Maybe it was a little too weird.
Chiara looked down at the covered plate in her hands again. Aromatic wafts of chocolate still emanated from beneath the wax paper and it was warm against her hands. He had said he was not vegan, but what if he had food allergies? She had not asked. What was she thinking? If Alan knew, she would never hear the end of it. Holly might have been even worse. How could she bring herself to such a level? Her eyes flicked up again to the dark wood door looming in front of her. The gold plate at eye level taunted her with its inscription.
This was a really bad idea.
She sighed and turned around.
Somehow, she had gone a careful week and a half with no surprises, spotting unwelcome irritations from far away and avoiding them.
Apparently, Dante Vaughn and Oliver Truitt were unnaturally light on their feet. She went rigid with shock, her breath catching violently in her chest. Inwardly, Chiara rolled her eyes. If she got hiccups, she was determined to never come back to this school out of embarrassment.
Dante cocked his head, his rich chocolate eyes sparkling with amusement. He always looked like he was ready to burst out laughing, Chiara noted. It was somewhat annoying, but mostly endearing, in its own way.
“Hi,” he started.
Chiara nodded once in acknowledgment, then bit her lip.
Probably should have said something there. Too late now.
Oliver pointed to the plate she hugged preciously to her stomach. “What do you have there?”
Chiara glanced down at the gift again and swallowed. This was going to look so stupid.
“This…this is for Brody. Mr. Hilton.”
Dante cleared his throat, raising a hand and covering his mouth as he nodded quickly. “Yeah, we know who Brody is. And I kind of figured it was for him, but what is it?”
She closed her eyes. That morning, she had envisioned this going very differently. Dante and Oliver had not been present in her imaginary exchange.
“Chocolate chip cookies. He’s not gluten or dairy free, is he?”
Oliver chuckled under his breath. “No. He is, though, severely allergic to peanuts.”
Her eyes popped open. She had been eating apples with peanut butter while making the cookies.
Dante rolled his eyes, shoving Oliver’s head so he spun away, shaking his hair back into place. It was a curiously boyish movement for one so well groomed in his sleek black suit, his purple tie contrasting perfectly with the creased outfit.
“No,” Dante sighed, still smiling. “Ollie’s just playing with you, and, may I say,” He waggled his eyebrows, biting his lip in a super cute resistance against another burst of laughter. “You have made this week the best one of my school career.”
That was the last straw. Chiara felt all of her embarrassment melt away as her arms moved of their own volition, shoving the plate of cookies into Dante’s arms and tossing her voluminous tangles from her face.
“Yeah, I’ll bet. Give those to Brody, or eat them all. See if I care!” She shoved past him.
“Wait, wait, wait!” Oliver grabbed her arm and she swung back, staring at his hand clamped over her lovingly creased jacket sleeve. He raised his eyebrows in a genuine expression Chiara had not seen coming. “Sorry if that came across…wrong. Why don’t you come in? Have a coffee with us and we’ll explain what we mean.”
Chiara frowned. Many things did not make sense. She already had so many questions.
“You have coffee in there?”
“Sure do.” The Truitt boy winked. “Imported blends, full bar. I know you’re curious.”
Her eyes narrowed. “And since when has curiosity been enough to get me into the Collective’s cave? You guys are the ones who pinned me with that card!”
“Like I said,” Oliver interjected, his hand tightening around her wrist. Her frown deepened. His expression had become more serious, more urgent. “Let us explain.”
She looked between him and Dante. The taller heir to the city’s lucrative Mafia business nodded once. He moved to the door and pushed it open, still holding the cookies in one hand. Chiara sighed lightly, rolling her eyes.
“Fine. But you guys better have one amazing explanation.”
“Well,” Oliver muttered, gesturing for her to enter first. “It’s a good one. Maybe not an amazing one, but it’s pretty good.”
She stepped inside and locked her jaw into place before it could drop open. The Collective not only ran the school; they had a headquarters that was easily the size of the Daltons’ whole apartment. Chiara slowly moved forward, scanning the painting mounted walls, hardwood floors scattered with impossibly soft rugs, leather sofas and soft recliners, plasma tv with a various collection of video games, pool table, library, and kitchenette complete with coffee bar as promised. The walls were covered with tastefully located canvases of exquisite paintings and the coffee tables and counters scattered with miniature statuettes of animals and people, all signed or marked with the Truitt name. Dante laid the cookies on the counter and uncovered them, bending close and sniffing. He closed his eyes with a peaceful smile on his face.
