Something smelled amazing.
At home, though, the kitchen was so set apart that smells did not often drift through the house.
What was going on?
“Hey, Jay. Wake up.”
The soft, whispered voice was most definitely not the house butler. Nor was it any of the maids he remembered. Of course, four of them had just recently been fired. Maybe she was a replacement. But the maids were trained and reminded to call him Mr. Newhall. Jay was a name allowed to select few. He would have to chastise her when he felt like getting up. Why did it feel like he was still in slacks and a pressed shirt? Why not pajamas? What had happened last night?
“Come on, it’s eight. People are going to worry if you don’t get home soon.”
Jay cracked open an eye, twisting to look over his shoulder. A now familiar face bent over him, golden waves tumbling over her shoulders and framing her raw visage, free of makeup or any beauty enhancing additives.
Chiara did not need those, Jay decided. She was already more real than any of the girls he had ever known. The lack of makeup reminded him of that.
He was starting to sound like Brody.
She giggled softly, reaching forward and tapping the edge of his nose. “You talk in your sleep!”
He stared at her slender finger, swallowed, then wiped his hand across his dry mouth as he sat up. He caught his breath and Chiara hurriedly shook her head, crouching by him and laying a hand on his leg.
“Stop moving! I worked really hard on this!”
Jay looked down at his leg. His bare foot was neatly bandaged all the way up the ankle, propped up on a pillow and coated again with an ice pack. It felt much better than the night before, but it still throbbed abnormally. Overall, he felt much nicer than the night before. He vaguely remembered soaking in a tub of scalding water, enjoying the heat as the blood from the streets washed from his skin.
He felt like a new person.
“What’s that smell?” he breathed, carefully rolling over against the pillow. Chiara gestured back to the kitchen.
“My mom and Brody are fixing us all breakfast. You can try to eat, but I wouldn't rush it. Your stomach may not be able to handle much.”
He nodded slowly in understanding, then felt his eyes slowly widen.
He sat bolt upright and gasped as his ankle spasmed against the pillow. Familiar footsteps thudded across the shaggy carpet as Brody sank to his knees by the couch.
“You need to stop moving, Jay!” he moaned, shoving him back to the pillow with a hand on his shoulder. His face was contorted in concern. “You were beat up pretty bad last night. You need to rest, okay?”
“When did you get here?” Jay grunted, shifting to a more comfortable position again. Brody shrugged, slipping his hands into his white jeans pockets as he stood again. As always, he looked unbelievably fresh in his white outfit, accented with the bright red t-shirt beneath his white leather jacket.
“About an hour ago. Chiara called me, told me what happened, gave me her address, and I headed right over.” He chuckled softly, leaning in as he lowered his voice. “You should have seen her mom’s face when she woke up and saw you on the couch!”
Chiara gasped a giggle, shaking her head. “I wish I had that on video!”
Brody patted his pocket. “I pulled out my phone too late.”
“Mr. Hilton,” another voice called from the kitchen. “Would you flip these pancakes for me? My hands are covered with sausage oil.”
He grinned and winked at Jay before looking back over his shoulder. “Only if you call me Brody, Mrs. Dalton.”
The voice giggled. “All right, Brody, come on over and do these pancakes!”
He bumped his shoulder into Chiara’s with a chuckle. “Like mother, like daughter. I’ll take you home after breakfast, okay, Jay?”
Slowly, he nodded, and watched Brody turn to join the tall woman in the beat up jeans and sweatshirt in the kitchen. Her hair had been pulled hastily into one of those stylish hair buns and a thin layer of makeup applied to her face. She seemed to have forgotten, though, as she licked jelly off of her fingers. Chiara shifted to sit beside the couch on the floor, her eyes level with Jay’s shoulder as she looked in the same direction.
“They got along from the get-go,” she whispered. “And my mom…she usually freaks out with rich people.”
“Brody’s good at not acting rich,” Jay replied softly, pursing his lips as he watched his best friend tentatively flip a pancake on his spatula, making an exchange with the middle aged woman that made her laugh. “It’s a talent he has.”
Chiara looked back at him, blowing a tangle of gold from her eyes. “Think you could try it out sometime?”
Jay scoffed. “You saw me last night! I don’t look like the heir to a global conglomerate all the time.” His stomach dropped and he quickly scanned the room. “Speaking of…where’s my bag?”
“Here.” She lifted it up from under the low coffee table beside the couch. Jay grabbed the strap from her and ripped it open. Her eyebrows shot up. “Wow, you’re welcome.”
“Hang on.” He reached in and pulled out the precious envelope that had been entrusted to him. He released a slow sigh of relief, slumping against the arm rest again. “Thank goodness.”
