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DescriptionSophie Todd hoped that her senior year would be different. Unfortunately, different seems to mean getting punched in the face for sticking up for the new girl, having her offer of friendship spurned by said new girl, and finally gaining the attention of her long-time crush, Ezra Varden, but for all the wrong reasons.
It's a tenuous friendship at best, but as Juliet starts to open up to Sophie, they both realize that the Vardens, Juliet's foster family, are not your average family. They're extremely close-knit—freakishly so—but they welcomed a complete stranger into their home, which just so happens to have the largest meat freezer anyone's ever seen...
...and certainly no one said anything about Ezra and the wolves.
Reader Rating: Not rated (0 Ratings)
Sensuality Rating: Not rated
A billion thoughts should have been going through my head as I saw her fist swing toward me. A million actions should have come to mind as rather smart things to do. Namely, duck.
But no, in the split second that it took for Summer Harlan to swing at me, I only thought, who gets into fights the first week of school?
Apparently I did.
But I wasn’t really in a fight. I mean, I was in it, but not participating. I didn’t much like Summer, the meanest girl in the history of high school, and gorgeous to boot. But I’d never fight her. Or pick a fight with her.
She was fighting Juliet Ellery, and Juliet didn’t exactly like me. For reasons that remained confusing to me, I found myself stepping in front of Juliet to separate the two of them. Then Summer decided taunts and shoves weren’t enough.
Getting punched hurt. And even though she hit my left cheekbone, it hurt my whole face. Even my right ear.
I stumbled back and fell as Juliet grabbed Summer by her very shiny shirt and shoved her into the lockers. I covered my throbbing cheek with my hand, panting like I’d just gone for a run. Two hands lifted me up by my arms, and I turned to meet pale green eyes.
He nodded at me before hurrying with Micah Reade to pull Juliet off Summer. Summer’s perfect red hair tumbled out of her strategic messy ponytail as she escaped Juliet’s grip. Summer’s friends—or minions, as I liked to call them—hurried to her, consoling her as Summer switched from instigator to victim.
Juliet, after struggling against Micah and Ezra, calmed. She glanced at me, and for one second I thought I saw regret, but my vision was kooky already with being punched and all.
And that’s when the teachers arrived.
I first saw her four days before the school year started.
The city of Gregory, Tennessee had only fifteen thousand people but had the biggest Walmart in the county. Everyone did their back-to-school shopping there.
My mom was searching for birthday cards, and I’d wandered down the office supplies aisle, my favorite.
I was in the process of choosing the best notebook for English class. Pickings were slim at that late date. When I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, I turned to see who had shown up.
She was gorgeous. The kind of girl that made you want to spend twenty hours at the gym or drown your sorrows in a tub of ice cream, because even with the most expensive plastic surgery, you would never look like her.
She was tall. That’s what I first noticed. I was just five foot five inches, and she was so much above that. Maybe five ten. She had dark brown hair, darker than my plain old brown. It hung to her lower back, but the ends were ragged like they desperately needed a trim. What made her even more memorable was a streak of white hair near her right temple, solid white hair contrasting with the rich brown. Not blonde or bleached, but white. Her eyebrows were thick and dark like the rest of her hair, making her look primitive.
I could see only her profile, but she turned toward me, reaching down to pick up a green notebook. She ran her hands along it, like it was special. Her attention was solely on the notebook, even though I had a full view of her now.
“There’s more durable ones over here,” I said congenially. Though my family wasn’t originally Southern, we were just as friendly. We could strike up conversations with anyone. Talking to a stranger wasn’t unusual.
The girl’s head snapped up.
She had the eeriest eyes. They were the lightest blue I’d ever seen. Beautiful but creepy. They looked alien. Especially in contrast to her copper-colored skin.
“If you’re rough with your notebooks like I am, I mean mine get so incredibly beat up by the end of the semester, not even the year, and I hate—” I broke off, realizing that I was rambling, not an uncommon occurrence, but her expression stopped me. Her eyes had been wide when I’d first spoken, but now they’d narrowed. As though she was angry.
