I couldn’t believe what Mr. Cantin had asked me to do. Although completely shocked, he’d believed my story about Heath, but told me to tell no one just yet. He wanted to do a DNA test just to be sure, and if it was a positive match, only then would he tell Heath.
And then he’d gone on to ask me to acquire a sample of Heath’s DNA.
How was I supposed to get a sample of Heath’s DNA? I couldn’t exactly ask Heath if please, could he swab the side of his cheek, or maybe he could pluck ten hairs from his head with the follicles still attached. As awkward as I was, even I knew that was weird.
I came up with plan A that night. The plan was to collect anything Heath’s mouth had touched—a fork, a soup spoon, a mug—and maybe, just maybe there would be enough saliva to swab off.
As we ate dinner, I watched Heath closely, hoping he’d look away from his plate for just a moment. Opportunity struck when Tony told some funny anecdote about their snowboarding adventure at the expense of Heath, which distracted everyone. As they all laughed, and Heath made a retort to defend himself, I slipped his fork off his plate and into a plastic bag under the table. Then I hid the plastic bag under my feet.
At that moment, I happened to look across the table and saw Marcus staring at me. I knew he’d seen what I’d done, but it was too late. Heath had already turned back to his plate and noted that his fork was missing.
“It must have fallen on the floor,” he said.
“No it didn’t,” Marcus spoke up. “Emma—”
“Accidently knocked it off the table,” I interrupted, louder than I’d intended. “Sorry about that.”
“Oh, Emma,” Grandmother sighed disapprovingly. Then she looked to the maid. “Kylie, could you please get Heath a clean fork?”
I knew I couldn’t pull another stunt like that with everyone still at the table, so I waited. And then at the end of dinner, I saw my second chance. The others were already leaving the dining area, and Kylie was cleaning up the remaining glasses and dessert plates. As soon as she disappeared into the kitchen, I snatched up Heath’s glass, emptied the remaining water into another dish, and placed it into another plastic baggie.
“All right, what could you possibly need with that?” Marcus’s booming voice made me jump.
“It’s none of your business,” I said.
“It is my business if you’ve decided to stalk my best friend,” he replied. “And what you’re doing takes stalker behavior to a whole new level.”
“I’m not stalking Heath,” I said, sounding rather nervous even to myself. I couldn’t tell Marcus what I was really doing. I’d promised Cantin I’d tell no one.
“Then what could you possibly need with his used fork and glass?”
Fortunately, I was saved from answering that when Kylie came back to clear away the rest of the dishes. Unfortunately, Kylie spotted me holding the plastic bag with Heath’s cup. Fortunately, I ran away before she made me give it up. Unfortunately, when I tried to swab the fork and glass, there wasn’t enough saliva to moisten a flea.
That meant I had to move onto plan B, which was far more dangerous in terms of getting caught: swab the side of Heath’s cheek while he was asleep.
As soon as everyone had gone to bed, I snuck down the hall. Heath’s room was just three doors down from mine. Or was that two? I’d seen him go into both rooms before, so I wasn’t exactly sure. I decided it was three.
The door creaked slightly as I opened it, making me freeze. But the body in the bed only rolled over with a groan and began snoring again. I let out the breath I was holding and tip-toed inside. It was so dark, and I was too afraid to shine my flashlight. God help me if I tripped over something on the floor. I felt along the wall, guiding myself until my legs hit the side of the bed. I leaned over Heath, who was sleeping on the side opposite me and towards the wall. That made this job a little harder.
I leaned a little farther and placed one knee on the bed for balance, and then all of a sudden, Heath shifted, rolling over to the other side, and one arm swung out to grab me. I lost my balance and fell onto the bed, stifling a squeal.
He was still asleep, but now I was trapped. I lightly nudged the arms that pinned me down and became aware that something wasn’t quite right. The person in this bed wasn’t as tall as Heath. Also, either Heath had grown toned biceps that weighed a ton right after dinner, or this wasn’t Heath. I struggled to turn my head, and spied the face attached to these muscles.
