Part 3: The Bridal Veil, Chapter 15

Read Part 3: The Bridal Veil, Chapter 14

The prince soon found himself blinking as shafts of light pierced through the canopy of thatch and wood-tiled roofs, crisscrossing lines of timber, and innumerable rags hanging from clotheslines. The light fell upon a courtyard that had opened up at the end of a dingy passage. The cobblestones were dull with dirt, and the fountain in the middle was cracked and dry. As he followed the young man and the peasant girl—Saya, he thought to himself, her name is Saya—into the courtyard, he discovered that they were now standing before the charred husk of a once-handsome manor. Indeed, he thought it remarkable that the manor was still reasonably intact instead of stripped of all its remaining stone, brick and flint, to be reused as building material by the inhabitants of the district. 

“We’re here,” Saya announced. 

“Wherever ‘here’ is,” muttered the prince. 

Then the young man whistled piercingly, and a stream of people emerged from seemingly out of nowhere. Children climbed out of windows and scrambled down walls, and adults swung down from rooftops on ropes and emerged from cracks in the walls. Soon, a crowd surrounded them, each face wreathed in smiles of relief and welcome as they cried: “Saya! Saya! We are so glad you’re back!” 

The prince watched as the girl was enveloped in hugs while children tumbled all about. The courtyard was soon filled with the sound of joyous laughter and voices talking over one another, telling the girl how sorry they were that they could not help her. Then the crowd made way for a strapping young man, who came forward and swept the girl into his arms. 

“By the gods, I thought I would never see you again,” he exclaimed. “If only I had been with you. As your husband, I could have protected you. Say you will marry me now that you have been freed—” 

“Ho, Nathan, put aside that torch you carry for Saya before the House catches fire a second time,” cried someone, sparking good-natured laughter from the crowd. 

“Aye, for goodness’ sake, let the poor girl breathe!” cackled one of the older women. 

The prince’s hand itched to reach for his sword and strike the blubbering peasant down, and the feeling was unusual enough that it gave him pause. In the meantime, Saya gently drew herself away from the man’s embrace. “It’s all right, Nathan, everyone. What matters is I’m free. And please, there is no need for blame. There was nothing anyone could have done. The ring was found in my possession after all.” 

“What rubbish! We know you did not steal that ring.” 

“Aye. Someone has been turning the prince’s head with some pretty lies. Either that or breathing in all that foreign air has addled his wits.” 

“Hey now, who’s this? Saya, who is your companion?” 

The prince found himself the subject of dozens of stares, some curious, some—like that of Nathan and Jen—openly suspicious. Before the prince could answer, Saya stepped in front of him. “This is Dominic. He intervened for me before the royal guard and secured my release. But in return, I must help him complete a very important quest, one that could mean life or death for him. And to do this, we need to go to the broken tower.” 

The prince, who was now called Dominic, stiffened as the crowd began to mutter uneasily among themselves. As a child, he had heard tales about the broken tower, the abandoned remains of what had once been the stronghold of an order of mages. The mages had quarreled among themselves, and their use of sorcery in their conflicts had wrought untold havoc and suffering among the kingdom’s citizens. Finally, Dominic’s great-grandfather waged war against the mages once and for all, destroying the order and tearing down their tower. He lost his life in the process, and Dominic’s grandfather banished all use of magic in the kingdom. The decree still held, and dabbling with magic in any way within the kingdom was a crime punishable by exile or death. 

Amidst the tumult caused by her announcement, he grabbed Saya’s shoulder and drew her backward against him. “What nonsense is this? The broken tower is nothing but an empty ruin, its power all but lost to legend and myth. Nobody even remembers where it is now. What good will that do us?” 

“Those stories are merely a screen,” she replied. “Magic and wisdom still abide there, which we will need to complete our quest. I don’t know how to reach the tower, but there are some among us who do.” 

A hand grasped Dominic’s hand and wrenched it away from Saya’s shoulder. “Hey now, aren’t you being too familiar with Saya?” the man called Nathan growled. 

With a twist of his arm, Dominic broke Nathan’s hold on him. “Until our quest is completed, Saya is bound to me,” he said in a voice like steel. 

“Tough words from someone afraid to show his face.” Jen drew a dagger and aimed it at Dominic’s throat. “Who are you really? Saya says you saved her, but that can only mean you must be high up in the ranks. Are you a constable? A lieutenant? Did you come here to spy on us?” 

“Stop!” Once again, Saya stepped protectively in front of Dominic, pushing Jen’s arm aside. “Jen, Nathan, stand down, please. Believe me, he is someone you do not want to hurt.” 

“They’re right, Saya. We ought to know who this man is, if we are to trust him with knowledge of the tower. Why won’t he reveal himself to us?” one of the other men spoke up as the others drew their own weapons, the tension in the air thickening. 

Dominic felt her struggle with indecision and placed his hands on her shoulders again to still her trembling, secretly relishing the scowl on Nathan’s face. “I swore to trust you,” he said quietly to her. “Do what you think is right.” 

She nodded, then turned to a stunned Jen, moving his arm that still held the dagger so that the blade was pointing at her own breast, holding it in place with both hands. “I will tell you who he is, but you must swear to me two things: to stay your hand and to keep the knowledge of his identity a secret. If any of you breaks your word—if any of you hurts or betrays him—then this blade will find my heart and kill me, too.” 

With that, Dominic pushed back the hood of his cloak, revealing himself to the crowd. To his bemusement, he saw among the shocked faces no sign of the cringing fear or fawning adoration he was accustomed to seeing among the citizens of his kingdom. 

“The prince! It’s the prince!” The words swept across the courtyard, and even Nathan took several astonished steps back. 

“Shouldn’t we bow down?” one of the children piped up. 

“There is no need, as we are not in court,” Dominic said magnanimously. “And from now on, I permit you to address me by my name—” 

“You!” Jen snarled, fury contorting his face. “The king raised land taxes to pay for your foreign holidays. We lost our farm because of you!” 

“Aye, and the king did nothing when the nobles fled from the weeping sickness and left everyone in my village to die. I will never bow down to the likes of you.” 

“My family and I are free serfs, but the king believed that fat lord’s trumped-up claim and had us arrested for bond-breaking. I was the only who escaped.” 

“Your father, the king, has been hunting down the wandering tribes, including mine—” 

“Rebels burned our village down and the king did nothing—” 

“We owe you and the rest of your overfed family nothing—” 

“Enough!” Once again, Saya’s voice rang clear above the angry voices. “Understand, none of these injustices were His High—were Dominic’s fault. And neither is this the time and place to air grievances. His life is hanging in the balance, and I gave my word that I would help him. I brought him here because I thought we would find succor among the people I consider my family, but if I am wrong, then he and I will take our leave immediately.” 

“Get out of the way, Saya,” Jen growled, his grip tightening around the dagger. “You say these injustices are not his doing, but he himself betrayed you, did he not? He broke his oath to you, abandoned you, and now he’s even accused you of theft—” 

“No.” Saya shifted, and Jen’s face turned white as crowd gasped again. “He may have broken his word, but I will not break mine. Not anyone move! Your anger is misplaced. The House has always been a sanctuary where the lonely and desperate find welcome and aid. What does it matter if the one in need is a peasant or a prince? Now, I ask you again: Will you help us find the broken tower?” 

Silence fell upon the crowd, until a young woman wearing the headscarf of the wandering tribe, who were rumored to be magic-users, stepped forward. “You wish to speak to old Ka Ramil?” she said. 

“Yes,” Saya replied. 

