“We live here, remember?” Chloe’s dad joked. Then he noticed Emily and smiled. “Hello . . . ?”
“Hi, I’m Emily Fields.” Emily stepped forward and offered her hand.
“The coat check girl, right?” Mrs. Roland asked, shaking Emily’s hand next. She wore a huge diamond ring Emily recognized from the party.
“And the swimmer,” Mr. Roland added.
“And the babysitter while I go to my Villanova interview,” Chloe told them. “She’s wonderful with Grace, I promise.”
Mr. Roland leaned on the banister. “Actually, Chlo, I don’t think we really need a babysitter. We’re both in for the night.” He turned to Emily. “We’ll still pay you for your trouble, of course.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” Emily said quickly. “It was nice to come over.” As soon as she said it, she realized it was true. She’d spent the past fall and winter holed up in her room without anyone to talk to. Worrying. Brooding. She felt like she was waking up from a long nap.
“We insist!” Mrs. Roland cried. “Henry, go get your wallet.”
Chloe’s mom retreated to the master bedroom, and Chloe and her dad started down the stairs. Emily followed them. “What lunch period do you have?” Chloe asked over her shoulder.
“First on Tuesdays and Thursdays, second on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays,” Emily answered.
“I have second lunch on Wednesdays and Fridays, too!” Chloe grabbed her coat from the closet. “Want to eat together? If you’re not busy, of course.”
“I would love that,” Emily breathed. Lately, she’d been eating lunch off-campus—seniors were allowed to leave for the hour. But it was awfully lonely.
They made a plan to meet in front of Steam on Wednesday. Then Chloe rushed off to her interview, and Emily faced Mr. Roland again. He had pulled out a sleek leather wallet. “Really. You don’t have to pay me.”
Mr. Roland waved away her offer. “So Chloe told me about your swimming conundrum. You’re serious about competing at the college level?”
He paused on her for a moment, studying her face. “Good. I have a lot of pull at UNC. If you give me your times, I can get in touch with the recruiter. I know they’re still looking for kids to fill out the team.”
Emily pressed her hand to her chest. “Thank you so much.”
“It’s my pleasure.” Mr. Roland handed her a twenty. His piercing blue eyes twinkled. “Is this enough?”
Emily pushed it away. “That’s way too much.”
“Please.” Mr. Roland placed the bill in her hand and closed her fist. Then, as he steered her toward the door, his hand snaked up her arm, slid down her shoulder, and rested on her hip.
Emily stopped walking, her mouth falling open. She wanted to tell Mr. Roland to stop it, but the nerves around her lips felt paralyzed.
Then Mr. Roland moved away and nonchalantly pulled out his BlackBerry. “Well, see you around, Emily. I’ll be in touch.” He spoke like nothing inappropriate just happened. All of a sudden, Emily wasn’t sure. Had it?
She staggered out of the house, skidded down the driveway, and leaned against her car. The night was still and cold. The wind gusted, making the tree branches shake. Then, something shifted along at the border of the Hastingses’ house and the DiLaurentises’ old house. Emily shot up. Was that a person sneaking around? Who?
Beep. Emily jumped. It was her cell phone, buried deep in her bag. She dug it out and looked at the screen. ONE NEW TEXT. Emily blinked in surprise. The sender was Spencer Hastings. She quickly pressed READ.
Meet me in front of Ali’s mailbox. I have something for you.
You’ve got mail!
Aria sat cross-legged on the floor of her father’s den, listening to a podcast called Find Your Inner Zen she’d downloaded from Ella’s computer. “Envision your third eye,” a gravelly voiced man whispered in her ears. “Let your past blow away in the breeze. Be in the moment, now.”
The past is blowing away in the breeze, Aria repeated silently, willing herself to believe it was true. After Jamaica, she’d listened to tons of relaxation recordings, but none of them did the trick. Maybe she didn’t have a third eye. Or maybe the past was just too heavy to blow away.
“Damn it!” Her brother, Mike, said next to her, gripping the PlayStation controller. He was playing Gran Turismo, and every time he crashed his Lamborghini Murcielago into a chicane, he swore violently and beat the controller on the couch. That certainly wasn’t helping Aria find her third eye, either.
“I hope you don’t drive like that in real life,” Meredith, her father’s fiancée, murmured as she passed down the hall. Lola, her baby, was strapped to a BabyBjörn holder that wound around her arms and connected at her lower back. It looked like a torture device.
“Shut up, both of you,” Mike snapped.
“Got something on your mind, Speed Racer?” Aria asked.
“No,” Mike said agitatedly. “I’m fine.”
But Aria knew better—something was definitely up with him. For one thing, Mike had gotten a ride with her this morning instead of waiting for Hanna to pick him up. Then, on her walk from biology to photography, Aria noticed that the little couch in the lobby where Mike and Hanna snuggled between periods was glaringly unoccupied.
When the game ended, Mike laid down his control paddle. “So you’ve met the Nordic goddess, right?”
Aria glanced up at him warily. “Excuse me?”
