Suddenly, with that thought, it dawned on her exactly what it would take in order to deflect him. Before she could give it even one more moment of consideration, Isobel began to speak.

“Look, Mr. Swanson,” she began. “I know there are a lot of rumors floating around about what went on between me and Varen but . . . none of it’s true. For starters, we never went out,” she continued, taking care to keep her gaze squarely on his. “Believe me, that would so never happen.”

Again, his brows drew in close together. Clearly, her words confused him.

In her chest, her heart began to pound wildly, hard enough and loud enough that she actually feared he might hear. “In fact, we never saw each other outside of class except those times we had to meet for the project.”

As Mr. Swanson listened, his face grew more and more grim. He didn’t say anything, but Isobel could see a dimness settling in around his sharp gray eyes as well, as though someone had turned down the wattage of his hope.

“To be honest,” she said, plowing on, unable to stop herself, “we didn’t even get along. But I had to put up with it because I needed a passing grade. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to go to Nationals.” Isobel raised her hand, flashing the championship ring. “When he and I started working on the project together, it turned into this big thing.” She shrugged. “Something new for everybody to talk about, like we were part of some cheesy reality TV series or something.”

Isobel paused long enough to draw in a shaky breath. Never in her life had she looked an adult in the face and delivered such a bold-faced string of lies. And yet, never in her life had the act of lying come so effortlessly. Still, she knew that if she wanted to convince him entirely, she couldn’t leave it at that. She had to be sure to eliminate all doubts.

“And ever since he ran off or whatever, everybody seems to think I know where he went,” she said, “but I don’t. Not any more than you do. At this point, I’m just kind of ready to forget about it and move on, you know?”

His gaze dropped from hers, and Isobel felt the tightness in her chest ease a little. A new and more ruthless wrenching came to replace it a moment later, however, as soon as she heard him utter the words, “I’m sorry.” Crestfallen, he stared down at the floor, his brow knotted. “I didn’t mean to seem presumptuous. I just thought that maybe . . . he might have confided something in you. The two of you seemed to . . . connect on some level. From what I’d witnessed during those weeks, I . . . I was under the impression the two of you had become friends.”

“It’s no big deal,” Isobel said. “I mean, I know you liked him a lot.”

Feeling the stinging threat of tears, she began to back away, retracing her steps to the exit. “And I do hope they find him soon. But . . . as far as knowing anything about what happened that night? I’m honestly the last person who would.”


Isobel turned.

Without another word, she opened the door and slipped out into the empty hall.

GRABBING HER PARKA FROM HER locker, Isobel took the sandwich and soda she’d packed that morning outside and into the vacant courtyard.

It had stopped raining sometime after third period, so it wasn’t difficult to locate a relatively dry patch on one of the stone benches.

She sat with her back to the long spread of large cafeteria windows and hoped that the slender oak, which stood in the center of the yard, would help to obscure her form from view.

With everybody already through the lunch line and seated at tables corresponding to their various social spheres, Isobel wasn’t about to go strolling in there this late, especially since Gwen wouldn’t be waiting for her at their usual table.

The only thing less pleasant than waltzing through the cafeteria right at that moment might have been walking up the steps of a gallows, hands secured at her back, cloth sack draped over her head.

So she’d opted to spend the last ten minutes left of lunch outside in the cold.

The thirty-degree dampness, laced with the occasional sweep of icy wind, didn’t bother her, though. And for once in her life, neither did eating alone.

Aside from wanting to avoid the prying eyes and the unceasing stream of whispers, Isobel needed time to think. Though there was so much swirling around in her head, she wasn’t even sure where to begin.

At least she’d managed to solve one problem for herself among her growing list.

During the next several days leading up to the Baltimore trip, Isobel knew she would be free of Mr. Swanson’s prying glances and prodding questions. From what she could tell, he’d bought the self-absorbed cheerleader bit. Though she’d hated acting that way—like she didn’t have a soul. Like it hadn’t been ripped in two from the day she’d learned Varen hadn’t returned.

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