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Hush, Hush (Page 8)

“My seat, if you don’t mind.”

Vee and I looked up simultaneously at the sound of Patch’s voice.

He sounded pleasant enough, but he kept his eyes trained on Vee as she rose and slung her backpack over her shoulder. It appeared she couldn’t move fast enough; he swept his arm toward the aisle, inviting her out of his way.

“Looking good as always,” he said to me, taking his chair. He leaned back in it, stretching his legs out in front of him. I’d known all along he was tall, but I’d never put a measurement to it. Looking at the length of his legs now, I guessed him to top out at six feet. Maybe even six­one.

“Thank you,” I answered without thinking. Immediately I wanted to take it back. Thank you? Of all the things I could have said, “thank you” was the worst. I didn’t want Patch thinking I liked his compliments. Because I didn’t … for the most part. It didn’t take much perception to realize he was trouble, and I had enough trouble in my life already. No need to invite more. Maybe if I ignored him, he’d eventually give up initiating conversation. And then we could sit side by side in silent harmony, like every other partnership in the room.

“You smell good too,” said Patch.

“It’s called a shower.” I was staring straight ahead. When he didn’t answer, I turned sideways. “Soap.

Shampoo. Hot water.”

“Naked. I know the drill.”

I opened my mouth to change the subject when the bell cut me off.

“Put your textbooks away,” Coach said from behind his desk. “I’m handing out a practice quiz to get you warmed up for this Friday’s real one.” He stopped in front of me, licking his finger as he tried to separate the quizzes. “I want fifteen minutes of silence while you answer the questions. Then we’ll discuss chapter seven. Good luck.”

I worked through the first several questions, answering them with a rhythmic outpouring of memorized facts. If nothing else, the quiz stole my concentration, pushing last night’s accident and the voice at the back of my mind questioning my sanity to the sidelines. Pausing to shake a cramp out of my writing hand, I felt Patch lean toward me.

“You look tired. Rough night?” he whispered.

“I saw you at the library.” I was careful to keep my pencil gliding over my quiz, seemingly hard at work.

“The highlight of my night.”

“Were you following me?”

He tipped his head back and laughed softly.

I tried a new angle. “What were you doing there?”

“Getting a book.”

I felt Coach’s eyes on me and dedicated myself to my quiz. After answering several more questions, I stole a glimpse to my left. I was surprised to find Patch already watching me. He grinned.

My heart did an unexpected flip, startled by his bizarrely attractive smile. To my horror, I was so taken aback, I dropped my pencil. It bounced on the tabletop a few times before rolling over the edge. Patch bent to pick it up. He held it out in the palm of his hand, and I had to focus not to touch his skin as I took it back.

“After the library,” I whispered, “where did you go?”

“Why?”

“Did you follow me?” I demanded in an undertone.

“You look a little on edge, Nora. What happened?” His eyebrows lifted in concern. It was all for show, because there was a taunting spark at the center of his black eyes.

“Are you following me?”

“Why would I want to follow you?”

“Answer the question.”

“Nora.” The warning in Coach’s voice pulled me back to my quiz, but I couldn’t help speculating about what Patch’s answer might have been, and it had me wanting to slide far away from him. Across the room. Across the universe.

Coach chirped his whistle. “Time’s up. Pass your quizzes forward. Be expecting similar questions this Friday. Now”—he sanded his hands together, and the dry sound of it made me shiver—“for today’s lesson. Miss Sky, want to take a stab at our topic?”

“S­e­x,” Vee announced.

Precisely after she did, I tuned out. Was Patch following me? Was he the face behind the ski mask—if there even was a face behind a mask? What did he want? I hugged my elbows, suddenly feeling very cold. I wanted my life to go back to the way it was before Patch barged into my life.

At the end of class, I stopped Patch from leaving. “Can we talk?”

He was already standing, so he took a seat on the edge of the table. “What’s up?”

“I know you don’t want to sit next to me any more than I want to sit next to you. I think Coach might consider changing our seats if you talk to him. If you explain the situation—”

“The situation?”

“We’re not—compatible.”

He rubbed a hand over his jaw, a calculating gesture I’d grown accustomed to in only a few short days of knowing him. “We’re not?”

“I’m not announcing groundbreaking news here.”

“When Coach asked for my list of desired characteristics in a mate, I gave him you.”

“Take that back.”

“Intelligent. Attractive. Vulnerable. You disagree?”

He was doing this for the sole purpose of antagonizing me, and that only flustered me more. “Will you ask Coach to change our seats or not?”

“Pass. You’ve grown on me.”

What was I supposed to say to that? He was obviously aiming to get a reaction out of me. Which wasn’t difficult, seeing as how I could never tell when he was joking, and when he was sincere.