Chiara frowned. “What is that? The favor for your friend?”
“Yeah. Well, not so much friend as my butler’s son. He just lost a job in the Downs.” He tapped the envelope against his forehead. “This is a letter to my butler, thanking him for the check to pay the bills until next month.”
Her perfect eyebrows slowly contracted and she shook her head in confusion. “You…you would do that for your butler’s son?”
Jay glanced up at her and met her eyes again. Her confusion hurt him more than he liked to admit to himself. Brody would not have been surprised, nor would Dante or Oliver. He wished no one else would be, either. Unfortunately, facades had to be maintained.
“Not for him. For my butler, yeah. He pretty much raised me. And I hate owing people for longer than I have to.”
“So he sent you into the Downs by yourself.”
“He didn’t send me; I offered. I thought I could be back home before dark, but then your boyfriend attacked me.”
“Not your boyfriend, okay.” He chuckled as she rolled her eyes. “I get it. Lucky you had Brody’s number, or I might still have had to walk home.”
Chiara shook her head, standing up and zipping up the baggy grey sweater hanging loosely on her slender frame. She wore blue jeans torn at the cuffs and knees, scuffed black combat boots that were far too large, and a loose yellow t-shirt with some sort of desert design underneath the sweater. There were not many Ups who would have been caught dead in such an outfit, but it seemed to suit her.
“I didn’t. I had to look it up at the public payphone.”
Jay frowned. “You don’t have a cell phone?”
She laughed sharply. “Jay, you’re not going to find one teenager in the Downs who has a cell phone! Considering that most families need at least two incomes to even survive, cell phones are luxuries we can’t afford.”
"There are still payphones?"
"They're all over the place in the Downs. We kind of need them." She shrugged.
"Cause we don't have cell phones."
Another door opened and Jay’s eyes skated to it. A younger boy shuffled out, stretching his arms in his oversized flannel pajamas and scrubbing his fingers through his shaggy, dirty blond hair.
“Morning,” he muttered, making a slow beeline for the kitchen. “Are those pancakes I smell?”
“Sure are!” Brody replied with a grin, setting a large plate piled with golden pancakes on the kitchen table, followed by a bowl of steaming syrup and another of jam. Jay watched Chiara explode into giggles behind her hand as the boy slowly looked from the pancakes to Brody, and back again. Slowly, his finger came up to point accusingly at the stranger.
“You're on the magazines.”
“Grant!” Chiara finally burst, shoving herself to her feet and sliding behind him, wrapping her arms around him. He dropped his arm, looking back at her through half open eyes. She gestured to Brody first, then Jay. “These are Brody Hilton and Jay Newhall, from school.”
Grant shuffled in a half circle to eye Jay on the couch. Jay raised his eyebrows and waved a little. The boy’s eyebrows slowly rose, his eyelids still drooping over his eyes.
“So…it looks like you slept on our couch.”
Jay nodded. “I did.”
Grant blinked, shook his head, and slid into a chair. “Pancakes first. Thinking later.”
Despite himself, Jay laughed. That sounded like a younger brother thing to say. Brody ruffled the younger boy’s hair like an old friend. Mrs. Dalton swept out to the table with a jug of orange juice and a plate of tiny sausages and the boys cheered, Brody plopping down in a seat across from Grant. The younger boy laughed as his mom arranged the sausages in a smiling face on his plate and Brody poured eyes out of syrup across his pancakes. Chiara smiled at them, then back at Jay. The Newhall heir watched everything unfold, a confused smile twisting his lips.
He tried to imagine his house sounding like this first thing in the morning, laughter and good smells drifting up the stairs, tantalizing others to join and partake in the good memories.
He could not picture it.
She glanced back at him and dropped to crouch at his side. He reached out a hand to her.
“Will you help me up?”
She shook her head. “You shouldn’t be standing on that ankle yet, and you might feel nauseous if you do it fast enough.”
He braced his hand on her shoulder, carefully rolling himself so his feet rested on the floor.
“I can’t eat lying down. Come on, help me.”
She raised her eyebrows with a sigh. “Looks like last night didn’t do much to humble you.” She steadied her hand over his, pressing it to her shoulder as he shakily pulled himself to his feet. “I thought maybe getting beat up might have been that enlightening moment in your life.”
He checked to make sure she was anxiously watching his ankle before smiling down at her. “Well, you’re still mad at me, so what difference would it have made?”
“It might have helped,” she grumbled, sliding herself under his arm. Brody suddenly appeared at his other side, following suit so that they both supported him.
“You feeling well enough to eat something?” Brody prompted. Jay nodded.
