"Please," Rolly said. "Just hear me out."
I looked at Owen, who just shook his head. When I moved my right hand forward, Rolly instantly grabbed it.
"This girl," he said solemnly, his palm hot, "is my destiny."
"Okay," Owen said, "now you're officially freaking her out."
"Rolly," I said. "This thing is—"
"Please, Annabel," he said. He put his other hand on mine, so my fingers were completely enclosed. "Please just introduce me. That's all I'm asking. One shot. One chance. Please."
I knew I should tell him the real reason he did not want me to be his in, or any part of whatever happened, or didn't, between him and Clarke. Not just because he deserved to know it, but also because up until now I had been truthful with Owen—and all things having to do with Owen—and holding this back would mean that for the second time that night, I wasn't being the honest girl he thought I was. If I ever had been.
At the same time, looking at Rolly's hopeful face, I could feel myself wavering. On a night when what I'd done, or not done, was suddenly looming large, this seemed like a tiny way to somehow, in some distant way, make up for it. I couldn't fix the past, or change what had happened to Emily, but with this, maybe, I could help someone else's future.
"All right," I said. "But I'm just warning you: It might not work."
Rolly beamed, then hurriedly motioned for Owen to get out of the booth before sliding out himself. "I'll just go over by the bar," he said, "and wait until you've made contact. Then I'll casually happen by, and you can introduce us. Okay?"
I nodded. Already I was regretting agreeing to this, which Rolly most likely sensed, as he bolted out of there, fast, so I couldn't change my mind.
"You sure you want to do this?" Owen asked me as I got to my feet.
"No." I glanced over at Clarke, who was now sitting with a group of people at a table. "I'll be back in a second."
As I turned away, I felt his hand on my arm. "Hey," he said. "Are you okay?"
"What?" I asked. "Why?"
"I don't know." He dropped his hand, then looked at me. "You just seem… I don't know. Not yourself, or something. Everything all right?"
And here I'd thought I was hiding it. But like the difference between the picture on Mallory's wall and my face in the picture he took, this contrast—between who I'd been and who I felt myself becoming, again, with each step I took or was forced to take backwards—was obvious. To both of us. Which was why this time, I didn't hesitate and try to be honest, instead just going with what came naturally.
"I'm fine," I told him, but I could feel him watching me as I walked away.
Clarke was talking to a girl with blonde hair wearing heavy dark eyeliner, and didn't see me until I was right up on her. She glanced up, half smiling, reacting to something her friend had just said. When she saw me, she immediately affected her normal thin-lipped, stoic expression. It wasn't like I could turn back now, though. So I just dove in.
"Hi," I said.
At first, she didn't say anything, her silence stretching out long enough that I thought she might turn away, ignoring me completely. But just as the pause was getting excruciating, she said, "Hello."
Someone from down the table said something to the blonde girl, and she turned away, leaving us alone. Clarke was still looking at me, a flat expression on her face. I had a flash of her at the pool, all those years ago, a hand of cards spread out between her thumb and forefinger.
"Look," I blurted out, "I know you hate me, okay? But the thing is—"
"Is that what you think?"
I stopped in mid-breath. "What?"
"You think I hate you?" she asked. Her voice, I noticed suddenly, was clear. Crystal. Not a sniffle to be heard. "Is that what you think the problem is here?"
"I don't know," I said. "I mean, I just thought—"
"You don't know," she repeated. Her voice was sharp. "Really."
Just then, I felt it: a hand clapping onto my shoulder with such force it almost sent me spilling forward onto the table. "Annabel! Hello!"
It was Rolly. When I turned, he was standing there with a wow-how-about-this expression, as if we were long-lost friends who hadn't seen each other in eons. At the same time, I could feel a dampness from his hand, already seeping through to my shoulder.
"Hi," I said, trying to sound casual.
"Hi!" he replied, doing no better than I had. "I'm going to go to the bar in a second to get some waters. You want one?"
Clarke was looking at us, her eyes narrowed. Better get to it, I thought.
"Sure," I said. "Thanks. Oh, um, Rolly, this is Clarke. Clarke, this is Rolly."
Rolly shot out his hand. "Hi," he said as Clarke, more slowly, offered up her own. "Really nice to meet you."
"You, too," Clarke said flatly. She turned back to me. "You were saying?"
"So you're here for Truth Squad, right?" Rolly said, looking from me to Clarke, then immediately back to Clarke again. "They're really good, have you heard them before?"
"Um," Clarke said, "no. I haven't."
"Oh, they're great," Rolly gushed. I took a step to the side, and he immediately moved into the space I'd been standing in, closer to her. "I've seen them tons."
"You know, I better see if Owen wants a drink," I said. Clarke shot me a look; now, she was definitely pissed. "I'll, um, be back in a minute. Or two."
And then I got out of there, quick. When I got back to Owen, he'd been joined by a guy with short dark hair and an intense look on his face.
"—a total shambles," the dark-haired guy was saying as I slid in. "It was better when we did the booking ourselves. At least then, we had some say in the dates, and the venues. Now we're just their pawns, in their sick little corporate game."
"That sucks," Owen said.
"It does." The guy shook his head. "At least the single's getting some airplay nationally. I mean, that's what they say. Who knows if it's true or not."
I glanced over at Clarke's table. Rolly was still standing up, talking animatedly, while Clarke seemed markedly less so as she listened to him.
"Annabel," Owen said, "this is Ted. Ted, Annabel."
"Hi," Ted replied, barely glancing at me.
From the stage, there was a thumping noise as someone tested the microphone. "Hey," a voice said. "This thing on?" Someone from the crowd booed in response.