“I could die happy now.” He directed a pointed look at Chiara. “If we impress you, will you make me cookies?”
She fought the incredulous smile, but it broke through her features. Chiara added an eye roll to balance out the expressions.
“It takes a lot to impress me!”
Dante nodded thoughtfully. “I can imagine, what with all that Burroughs culture you get.” He pointed at her as she opened her mouth. “Not an insult! But I’ll leave all the impressing to Oliver and his magic barista hands.”
Chiara glanced sidelong at Oliver. He winked again, lacing his fingers and flexing them outwards so that every knuckle popped loud and clear.
“Cream and sugar?”
Slowly, Chiara nodded.
“Very good. Give me two minutes.” He hopped the coffee counter and his hands flew, collecting his materials and whipping up his creation. Chiara watched wide-eyed. Dante chuckled, gesturing to a couch.
“Care to sit, Miss Dalton?”
Her eyes narrowed as she slowly sat on the edge of the brown leather couch. “What are you guys buttering me up for? Is there a higher level of the Collective card I should be prepared for?”
“No, no, no,” Dante protested, shaking his head and hands emphatically as he sat on the recliner opposite her. He crossed his legs elegantly and smoothed his v-necked sweater over his collared white button up. “Nothing like that. Jay pulled down the card.” He raised his eyebrows. “You knew that, right?”
She nodded, swallowing. “Yeah. That’s what the cookies are for. I know Brody played a big part in that. I…wanted to thank him.”
Dante smiled gently. “He’ll appreciate it, but you know that he never asked to be thanked. He simply never wanted there to be a card in the first place.”
“None of us did,” Oliver added from the bar, pouring a concoction into a blender. Chiara buried her face in her hands, releasing a sharp groan. Whenever she talked to a Collective member, her head ended up hurting.
“Well, then, why on earth do you all act like jerks to the school and then, to me, someone always ends up admitting this fact that everyone hates being jerks? It doesn’t make any sense!”
Dante sighed, brushing his fingers across his lips thoughtfully. He used his hands a lot, Chiara noticed. It was kind of funny how much she chose to observe these boys. All the other students had started to blend together on the first day and never ceased to do so.
“Has Brody ever mentioned how different you are to us?”
Weird. Chiara nodded. Dante spread his hands in a matter-of-factual gesture.
“The Ups are all raised to see the Downs as inferior; it’s just a part of our upbringing and no one questions it. You coming to the Globe was weird enough, but then you start defying Jay and the rules of the Collective and working your way into the notice of the teachers. Everything you ever did here was so different from what we had always believed that we couldn’t help but laugh. At least Oliver and I. Brody tried to fix it.”
“And he did,” Chiara added quietly. Her face twitched, all the muscles pulled tightly in thought. “What about Jay?”
“He was mad at first,” Oliver replied, crossing to her and presenting her with a beautiful glass shot mug full of sweet smelling coffee. Chiara took it gratefully, sipping carefully at it. She melted inside. It was easily the best coffee she had ever tasted. Oliver grinned, slipping his hands into the pockets of his slacks. “Then he just kind of gave up. He stopped goading the school on, leaving it all to them. He hardly talks about you anymore, but I think he thinks about you a lot.”
Chiara sighed sharply. “Why? I’m really not that special!”
“Maybe not where you come from,” Oliver admitted, turning to sit on the arm of Dante’s recliner. He shrugged. “But here, you’re a novelty, and you’re turning everything Jay’s ever known upside-down. He’s never been so quiet.”
Dante shook his head in agreement, then straightened, his eyes flicking to the door. Oliver stood. Chiara twisted in her seat, then hurriedly stood up, just barely steadying her mug before coffee sloshed over the cusp.
Jay slowly shut the door behind him, his eyes flicking between Chiara, Oliver, Dante, and back to Chiara. His face was deadpan. Oliver snapped his fingers and Jay quickly looked at him. The Truitt jerked his head to the coffee bar.
