Finally, it happened. Abby turned to me and asked: “Sienna, just a little curious here… Is there something going on between you and Markus?”
My throat locked up. My face went hot, but my hands turned cold. In an attempt to stall for time, I pretended not to have heard her and instead leaned forward in my seat as if terribly interested in observing our surroundings. Luckily, this wasn’t entirely implausible. Afternoon classes had been cut short, and the rest of the senior class was currently filing into the auditorium for a general meeting about the schedules for the final exams and graduation activities and the other requirements we still had left. The knowledge that we only had a week and a month left before we left high school forever had tinged the atmosphere with a mix of euphoria, wistful nostalgia, and a sense of unreality. Even I, who’d spent most of my high school life flitting around on the sidelines, could feel it everywhere.
But the sentimentalism of graduation had to take a back seat for the moment, as Abby, who wasn’t fooled by my little ploy for a second, was still waiting for an answer. “N-nothing’s going on. Honestly, what a question!” I replied, trying for bluster this time. “He’s like one of my kid brothers, you know? I mean, what…” I trailed off as if too incredulous to even complete the sentence.
Abby’s eyebrows rose above the frame of her glasses. “He’s really cute, though, you have to admit,” she said thoughtfully. “He’s enough of a bad boy to be exciting but not enough to make him a thug. Not to mention his family’s rich, but he doesn’t show it off like some others do. I can see why so many girls fall for him.”
“You know, I never understood that,” I grumbled. “Why do they keep falling for him when they know he’ll lose interest in them within a week?”
“Hmm. Maybe it’s not the girls. Maybe it’s him.”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe he’s just been killing time with these girls while he’s waiting for the right girl to show up. Or maybe,” she added, glancing sidelong at me, “for the right girl to finally notice him.”
My heart gave a funny little thump. I opened my mouth to tell her how ridiculous that idea was, but no words came out. Thankfully, Cassie chose that moment to lean over from Abby’s other side. “Hey, what’re you guys talking about?” she asked. When Abby told her who the subject of our conversation was, Cassie blinked. “Markus Lozada? The sophomore? Oh, so you’ve heard the rumors, too?”
“Well, I’ve heard that some angry-looking guys have been spotted lurking around outside the campus for the past couple of days, and they’ve been asking about Markus. The news going around is that one of those guys is the boyfriend of one of the girls in the sophomore class, and he’s not happy about Markus going out with his girl. And something about Markus getting tagged in that girl’s pic or something.”
I gritted my teeth against the urge to slap a hand on my forehead. “Ugh, let me guess. It’s Jenalyn, isn’t it? The one who wears her hair in those weird, corkscrew curls?”
Cassie shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe. But I’ve also heard that he’s spent the past week breaking up with the girls he’s gone out with before. I heard a couple of girls talking about it in the restroom, and one of them was crying. But Markus doesn’t usually go for girls with boyfriends in the first place, so maybe this girl lied to him or something—but I guess her boyfriend doesn’t care about that.”
Abby snickered behind her hand. “Wow, what a heartbreaker your boy is, Sienna. Then again, I’m pretty sure you can bring him to heel.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said curtly.
“Oh, really? I’ve seen the way you two have been looking at each other lately.”
Cassie stared at us. “Wait, who’s been looking at whom? Markus and Sienna? Sienna?”
I glanced around desperately. “Uh, Lynne’s not here yet. The assembly’s about to start.”
“Oh, she said Gian had to tell her something so she stayed behind in the classroom,” Cassie said carelessly, before doubling back on the subject. “So wait, is there something going on between you and Markus?”
“I—I’d better go look for Lynne. Excuse me.”
I hurried out of the auditorium, the sound of Abby’s laughter chasing after me. Lemon splashes of sunlight on greenery and a breeze that tossed a few leaves across my path greeted me as I walked through the covered footpath connecting the old auditorium with the high school’s main building. It was a beautiful day out, with the clear, blue skies of summer meeting the last of the cool Siberian winds. It was certainly too beautiful to spend cooped up inside a classroom. Thank God we’re spending this gorgeous afternoon cooped up inside the auditorium instead, I thought, laughing inwardly.
My shoes squeaked on the polished concrete as I jogged up the stairs and headed to our classroom. But when I got to our classroom, I found it empty. On a hunch, I kept walking until I reached Gian’s homeroom, which was one of the last rooms in the hallway. A soft noise coming from the closed door informed me that this classroom wasn’t empty even though the lights were off, but just as I’d grasped the knob and was about to pull the door open, the sight that greeted me through the glass window in the door made me freeze.
Lynne was sitting on the teacher’s desk, her limbs wrapped around Gian, and the two of them were locked in a passionate kiss. Every now then Lynne would tilt her face up and Gian would kiss her neck instead and whisper something, to which Lynne would smile and murmur something in reply. Then they’d quickly go back to mashing their faces together. With great enthusiasm. I’m fairly sure there was a generous amount of tongue involved.
