Except Brittany.

I scan the area, but she's not around.

"I didn't do it," Lucky is quick to say.

Everyone else murmurs they didn't do it, either.

Then murmurs of who it could be race through the crowd. "Colin Adams, Greg Hanson . . ." I'm not listening, because I know full well who the culprit is. It's my chem partner, the one who ignored me today.

I yank off the streamers with a jerk of my hand, then unscrew the pink rubber horn. Pink. I wonder if it was hers once upon a time.

"Get out of my way," I tell the crowd. They disperse pretty quick, thinking my rage level is high and they don't want to be caught in the crossfire. Sometimes playing the part of a badass does have its advantages. The truth? I'll use the pink horn and streamers as an excuse to talk to Brittany again.

After everyone is out of sight, I walk to the side of the football field. The pom squad is there, practicing as usual.

"Looking for someone?"

I turn around to Darlene Boehm, one of Brittany's friends. "Is Brittany around?" I ask.

"Nope."

"Know where she is?"

Alex Fuentes asking the whereabouts of Brittany Ellis? I expect her to say it's none of my business. Or that I should leave her alone.

Instead her friend says, "She went home."

Murmuring a "thanks," I turn and walk back to Julio while I dial my cousin's number.

"Enrique's Auto Body."

"It's Alex. I'm gonna be late for work today."

"You get another detention?"

"No, nothin' like that."

"Well, make sure you work on the Lexus for Chuy. I told him he could pick it up at seven and you know how Chuy is when you don't come through for him."

"No problem," I tell him as I think of Chuy's role in the Blood. He's the guy you never want to mess with, the guy who was born without an empathy chip in his brain. If someone is disloyal, Chuy is responsible for either making them loyal or making sure they never narc. By any means possible, even if they're screaming for their life. "I'll be there."

Knocking on the Ellises' door ten minutes later with the pink horn and streamers in hand, I try to put on the I-am-a-cool-motherfucker pose.

When Brittany opens the door wearing a baggy T-shirt and shorts, I'm floored.

Her pale blue eyes open wide. "Alex, what are you doing here?"

I hold out the horn and streamers.

She snatches them from my hand. "I can't believe you came here because of some prank."

"We've got some things to discuss. Besides pranks."

She swallows nervously. "I'm not feeling great, okay? Let's just talk at school." She tries to close the door.

Shit, I can't believe I'm going to do this like a stalker guy in the movies. I push open the door. Que mierda!

"Alex, don't."

"Let me in. For a minute. Please."

She shakes her head, those angelic curls swaying back and forth across her face. "My parents don't like when I have people over."

"Are they home?"

"No." She sighs, then opens the door hesitantly.

I step inside. The house is even bigger than it looks from the outside. The walls are painted bright white, reminding me of a hospital. I swear dust wouldn't have the nerve to land on their floors or counters. The two-story foyer boasts a staircase that rivals the one I saw in The Sound of Music, which we were forced to watch in junior high, and the floor is as shiny as water.

Brittany was right. I don't belong here. It doesn't matter, because even if I don't belong in this place, she's here and I want to be where she is.

"Well, what did you want to talk about?" she asks.

I wish her long, lean legs weren't sticking out from her shorts. They're a distraction. I look away from them, desperate to keep my wits. So what if she has sexy legs? So what if she has eyes as clear as glass marbles? So what if she can take a prank like a man and give it right back?

Who am I kidding? I have no reason for being here other than the fact that I want to be near her. Screw the bet.

I want to know how to make this girl laugh. I want to know what makes her cry. I want to know what it feels like to have her look at me as if I'm her knight in shining armor.

"Bwiee!" a distant voice echoes through the house, breaking the silence.

"Wait here," Brittany orders, then hurries down a hallway to the right. "I'll be right back."

I'm not about to stand here like a jackass in the foyer. I follow her, knowing I'm about to get a glimpse into her private world.

CHAPTER 29 Brittany

I'm not ashamed of my sister's disability. But I don't want Alex to judge her. Because if he laughs, I couldn't take it. I whip around. "You're not good at following directions, are you?"

He grins as if saying, I'm a gang member, what did you expect?

"I have to check on my sister. Do you mind?"

"Nope. It'll give me a chance to meet her. Trust me."

I should kick him out, tattoos and all. I should, but I don't.

Without another word, I lead him into our dark, mahogany-paneled library. Shelley is sitting in her wheelchair, her head awkwardly slumped to the side as she watches television.

When she realizes she has company, her gaze shifts from the television to me to Alex.

"This is Alex," I explain, shutting off the TV. "A friend from school."

Shelley gives Alex a crooked smile and hits her specialized keyboard with her knuckles. "Hello," says a feminine, computerized voice. She hits another button. "My name is Shelley," the computer continues.

Alex kneels down to Shelley's level. The simple act of respect tears at something suspiciously like my heart. Colin always ignores my sister, treating her as if she's blind and deaf as well as physically and mentally disabled.