I had no clue as to why she would be angry.
“Do you go to Gregory High?” Our high school was big, nearly two thousand students, but I knew she was a new kid. With looks like hers, I would have remembered passing her in the halls.
She didn’t answer, but kept looking at me. She seemed less angry now and more bewildered.
“I’m Sophie,” I told her. “I’ll be a senior.”
“Juliet?” came a guy’s voice. A blond head popped around the corner.
I knew that head. And the rest of the person. My heart sank.
Ezra Varden. My crush. This year would make it four years of crushing. Four years. I didn’t know if I was loyal or just pathetic. We’d had a few classes together throughout high school, but I was pretty sure he didn’t think about me. Ever.
He walked up to the girl. His green eyes seemed worried. He wore his favorite red hoodie. I assumed it was his favorite because he wore it a lot. Wasn’t liked we’d ever talked about it. Or ever talked really.
The girl, Juliet, set the green notebook down. She seemed sad to let go of it. She didn’t say anything to Ezra, but headed the same way he’d come.
I’d never seen Ezra with a girl other than his little sister, which meant only one thing in my mind. They were dating.
My heart ached.
Ezra looked at the discarded notebook and glanced at her retreating back. He sniffed once then turned to me. “Hey, Sophie.”
He recognized me outside of school? Brilliant day!
“Hey, Ezra. Did you have a good summer?” I fiddled with the notebook I held, my nerves haywire. Like always around him.
“Yeah. Not bad. You?” He stuck his hands in his jean pockets, rocking back on his heels. He didn’t smile much. Certainly not around me, but he didn’t seem bothered by talking to me.
“Good. Went road-tripping with the folks. National Parks. Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon…” I made myself stop before I really babbled. Could I sound more lame?
“Cool.” His eyes met mine briefly. I restrained a dreamy sigh. “I’ll see you Monday.”
“Yeah.” I nodded like a goof. “Monday. See ya.”
He left, and I stood for a few seconds, thinking about him. Wondering about her. I walked down the aisle and leaned over, picking up the green notebook.
Mom showed up. “Got what you need?”
I nodded, taking two notebooks to the checkout line.
* * *
Exactly a week later, I sat next to Juliet outside the principal’s office while Summer was in with Dr. Mack, probably getting off with no punishment because her daddy owned half the town.
Juliet’s knuckles were bandaged, and she stared straight ahead. “Why did you do that?” she asked, breaking the quiet.
“Do something so stupid like get in the middle of a fight?” She sounded disgusted. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her turn toward me.
I opened my mouth then shut it. Why had I done it? Juliet, new girl to Gregory, had landed in my first period class and I’d shown her around, made sure she’d found her classes. I’d introduced her to my friends at lunch, where I found out that she was a foster kid with the Vardens. My relief that she wasn’t dating Ezra was overcome by my sympathy for her situation. I’d even invited her over for dinner on Wednesday, but she’d barely talked, and when she had, she told me coldly that she’d only come over because she wanted to be away from her foster family for a little while. She didn’t want to be friends, especially with someone who pitied her.
She’d made me cry.
So why had I stuck up for her, even to the point of getting hurt?
Glutton for punishment, Exhibit A—Sophie Todd.
“She was being so mean,” I mumbled, taking off the ice pack the school nurse had given me. The left side of my face was now numb, but I knew it would hurt again soon.
Juliet didn’t comment for a few seconds, then said, “You’re very strange.”
I didn’t have time to agree with her because the door opened and Summer, with a busted lip, flounced out. She smiled smugly at us and waved as she left the office.
I was oddly happy to see that busted lip.
“Sophie Todd?” Dr. Mack called.
I stood up and promised myself I would not cry. I walked toward the door and looked back once. Juliet watched me and, out of the blue, offered me a small, encouraging smile.
I was too shaken to know if I smiled back.
