She slept in way too late.
“Cheech, aren’t you going to eat something before you go?”
“No time, Mom, gotta go!” Chiara grabbed a bagel and ran for the door, her hair flying loose around her shoulders. Grant frowned.
“Where’s your bike?”
She froze by the door. She needed an excuse, something to say so they would never worry about her.
“Uh, I...I left it at school. I forgot it. Gotta go, see you all later!”
She did not have the time to wait. The door slammed behind her and she took the stairs two at a time. The cold smacked her in the face.
This was one voice one had to wait for, or suffer the consequences. She spun on her heel, nearly tripping over herself. Her eyebrows contracted sharply.
“What do you want, Alan? You’re never out this early.”
He smirked as he leaned a shoulder against the torn stucco of the apartment building, his dark hair swept gently to the side and perfectly styled. Alan Armister never presented himself as less than ruler of the Downs.
“Where’s your bike?”
Chiara’s jaw dropped and she threw her arms open incredulously.
“You can’t be serious! I’m so late!”
“Would be faster if you’d take your bike.” He rose his eyebrows, his perpetually creepy smile lingering across his face. “Where is it, Cheech?”
She released an exasperated breath, rolling her eyes and backing into the street. “It broke, okay? My bike broke and I need to run so let me go, please.”
He laughed softly, shaking his head. “And when did you start caring about this crappy school for the Up freaks? When I first heard about it all, I sort of assumed you would try everything to slow them down, to just make life hard for them,” He shrugged with a quizzical smile. “And here I find you busting your butt to get there on time? You’re not turning into an Up, are you, hon?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t call me that.”
“Answer the question.”
She straightened, everything inside of her hard and tough like the street nails Alan Armister had helped turn her into.
“What do you think?”
His smiled widened and he stepped forward, closing the space between them. Chiara clenched her hands into fists, steadied her core, always ready, just like he taught her. His breath tickled her ear.
“I think you need to watch your back, no matter where you are.”
She cocked her head. “Don’t I always? I seem to remember you teaching me not to trust anyone. Ever.”
He slowly winked. “You’ve always been a quick learner, haven’t you?” He tapped her nose. She did not flinch. “Better get to school, hon.”
He swaggered away, thrusting his hands deep into his pockets and fading into the harsh daylight of early morning. Chiara’s stomach clenched. No matter what his intention was, Alan Armister could never come across as less than ultimately creepy. That was why he ran the streets with his iron fist. Everyone was terrified of him and his sleezy reputation.
He would have made it far in the Up world.
Chiara scoffed to herself and sprinted through the Burroughs for the Up side of town.
Professor Lopez froze mid-sentence as Chiara burst into the room. She froze, feeling all eyes swing to pin her to the floor. Suddenly, she became fully aware of the wild state of her wind-blown, golden tangles, how crinkled her skirt was, and the fact that one sock was riding down to her ankle instead of the proper knee length.
It was dead silent.
She cleared her throat.
Professor Lopez turned a stern eye to her, clenching a fist on his desktop.
“Miss Dalton, I know that you are used to running around according to your own time, but you attend the Globe now. I implore you to make an effort to at least try to abide by our rules and standards!”
Chiara nodded, glancing out over the class. Felicity Reacher and possee smirked at her triumphantly. The kid who broke her bike the day before leaned his chin on his hand, drumming his fingers against his cheek as if waiting. Dante Vaughn and Oliver Truitt exchanged glances from their seats against the back wall.
Jay Newhall drummed his pencil against his desktop, one corner of his mouth turned up. He kissed his lips towards her.
She boiled inside.
“Sorry, Professor; that would be my fault.”
All eyes swung to the very top of the lecture hall, jaw dropping, eyes popping wide open. Brody Hilton stood, leaning comfortably against the back wall with his arms crossed over his chest and one foot propped up against it. In his rich red skinny pants and long black coat, he struck an imposing character to whom all had to pay all due attention. Chiara spread her hands quizzically. Brody winked at her.
“Mr. Hilton, I’m not sure what you could mean,” the old professor stuttered. It must not have been often that a Collective member took the blame for something. Brody smoothed his sleeve cuffs, studying them intently.
