“Great,” I mutter, dropping my head in my hands. “I feel so good about this. Thanks for the pep talk.”
“You should also know that there’s something she’s hiding.”
My head snaps up. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, exactly. I only know she’s hiding something. I don’t yet know what it is. But I would advise you to tread cautiously.”
I feel suddenly ill, my forehead pinched with panic. I wonder about her cryptic message earlier. What it was she wanted to say to me last night. What she still might say to me—tonight.
And then I realize—
“Wait a second.” I frown. “Did you just give me dating advice?”
Warner tilts his head. A flicker of a smile again. “I’m merely returning the favor.”
I laugh, surprised. “Thanks, man. I appreciate that.”
And then, with an elegant pivot, he opens the door and closes it behind him. The dude moves like a prince. He’s always dressed like a prince. Shiny boots and fitted suits and shit.
I sigh, irrationally irritated.
Am I jealous? Damn, maybe I’m jealous.
Warner always seems so pulled together. He’s always cold and cool. Always has a line, a comeback. A clear head. I bet he’s never struggled like I have with a girl. Never had to work so hard t—
I’m an idiot.
I don’t know how I managed to forget that his girlfriend literally just broke up with him. I was there. I saw the fallout. Dude had a panic attack all over the floor. He was crying.
I sigh, hard, and run both hands through my hair.
I know it should make me feel better, but it only makes me feel worse to realize that Warner is just as prone to relationship failure as I am. It makes me think I don’t stand a chance with Nazeera.
Ugh, I hate everything.
I wait a couple of minutes for Warner and Castle to return, and while I’m waiting, I tug another muffin out of my pocket. I stress-eat it, ripping off huge chunks and blindly shoving them in my mouth.
When Castle walks through the door I’m nearly choking on muffin crumbs, but I wheeze through a quick hello. Castle frowns, clearly disapproving of my general state, and I pretend not to notice. I wave and try to swallow the last of the muffin. My eyes are tearing a little.
Warner steps inside, closes the door behind them. “Why do you insist on eating like an animal?” he snaps at me.
I frown, begin to speak, and he cuts me off with one hand.
“Don’t you dare speak to me with your mouth full.”
I swallow too quickly and nearly choke, but I force the rest of the muffin down. I clear my throat before saying, “You know what? I’m tired of this shit. You always make fun of the way I eat, and it’s not fair.”
Warner tries to speak and I cut him off.
“No,” I say. “I don’t eat like an animal. I just happen to be hungry. And maybe you should spend a few years starving to death before you think about making fun of the way I eat, okay asshole?”
It’s startling, how quickly it happens, but something changes in Warner’s face. Not the tightness in his jaw or the furrow in his brow. But for a moment, the light goes out of his eyes.
He turns almost exactly forty-five degrees away from me. And his voice is solemn when he says, “They’re waiting for us in the next room.”
“I accept your apology,” I say.
Warner looks back at me. Looks away.
Castle and I follow him out of the room.
Okay, maybe I missed something, but these new kids don’t seem that scary. There’s a set of twins—a boy and a girl—who speak to each other very quickly in Spanish, and a tall black guy with a British accent. Haider and Nazeera and Lena are conspicuously absent, but everyone is being polite and pretending not to notice. They’re all pretty nice, actually. Especially Stephan, the son of the supreme commander of Africa. He seems cool; I’m getting fewer serial-killer vibes from him than I have from the other kids. But he’s wearing a bracelet on his left hand, something silver set with thick, heavy red stones that look like rubies, and I can’t stop feeling like I’ve seen something like it before. I keep staring, trying to figure out why it feels familiar, when, all of a sudden—
Juliette shows up.
At least, I think it’s Juliette.
She looks like a different person.
She steps into the room wearing an outfit I’ve never seen her in, black from head to toe, and she looks good—beautiful, as always—but different. She seems harder. Angrier. I didn’t think I’d like the short hair on her—last night it was a botched, haphazard job—but she must’ve cleaned it up this morning. The cut is a uniform crop throughout. A simple, sleek buzz cut.