Oh no. It was Marcus. And his eyes were starting to flutter open. When they did, I knew I was in trouble.
Except he didn’t say anything. His eyes were still groggy from sleep, and he looked at me in confusion. Maybe I still had time to keep him to coax him that this was all a dream. I’d seen it done in stories before.
“Go back to sleep,” I whispered, trying to sound like a hypnotist. “I am only the result of high frequency brain waves that occur in the REM cycle of sleep.”
“Even in my dreams, you sound like an encyclopedia,” he muttered, his voice muzzy.
Good, I thought in triumph. He was convinced this was a dream.
“Now the next part of this dream is that you’ll let me go,” I said.
“This is my dream.” He sounded grumpy and commanding now. “I get to decide what to do next. And it would be a boring dream to just let you go.”
With a gasp, I found myself being flipped so my entire back hit the bed, and he kissed me hard. The strange thing was, I enjoyed it. But just when I’d decided to return the kiss, Marcus let go and fell back to the bed, letting out a loud snore.
For awhile, I lay on my back, breathing erratically and feeling dazed. What had just happened? I wasn’t supposed to have liked that kiss. And I wasn’t supposed to be sad that it had been over so quickly.
I couldn’t think about that just right now. I was still in Marcus’s room, and he could wake up again any second, although judging from his snoring, that wasn’t likely. I quietly dislodged his arm from around my waist and managed to get out of his bed, and then I tip-toed out of the room.
When I was safely back in my own room, I collapsed onto my bed with a huge, drawn-out sigh. I wasn’t able to fall asleep. Thoughts of that kiss floated through my head, making me restless. I rolled over, and rolled over again.
Then the beginning rays of the sun filtered through my window, and I finally drifted off.
I woke, feeling extremely grouchy. I’d been dreaming about Emma again, and it had been the most amazing dream. Stranger still was that it had felt so real. I could even smell her lingering gardenia scent on my pillow. Jerking the covers aside, I moved to get up but stopped when something fell to the floor. I picked it up. It was a plastic bag, and close by were two cotton swabs.
What were they doing on the floor? They hadn’t been there last night.
Wait a minute, I thought. Plastic bag? I looked closer. Sure enough, it was the same kind that Emma had used to collect Heath’s dinnerware. Was it possible she’d really been in my room last night? If that were true, then my dream hadn’t just been a dream and I’d really kissed her. And she’d kissed me back.
I needed to know the truth. What was she was doing, first stealing Heath’s used utensils, and then sneaking into my room with a plastic bag and cotton swabs? And more importantly, had our kiss been real? Was it possible that she liked me too?
It was Christmas, and I was too tired to be excited. But for everyone else’s sake, I willed myself to act more energetic. It would be horrible to ruin Christmas for everyone. We had a huge Christmas breakfast, followed by the gathering around the tree to open presents.
I’d given Grandmother a hand massager that was supposed to work wonders for arthritis. To Marcus’s grandparents, I’d given a back massager.
I hadn’t been sure what to give the four thieves, so I’d ended up making something for them instead.
“Pressed flower bookmarks and a picture of the five of us!” Tony exclaimed. “Thanks Emma.”
I’d glued pressed flowers to colored paper and laminated them to create bookmarks. Then I’d duplicated a picture of us at the ski slopes and had it framed for each of the guys.
“This is really cool,” Marcus agreed. “Aren’t these gardenia petals? I can still smell the fragrance.”
“For you they are,” I said. “Because that’s the flower I gave you when we finally became friends.”
Heath’s bookmark contained the petals from a yellow rose, Tony’s from a sunflower head, and Stan’s from fennel flowers.
I began opening my presents, starting first with Grandmother’s. She’d bought me a new party dress, which I actually found rather pretty. It was a simple emerald green halter that flared downward, past the knees, and had a glossy sheen.
“I know how you don’t like frills,” Grandmother said. “This one’s more suited to your style, I believe.”
I thanked her and gave her a hug.
