind me and took off for my lilies. To my delight, they seemed to be healthy and were growing quite abundantly. The new cross I’d started to grow back at the end of August stood out. They were a pale orange—almost like the color of pink grapefruit. I took out a pen to write in my notebook and leaned closer to inhale the fragrance.
It was almost perfect. Maybe one more cross between the—
The front door to the greenhouse slammed, and I started, clasping my heart. I looked up to see The Bulk walking towards me. My first thought was to wonder what he was doing here. And my second thought was one of alarm. He couldn’t be here. This greenhouse contained some of our company’s secrets. Even if The Bulk had been nice to me that one time someone had pushed me, the fact remained that his father had asked him to steal the Lockhart Winter.
How had he even come this far into the garden? Even though he was allowed into the party, I knew Grandmother had warned the security guards to keep an extra eye on him.
“I’ve been trying to catch up to you all night,” The Bulk said, drawing closer. “I just wanted to say you’re looking beautiful tonight.” He didn’t stop as he said this, only sauntered even closer.
“You’ve gotta be the hottest girl at this party.”
My heart started to race. Something was wrong here. He looked like he wanted to eat me, and he was starting to invade my personal space. It was…uncomfortable, and I backed away instinctively.
“And you know what? You remind me of someone.” Finally, he stopped. His eyes darted to the lilies behind me.
I was almost too afraid to ask. “Of w-whom do I remind you?”
“The hottest woman I ever lay eyes on,” he said. “She’s a bitch my dad dates off and on. I’ve known her since before I can remember. You look an awful lot like her. In fact, so much that she could be your mother.” His eyes sparked. “It’s strange too that you’re dressed as Emmaline Lockhart. Because this woman happens to be Emmaline’s biological mother, and your name is Emma.”
My brain half shut down at this information about my mother. If she’d been dating The Bulk’s dad since The Bulk had been very little, it meant she’d been cheating on my dad. My poor father. She’d been having an affair with his student, and they’d both betrayed him in every sense of the word.
And then the rest of what The Bulk had said registered in my brain. He was implying that the woman he knew was my mother, implying that I was Emmaline Lockhart.
I decided to pretend not to know what he was talking about. “That is a strange coincidence,” I said. “I wonder if I look like Emmaline Lockhart too.”
He regarded me with a knowing smirk. “I’d guess you look a lot like her. Tell me, Emma Hartley, what are you doing here in this greenhouse, which is supposed to be off limits to all guests? And it looks like you’re about to do research on those flowers behind you too, with that notebook in your hands.”
“I could ask you the same question,” I replied. “What are you doing here?”
“Just following the beauty who led me here. Now answer the question.”
“I—I was just curious,” I said. “And there wasn’t anyone to stop me from coming in.” All because the incompetent security guards weren’t doing their jobs, and Grandmother hadn’t put enough security around here. I cursed myself for ever being happy to be able to sneak in here and for thinking for even a moment that The Bulk might actually be a decent guy. “As for this notebook, it was here on the table when I got here. I just wanted to see what was inside.”
He just laughed. “What a creative little story. But I don’t think you’re telling the truth. You know what I think is the truth, Emma Hartley? I think your real name is Emmaline Lockhart. I think you’re the old woman’s granddaughter, and I don’t know why you’re hiding that fact, but I intend to find out.”
I looked to the dance floor to see if I could find Emma, but I didn’t see her. I thought maybe she’d gone to play some of the games. The Bobbing for Apples competition hadn’t started yet, but people were playing Guess that Candy in the orangery, Horror Movie Trivia near the cherry trees, and Mansion Murder Mysteries in the house. There was also that maze, but I knew Emma hadn’t gone there.
I walked around the games and booths, trying to find her. I just wanted to make sure none of those guys had dragged her off somewhere against her will. I spotted Dave in the orangery, in line to be the next contestant in Guess that Candy. The current contestant, some girl I didn’t recognize, was eating a Three Musketeers bar and was guessing any other candy bar besides that brand.
I poked Dave. “Have you seen Emma?”