She makes it work.
“Good morning,” she says, and her voice is so hollow that, for a moment, I’m stunned. She manages to make those two words sound mean, and it’s so unlike her that it scares me.
“Damn princess,” I say softly. “Is that really you?”
She looks at me for only a second, but it feels more like she looks through me, and something about the cold, poisonous expression in her eyes breaks my heart like nothing else.
I don’t know what happened to my friend.
And then, as if this shit couldn’t get more dramatic, Lena busts through the door like a freaking debutante. She was probably waiting in the wings for the right time to make her entrance. To throw Juliette off her game.
It doesn’t work.
I watch, as if through water, as Juliette meets Lena for the first time. Juliette is stiff and superior, and I’m proud of her for being strong—but I can’t recognize her in the moment.
J isn’t like this.
She’s not cold like this.
I’ve seen her get angry—hell, I’ve seen her lose her mind—but she’s never been cruel. She’s not mean. And it’s not that I think Lena deserves better, because I don’t. I don’t give a shit about Lena. But this—this display—is so out of character for Juliette that it must mean she’s hurting even more than I thought. More than I could’ve imagined. Like the pain has disfigured her.
I would know. I know her.
Warner might murder me if he knew I felt this way, but the truth is, I know Juliette better than anyone. Better than he does.
The math is simple: J and I have been closer, longer.
She and I have been through more shit together. We’ve had more time to talk about real things together. She’s my closest friend.
Castle has been there for me, too, but he’s like a father to me, and I can’t talk to him or anyone else the way I do with Juliette. She’s different. She gets me. I give her a lot of crap for being emotional all the time, but I love how empathetic she is. I love how she feels things so deeply that sometimes even joy manages to wound her. It’s who she is. She’s all heart.
And this—this version of her I’m seeing right now?
I can’t accept it because I know it’s not real. Because I know it means something is wrong.
Suddenly, a swell of angry voices breaks through my reverie.
I look up just in time to realize Lena has said something nasty. Valentina, one of the twins, turns on her, and I force myself to pay closer attention as she says—
“I should’ve cut off your ears when I had the chance.”
My eyebrows shoot up my forehead.
I step forward, confused, and glance around the room for a clue, but a strange, uncomfortable tension has reduced everyone to silence.
“Uh, I’m sorry,” I say, clearing my throat. “Am I missing something?”
It’s Lena who finally volunteers an explanation, but I already know better than to trust her when she says, “Valentina likes to play pretend.”
Nicolás, the other twin, rounds on her in an instant, furiously firing back in Spanish. Valentina pats her brother on the shoulder. “No,” she says, “you know what? It’s okay. Let her talk. Lena thinks I like to pretend”—she says a word in Spanish—“I won’t be pretending”—more words in Spanish.
Stephan’s mouth drops open in what appears to be shock, but Lena just rolls her eyes, so I have no idea what just happened.
I frown. It’s a frustrating conversation to follow.
But when I glance over at Juliette I realize, with welcome relief, that I’m not the only one feeling this way; J doesn’t understand what they’re talking about, either. Neither does Castle. And just as I think that Warner must be confused, too, he starts talking to Valentina in fluent Spanish.
Suddenly my head is spinning.
“Damn, bro,” I say. “You speak Spanish, too, huh? I’m going to have to get used to this.”
“We all speak many languages,” Nicolás says to me. He still seems a little irritated, but I’m grateful for the explanation. “We have to be able to communi—”
Juliette cuts him off angrily. “Listen, guys, I don’t care about your personal dramas. I have a massive headache and a million things to do today, and I’d like to get started.”
Of course. Juliette has a hangover.
I bet she’s never had a hangover. And if this weren’t, like, a life or death situation, I’d think it was kind of hilarious.