Pfft, are you kidding? Fling myself right out of my cozy comfort zone and into the shit-pile of heartache and controversy that loving Migs would entail? Hell, no. Especially now when life was going so smoothly for me. Okay, fine, not so smoothly. If anything, it only made my conscious mind even more determined to suppress any waves that could tip my boat of complacency over. Yeah, the SS I’m With Stupid, that’s the one.
You’re rolling your eyes again, aren’t you? Ah-uh! I saw you. You’re staring straight at me and looking tremendously serious, but deep inside, you’re rolling your eyes.
Haha, sorry. It’s just that a lot of people responded to my constant denials that way, and they were certainly less circumspect about it. Not that I blame them. I mean, talk about being slow on the uptake. I still wonder how my friends managed to keep from slapping me one out of sheer frustration. Or how Migs managed to keep from throttling me himself. Either he really, really loved me, or I was simply too cute to throttle.
Still, without my being aware of it, something was changing inside me. You’ve heard about how the universe reflects your inner state? It sounds New Age but I believe that. Maybe Miguel’s goodness and honesty were rubbing off on me or something. Whatever it was, it was starting to affect my world in unexpected ways. Even my work. Who’d have thought?
To tell you the truth, I never wanted to be a model. I had enough trouble with just wishing I had boobs and a butt. So it had been a shock to discover that I actually loved modeling, despite all the attendant crap—the discomforts of shooting on location, the stress and drama during tryouts and the shoot itself, the bullying by insane creative directors, the verbal clawing from competitive female talents, even the sleazy propositions from total strangers or your co-workers. I remember how my first talent manager, Manuel Gomez—henceforth known as Manny the Maniac—brought me to a seedy bar, offered to let me star in a child porn video, then decided to hold auditions then and there. I broke his phone over his head and rushed out into a nasty neighborhood at nearly 2 a.m., leaving my purse behind. I had to hide out in the backroom of a 7-11 until Erwin and Jeff came to pick me up. Needless to say, my contract with Glittergals was terminated after that. So yeah, a thrilling adventure, modeling.
In spite of that, I stayed in the industry. Why? I think it’s because modeling answered a deep-seated need of mine. As long as I gave it what it wanted, the camera didn’t care about my age or physical condition or family origins or whether or not some imbecile thinks I’m not human. It loved me anyway. It made me feel as if there was something worthwhile about me, despite my defects. Even though in the industry I was still outside looking in—let’s face it, I was never part of the glamorous inner circle of top talents, although I was friends with a few of them. And I was okay with it, because the truth was, I wasn’t in it for the lifestyle or the fame. Sure, the money didn’t hurt, but more importantly, modeling gave me a chance to pretend I wasn’t freaky Ivy but someone people could love the way the camera did. It was utter, twisted fantasy, but it was a fantasy I’d dived into with both eyes open.
Besides, it wasn’t like I was hurting anyone. So what if my entire career was founded on my deceiving people into thinking I was something I wasn’t? That’s practically what modeling is, and I was not about to ruin a good deal by carping over details. I was beautiful, talented, and generally well-liked by the people I worked with. I was also a liar, a phony, and horribly insecure, but as long as the camera couldn’t see that, nobody gave a flying fuck about my inner state of being. Least of all me.
Not exactly what you’d hear at a press conference, huh? Believe me, if you’d interviewed me six years earlier, you wouldn’t be hearing this from me, either. For a long time, I just took the industry’s less than exemplary ethical standards for granted, even sort of took refuge in it.
So imagine my surprise that day when I found myself thinking about it. About coming clean, I mean. About actually telling people I wasn’t the girl being projected in the core of a slick marketing strategy. For the first time since I started my affair with the camera, it occurred to me that maybe I was getting in too deep, and that maybe there was something, well, wrong with what I was doing. It felt so, so strange. That day I had lunch with Morisato-san, that day I met with Orion Kenichi and Ian Manansala—it should have served as rock-hard confirmation that coming clean would be the worst career move I could make. But for one moment I found myself standing there in the middle of that fancy French bistro, surrounded by creative, ambitious people, and thinking to myself: “Something’s wrong with this picture.”
And worse, I had a niggling feeling that that something wrong was me.
Hours later, I was still pondering that uncharacteristic flash of conscience that had been the lone sour note in an otherwise promising meeting. I couldn’t imagine where it had come from, except…
You know, I’d been feeling so good that day, considering what the past few days had been like. I’d woken up feeling refreshed after the best sleep I’d had in weeks. I stretched luxuriously, then something went ping and I quickly sat up and looked around. I wasn’t lying beside the washing machine on the balcony. I was in Erwin’s bed, with his blanket all tangled up around my middle. There was a moment of confusion until my brain succeeded in locating the file containing my most recent memories, and my face grew warm in response. Miguel had come last night. He’d sat with me in the darkness and listened to me, then he held my hand and told me he’d watch over me.
And then I…fell asleep on him. Oh dear. I hoped I hadn’t drooled on him or anything. Great way to repay him for his kindness, by ruining his shirt.
And he’d smelled so good, too. Like soap and cool grass, a clean-boy smell that made me want to wrap him around me like a snuggly coat. With a sigh, I hugged Erwin’s pillow my chest and stared at the sunlight spilling in through the window. Migs must have carried me in here and put me to bed. Why hadn’t he just woken me up? Oh right, I realized, wincing. Probably because I was sleeping like a vampire in a desert at high noon. Still, a part of me wished I’d been awake, if only to have a memory of being in his arms like that.
He’d carried me to bed. Just thinking about it made me feel—hell, I didn’t know. Good, I suppose. More than good. He was so sweet, my Migs. He could act as unsmiling and reclusive as he liked, but he could never quite hide his caring nature. He was stubborn, self-righteous and a know-it-all, with a temper like a blowtorch and an Olympic gold medal in holding a grudge. He was also thoughtful, steadfast, honest, nice to his sister, respectful to his Mama, loyal to his friends, and gutsier than anyone I’d ever met. His crush on me notwithstanding, I was glad he counted me among his friends, because if there was one thing I’d realized last night, it was how much I’d come to depend on him.
So I wanted to do something for him, too. Something to show him how much I valued his friendship. I nodded to myself as the idea gained momentum, only to come up short at the thought: What exactly could I do for him anyway?
I’d spent most of the day mulling over that, but by early evening still could only draw a complete blank. Now, there were other things to ponder, like Orion’s upcoming show, how to work with my new partner without him discovering my secret, and why it was suddenly important that I uphold myself to some weird standard of integrity that I’d heretofore never bothered with. I mean, who cared if I was lying to people. Right?
“Miss Ivy, where are you drifting off to?”
I twitched and nearly pulled my hand away from Wilma, the manicurist and token straight girl at The Red Door salon. Wilma merely gave me a patient look and retrieved my hand. “Sorry,” I said. “Just thinking to myself.”
Wilma blinked at me before returning her attention to my cuticles. “That’s why I asked you. You look so serious. What are you thinking of?”
“Oh, nothing much.”
“Nothing much, she says.” Rhoxie, The Red Door’s proprietor and sorcerer supreme of hair styling, arched his eyebrow at me in the mirror as his fingers nimbly rolled tufts of my lola’s hair into curlers. “After you’ve been blushing then smiling then frowning like that? You, girl, are either lying or you’ve been dropping hairpins faster than I thought.”
“Oooh, tell, tell!”
Shawna, Rhoxie’s second-in-command, and Sam, Rhoxie’s second-in-command—don’t ask, it’s the only way to keep those two from waging a full-scale war on each other—started up the chanting, so that even their own clients, plus the few customers who were sitting waiting for their turn, looked over at me. Lola lowered her copy of Seventeen and glanced at me questioningly in the mirror. Wilma gave me another expectant blink.
Oh, I’m lying again, am I? I shoved the thought away, annoyed at this new, moralistic addition to the voices in my head. Looking away from the red-and-black, art-deco’ed roomful of people eyeing me curiously, I caught sight of the showbiz magazine that lay forgotten on my lap. On the page was a photo of a handsome, smirking youth who looked like every teenage girl’s bad-boy fantasy come to life. I raised the magazine to show it to the others.
“You know this guy?” I knew that posing the question to the Twin Fonts of Gossip, aka Shawna and Sam, would cause me to be inundated with information I already knew, but as a distraction, nothing else would work better.
Sure enough, Sam gave an ear-piercing squeal. “Eeeek! Ian Richard Manansala, mine papa. Only sixteen years old and already so luscious!”