The young woman’s gaze shifted to Dominic. “I sense an ill form of magic upon him. A curse. It stinks up the very air he breathes. This is the trouble you seek help with?” 

“Yes.” 

“He doesn’t have much time left,” the woman continued. “I will give him a charm that will help him breathe more easily and allow him to live a little longer—thirty days at best, before the curse kills or corrupts him.” 

“Thirty days isn’t much but we will manage. Thank you, Maisha.” 

“And I will lead you to Ka Ramil.” Another young woman came forward, her accent that of the barbarian countries in the south. “I have been to his sanctuary before. I can find it again.” 

Saya bowed in gratitude. “Thank you, Hana.” 

“And the rest of them?” Dominic cast a disdainful eye upon the crowd. “I have fallen far indeed to entrust my secret to the rabble that would cut me down in a heartbeat. The word of beggars and thieves—” 

Saya whirled around and slapped him, stunning him into silence. Her face was pale and furious, and tears had gathered in her eyes. Then his gaze fell upon the front of her shift, where a slit was torn upon her breast near her heart. Blood trickled from where she had pierced herself with Jen’s dagger to prove the strength of her will to the others—a wound she had received protecting him from her friends. 

“Every single one of these ‘beggars and thieves’, Your Highness, have more honor in their little finger than in all of the strutting peacocks in your court,” she bit out. “You know well enough that magic is forbidden in this kingdom. This is precisely the reason for secrecy, for if anyone learns about your curse, you yourself will be hunted down. My friends are risking their lives to help us, and you owe them your gratitude and respect.” Before he could respond, she turned away from him to address the others. “For today, we prepare for the journey. We leave the city at dawn.”

– – – – – – – –

The week before midterms, like the week before finals, was traditionally a festival of flying notebook pages, textbooks glowing with neon highlighter, and frying brain cells. Students would be clustered around the halls of St. Helene chanting facts and figures like half-crazed monks, and the walls and floors would be liberally coated with a thin, slightly sour-smelling layer of stress hormones. More so for us A-students, since our midterms tended to cover more material and featured fun segments like essay questions and trick problems that none of the other sections had to deal with. On top of that, we had exams in our respective language programs as well, which was the Mandarin Chinese-flavored icing on top of a three-tiered sewage cake, as I’d heard Jenneth weep and moan over the years.

This year’s week-before-midterms promised to be just as grueling, but it was slightly different from the previous years’. For one thing, as I discovered early Monday morning, the stakes were a little higher than before.

“Joy, tell me it isn’t true.” Jasmine loomed in front of me from out of nowhere and grabbed my shoulders just as I took my position in line for morning assembly, which was running late apparently due to some trouble with the sound system. “Tell me this is just another stupid brain-fart the boys have come up with,” she added, giving me a little shake for good measure, making me wince from the ache in my shoulders.

“What is? What’re you talking about?” I stared at her as Sara and Lyn came to flank me, looking equally distraught. Glancing over Jasmine’s shoulders, I found the rest of 2A-Rizal, girls and guys alike, looking even more worried and glum than they usually did during the week before midterms.

“You mean you don’t know? How can you not know? It’s been all over the school since the soccer training camp last Saturday and your dorm is, like, right there,” Sara exclaimed.

My mind flashed back to my weekend at Lola Delia’s house, which I spent cleaning the bathrooms on the third floor, washing a pile of assorted linens, ironing said pile of assorted linens, and adjusting the monthly inventory account for one of the smaller grocery stores that my great-aunt owned while she lurked over my shoulder and kept an eagle eye on my work. All this in between studying for the midterms. In short, it had been a typical weekend at my great-aunt’s—that is to say, exasperating, nerve-wracking, and exhausting to the point of collapse—but it was made twice as difficult the fact that I spent nearly half the time in a semi-dazed state, able to focus on reality like a reasonably sane person for about one minute then getting lost in a rose-tinted, strawberry-flavored daze as my mind replayed that night at the preschool playground and the kisses Christian and I shared. Needless to say, it did my ability to work no good at all. By the time I dragged my stiff, aching body up the steps of the House, I had barely the energy to do some last-minute studying and haul myself up the stepladder to my bunkbed, let alone update myself on the latest on-dits. “I wasn’t in the dorm this weekend,” I explained weakly.

Sara rolled her eyes. “But you must’ve at least heard that Christian’s part of the soccer team now, right?”

“I still can’t believe it. Why would he do such a thing?” Lyn said, looking almost tearful.

“More importantly, how do we stop him? Can’t you do something to get him out of the team?” Jasmine, who still hadn’t released her grip on my shoulders, gave me another shake.

“Ow. Stop that.” I knocked her hands aside and stepped back to give myself some breathing space. “Yes, I know about Christian joining the soccer team. Why shouldn’t he? He’s only the best player in our entire class, probably even the entire school.”

“Yeah, but he’s already in a team! He can’t be part of two teams. He’ll die!” Lyn wailed.

“No, it’s worse than that. I’m guessing you haven’t heard if you’re so calm about it,” Jasmine said grimly. “They say he’s transferring to 2B-Del Pilar so he’ll have time to play for two sports teams. He’s leaving us—for them.”

I followed the direction of their collective glare past the 2A-Rizal boys’ line toward the disorderly rows of 2B-Del Pilar, which were right next to our section. The girls were either checking their phones or touching up their lip gloss in compact mirrors, lipstick being forbidden in St. Helene, while the boys were roughhousing with one another. They seemed to be the most relaxed among the five sections in the sophomore class, as if they couldn’t be bothered in the least about the upcoming midterms. Which made sense, because unlike us, they had what it took to succeed in St. Helene with or without stellar grades. Just the sight of the B-students’ carefree attitude in the face of this academic crisis tended to fill the hearts of A-students everywhere with burning resentment.

My gaze fell upon Tara and Nikki, who were chatting with their friends. I imagined Christian standing beside Tara with her arm hooked around his, or laughing along with whatever idiotic thing Tony and his pals were loudly crowing over at the moment. It wouldn’t be so bad. He’ll still be somewhere nearby. You’ll still be able to see him, I tried telling myself. See? It won’t be as if he’ll totally disappear from your life again. But my chest tightened with pain and fear, and I knew—I just knew—it wouldn’t be the same.

I became aware that Jasmine and the others were waiting for my response. “Look, nothing’s decided yet. We don’t know for sure if he really is transferring out of our section,” I reassured them, repeating what Christian himself told me.

Jasmine was already shaking her head before I even finished talking. “No, you don’t understand. Oh my god, Joy, how oblivious can you be?”

“Oblivious about what? What’re you talking about?”

Their expressions changed just before I felt something stroke my hair. Then Christian appeared from behind me, showing no sign that he was even aware he was technically late for morning assembly. I allowed myself a moment to drink in the sight of him, with his hair falling over his left eye and his necktie askew underneath his loosened collar as usual, his backpack slung on one shoulder. Oh my gosh, I missed him so much, I thought with a sigh.

“I think she’s talking about the condition Coach Gomez gave me last Saturday. Is that right?” he said, flashing the girls a dimpled grin, causing them to turn pink.

Then he gazed down at me, and his grin turned into a warm smile. And since he hadn’t stopped touching me, merely moved his hand so that his fingers were gently massaging the back of my neck in a gesture that was both affectionate and casually possessive, it was all I could do not to melt into a puddle right at their feet. “Hi,” he said softly, as if the three girls weren’t standing there gaping at us, as if we were the only two people in the world.