Dr. Mack asked me to share what I’d seen. I told him everything and repeated that Summer had thrown the first hit. He seemed to believe me.
“Sophie, you are an excellent student and good person,” he began at the end of my tale. I watched his gray eyebrows as they twitched with every word he spoke. “I would hate to see your clean record marred because of the company you keep.”
“Dr. Mack, she provoked Juliet.” I was adamant. “Jules was walking away when Summer grabbed her hair.”
He nodded. “I understand this. I’m just telling you to be careful. I’ve had to call your parents to let them know what happened.”
I closed my eyes. “Oh no.”
“Are you OK to finish up classes today?”
I nodded, opening my eyes. “Did my parents sound upset?”
He gave me a “duh” look, for a principal anyway. He stood and went to his office door.
I followed. “Dr. Mack. You’re not going to suspend Juliet, are you? She really did try to walk away.”
“I like to give everyone a second chance. We’ll see.” He opened the door. “Go to class.”
“Thanks, Dr. Mack.” I walked out to see Juliet still sitting tensely.
“Juliet Ellery, please come in.”
She got up, wiping her hands on her jeans. She met my eyes for a second, then went past me.
Class had already started, so the halls were quiet as I pulled out my cell to call my dad.
“Hey, Dad,” I started weakly.
He heaved a big sigh. “I know you weren’t just in a fight, were you?”
“Can I explain first? There were extenuating circumstances.”
He chuckled. “Go ahead.”
I quickly gave him a rundown of the words exchanged and how the fight had escalated. “Dad, she was awful to Juliet.”
“Summer. Summer Harlan.”
“Harlan? Your friend had to make a Harlan angry.” He chuckled again. “Juliet shouldn’t have hit her.”
“I know. But part of the reason I’m explaining is that I’m supposed to study with Juliet tonight. We have a test tomorrow, and the teacher assigned us partners to study with. So she’s supposed to come over.” Our geography teacher, Mrs. Lange, was evil like that.
Another long pause. “I see.”
“Please? It’s school. And I dunno, I like her. Not sure why.” That last statement was more to myself. I’d felt something when I’d seen her at Walmart. A connection. Maybe a kindred spirit, although that seemed like a long shot with her being so different from me.
Oh, and not liking me.
He laughed. “That’s my girl. All right, I’ll make sure it’s OK with your mom, but if it’s your teacher’s assignment, not much we can do, huh?”
I grinned into the phone. “You’re the greatest dad ever.”
“I’m your only dad.”
“I have to work now. And you have class.”
“Love you.” I froze as I saw Ezra Varden walk out of the boys’ bathroom just as I said that. He paused at seeing me.
“Love you too, pumpkin,” Dad said and hung up.
I closed my phone and slipped it into my bag. “Hey,” I said lamely. I could talk up a storm with anyone: stranger, friend, relative. I rambled enough when I was nervous, but seeing Ezra right at this moment, I was struck dumb. Or at least, ineloquent.
“You OK?” he asked, stuffing his hands in his pockets. He looked at my face and winced. “Looks like it hurts.”
I nodded. “It does. Thanks, you know…for…” Picking me up? Touching me? Giving me more reasons to crush on you? “Breaking it up.”
He shrugged it off. “Someone had to, although seeing Summer get a taste of her own medicine wasn’t bad.” He smiled a little.
I grinned back, completely ecstatic to see him smile. “You going to class?” We had Chem. 2 together. And second period Pre-Calculus and sixth period Spanish 4, the most classes I’d ever had with Ezra in our entire high school career.
We walked next to each other, a good foot of space between us. I imagined him reaching out and taking my hand, but I knew better. Didn’t stop my daydreams, though.
The looks on my classmates’ faces when I walked in with Ezra was almost worth the throbbing pain I was feeling. Or maybe that’s why they were looking.
* * *
I’d gotten bombarded with questions from classmates all afternoon. Connie and Mary-Beth, the two girls I always sat with at lunch, asked me all kinds of details. Despite my explanation, they seemed to think it was Juliet’s fault. I often wondered why I considered them friends. I never saw them out of school.