“Youngest son of a senator and a former B-movie actress. He’s only made one commercial so far but people are already calling him Black Sugar,” Shawna rattled off as he painted his client’s hair auburn. “I hear he’s modeling now, and there’s talk that he’s going to be signed up as one of the hosts for that new teen talk show on Channel 5.”
“Tender, juicy hotdog in a bun!”
“Oooh, Black Sugar. He’s that yummy boy in the Pepsi ad, right?” his client asked.
“That’s him,” Shawna replied.
“I wanna sink my teeth into his—”
Rhoxie paused to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Shut up, Sam, you’re making me hungry. Why do you ask, Miss Ivy? Getting the Black Sugar rush, are you?”
I laughed. “No way. It’s just that I saw him today and I got curious.” That announcement predictably led to another round of shrieking demands for details interspersed with more biographical information about the rising teen star known as Black Sugar. Aware of my Lola’s eyes upon me, I kept my gaze trained on Ian’s young James Dean-esque visage, recalling my meeting with him earlier.
“Hello…Ivy, right? Nice to meet you,” he’d said as he shook my hand, his eyes sparking with interest as he looked me over. “Wow, I can’t believe I’m finally meeting the mysterious Shoujo Shine Girl in person. You’ve got everyone wondering who you really are, you know? You’re one of the industry’s best kept secrets.”
“It’s fun to keep people wondering, isn’t it?” Fully conscious of Morisato-san and Orion watching my every move, I gave Ian the trademark Shoujo Shine Girl innocent-with-a-dash-of-naughty smile. This resulted in the gleam in his eyes deepening in direct proportion to the intensity of the glare his heavily made-up girlfriend was aiming at me. “Good to have you onboard, Mr. Manansala,” I went on briskly, uncomfortable at the idea of drawing any more of his attention.
He gave me the smirking grin that had set a million female hearts a-fluttering. “If I get to call you Ivy, then you get to call me Ian. So where’re your parents? Or are you here with your manager?”
“My parents live abroad. I came here with Alisha and Mr. Morisato.”
“Yeah? So you’re alone, huh? You must be pretty grown up, Ivy,” he drawled.
I tilted my head demurely, the lie launching itself automatically from my mouth. “I’ll be thirteen soon. That’s pretty grown up, right?”
As the meeting progressed, Ian kept sending me what he probably thought were smoldering looks while his arm-candy clung to him like a wet tissue on a glass tabletop. Any other time, I’d have been fighting to keep from cracking up at his attempts to play the suave man of the world to my naïve ingénue, but all I could think of was how young he seemed. Maybe it was a case of a fraud sniffing out another fraud but I could see right through him, and it occurred to me how sad it was that Ian and I had never actually met, even though we’d been sitting across each other and talking for at least an hour. If Migs had been there, he’d have probably dismissed the meeting as a waste of his life and walked out, or he’d have done away with the inanities and gotten straight to the point.
If Migs had been there…I took a sip of my soda to hide an inexplicable rush of emotion, and when I lifted my eyes again, it was to find Orion Kenichi staring at me.
“Is he the guy you’re in love with, Miss Ivy?” Wilma asked, jolting me back to reality.
“What? No!” I gasped. “Like I said, I just happened to have seen him earlier. And I’m not in love with anyone, for goodness’ sake.”
I shook my head, hoping they’d take the hint and drop the subject. As bad as it was having several strangers witness a discussion of my sub-zero love life, my Lola’s disquieting attentiveness somehow made it worse. She hadn’t spoken yet but I found myself dreading the moment when she did, and I only hoped the chaos following my grandmother’s zingers wouldn’t prove too unmanageable.
As usual, though, the universe had other ideas. Rhoxie, Sam and Shawna—and I swear, even their clients—all shared a jaded look. Sam even burst into tinkly giggles, the peroxide blonde rat.
“Oh, girl, why don’t you just admit it?” Rhoxie prodded. “I’ll be able to tell from your hair anyway. Hair never lies.”
I snickered. “You talk to hair? I think you need a boyfriend way more than I do.”
“He does! He does!” Sam chirped while Shawna and the others laughed.
“What I mean is,” Rhoxie went on after glaring his subordinates into silence, “I can tell when someone’s in love by how healthy her hair is. It’s these pheromones or what-have-you, the ones that give you that rosy, blossoming glow. And when you’re heartbroken, your hair looks as limp and lifeless as you feel.”
“Oh, is that why women like getting haircuts when they’re feeling lovelorn?” Shawna’s client asked.
“Fine, fine,” I said breezily, waving my free hand. “I bow to your superior knowledge of hair psychology, Doctor Rhoxie.”
“My granddaughter has the loveliest hair,” Lola suddenly announced.
“Oh no,” I moaned, covering my face with the magazine.
“You do, Miss Ivy,” Wilma put in. “Your hair’s so soft and smooth and shiny. I bet your boyfriend loves to play with it. I bet he kisses it when you’re not looking.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend, Wilma. You’ve been gorging on telenovelas again, haven’t you?”
“No, wait, wasn’t there somebody?” Sam scrunched up his face in thought before breaking out in smiles. “Oooh, Jay, right?”
“It’s Jeff, and no, we broke up a long time ago.”
“What about Bernard?” Shawna tried.
“Who the hell’s Bernard?” I asked, bewildered.
“Ay, wrong client. Pretend I said nothing.”
“For the last time, I don’t have a boyfriend,” I stated, enunciating each word until they practically clanked. “I am not in love with anyone. What I am is on a meatless diet.”
“So’s Rhoxie.” Sam grinned, then screeched when a brush bounced off his shoulder.
“You leave my diet alone,” Rhoxie snapped. “And we have senior citizens here, so if you don’t mind, could you kindly try not to offend our clients?”
“Oh that’s all right, iho,” Lola said serenely. “I don’t like to brag, but I’m very good at preparing meat dishes myself.”
“Ay, Lola.” For a moment, Sam’s shocked whisper was the only sound in the room. Then Wilma looked over at me and said, “Your Lola is scary, Miss Ivy.”
“Ahaha,” was all I could say.
Blessed normalcy dared to return after that. Unfortunately, not even sainted normalcy stood a chance against my grandmother when she was in a determined mood. She gave me a look in the mirror and asked, in a gentle voice that I swear must have carried all the way across the street: “What about Miguel, dear?”
My heart stopped for an instant, then started frantically back up again, and despite my black belt in outright fakery, I found that all I could manage was a reedy “Huh?”
Rhoxie’s eyebrow arched again while Shawna and Sam grinned at each other. “Miguel. That’s who I meant. Not Bernard,” Shawna said with a firm nod.
“Engineering student in UP?” Sam said to Shawna as though I hadn’t spoken.
“Yeah. His family owns the apartment she lives in.”
“Wait a minute—”
“He was one of those child geniuses featured in the Inquirer last summer.”
“Cute, nice hair, glasses, loves to study, the quiet type but really sweet.”
“Yes, that’s him,” Lola said happily. “Such a nice boy. He strikes me as very mature and responsible, especially at his age. He even offered to fix—”
“He’s thirteen years old!”
All eyes swung toward me at my outburst, and the heat radiating from my face began to pose a hazard to the assortment of chemicals around us. I drew in a breath to regain my composure and fixed them a steely look. “I am going to assume you just conveniently forgot how young he is, and leave it at that, okay? The subject is now closed.”
“But if he’s thirteen, then he’s perfect for you,” Shawna’s client pointed out. Shawna hastily explained things while I waited, resigned, watching her eyes grow wider and wider as she stared at me in the mirror. “Really? But you look so young.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot.” I sighed. “And now you understand. Not that I’ve ever considered Migs boyfriend material or anything,” I added carelessly.
“Why not?” Shawna’s client asked.
“Whaaa—” I trailed off, unable to believe what I’d just heard.
“He sounds wonderful. Besides, if you love each other, I’m sure you can work it out.”
“You know, ineng, that age gap between you will matter less and less as you two grow older,” Lola said conversationally while I continued to gape like a beached fish.
“Yeah, and you don’t look older than him anyway, so who’s to know?” Sam added.
Rhoxie clucked his tongue as he covered my grandmother’s head with a red shower cap. “Oh, Miss Ivy, don’t you know that self-denial is bad for the skin? Why go on a meatless diet when cute, sweet Miguel is there for you to feast on?”