“Hi.” I smiled back, because for one brief moment, we were. Then sanity returned in an ice-cold rush. “Wait, what condition?”

He sighed and dropped his hand, to my disappointment. “It looks like Coach had gone ahead and consulted the department heads beforehand, and they called him up to tell him that if I don’t score at least eighty percent in all my exams, I’ll be automatically transferred to 2B-Del Pilar after midterms.”

My heart dropped to my shoes. “And if you do score eighty percent?”

“Then it’s my choice,” he answered with a one-shouldered shrug.

Jasmine and her friends let out a cry of dismay, and Christian left my side as people became aware that the prince of St. Helene had arrived and began clamoring for his attention—the boys in our section who launched into desperate pleas for him not to abandon them, the other girls in my line who smiled and greeted him, even people from the other year levels who called out his name and waved at him, so that he proceeded to spend the next few minutes turning this way and that to exchange pleasantries coming in from all directions.

And maybe it was just me, but as I stood there wrestling with my own anxiety, I couldn’t help noticing that he spoke the longest with the students of 2B-Del Pilar. Several different conversations seemed to fly at him all at once, and I managed to catch bits and pieces—how well the day-long soccer training camp last Saturday had gone, something about somebody’s weekend shopping trip in Hong Kong and somebody else’s vacation at some five-star resort that was just a plane-ride away, some gossip about how somebody’s brother broke up with his model-girlfriend, and of course, highlights from Megan’s party at the Shangri-La. He seemed to know everyone and everything the 2B-Del Pilar students knew—names and places and goings-on that might as well have been complete gibberish to me.

He fits in with them perfectly. The thought sent a pang through me and I turned away, not wanting to see any more proof that he belonged in 2B-Del Pilar, not with us in the nerd section. My gloomy thoughts were thankfully cut short when feedback from a microphone stabbed the air, followed by the vice-principal’s voice blaring across the courtyard, admonishing us to straighten up our lines as the assembly was finally about to start.

A while later, I fell into step beside him as we filed out of the court and headed toward our classroom. “Why didn’t you tell me about the condition earlier?” I asked in a low voice.

“I didn’t hear about it myself until the next day during training camp,” he answered. “And I was going to tell you, but when I dropped by the House they told me you were spending the weekend at your great-aunt’s place.”

“Oh. Right.” My shoulders sagged, and it occurred to me that it would’ve been easier to contact him if I’d had a cell phone, but I wasn’t about to admit to wanting one just yet.

“Yeah, well, I should’ve figured you’d go home for the weekends. I just really wanted to see you, I guess,” Christian confessed, his cheeks reddening. Then he gave me a thoughtful look. “I wasn’t expecting a great-aunt, though. I don’t remember you ever mentioning her.”

“I never did. She’s kind of a long-lost relative,” I muttered to the floor, my own face flushing with embarrassment. I really didn’t want to talk about Lola Delia, especially with Christian. Somehow, bragging about my ability to clean tiling grout, whip up a three-course meal, and iron and fold fitted bedsheets like a pro didn’t strike me as the kinds of things a girl could impress the prince of St. Helene with.

“Yeah, a relative who should’ve stayed lost longer,” Jenneth piped up from Christian’s other side. “She’s less like her great-aunt and more like this crazy dragon-lady with control issues, right, Joyous?” When I shot him a warning glare, he pursed his lips and tried to look innocent. “Whoops, too much? Sorry. That’s not what I meant to say, anyway. What I wanted to say is, this thing about you transferring to 2B-Del Pilar or not? Maybe it’s God telling you to get a clue about where you really belong,” he said to Christian.

“You’re talking for God now, huh?” Christian drawled, lifting an eyebrow.

Jenneth waved a hand the air carelessly. “God, life, whatever. I’m just saying you might be making this way too hard on yourself, not to mention everyone else. Just make up your mind up about what you are, Prince Dreamboat, and the choice would be obvious.”

“Wait, Jenneth, what’re you saying?” I asked with a frown.

“In simple terms: Are you a jock or a nerd? You’ve been gone for a while so maybe you don’t know this, but here in St. Helene, you can’t be both.” Jenneth tossed Christian an arch grin over his shoulder before heading off to his chair.

I shot my best friend another glower before turning to Christian. “Sorry. He didn’t mean—”

I trailed off when I caught the narrow-eyed look on Christian’s face. “Guess we’ll just have to wait and see,” he returned coolly before going to his own chair in the back of the room.

I sank into my own chair and buried my face in my hands. Great. Just what I needed. My best friend and my—my, um—my special childhood friend sniping at each other on top of the pressures of the midterms, my worry over the decision Christian was going to make, and setting our plan to deal with his bullying fangirls into motion.

I let out a long sigh. It was going to be an interesting week.

It got a bit more interesting come lunch period. I’d almost forgotten about the strange escalation in the tension between Christian and Jenneth, and when the bell finally chimed, I grabbed my bag and turned to Christian to extend my now customary offer. “Would you like to eat lunch with us? We could get some studying done while we’re at it.”

Christian gave me a regretful smile as he brushed his thumb back and forth across my cheek . “Thanks, but I’ve got something I need to do right now.”

“Yeah, Joyous, when has he ever condescended to share a meal with us peasants?” Jenneth put in as he joined us.

“Must be hard for you to eat when you keep cutting your mouth with that tongue of yours,” Christian said dryly.

Jenneth bared his teeth in a patently false grin. “Yeah, if only I could afford to hire someone to chew my food for me like—”

“Right! Okay! Looks like this conversation’s over.” I stepped in between the two boys, cutting off whatever barbed retort my best friend was about to throw out. Placing my hands on his shoulders, I turned Jenneth around bodily and began pushing him ahead of me out the door and into the hallway. “What’s gotten into you?” I hissed at him. “Please tell me you’re just hungry and not really thinking of picking a fight with him.”

Jenneth pouted over his shoulder. “I just don’t like how he keeps brushing you off. Isn’t he supposed to be really into you or something?”

“N-never mind that,” I said hastily, my face going hot, before turning to Christian. “Um, anyway, we’ll—oh.”

I blinked when I realized was talking to thin air. “He just left,” Jenneth said brightly, while I threw him a glare. “Hey, wait, where’re you going?”

“To look for him,” I hollered back as I set off in the direction of the blushing giggles and dreamy stares that Christian left in his wake. “You go on ahead. I’ll follow in a bit.”

“What, alone? Joyous—”

Smiling, I tossed over my shoulder. “All part of the plan, remember?”

I flew down the stairs, taking the steps two at a time, then wove between the milling bodies in the hallway. I caught a glimpse of a familiar backpack in the distance, which disappeared in the direction of the front hallway. He must be headed off-campus again for lunch. Alone? Or with someone—?

Another pang inside my chest prompted me to quicken my pace, and I skidded and slipped as I made a sharp turn into the hallway. In my rush, I accidentally bumped into one of a trio of guys who were standing around in the hallway checking their phones. “Watch it, Garbage Girl,” he snapped.

“Sorry,” I muttered, not even looking at him as Christian vanished through the doors.

Then my view was blocked when another guy, one of the companions of the one I’d bumped into, stepped directly into my path. “Whoa, just the girl we’ve been looking for. Here,” he said, laughter lurking in his face as he shoved an empty, half-crushed plastic water bottle with a crumpled up sandwich baggie stuffed inside it at me.

I took a step back reflexively, letting the bottle clatter to the floor, only to find the guy I’d bumped now standing directly behind me, while the third boy cut me off when I tried swerving to the side and walking around the second guy. I looked up at the three of them surrounding me as a sharp rush of adrenaline flooded my bloodstream.