He looked a little nervous to see me. “Oh yeah, she took off in that direction.” He pointed to the gazebo that lay in the Western herb garden. Just beyond that was Emma’s greenhouse, so I had a good idea where the girl had gone. Trying to sneak out of the party, was she?
“Thanks.” I was about to head off when Dave called me back.
“Umm…Marcus, there’s something you should probably know.” He was turning positively green. “I was too scared to do anything, but maybe you can.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s about Emma…I’m kind of worried.”
“Out with it, Dave. I don’t have all night.”
“Okay, I’m not sure whether to trust my gut instinct, but something tells me I should. As soon as Emma left, I saw The Bulk taking off after her. He was eyeing her all night, and I heard him tell someone he was gonna score with her. I was too scared to follow them.”
Alarm bells went off in my head. “You let a defenseless girl go off alone, knowing The Bulk was following her?”
“The Bulk scares me more than you do,” he said, looking very ashamed, as well he should. “They went off maybe five minutes ago. Maybe you can make sure nothing’s happened.”
“You’d better hope nothing’s happened,” I said so dangerously that Dave backed up a couple of steps. “Because otherwise, you’re just as dead as The Bulk.”
There was every possibility that The Bulk would try to do something to Emma. He wasn’t known to be a gentleman around girls, and although he was in love with the history teacher, Ms. Cora, a month ago, we’d recently received news of her engagement to her long time boyfriend. And ever since then, The Bulk was back in the business of tormenting anything with boobs. And with Emma dressed as the hottest girl at the party, there was no doubt in my mind she was his target of the night.
Things would get even worse if he found out Emma was really a Lockhart.
I took off for the greenhouse at lightning speed. I knew there wasn’t a chance of the greenhouse being tightly guarded. As had been the case with the rose garden, Mrs. Lockhart hadn’t put out much security outside at all, trusting the volunteer chaperones alone. She’d only focused on guarding the house itself to make sure none of the teenagers tried to sneak around to find the ghost of Emmaline Lockhart.
She should have at least made sure there was enough security to stop any party crashers. First it was The Bulk’s dad, and now it was The Bulk himself. I just hoped I wasn’t too late.
“Penelope Lockhart’s granddaughter?” I pretended to act surprised by The Bulk’s accusation. “How would you jump to that conclusion? There’s no way I’m an heiress.”
“You’re not a very good liar, sweet thing,” he said. “You look exactly like Lydia Lockhart, and I hadn’t thought it possible if I wasn’t looking at ya now, but maybe even hotter than her. She is becoming more of an old hag as the years go by, ya know.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I clawed desperately at the first lie that popped into my head. “My mother’s name is…Evelyn—” The name of Mina’s best and only friend, which also happened to mean flower. “Evelyn Hartley is my mother,” I repeated definitively. “She was never married to anyone. My father got her pregnant and didn’t want the responsibility.”
“Oh really?” The Bulk grinned ear to ear, and I had a feeling he wasn’t buying my lies. He was staring at the top of my head. “Then how do you explain those?” He reached out and petted the roses adorning my hair. “You have Lockhart Winters in your hair. I could smell ‘em all the way across the garden when I saw ya dancing.”
“These aren’t Lockhart Winters,” I said, a bit relieved that at least this wasn’t a lie. “These are Lockhart Mimics. You can buy them at any florist affiliated with Splash and Spray.”
“Yeah, for a ton of cash,” he sneered. “If your mom’s really a single mom like ya say, I don’t think you could afford to buy ‘em.”
Oh curses. Why hadn’t any of us thought of that fact before deciding to pin the roses to my hair?
“It just so happens that she’s a florist,” I lied yet again. At least these lies were coming quicker off my tongue the more that I said them. “My mom works for Splash and Spray. She grows and sells their flowers, and she’s one of their best. I have an interest in flowers too, like my mom, and that’s why I was curious about this greenhouse.”
The perfect lie, and I hadn’t even flinched while telling it.