"What's up?" Alex says, taking Shelley's stiff hand in his and shaking it. "Cool computer."

"It's a personal communication device or PCD," I explain. "It helps her communicate."

"Game," the computer voice says.

Alex moves beside Shelley. I hold my breath as I watch her hands, making sure they're nowhere near his thick head of hair.

"You have games on there?" he asks.

"Yeah," I answer for her. "She's become a checkers fanatic. Shelley, show him how it works."

While Shelley slowly taps the screen with her knuckles, Alex watches, seemingly fascinated.

When the checkers screen comes up, Shelley nudges Alex's hand.

"You go first," he says.

She shakes her head.

"She wants you to go first," I tell him.

"Cool." He taps the screen.

I watch, getting all mushy inside, as this tough guy plays quietly with my big sister.

"Do you mind if I make a snack for her?" I say, desperate to leave the room.

"Nah, go ahead," he says, his concentration on the game.

"You don't have to let her win," I say before leaving. "She can hold her own in checkers."

"Uh, thanks for the vote of confidence, but I am tryin' to win," Alex says. He has a genuine grin on his face, without trying to act cocky or cool. It makes me even more desperate to escape.

When I walk into the library with Shelley's food a few minutes later, he says, "She beat me."

"I told you she was good. But enough games for now," I say to Shelley, then turn to Alex. "I hope you don't mind me helping to feed her."

"Go for it."

He sits in my dad's favorite leather chair as I place a tray in front of Shelley and feed her applesauce. It's a messy affair, as usual. Tilting my head, I catch Alex watching as I wipe the side of my sister's mouth with a towel.

"Shelley," I say. "You should've let him win. You know, to be polite." Shelley's response is a shake of her head. Applesauce drips on her chin. "That's the way it's going to be, huh?" I say, hoping the scene doesn't gross Alex out. Maybe I'm testing him, to see if he can handle a glimpse of my home life. If so, he's passing. "Wait until Alex leaves. I'll show you who the checkers champion is."

My sister smiles that sweet, crooked smile of hers. It's like a thousand words put into one expression. For a moment I forget Alex is still watching me. It's so weird having him inside my life and my house. He doesn't belong, yet he doesn't seem to mind being here.

"Why were you in a crappy mood in chem class?" he asks.

Because my sister is going to be sent away and yesterday I got caught with my boobs exposed while Colin had his pants down right in front of me. "I'm sure you heard the gruesome rumors."

"Nope, haven't heard a thing. Maybe you're just paranoid."

Maybe. Shane saw us, but he has a big mouth. Every time someone looked my way today, I imagined they knew. I look at Alex. "Sometimes I wish there were Do Over Days."

"Sometimes I wish there were Do Over Years," he responds seriously. "Or Fast Forward Days."

"Unfortunately, real life doesn't have a remote control." When Shelley is done eating, I sit her in front of the TV, then lead Alex to the kitchen. "My life doesn't seem so perfect after all, does it?" I ask while I take drinks out of the fridge for both of us.

Alex looks at me curiously.

"What?"

He shrugs. "I guess we all have stuff to deal with. I've got more demons than a horror movie."

Demons? Nothing bothers Alex. He never complains about his life. "What are your demons?" I ask.

"Oye, if I told you about my demons, you'd run like hell away from me."

"I think you'd be surprised what I'd run from, Alex." Chimes from our grandfather clock echo through the house. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.

"I gotta go," Alex says. "How about studying tomorrow, after school. At my house."

"Your house?" On the south side?

"I'll show you a glimpse into my life. You game?" he asks.

I swallow. "Sure." Game on.

As I lead him to the door, I hear a car drive up to my house. If it's my mom, I'm in big trouble. No matter if we had the most innocent meeting, she'll go ballistic.

I peek through the windows by the front door and recognize Darlene's red sports car. "Oh, no. My friends are here."

"Don't panic," he tells me. "Open the door. It's not like you can pretend I'm not here. My motorcycle is parked in your driveway."

He's right. I can't hide the fact that he's here.

I open the door and walk outside. Alex is right behind me as I face Darlene, Morgan, and Sierra walking up the sidewalk. "Hey, guys!" I say. Maybe if I act all innocent they won't make a big deal about Alex being here. I touch Alex's elbow. "We were just discussing our chemistry project. Right, Alex?"

"Right."

Sierra's eyebrows are raised. I think Morgan is about to pull out her cell, no doubt to inform the other M's she saw Alex Fuentes walking out of my house.

"Should we go so you guys can be alone?" Darlene asks.

"Don't be ridiculous," I say too quickly.

Alex steps toward his motorcycle, his shirt outlining his perfect, muscular back and his jeans outlining his perfect, muscular--

He points at me after putting on his helmet. "See ya tomorrow."

Tomorrow. His house.

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