“Excuse me, you’re in my way,” I said out loud, sliding a hand into my pocket to grasp the slim, rectangular object I’d stuffed in there that morning along with my Post-It coupons, and pressing a button with my thumb. Plan or not, I hadn’t quite expected to be using the gadget so soon; on the other hand, it seemed my idea to walk around the school alone and draw bullies out was working, despite Jenneth’s disapproval. I assessed the guys in front of me, marveling at their boldness in bucking Christian’s warning about hassling me. Well, no wonder. They were from 2B-Del Pilar and members of the soccer team—Christian’s new teammates, in fact. Not the type who’d be easily cowed by his superior social rank or the rumors swirling around about him getting into trouble at his old school for fighting.

I was suddenly glad for the little device tucked inside the folds of my skirt. Thank God I’d found the courage and the last dregs of energy last night to ask Nathan if I could borrow it.

“Oh hey, not cool.” The guy who’d tried to give me the bottle tsk-tsked at me. “You better pick that up, Garbage Girl, or we’re turning you in for littering.”

“That’s not mine, and you’re in my way,” I countered. “Please let me through.”

The third guy grinned. “Why so unfriendly? You sure aren’t like this around Christian. Oh, I get it. You were following him.” I couldn’t help but blush at that, and the boy exchanged mocking glances with the others. “God, she’s creepy. You think he knows?”

“We ought to tell him. Give him some kind of warning that the walking trash heap’s stalking him,” the second guy replied, watching me closely. When I didn’t flinch or cower or beg them not to, his smirk vanished. “I said pick that up, ugly,” he snarled, stepping closer until he was practically looming over me.

“What the hell’re you still doing here? Stop playing around and let’s get out of here before some other teacher catches me.”

The guy in front of me was yanked aside, while the others stepped back to make way for the newcomer and his entourage. To my dismay, the new speaker turned out to be Tony. His gaze fell upon me, and I braced myself for even more abuse.

“Oh, it’s you,” he said flatly. Then he proceeded to stun me and everyone else by looking around at his friends and scowling. “Didn’t I tell you not to mess with her? Stay away from this girl.”

“Hold on, you didn’t say anything about—” The other guy who’d been harassing me started to protest, only to be glared into silence by Tony.

“She’s off-limits. Don’t make me say it again. Come on, let’s get out of here already,” he said impatiently. The rest shrugged in confusion and headed to the doors. But Tony lingered behind, eyeing me with such an unsmiling expression that I half-expected him to start steaming up from the herculean effort he was exerting just to be civil with me. He bent down, picked up the plastic bottle and offered it to me, and I took it dazedly, too astonished to do otherwise. “Listen, I need to talk to you,” he muttered in a low voice after glancing around to make sure his friends had gone and that nobody else was within earshot.

“Me?” I squeaked.

“Yeah. But not here. Later,” he said, grimacing at the very idea.

“Why?”

He narrowed his eyes at me. “Just be there when I tell you, got it?”

I returned his regard with a cool look, having collected my wits. “Not until you learn to call me by my name. It’s—”

“Joy. I know what your name is,” he interrupted, surprising me yet again. “By the way, don’t tell anyone about this,” he added, before turning on his heel and striding away.

What was that all about? I puzzled over the exchange during our entire lunch period, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what Tony could possibly need to talk to me about. Our paths rarely crossed, thank God, but whenever they did, it usually involved him giving me some sort of reminder of how far beneath him I was or some other form of unpleasantness. But this time, he’d almost seemed as if he was willing to talk to me as an equal, or at least make an attempt to, even if he was nearly gagging from it. And even more unexpectedly, he’d protected me from his minions. I wouldn’t have believed it if it hadn’t been for the proof on my little device.

Oh well, I thought with a shrug. It was useless worrying about it until he and I had that promised talk, so best to set it aside for now. I had other things to worry about.

During the week before midterms, the library became one of the most popular after-school hangouts, growing progressively more packed as the exams neared. Of course, as the library’s regular patrons, A-students were given first pick among the best tables—the small, rectangular ones near the windows for group work, and the single desks with the low walls and cubbies lined in rows along the edge of the library for serious studying or equally serious napping. The other students had to settle for sharing the long tables that dominated half of the library. In short, the library was the nerds’ version of the social jungle that was the cafeteria, only this time, we ruled the place.

Jenneth and I were sitting at one of the small, rectangular tables with Annelie, Francis and Gemma, who’d succumbed to mental exhaustion and was snoozing with her head buried in her arms, when Jasmine, Sara and Lyn came into the library. They sat at the table next to us, effectively driving away the pair of preppies who were sitting there, but instead of opening their books, Jasmine turned and tapped me none-too-gently on my still-aching shoulder.

“Ow. Would you please stop doing that?” I massaged my shoulder as I turned around in my chair. “What do you want?”

“Where’s Christian? Why isn’t he here yet?” Jasmine asked without preamble.

“He and his groupmates in Spanish are at the language lab downloading audio files. Why?”

“Don’t you think that’s weird?”

I gave her a look. “Not really. Don’t you have listening tests in French?”

Jasmine waved a hand impatiently. “I don’t mean that. What’s taking him so long? How long does it take to download a bunch of audio files anyway?”

“Could be a while if the computers are on the fritz again,” Jenneth pointed out.

“They fixed the computers last week, remember?” Sara informed him.

“You’re not really talking about computer speed, are you?” I said slowly. Noticing some other library goers shooting us disapproving looks, I pushed my chair back and stood up. “Maybe we should talk outside.”

“Wait, Ate Joy…” Annelie trailed off, her eyes darting worriedly between me and Jasmine.

I gave my friends a reassuring smile. “It’s okay. This won’t take long.”

I led Jasmine toward a semi-private alcove to the side of the entrance, only to have her frown and look around. “Not here,” she said.

I turned and realized that both Sara and Lyn had come along. As I followed the three of them to an empty classroom, I patted the side of my skirt, feeling for the device as if to reassure myself.

“You’re worried about Christian, aren’t you?” I asked, going for the direct approach.

Sara nodded reluctantly, while Lyn said: “On our way here, we overheard some girls from 2C-Luna say they were going to get Christian so they could all go together to Starbucks later.”

I felt chilled all of a sudden. He’s hanging out with girls at Starbucks? And who else will happen to show up there? Tara? Then again, there wasn’t anything stopping him, was there? All club and extracurricular activities were out for the week in preparation for the midterms, so he definitely had time to hang out with people.

But the midterms. He had more reason than the rest of us to ace his exams. He shouldn’t be hanging out at Starbucks at a time like this. Unless—

Unless not really caring about his midterm results was his choice.

I became aware that Jasmine was watching me, but it was too late to hide behind a poker face. “You’re worried, too,” she stated, arms crossed over her chest. “You don’t want him to transfer any more than we do.”

There was no point in denying it. “No, I don’t want him to transfer,” I admitted.

“Then help us convince him to stay.” She stepped closer, making me retreat a step, afraid she was going to shake me again. “We’ve got to make him ignore these distractions, sit his butt down and study. He’s got to take these midterms seriously.”

“We’ve got to make him want to stay,” Sara added solemnly. “We’ve got to show him that he belongs in 2A-Rizal with us.”

I regarded the three girls with a mixture of amazement and curiosity. “Why do you think he belongs in our section? Most people would think the guy everyone calls the prince of St. Helene would be a much better fit for 2B-Del Pilar.”