“S-self-denial? Feast? Are you even listening to yourselves?” I demanded. “Seven years isn’t an age gap, it—it’s an age canyon. There’s no way—aaargh!” I passed my hand over my eyes and sent out an appeal for patience to any deity who was listening in. “Okay, okay, I get what you’re all saying, illegal, immoral and insane as it is. But this age gap between us isn’t even an issue. You know why? Because Migs and I aren’t like that! He and I are just good friends, no more, no less, forever and always, amen.”
Becoming aware that my voice had steadily risen, I slumped back into the crimson couch, the color of which my face was valiantly striving to match.
“Anyone else get the feeling we hit a nerve there?” Shawna murmured.
“Oh.” His nosy client actually sounded disappointed. “He doesn’t like you that way?”
My hand tingled with the memory of Miguel’s touch just as my grandmother’s placid gaze met mine in the mirror. There were only a few people in this world I couldn’t lie to, and it was just my luck that one of them happened to be in the room with me at that moment. “He might have a bit of a crush on me, I guess,” I muttered with acute reluctance, then added in a rush: “But it’s just a temporary thing, and besides, there’s this girl he hangs out with, a childhood friend who’s totally crazy about him, and it’s only a matter of time before he wises up and returns her feelings.”
I paused to swallow the bad taste that crawled up my throat whenever the subject of Lala came up. “Plus, his family would never let me get within a hundred paces of him if they thought there was something fishy going on between us. So it’s lucky for me there’s nothing going on, eh? At least there’s no chance of me getting kicked out of our apartment.”
Lola frowned. “His family?”
“Wow, that’s like Romeo and Juliet,” Sam sighed dreamily.
“Do you think his family doesn’t like you?” Lola prompted.
I glanced around the salon, wishing fervently that I were anywhere else. Nobody was even pretending to read their magazines anymore. Every unoccupied eye was focused on me. “Um, I really don’t know, Lola,” I hedged. “His mom—well, I guess we just never had a chance to get to know each other. But Reese is great, as you already know.”
“All done.” Wilma sat back and began to pack her things away. I nearly flew off the couch in my eagerness to escape, but was stopped by Wilma’s hand on my arm. “It’s okay to be in love, Miss Ivy,” she said, smiling mistily. “It suits you.”
“I am not—oh, to hell with it.”
I gave up when I realized that Wilma had already moved on to her next client. After settling the bill, I went over to my grandmother, who was thumbing through the latest issue of Candy while she waited for her hair to be done. “Lola, would it be okay if I left you here for a while? I know Lolo went to buy pork barbecue for dinner, but he might want a vegetable dish, too.”
“I was just about to suggest the same thing,” Lola said. “There’s some cabbage and carrots in the refrigerator; I’m sure you can do something with those. But you don’t have to come back. Stay and keep your Lolo company. I can go home by myself.”
“No, it’s all right. I’ll come to pick you up as soon as I finish cooking.
“Ineng, I’m sure I can manage the one tricycle ride from here back to your apartment. It’s not even raining anymore, look. Now hurry off or you might miss…”
Lola smiled. “Nothing, dear.”
I gave my grandmother a strange look, but she’d already dismissed me in favor of her magazine. I’d just let myself out the door when I heard her address the others in the room: “Tell me, how is it that you know so much about dear Miguel?”
“Ay naku, Lola, how could we not, when every time your granddaughter comes here it’s always ‘Migs this’ and ‘Migs that’?”
“That’s right, talk about me behind my back, why don’t you?” I groused as I walked to the corner of the block toward the waiting line of tricycles, a lit cigarette between my freshly manicured fingers. The air was cool from the rain, and the wet pavement was a sparkling trail beneath my feet, reflecting the light from the streetlamps and signs on the shops that lined the street.
Bits and pieces of the recent conversation began drifting back. Me, in love? I scoffed. Pfft, spare me. Why people kept misunderstanding my relationship with Miguel I had no idea, but it was really starting to get on my nerves. I mean, for fuck’s sake, couldn’t a girl and guy be friends and hang out together without people automatically assuming there’s something going on between them? And can’t a girl look good anymore without people attributing it to some guy’s influence? And here I thought we were living in the 21st century already.
Besides, Miguel was all of fucking thirteen! I couldn’t understand how people who knew about us could think we were in a relationship that was anything but platonic, or worse, that I would knowingly take advantage of Migs’ inexperience or his attraction to me to serve my own selfish ends. I wasn’t like that! I wasn’t like Tito Julio or Manny the Maniac or any of those other perverts. I wouldn’t do that to him, not to Migs, never. He meant too much to me. Why couldn’t they see that?
In fact, if people knew the truth about me, they wouldn’t be so quick to jump to conclusions. And the truth was…I couldn’t fall in love. Not in the normal, adult sense, anyway. It just wasn’t in me. Whatever brain switch or hormone or internal thingamajig that enabled normal people to feel physical desire for a member of the opposite sex—or the same sex, believe me, I’d checked—was locked in stasis along with my body. No matter how much I wanted it to, my body couldn’t respond; all the warm, fluffy feelings could be there, with none of the corresponding physical reactions. I’d hoped things would change once I found a guy I really liked, but that hope withered away when Jeff took my unresponsiveness and foot-dragging when it came to taking things further as a sign that I wasn’t mature enough for that kind of relationship, and dumped me.
It was a blow to my pride as much as anything: No matter how good an actress I was, there were some things I just couldn’t fake. Mentally, I was twenty-year-old Ivy, but physically I was still my twelve-year-old self. A twelve-year-old girl and a twenty-year-old woman sharing the same psychic shell. How’s that for body issues, eh?
So in short, Miguel was safe with me. I wished I could go up to people, starting with his overprotective mama, and explain to them that there was absolutely no danger of me besmirching the honor of their young crown prince. All I wanted was to be his friend. That was it. I just wanted to be omeone he could be himself with, someone he could care for the way I cared for him. More than that, I wanted a chance to show him how grateful I was for his presence in my life and to repay him for everything he’d done for me.
Which brought me back to my original question: how exactly was I supposed to do that?
What? Give me a break, I already said I was being stupid. Nevertheless, analyzing it in this manner made me feel as if I had a better grip on the situation. I’m still in control, I reassured myself as I got off in front of our gate. Out of habit, I glanced up at his window. His desk lamp was on, although the glow from his computer was absent. He must only be reading tonight, his idea of taking it easy. I smiled, both at that thought and at the knowledge that he was close by.
As I walked past the Santillan house, a familiar voice calling my name made me halt. “Hi, Ate Ivy.” Reese approached the fence, a heap of gray fur cuddled in her arms. The heap turned his head and blinked at me disdainfully.
“Hey, Reese. Is it just me or is Charlie putting on weight?” I poked my hand through the chain links and stroked the cat’s silky fur.
“He is, kinda,” she admitted. “He gets plenty to eat from the neighbors, but he still likes it here best, even though Trinity keeps trying to use him as a chew toy.”
“Haha, yeah, I’ve noticed. Poor Charlie. So how was practice today?”
She shrugged. “S’okay. I beat my last personal record. Kuya came to pick me up at school today, and my friends were like, all over him. It was sooo weird. Oops. Sorry, Ate. They didn’t mean anything by it, I swear,” she said with a faux-innocent smile.
“That’s okay…I guess,” I replied slowly, hoping like hell she wasn’t implying what I thought she was implying. Et tu, Reese? I didn’t blame those girls for going gaga over their friend’s cute, smart older brother. Still, what did she mean, they were “all over” him? What was wrong with kids these days?
“I’m supposed to be studying right now but…I don’t know.” Reese bent down to release Charlie then straightened with a morose sigh.
Squelching the wave of irritation at the idea of Migs being accosted by a pack of junior hussies, I played her words back in my mind and couldn’t help making a sound of disbelief. “What, in the middle of the school break? What is with your family and this obsession with academic excellence, anyway? ”
She looked away. “Kuya’s the obsessed one, not me. It was Mama’s idea. She said it’s so I could stay on the track team.”
I blinked. “Okay, she does have a point.”
“She said she wants to make sure I accomplish something this school break that isn’t a complete waste of time.”
“Oh.” The toneless way she’d spoken and the subdued expression on her face struck a chord in me, and I knew her mom’s remark had hurt her more than she was letting on. Damn. And she’d been so proud of making the track team, too. “She said that? When?”
She shrugged again. “Over the phone just a few minutes ago.”