“Now open ours,” Stan eagerly instructed. “Tony and I chipped in to buy you something we hope you like.”
As I tore open the wrapping, the breath simply left me. “Volumes eighteen through twenty-two of The Ugly Duckling of Heiress High,” I exclaimed. “I don’t have these yet. Grandmother said I wasn’t allowed to buy them until summer.”
“We know,” Tony said proudly. “But we figured we could buy them.”
“And it would be rude not to accept a present from friends, right Mrs. Lockhart?” Stan grinned up at Grandmother, who was sitting at the coffee table, talking to Marcus’s grandparents and watching us. She gave him a half-hearted scolding look. But she told him she was all right with it, as long as I didn’t dedicate all my time to reading and held Stan and Tony responsible for making sure I didn’t.
“My turn,” Heath said, handing me an ornately wrapped gift with silver bells tied to the front. It was too pretty to ruin, so I opened it slowly, during which Heath impatiently told me to just rip it already.
“Oh,” I breathed. Heath had drawn a portrait of me and framed it. Everyone oohed and ahhed, but I noticed that Marcus had taken a step back, looking a little embarrassed.
“What did you give me?” I asked, holding out my hand. Out of all the guys, I found myself most eager to open Marcus’s present.
“Nothing,” he mumbled. My heart fell.
“Liar,” Heath said, picking a present up from under the tree. “This present is clearly labeled, to Emma, from Marcus.”
“Give that to me,” Marcus said, trying to snatch it away from Heath. But Heath had already handed it to me. “Oh fine,” Marcus sighed. “But as an early warning, it’s nothing as great as what everyone else gave you. I don’t have any artistic talent, and Stan and Tony stole my original idea.” He glared at them.
“We didn’t steal it,” Tony protested. “We did rock, paper, scissors, and won the rights to the idea fair and square.”
I wasn’t listening to their bickering, as I was already eagerly unwrapping. As the wrapping fell away, I was left with a beautiful deep emerald music box with a gardenia print on the front. I opened it, and the song I Could Have Danced All Night from My Fair Lady immediately started playing.
And that wasn’t all. Inside the box was a bundle of seed packets—daisies, orchids, and tulips.
“Told you it was nothing special,” Marcus shrugged. “I got everything the souvenir shops around here, including the music box. But the gardenia reminded me of you.”
I was too speechless. The music box itself wasn’t the best quality, but it was still the best Christmas present I’d ever received. Marcus might degrade the worth of this gift, but I could see the thought he’d put into it. “Thank you so much,” I finally said. “It’s lovely.”
As the four thieves began unwrapping the presents they’d given each other, I hardly paid attention. Maybe I was being selfish, since they had all intently watched and waited for me to open mine, but I couldn’t care less about how Tony had just unwrapped the new Zombie Shooters IV. Not when I couldn’t drag my eyes away from my new music box. I traced the contours of the gardenia lightly with a finger, opened the box again and again to hear the music play.
That Marcus had stuffed the box with seed packets instead of expecting me to put jewelry in it made me smile. He knew me well. Without words, he was telling me to be myself, just as he had that Halloween night. I didn’t need to like jewelry and fashions to be Emmaline Lockhart; I just had to continue loving my garden instead.
“I think Marcus’s gift blew all of ours out of the water,” Tony commented, plunking himself down on the couch next to me.
“No, it didn’t,” I protested, although it really did. Still, it wouldn’t be polite to say so, and besides, I liked all my presents. It was just that Marcus’s really spoke to me.
From under the Christmas tree, Heath abruptly stood. Maybe it was just me, but he looked a little sullen. “If we’re all done with presents, I’m going back to bed,” he said.
“But Zombie Shooters IV,” Stan objected. “I thought you were gonna play with us.”
“A nap appeals more to me right now,” Heath replied rather grumpily and took off without another word.
It was a wonder that Heath of all people was being crabby on Christmas. It wasn’t like him. Maybe he hadn’t slept well last night, like me. In that case, he could definitely do with a nap. I wanted one myself.