I saw Juliet by her locker after final period. “So, are we still studying?” I asked. “Might be easier if you rode with me.”
She scoffed. “Are your parents OK with you driving around a juvenile delinquent?”
I nodded. “I talked to Dad. And you’re not a juvenile delinquent.”
Her eyes widened and she shut her locker. “No kiddin’? Wow. Yeah, we have to study, right?”
She was talking. A lot. For her.
“Yep.” I touched the side of my face again and winced as we headed toward the doors that led to freedom.
I nodded. “What about your hands?”
She lifted them, regarding them like she’d forgotten. “Had worse.”
I really wanted to ask her about that. But I didn’t. As we walked toward my car, Ezra approached us. Juliet stiffened.
He didn’t seem surprised to see me with her. “So…you get suspended?” he asked Juliet.
She shook her head. “I get a grace period.” She rolled her eyes. “But if it happens again…blah, blah, blah.”
“Yeah. Summer’s, well, about as self-involved as you can get.”
Juliet almost smiled. “I have to go study with Sophie. For class.”
His eyebrows rose. “Really? I can’t come into town later to pick you up.”
“So I’ll sleep over.”
“Um, it’s a school night,” I said.
The two of them looked at me.
“I could ask.” Man, was that lame.
“Don’t you need clothes…?” Ezra gestured without continuing.
“I’ll borrow hers,” Juliet said.
I laughed, and again they both stared at me. I recognized the expression from other classmates. It was “are you for real?” or some variation. “Sorry, but you won’t fit my clothes.” I had “birthin’ hips,” as Mom liked to say. And I liked food. I’d never be skinny a day in my life.
Ezra sighed heavily. “I can come back to town.”
“I’ll drive her out,” I said.
“Yes, sir.” I saluted him smartly.
Both he and Juliet gave me yet another odd gaze. They were becoming quite common, but… I saluted him? What in the world was wrong with me?
“OK,” Ezra said slowly. “Thanks.” He backed up and jogged to his car. I watched him leave, feeling all kinds of moronic.
“Are we going?” Juliet’s voice snapped me back into reality.
When we got home, Mom was waiting with her eyes nearly into little slits, a sure sign she was mad.
“Um, you can head up to my room. I’ll be up soon to start studying,” I told Juliet.
She nodded. “Hi, Mrs. Todd.”
Juliet headed upstairs.
“Did Dad call you?” I asked Mom when Juliet was out of earshot.
She nodded, reaching out to grab my chin and peered at what was probably the beginning of a bruise. “Are you OK?”
“Never thought I’d ever be in a fight, did you?”
She smiled wearily. “It definitely was not on my list of mom worries.”
I hugged her. “Thanks for being nice to her.”
She kissed the top of my head and let go of me. “I’ll holler later for you to set the table.”
I headed up the stairs to my room. It wasn’t big, but with loads of bookshelves, a desk, and my bed, I loved it.
Juliet jerked immediately away from my bookshelf when I walked in, but I saw the longing flash in her eyes. At least I thought I did.
That’s why I said, “You can borrow any if you want.”
Her head turned, a blur of motion before her pale blue eyes pierced mine so deeply that I took a step back. “Aren’t you afraid I’d do something to it?” Loads of bitterness in her voice.
Maybe, but I shrugged. “Books can be replaced, and you seem to like books a lot. You know what they can mean to someone. And if you did do something, why would I let you borrow any more? So, you’d just be shooting yourself in the foot.”
She blinked once. “Good point.”
I smiled, feeling it more than I usually did around her. “So, should we start? Dinner’s not for another hour and a half. You hungry? I could grab an apple or something.”
She snorted and plopped on my floor with her bag. “I’m always hungry, but I’m good.”
That’s one thing we have in common. I sat at my desk and pulled out my books. I tossed my Geography book on the floor, then got up to look through my CDs. “What kind of music do you like to study to?” I asked, running my fingers over the plastic cases.