But now The Bulk’s expression wasn’t so happy anymore. He looked like he might want to kill me. I wished I could take a few steps back, but he had me cornered between the table and the flowers. “So it was you, ya little slut. You were in on it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t pretend you don’t know. Two months ago, those four pansies you’re always hanging around promised to get me some Lockhart Winters from this very garden. They gave ‘em to me the very next day, and I kept my promise to take back what I said to the crippled kid, even though everything I say to him is just fact. But a few weeks later, Dad comes home screamin’ ‘bout how I gave him the Mimics, which are nothin’ but garbage in the perfume business.
“I told him it was impossible. Those goons wouldn’t be able to afford Mimics, bein’ orphans and all, but then I thought I’d give ‘em the benefit of the doubt. Not very bright, those four, and they must’ve grabbed the Mimics from the garden thinkin’ they were Winters. But now I find out they intentionally double-crossed me. They never even came here to steal the Winters because they got you to give ‘em the Mimics.”
Oh, so that was the new theory. The Bulk thought I’d given the four thieves free Mimics from my made-up mother’s shop. Well, at least he no longer thought I was Emmaline Lockhart. Not that this was any better. I seriously thought I might die by strangulation. At least I’d be surrounded by flowers.
“Don’t try and deny it,” he spat in my face. His breath smelled like the garlic-cheese dip from the refreshment table, and I crinkled my nose. “You’re worse than Lydia Lockhart and Kristin Cora combined.”
What in the world did Mother and the history teacher have to do with this?
“The whole school thought ya were a moll doll, but I stood up for ya. Really had me fooled with those innocent angel eyes.”
I had no idea what a moll doll was, but I had a feeling it wasn’t a particularly flattering name to be called. Since he was now ranting about how I’d been sleeping around with all the guys at school, I figured a moll doll had something to do with that. “So what was your price for those Mimics, eh?” That horrid grin was back. “Did ya have all four of ‘em sleep with ya? Make ya scream in bed? Is that why you’re always hangin’ around them?” The Bulk narrowed the gap between us, using his body to pin me to the wall that surrounded the flowers. I instinctively put up my arms as a shield, but there was no way I could move past him. “If your mommy grows flowers for Old Lockhart, then I betcha can get me some genuine Winters.”
“N-no, that’s impossible,” I whispered, starting to tremble in fear.
“Don’t pretend to be coy,” he said. “Your act is up, and I need those Lockhart Winters. So name your price. I guarantee one night with me, and the next morning you won’t even remember those four sissies’ names.”
His eyes traveled up and down my body and stopped at my chest. I could actually see him salivating. But I ordered myself to think and slowly reached behind me so as not to alert him and prayed for something useful. My hands bumped into something made of metal—a garden spade.
I grabbed it, jerked out, and struck him in the stomach. He let go with a cry of pain and keeled over, cussing at me. I shrieked and tried to run, but in my haste, I tripped over my dress and fell. Before I could even make the attempt to get up, he was on me, screaming words and insults that dared never be repeated.
“You’ll pay for that.” He pinned my arms on the floor, and it was futile to struggle. He was violently smacking his lips across my neck and dripping his obnoxious saliva all over me. I lifted my foot, not intending to give up, and I was about to kick out, except before I could, he was suddenly lifted bodily off of me, sailed across the greenhouse, and crashed into some potted tulips.
“You bastard,” a low male voice growled, and before I could see who had saved me, a blur of black flashed past, dove across the room, threw himself at The Bulk, and started pounding.
And now I saw that it was Marcus. I’d never seen anyone so enraged, and I knew if I didn’t do something, he just might kill The Bulk. Already, I could see blood spraying on the floor, and not much, if any, of it belonged to Marcus. Although The Bulk was struggling to fight back, Marcus was too strong, and his rage fueled his power further.
I struggled to get up, but a sharp pain in my ankle caused me to fall back and cry out. I thought I might have twisted something when I fell. My cry of distress was loud enough to get Marcus’s attention thankfully. He turned his head toward me and let go of The Bulk’s clothes. While the bully slumped to the ground in a boneless heap, Marcus ran to me.