“Most people don’t see him the way we do,” Jasmine replied with a surprising amount of passion. “They don’t see how much we depend on him. Not just our idiot boys—all of us. Christian makes our classes much more fun, and I can’t imagine not having him around. People are even starting to think we’re kind of cool because of him.”

“And we’ve got the sportsfest right after midterms,” Sara added. “We can’t afford to lose our ace right now.”

Oh, so they want him mostly because of what he can do for them. I wondered if at some level, Christian knew this. It was a saddening thought. “This is why we’re hiding out inside this classroom, isn’t it?” I said out loud. “Most girls in school would rather he transfer to 2B-Del Pilar. He wouldn’t be so busy studying, and even with training and competitions, he’d have more time to hang out with them. Most girls wouldn’t like idea of making him stay in the nerd section, which puts us in the unpopular minority.” Especially you, I added silently.

The three girls flushed guiltily and exchanged glances, which more or less confirmed my theory. “What you just told me—you can’t exactly let the rest of the Protect the Prince Club know about it, can you?” I went on in a gentler tone, feeling a wave of sympathy for their plight. We’d all gotten so used to the stratified life in St. Helene that Christian’s arrival had been a breath of fresh air. Suddenly, it didn’t matter whether you were an A-section nerd, a B-section princess, or an E-section dunce; the prince was nice to you no matter who you were. Liking him gave you some kind of common ground with the others, a sense of belonging to a common cause. In a strange way, Christian was the glue that kept these girls together who otherwise would’ve had nothing to do with each other. To a lesser extent, the Protect the Prince Club was to his fangirls what the House was for us, and now Jasmine, Sara and Lyn were facing the prospect of being cut off from and even seen as an enemy by their new friends. “That must feel awful for you,” I murmured, still lost in thought.

Apparently misunderstanding, Jasmine stiffened and glared at me. “Well, at least no one’s calling us pushy, gold-digging sluts with the nerve to think that she’s worthy of Christian. We know our limits, thank you very much,” she snapped.

“Jas,” Lyn gasped, while Sara sent Jasmine a shocked, confused look.

I went still, realizing I’d finally come to the heart of the enmity Christian’s fangirls felt for me. It was almost a relief to hear it spoken out loud, to finally get to the harsh truth instead of having to cut through a jungle of ugly deeds and deceitful words. Still, it hurt to hear my own insecurities flung at my face, to not just suspect but know for a fact that I wasn’t the only one who thought that about me. Unworthy of Christian. I knew that, of course. I’d known since the first time I met him. And now I knew that people knew it too. It threatened to drain the strength out of me. It made me want to hide somewhere and cry and beg forgiveness for not being enough for him in everyone’s eyes.

Good grief, get a hold of yourself. You’ve got work to do. I drew in a calming breath and said: “I suppose you’re right. I suppose that’s why people think it’s okay for them to treat me like crap. But the four of us have been in the same section since prep year. You know me better than they do. Is that how you really think of me, too?”

I looked at each of the girls in turn, and Jasmine finally pressed her lips together and turned aside to glower at the window instead. “We used to. We wanted to, you know?” Sara confessed in a subdued voice. “Right after Christian arrived. There were those posters about you—they were obviously about you, right? And we thought you were one thing, but he didn’t deserve to be made fun of like that, and then the others said that just because your moms were friends and he was obligated to be friendly with you, you started thinking that you owned him or something, and we thought ‘that wasn’t right’—”

“—but now we don’t think that anymore. Right, Jas?” Lyn cut in, shooting Jasmine’s mulish profile a meaningful look. “We’ve seen the way Christian acts around you, and it doesn’t seem like he’s just feeling obligated to be nice to you. I mean, he’s nice to everyone, but with you, he’s…more. He even made up that cute story about giving some girl a silver ring as a way to tell us he likes you.”

“Yeah, get over it, okay?” Sara rolled her eyes when all I did was open my mouth and blush.

“Just so you know, we still don’t think—fine, I still don’t think you deserve him,” Jasmine grumbled when her two friends frowned at her. “And I’m not sorry for telling the others about where and when you’ll show up and where our class is—okay, fine! I am sorry. Happy now? It wasn’t my fault. They told me they were just going to talk to you—”

“Who’re ‘they’, anyway?” I asked casually, then listened with a satisfaction that I hoped I managed to conceal as they told me about the girls who’d approached them to tell them about how worried Christian’s cousin and close friends were about him being separated from their fold, especially with him being fresh from New York and recently broken up with his girlfriend, besides being friendly to a fault. He was in a vulnerable state, especially since that one annoyingly pushy girl who’d been the bane of his existence since childhood happened to be in the same section as him. Their cause was helped along by the black-Sharpie posters. Even though they had no clue who made those posters, they took it as proof that someone agreed with their assessment of Christian’s relationship with me.

“So you’ll help us, right?” Jasmine urged. “You’ll talk to him about quitting his teams? Then together we can help him study for the midterms and screen out any distractions.”

“He’ll listen if it’s you. Please, Joy?” Lyn implored.

I took another breath, then shook my head. “I’m sorry. You’ll probably hate me all over again, but I won’t help you with this.” When the girls protested, I raised a hand to silence them. “I’m really sorry, but I won’t. Being in those sports teams is important to him, and I won’t force or manipulate him into making a decision he could end up regretting later because he listened to other people’s opinions instead of himself.”

“But at this rate, he’s going to transfer to 2B just so he can prioritize his stupid teams. Is that what you want?” Jasmine demanded.

“What I want the same thing you all want: to support him in whatever decision he makes.” They seemed surprised to hear me include myself among their ranks. It’s true, anyway, I thought. I do have that much in common with his fangirls. “Besides, it’s not like we won’t ever see him again if he does transfer. We’re all his friends now, and you know he’s not the type to ignore his friends,” I added, trotting out my own internal argument. Judging from their gloomy expressions, they were about as persuaded by it as I was.

They continued to press me into talking to Christian about quitting his teams and staying in our section, but I held firm. Still, something in my words seemed to penetrate their sense of panic, because when we emerged from the classroom, feeling as if we’d just been through a court battle, the three of them seemed more resigned—still gloomy about the prospect of losing Christian, but at least they were calmer now.

“You’re in love with him, aren’t you?” Lyn said softly as we walked behind her friends. “You don’t just like him the way we do. You really, like, honest to God love him.”

I felt myself reddening. “Don’t tell anyone, okay? Especially him.”

“Huh?” She shot me an incredulous look. “Doesn’t he already know? I thought you two were together now.”

I shook my head firmly. “No, we’re not, and we won’t ever be. I’m not a good match for him, and the last thing I want is for people to talk badly about him because of me.”

Fortunately, Lyn was spared from having to make a reply when we met Jenneth, Annelie, Francis and the still-yawning Gemma coming out of the library. I didn’t get to see Christian again until the next day, when he skidded into our classroom and raced for his seat, wearing a comically panicked expression that made everyone crack up, except maybe for our teacher who had arrived just seconds before him and was about to call attendance. And even then, I couldn’t even talk to him beyond exchanging pleasantries, since our classmates seemed determined to make the most of his presence by surrounding him at every available moment, in between and after classes—chatting with him, exchanging factoids from our notes and textbooks with him in an undeniably nerdy kind of game, and even getting him to coach them in an impromptu basketball training session at the gym, for once without them whining about how tedious it was. I couldn’t help noticing that Jasmine, Sara and Lyn were sticking as close to him as possible, likely attempting to steer him in the direction of studying more for the midterms. I told myself I shouldn’t begrudge them the time they spent with Christian; they did care for him, after all, in their own way.

