It made her think of that night Varen had climbed onto her roof. In his effort to make a peace offering in the form of cooler-packed cartons of ice cream, he’d somehow lost his footing. Isobel recalled her sense of utter helplessness as she’d watched him sail backward, nearly shooting straight over the edge, only to catch himself at the last second.

It had been the one and only time she’d ever seen him falter.

Before that night, he’d always been so sure-footed, so controlled. Not only in his movements and stride, but in his manners and words, too. Every syllable he spoke had a purpose. Every pointed glance held a hidden meaning or an underlying message. It was as if he had his own secret language, one she’d only just begun to understand.

“Hey, what’s this?”

“Huh?” Isobel turned just in time to see Gwen pull free a long brown-and-cream-colored scarf from a mint-green bag made from recycled paper. A pair of fingerless gloves, crocheted from the same material as the scarf and accented with two woolly, wide-eyed owls, dangled from one end, attached by a tag.

“Oh,” Isobel said. “Those are for you. I know it’s a little belated, but happy Hanukkah.”

“For me?” Grinning, Gwen ducked her head to loop the scarf around her neck. Next, she tugged on the gloves, fingers flexing. “I love the owls. Oh, and they’re warm.”

She tilted her chin up and tossed the end of her new scarf over one shoulder, fighter-pilot-style. After that, she grabbed the remaining bags and relocated to Isobel’s bed.

“Let me guess,” Gwen said as she drew out Isobel’s still unwrapped gift to Danny—a pair of heavy-duty black headphones accented with green skull designs. “These are for the little gonif, am I right? I don’t think it’s unfair to assume that I’m a shareholder in these, do you? I vote we let him try them on, plug them in, and then we do the swirly.”

“I just hope he wears them,” Isobel muttered, returning her attention to the window. “So I don’t have to listen to that video-game garbage anymore. Since school’s been out, he’s been staying up all night playing on his computer. I can’t sleep.” Her focus switched from the cascade of falling snow to her image reflected in the darkened glass. Arms crossed, she studied the outline of her straight blond hair and wan features. Her gaze lingered on the faint dark half-circles etched beneath each eye.

For a moment, it was as though she couldn’t place her own face. A stranger, too thin and too pale, stared back at her, withered-looking, like a plant in need of sunlight.


Behind her, the rustling of bags and papers ceased.

“But you and I both know that’s not the real reason,” Gwen said.

Isobel’s gaze shifted from her own reflection to Gwen’s.

A beat of silence radiated between them.

Again Isobel smiled, but it was the rueful kind this time. She knew this was Gwen’s way of ending the easy banter, of cutting to the chase and getting down to the real reason she’d come.

Her arms still folded, Isobel turned to face Gwen, though without meeting her eyes.

For a moment, she contemplated telling Gwen about last night’s dream. She stopped herself short, however, reeling in the urge to do so as soon as she opened her mouth.

There was something still so vaporous about the vision. As if it might dissolve the second she tried to put the experience into actual words. That, and she wanted to keep on believing that it had been real. If she told someone else, even if that someone happened to be her best friend, would she then run the risk of having all her doubts confirmed?

“No,” Isobel said at last. “I guess it’s not.”

Gwen swiveled where she sat to face Isobel.

“What’s the verdict on Baltimore, anyway?” she asked. “Are you going?”

And just like that, playtime was over.

Isobel drew in a shuddering breath. “Dad says no.”

Gwen’s mouth twitched at one corner, as though she wasn’t certain how to react. At the very least, Isobel’s answer hadn’t seemed to surprise her. “Did you use the excuse of going to look at a school like I told you?”

Isobel nodded.

“And that didn’t work?” Gwen leaned back, looking stumped. “Sheeze. You’d think your parents would throw a parade.”

Isobel shot her a glare.

“I mean . . . you’d be cheering for a university squad!” Gwen waggled her fists as though she held a pair of invisible pom-poms. “I hear the trophies get bigger in college?” she said, her voice turning up at the end like she couldn’t be sure.

Most Popular