“I see.” I bit my lip, at a loss as to what to say to make her feel better. Sometimes I really wished I had Sharm’s ability to crank out words of comfort. Then it hit me: I might not be able to do anything for Migs, but I could do something for his little sister. “Hey, are you free tomorrow?” I asked impulsively. “You don’t have practice tomorrow, do you?”
Reese’s expression shifted from dejected to surprised. “Well, no. Our coach decided to give us a break. I didn’t tell Mama though, because…um…” She gave me a guilty, pleading look that managed to convey the entirety of the situation. “My friends and I were planning to do something but…I guess I’m free. Why?”
I grinned. “How would you like to go to a photo shoot?”
Her eyes went wide. “Oh my gosh, a real photo shoot?”
“Sort of a real one, yeah,” I replied, laughing. “A designer friend of mine who also happens to be a professional photographer invited me and another model to this urban resort for a casual shoot, just so he could gain a bit of inspiration for his next designs. He asked us to bring some friends of ours, to widen the options I guess. It’s more like a half-shoot, half-pool party thing. Who knows? He might find one of his inspirations in you.” I winked at her. “So, are you game?”
“Am I? Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, this is so cool!” Reese gushed, all former good humor fully restored. “I’ll tell Lily and the others I can’t go with them tomorrow. Oh my gosh, they’d totally flip if they knew.”
My contract fluttered warningly inside my mind. “Ah, about your friends—”
“S’okay, I won’t tell anyone. Kuya practically made me swear on our Lola’s scapular,” she said, grinning. “At least you’re not denying you’re the Shoujo Shine Girl anymore.”
I heaved a dramatic sigh. “What choice do I have, after your brother went and ratted me out?”
“But he didn’t. Kuya even said you weren’t the Shoujo Shine Girl.”
“He lied, didn’t he?” I said pointedly. “He might as well have told you.”
Reese paused, then giggled. “You’re right. Kuya’s a lousy liar. He’s coming too, right?”
“If he wants to, sure.”
“Oh, he’ll want to. You’ll be there.”
I strategically let her teasing slide. “Anyway, you’d better finish your studying tonight if you want to party tomorrow,” I instructed. “That’s my only condition.”
“Aw, do I have to?” Reese whined, although her heart wasn’t in it anymore.
“Yes, you do,” I said with mock sternness. “But here’s a little something to inspire you.” I crooked my finger at her to make her draw closer, peered around as if to check for eavesdroppers, then whispered: “I hope you like Black Sugar.”
“You mean he’s—oh my gosh!” Reese squealed, then clapped a hand over her mouth when I giggled and shushed her. “Okay, finish studying, got it,” she whispered back. “Thanks, Ate. Oh, I almost forgot. Could you do me a favor and tell Kuya to come home? Mama’s on her way home, and he’s gotta be back here by the time she arrives.”
“Sure, but isn’t Migs up in his room?” I asked, confused.
“No, Nay Loring said he went over to your place over an hour ago to talk to your Lolo.”
Without further ado, I turned and ran to the stairs, propelled by a healthy amount of dread and a vague premonition of impending disaster. I rushed into the apartment, tossed my bag onto the rug, burst onto the balcony and beheld…
“Well, firefly! Took you long enough. Here, have some fish crackers. Pour yourself a drink while you’re at it. There would’ve been some barbecue too, but this boy of yours eats like a horse.”
…a scene devoid of bloodshed so far. There was only my grandfather, who was looking suspiciously ebullient, and a miniature disaster site on the table consisting of empty gin bottles and glasses, a mess of barbecue sticks, and a layer of yellow crumbs and ash.
And, of course, Miguel. He was standing up and smiling broadly at me, dark eyes alight behind his glasses, a tinge of red on his cheeks. He was dressed rather nicely in jeans and a blue polo shirt, for some reason. I let my gaze roam over him, noting the lack of open wounds, blood stains or other bodily injuries, then surveyed the floor. No shards of broken glass either. I breathed a sigh of relief, thankful that Lolo hadn’t gotten around yet to teaching Migs how to smash a bottle on the edge of a table without getting your hand sliced to ribbons or some other dubious survival skill. At least I didn’t have to add a trip to the emergency room to the damage control I had to do.
Dragging my eyes back up to his face, I found myself caught in his gaze, which had grown noticeably warmer during my inspection. My insides melted, and I thought faintly that Reese’s girlfriends could not be held responsible for their reactions to him. Especially if he’d smiled at them the way he was smiling at me now.
The way he was smiling at me now? Waaaait a minute…
“Hi,” he greeted me. “Had a good time at the salon? Here, have a seat.”
He offered me his chair, but I shook my head. “Thanks, but I’ve been sitting for hours.”
“Okay, have it your way.” He plopped himself back in the chair and shrugged at my Lolo. “She didn’t want to sit. I asked her and she said no. So what’s the probability of this being portentous?”
“I’d answer you if I knew what the hell you’re talking about,” Lolo replied cheerfully. “Uses big words, this boy of yours,” he said to me. “Where’s Rosa? Ain’t she done yet?”
“Portentous is…itself in the realm of probability,” Miguel murmured, apparently to himself, then chuckled and shook his head. “Nope, does not compute.”
“She’ll come home in a little while.” I was too distracted by Migs’ bizarre behavior to take issue with Lolo’s calling him my boy. “All right, what have you two been up to?” I demanded, planting my hands on my hips.
“We were having a discussion about probabilities and risk assessments.” Miguel plucked a fish cracker from the bowl, grabbed my hand, and wrapped my fingers around the yellow crisp. “For you, love. Don’t say no,” he said huskily, and despite the complete absurdity he’d just uttered, my heart did a back flip anyway.
Is he flirting with me? Migs?
“He was telling me about stocks and bonds. I reckon he was, anyway. Hell, I ain’t sure what he was talking about half the time,” Lolo informed me, looking inordinately pleased with himself. I wanted to shake him until his teeth rattled.
Instead, I rounded on Miguel. “Yeah? And what do you know about stocks and bonds?”
With deliberate slowness, Migs rose again and faced me, a strange smile still playing on his lips, the playful light in his eyes stirring up a cloud of butterflies in my stomach. “Ivy, my mom’s the vice-president for finance of SEA-Pacific University,” he said, punctuating every other word with a tap on my nose. “Before that, she was dean of their School of Business and Economics. Before that, she was chief financial officer of IFC-Asia Corp. When I was a kid, I used to go through her spreadsheets and portfolios whenever I was bored, so it follows I picked up a few things. Engineering just gives me greater room to be creative, that’s all,” he finished, gently pinching my nose.
“All right, I get it.” I rubbed my nose and studied him bemusedly. Migs, being chatty? And since when has he been into casual touching?
The next moment, I noticed a familiar sweet-sharp aroma that, although it explained the peculiar way he was acting, was also the last thing I wanted to smell on him. Oh, hell no. I narrowed my eyes and stepped closer, raising myself on my tiptoes until I could feel his breath upon my face. The fact that he didn’t freeze, back away or look panicked at my sudden invasion of his personal space—merely watched me with amused curiosity—was an indication of how far gone he was.
“You’re drunk,” I accused, pulling back and glaring at him.
“Nope. I am not drunk,” he drawled. “Just really, really, really mellow.”
“No, Mr. Junior Finance Officer, what you are is shit-faced,” I snapped, then whirled around to give my criminally-inclined grandfather what-for. “Lolo, how could you? You know very well he’s too young to drink. How could you let this happen?”
“I am not too young,” Miguel declared with great dignity. He was summarily ignored.
With infuriating calm, Lolo took a drag from his cigarette and grinned toothily at me. “He asked for it,” he countered, pointing with his eyebrow at Migs. “Couldn’t refuse him, could I? Ain’t gonna start being rude to our guests.”
“I said I’m not—”
“Fine, be hospitable, whatever. But for fuck’s sake, did you have give him stainless?” I ranted, lapsing into our hometown lingo as I snatched up a gin bottle and waved it in the air. “A Coke would have been fine. A beer would have been fucking dandy. But no, you had to give him hard liquor, and now he smells as if he’d just crawled home from happy hour at a beer garden! What am I supposed to do now? I can’t send him home like this!”
Lolo tsked and shook his head. “Must be a shock for you, eh? Hearing such language from such a pretty girl,” he said to Miguel. “And you comin’ from a respectable family and all. Don’t know where the hell she gets it from.”
