“I like her, really like her. I can feel her emotions clearer than anyone. I mean, even right now I feel her somewhere out there, feeling unsure of something.”
“Stop feeling,” Della whispered.
“I can’t,” Jenny snapped back. “And they can’t hear us when we’re invisible, so you don’t have to whisper.”
“But I’m trying to listen,” Della shot back.
Derek shook his head as if thinking. “She’s caring and yet amazingly spunky. Even though she’s new and everyone’s always looking at her funny for being a chameleon, she handles it with courage and poise.” He paused. “She’s beautiful, but not like one of those girls who knows it. She’s innocent, but at the same time she’s eager to experience things. She’s smart and sometimes a bit of a smartass.” He grinned, then sighed. “I love how she looks at life. And I want to be there to … well, to share in those experiences, and of course to make sure she doesn’t get hurt.”
“That’s so sweet,” Jenny said, her tone sounding like Miranda when she talked about Perry sucking her earlobes.
Della wondered if the chameleon knew that some of the experiences Derek meant were probably X-rated. But then again, it didn’t matter. Jenny was right. It was sweet.
Just because Della wasn’t ready to bask in all the gooeyness of romance didn’t mean she couldn’t admit it had its good sides. Someday she might even get her life straightened out enough that she could enjoy some of it, too.
“He really likes me,” Jenny said.
“Told you,” Della said. “Now can I go talk to Derek and check out the book that cost me a month’s allowance?”
At ten that night Della lay in bed flipping through the high-school yearbook. She stared at the faces of all the Tsangs, but especially those of her missing aunt and uncle. Before leaving, Derek had taken note of who her uncle and aunt had been seen with in photos and planned to contact them via Facebook to see if they had any more information.
“It’s amazing how many PI and police cases are solved using social media,” he’d said.
Della started feeling bad about depending on him and offered, “I could do that.”
“If you want,” he’d answered, “but you need to be sly how you ask, or it could backfire.”
In the end, she’d agreed to let him handle it. Besides, it wasn’t as if she didn’t have enough to worry about.
Her phone dinged again, reminding her she’d gotten another text when she’d been talking to Derek. She’d glanced earlier. It was from Steve. She hadn’t read it. Didn’t want to read it. Didn’t think she could read it without getting drowned in missing him, in getting super pissed at him for kissing Jessie, and even more pissed for allowing Jessie to call him. Three times!
Turning the page of the yearbook, she released a deep gulp of emotionally charged air. Nope. She wasn’t ready to deal with Steve. Maybe in a couple of years. Groaning, she buried her head in her pillow for a few minutes before returning to flipping through the book.
In one picture of the debate club, she noted a familiar face. There were too many in the photo to list names, so she wasn’t sure if it was her uncle or her dad. They had to be identical twins. She traced the face with her fingernail, wondering if she would feel the connection to her uncle she used to feel with her dad.
Or still felt. He’d been the one to give up on her, not the other way around.
She closed her eyes again, emotion tightening her throat.
Swallowing back the hurt, she heard someone walking in front of her cabin. Shit! What if it was Steve? She inhaled to see if she could catch a scent. Nope. Her nose still wasn’t working.
Her heart did a tumble. She wasn’t ready to face him.
Della concentrated on the cadence of the steps. Not Steve. Too light.
The footsteps sounded like … The cabin door opened.
“In here.” Della headed to the door, remembering she still needed to apologize to the witch for getting pissy this afternoon about the whole bird-watching/aura issue.
“Hey,” Miranda said, and she didn’t even look upset.
Della considered letting the apology slide—she hated eating crow—but she owed it to the little witch. “I’m sorry about earlier, I was a bitch.”
“Yeah, you were. But that’s okay,” Miranda said. “I told you, I’m overlooking your pissiness due to all the crap you’ve got going on. I figure you’ve got a week or two of me overlooking your attitude. Then I bring my pinkie out.”
What attitude? Della bit back the words and forced herself to play nice. “I appreciate it, but I’m still sorry.”
“I accept.” She smiled. “Is Kylie here?”
“No, she and Lucas took a late-night stroll to suck face.”
Miranda walked to the fridge and pulled out two sodas. Della dropped in her chair. The witch handed her a can and studied Della a little hard.
Della figured out what the witch was up to: aura inspection. “How is it?”
“Still dangerously dark.” Looking concerned, Miranda opened her drink, but kept looking at Della as the fizzing sound filled the room. Finally she asked, “What happened with you and Steve?”
“Jessie kissed him.” Della didn’t like talking about it … again. But if the witch found out she’d told Kylie and not her, she’d get her nose out of joint. Or perhaps her pinkie out of joint. And that could be dangerous.
“So he’s dumping you for her?”
“No,” Della said. “We had an argument and I told him I couldn’t deal with it.” Then again, she hadn’t read his text. He might be telling her he was in love with Jessie now. But even pissed, she didn’t think that was the case.
“Did he apologize?” Miranda asked.
“But you’re still furious, right?”
Della slunk deeper into the chair. “Yeah, but it’s not like we’re going out.”
“That’s nonsense. You two were going out. You just didn’t tell anyone you were going out.”
Della wanted to deny it, but couldn’t.
Miranda sipped her soda. “Do you believe Steve when he said Jessie kissed him? Or do you think he kissed her?”
“I believe him,” Della said, “but that’s not the point.”
“The point is you’re still hurt, right?”
Della exhaled. “Maybe. I guess. Yeah. Shit, it hurts.”
Miranda nodded with empathy. They sat in comfortable silence for a moment, the way friends do, the witch twirling a strand of pink hair around her finger. Her eyes suddenly widened. “I have an idea, but you’re going to think I’m crazy.”