I tried to inject a measure of self­composure into my voice. “I think you’d be much better seated with someone else. And I think you know it.” I smiled, tense but polite.

“I think I could end up next to Vee.” His smile appeared just as polite. “I’m not going to press my luck.”

Vee appeared beside our table, glancing between me and Patch. “Interrupting something?”

“No,” I said, yanking my backpack shut. “I was asking Patch about tonight’s reading. I couldn’t remember which pages Coach assigned.”

Vee said, “The assignment’s on the board, same as always. As if you haven’t already read it.”

Patch laughed, seemingly sharing a private joke with himself. Not for the first time, I wished I knew what he was thinking. Because sometimes I was positive these private jokes had everything to do with me. “Anything else, Nora?” he said.

“No,” I said. “See you tomorrow.”

“Looking forward to it.” He winked. Actually winked.

After Patch was out of earshot, Vee gripped my arm. “Good news. Cipriano. That’s his last name. I saw it on Coach’s class roster.”

“And that’s something to smile about because … ?”

“Everybody knows students are required to register prescription drugs with the nurse’s office.” She tugged at the front pocket of my backpack, where I kept my iron pills. “Likewise, everybody knows the nurse’s office is conveniently located inside the front office, where, as it happens, student files are also kept.”

Eyes aglow, Vee locked her arm in mine and pulled me toward the door. “Time to do some real sleuthing.”

CHAPTER 5

CAN I HELP YOU?”

I forced myself to smile at the front office secretary, hoping I didn’t look as dishonest as I felt. “I have a prescription I take daily at school, and my friend—”

My voice caught on the word, and I wondered if after today I would ever feel like calling Vee my friend again.

“—my friend informed me that I’m supposed to register it with the nurse. Do you know if that’s correct?” I couldn’t believe I was standing here, intending to do something illegal. As of late, I was exhibiting a lot of uncharacteristic behavior. First I’d followed Patch to a disreputable arcade late at night. Now I was on the verge of snooping in his student file. What was the matter with me? No—what was the matter with Patch, that when it came to him, I couldn’t seem to stop exercising bad judgment?

“Oh, yes,” the secretary said solemnly. “All drugs need to be registered. Nurse’s office is back through there, third door on the left, across from student records.” She gestured into the hallway behind her. “If the nurse isn’t there, you can take a seat on the cot inside her office. She should be back any minute.”

I fabricated another smile. I’d really hoped it wouldn’t be this easy.

Heading down the hall, I stopped several times to check over my shoulder. Nobody came up behind me.

The phone out in the front office was ringing, but it sounded a world apart from the dim corridor where I stood. I was all alone, free to do as I pleased.

I came to a stop at the third door on the left. I sucked in a breath and knocked, but it was obvious from the darkened window that the room was empty. I pushed on the door. It moved with reluctance, creaking open on a compact room with scuffed white tiles. I stood in the entrance a moment, almost wishing the nurse would appear so I’d have no choice but to register my iron pills and leave. A quick glance across the hall revealed a door with a window marked STUDENT RECORDS. It too was dark.

I focused my attention on a nagging thought at the back of my mind. Patch claimed that he hadn’t gone to school last year. I was pretty sure he was lying, but if he wasn’t, would he even have a student record?

He’d have a home address at the very least, I reasoned. And an immunization card, and last semester’s grades. Still. Possible suspension seemed like a large price to pay for a peek at Patch’s immunization card.

I leaned one shoulder against the wall and checked my watch. Vee had told me to wait for her signal.

She said it would be obvious.

Great.

The phone in the front office rang again, and the secretary picked up.

Chewing my lip, I stole a second glimpse at the door labeled STUDENT RECORDS. There was a good chance it was locked. Student files were probably considered high security. It didn’t matter what kind of diversion Vee created; if the door was locked, I wasn’t getting in.

I shifted my backpack to the opposite shoulder. Another minute ticked down. I told myself maybe I should leave… .

On the other hand, what if Vee was right and he was stalking me? As his bio partner, regular contact with him could place me in danger. I had a responsibility to protect myself … didn’t I?

If the door was unlocked and the files were alphabetized, I would have no trouble locating Patch’s quickly. Add another few seconds to skim his file for red flags, and I could probably be in and out of the room in under a minute. Which was so brief it might not feel like I’d entered at all.

Things had grown unusually quiet out in the front office. Suddenly Vee rounded the corner. She edged down the wall toward me, walking in a crouch, dragging her hands along the wall, stealing surreptitious glances over her shoulder. It was the kind of walk spies adopted in old movies.

“Everything is under control,” she whispered.

“What happened to the secretary?”

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