Chapter no 4

My Life with the Walter Boys

The rest of the day passed in a whirlwind of new classes and unfamiliar faces. It was actually a relief to see the Walters’ rickety house when the truck pulled into the driveway after school.

“We’re home, Aunt Kathy!” Lee shouted as soon as he walked through the door. “What’s for dinner?”

Danny, Lee, and I had to step over a pile of boxes in the front hall. We were the only ones who actually left school at three o’clock. Alex had baseball practice; Cole caught a bus to his job at a local auto-repair shop; Nathan stayed in the music room; and Isaac never showed, which apparently was normal because we left after only a five-minute wait. I planned to join a few after-school clubs, but I decided it could wait until next week when, hopefully, I didn’t feel so weary.

“Hello to you too,” I heard Katherine call from the kitchen. The smell of something amazing was drifting down the hall. We found her standing at the counter cutting open a huge pile of buns.

“Hell, yeah,” Lee said when he lifted the top of the slow cooker. “I love me some sloppy joe.”

“What’s sloppy joe?” Whatever it was, it sounded disgusting.

Katherine, Lee, and Danny all stared at me like I was speaking an alien language.

“You’re never had a sloppy joe before? What kind of crazy planet are you from?” Lee asked.

“Lee, be nice,” Katherine scolded, pointing the serrated knife she was using to cut buns in Lee’s direction. “A sloppy joe is a ground-beef sandwich,” she explained to me. “We’re having them for dinner and you can try one then. The rest of your things arrived today, so in the meantime, why don’t you work on moving into your room? I cleared out all of the art supplies, and Danny can help you bring the boxes up and unpack.”

“Why can’t Lee help?” Danny asked.

“Because he’s going to help Parker with her math homework.” “I am?”

“Would you rather carry boxes up to Jackie’s room?”

“Right. Two plus two. I’m all over that shit,” Lee said and left the kitchen before Katherine could change her mind.

“All right, you two,” Katherine said, picking up another bun. “Why don’t you get started? I want those boxes out of the front hall by the time everyone else gets home.”

Twenty minutes of tense silence passed as we moved my things to my room. While we worked, we hurried by each other on the stairs, trying to avoid bumping into one another or making awkward eye contact. Finally, I collapsed on my bed feeling sore and sweaty as Danny set the last box on the floor.

“Thanks a bunch for your help. This would have taken forever without you.”

Danny nodded his head and quickly turned to leave without a word, but my room was now a maze of cardboard towers. His foot connected with one of the piles, and the box teetering on the top crashed to the floor. My Shakespeare collection spilled out, and Danny dropped down to pick it up.

“Sorry,” he mumbled and scooped the books back into the box.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, jumping off my bed. “I can take care of it.” I spotted A Midsummer Night’s Dream and wanted to grab it for Alex. By knocking over the books, Danny actually did me a favor because I wouldn’t have to search through all the boxes to find them. I plucked the play off the floor, and Danny stopped to examine what was in his hands.

Romeo and Juliet?” he asked, reading out the title. The rise in his voice revealed his surprise. “You like drama?”

“Of course, I’m a New Yorker! I’ve been attending all types of different performances since I was little. I have a personal soft spot for Shakespeare, but I also admire Shaw and Miller’s work.” When I responded, Danny clamped his mouth shut as if he just realized that he had spoken to me.

“Oh, cool.” He shoved one last book back into the box and shot to his feet. “I’ll see you later.” He was out the door before I could mutter a goodbye.

Running my hand over the cover of my favorite play, I grinned to myself. My encounter with Danny could have gone a little better, but at least now I knew we shared a similar interest. Maybe I would make more friends in the Walter house than I had originally thought. Apparently I just needed to tackle the boys one at time.


At dinner I tried my first sloppy joe ever, and I immediately understood the reason behind the name. It was impossible to keep the meat on the bun. It oozed out every time I took a bite and splattered against my plate. My fingers and face were disgusting by the time I finished. I thought it made more sense to put the slop in a bowl and dip the bun in, but the Walters seemed to enjoy diving in face-first.

When everyone was full, we all had to help clean up the table, but afterward we were allowed to do whatever we wanted. Parker and the little twins rushed to the living room and battled over the remote. Jack and Jordan went to edit the footage they got of me eating my first sloppy joe. Isaac challenged Alex to a pickup game of hoops, while Lee and Nathan disappeared into their rooms. The freedom felt strange. At boarding school I was used to a strict schedule of dinnertime, homework, and lights out at nine.