Forget about shaking him. I’m going to smash a bottle myself and use it on him, I thought, incensed. “Don’t change the subject, Lolo. Do you have any idea of the trouble we could have over this? What if his family—there’s a law against this somewhere—”
A pair of hands grabbed me by the shoulders and spun me around, and I found myself stunned into silence by Miguel’s furious glare. “I’m right here, in case you’ve forgotten,” he gritted out. “Quit talking about me as if I was some incompetent retard who can’t be trusted to make his own deci—” He stopped short, a funny look flitting across his face, then his anger seemed to drain away. His grip on my shoulders relaxed, and he lowered his head until his forehead touched mine. “No, Ivy,” he said in a voice that made goose bumps break out on my arms. “I won’t ever make it that easy for you again, so you might as well give up.”
“Ohoho, sounds like a declaration of war, eh, firefly?” Lolo bawled, giving the table a resounding thump and sending various glassware items clinking dangerously.
What’s going on here? This can’t be right, I thought as I struggled to contain my rising alarm over the tide of unfamiliar sensations. The butterflies were whirling around my stomach now, keeping time with the jungle drums inside my chest. The dark fire in his eyes, the feel of his hands on me, his gin-sweetened breath brushing feather-light across my mouth—oh dear. A part of me couldn’t believe I was getting so affected by him, but this part was in serious danger of being drowned out as the rest of me slowly dissolved into a quivering mass of goo. I’d felt this way around Migs before, but not like this. Something was different. It felt sharper, more intense…more frightening.
Snap out of it, you idiot. You’ve got a crisis to deal with right now. “How much have you had?” I asked brusquely, steering the conversation back to the matter at hand.
Migs released me, and I shivered a little at the sudden chill. “Not much, if that’s what you want to hear.”
“Over half a bottle, and he ain’t even slurring yet. Must be all that barbecue he’d scarfed down,” Lolo interrupted gleefully. “Oy, not bad for a first-timer, boy.”
I shot my grandfather a baleful look. “I’m not done with you yet, Lolo.” With a sigh, I grabbed Miguel’s arm and pulled him inside. “Come on. Reese said your mom’s on her way home, and you’ve got to be back by the time she gets here,” I said, keeping my approach efficient and businesslike.
Migs grunted. “Or what? I’ll turn back into a pumpkin? What are we doing in here?” He let me push him into the bathroom then turned toward me curiously.
“Trying to mask that eau de Ginebra fragrance of yours,” I muttered, scanning the contents of the medicine cabinet. “I don’t suppose you’d want to munch on onions and garlic? We’re out of Coke and—what are you doing?”
He’d moved to stand behind me and, as I watched warily in the bathroom mirror, he wound a lock of my hair around his fingers and examined it with a thoughtful frown. “You ought to get your money back from that salon, because your hair doesn’t look any different than before,” he said matter-of-factly. “Doesn’t feel any different, either.” To my shock, he brought my hair to his nose and breathed in deeply. “Smells the same, too. Like strawberries and rain. And Philip Morris. Crazy combination, but it works for me.” In the mirror, he looked at me with sleepy eyes and smiled.
“Stop that,” I scolded shakily, twisting around and tugging my hair out of his hand, The Red Door crew’s recent discourse on hair echoing in my mind. Jesus, couldn’t they have made this bathroom any smaller? I fumed. Retreating one crab-step to the side, I grabbed a toothbrush in a plastic Hello Kitty tumbler and a tube of toothpaste, and shoved these at him. “Here. Brush your teeth twice, then take that bottle of Listerine and rinse your mouth with it. Maybe that’ll help.”
He glanced down at the toothbrush, then up at me. “Is this—?”
“Yeah, it’s mine, don’t sweat it. We can use some of Lolo’s cologne to—oh no.” I grabbed his shirt and sniffed it, then groaned. “Aw shit, you’ve been sitting downwind from Lolo, haven’t you? Your shirt smells like the bottom of an ashtray. Take it off.”
His glasses slipped a little down his nose. “Excuse me?”
I scowled, aware that I was blushing furiously. “You heard me. Take it off. I’ll get you another shirt.”
Nearly tripping in my haste to get away from this bold, new Migs, I headed toward the room I shared with Sharm, dived among my grandfather’s things, and pulled out a shopping bag and a bottle of cologne.
“Oy! Is that my new shirt?” Lolo cried indignantly from the balcony.
“Consider it payment for damages incurred,” I threw back over my shoulder as I hurried to the bathroom, only to freeze and nearly drop the bag and the bottle.
Miguel was in the middle of stripping his shirt off, but he paused and glanced toward me when I gasped, one eyebrow raised. “What? This is what you wanted, right?”
“Ah—yeah,” I choked out, gaping as he pulled his shirt over his head, ran a hand through his hair to smooth it down and readjusted his glasses, the fluorescent light playing upon the planes and contours of his body like some cheesy R-rated movie special effects. My gut seemed to implode, making tingly waves of heat flow up to my scalp and down to my toes. I felt hot, lightheaded and short of breath, and for an instant, I was afraid I was about to humiliate myself by swooning at his feet.
What the hell am I doing? I thought frantically. This cannot be happening to me.
“Ivy? Are you okay?”
At his query, I tore my gaze away from the bare expanse of skin before me, and was horrified to find him standing close again. Looking concerned, he brushed his fingers against my cheek, running his thumb lightly against the corner of my mouth. I squeaked and jerked back, and my heel caught the corner of the bathroom door and made it swing partially shut. Having ascertained for himself that I wasn’t running a fever, and grinning now like a little boy who was up to no damn good, Miguel continued stalk me until I was backed up against the door, which shut completely behind me. He braced his hands against the door on either side of my head, effectively trapping me. His grin faded, and for a moment we just stared at each other, silent except for the sounds of our mingled breathing and my heart thundering in my ears, waiting for—oh hell, I didn’t know, for the turning of the tides, for a sign from heaven, for him to lower his head to mine, I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I didn’t know…
Then, just as I was about to push him away—at least I hoped I was going to push him away—he snorted, bit his lips, and burst out laughing. “What’s wrong with you? You look so weird, all red and fish-eyed like that,” he gasped out in between gales of mirth. “Is this some new role you’re rehearsing? Boiled Lapu-Lapu Lady, maybe?”
I exhaled, feeling limp and shuddery, not to mention oddly let down and fairly pissed off. What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with you? I wanted to yell at him. How dare you get plastered and act all flirty with me, then laugh and call me some kind of cooked seafood as though it hadn’t affected you at all? And how dare you turn out to be someone who can make me feel all these strange feelings that I just cannot deal with right now? This is all your fault, Miguel Alejandro Santillan!
“Oh, now you’re looking scary.” Completely impervious to my poisonous aura, Migs laughed again and draped his shirt on my head. “Don’t be so uptight, Ivy. Go get a shot of gin if Lolo Simon hasn’t gulped it all down yet. Better yet, make it two shots. You look like you need it.”
But it’s not totally his fault, another voice countered inside my mind as I took refuge in the unexpected shelter underneath his shirt. Sure, he’d been an idiot who’d gotten himself hammered and was now channeling Pepe Le Pew, but it wasn’t as if I was some wide-eyed innocent either. Fact was, I should’ve been above all this. I’d been subjected to far worse advances, but I’d never felt this unbalanced to the core. I’d been around guys who were, literally, Mr. Body Beautiful contest winners—guys so scorching hot they could reduce a normal woman to a pile of soggy underwear with a single look—but I’d never reacted like this. Why did it have to be Migs, of all people? It made no sense at all.
No, wait, it did make sense. I was such a twit for not seeing it. My body was stuck as a twelve-year-old, right? So of course it’d be physically attracted to a male around the same age. That didn’t mean there was anything wrong with the rest of me, right? Right.
Reassured by my sound analysis of the situation, I pulled his shirt off my head, muttering, “I like you better when you’re sober.” Only then did I notice the gold cross pendant hanging from a chain around his neck. Before I could stop myself, I reached out and touched the cross, lifting it off his chest for a closer look. “This is pretty,” I remarked, trying not to notice that I was noticing how warm and smooth his skin was.
“It was Papa’s.”
“Oh.” I glanced up at him, noting his guarded expression, which was the closest to his usual self I’d seen him so far that night, before returning my attention to the necklace. “An heirloom from your father. It’s sweet of him to give it to you.”
He pulled the cross out of my hand without looking at me. “He didn’t give it to me. He was already dead when I took it off him.”