Slowly, I let go of the door knob and took several steps back, taking stock of my own reactions to the sight. My heart was racing, but that could be because of my physical exertions in the very recent past. My face was flushed because—because I was embarrassed for Lynne, I supposed. What if it hadn’t been me who’d come up to check the rooms? What if it had been a teacher? That would’ve been a disaster, for sure.
But as for the tingling in my lips… I reached up and touched them, lost in thought. Lynne had certainly looked like she was enjoying herself. What would it feel like to kiss someone like that? Would it feel wet and slimy? Would it taste funny? Would teeth be involved? I’d wondered before how much fun it was to get slobbered by another person, but Lynne had told me that it all depended on the guy you were kissing. So I closed my eyes and tried to conjure up an imaginary guy to kiss. But instead of some hot, Hollywood actor, all I could see was black and gold hair, a warm smile, and gray eyes I could drown in…
“You’re really curious about it, aren’t you?” the voice that matched the image in my mind said quietly, almost right in my ear.
My eyes flew open and I half-gasped, half-screamed, causing Markus to clamp a hand over my mouth. A beat of silence, then Gian’s voice reached us, audible despite the closed door: “What was that?”
Without a word, Markus grabbed my arm, and together we ran. But instead of fleeing down the corridor, which would’ve been useless since we would’ve been clearly spotted in the empty hallway, he yanked open the door to another empty classroom and thrust me inside, pulling the door closed behind him. And not a moment too soon. We pressed ourselves against the wall as Gian’s and Lynne’s voices started drawing closer to our hiding place scant minutes later.
“I wonder who that was.”
“I don’t see anybody. Maybe it came from downstairs or something?”
“Maybe. In any case, we better head to the auditorium already.”
“Wait, I need to get something from our homeroom.”
My eyes popped wider as I realized what room Markus had chosen to hide us in. I signaled him frantically, and we scuttled over to the other side of the squarish concrete extension that bisected the wall. But with Lynne’s desk situated in the middle of the room, there would’ve been no way for the post to conceal us for long. With no other hiding place available, I resigned myself to the impending barrage of uncomfortable questions and explanations.
Then Markus whispered “sorry” before he pressed himself full-length against me, squashing me flat against the wall and lowering his head to the juncture of my neck and shoulder, his hands braced on either side of my head. I tensed for a whole different reason as his warmth and scent enveloped me, making my head spin. Funny, he doesn’t feel like a little kid anymore. The thought pinballed through my mind, and before I was even aware of what I was doing, I’d lifted my hands and grasped the sides of his shirt, holding him in place. He responded with a little shiver and his own breath hitched, and I suddenly knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that he was just as affected by our proximity as I was.
More light flooded into the room as the door opened wider. I shut my eyes, waiting for the ax to fall. Then miraculously, Lynne paused. “Mm, on second thought, I guess it can wait.”
“Yeah, come on already. I think the meeting’s about to start.”
Their voices faded away as they moved down the corridor until his quiet breathing and the blood rushing through my ears were the only sounds I could hear. Finally, Markus lifted his head. We stared at each other, and for a moment, I wondered if he was about to start making my pre-graduation wishes come true, right then and there…
…because if he was, I seriously doubted I would put up much of a fight.
Then he pushed himself away and laughed nervously, his hand coming up to rub the back of his neck. “Sorry about that,” he said again.
His apology was an abrupt reminder of our positions. Sucking in a breath, I straightened, the looseness around my head indicating that my bun had come undone and was sagging halfway down to my shoulders. “What the hell are you doing, Markus?” I demanded a little shakily as I fished my hair-tie out and scraped my hair back up.
He shrugged. “I figured it’d be better if your friend thought you were too busy to be spying on them.”
My face flamed, and I resisted telling him that Lynne discovering me fooling around with Markus in an empty classroom would’ve been a lot more difficult to explain. “Yeah, okay, but why are you even here? You’re supposed to be in class right now.”
“I saw you from the window when you left the auditorium. I figured you’d forgotten something in your homeroom, so I followed you up here. Instead, I see you doing something way more interesting. So are you into voyeurism or—ow! That hurt.” He gave me a wounded look as he rubbed the spot on his arm where I pinched him. His lips, though, twitched with laughter.
“Serves you right for ditching class and for surprising me like that. Honestly,” I huffed indignantly, crossing my arms over my chest. “Okay, I admit it, I am curious. So what? If you’re here to hound me about that stupid list and being generally pathetic, well, too bad, because I don’t care anymore. Go ahead and do your worst, just get it over with already.”
As soon as I finished speaking, I knew I’d revealed too much. His eyebrows rose even as his eyes took on a fascinated and altogether self-satisfied gleam. “‘Get it over with?’ Sorry, I wasn’t aware you’ve been waiting for me with bated breath all this time, Ate Sienna,” he said teasingly.
I slapped my hand on my forehead. “Ugh, I give up. Obviously, this has all been just a huge joke to you, and I’ve had enough. Go back to class, Markus. I have a meeting I have to be at.”
He grabbed my arm as I moved past him, forcing me to halt. I gave him my best big-sister glare, which apparently still hadn’t regained its potency, although he did loosen his grip around my arm. “I’m not joking. And I’m not joking about this, either.” With his other hand, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone, flashing the picture of a familiar-looking piece of note paper in front of my face. “You tell me to ‘do your worst’, but I don’t think you’re prepared to deal with the consequences if I do.”