Trying to keep some normalcy in my life, I climbed the stairs toward my room to do schoolwork. Although I wasn’t assigned anything in particular, I

knew I was behind in English. The class was already halfway through reading Moby Dick, which was thicker than any of the textbooks I’d received throughout the day. Five pages in, I shut the book in irritation and pulled out Alex’s copy of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Someone knocked on the door.

“Jackie?” Cole asked, poking his head inside. He hadn’t been at dinner, and judging by the Tony’s Auto Repair jumpsuit he was wearing with his name stitched onto the breast, he’d just gotten back from work.

“Mmm-hmm?” I sat up in bed. Glancing at my clock, I realized that two hours had vanished since I started reading.

“Everyone’s out in the backyard. We’re going to play some night games. You want in?” He was wearing a baseball cap backward to hide the fact that his bangs were plastered to his forehead and there was a smear of grease across his nose, but somehow just one glance at him made my pulse surge.

“What’s a night game?” I asked, trying to keep my voice even.

“Games you play outside in the dark. You know, like kick the can, cops and robbers, ghost in the graveyard…” Cole trailed off as he waited for me to catch on.

“Sorry, but I’ve never heard of those.”

“What the heck did you do for fun when you were growing up?”

“I’ve been to my fair share of Broadway shows, and my family has memberships to most of the museums.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized my mistake. My family had memberships to most of the museums.

“Sounds awful,” Cole said. “How about we show you what real fun looks like?”

As nice as it was that Cole was inviting me to do something with the rest of the guys, I couldn’t bring myself to accept. The thought of hanging out with all the Walter boys was intimidating. Besides, thoughts of my family were now swirling around in my head, and I knew I would only be able to hold back the tears until Cole left. I didn’t want him to see me crying.

“I’ve got some catching up to do in most of my classes. Maybe another time?”

“Come on, Jackie. It’s not like your teachers expect you to know everything you’ve missed by tomorrow.”

Pulling my knees up to my chest, I blinked my eyes, trying to keep them from watering up and my feelings from spilling out. “Sorry, Cole, but it’s been a long first day.”

I thought he was going to continue arguing, but he must have sensed that something was wrong. “Okay. In any case, you know where to find us if you change your mind.”

Cole shut the door. I sat unmoving, staring at the swirling blue of the ocean waves that Katherine had painted on the wall. It reminded me of my childhood summers—warm, sunny days spent at the beach house in the Hamptons, where Lucy and I would munch on fresh picnics spread out on our beach towels and suntan on the seashore, occasionally dipping our toes into the cold water to cool off.

I needed to hear a familiar voice, someone who could comfort me.

Grabbing my cell phone off the desk, I dialed a number I knew by heart.

Sammy picked up on the first ring. “Hola, chica, what’s up?”

At the sound of my best friend’s voice, my lips started to tremble, and I could only manage a measly greeting without bursting into tears.

“Oh my God, Jackie. What’s wrong? Is Colorado, like, horrible or something?” she asked.

“Sammy, it’s worse than horrible. I’m on a ranch in the middle of nowhere. Katherine Walter has twelve kids, and I haven’t seen a Starbucks since leaving New York.”

“Holy cupcakes! That string bean of a woman pushed twelve people out her who-ha?”

I managed a half smile. “Only ten of the boys are hers. Two of them are nephews.”

Sammy gasped. “Did you just say boys plural, as in all twelve kids have a Y chromosome?”

“Parker’s a girl, but she doesn’t act like it.”

“That’s still pretty good odds, if you ask me. Any hotties?”

“Sammy,” I groaned. The Walters were the last thing I wanted to talk about.

“What? That’s a completely reasonable question. My best friend is completely isolated from civilization, so it’d be nice to know if she at least has some eye candy to cheer her up.”

There might be one or two drool-worthy guys. As soon as the thought crossed my mind, I felt the guilt twisting in my stomach. How could I be thinking about cute boys when my family was gone? “Can we please talk about something else?” I muttered into the phone.

“Talking about delicious boys is my version of therapy.” “You’re not cheering me up.”

“That’s totally what I’m doing. Now spill! What’s his name?”

I paused, not sure if I should tell her. One little name won’t hurt, I decided. After all, it didn’t mean anything. A sigh escaped my lips. “It’s Cole.” His name came out in a whisper, as if I was giving away a secret.

“Hmm. I guess that’s hot. I mean it’s no Blake or Declan, but Cole has a nice ring to it. Okay, now give me details. What does he look like?”