“Oh,” I said awkwardly. I didn’t know much about his dad, only that he’d been an engineer too, had been pretty high up in some construction and real estate firm, and had died in car accident when Miguel was nine years old. Migs very rarely talked about him, and what I knew I learned from Reese or Nay Loring. Then again, I’d never really asked him about his father either. I of all people knew what it was like to have secrets, and from the little he told me, I could see that the subject of his father was a complicated one. Nevertheless, up until that moment, in my mind it had been just his Mama being both mother and father to the siblings. The cross pendant hanging around his son’s neck was my first concrete proof that Papa Santillan had indeed existed, apart from hearsay and, you know, the fact that he’d sired two children.
What had he been thinking and feeling at that moment when he took the cross pendant from his father’s body? I mused. If only his dad had lived to see how his son turned out. He’d have been so proud.
I opened my mouth to tell him that, but Miguel had already turned away. “I’ve got a question for you,” he said as he smeared toothpaste onto the toothbrush and filled the Hello Kitty tumbler with water from the tap.
“Uhuh?” This time, I was thinking, He’s using my toothbrush, and we’re both entirely okay with it.
“Remember when I first met your Lola?” he said around a mouthful of foam. “What was the deal with that pork adobo pop quiz of hers?”
My entire body went cold, then hot. “I, uh, I’ll tell you when you’re done with that. L-let me just get you some water to drink,” I stuttered, feeling for the doorknob and nearly tumbling backward out the door.
I went into the kitchen and poured some water from the fridge into a tall glass. “Damn it all, firefly, for a while there I thought I’d have to break down the bathroom door,” my diabolical grandfather hollered. “That boy of yours better be behavin’ himself or—”
“Lolo, I am not speaking to you right now,” I growled, a patent lie that only made my grandfather snicker loudly.
Miguel was rinsing his mouth when I came back. I handed him the glass of water, made him wash his face and neck for good measure while I brought the glass back to the kitchen, then returned with a towel printed with oversized sunflowers. He took it, wiped his face with it, then regarded it thoughtfully. “This is yours too, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Why? You got a problem with sunflowers?”
“Nope, not at all.” With another teasing smile, he brought the towel to his face again and sniffed it. Then he threw the towel around my shoulders and pulled me closer with it. Before I could react, he bent and nuzzled my ear, inhaling deeply. “It smells like you, love,” he whispered, pulling back to smile into my eyes.
Oh, holy hell. “Will you knock it off?” I pushed him away, blushing and exasperated now. “We don’t have time for this. And put a shirt on already, will you?”
He grinned. “I would if you’d give me a shirt to wear.”
My face went up in flames when I realized I’d been clutching his shirt, the shopping bag and the cologne bottle to my chest the entire time. I fished in the bag and handed over Lolo’s new, brown, plaid shirt. It hung loosely on Miguel, the cuffs of the sleeves dangling past his wrists. I rolled the sleeves up to his elbows as he buttoned up the shirt, then took Lolo’s cologne and sprayed him liberally with it, making us cough from the resulting aromatic cloud.
“There, now you smell like Lolo.” I leaned closer to get a whiff of him and sank back, defeated. “Like gin and cigarettes mixed with new shirt smell and Old Spice. Oh, fuck it, you’ll just have to sleep it off.”
A car horn blared at that moment. “Ma’s home,” Migs announced way too calmly for somebody about to be caught swilling gin by his über-strict mom.
“Shit! Time to go!”
I dragged him out the bathroom, pointedly ignoring Lolo’s booming invitation for Migs to come back soon so they could finish their drinking session. We ran toward the gate in the fence, but just as I was about to hammer-toss him straight through his back door, he skidded to a halt and yanked me back, sending me stumbling against him from the sheer force of my momentum.
“You haven’t answered my question yet,” he pointed out.
I gasped at suddenly finding myself pressed up against him, my hand lying flat upon his chest, feeling the steady thudding of his heart. Hastily, I dropped my hand and moved back as far his arm around my waist permitted—his arm? Oh dear, when did that happen? “What, now? Your mom’s probably looking for you already.”
He frowned. “I want to know—”
“Tomorrow,” I interrupted. “We’ve got a date tomorrow, so I’ll tell you then.”
“A date?” he echoed, eyes widening behind his lenses, his arm around me going slack.
“Yes! Ask Reese about it. When you get home, act like you’re too tired to eat and go straight to your room, okay? And don’t, for fuck’s sake, go anywhere near your mom. Now go! Wait!”
This time, it was my turn to hold him back, and as he glanced down at me, I went up on my tiptoes and kissed him softly on the cheek. “That’s for last night. Now you can go.”
His smile, before he turned and headed home, could have lit up the entire block. I closed the gate and slowly walked away, listening for sounds of shouting or furniture breaking coming from their house. There was none, thank the gods; he must have made it to his room safe and sound. I sighed and shook my head, marveling at how different Miguel was with his inhibitions stripped away by alcohol. Who knew he could be so…so…
Sexy? supplied a voice in my head.
Outrageously romantic, I corrected, then shook my head again at my own unwarranted prudery. Tell the truth, for once, the inner voice badgered. He had you dancing to his tune like a puppet on a string back there. I frowned as some of the fear began to creep back. There was no denying it; I’d reacted to Miguel in a way I never had to any guy my age or older. Damn. This could be seriously worrisome. Was I really such a—a sexual deviant? Could it be I was sicker than I thought? Sicker than even Dr. Peña thought? Doctor Buddha had mentioned therapy, maybe for good reason. Great, that’s just what I needed: A mental illness to match my physical freakiness. My life was complete.
No. No, no, no. It was just a fluke. Migs was bombed, my guard was down, and Reese had to go and tell me how her friends had swarmed all over him, thus giving my twelve-year-old self strange ideas. It was like a—like a freak combination of unlikely factors. Yeah. A once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. Never to happen again. Yeah. That’s the spirit, girl. And now…now I needed a drink.
“You get your boyfriend home safe and sound?” Lolo asked as I dropped into the chair Migs had vacated and poured myself a shot of gin, then another.
“Yes, or at least I hope so. And he’s not my boyfriend.” I lit a cigarette with shaky hands and let the nicotine work on my strained nerves. God, what a day, I groaned inwardly, a phrase I’d be repeating for the entirety of the school break. “What was Migs doing here, anyway?” I wondered, then looked sharply at him. “You didn’t drag him over here for one of your ‘discussions,’ did you?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know, eh?” Lolo waggled his eyebrows through a perfect smoke ring. “You’re slipping up, firefly. What’s the matter? Afraid you’ve met your match?”
I gave him a look, refusing to dignify that with an answer, then downed one more shot of gin for good measure.
Chuckling, my grandfather poured himself another drink then gazed out into the darkness. “People think children come into this world as lumps of clay to be molded,” he murmured. “It’s a parent’s conceit, I reckon. What they don’t realize is that children are people in their own right. They’re not here to become little copies of you. They’ll be who they are, whether you want them to or not.”
For a moment, the expression on his face turned pensive, and my chest ached from the regret I could see in his eyes. I knew my grandparents had suffered their share of disappointments, starting with Nanay’s betrayal of their dreams for her, a betrayal that had resulted in my being born. An unwanted freak. I turned away, taking a drag on my cigarette to ward off the stirrings of buried anger. How fair was it that the ones who had to pay for my mother’s selfishness were my grandparents and me?
“Bah,” Lolo grunted, dispelling the momentary touch of melancholy. “I’ll tell you this, firefly,” he went on, leaning forward across the table to fix me an intent look. “Don’t be fallin’ into the trap of underestimating peoplejust because you think you know better. You get tripped up like that, bein’ a smug sunmabitch.”
“Lolo, you’re not still talking about Migs, are you?”
“Hrmm,” he grunted again. “He’s a good boy, that Miguel of yours. Still wet behind the ears, but he’s got backbone. Stubborn, too. I wouldn’t discount his ability to get his way in any situation he finds himself in. There’s a lot you two can learn from each other, if you’d just open your eyes for once.”
I was saved from having to reply by my Lola’s arrival and my sudden realization that I had yet to start on the vegetable dish that had been my reason for coming home in the first place. That night, I was once again spared the waking nightmares produced by my inner stewpot of mental illness. In fact, I slept nearly as deeply as I had last night. I woke up slowly, too, clinging to the fading remnants of a dream. Migs and I were in the bathroom and he was standing close, his hands braced on either side of my head, but instead of laughing at me, he kissed me. Lowered his head to mine and kissed me, and I was kissing him back—
I shot upright, a hand pressed to my chest where my heart was pounding way too fast. Oh my God, it felt so real. Then I looked down and realized I’d fallen asleep with Migs’ shirt lying crumpled underneath my cheek. Oh Jesus, no wonder I was dreaming about him.