I swallowed, my eyes tracking the movements of his hand as he pocketed his phone again. “I thought you were bluffing when you said you took a picture of my list.”
“I only bluff when I need to,” he replied loftily, which in hindsight didn’t make any sense.
“Fine! What do you want me to do?” I exclaimed, throwing my free hand up in the air. “I don’t want this hanging over my head anymore. Constantly worrying about what’s going to happen—it’s driving me nuts. Whatever it is, I’ll do it, just—enough with the mind games, already.”
Yet again, I realized belatedly that I’d said too much, and it took all my will power to look him in the eye after that. Unexpectedly, he smiled, and the warmth of it stole my breath away. “That’s so like you, Sienna. You’d rather go charging in than sit around being passive and helpless.” While I stared at him—not even noticing until much later that he’d used my name without the usual title of Ate to denote what I was to him—he slid his hand down my arm until his fingers wrapped around mine. He glanced down at our joined hands, drawing in a breath as though gathering his courage. “Go out with me this Saturday night.”
“Go out with me this Saturday night,” he repeated. “That’s the first thing I want you to do.”
I blinked several times while my brain absorbed the meaning of his words. Could this be…did he just ask me out on a date? “I—I can’t,” I stammered. “Saturday night—I have to—”
He nodded. “Make dinner, I know. But the guys’ll survive on pizza for a night, don’t you think?” When I continued to hesitate, he gave me an engaging grin. “Come on. Make the guys happy for once. They’ve been eating healthy meals for so long—they’re suffering, I tell you.”
I couldn’t help but laugh, and was a little surprised at how Markus’ face lit up in response. “So I’m supposed to make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of my poor, healthy brothers?”
“Exactly, because that’s what good big sisters do.”
“But Mama might call home…”
I trailed off when Markus shut his eyes. “Crap. I forgot about that,” he muttered, his earlier good spirits vanishing.
In fact, he looked so disappointed that I found myself squeezing his fingers until he looked at me. “Mama might call on Saturday, but she’ll definitely call on Sunday evening. I can talk to her then.” But just as his answering smile started reaching astronomical proportions, another problem occurred to me. “But pizza costs money, and I don’t know if we have the budget—”
“It’s on me.”
He grinned again. “Pizza’s on me. A couple of eighteen-inch New York’s Finest should be enough. Zig and your dad can split one, and Dante and Daniel can have the other. That should convince them to let you go for one night, right?”
“No, wait, hold on. Did you just say you’re going to pay for my whole family’s pizza dinner?” I demanded.
“Don’t worry about it,” he answered with the airy shrug of those who had never had to balance a monthly budget or give any thought to money at all.
“What the—Markus, you can’t do that!” I cried, offended by his blasé attitude toward his finances. “Look, I’ll just whip something up for them, okay? And I don’t care how rich your family is, you can’t just go around blowing your allowance on unnecessary—”
He laid a finger across my mouth, cutting off the rest of my tirade. “I’ll pick you up at home at seven-thirty. And I promise you, Sienna, I’m going to do this properly.”
He smiled again, his finger on my mouth stroking my lower lip. Then he walked away, leaving me standing stock-still inside the empty room in a kind of daze, waiting for my buzzing senses to come down from overdrive and my heart rate to return to normal. I licked my lips, hoping to taste him there, then shook myself mentally. He did it again! my sensible mind screeched when I realized he’d completely made me forget to ask him about those suspicious guys who were stalking him. He had me dancing to his tune again! Has he always been able to do that? Whatever happened to his respect for my authority as his buddies’ older sister?
But my outrage was becoming increasingly hollow as the unfamiliar feeling I’d been wrestling with since the night he found my list began to unfurl inside me. I found myself turning inward, remembering every word he said to me, every smile he sent my way, every point of contact between his skin and mine, and the warm, shimmering feeling grew and grew. In fact, it was starting to feel suspiciously like happiness to me.
Honestly, thought, it was becoming a struggle to keep reminding myself of the realities in our situation. Markus was only doing this as a kind of private social experiment on his part. After all, he had his pick of all the girls in school—he’d already done a lot of picking as it was. It was the only explanation I could come up with for why he was suddenly exhibiting an interest in his best friends’ plain, boring older sister who would be leaving high school in a month anyway. It just didn’t make sense any other way.
Then again, if it’s an experiment, why shouldn’t I do some experimenting myself? a much less sensible part of me whispered. After all, I had wondered what it would feel like to go on a date, to kiss someone, and maybe to…do other things, as well. And now here was a willing victim—er, test subject—er, lab partner offering himself to me with apparently no strings attached. And setting aside our years of history together, this lab partner couldn’t be more ideal. He was sweet, charming, experienced, discreet and trustworthy, not to mention pretty dang hot. Honestly, lab partners couldn’t get more perfect than that.
So why not go for it? the little voice urged. After all, it’s just an experiment. You don’t have to fall in love or anything, right?