Nap! My thoughts snapped back to the mission I’d left unaccomplished. If Heath was taking a nap, I had another chance to collect his DNA sample.
I faked a yawn and stood up. “A nap sounds nice to me too,” I told everyone. “Didn’t sleep well last night.”
“And why was that?” Marcus asked. “Busy breaking into other people’s rooms?”
His eyes had narrowed accusatorily, sucking the breath out of me. Did he know?
“Of course n-not,” I said. “I was just too excited about Christmas. All right, wake me up in time for dinner.” And with that, I made a dash towards the exit, with all my presents in tow.
I didn’t make the same mistake twice. This time, I got Heath’s room right. I opened the door quietly, and thankfully, the hinges didn’t squeak. Sunlight streamed through the window, and the white curtains flapped with the breeze. Next to the window, Heath lay on top of the covers, eyes closed. I listened to his even breathing and knew he was sleeping.
I had two cotton swabs in one hand, and a plastic bag in the other. There was no turning back now.
Leaning over his face, I lightly grasped his jaw. My goal was to open his mouth the merest smidgeon possible in order to get the cotton swab inside.
Then his mouth opened on its own. “Emma, what are you doing?”
My hands flew away from his face, as though scalded. I hid the cotton swabs and the plastic bag behind me, despite knowing the futility of the effort. I was caught red-handed.
Heath sat up and frowned. “Why are you sneaking into my room?”
My mind went blank, and I couldn’t think of an excuse if my life depended on it.
“Nothing to say?” Then to my surprise, Heath’s frown reversed itself into a grin. “Wait a minute, I think I know what’s going on.”
“Yes,” he said. “You’re embarrassed.”
Oh shoot. Had he guessed my reason for sneaking in here? But that wouldn’t explain why he was grinning.
“You like me,” he said. “You came in here to confess. But when you saw I was asleep, you couldn’t help yourself from trying to steal a kiss without my knowing.”
I stared at him in disbelief. Was that really what he believed? I should correct him, but my mind still wasn’t functioning correctly.
“There’s no need to be embarrassed,” he went on to say. “I should have told you earlier, but I was scared too. I like you, Emma. I like you a lot. And since you’ve made it clear that you return my feelings, I think we should go out.”
Well, this was awkward. If I told him I hadn’t come here to confess, I’d make him embarrassed for assuming. And then I’d have to reveal the real reason for breaking into his room, and I’d sworn to Mr. Cantin that I wouldn’t tell Heath just yet. I had no choice but to go along with him.
“A-all right,” I said. “Let’s go out.” I had to force myself not to cringe and wondered why. It wasn’t like I was selling my soul to the devil. This was what I wanted. I liked Heath. Really I did. He was supposed to be my current crush. So why did this feel so wrong?
I’d sacrificed playing Zombie Shooters IV in order to get to the bottom of Emma’s weird behavior. I meant to talk to her privately and ask what she’d been doing in my room last night. I’d just about reached her room, when she came out, holding yet another plastic baggie. She was too engrossed in whatever she was about to do and didn’t notice me.
She tip-toed down the hall, and I followed. And then she stopped in front of Heath’s door, opened it as though she were a burglar, and slipped inside.
What in the world was she doing? I wasn’t about to budge from this spot until I knew.
It felt like hours before I heard some noise on the other side of the door, and it finally opened. Heath and Emma walked out, and I couldn’t keep from frowning when I saw that Heath had his arm around her shoulders.
They looked incredibly cozy. I had a feeling I knew why.
Heath saw me and gave a look of surprise. “Marcus, what are you doing out here?” Then without waiting for an answer, he said, “Since you’re here, you might as well be the first to know. Emma and I are dating.”
My heart started to hurt, even though I told myself to be happy. Heath was my best friend, and he was dating the girl he happened to like. I was a bad person for wishing it was not so.
Then my eyes honed in on Emma. She was eyeing Heath’s hand on her shoulder as though it were a heavy stone slab she wished she could put down. Something wasn’t right about that. If she truly liked Heath, she should be glowing with happiness right now, not looking extremely uncomfortable.