“I dunno.” She watched me for a second. “Whatever.”
“I like mellow stuff. When I study. Instrumental. So my brain can think.”
“You like instrumental?” Her disbelief was evident in her scrunched up face. “Weird.”
I shrugged. It was an accepted fact that I was weird. At least to me. I pulled out a mix I’d made on my computer and stuck it in my laptop. “Eleanor Rigby (Strings Only)” began to play, and I settled on the floor.
Tiny, quick paw-steps clicked, and I saw Slightly at my open door. I grinned.
Slightly Soiled, named for the Lost Boy, had been part of the family since I was five years old. Her breed was indeterminate, but she was the closest thing I had to a sister.
“Juliet, this is Slightly. Slightly, this is Juliet.”
Juliet stared at my dog for what seemed like more than a minute. And Slightly, the friendliest dog on the planet, stared back. Her tail didn’t wag, and she stood almost on point, like a bloodhound would when he picked up a fox’s scent.
“Um…” I was weirded out.
Slightly edged in front of me, growling low in her throat, as though protecting me. Her fur stood on end.
“Slightly, it’s OK.” I looked up at Juliet. She’s not usually like this,”
“She’s letting me know that you belong to her,” Juliet said matter-of-factly.
“What?” I looked at Juliet, confused.
Her eyes never left my dog’s, as though she was talking to Slightly with her eyes. I almost slapped myself for the ridiculousness of that thought.
Juliet waited for another second, then held out her hand. Slightly edged over and sniffed her hand. After a pause, she licked Juliet’s fingers, then lay down, rolling over to show her belly. Juliet smiled and rubbed Slightly’s tummy. “Cute.”
“Yeah, she’s awesome.” I clicked my tongue a few times. Slightly waddled over to me. She licked my face, right where I’d been punched. I grimaced and wiped my face. “Thanks.”
She gave me a doggy smile, jumped on my bed, turned three times, and lay down. I shook my head, looking back at Juliet who was flipping through the chapter in our Geography book.
“So, how did you know that she was thinking that?”
Juliet’s eyes snapped up to mine. “I don’t. I just guessed. Animals are protective of their own. Not sure she knows she’s a dog and not a human.”
I laughed. “Probably not. She’s like my sister.” I waited about ten seconds for Juliet to say anything. “So, I guess we could go through the questions at the end of the chapter?”
Silence as Juliet turned pages in her book. I sighed and pulled out a notebook to answer the questions on my own, then saw the green notebook from Walmart sitting in my drawer. I’d forgotten I had it. Taking a moment to summon my courage, I pulled it out and tossed it over to her.
She looked at it, then at me. “You…”
“I thought you’d want it.”
She took it and ran her fingers over it like she had the week before. “Don’t you want it?”
“I have tons of notebooks. I’m like a notebook addict.” I shook my head at my own verbal nonsense. “Never mind, I got it thinking I might see you again.” I sounded like a stalker.
“Oh.” She gave me a searching look, then opened the notebook. She didn’t say anything, not even thank you.
She was just not the friend I’d been hoping for. My shoulders slumped.
“Huh?” My head shot up.
“Do you want to make flashcards?” She met my eyes. “Be easier to quiz each other.”
“Sure. Although I do know what the difference is between a mesa and plateau.” I groaned and got up, searching through my desk drawers for index cards.
I glanced back at her.
She looked conspiratorial. “Don’t we have to teach each other, after all?”
I smiled. She nearly smiled back.
* * *
Dinner was better than before. Juliet must have taken a friendly pill because she smiled. Twice. Once at one of Dad’s really bad jokes. It was noteworthy. Then, armed with two sodas, Juliet and I retreated to my room to study more.
“If I fail, I don’t care,” I said dramatically an hour later, lying back so my head hit the foot of my bed. “Mrs. Lange is not going to keep me from going to college.”
She didn’t say anything.
“Hmm?” She flipped through more of the flashcards.
“Are the Vardens nice?”