“I sent her on an...errand. Seems I paid the time price for it, considering how effectively her bike was broken yesterday; I’m not letting that one go.” He let the silence linger. Chiara’s eyes widened as students wriggled uncomfortably in their seats. Brody inclined his head meaningfully. “I assume you got my stuff delivered, Downs?”
Chiara met his eyes. He raised his eyebrows, face deadpan as ever. Slowly, she nodded.
“Good. I just might employ your services more often. You’d better not be late, Downs, or I won’t be so forgiving next time.” He flipped the bottom of his coat out and sat.
Chiara’s eyes swung to the rest of the Collective. Oliver’s head was down on the desk as his shoulders shook uncontrollably and Dante’s eyes were screwed shut, his hand over his mouth as he desperately hid a laugh.
Jay’s face was screwed tightly, his eyes narrow and mouth pinched. He did not look happy.
“I’ll be careful, Mr. Hilton.”
He inclined his head in acknowledgement. Chiara hopped up the tiers to slide into the last chair. That had been close. She had to create a good list of excuses that did not have to do with Brody. She could not rely on him to save her every time.
Why did he go so far this time? After being so adamant the day before about not being able to help?
What had changed in so short a time?
“Miss Dalton, please turn to page two hundred in your textbook.”
She hurriedly pulled the book from her backpack and flipped to the page. Inwardly, Chiara sighed. It would be the Kurdish-Turkish Conflict, one of the most irritating studies of 1984. She rolled her eyes.
Today was just going to get more and more stupid, she had a feeling.
Classes dragged on and on, as usual. Lunch could not have come too soon. The cafeteria smelled so good and her fatigued body compelled one foot in front of the other rapidly to get closer to the line of immaculately groomed students waiting for their gourmet lunch. She picked up a painted tray of the porcelain dining set and turned to find the nearest empty table.
A foot crossed hers and she stumbled forward with a yelp. Porcelain clattered.
Two hands clamped around the sides of hers, steadying the tray between hers.
She caught her breath, glancing up at Brody’s stern face turned to the offending student.
“Watch where you put your feet, loser!”
The girl in the short skirt and high heels swallowed heavily, her eyes wide and jaw slack.
“Uh...okay, Mr. Hilton! Sorry, I-”
“Leave her alone.”
“But...the Collective card!”
He took a long step towards her. Chiara quickly figured that she was long past the border keeping her from reaching out and seizing his arm. Brody looked back at her hand fastened around his sleeve as she hugged the tray to her stomach.
His eyes narrowed as he nodded once. “Okay. Come on. We’re eating in the garden.”
She frowned as he turned and used her grip on his sleeve to steer her outside once more.
“Quiet. Just follow me.”
She shut her mouth and obeyed, holding the delicate tray close to her as they made their way along the cobblestones. Students still filtering into the cafeteria cast them curious, irritated glances. Chiara almost laughed to herself as she noted that the more venomous looks came from the girls, while the boys tended to look more annoyed. Half the school was jealous of the girl the handsome heir to the Hilton fortune was dragging into the Globe’s beautiful garden to eat lunch.
Brody found a white iron bench and sat, turning the desk in to place his lunch tray on top. Chiara stood still for a second, drumming her fingers on the underside of her tray. There was another bench across the path. The one Brody had chosen was on the small side. He rose his eyebrows, unrolling his utensils from their elaborate wrap and spreading his napkin across his lap.
“You gonna sit down?”
She drew in a deep breath, dropping her head to cock on one side. “Why should I eat with you, Wise Guy?”
He threw his hands open helplessly, a fork in one hand and a knife in the other. “All things considered, this might be the safest place for you to be right now!”
“Not for you,” Chiara quickly interjected, setting her tray down on the desk opposite his. “Everybody’ll hate you if you keep defending me like this, especially Jay.”
Brody chuckled. “And since when do you care?”
Chiara rolled her eyes, finally sliding into the space left on the bench. “Please, I was raised in the Burroughs. Caring isn’t the right word!”
“Hmm.” The Hilton heir rose one eyebrow to her, tucking a piece of Balsamic braised lamb into his mouth. “Different word...same concept?”
Chiara unrolled her utensils and pointed her fork at him, her eyes narrow in scrutiny. “Don’t you dare use my words against me!”
“Hey, it was in context. This is really good.”
“You’re not one of those snobs who pick through their grade A food and turn their noses up at world-renowned chefs?”