Once or twice, I even managed to convince myself. Almost.

Wednesday turned out much the same. When the bell chimed for lunch period, I turned toward Christian and was unsurprised to find him already leaving the room with a group of our classmates. Seeing the dejection in my face as we plodded behind the chattering flock, Jenneth shrugged and said: “Look on the bright side. We used to wonder if we were the only friends he had in class. Now we know he’s not some kind of closet loner after all.”

“I guess so,” I muttered as I watched as Christian left his original group to say hi to another group of students, this time from another section entirely. He slanted a dimpled grin down at one of the girls and said something that made her giggle. There he goes again, being charming and irresistible to everyone, I thought resentfully. I wanted to be the one he looked at like that. I wanted to be the one walking beside him. Instead, he was paying attention to practically everyone in the school except me.

I wonder if he’s avoiding me. The thought made my heart contract. Maybe that was it. Maybe I was being greedy and presumptuous and generally a bother to him. I’d spent the past four days daydreaming about him and his kiss like a lovesick idiot, but maybe I was the only one who was affected by it. Maybe it hadn’t meant as much to him after all.

Pain flared from an old, still-healing wound, and with it, an insidious whisper: What did you expect? It’s not like you haven’t been through this before.

Then Jenneth gave my shoulders a comforting squeeze, distracting me from my dismal thoughts. “Joyous, don’t look like that. He’s not worth it, trust me. You don’t need him, and the sooner he transfers the sooner you’ll see it’s true. I’m right here for—”

“Wait a minute, where’d he go?” I blinked, belatedly realizing that the group ahead of us was now Christian-less. I darted over to the stairwell and peered down, and caught sight of a familiar backpack traveling at speed down the stairs.

I turned to Jenneth, and found him watching me with a strange expression, which quickly turned into resignation. “Aaaand you’ve got to go after him, of course,” he said with a sigh.

I smiled with relief. “Thanks, Jenneth. I just want to know…”

Once again, I followed Christian into the front hall, then ducked behind a wall when he slowed down to greet people. Again, he rejected every invitation to lunch he received with a lopsided grin and a shake of his head before disappearing out the doors. After waiting a bit, I crossed the hall, fortunately without bumping into anyone this time, then stepped outside, blinking in the watery sunlight that managed to slip through the thick cloud cover. I scanned the length of Sampaguita Street. Several students were walking down the street and turning right at Hyacinth, heading toward the south gate. None of them though was a tall, lean figure with a black backpack. Completely mystified, I walked down Sampaguita Street, following the students in the hopes that I could spot him somewhere ahead of me, chanting to myself: “I am not a stalker. I am not a stalker. I am not a stalker.”

I reached the corner of Hyacinth, but still saw no sign of him. Giving up, I started trudging back up to the high school building. Then my gaze fell upon a small, barely noticeable path that cut through a row of shrubbery and led deeper into a grove of trees beside the building. There used to be another entrance on this side of the building, I recalled, one that opened directly into the library. The path used to be bigger, too, and the grove not quite as thick and overgrown. This library entrance was closed off years ago, long before my prep year, and people had all but forgotten it and the path existed. But if the stories and the old photos of St. Helene were anything to go by…

Acting on a hunch, I stepped onto the path, pushing through the shrubbery and carefully tugging my skirt and bag straps free from snagging branches and twigs. As the path led further away from the street, the seemingly impenetrable wall of trees opened up into an elliptical clearing that was bordered on one side by the double doors that served as the library’s side entrance years ago, but were now firmly padlocked and secured with a metal grill. The clearing used to be a small park, with a few concrete benches and tables scattered around, some nearly concealed by the tall grasses and flowering shrubs breaching the boundaries of the clearing. On the opposite side of the clearing was an octagonal gazebo made of concrete and metal posts, its design similar to our own gazebo in the House’s central courtyard, except ours wasn’t nearly as rundown and rust-encrusted. Also like our gazebo, this one sported an octagonal table in the middle that was nearly surrounded on all sides by concrete benches.

Unlike our gazebo, though, this one was occupied by a sleeping prince.

My eyes went huge with surprise and wonder. Moving as quietly as I could, I approached the table where Christian lay on his back, with his head pillowed on his backpack, one arm at his side and the other flung over his eyes, his long legs dangling down one side of the table and his heels resting on a bench. Our Social Science textbook lay face down upon his chest, and scattered about on the table were a bunch of papers I recognized as our Science readings, his binder lying open with a pen marking his page, a paper bag, a water bottle, and his phone. He didn’t stir as I stepped right up to the table and gazed down at him, watching his chest rise and fall with each breath, hardly daring to breathe myself. Since he was unaware of my scrutiny, I was free to look my fill without feeling shy or self-conscious or flustered by his presence. With my eyes, I traced the lines of his arms, the length of his torso and his thighs down to where his legs dipped over the edge of the table, wincing in sympathy at his awkward position. He was going to pay for that later with a good-sized crick in his back.

Then my gaze traveled back up to his neck, where his wedding promise ring had nearly disappeared down the side of his collar, to his jaw and cheek and lips. Unable to resist, I touched his rumpled hair with a fingertip. I pulled my hand back hastily, but when nothing happened, I felt emboldened enough to thread my fingers through the soft, black strands. His long, calloused fingers caught my eye, and I wondered if I’d ever have the courage to take his hand and press it to my lips.

I should go, I thought as my gaze returned to his sleeping face. Before he wakes up. He came here to be alone, so I should at least respect that.

Instead of leaving, though, I leaned against the table and looked around the overgrown park, noting the varied shades of green and gold and brown around us, the sweet smell of sap, the chirping of a bird somewhere. The place was a little oasis of peace and quiet, and I understood why he chose this as his sanctuary. I smiled to myself, relief and happiness making me feel a bit giddy. Christian was here. He wasn’t spending his lunch period with some other girl. And he’d obviously been studying before sleep got the better of him. He was working hard on his own, in his own quiet way.

My heart seemed to grow too big for my chest, and to ease the pressure, I began to quietly hum one of the love songs I had on my MP3 player, like a somewhat unnecessary lullaby for the boy beside me. Then I nearly jumped when his hand closed around my wrist. My gaze darted to his face, and I found that he’d removed his arm and was gazing at me with slightly unfocused eyes.

“Don’t stop,” he said hoarsely. “Keep singing.”

When I hesitated, he shifted his hold to my hand and gave it an encouraging squeeze. Blushing now, I cleared my throat and sang the rest of the song, setting my emotions free along with my voice. When I finished, I watched him anxiously, trying to gauge his reaction. “If it sounds weird, it’s actually a duet, and I was singing both parts,” I explained lamely.

“I haven’t heard that song before,” he murmured. “What is it?”

“You probably wouldn’t know it. It’s the ending song of a Disney film. Pocahontas.” I searched the unreadable expression on his face. “So, um, what do you think?”

“What do I think?” He sat up on the table and gestured for me to sit. When I did so, he got down and stood in front of me, bracing his arms on either side of me so that he was gazing directly at my face. “I think I’ve changed my mind,” he solemnly. “I don’t want you singing to anyone else but me after all.”

“You mean I was that bad?”

He shook his head. “No, Joy, you’re that good. Anyone who hears you sing is going to end up falling for you. Then I’ll have fight them off and it’ll get super annoying.”

“Oh.” I smiled as my cheeks warmed. “What a sweet thing to say. I think.”

“Want to know what else I think?”

