"I've got to," I say, my back to her.

She steps beside me. "Why? Why do you have to do something that might end up with you in jail?"

I put her soft, pale cheek in my palm and give her a wistful smile. "Didn't you know gang members deal drugs? It's part of the job."

"So quit. Surely there's some way. . . ."

"You want to quit, they give you a challenge. Sometimes it's torture, sometimes a beating. If you live, you get out. Let me tell you, preciosa, only once have I seen anyone come out of a challenge alive. The guy still wishes he was dead, he got beat up so bad. God, you'll never understand, my family needs this."

"For the money?"

My hand leaves her. "No, not for the money." I throw my head back and wince in frustration. "Can we please change the subject?"

"I'm against you doing anything illegal."

"Querida, you need a saint. Or at least a minister. And I'm neither of those."

"Aren't I important to you?"

"Yes."

"Then prove it to me."

I pull my bandanna off my head, then rake my fingers through my hair. "Do you know how hard it's been for me? Mi madre expects me to protect the family by being in the Blood but is in total denial, Hector wants me to prove I'm dedicated to the Blood, and you ... the one person who I feel like I can start a life with someday, you want me to prove I love you by doin' somethin' that could put my family in danger. I have to do this, you know. And nobody, not even you, is gonna change my mind. Oluidalo."

"You'll risk what we have?"

"Dammit, don't do this. We don't have to risk anythin'."

"If you start dealing drugs, it's over. I've jeopardized everything for you ... for us. My friends. My parents. Everything. Can't you do the same?"

I toss my jacket to her when her teeth start chattering. "Here. Put this on."

And that's it. This is my life. If she can't handle it, she can go back to Colin Adams. Or whoever she can mold into her own Ken doll.

She tells me to take her to her friend Sierra's house. "I think we should work separately on the chemistry project," Brittany says. She hands me back my jacket when we reach the big house on the beach. "Do you want to put the hand warmers together or would you rather write the paper?"

"Whatever you want."

"Well, I'm a pretty good writer. . . ."

"Fine. I'll do the rest."

"Alex, it doesn't have to end like this."

I watch as tears well in her eyes. I've got to get out of here before they start falling down her face. That will definitely be my undoing.

"Yeah, it does," I say, then drive off.

CHAPTER 49 Brittany

After I used two boxes of tissues, Sierra gave up on trying to cheer me up and let me cry myself to sleep. In the morning, I beg her to keep her curtains closed and shades down. There's nothing wrong with staying in bed all day, is there?

"Thanks for not saying I told you so," I say as I scan her closet for something to wear after she forces me to get up.

She's standing by her dresser, putting on makeup. "I'm not saying it, but I sure am thinking it."

"Thanks," I say dryly.

Sierra pulls a pair of jeans and a long-sleeve shirt out of her closet. "Here, wear these. You won't look half as good in my clothes as you do in yours, but you'll still look better than any girl at Fairfield."

"Don't say that."

"Why? It's true."

"No, it's not. My top lip is too fat."

"Guys think it's sexy. Movie stars pay big bucks for big lips."

"My nose is crooked."

"Only from a certain angle."

"My boobs are lopsided."

"They're big, Brit. Guys are obsessed with big boobs. They could care less if they're lopsided." She pulls me in front of the mirror. "Face it, you're model-gorgeous. Okay, so your eyes are bloodshot and you've got bags from crying all night. But all in all, you've got it goin' on. Look in the mirror, Brit, and say out loud I'm the bomb."

"No."

"Come on. It'll make you feel better. Look right in the mirror and yell my boobs rock!"

"Nuh-uh."

"Can you at least admit you've got good hair?"

I look at Sierra. " You talk to yourself in front of a mirror?

"I do. Wanna see?" She pushes me aside and moves up close to the mirror. "Not half-bad, Sierra," she tells herself. "Doug is one lucky guy." She turns to me. "See, it's easy."

Instead of laughing, I start to cry.

"Ami that ugly?"

I shake my head.

"Is it because I don't have clothes with bling? I know your mom kicked you out, but do you think she'll let us go over and raid your closet? I don't know how long you'll be able to stand wearing my size-eight clothes on your size-four body."

My mom didn't call here last night looking for me. I kind of expected her to, but then again she rarely meets my expectations. And my dad . . . well, he probably doesn't know I didn't sleep at home. They can keep my clothes. I'll probably sneak in during the day to check up on Shelley, though.

"You want my advice?" Sierra asks.

I look at her warily. "I don't know. You hated the idea of Alex and me together from the beginning."

"That's not true, Brit. I didn't tell you this, but he's actually a nice guy when he loosens up. I had fun the day we all went to Lake Geneva. Doug did, too, and even said Alex was cool to hang with. I don't know what happened between the two of you, but either forget about him, or give him everything you've got in your arsenal."

"Is that what you do with Doug?"