Brody shrugged. “No. These stereotypes are so stupid.”
“Okay. So what are some of the Burroughs rumors you can’t help but hear?”
He tapped his fork against his lips, frowning into space. “Huh. Well, aside from the fact that you’re all barbarians who don’t know the salad fork from the entree fork, nothing much.” He chuckled softly, spearing a couple asparagus stalks. “And you haven’t done much to prove them wrong.”
She slapped his shoulder hard and he chuckled. “Hey! Watch,” She pulled out the smaller fork. “Salad fork. Always the smaller one, so says Alan.”
Brody cocked his head at her. “Who’s Alan?”
Her stomach twisted. Armister was definitely going to make her pay for that slip-up, should he ever find out she did. He kept his name hidden from the Ups, hiding behind pseudonym after pseudonym. As far as she knew, only the Mafia really knew his identity, and he preferred to keep it so limited. She pursed her lips and stuffed her mouth with roasted potatoes. Brody chuckled, swinging his eyes forward again.
She laughed around the potatoes, despite herself. Anything less, she could not imagine.
“No! No, no, no, no! He’s...my mentor, I guess. But he knows a bit of everything,” She waved the smaller fork. “Including which one is the salad fork. Now, you never answered why I should eat with you.”
He grunted through a full mouth. “Yeah, I did. You’re safe with me. My reputation is too solid to worry about.”
Slowly, Chiara pushed her potatoes around the lamb juice. Before the Globe, she had never had anything so rich. One had to be creative with food in the Downs, and no one reached this level of culinary beauty, though Angela Dalton came quite close. She bit into a carrot.
“Still, I can’t say I understand.”
“Of course not. You’re from the Burroughs.” He shrugged, leaning back and crossing his legs elegantly. Everything about the young man seemed elegant. “You probably don’t trust anyone, do you?”
Chiara made a face and he chuckled. “Well, no. Not right away. Not until they have given me reason to trust them.”
“Hmm. How does saving your lunch do for reasons?”
She scoffed, leaning back. His arm was there, pressing gently into the base of her neck. She hurriedly sat up again, shoveling another forkful of potatoes into her mouth. She wished she could taste them better, but Brody was continuing to press on her nerves.
The problem was that she could not tell if she liked it.
“Call me Chiara. Downs is such a stupid name.”
Again, she could not tell if she liked it.
Oh no. I might actually be starting to enjoy something about this school.
She pushed around a piece of meat as he ate contentedly. Slowly, she drew in a breath.
“Call me Brody. Wise Guy is such a stupid name.”
Chiara rolled her eyes as he smirked. He had nearly reached the same level of straight-forward as Holly. “Okay. Brody. Why did you stand up for me? Both in history and the cafeteria?”
He was silent for several minutes and Chiara thought that he might not respond. Then he sighed lightly.
“I don’t know. You make me laugh, and it’s been a while since anyone at the Globe has been able to do that. I feel like you deserve my protection.”
“What if I don’t want it?”
“Then you’re stupid.” He pushed the desk away and twisted to face her. His knee brushed hers. Chiara looked down at it, but did not move away. Her throat tightened. She knew she was approaching dangerous territory. There were borders the Downs knew they should not cross with the Ups, and she was getting too close.
She was not ready to pull away yet.
Brody’s hand touched the back of her head, directing her face towards him again. She swallowed, clenching a hand around the napkin on the desk. His hazel eyes smiled a little, though his visage remained as listless as usual. She liked it better when he laughed, and got the feeling that he did as well.
He did not laugh or smile often.
“The Globe isn’t going to be relenting to a Burrough girl,” he started quietly. “It’s against everything the school stands for. So, if I were you, I’d just take the kindnesses you can get and hold onto them. Remember them. They may not come often.”
Chiara cocked her head and his fingers shifted in her hair.
“I just don’t understand.”
He chuckled softly, ducking his head as he shook it helplessly. “I can’t make you understand, Chiara. We’re all conditioned in a certain way, due to our surroundings, and it’s hard to break out of that way of thinking. You’re the first one who even made me consider breaking mine. Try breaking yours, too.” He stuck his fork into her creme brulee and spooned some into his mouth. The heir to one of the world’s largest fortunes inclined his head with a perfectly straight face as her jaw dropped incredulously. “Yours looked creamier than mine.”