Chuckling at my own idiocy, I picked up his shirt and shook it out, then hesitantly brought it to my nose. It still smelled like Lolo’s Camels, but Miguel’s scent lingered underneath, inviting me to relax and slip back into slumber.
I’ll have to wash this before I return it, I mused as I folded up the shirt, then blinked and grinned. Then again, who says I have to return it? I held up the shirt against me. It was too big, of course, but I figured the addition of a cute belt and a pair of leggings would do the trick. It really was a nice shirt. I bet it would look better on me than on him. He owed me for bailing him out last night, anyway.
My phone beeped, startling me out of my acquisitive thoughts. It wasn’t a text message or my wake-up alarm, but a reminder I’d set two days ago: Blood test at St. Luke’s. I pushed my phone away, trying to ignore the stab of guilt. The blood test was the first of those awful tests Dr. Peña’d wanted me to take, but I’d already called up the hospital to cancel my appointment. Orion’s shoot-cum-pool party was scheduled that same day, and there was no way I could miss that. Orion Kenichi was chief designer and one of the founders of Shoujo Shine, technically one of my bosses. I could always reschedule the blood test for next week. That meant I’d have to call Doctor Buddha and reschedule my appointment with him, but I was sure he’d understand.
Informing my grandparents about my change in plans during dinner last night had been somewhat more difficult though, but aside from my Lola’s disappointed look and Lolo’s muttered “looks like he was right about this, too,” whatever that meant, they seemed to understand as well. In any case, it promised to be a day free of sharp objects and extractions of bodily fluids of any kind, and that was perfectly fine with me.
By 8:15, I was standing outside our gate with a small suitcase and my bulging canvas bag at my feet, waiting for a taxi and for my companions to arrive. I was starting to have doubts about the latter, but when I heard arguing voices coming from the other gate, I realized I shouldn’t have worried. Reese was becoming adept at the subterfuge involved in circumventing parental authority, something that would have alarmed me more if I hadn’t been a grizzled veteran of such maneuvers myself and was in no position to preach. The family car was still in the garage, but I knew that Mrs. Santillan was sometimes chauffeured around in the company car, and if Reese was feeling confident enough to be talking as loudly as she was, then the coast was already clear.
“…else was I supposed to tell her, oh genius brother of mine?”
Reese’s sarcastic voice reached me first. The rest of her emerged from the gate, dressed in denim cutoffs, sneakers and a red baby tee, her short hair held back with a pair of clips. Her face at the moment was close to matching her shirt as she turned around to yell some more at the person behind her. “If I’d told her the truth, she wouldn’t have let us out of the house at all. Ate Ivy!”
She darted over to me, her scowl dropping away. “Wow, you look gorgeous. Is that what you’ll be wearing for the shoot?”
I looked down at my tan capri pants, black tank top, and strappy flip-flops—casual, trendy and more importantly, easy to strip on and off for outfit changes, with my hair hanging loose and awaiting styling, except for my bangs, which I’d pinned to the top of my head. “You’d better hope not, or this is going to be one short shoot,” I answered, laughing. “But thanks. You look great, too. Very sporty chic.”
“Aw, I wish I could look like you, though,” she said wistfully.
“Pfft, are you kidding? You’re cute the way you are. I bet you’ll grow up to be one of those leggy gazelle-women with sculpted bodies and make everybody else jealous of you.”
She brightened up at that, although I secretly nursed a flash of satisfied vanity at her compliment. I’d taken special care with my appearance that morning, because…well, because it was an important day for me. Professionally, that is. A party and a shoot, hosted by none other than international designer Orion Kenichi. And also because…
I looked over her shoulder toward the gate. “Hey, isn’t your brother coming along?”
With that, her scowl returned. “I’m starting to wish he wasn’t. He’s being a—huh?” Her expression shifted to puzzlement when she glanced behind her. “He was right behind me a minute ago. Kuya! Come out, already! You’re not chickening out, are you?” She rolled her eyes at me and announced theatrically, “Sorry, Ate, he’s being shy again.”
“I was just tying my shoelaces, you loudmouthed gorilla,” Miguel growled as he stalked out the gate, glowering at his sister, although judging from the tell-tale flush on his face, Reese had the right of it. He’d made some effort to dress nicely, I conceded as much. He was wearing neatly pressed black jeans, black sneakers, and a dark gray shirt, which was tucked into the waistband of his jeans and buttoned up to his throat, with a white T-shirt peeking out at the collar. His almost clerical appearance was only slightly dented by his hopelessly rumpled hair, with half of his bangs hanging over his glasses and half sticking up like a mini-tsunami, as if he’d recently raked his hand through it. He looked uncomfortable, self-conscious and completely adorable. I bit my lip, but couldn’t stop the giggles from escaping.
His flush darkened, and he shifted his gaze from his intent inspection of the neighbor’s front lawn to shoot me a nasty look. His eyes went wide and his mouth dropped open, but no sound emerged. It would have been funny, except the moment our eyes met my insides fluttered weirdly, distracting me from my own snappy greeting.
Thank God for Reese and her ability to plow through dead air like a wrecking ball. “Ate, you gotta do something about him,” she demanded, jerking her thumb at him. “He’s been a total jerk all morning. He bit my head off just because I told Mama he was taking my friends and me to the mall today. Like he had any other bright ideas. All he did was hold his head and make stupid faces at the wall. I’m just so sick of studying! I want to do something fun for once, before the school break ends!”
Miguel flinched and looked pained. “Would you quit yelling? People on the other side of the planet are trying to sleep,” he hissed through his teeth.
“I’m not yelling, you are!”
I raised a hand before the battle escalated any further. “All right, kids, break it up. Reese, could you keep an eye out for a taxi, please? Migs, come with me.”
I walked him back into their gate, then stood him in front of me. He scowled, but since he was studiously avoiding my gaze, he ended up glaring at everything except me.
“You are so cute, you know that?” I said affectionately, letting him know with my tone that I wasn’t making fun of him.
That got him to look at me. “I’m not—” He stopped, turned red, and looked away again.
Look at you. Such a far cry from last night’s Latin Lover Junior. I knew better than to say that out loud, though. “How’re you feeling?” I asked instead, noting his slightly off color and the way he was squinting slightly, as if the light was too bright for his eyes.
He shrugged, grimacing. “I’ve been better.”
“I bet,” I said dryly. “I’ve got something that’ll help, but before that, is it okay if I…?”
I lifted my hands to his collar and halted meaningfully. He glanced down at my hands, swallowed and nodded. I began to undo the buttons of his shirt, revealing his T-shirt, which wasn’t plain after all but had a silhouette of the UP Oblation, a statue of a naked man with arms outstretched that symbolized the University, printed on it. A strange feeling washed over me as my hands made their way down his front—a shimmery wave of electric awareness, intensifying with each button until my fingers began to feel like wooden stumps.
Migs must have been feeling a bit strange himself, because he went back to blushing and looking at everything but me. “Um, about last night,” he began.
“I’m sorry if I said or did anything, you know…weird.”
I paused at the second to the last button. “How much do you remember?”
“Just bits and pieces,” he admitted. “Um, did I really call you some kind of fish?”
“Ah, you remember that,” I said silkily, giving him a fanged grin.
He winced. “I was hoping I’d hallucinated it. What—what were we doing then?”
You were busy making me think you were about to kiss me. And I was busy believing you. “Mm, you know, I can’t remember either,” I lied easily, turning back to my task, at least until I came to the last button right above the waistband of his jeans. My stomach contracted, and what had seemed like a good idea a minute ago suddenly seemed like a really stupid one. Focus, girl. Big sister, big sister. Sucking in a breath, I grasped his shirt and started to tug at it.
His hands on mine stopped me. “I can do that,” he rasped, again without looking at me.
I waited until he untucked his shirt, then with a goodly amount of sisterly efficiency, I pushed his gray shirt back on his shoulders a bit more, smoothed down the creases at his sides, then reached up to fix his bangs. I considered drawing his cross pendant out to add a flash of color to his monochromatic outfit, but brushed aside the idea. His dad’s necklace was something deeply personal to him, and I doubted he’d appreciate exposing it to the public like that.
“There you go. You look less armored, more laid-back,” I declared, looking him over with satisfaction.
