Anna feigned shock. “My, my, Mara. What language! I’m simply returning a lost item to its rightful owner. You are the rightful owner, aren’t you?” she asked, as she flipped the sketchbook open to the inside cover. “ ‘Mara Dyer,’ “ she read loudly. “That’s you,” she added with emphasis, punctuating the declaration with a sneer. I said nothing. “Aiden here was nice enough to pick it up when you left it in Algebra by mistake.”
Aiden smiled on cue. He must have snatched it from my bag.
“Actually, he stole it.”
“I’m afraid not, Mara. You must have carelessly misplaced it,” she said, and tsked.
Now that she had set the stage, Anna began to flip through my sketchbook. If I hit her, Aiden would snatch the sketchbook and Noah would still see what I’d drawn. And let’s be honest, I’ve never hit anyone in my life. There would be nothing I could say to minimize the damage, either. The sketches were so accurate, snapshots of him so adoringly rendered that they’d betray my obsessive infatuation the second they were revealed. The humiliation would be perfect, and she knew it.
Defeat bloomed in my cheeks, staining my throat and my collarbone. I could do nothing but suffer through the emotional skinning and stand there, flayed before the entire school until Anna was drunk on her overdose of cruelty.
And collect my sketchbook when she was finished. Because it was mine, and I would get it back.
I didn’t want to see Noah’s face when Anna finally turned to the page where he made his first appearance. Seeing him smirk or smile or laugh or roll his eyes would undo me and I could not cry here today. So I fixed my stare on Anna’s face, and watched her tremble with gleeful malice as she held the sketchbook and made her way over to him. The crowd shifted from a rough semicircle into a wedge, with Noah at the point.
“Noah?” she cooed.
“Anna,” he replied flatly.
She flipped from page to page and I could hear the whispers rise into a murmur and could hear a ringing laugh somewhere from the far side of the tiki hut, but it died down. Anna turned the pages slowly for effect, and like some demonic schoolmarm, held the book at an angle to provide maximum exposure to the assembled crowd. Everyone needed to have the opportunity to catch a long, languorous glimpse of my disgrace.
“This looks so much like you,” she said to Noah, pressing her body against his.
“My girl is talented,” Noah said.
My heart stopped beating.
Anna’s heart stopped beating.
Everyone’s heart stopped beating. The buzzing of a solitary gnat would have sounded obscene in the stillness.
“Bullshit,” Anna whispered finally, but it was loud enough for everyone to hear. She hadn’t moved an inch.
Noah shrugged. “I’m a vain bastard, and Mara indulges me.” After a pause, he added, “I’m just glad you didn’t get your greedy little claws on the other sketchbook. That would have been embarrassing.” His lips curved into a sly smile as he slid from the picnic table he’d been sitting on. “Now, get the fuck off me,” he said calmly to a dumbfounded, speechless Anna as he pushed past her, plucking the sketchbook roughly from her hands.
And walked over to me.
“Let’s go,” Noah ordered gently, once he was at my side. His body brushed the line of my shoulder and arm protectively. And then he held out his hand.
I wanted to take it and I wanted to spit in Anna’s face and I wanted to kiss him and I wanted to knee Aiden Davis in the groin. Civilization won out, and I willed each individual nerve to respond to the signal I sent with my brain and placed my fingers in his. A current traveled from my fingertips through to the hollow where my stomach used to be.
And just like that, I was completely, utterly, and entirely,
Neither of us spoke until we were out of earshot and out of sight of the shocked and awed student body. We were standing next to a bench by the basketball court when Noah stopped, finally letting go of my hand. It felt empty, but I barely had time to process the loss.
“Are you all right?” he asked softly.
I nodded, staring past him. My tongue felt numb.
“Are you sure?”
I nodded again.
“Are you positive?”
I glared at him. “I’m fine,” I said.
“That’s my girl.”
“I am not your girl,” I said, with more venom than I intended.
“Right, then,” Noah said, and looked at me with a curious stare. He raised an eyebrow. “About that.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.
“You like me,” he finally said. “You like me, like me.” He was trying not to smile.
“No. I hate you,” I said, hoping that saying it would make it so.
“And yet, you draw me.” Noah was still smug, completely undeterred by my declaration.
This was torture; worse somehow than what just happened, even though it was only the two of us. Or because it was only the two of us.
“Why?” he asked.
“Why what?” What could I say? Noah, despite you being an asshole, or maybe because of it, I’d like to rip off your clothes and have your babies. Don’t tell.
“Why everything,” he continued. “Start with why you hate me. And then continue until you get to the part about the drawings.”
“I don’t really hate you,” I said in defeat.
“Then why are you asking?”
“Because I wanted you to admit it,” he said, grinning crookedly.
“Done,” I said, feeling hopeless. “Are we finished?”
“You’re the most ungrateful person alive,” he mused.
“You’re right,” I said, my voice flat. “Thanks for the save. I should go.” I started to walk away.
“Not so fast.” Noah reached for my good wrist. He took it gently and I turned around. My heart was sickeningly aflutter. “We still have a problem.”
I looked at him, uncomprehending. He was still holding my wrist and the contact interfered with my cerebral functioning.
“Everyone thinks we’re together,” Noah said.
Oh. Noah needed a way out. Of course he did; we weren’t, in fact, together. I was just—I don’t know what I was to him. I looked at the ground, digging the toe of my sneaker into the paved walkway like a sullen child while I thought about what to say.
“Tell your friends you dumped me on Monday,” I said finally.