She looks away hastily. "You wouldn't understand."

"Try me."

"When people see Colin and me together, they comment on how perfect we are. You know, the Golden Couple. Get it?"

I stare at her in disbelief. That is beyond fucked up. "I get it. I just can't believe I'm hearin' it. Does bein' perfect mean that much to you?"

There's a long, brittle silence. I catch a flicker of sadness in those sapphire eyes, but then it's gone. In an instant her expression stills and grows serious.

"I haven't been doing a bang-up job at it lately, but yes. It does," she finally admits. "My sister isn't perfect, so I have to be."

That is the most pathetic shit I've ever heard. I shake my head in disgust and point to Julio. "Get on and I'll take you back to school to get your car."

Silently, Brittany straddles my motorcycle. She holds herself so far away from me I can barely feel her behind me. I almost take a detour to make the ride last longer.

She treats her sister with patience and adoration. God knows I wouldn't be able to spoon-feed one of my brothers and wipe his mouth. The girl I once accused of being self-absorbed is not one-dimensional.

Dios mio, I admire her. Somehow, being with Brittany brings something to my life that's missing, something ... right.

But how am I going to convince her of that?

CHAPTER 33 Brittany

I'm going to forget the kiss with Alex happened even though I was up all night replaying it in my head. As I'm driving to school the day after the kiss that never happened, I wonder if I should ignore Alex. Although that's not an option because we have chemistry together.

Oh, no. Chemistry class. Will Colin suspect something? Maybe someone saw us drive off together yesterday and told him. Last night I turned off my cell so I didn't have to talk to anyone.

Ugh. I wish my life wasn't so complicated. I have a boyfriend. Okay, so my boyfriend's been acting pushy lately, interested only in sex. And I'm sick of it.

But Alex as my boyfriend would never work. His mom already hates me. His ex-girlfriend wants to kill me--another bad sign. He even smokes, which is totally not cool. I could make a huge list of all the negatives.

Okay, so there might be some positives. A few minor ones too insignificant to mention.

He's smart.

He has eyes so expressive they give a hint to more than what he portrays.

He's dedicated to his friends, family, and even his motorcycle.

He touched me as if I were made of glass.

He kissed me as if he'd savor it for the rest of his life.

The first time I see him is during lunch. As I'm waiting in the cafeteria food line, Alex is two people in front of me. This girl, Nola Linn, is in between us. And she's not moving down the line fast enough.

Alex's jeans are faded and torn at the knee. His hair is falling into his eyes and I'm itching to push it back. If Nola wouldn't be so wishy-washy about her choice of fruit . . .

Alex caught me checking him out. I quickly focus my attention on the soup of the day. Minestrone.

"Want a cup or bowl, hon?" Mary, the lunch lady, asks me.

"Bowl," I say, pretending to be totally interested in the way she ladles the soup into the bowl.

After she hands it to me, I hurry past Nola and stand by the cashier. Right behind Alex.

As if he knows I'm stalking him, he turns around. His eyes pierce mine and for a moment I feel as if the rest of the world is closed out and it's just the two of us. The urge to jump into his arms and feel the warmth of them surrounding me is so powerful, I wonder if it's medically possible to be addicted to another human being.

I clear my throat. "Your turn," I say, motioning to the cashier.

He moves forward with his tray, a slice of pizza on it. "I'll pay for hers, too," he says, pointing to me.

The cashier waves her finger at me, "What'd you get? Bowl of minestrone?"

"Yeah, but. . . Alex, don't pay for me."

"Don't worry. I can afford a bowl of soup," he says defensively, handing over three dollars.

Colin barges into the line and stands next to me. "Move along. Get your own girlfriend to stare at," he snaps at Alex, then shoos him off.

I pray Alex doesn't retaliate by telling Colin we kissed. Everyone in line is watching us. I can feel their stares on the back of my neck. Alex takes his change from the cashier and without a backward glance heads for the outside courtyard off the cafeteria where he usually sits.

I feel so selfish, because I want the best of both worlds. I want to keep the image I've worked so hard to create. That image includes Colin. I also want Alex. I can't stop thinking about having him hold me again and kiss me until I'm breathless.

Colin says to the cashier, "I'll pay for hers and mine."

The cashier looks at me in confusion. "Didn't that other boy pay for you already?"

Colin waits for me to correct her. When I don't, he gives me a disgusted look and stomps out of the cafeteria.

"Colin, wait!" I say, but he either can't hear me or is ignoring me. The next time I see him is in chemistry class, but Colin walks in just as the bell rings so we don't talk.

During chemistry, it's another experiment/observation. Alex swirls test tubes full of silver nitrate and potassium chloride liquids. "Looks like they're both water to me, Mrs. P.," Alex says.

"Looks are deceiving," Mrs. Peterson replies.

My gaze travels to Alex's hands. Those hands that are now busy measuring the right amount of silver nitrate and potassium chloride are the same ones that traced my lips intimately.