I buried my face in my pillow. “This is not how I envisioned our conversation going.”

“You’re making the whole process difficult with all the stalling.”

“Fine,” I said quickly. “He’s tall, blond, and from the sound of things, a complete pig. Besides, I can’t even think about boys right now. I just want to come home, okay?”

“Oh, Jackie,” Sammy said, her voice soft. “I wasn’t trying to upset you. I just wanted to take your mind off the bad things.”

“I know,” I responded, feeling bad that I’d snapped. “It’s just, all my stuff arrived today, and I can’t bring myself to unpack it. It would make everything feel so permanent.”

“I totally feel you, sister. My new roommate moved in last night. It was so weird seeing someone else’s stuff on your side of the room. And don’t

even get me started about French class. Like, I had to sit by myself.”

The cord around my heart tightened as I thought about my old school, old dorm room, and old classes. The move to Colorado had cut me off from my old life and everything that was familiar to me, and the only remaining link to that world was my best friend. “Sammy, you don’t know how good it is to hear your voice. I miss you so much. I wish—I wish…”

“Jackie,” Sammy said slowly and deliberately. “Everything is going to get better, okay? Just promise me you’ll make an effort to settle in. It will help. I know it.”

“Okay,” I told her even though I didn’t want to.

We stayed on the phone for the next hour. Talking to Sammy made me feel a little better, but as I curled up under the covers of my bed, a feeling of complete and utter loneliness kept me wide awake.


The next morning, getting up to run with Nathan was nothing short of torture. No matter how many times I rubbed my eyes, I couldn’t shake off the blanket of drowsiness that was draped over my entire body. Then I caught Olivia sneaking out of Cole’s room. It was such a shock, seeing her standing in the hallway with rumpled hair and wearing one of his shirts, that I was instantly snapped awake. We both stared at each other with the same deer-in-the-headlights look, and then Nathan stepped out of his room, making the situation even more awkward. Even worse, we all had to walk down the stairs together.

“So…” I said once Olivia’s car had pulled out the driveway. We were sitting on the front porch, stretching before our run. “Does Cole normally have friends stay over?”

Nathan pulled his ankle back behind him, focusing on his hamstring. “Occasionally, but not too often. I suppose he doesn’t want to get caught.”


“Because,” he said, looking at me as if I was acting stupid, “our dad would kill him.”

“I get that,” I said, pulling my hair back into a ponytail. “I mean, why is he such a—”

“A guy?”

I must have tugged my hair tie too tight, because it snapped and my bangs tumbled down into my face. “You know that’s not what I meant,” I said, sighing in frustration. “You’re a guy. I don’t see you sleeping around.” “I guess he wasn’t always this way,” he said with a shrug. “But Cole’s

never been one to share his feelings.” “So what changed?”

Nathan paused and gave me a wary look. “If I tell you, you can’t repeat any of this to Cole, all right? He’s kind of touchy about the subject.”


“He lost his football scholarship last year.”

“How did he manage that?” My mind immediately jumped to negatives

—drugs, drinking, horrible grades—so I was surprised by Nathan’s response.

“During a game. He was the best receiver in the state until he got tackled wrong and broke his leg,” Nathan said. “Obviously his leg got better, but I don’t think he was the same after that. Didn’t even go to tryouts this year.”

“That’s horrible,” I said, feeling guilty. Maybe there was more to Cole Walter than girls and sex.

After our run, I went to shower, cranking the handle to cold in an attempt to cool off. The water did its job, and when I was done washing my hair, I hopped out with new life. Standing on the shower mat dripping wet, I looked around. The hook where my towel was supposed to be was empty. What the heck? I’d hung it up only moments before stepping into the shower.

A sudden thought crossed my mind, and I glanced at the counter. My heart hammered against my chest as dread surged through me—the pile of neatly folded clothes was missing. Someone must have snuck into the bathroom while I was showering and stolen my towel and clothes!

I flung open the bathroom cabinets in hopes that I would find something, anything I could use to cover myself up, but I knew that my search would be useless. The shelves were filled with toilet paper, soap, and washcloths, but nothing that could help me.

“No, no, no!” I muttered to myself. “This can’t be happening.” How in the world would I get to my room without one of the boys seeing me?

“Everything okay in there, Jackie?” Isaac asked, knocking on the bathroom door.

“Um, not exactly,” I said, my cheeks flaming. “There are no towels in here.”