“I’ll be fine. I mean, I might throw it up later, but I should be fine now.”
“Oh, you won’t go throwing up my pancakes, Mr. Newhall!” Mrs. Dalton burst, planting her hands on her hips. Jay’s eyebrows shot up as she shook a condescending finger. “Usually, I would care who you are or how rich your mommy is, but no one says anything but good things about my food!”
Jay glanced down at Chiara. She nodded encouragingly.
“I’d obey her. People are known to disappear in the Downs.”
Brody shook with a deep-chested chuckle on his other side and Jay directed a glare at him.
“Okay, whose side are you on?”
“Yours,” the Hilton heir hurriedly responded with a grin. “Always. Sit down.”
They lowered him to a chair and Jay released a tight breath he had not realized he had been holding. He directed a timid smile up to the woman standing as captain over the table.
“Everything smells good, Mrs. Dalton.”
She grinned and winked. “I know. Hope I didn’t scare you, Mr. Newhall, but I tend to get very defensive about my cooking. It's one of the few things I can still be proud of. Of course, you probably have chefs galore, but I wouldn't give this up for all that." She shrugged, cocking her head thoughtfully. "Well, the rest of the perks of being rich would make it easier, I suppose. Brody was a good help this morning.”
Brody saluted with his fork. “All my pleasure. I don’t get to cook at home a lot, and you are a great teacher.”
She blushed with pleasure, sliding into a seat. “Well, now you all have to eat a lot and get out there and enjoy your Saturday! How are you feeling, Mr. Newhall? Well enough to go out today?”
He nodded, serving himself a small pile of pancakes. His mouth was watering, though his stomach was not perfectly comfortable yet. “I’ll be fine. Brody’ll take me home and I’ll have my doctor look at my ankle.”
“It looks like Chiara did a good job, though,” Brody added, nodding down to Jay’s leg. “Do you have to bandage a lot of ankles, Cheech?”
Jay glanced across the table as Chiara sat at the other end, reaching for the orange juice. So they were at the nickname stage. It had been two weeks since Chiara came to the Globe and they were already that comfortable. He raised an eyebrow at his friend and Brody shook his head ever so slightly. Jay shrugged and poured syrup over his pancakes. Best friends did not need much more than a gesture to understand.
“Not really,” Chiara answered Brody, sipping from her cup of juice. “Not anymore, anyway.”
Jay raised his eyebrows. “Well, you’re just a bundle of surprises, aren’t you? Buddies with Arm-“
Brody coughed hard on his juice, doubling over and stretching across Jay for a napkin. He shook his head on the way and Jay instantly got the idea, throwing a glance at Chiara. She was holding her breath. She hurriedly shook her head. Jay made a show of patting Brody’s back hard.
“Okay, no need to breathe it in! Calm down!” He looked at Mrs. Dalton again, gesturing to Chiara with his fork. She was smiling uncertainly at the chaos. He had to cover it up. “Mrs. Dalton, your daughter has surprised everybody at school. She’s top of all her classes and…” He had said buddies. She would wonder. Why was Chiara hiding her relationship with the black market leader? Obviously, the family dynamic was not as pure as he had made it out to be. Still, he owed her after saving him last night. He hated to admit owing someone, especially the Downs. But she had provided him with pancakes. He nudged Brody under the table. Play along, the gesture said. “Buddies with the Collective already.”
Mrs. Dalton’s eyebrows shot up and she twisted to face her daughter. Chiara’s eyes pierced through his soul. The tips of her lips twitched upwards and she slowly dragged her eyes to face her mother.
She was somewhat pleased. Jay wondered at the warm, fuzzy feeling growing inside of him.
“Baby, you didn’t tell me you…you had friends!” Mrs. Dalton breathed. “You just said…you tolerated the school.”
Chiara chuckled, pointing at the boys with the sausage on the end of her fork. “I tolerate them and they tolerate me, so we call it a…friendship, I guess.”
“Well, why haven’t you invited them over before Mr. Newhall goes and gets hit by a car?”
Jay straightened, setting his fork down and eyeing Chiara balefully. She chewed her sausage slowly, challenging him with her gaze. The Up slowly narrowed his eyes. Chiara had more secrets than he had anticipated, secrets that she obviously was not comfortable letting loose.
Then again, so did he.
He managed a tight laugh. “You know how the school year is, Mrs. Dalton. Things are crazy at the beginning of the semester.”
“Yeah,” Brody agreed with an easy smile. “Once things calm down, I really hope we can all see more of each other.”
She smiled fondly. “I’d like that. Cheech doesn’t bring a lot of friends home. Speaking of friends,” Mrs. Dalton glanced at the fire escape window just as it slid open and a body dropped in.
