I was vaguely aware of the fact that we had an ever-growing audience. It’s funny how quickly you can get used to that given the right circumstances.
“My father’s?” Jack repeated incredulously. “No offense, Ev, but I don’t think dear old dad really cares whether you win homecoming queen or not.”
The incredible sense of betrayal in my gut faltered, but I had to remind myself that this guy was a player. He’d made a life out of being on top, and you didn’t get there—guy or girl—without knowing the rules of pretense as well as every girl on the Squad did. Jack had explained some of them to me himself.
He was pretending. He had to be.
“If you want to permanently injure someone,” Jack said, still keeping a safe distance, “I’d suggest venting your anger on Noah. This whole thing was his doing, not mine. He didn’t exactly ask for my permission first.”
Noah? Homecoming and Noah? The wheels in my head were turning slowly.
“What did Noah do?” I asked.
“You’re going to make me actually say it?” Jack asked. “Come on, Toby. Have a heart. You already kicked my ass.”
I had to admire the fact that he could admit it so freely.
Wait, I thought. No. I did not have to admire that! I didn’t have to admire ANYTHING about Jack Peyton. Not now. Not when I wasn’t at all convinced that he hadn’t used me to get to the Squad.
“If I come closer, are you going to go all kung fu on me again?” Jack asked slowly.
My eyes narrowing into teeny-tiny slits, I shrugged. I wasn’t about to make any promises.
“Guess I’ll have to take my chances then,” he said, and then he was by my side again, whispering into my ear. “Anyone ever tell you that you’re really cute when you’re proving yourself strangely deadly?”
I bristled at the word cute and the way he said it. He was taunting me. I’d thrown him clear across the hallway, and now, he was taunting me. He was either very brave or very stupid.
Or maybe, he was perfect.
I tried to keep the sappy thoughts out of my head. I tried not to be affected by how close the two of us were standing. Batting 0-for-2, I tried to remember that nothing he’d said was a guarantee that my original assumption about his guilt was wrong.
About that time, my brother came sauntering down the hall, his arms full of what appeared to be life-sized cutouts.
I looked from Noah to Jack and then back again, just as Noah deposited one of the cutouts in front of the classroom across the hall. It was Jack, in all of his A-list glory, and Noah had pasted a sign into his cutout hand. JACK PEYTON IS HOT. TOBY KLEIN IS HOTTER. VOTE TOBY AND JACK FOR HOMECOMING COURT.
Noah went merrily on his way down the hall, ignoring me, the look in my eyes, and the fact that Jack had started laughing. The bell rang then, and our audience groaned. Unlike the two of us, the others might actually get into trouble for being late for class. I turned to go to my geometry classroom, but Jack pulled me back toward him.
“For the record,” he said, no hint of a smile on his otherwise perfect face, “I still think Mr. Corkin is the hottest.”
“For the record,” I said, “if I find out you had anything to do with those cutouts, I’m going to kick your ass. Again.”
And that was that.
Code Word: Girl Talk
By lunchtime, I had concluded that, contrary to my previous belief, that was not that. I felt like Jack was being real with me, but the logical part of my mind kept telling me that I was being an idiotic, emotional, pathetic girly-girl who wanted everything to be flowers and puppy dogs in Crushville. I couldn’t ignore the facts. Jack did have access to technology like the tracking chip, and there was no denying the fact that I’d had more physical interaction with him the past few days than I’d had with pretty much anyone my whole life. Amelia couldn’t have planted the chip on me. Besides Jack, I just couldn’t see who that left as far as suspects went.
I couldn’t just waltz into the cafeteria and sit down at our table and play the popularity game with Jack, Chip and the Chiplings, Lucy, Tara, April, and Bubbles. I may have managed to increase my stealth factor significantly the past few weeks, but I still wasn’t that smooth, and more to the point, I just wasn’t sure I could take it.
So instead, I opted out of lunch and headed for the gym. I doubled back twice to make sure no one was following me, and then I went into the girls’ locker room, and after jumping through eight million security hoops, I made my way down to the Quad.
It was quiet, more so than I’d ever seen it. Our flat-screen was turned off, and I couldn’t even hear the ghosts of conversations we’d had about training, missions, or who liked who.
“Please tell me you weren’t stupid enough to come down here during the day.”
I turned and found Chloe giving me one of those patented Chloe Larson looks that made me feel so loved and so special and like everything was right with the world.
I snorted. I couldn’t even think that last bit with a straight face.
“Seriously,” Chloe said. “Do you have any idea how idiotic it is to just waltz into the Quad in the middle of the day when you know that your cover has been broken? I mean, are you trying to send out engraved invitations to our secret underground lair, or has your brain just stopped working altogether?”
When she put it that way, she actually had a point.
“I think I know who tagged me,” I said. “And he’s occupied.”
Jack was eating lunch with the others, probably wondering where I was and why I’d abandoned him to suffer through the inanity of an A-list lunch on his own.
“Shouldn’t you be worrying about Amelia?” I asked, trying to distract Chloe from her dogged criticism by mentioning the reason she was in the Quad during school hours—laying the groundwork for the massive mission she was coordinating that afternoon.
“You know who tagged you, and he’s occupied,” Chloe said, repeating my earlier words and not allowing me to sidetrack her. “He as in who?”
I chose not to answer. My suspicions about Jack were my own. I wasn’t about to let her know that maybe he didn’t like me as much as everyone had thought. I could do without seeing Chloe break into a cheer-dance of victory.
“Because I know you’re not talking about him as in Jack,” Chloe continued.
Was I really that obvious?
“You really are special, aren’t you?” Chloe asked. Her tone left absolutely nothing unclear about her meaning. She shook her head, words flying out of her mouth as she did. “I can’t even believe I’m doing this,” she said. “I can’t even believe that I’m…never mind,” she said.