“Emma, are you all right?”
“It’s just my ankle,” I said. “Otherwise I’m fine.”
He moved to help me stand and then froze in midair. He turned at least five shades of red, averted his gaze, and cleared his throat. “You might want to…uh…” He gestured towards his own chest, and I wondered why.
“What? Did you get dirt on yourself?”
“No,” he said, clearly exasperated. “Cover yourself up.”
I looked down at my dress and finally realized what he was trying to tell me. My dress had slipped down, probably as a result of my fall. I was dangerously close to exposing parts of myself that weren’t meant to be seen in polite company, and although it was simply a natural part of the human body to me, Marcus appeared to be offended. So quickly, I readjusted the fabric.
By now, Marcus was on the phone, talking to Marlin about the intruder. Barely a minute later, the security guards marched in to escort The Bulk off the premises. He groaned as he made his exit, feeling the effects of Marcus’s blows.
“What will happen to him?” I asked Marcus.
“He’ll be joining his dad in jail until someone bails them out,” he said.
“Ben Lyons, the elder, was caught trying to steal the Winters earlier,” Marcus explained.
At that moment, Marlin came barging through the door. “Miss Emma, are you all right?”
“I’m fine, Marlin.” I put a finger to my lips, reminding him not to be so loud. The party was still going on, and even though we were confined to the greenhouse, where no one could hear us, it was better to be safe just in case.
“She broke her ankle,” Marcus said, which did not help the situation any, thank you very much. Marlin looked horrified and probably would have yelled for the guards to take the heiress of Splash and Spray to the hospital immediately, if I had not managed to shush him again.
“It’s not broken, or I would be crying.” I’d read up a bit on medicine and injuries, so I knew a thing or two about first aid. At least enough to know my injury wasn’t life-threatening or even cause for a special trip to the hospital. All I needed was a little ice. “It’s just a little swollen. I’ll keep off of it for a few days, and that’ll be it.”
But Marlin and Marcus still hovered above me like mother hens. “We need to call a doctor immediately,” Marlin said. “Send for Madam.”
“No Marlin,” I whispered softly, but desperately. “There’s still a party going on, and if you call Grandmother and make a big fuss about this, everyone will find out who I really am. Please Marlin…just let me go to my room and ice my ankle.”
“Fine,” Marlin agreed reluctantly. “Marcus, will you—”
Marcus already had me scooped up into his arms, and I felt a heady sort of rush, like an anti-gravity experience. I had to fight to catch my breath. “I’ll keep an eye on her for the rest of the party. Just make sure security does their job competently this time.”
Marlin looked a little peeved, probably because Marcus was barking commands at him, but he nodded. “There will be no further disturbances, I assure you.” He regarded the few security guards who remained in the greenhouse. “Because if there are, the whole lot of you are fired. First, some lunatic manages to break into the house, then Lyons tries to make off with the Lockhart Winter, and now Miss Emma gets attacked by Lyons’ idiot son.”
Some lunatic? I blinked, startled. Someone else had broken into the house? “A lunatic?”
“Dressed as a white-bearded wizard,” Marlin said. “He’s the reason security was distracted from seeing Ben Lyons enter the garden.” Then he noticed my troubled expression, and added, quickly, “Don’t worry Miss Emma. No one’s hurt. Your classmate, Miss Carwarner took a scare, but she’s all right.”
“Did you catch him?” I asked.
I could tell from Marlin’s uncomfortable expression that they hadn’t. “He was too quick. But he won’t be coming back, I’m sure. Probably just an opportunist who thought the party was the perfect distraction for him to make off with the china.”
Marcus took me to the back of the house, avoiding the crowd. Everyone was too busy having fun to notice anyway. He swept me up the stairs and it was only when we were safely in my room when he finally set me down carefully on my bed, as though I were some sort of porcelain doll.
Betsy came in with a bag of ice wrapped in a cloth. “Oh Miss Emma, they told me you were attacked. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, Betsy. Marcus came right in time.”