Before I could reply, he cupped my jaw on either side and drew me down into a kiss so hot and sweet it sent little shivers all the way down to my toes. Melting against him, I kissed him back with equal fervor, reveling in the way he paused for a moment, then pressed against me in response and deepened the kiss even more. I felt as if I’d caught a fever, as if I was burning up from the inside. Before I knew it, I’d placed my hands on his shoulders and parted my knees to give him room. His hands left my face and trailed down my shoulders and sides until they were wrapped around my waist, his fingers splaying across my back, holding me even closer.

It was the awful thought that he could feel every bulge and roll of fat in my middle that sobered me up. I pulled away and had to stop to catch my breath for a moment, still conscious of his hands on me. “Oh my gosh,” I croaked. “That was—what was that?”

“That’s what I’m going to do to you every time I hear you sing.” When I gaped at him in disbelief, he shrugged ruefully and smiled. “What can I say? I’ve missed you.”

There was no need for me to point out that we saw each other in class every day. “I’ve missed you, too,” I said shyly.

He smiled again. “Good. And now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, why don’t you tell me what you’re doing here? How did you know where I was?”

I blinked at the shift, then squirmed in embarrassment when I recalled the circumstances that led to me finding him here. “I’ve been following you, actually,” I admitted. “I wanted to know where you’ve been spending lunch periods. We thought—well, I wondered if you were with anyone else, and well…”

I trailed off, wincing when I realized the truth sounded even more suspicious when spoken out loud. He gave me an unfathomable look and stepped away, bending down to pick up a stone from the ground. I twisted my hands together on my lap, feeling nervous and guilty and not a little bit hurt. “I’m sorry for invading your space and interrupting your nap,” I said again. “And I know it’s none of my business who you choose to hang out with—”

“Of course, it is.”

“—or where you go—w-what?”

Apparently realizing what he’d said, he flushed and looked away, raking his fingers through hair. “My mom told me about this place,” he said as he tossed the stone high up into the air, then began bouncing it up and down on his elbows. “She said she and her friends used to hang out at this gazebo near the library, so I wondered if it was still here. Since then, I’ve been hanging out here during lunch period. And in case you’re wondering, I come here alone. Except for you, nobody else knows about this place.”

“Oh.”

He made a frustrated little sound. “It’s not what you’re thinking. I don’t just eat lunch here. I study here, too, as you can see. I study at home, of course, and during dinner and in the car rides to and from school and practically any extra time I have. But sometimes I get too tired and sleepy to finish and I end up—look, it’s not that I don’t appreciate your invitation to hang out with your friends. I do. It’s just that it’s easier for me to study when I’m alone.”

I shook my head and smiled. “You don’t have to explain. I understand completely. Believe me, every A-student knows what it’s like,” I added lightly even as my mind processed the implications of what he’d said.

“Oh yeah?” he muttered underneath his breath, almost too low for me to catch. “To be honest, I didn’t want you to see this side of me,” he went on, his voice sounding defeated. “I think I said it before, but you’re way smarter than me, Joy. You make getting good grades look easy and—you know how it is with swans? They’re gliding gracefully on the surface of the water, but underneath they’re paddling like crazy. Well, I kind of feel like that, except I’m all paddle and no grace. Sometimes it’s all I can do to keep from going under. And there you are. The truth about how uncool I am,” he added with a grimace, snatching the stone in mid-air then flinging it into the trees.

I stared at him, astonished at this revelation. Christian, the prince of St. Helene whom everybody thought of as the pinnacle of perfection, was actually struggling. Actually having to put up a mask to hide his insecurities. Just like any of us.

But he wasn’t done yet. “You wouldn’t believe how hard I studied for that placement exam when I was enrolling in St. Helene. I must’ve burned a hole through a dozen reviewers,” he said with a self-deprecating chuckle. “The guidance counselor had actually recommended me for the B-section, given my interest in sports, but I basically told her to stuff it, I was getting into the A-section, period.”

Privately, I didn’t blame the guidance counselor one bit. “Why?”

He gave me a look that hit me right in the chest. “Why do you think?” he replied with a small smile, rendering me speechless. “The most amazing girl I’ve ever known made it here through sheer grit and guts. Could I really have done any less? I wouldn’t have been able to face you if I did. I wouldn’t have been able to face myself. Of course, that was before I saw you with Nathan and proceeded to screw everything up,” he added with a heavy sigh.

I shifted my gaze to my hands on my lap, mulling over what he said. I honestly had no idea what getting into 2A-Rizal had meant to him. But now that his choices were opening up again…

“By the way, thanks for not asking me if I was going to quit one or both my teams,” he said wryly. “I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve asked me that.”

“Can you blame them? A guy as popular as you would be the object of some pretty strong opinions, I would think. Besides, I know better than to ask.”

He shot me a grin. “Yeah, I know.”

He wasn’t going to quit his sports. He loved them too much to do so. Besides, the school needed him. But he was being forced to choose between something he loved and something he worked so hard for. Which one would he choose?

“Joy?”

He was tired and stressed and overstretched. And because of the pressure to keep up with our classes, he was forced to isolate himself so he could study. Christian, who thrived best when he was around people, forced to struggle alone. I’d been watching him all this time—why didn’t I see it? How fair was it to compel him to stay in a situation that was running him ragged, just to keep our classmates happy? If anything, it’d make the entire school happy if he did transfer to 2B-Del Pilar, not to mention it’d give him a much-needed break.

Which one would he choose? And when he finally made his choice, would I really be able to support him a hundred percent like I said?

“Earth to Joy. Come in, Joy.” A finger underneath my chin tilted my face upward until I was blinking at Christian’s amused face. “Houston, we’ve made contact. So where’d you go off to this time?”

“Nowhere, dummy,” I retorted, brushing his hand aside. “I was just thinking I shouldn’t have come here after all. All I did was cut into your study time. Or nap time.”

The amusement left his face. “Listen, I didn’t tell you this so you could feel guilty about being with me,” he said tightly, his brows drawing together. “How much more convincing do you need until you get it into your head that I actually want to be with you?”

I blinked again, torn between wanting to apologize and wanting to throw my arms around him in a hug. “Then why did you? Tell me, I mean.”

He needed to visibly unclench his jaw before he could speak again. “I told you because I want you to trust me. Please, Joy.” He gazed into my face, his eyes raw and pleading. “Don’t lock me out. Give me a chance to prove that you’re safe with me, that you can believe in me. Please, just—just trust me.”

“I do trust you,” I whispered.

“Do you?” he asked dully, echoing my innermost doubts.

The bell chimed then, sounding faint through the library doors. It gave me a start nevertheless. “Oh my gosh, lunch period is over and we haven’t even eaten yet,” I gasped, jumping off the table with ill-disguised relief.

Sighing, Christian grabbed the paper bag and handed it to me. “Here. It’s a BLT from home. If you can pull it off without getting caught, you can eat it during class.”

“I can’t take that. That’s your lunch,” I protested.

“We’ll split it.”

Ignoring my objections, he took the sandwich out of the bag and split it, then gave me the other half in the paper bag. We made it to our classroom just in time to hear our teacher tell everyone to sit down so the class could begin, and as I settled into my seat, I noticed Jasmine, Sara and Lyn looking at me—Jasmine’s expression hopeful and Lyn’s brightly interested. Too bad I was going to end up disappointing both of them.

Then I glanced back at Jenneth, and found him staring back at me, his expression grim. “Where were you? Why didn’t you come back to the room?” he demanded, storming over to my seat as soon as class ended.