He muttered his thanks to my feet. Sensing his embarrassment, I reached up again and ruffled his hair until he grabbed my hands and gave me a dirty look. “Oh, don’t be so morose, Migs. You’re still cute. I wouldn’t mess that up for you,” I added impishly.
Like a sunrise, his lips lifted in that sweet half-smile of his. Reese poked her head round the gate at the same moment and beamed. “Much better, Kuya, And look, you’re even smiling now. I knew Ate could turn you back into a human.”
“Oh, but I’m not done yet.” I headed over to my canvas bag and fished out a small Thermos and a large bottle of water. “Here, drink this.” I said to Migs, handing him the Thermos.
“What’s this?” he asked as Reese peered curiously at the object in his hands.
“Carrot and cabbage soup. And after that, take these.” I pulled out a small plastic bag containing two orange capsules from my pocket. “Multivitamins. Wash them down with this water. Et voila! Ivy’s morning-after first-aid kit.”
“Morning after what?” Reese wondered out loud.
He looked askance at the bottle of water. “I have to drink all of that?”
Reese nodded. “He can’t drink any more, Ate, not after all the coffee he’d drunk this morning,” she added, arching her eyebrow at her brother.
“It wasn’t coffee, it was Milo,” Migs protested. “Mostly Milo,” he added unwillingly, honest to the bitter end.
“I know what I saw, and what I saw you put in your mug wasn’t Milo,” Reese countered. “Just be glad I was the one who saw you and not Nay Loring. Or Ma.”
Miguel sagged. “There were extenuating circumstances,” he muttered, taking the capsules from me and unscrewing the Thermos to take a sip of the soup. “You made this?” he asked, his gaze sliding toward me, and smiled when I nodded. “It’s good.”
I smiled back happily. I’ve finally managed to do something for him. Well, okay, it’s just soup, but it’s a start. “You need to drink all of that—yes, the water, too. It’ll flush the alcohol out. You shouldn’t have drunk the coffee but, oh well, too late now.”
“Alcohol?” Confused, Reese turned to me. “What’s wrong with him anyway?”
I grinned like a cat, ignoring Migs’ pleading look. “He’s hungover, that’s what.”
“Hungover? As in…he got drunk?” Miguel groaned as Reese’s shock gave way to disbelieving admiration. “Oh my gosh. That’s…sorta cool, somehow. Congrats, Kuya.”
Miguel choked as he gulped down the last of the soup, and I quickly rubbed his back. “Here’s a tip, though,” I told him with studied casualness. “Next time you go drinking, make sure all the females around you are single and unattached. You don’t want to get into trouble with their significant others.” When Migs lowered the bottle of water and frowned at me, I sniggered loudly and said, “You, my friend, are an amorous drunk.”
Migs blanched while Reese gasped out “oh my gosh, what did he do?” before doubling over with laughter. I caught sight of a taxi and flagged it down, leaving him to deal with the fall-out. By the time I’d put my stuff in the trunk, Miguel’s face had regained its original color and then some. He shook off his mortified trance and held the door open for us, but when I moved past him to get into the taxi, he said in a low voice, “Maybe when I’m around you.”
I blinked. “What did you say?”
“Nothing,” he muttered, rolling his eyes.
Reese squealed. “Oooh, I heard it! He said mmph!”
Miguel clamped a hand over his sister’s mouth and dragged her into the taxi. We got off in front of the building housing the Shoujo Shine office in Makati, and I left the siblings at the café in the front lobby while I went off to reception to inform the office that we were there.
“They said they’re coming over to pick us up in a few minutes,” I said when I plopped into the chair beside Migs. “Oh, good, you’ve drunk all the water—uh, Migs? Is something wrong?”
I faltered at the dark, almost hostile look on his face, but he‘d already turned to stare out the window. Reese though looked apologetic. “It’s my fault. I told him about—”
Miguel sent her a loo, and she snapped her mouth shut. I glanced from one sibling to the other, then mentally threw my hands up. “Okay, whatever. Listen, I need to ask you guys a favor.” I took a deep breath. “See, at this shoot, nobody knows the real situation about, ah, about me. Except the Shoujo Shine insiders, of course, but—”
“Nobody’s supposed to know how old you really are?” Miguel interrupted my halting explanation.
Despite the lack of inflection in his voice, my face burned with unaccustomed shame. I peeked sidelong at Miguel, searching his face for—for something, then caught myself and shook my head a little.
“Um, yeah. Most of the people in this shoot think I’m twelve years old and a sixth-grade student at a private academy.” I went on to tell them about the provision in my contract with Shoujo Shine that forbade me from divulging my real identity to the public so as to maintain the Shoujo Shine Girl’s mystique. “Besides you two, only Orion, Morisato-san, Miss Bella, our makeup specialist, and Adrian, our photographer, know about me. So please, I’m asking you not to, you know—”
Reese gave me a thumbs-up. “No problem, Ate. We’ll play along.”
“Do they know that we know?” Miguel asked.
I thought about the fast-talking I did over the phone, explaining to Morisato-san that the friends I was bringing along weren’t Sharm and Erwin but people he hadn’t met before. Miguel’s saving grace was that I’d met him at university, which meant he wasn’t quite part of Shoujo Shine’s target demographic. Reese’s case had been more difficult, but I managed to explain that she was practically my house-mate, and besides, she and her brother were completely trustworthy. “Yeah,” I said in answer to Miguel’s question.
He regarded me silently for a while, then his gaze softened and he nodded. “Don’t worry about it.”
My entire body relaxed. “Thanks, guys,” I said, giving them a heartfelt smile.
But as we stood up to leave the café, he reached over to take my suitcase from me, and his flat stare bored into mine. “Who the hell is Black Sugar?” he demanded curtly.
My jaw dropped as it dawned on me what he was so upset about. Just then, Reese gave a gasp, her eyes trained toward the café’s front entrance.
Where, lo and behold, Ian Richard Manansala—mine papa Black Sugar himself, to quote Sam—was striding through in all his rugged glory, his girlfriend dangling from his arm, two other guys and another girl following in his wake. Every single female head turned and followed his progress like so many compass needles sighting north, and with a practiced eye, I observed how his stance very carefully did not change at all, as though he were either unaware or uncaring of his effect on his audience. I gave an inward nod of approval, as one professional image-meister to another. I’d pulled off that same cool-yet-fabulous move countless times myself.
My mouth curved in a small, cynical smile. Looked like Ian and I had more in common than he thought.
Catching sight of me, he pulled off his sunglasses and gave me a smirking grin, steering his entourage in our direction. At that same instant, I felt something like a storm cloud building up very close by. Miguel was standing stiffly at my side, his face as impassive as granite, cold dark eyes focused on Ian. A few feet away, Reese pressed a hand to her mouth and looked ready to faint.
Just then—because the universe really hates it when my life gets too boring—a pair of thin, sallow but surprisingly strong arms twined around my neck and hauled me back against a bony chest. As I gasped for air, Orion Kenichi rubbed his artfully-styled, blond- and red-streaked head against mine, and cried, “Ivy-chaaaan! Ma cherie! You came!”
From the corner of my swiftly dimming vision, I saw the small, rotund figure of Morisato-san, dressed in baggy shorts and an obnoxious red and white paisley shirt, followed by Miss Bella carrying a big, black box, and Adrian in his photographer’s vest, with the bag containing his camera hanging at his shoulder. Coming up last was another girl around Reese’s age.
Uttering an incomprehensible stream of Japanese and French, Orion gave me another exuberant hug. “And look!” he exclaimed when he released me. “You’ve brought your boyfriend along! It’s going to be a wonderful, lovey-dovey day for us, non?”
I took in large gulps of air and surveyed the scene, from Migs’ stunned expression, Ian’s sudden frown, Morisato-san’s inscrutable gaze, Orion’s sparkling grin, and everyone else’s curious stares. A kind of adrenaline-fueled calm settled over me as my consciousness split into two—the outer me that dealt with everyone’s expectations, and the inner, observer me somewhere in the back. I glanced again at Miguel and felt a pang of panic mixed with despair. I’d known when I’d invited Reese to come and bring her brother along that I’d run the risk of exposing the true depth of my phoniness to the one person whose opinion mattered the most—but it was too late to worry about that now. The stage was set, the actors were gathered, the curtain was going up.
I tucked my hair back behind my ear in a gesture of artless femininity that was pure Shoujo Shine Girl, and gave everyone a dimpled, innocent-naughty smile.
It’s show time.