And there was still the matter of the plastic baggies. What had become of them?
But this was not the time to ask. Heath was overjoyed, and I had to be supportive. “Congratulations,” I managed to bite out. It came out sounding like I’d swallowed a bee, and I wasn’t surprised that Heath noticed.
He gave me a slight frown. “Thank you.” He moved Emma closer to him. “I hope this doesn’t change anything between the rest of us.”
Although it sounded like he was talking about our group of friends in general, I knew he was talking about the two of us. He had a feeling I liked Emma too and didn’t want us to become enemies over a girl. He was warning me that if I tried to steal Emma away, he wouldn’t forgive me. It was very insulting. I might like Emma, but I would never do anything to hurt my best friend. But that was also the reason why I had to find out if Emma really liked Heath as much as he liked her.
Everyone acted like they were happy for Heath and Emma, but I could sense some confusion. Tony and Stan looked a little worried and privately asked me if I was all right. So did my grandparents. I wondered if the whole world knew I had feelings for Emma, but I reassured them I was fine. Mrs. Lockhart was pleasant about the situation. If she was some other rich old lady with a granddaughter, I would have expected her to disapprove of Emma dating someone who wasn’t from a rich or successful family, but this was Mrs. Lockhart, the woman who’d hired four misfits to teach her granddaughter social skills.
It wasn’t until late that night when I finally caught Emma alone. As we passed each other in the hall, she tried to brush by without acknowledging me.
“Do you really like him?” I sensed her footsteps come to a halt. We stood with our backs to each other.
“Y-yes,” she said. “But it doesn’t concern you anyway.”
“He’s my best friend. Of course it concerns me. If you hurt him, I won’t forgive you.”
She finally whirled around to face me. “Why would you assume I’d hurt him?”
“I didn’t say you would. Just if.” Now I turned around to look into her eyes directly. She could never hide the truth from her face. “I know you were in my room last night.”
Her cheeks flared up, instantly betraying her guilt.
“I want to know what you were doing. And,” I pulled the plastic baggie from my pocket, “what you were doing with this. You collected Heath’s used silverware, then came into my room with another bag. And I saw you today. When you first snuck into Heath’s room this afternoon, you were carrying yet another bag with cotton swabs.”
She said nothing to contradict me, so I continued. “I have a theory. You were doing something secretive, and you thought Heath was taking a nap. So you snuck into his room, and when he caught you, you had to make up an excuse for being there. And you led him to believe you were there to make a love confession. If my theory is correct, it means you don’t really like him. And if that’s the case, you’d better confess now, before you break his heart.”
My words sent Emma into a furious rage. She drew up close to me, stood on tiptoes, and spoke in a hoarse whisper, not wanting anyone to overhear us. “You’re such an arrogant asshole.” It was the first time she’d ever cussed, so I knew my theory was right. She just had to admit it now. “I hate the way you assume your theories are right. I do like Heath, more than I’d ever like you. He was kind to me from the start, so I’m ecstatic that he’s my boyfriend.”
“And what about your plastic baggies?” I persisted.
“You were right about the silverware,” she said. “I was collecting it from Heath for my own private collection. I was being a st-stalker.” She winced at the word, and I knew she was lying. She had to be. “I snuck into your room last night, true,” she continued. “But only because I thought it was Heath’s room. I wanted to watch him sleep and maybe give him a secret kiss. And today, I decided I couldn’t hide my feelings any longer. So I went into his room to make a confession.”
My heart contracted painfully, for the first time doubting my belief that she was lying. Could it be that she was really telling the truth? If she’d thought my room was Heath’s last night, then maybe she’d thought she’d been kissing Heath. In that case, maybe she really did like him.
Suddenly, I didn’t want to see her face anymore. I swung around, so my back faced her again. “Just remember,” I bit out. “I’m watching you. If you hurt him, I won’t forgive you.” And I stomped off, without a backwards glance.