“I’ve got the brew going.”
Jay nodded. “Thanks.”
He met Chiara’s eyes once more. She felt her muscles heat up. The sight of him still made her upset, still made her want to throw up. Now, though, she had testimonies to his more approachable character, from the other members of the Collective, the people who knew him best. Maybe he was not the monster she had seen, but she had never been so quick to forgive as that.
She nodded coldly.
He rose his eyebrows and crossed smoothly to the bar, pouring himself a mug of coffee. Chiara watched in strange interest as he added creamer and sugar. When he started stirring it, it was more sweet additives than coffee. That was kind of funny. He turned, leaning back against the counter and sipping at his drink.
“What are the cookies for?”
“Chiara brought them for Brody,” Dante replied before Chiara could cut him off. She closed her mouth again as Jay rose his eyebrows again to her. Dante winked at her. “As a thank you gift.”
Slowly, Jay nodded. “Gotcha. Guess he probably deserves it, doesn’t he?”
“Yeah,” Chiara retorted. “He stood up for what he believed in.”
Jay chuckled, rolling his eyes and lowering his mug. “Yeah, you? I think you might be a little deluded in your own sense of importance in this situation!”
Chiara rolled her eyes with a feigned grin. “Takes one to know one, buddy! I’d watch what I say about narcissism if I were you, Newhall.”
“Big word for a Down girl.”
“Need me to simplify for you?” She stood, setting her coffee down on the coffee table hard. Dante jumped and Oliver straightened, his eyes flicking between the two of them. Chiara took long steps forward until she was face to face with Jay. Ordinarily, he would have smirked down at her, goading her to continue, to say anything out of turn so he could torture her for it. This time, his face went slack, deadpan, his eyes meeting hers listlessly. Chiara pursed her lips, desperately hiding her confusion.
Jay Newhall was sad.
She swallowed and crossed her arms over her chest. She hated not knowing how to approach a person. Years ago, learning a character from a distance had been one of the first lessons Alan had taught her on the streets. If you knew someone, you knew what he wanted, what made him tick, how he could be useful to you. Learning that she knew less and less of Jay Newhall was enough to drive her nearly speechless.
He raised his eyebrows, tilting his head in a galvanizing expression. “I’m waiting.”
Chiara narrowed her eyes, shoved her shoulder into his chest, and marched to the door.
“Make sure that Brody gets the cookies. They took a long time.”
“Wait, you didn't finish your coffee!”
She slammed the door behind her and pressed her back against it, pressing her palms into her eyes. Her skin was clammy. Why? This was not that big of a deal. All she had done was leave a thank you gift for a friend and told the jerk off. Or tried. Why had she been thrown off? What had changed? Brody’s story had revealed that Jay was a different person to his friends, but Chiara could not see it, no matter how hard she looked.
All she saw were walls, emotional walls that she knew well.
Walls that she had herself.
“Dude, what was that?”
Chiara frowned, turning her head so her ear was set next to the crack in the door. Dante sounded on the verge of angry.
“Yeah,” Oliver added tersely. “You were supposed to apologize! Things might have changed, and you knew that. It was your idea!”
“That’s not a good answer, Jay.”
“Please, guys, drop it. I’ll explain everything eventually.”
“Does Brody know?”
“Yeah, but that wasn’t my choice. I’ll tell you guys everything when it makes sense. Do you trust me?”
Someone sighed and Chiara’s frown deepened.
“You know we do. Just don’t hurt anyone more than you need to.”
“That’s why I haven’t apologized yet. I’m afraid of being her friend now.”
“I said to drop it.”
Chiara slowly breathed out, turning back to the hall. No one came down here but the Collective, as there was not much else on this floor. She would hardly have cared, though, if they had seen her face. When she had been invited to the Globe, Chiara never imagined being this involved in something so confusing, and, if she had known, she would have avoided it at all costs. She hated being confused.
Jay Newhall, the heir to the largest conglomerate in the world, was afraid of being her friend. He was being strategic about when he told his friends things, about when he apologized for his behavior to the Downs girl who invaded his school.
He was caught between a rock and a hard place and did not know how to get out.
Chiara pursed her lips in irritation, rolling her eyes at herself. Why did her moral compass have to be so directed lately?