She smiles. "Sometimes Doug needs a wake-up call. When our relationship starts getting comfortable, I do something to switch it up. Don't interpret my advice as an excuse to go after Alex. But if he's what you really want, well, then, who am I to tell you not to go for it? I hate seeing you sad, Brit."

"Was I happy with Alex?"

"Obsessed is more like it. But yeah, I saw you happy. Happier than you've been in a really, really long time. With someone you like that much, the lows are as low as the highs are high. Does that make sense?"

"It does. It also makes me sound bipolar."

"Love will do that to a person."

CHAPTER 50 Alex

I'm eating breakfast the morning after Brittany's warehouse visit when I glimpse a shaved head peeking through my front door.

"Paco, if that's you I'd stay the hell away from me," I call out.

Mi'ama slaps me on the back of my head. "That's no way to treat your friends, Alejandro."

I go back to eating while she opens the door for that. . . traitor.

"You're not still mad at me, Alex," Paco says, "are you?"

"Of course he's not mad at you, Paco. Now sit down and eat. I've made some chorizo con huevos."

Paco has the gall to pat me on the shoulder. "I forgive you, man."

I look up then, first at mi'ama to make sure she isn't paying attention, then at Paco. "You forgive me?"

"You've got yourself a real fat lip, Paco," she says, examining the damage I'd done to it.

Paco touches his lip lightly. "Yeah, I fell onto a fist. You know how it is."

"No, I don't. You fall onto too many fists you're going to end up in the hospital one day," she warns, shaking her finger at him. "Well, I'm going to work. And Paco, keep away from fists today, si? Lock up before you go out, Alejandro, porfis. . . ."

I glare at Paco.

"What?"

"You know what. How could you have brought Brittany to the warehouse?"

"I'm sorry," Paco says as he chows down on our food.

"No, you're not."

"Okay, you're right. I'm not."

I watch in disgust as he uses his fingers to scoop food up and shove it into his mouth.

"I don't know why I put up with you," I say.

"So what happened with you and Brittany last night?" Paco asks while following me outside.

My breakfast is threatening to come up, and it's not due to Paco's eating habits. I grab his collar. "It's over between Brittany and me. I don't even want to hear her name again."

"Speak of the devil," he says, craning his neck. I release Paco and turn around, expecting to see Brittany. But she isn't there and the next thing I know Paco's fist is in my face.

"Now we're even. And boy, have you got it bad for Miss Ellis if you're threatenin' me if I use her name. I know you could kill me with your two hands," Paco says, "but I got to admit... I don't think you'd do it."

As I test my jaw, I taste blood. "I wouldn't be too sure of that. Tell you what. I won't kick your ass if you stop interferin' in my life. That means with Hector and Miss Ellis."

"I got to tell ya, interferin' in your life is what keeps me goin'. Hell, even the beatin' my old man gave me last night when he was shit-faced drunk doesn't give me as much entertainment as your life."

I lower my head. "I'm sorry, Paco. I shouldn't have hit you. You get it enough from your old man."

Paco murmurs a "don't sweat it."

Last night was the first time I've regretted using my fists on anyone. Paco has gotten beat up so many times by his old man, he probably has permanent scars on his body. I'm a complete asshole for hitting him. In a way I'm glad it's over between me and Brittany. I'm unable to control my feelings or emotions when she's near.

My only hope is that outside of chemistry I can avoid her. Yeah, right. Even if she's not with me, thoughts of her are always in my head.

One good thing about my breakup with Brittany--it's given me time these last two weeks to think about my father's murder. The night is starting to come back to me in flashes. Something doesn't fit, but I can't figure it out. My dad smiled, talked, and was shocked and nervous when the gun was pulled on him. Shouldn't he have been wary all along?

Tonight is Halloween, the night Hector chose for the drug deal to go down. All day I've been restless. I've worked on seven cars today, from giving an oil change to replacing worn-out, leaky gaskets.

I left Hector's gun in my bedroom drawer, not wanting to pack heat until I absolutely have to. Which is actually stupid because this will be the first of many drug deals I'll be doing in my lifetime.

You're like your old man. I shrug off the voice inside my head that's been plaguing me all day. Como el Viejo.

I can't help it. I remember all the times my papa said Somos cuates, Alejandro. You and me are the closest. He always spoke Spanish, as if he was still in Mexico. Someday you gonna be strong like your padre? he'd ask in Spanish. I always looked up to my father as if he was a deity. Claro, Papa. I want to be like you.

My father never said to me I could be better or do better than him. But tonight I'll prove I'm a carbon copy of my old man. I tried to be different by telling Carlos and Luis they can have a different path. I'm an idiot to think I've been a role model to them.

My thoughts drift to Brittany. I've tried to forget Brittany will be going with someone else to the Halloween dance. I heard she was going with her old boyfriend. I try to push out of my mind the fact that another guy will have his hands on her.

Her date will kiss her tonight, I'm sure of it. Who wouldn't want to kiss those sweet, soft, frosted lips?

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