"Earth to Brittany."

I blink my eyes, snapping out of my daydream. Alex is holding a test tube full of clear liquid out to me.

Which reminds me I should help him pour the liquids together. "Uh, sorry." I pick up one test tube and pour it into the tube he's holding.

"We're supposed to write down what happens," he says, using the stirring rod to mix the chemicals together.

A white solid magically appears inside the clear liquid.

"Hey, Mrs. P.! I think we found the answer to our problems for the ozone layer depletion," Alex teases.

Mrs. Peterson shakes her head.

"So what do we observe in the tube?" he asks me, reading off of the sheet Mrs. Peterson handed out at the start of class. "I'd say the watery liquid is probably potassium nitrate now and the white solid mass is silver chloride. What's your assumption?"

As he hands me the tube, our fingers brush against each other. And linger. It leaves a tingling sensation I can't ignore.

I glance up. Our eyes meet, and for a minute I think he's trying to send me a private message but his expression turns dark and he looks away.

"What do you want me to do?" I whisper.

"You're gonna have to figure that one out yourself."

"Alex . . ."

But he won't tell me what to do. I guess I'm a bitch to even ask him for advice when he can't possibly be unbiased.

When I'm close to Alex I feel excitement, the way I used to feel on Christmas morning.

As much as I've tried to ignore it, I look over at Colin and know . . . I know our relationship isn't what it used to be. It's over. And the sooner I break it off with Colin, the sooner I can stop wondering why I'm still with him.

I meet Colin after school by the back door to the school. He's dressed for football practice. Unfortunately Shane is standing next to him.

Shane holds up his cell. "You two want to do a repeat performance of the other night? I can capture the moment forever and e-mail it to you. It'd be a great screen saver or, better yet, a You Tube video."

"Shane, get the fuck out of my sight before I lose it," Colin says, then gives Shane a stare until he leaves. "Brit, where were you last night?" When I don't answer, Colin says, "You can save your breath, 'cause I already have a clue,"

This isn't going to be easy. I now know why people break up in e-mails and text messages. Doing it face-to-face is so hard because you have to stand in front of the person and witness their reaction. Face their wrath. I've spent so much time avoiding arguments and smoothing relationships with the people around me, this confrontation is painful.

"You and I both know this isn't working," I say as gently as I can.

Colin narrows his eyes at me. "What are you saying?"

"We need a break."

"A break, or a breakup?"

"Breakup," I say gently.

"This is because of Fuentes, isn't it?"

"Since you came back from summer break, our entire relationship is about fooling around. We never talk anymore, and I'm sick of feeling guilty for not ripping my clothes off and spreading my legs to prove I love you."

"You don't want to prove anything to me."

I keep my voice low so other students can't hear me. "Why would you want me to? Just the fact that you need me to prove I love you is probably a clue it isn't working."

"Don't do this." He tosses his head back and moans. "Please don't do this."

We filled the football star/pom-pom captain stereotypical box everyone put us in. For years we fit the mold. Now we're going to be under a microscope for the breakup, with rumors swirling around us. Just the thought of it makes my skin crawl.

But I can't pretend it's working anymore. The decision will probably haunt me. If my parents can send my sister away because it's good for them, and Darlene can fool around with every guy she comes in contact with because it makes her feel better, why can't I do what's right for me?

I put my hand on Colin's shoulder, trying not to focus on his watering eyes. He shrugs my hand off.

"Say something," I urge.

"What do you want me to say, Brit? That I'm thrilled you're breaking up with me? Sorry, but I'm not feeling it."

He wipes his eyes with his palms. It makes me want to cry, too, and my eyes start tearing. It's the end of something we thought was real but ended up being just another one of the roles we were thrust into. That's what makes me so sad. Not the breakup, but what our relationship stood for . . . my weakness.

"I had sex with Mia," he blurts out. "This summer. You know, that girl in the picture."

"You're saying that to hurt me."

"I'm saying it because it's the truth. Ask Shane."

"Then why did you come back here and pretend we were still the Golden Couple?"

"Because that's what everyone expected. Even you. Don't deny it."

His words sting, but they're the truth. Now I'm done playing the "perfect" girl and living by everyone else's rules, including my own.

It's time I start getting real. The first thing I do after Colin and I part is tell Ms. Small I need to take time off from poms. It feels like a weight is lifted off my shoulders. I go home, spend time with Shelley, and do homework. After dinner I call Isabel Avila.

"I should be surprised you're calling me. But I'm not," she says.

"How was practice?"

"Not great. Darlene isn't a great captain, and Ms. Small knows it. You shouldn't quit."

"I'm not. I'm just taking a break for a little while. But I didn't call to talk about poms. Listen, I wanted you to know I broke up with Colin today."

"And you're telling me because . . ."

That's a good question, one I normally wouldn't have answered. "I wanted to talk with someone about it, and I know I have friends who I can call, but I kinda wanted to go to someone who wouldn't gossip about it. My friends have big mouths."