Jay and Brody choked over their pancakes, spinning in their chairs to face the window. Jay barely cut back a scream, yanking his injured ankle to his chest and holding it tightly. Chiara and Grant burst into laughter, Grant’s orange juice spraying across the table all over Brody's white leather jacket. Chiara gestured to the window, holding a napkin over her mouth as tears poured from her eyes, her body shaking with laughter.
“Guys…this is Holly! Holly, these are Jay Newhall and Brody Hilton.”
Jay watched the new girl straighten, dropping her backpack on the couch as she carefully eyed the boys. She was way prettier in face than Chiara, he noted, with olive skin and almond eyes that were swept over with thick black eyelashes and amazingly glossy dark hair. If she exchanged her battered black skinny jeans and men’s green wool sweater for the brand name stuff from the Ups, she could easily have passed for the ladies Jay was used to. However, her eyes landed on him and decided they hated him. He felt his jaw tighten, seeing a familiar film of scrutiny and suspicion cover her eyes. Chiara must have told her the whole story from the start. She had heard that her friend was being hurt and she was angry. He cleared his throat.
Slowly, she shook her head. “I’m okay.” She pointed to his head, scabbed over from last night’s fiasco. “What happened to you?”
Jay glanced back at Chiara. She nodded to him and Brody leaned forward in his chair.
“He was hit by a car last night. Chiara found him and brought him here. I’m taking him home in a little bit.”
“Good,” Holly replied. “Better get checked out with a doctor. We don’t have a lot of those in the Downs.”
“I don’t know,” Jay muttered, smiling a little. “Chiara seemed to do fine.”
“Still,” Chiara hurriedly interjected. “No substitute for the real deal. Eat quickly so Brody can take you home.”
Jay groaned, turning back to the table. “Yes, mom!”
“Don’t you like it?” Mrs. Dalton prompted, her eyebrows high on her forehead. Jay smiled at her worriedly, saluting her with a forkful of pancake.
“It’s awesome and I’m trying to savor it, but my nannies over here won’t let me.” He stuffed the breakfast into his mouth as the rest of the group laughed. He watched Holly move behind Chiara’s chair, bending over and whispering in her ear. Chiara’s content smile slowly faded and she nodded, wiping her mouth with her napkin and pushing herself away from the table.
“I hate to run out like this, but something came up on the Strip.”
“Cheech, I'm taking double shifts now so we're fine and I don’t want you taking a job!” Mrs. Dalton burst, gesturing sharply at her with her fork. Chiara spread her hands incredulously.
“Mom, I didn’t say anything about a job! There’s someone Holly and I have to meet there.”
“What’s going on?” Brody prompted, his brow creased in concern. Chiara reached for her soft leather backpack from its place propped against the wall by the front door, looking back at the boys. Her eyes met Jay’s and he felt her sincerity, her determination. He felt her kindness.
“You know how you had to do a favor for a friend?” she asked. Slowly, Jay nodded. She smiled tightly. “So do I. Take care, you guys. Brody, don’t let him do anything stupid.” Brody waved in acknowledgment. She jerked her head to Holly. “Come on.”
Jay watched them slide out the front door and listened to the ominous click as it shut behind them. Chiara was more deeply involved in things than he had ever guessed.
How could he have made her life so much harder at the Globe?
Yet another character slowly shuffled into the room. Jay felt his stomach clench a little around the pancakes. The man's eyes squinted with sleep and he still wore old button up flannel pajamas. He stopped just outside the kitchen, surveying the scene carefully.
"Good morning, honey!" Mrs. Dalton called cheerfully. "Sleep well?"
Brody pushed himself away from the table, approaching the man with an extended hand. "Mr. Dalton, I assume?"
The new arrival stared at the hand before slowly reaching up to shake it. He rubbed his eyes with the other hand.
"You two look awfully familiar. Collective?"
"Yes, sir. I'm Brody Hilton and this is Jay Newhall. Chiara was kind enough to take care of Jay after he was hit by a car last night. We appreciate your hospitality and won't be taking advantage of it much longer."
Mr. Dalton shook a dismissive hand, realization of the situation slowly morphing his face into one of careful giddiness.
"No, no, stay as long as you like! Of course, we haven't much to offer you, but we'll do all we can to make you feel comfortable!" He chewed his lip, frantically smoothing his hair with trembling hands. "I apologize for your predicament, Mr. Newhall."
Jay shook his head. "Jay, please." He shrugged as the man's eyes widened. "After today, I feel like titles are kind of pointless." He leaned back in his chair.
"Your daughter sure is something, isn't she?"