Mike rolled his eyes. “Duh. Klaudia, which I’m pretty sure is Scandinavian for sex vixen.”
“Scandinavian isn’t a language.” Aria groaned.
Mike reached to the coffee table and took a big handful of Smartfood popcorn from the ceramic bowl. “You have to tell me everything about her. Take a picture of her in the gym showers . . .”
Aria wound her iPod headphone around the device, trying not to overreact. “I don’t think she’d appreciate that. And anyway, no one showers after gym.”
“They don’t?” Mike looked disappointed, and Aria stifled a laugh. Why did every guy have a secret fantasy of a bunch of butt-naked girls frolicking under the school’s communal shower spray? Like girls ever did that!
“Well, whatever,” Mike said, undeterred. “Get invited to Noel’s for a sleepover and take pictures there. I bet Klaudia walks around the house naked twenty-four/seven. I heard Finns do that. They’re huge sex addicts, too—there’s nothing else to do there.”
“Mike, ew.” Aria threw a piece of popcorn at him. “And what would Hanna think about your new little obsession?”
Mike shrugged and didn’t answer.
A-ha. “Did something happen with you and Hanna?” Aria pressed.
Mike started a new race, this time driving a Ferrari. “I couldn’t believe it when Klaudia got out of Noel’s car this morning,” he said. “That dude seriously hit the jackpot. But he’s not telling me anything. He’s acting like he doesn’t even realize Klaudia’s a babe, but come on. You’d have to be blind not to want to hit that.”
Aria balled up her fists. “Have you forgotten Noel’s my boyfriend?”
One of Mike’s shoulders rose. “It’s not a crime to appreciate the view. It doesn’t mean anything’s going to happen between them.”
Aria slumped back on the couch and stared at the growing crack around the light fixture in the ceiling. This whole Klaudia thing made her feel itchy and unsettled. Klaudia was a Nordic sex goddess—she had white-blond hair, full, pouty lips, cornflower blue eyes, and the body of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. Everyone had stared at her yesterday as they walked through the international terminal toward baggage claim. Several guys looked like they were about to drop to one knee and propose marriage—or, at the very least, a night of wild sex.
As Klaudia had waited for her luggage, Aria poked Noel’s side. “Did you know Klaudia was a girl?” Perhaps that was why Noel hadn’t wanted Aria to come with him to the airport. Perhaps he’d seen pictures of his new exchange student and wanted a few moments with her to himself.
“Of course not!” Noel seemed sincere. “I’m just as shocked as you are!”
Before Aria could say anything more, Klaudia returned dragging two oversized suitcases on wheels and carrying two duffels on her shoulder. “Oof, I bring so much!” she said with a heavy accent. Aria frowned. She’d met a few Finns during her years in Iceland, and their English was a million times better than Klaudia’s. With her throaty voice and bubbleheaded delivery, she sounded like she’d grown up in a Finnish Barbie factory.
Noel and Aria helped Klaudia bring her crap to the car. After they loaded it in, Klaudia gave Aria a polite nod and said thank you. Then she turned to Noel and double-kissed him on the cheek, European-style, saying, “I so happy we roommates!” Instead of correcting Klaudia—over Aria’s dead body were they staying in the same room—Noel just blushed and laughed. Like he thought it was funny. Like he wanted it to be true. Suddenly, Aria felt very, very nervous. Maybe she should have slept with him earlier—several months earlier. What if Noel got tired of how Aria said no, no, no and wanted someone who said ja, ja, ja?
Now, Aria shook out her shoulders, letting that memory of the past blow away in the wind. She was just letting her jealous mind run rampant. She’d thought Noel had a thing for Ali—Real Ali, the girl who’d returned to Rosewood and tried to kill them—but that hadn’t been true. There’d also been that night in Jamaica: Aria had turned her back for one minute during dinner, and suddenly Noel was by the bar with a sexy blond girl all over him. “Jesus,” she’d whispered, feeling the old jealous pull in her stomach.
She marched to the bar to break up the flirting, but when Noel’s companion turned, Aria found herself staring into the face of the girl Emily had seen in the doorway. The one she’d thought was Ali.
The girl smiled broadly. “Hey, Aria. I’m Tabitha.”
A shiver wriggled up Aria’s spine. “How do you know my name?”
“Your boyfriend told me.” She patted Noel’s shoulder playfully. “Don’t worry, he’s a good boy. Not like the rest of us cheaters.”
Aria flinched. Tabitha winked knowingly at Aria, almost as if she knew Aria’s life story. Byron had cheated on Ella with Meredith. And Aria had cheated, too—on Sean Ackard with Ezra Fitz. But how could Tabitha know that? Certainly Noel wouldn’t have told her. And though a lot of information had come out about Aria in the press, none of the stories mentioned anything about her parents or her affair with Ezra.
Aria stared warily at the burns up and down the girl’s arms. Clearly, Tabitha had been through some sort of massive disaster. Something horrible—maybe even a fire. But it didn’t mean Emily was right.
Aria looked down. It was her Droid phone on the coffee table. When she picked it up and looked at the screen, it said TEXT FROM HANNA MARIN.