“Since I already think you’re crazy, you might as well tell me.”
“It worked for Perry when he got mad about me kissing Jacob.” Miranda paused as if for dramatic effect. “He kissed Mandy, we got in a big fight, then we both forgave each other.”
Della shook her head, not quite following Miranda. “Are you saying you want me to kiss Perry?”
“No. Not Perry. But you need to go kiss some other guy so you can get over being mad at Steve.”
Della rolled her eyes. “I know math isn’t your subject, but hasn’t anyone told you that two wrongs don’t make a right?”
“It does if it fixes things. You really like Steve. I know you do. And he likes you. So go kiss someone else. Hey, how about that Chase guy? Just walk up to him and plant one on him hard and heavy, and then the score’ll be even, and you’ll be able to move past this. You and Steve can get back together, your aura will lighten up, and everyone will be happy. I mean, it’s that or go bird watching, which would you prefer?”
Della couldn’t help but laugh. “Sorry, I know you’re just trying to help, but that is probably the worst piece of advice I’ve ever been given.”
“No! Kissing Chase!”
Della ignored Chase all morning. Or she tried to. As she walked to lunch, Miranda, Kylie, and Jenny all chatting as they went, Chase stepped beside her and caught her by the arm. “Give me a minute, please.” He tugged her into the woods. “She’ll be right back,” he said to her friends.
Della might have yanked free, but all she could think about was how cold his touch felt. Did that mean she still had a fever? Damn, she hadn’t noticed the headache lately, and she’d just assumed the virus was improving. Well, minus her missing sense of smell.
It hit her then. Like a drop of mental bird crap. Chan had died after getting sick. What if…?
Oh, hell, what was she thinking? She had a cold, a tiny bug. Kevin had said Chan had gotten really sick. Della wasn’t really sick. And she wasn’t a dad-blasted hypochondriac.
Snapping out of that train of thought, she looked back at her group of friends, and Miranda shot her a big smile. Della shot a frown right back, knowing what the little witch was thinking. No friggin’ way was Della going to plaster a big smooch on the panty perv. Not happening!
He kept pulling her, and for reasons she didn’t quite understand she allowed him to. “What?” Della finally spouted out the moment they got in the mix of trees.
“Three things. One: What time are we meeting tonight?”
“I think Burnett said to meet at the office at eight. Next?”
He frowned. “Do you know why the big bad camp leader suddenly lost trust in me?”
“Next?” Della said, not wanting to talk about Burnett’s lack of confidence in Chase. Or her lack of distrust. She still hadn’t gotten her head around the fact that she’d practically defended him to Burnett.
“He had me meet him at his office last night and interrogated me for over an hour.”
“Well, get used to it. He does that to everyone,” she said.
“I don’t think so. Did he say anything to you about not trusting me?”
For one second she almost told him. Told him Burnett had figured out he’d lied about a few things. She opened her mouth, then thought better of it, and slammed it shut.
Chase’s bright eyes tightened. “So something is up?”
“You’ll have to ask Burnett. And you should.”
“Should what?” he asked.
“Talk to him. He’s not … I know he comes across like a hardass, but at least sixty percent of the time he’s fair.”
“So you confide in him about everything?” he asked, sounding almost suspicious.
Not about my uncle. “Almost.” Right then the sound of the falls echoed in her ears. “Do you hear that?” she asked.
Regretting asking him, she snapped: “Nothing.” She started tapping her foot against the cold dirt. “Is there something else? What else do you want?”
“Dangerous question,” he said, in a sexy voice full of tease.
She crossed her arms and glared at him. “My friends are waiting on me.”
He pulled out his phone. “What’s your number?” When she didn’t start spitting it out, he said, “So next time I have a question I can just call, and won’t have to interrupt your little Chase-doesn’t-exist game.”
“You’ve been ignoring me all day. You’ve worked hard at it.”
She stomped her foot a little firmer and felt childish for her game, or rather, she felt childish being caught at it. But what choice did she have? Since he’d expressed an interest in her, the last thing she wanted to do was encourage him.
“Your number?” Impatience rang in his tone as he looked up from his phone. And damn if he didn’t look hurt.
And damn if she didn’t feel a little bad. Then the fact that she cared what he felt sent a wave of panic through her.
“Just give me your number,” he said.
Deciding that getting a call from him would be better than being pulled off in the woods by him, she gave it to him.
“Thank you,” he said. “I’ll call you later so you’ll have mine.”
I don’t need yours, she almost said, but bit it back. They were working together, so she might need his number. She just wished she really had his number, as in knowing for sure what he was up to. Or knowing if he was up to something.
Before she could turn to leave, he reached out and brushed a strand of hair from her cheek.
She slapped his hand.
He laughed, and then the humor left his expression. “How are you feeling?” He tucked his hand in his jeans pocket.
“Why?” she asked, wondering if he’d noticed her temperature.
He hesitated. “I mean dealing with your cousin’s death,” he said, sounding sincere.
“I’m okay.” She softened her tone, wishing he would stop the nice crap. So she could stop the bitch crap. However, she wasn’t sure how to project disinterest without ignoring him or giving him a ’tude. Not that her behavior was uncalled for.
She didn’t trust him, but she was working with him and she’d practically defended him to Burnett.
She didn’t like him, but felt empathy for him losing his family the way he did.
She knew he was keeping things from her and Burnett, but wasn’t she keeping things from Burnett, too?
Where the heck had she picked up his scent? Why would he lie about it? What if she was wrong about him lying? Was it possible that she’d gotten his scent but he hadn’t picked up on hers?