“Thank God he did,” Betsy said, and then she went off ranting. “Those darn teenage boys and their raging hormones. I knew Madam should have sent more security guards outside, especially around you. This whole idea of masquerading as someone you’re not is a horrible idea, I say.”
Betsy wasn’t the only one who thought that. I remembered just why I had tried to escape to the greenhouse in the first place. It was all because I felt like I was trapped in some other girl’s body, pretending to be someone I wasn’t.
“No one would dare pick on you if they knew you were a Lockhart,” Betsy went on. “Not this Hartley girl who doesn’t even exist.”
I was starting to feel ill again.
“Betsy, I think Miss Emma would like to rest now,” Marcus said. “Maybe you can help keep an eye on the party and make sure nobody gets curious enough to try and sneak up here. I don’t trust the security guards after all that’s happened tonight.”
“Oh, I don’t blame you Mr. Lew,” she said. “Two intruders in one night. It’s simply shameful. Don’t worry, Miss Emma, Betsy’s on watch now. Nobody will bother you anymore.”
Once she left, the room got a lot quieter, which was exactly how I liked it. I carefully propped my foot on the bed and applied the ice pack. The swelling was already looking gruesome.
“Let me do that,” Marcus said, coming to sit next to me. He took the ice pack and held it to my ankle. We avoided each other’s gazes, and as the silence grew, so did the awkwardness. I knew I should thank him, but what if he laughed in my face? Tonight, I really had needed his help, even though I’d claimed numerous times these past few weeks that I didn’t need him. But then Marcus had been so nice to me tonight, and something had changed between us. The antagonism that had raged between us ever since the first time we’d met had disappeared, and somehow, I just knew he wouldn’t be mean-spirited.
So I took a deep breath. “Thank you for saving me, Marcus.”
He looked up at me in surprise. And then his features wrinkled in annoyance. “I’m thankful too,” he said, his voice growing louder. “Because if I hadn’t been there…” He trailed off, and I heard him take a breath, and when he spoke again, his voice had evened to a calmer tone. “Don’t you know how dangerous it is to go off alone?”
“I went off alone in my own garden,” I said. “I didn’t know The Bulk followed me.”
He looked away again, suddenly embarrassed. “Er…um…other than the ankle, are you all right? I mean, emotionally…I mean, after what The Bulk did…”
“Oh, you mean am I all right after being sexually harassed?”
“Leave it to Emma Lockhart to put it so bluntly,” he muttered. “But yes, that’s what I mean.”
“I’m just a little shaken up,” I said. “But you saved me before he could do anything more than slobber all over my neck. It’s disgusting, but I’ll live.”
Marcus sighed. “Emma, you have this awful habit of going off alone, which I hope you break after tonight. You ran off the bus into unknown territory on the first day of school, ran away from school when you were sick, and then tonight, you went off to a deserted part of the garden where nobody would have heard you scream.” He shook his head, as though trying to figure out a puzzle. “I understand you were mad at us that first time, and you wanted to get away from the bullies at school the second time, but tonight, I thought you were having fun. So why did you run off?”
“I…I just wanted to be me again, if only for a little while,” I confessed.
He looked at me, puzzled.
So I tried to explain. “I felt like a big phony. Like I was trying to be someone I wasn’t, someone everyone expected me to be, but someone whose shoes I’d never be able to fill in a lifetime.”
“What are you talking about? You were being you. You were dressed as yourself, even though other people didn’t know it.”
I shook my head. “I wasn’t dressed as the real me. I was dressed as some beautiful, poised heiress to fit everyone’s expectations of what Emmaline Lockhart would be like. But if they knew the real Emma, I’m afraid they would be…”
“Disappointed?” he finished, and somehow I knew he finally understood what I was trying to convey. Marcus looked me directly in the eyes. “You have no reason to feel that way, Emma. Maybe you don’t wear these fancy, sparkly dresses everyday, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t beautiful.”
“But I’m not poised or graceful,” I protested. “I’m socially awkward and not at all likeable.”