Her body jerked like I’d shocked her with static electricity, and then she glared at me.
“What?” I asked, immediately concerned. “Are they not?”
“They’re fine.” She fiddled with her pencil. “Just fine. Different. The mom doesn’t allow any junk food in the house.”
“Really?” I thought my mom was bad. We at least had ice cream in the freezer.
“But there’s a lot of meat. Like every meal has meat. Red meat. I dunno. Seems weird.”
I nodded, eager for anything about Ezra’s out-of-school life. Even his eating habits. I was the poster child for pathetic.
“I mean, they’re all right. I have chores and stuff, but they’re better than others.” Her eyes avoided mine.
I couldn’t imagine what kind of families she’d been a part of. “Do you like the house?”
She grinned, fully and without any hesitation. “Yeah, my room is great. It’s got a really cool window. It’s circular that looks out over the woods.”
“That is awesome.” My window had a view of our fenced backyard.
“Yeah. The little sister is a brat though.”
“Naomi?” I leaned forward.
“Yeah, her. Just…ugh. So spoiled. We share a bathroom, and it’s like the biggest sacrifice in the world. Like she wasn’t sharing with her brother too.”
“I don’t know her. She’s got her own friends in tenth grade.” I grabbed my necklace, absently putting the cross pendant into my mouth. Bad habit. “Is Ezra nice to you?” I tried to keep my tone neutral.
Suspicion crept in to her eyes. “He’s all right. He drives me places. Out of the whole family, he’s easiest to get along with. It’s more annoying how many girls have come up to me at school already just to ask about him. What is that about?”
If only she knew. “He and his friends are kind of sought after.” Understatement. “They’re like set apart, you know? Like their own little club. I guess people are curious. I’ve only really ever talked to Nick and Ezra.”
“Nick Birch. The redhead. He hangs out with Ezra.”
She nodded as she closed her textbook. She wrapped her arms around her folded legs, listening.
“Anyway, Nick’s a goofball, but nice. I don’t know the others so well. All kind of mysterious. They don’t really hang out with anyone else.”
Her eyes were uninterested. Was it possible she didn’t find any of them attractive?
“What kind of guys do you like?”
Her face shut down. “I don’t like guys.”
“Oh. Oh.” I swallowed hard. “That’s OK.”
She turned her head toward me, her eyes knowing, if not a little smug. “I’m not a lesbian. I just…boys are annoying.” Something lay underneath her flippant response.
“Oh. Well, it would have been fine if you were.”
She smirked. “Sure.” She yawned, running her hands through her hair, her fingers twisting around the white bit.
“So your hair…do you dye it like that?”
Her hands immediately dropped.
I’d trod on something that was off-limits. “I mean, I like it,” I said hurriedly. “I’ve never dyed my hair. I always wondered what I’d look like as a blonde, but then I think my eyebrows are way too dark and dyeing eyebrows seems like overkill. Then maybe black, but I think I’d look really scary and…” Sophie the rambler in the building. “So, yeah.”
“It’s been like this ever since I can remember.” She held it so she could see it herself. “I tried dyeing it brown once. It didn’t stay. Repels all dye, I guess.” She sighed, dropping it. “It kills me when people think I’m a Rogue fan.”
I chuckled. “I did wonder. And that’d be OK. Rogue’s cool.”
Juliet raised one eyebrow. “She’s whiny.” She yawned again. “I think I’m studied out.”
“Yeah, it’s getting late. I should take you back.” I got up and stretched.
She threw her books into her backpack. She slid in the green notebook last before zipping it up. She stood, then followed me to the stairs. “Sophie?”
“Yeah?” I turned.
She didn’t say anything for a while. Her gaze never left mine, and although it was invasive, it didn’t bother me. Something about her would always intrigue me.
“You’re not so bad.” And she went to the bathroom.
I stood, my mind blank. I felt like crying, but in an entirely different way than the last time she’d been at my house.
Not so bad was good. I could take that.
PhaseBy: E. C. Newman