“I was with Christian,” I replied, taken aback by the heat in my best friend’s face and the fact that he was too distracted to make a snarky comment about Christian. “What’s wrong?”

“Something happened during lunch.” As we walked to our next class, he told me about how a group of girls had burst into the classroom we’d been using as our replacement lunch-period hangout since the Biology 1 lab was locked up, and told my friends to vacate the room since they were going to use it to work on some project. Luckily, Kuya Simon and Ate Kath had managed to argue that it was too late for the girls to work on the project now, so they’d just have to come back tomorrow.

“They said they had permission from the English Department. They were waving this sheet around, although they could’ve been waving some random poster they tore off a bulletin board for all we knew,” Jenneth muttered angrily.

I kept my gaze trained on the floor, my mind racing. “They’re pulling something like this during midterms week. As if they’re in some kind of rush to achieve a goal or something.” Gee, I wonder what that could be? I thought with an inward roll of my eyes.

“No chance of completing Phase 1 yet?”

“No. I don’t have enough evidence yet,” I replied, patting the device through my skirt. “We’ll have to go ahead with Phase 2. The timing’s a bit early, but we don’t have a choice. Thank goodness Kuya Simon and Ate Kath managed to buy us some time.”

I lifted my head, and caught Christian looking at me questioningly over his shoulder as he walked ahead of us with the other boys. I smiled, letting him know everything was just peachy. Later during class, he raised his hand and asked to be excused so he could go on a bathroom break. As he walked by my chair, he stopped and bent down as if to pick something up from the floor. “I think this is yours,” he told me, placing a Post-it pad on my desk.

“Thanks.” I looked at the pad in puzzlement, not recognizing it as one of mine. A thought occurred, and I flipped through the first few sheets. Sure enough, he’d scribbled something on the third sheet:

You & Jen okay? Anything I can help you with?

I bit my lips to keep from smiling goofily as I wrote my reply on the sheet underneath that:

We’re fine. Just chit-chatting. Thanks. 🙂 

When he passed by my chair again after his supposed bathroom break, I offered the Post-it pad to him, saying: “Sorry, it’s not mine.”

He took the pad without a word. I glanced over my shoulder to check if he’d read it, and found him looking at me with a strange expression. Almost as if he was disappointed in me.

I faced front, guilt uncurling in my gut at having lied to him again, and so soon after he’d all but pleaded with me to open up to him. But no, he didn’t need to get involved in this. He didn’t need to know. He had enough to deal with already without me burdening him with this mess.

I could do this without him. I was going to prove I wasn’t the sniveling crybaby I used to be. If I couldn’t be pretty or thin or pale-skinned enough, I was at least going to be strong enough.

Christian disappeared again after class, this time in the company of some of his teammates from the Self-Defense Club. I could well sympathize with Jasmine’s annoyed look as we sat in the library with our books spread out in front of us. For someone who says he’s been struggling with finding time to study, he sure isn’t trying all that hard to actually find the time to study.

Then somebody tapped me on the shoulder. A skinny boy I only vaguely recognized as a member of the Self-Defense Club stood there, looking ill at ease. “You’re Joy, right? Christian asked me to tell you to meet him right now at the training room.”

I exchanged looks with Jenneth, Annelie and Francis, who shrugged. “Okay.”

We made the rather long walk from the library to the gym in relative silence, as the boy didn’t seem inclined to answer any of my questions. I started to get a bad feeling though when instead of cutting across the empty soccer field to reach the gym, the boy turned right and headed toward a silver car in the parking lot.

I hung back, frowning. “Wait a minute. I thought we were supposed to go to the training room.”

The boy ignored me, his attention focused on the other boy leaning casually against the car, a mocking grin on his face. “Okay, I brought her. Now give me back my bag,” the Self-Defense kid said sullenly.

Tony’s grin widened as he straightened, and I belatedly noticed the green backpack dangling from his arm. “Not yet. The job’s not finished.”

His shoulders sagging, the boy opened the car door and turned mechanically toward me. “You have to get in there.”

I looked at the open car door, at the boy’s expressionless face, then at Tony. Then I spun on my heel and ran for it.

I would have made it, too, if I hadn’t run smack into the man who was standing right behind me. The man grabbed my wrist and pulled me toward the car. “It’s all right, Miss,” he grunted as he shoved me into the car and slammed the door. I scrambled toward the other side, and was stopped by the same man getting into the car from that side. Gasping, I skootched away from him, only to jerk back when Tony settled in on the other side of me.

“Drive,” he barked to the driver. Terror made me go nuts, punching and kicking and flailing around until both Tony and his bodyguard or henchman or whatever had to clamp their hands on my limbs and pin me against the seat. “Would you be still? You’ll end up crashing the car,” Tony growled. “Look, I’m not trying to kidnap you. I just want to talk.”

“Really? You couldn’t talk to me in school like a normal, non-criminal person?” I wheezed furiously, spitting hair out of my mouth.

“We need privacy for this talk. Would you calm down already? I swear, I’m not going to do anything to you. You stink too much.” He curled his lip at me in disgust.

Oddly enough, it was his meanness that got me to calm down—a reassuring glimpse of something familiar in this thoroughly alarming situation. I forced myself to relax, tucking my body in tightly to keep from touching either male. “I’ve got a curfew,” I informed him. “If I’m not back by then, the House is going to call the police. We’ve got witnesses—”

“Oh, for the love of—stop talking already,” Tony said exasperatedly. “I thought you were supposed to be the quiet, mousy type.”

“I usually am when I’m not being kidnapped.”

“I told you—”

“Where are we going?”

Tony glared at me, and I glared right back. “Not far,” he finally said. “Just some place more comfortable. Try not to be too impressed,” he added with a patronizing smile that made me itch to slap him.

That “some place more comfortable” turned out to be a suite on the sixteenth floor of a five-star luxury hotel. I followed Tony inside, too frightened and too furious to appreciate the lush opulence of my surroundings. Once inside the suite, Tony’s personality seemed to undergo a change. With elegant movements, he laid his backpack on the counter then undid his necktie and laid it upon the back of an ornate chair. To my surprise, he even nodded his thanks when his henchman offered him some soda in a stemmed glass on a tray. He turned to me and asked: “Would you like a drink?”

“No, thank you,” I replied coldly.

He raised the glass and took a sip before settling into the sofa with laconic grace. “At least have a seat,” he said, gesturing at the posh-looking chairs and couches around us.

“I’d rather stand.”

“Suit yourself.” Tony took another sip of his soda as if it was the finest cognac, then tilted his head toward the wide set of windows offering a truly spectacular view of the sunset. “Would you look at that. Better than the view from ye olde St. Helene, huh?”

“The sunset is beautiful no matter where you are,” I retorted. “Look, can we get this stupid cliché of a situation over with? I have to go home.”

Tony shot me a fulminating look, then set his glass of soda down and leaned forward, elbows planted on his knees. “I want to help you,” he said. “I want to give you back your old life. You’d want that, right? No more garbage dumped on you, no more posters on the walls, no more ambushes in the restroom. You and your friends’ll be able to live in peace, and even better, you’ll get to be with Christian. And who knows? You might even get a little more respect than you used to. You’ll have a life even better than your old one.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Sounds great. What’s the catch?”

He grinned mockingly. “It’s not really a catch if we’re angling for the same thing. You’ve just got to help me in return.”

“Help you do what?”

“Make Christian quit the soccer team and stay out of 2B-Del Pilar. Do that, Miss Joy De Castro, and you’ll get everything you’ve ever wanted.”

Read Part 3: The Bridal Veil, Chapter 16

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