“You’re wrong about that,” Marcus said. “Because tonight, I saw something different than that. I saw a girl who might have been afraid, but still tried her best to step out of her own little world to mingle with real people. Everyone was intrigued by that girl and couldn’t stop staring at her, not because of her awkwardness, but because she shined brighter than that sapphire around her neck. At least until she took the light away from the party and retreated to the greenhouse.”
That made me half smile. But I still wasn’t convinced. “It was all fake though. I was pretending to be what was expected of an heiress.”
Marcus shook his head. “I don’t think so. I think you were having fun dancing with all those guys who paid you a lot of attention. Don’t deny it.”
“I was having a little fun,” I admitted. “But then I bumped into some girl, and she gave me a mean look, and I remembered how clumsy and inept I really am.”
“All right, first of all, that girl was probably just jealous of you,” he declared. “And second, you’re being way too hard on yourself. Bumping into people on a crowded dance floor happens all the time.” He paused for a moment, seeing that I still was having doubts. “All right, I’ll give you this. You were an awkward mess when we first met. But that doesn’t mean that’s the real you.”
I stared at him wonderingly. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that you’re becoming who you were meant to be. Not a scared, awkward girl afraid to venture into the world, but a confident, young woman, unafraid to take on new challenges. You’re becoming the real you a little at a time, and I witnessed that this evening.”
He paused to look into my eyes, and I was a bit in awe of how sincere he seemed. “At the same time,” he continued, “I think you’re scared. You’re so used to people giving you mean looks, so you’re afraid that’s what will always happen, and you want to retreat before you get hurt more. But Emma, someone’s always going to be out there, trying to bring you down. You just have to learn to ignore them and keep fighting to become the real Emmaline Lockhart. Not the awkward, useless child your mother said you were, not the mysterious heiress everyone’s created theories about, not even the successor of Splash and Spray your grandmother hopes you’ll be one day. You just have to focus on becoming the Emma you want to be. And when you become that Emmaline Lockhart, then other people will recognize her as the true one.”
I was astonished by the power of Marcus’s words. Somehow, he’d just managed to say exactly what I needed to hear. I’d been so caught up trying to be the image of what everyone wanted me to be and hadn’t even realized it.
And it had taken my archenemy to tell me. But it seemed Marcus might not be my archenemy anymore. He hadn’t criticized me the whole night, and now he was even trying to make me feel better.
“Why are you suddenly being so nice to me?” I asked.
“Maybe you just never gave me the chance to be nice,” he said. Then he grinned. “So does this mean we’re okay with each other? Dare I even say friends?”
I nodded. “Friends it is.”
“Then I demand a flower.”
I could only look at him quizzically.
“You gave all the guys flowers except me. Heath got a yellow rose, Tony got a sunflower, and Stan got fennel flowers. Now that we’re friends, I expect a flower.”
I had to laugh at that. It seemed a little ludicrous to hear a guy demanding a flower from a girl, but it was true that I’d given the others flowers after we’d become friends. It only seemed fair to give one to Marcus too.
“I don’t know what flower to give you though,” I said. I’d known exactly what flower fit with the other guys, but Marcus was still a puzzle to me. “Let’s see…” I regarded him, concentrating hard. “Well, you saved me today, so that was very chivalrous. Aconitum napellus, more commonly known as wolf’s bane, means chivalry.”
“Give me that then,” he said.
“There’s just one problem,” I said with a regretful wince. “It’s poisonous. So I’ll have to think of another. In the meantime, take this.” I untied the ribbon of the corsage around my wrist and handed him the gardenia. “No meaning for now.” That was a lie, since gardenias meant secret love, but I definitely wasn’t harboring a secret love for Marcus. And he didn’t know the meaning behind them anyway, so I was safe. “Let me think about it, and I promise I’ll find a flower for you with the perfect meaning.”
He took the gardenia gingerly, as though afraid he might crush the flower in his large hands. But he looked pleased. “I’ll take this as a sign of peace then.”
And that was the night we officially became friends.