“Why didn’t you bring one in with you?” he asked, trying to contain a snicker.

“I did! Someone took it. Do you mind running upstairs and grabbing me one?”

“I don’t think so.” “Why the heck not?”

“Because I bet Cole five dollars that you’d rather miss school than streak through the hallways. I don’t want to lose a Lincoln, now do I?”

What a complete pervert!

Although I wanted to avoid stepping on the boys’ toes so I could fit in more easily, there was no way I was going to let Isaac get away with this. “KATHERINE!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. With any luck she would hear me from the kitchen. “ISAAC STOLE MY TOWEL!”

“Sorry, Jackie, but my aunt took Zack and Benny to a dentist appointment, so she won’t be able to help you. Besides, I never said took your towel. I just said I won’t be providing you with another one.”

“Please, Isaac,” I begged, my voice jumping up in desperation. “I don’t want to miss school.”

“Hey, I’m not stopping you. We’re leaving in ten, so you better hurry up.”

“Isaac!” I shouted, pounding on the door. “This isn’t funny.” When there was no response, I knew he’d left me stranded in the bathroom.

I slammed my fist into the door one last time before letting my forehead rest against the smooth wood in frustration. School was important—in fact, it was my life—but there was no way I would ever run through the Walters’ house completely nude. I was going to have to wait for Katherine to come home from the dentist, and by then the boys would already be at school.

Goose bumps swept up my arms as I stood in a puddle shivering. It looked like I was going to be stuck in the bathroom for a while, so I decided to step back into a hot shower to keep warm. I started to pull back the shower curtain when an idea came to me. The curtain had two parts: an inner layer of clear plastic to keep water from getting on the floor, and the second, a dark blue piece of fabric for privacy. Unfortunately, little silver rings were holding the fabric up. If only I could separate the fabric from the rest of the curtain. Maybe if I tugged hard enough…

Gripping the material in my hands, I yanked with all my strength, but instead of ripping down what I wanted, I felt the entire pole above the shower topple onto my head.

“Dang it!” I cursed as it clattered against the floor. Even though my head was throbbing, I quickly scooped the pole up and slid the curtain off. Then I tore the plastic section away from the rings and used the remaining blue fabric to form a makeshift towel. Since it was in the little kids’ bathroom, a hideous pattern of monkeys and bananas covered the curtain, but it would have to do. Hopefully Katherine won’t be mad at me, I thought, looking down at the mess I’d made. I could always replace whatever I’d ruined.

Instead of peeking into the hall to make sure the coast was clear, I threw open the door and rushed toward the stairs.

“Isaac, the pigeon has flown the coop! Repeat, pigeon flown coop!” Glancing over my shoulder, I saw Jack with a walkie-talkie. Next to him was Jordan with the video camera in his hands, green light blinking.

“She was supposed to be naked,” Jack said as if I’d caused him some type of inconvenience.

Not bothering to stop or even yell at the twins, I started taking the stairs two at a time, wanting to get to my room before someone else spotted me

wearing the shower curtain. Isaac appeared at the top of the landing, the second walkie-talkie in hand and a wicked grin on his face.

“I didn’t think she’d actually—” He stopped when he saw me. “Oh, aren’t you clever? I didn’t even think about the shower curtain.”

“Move,” I said and shoved past him.

“Jackie, wait!” Jordan called, chasing me with the camera. “Can you answer a few questions for our film? For starters, do girls ever play with their boobs?”

The twins followed me down the hall to my room, bombarding me with ridiculous questions until I slipped inside and locked the door. Leaning against the wood, I closed my eyes and slid to the floor.

“Can you explain girls’ obsession with shoes?” I heard Jack saying from the other side. “Why do you need so many?”

“Ask the bathroom question. That one’s good.”

“Yeah, it is. Jackie, why do girls always go to the bathroom in groups?” I realized then that I was never going to have a moment of peace again.


“All right, people, listen up. I need you to partner with two friends,” said Mrs. Hanks.

I looked around the room, biting hard on my lip. We were starting a new group project in art class, and friends were a commodity I was currently lacking. Chairs scraped across the floor, and everyone moved toward someone they knew. Knowing that no one was going to want to partner with me, I stayed in my spot, wondering which unlucky group the teacher would stick me with. I noticed the redheaded girl from the day before as she stood and made her way across the room. When she waved, it took me a second to realize that she was waving at me. I lifted my hand in a small greeting as she came to a stop at my table.

“Howdy, Jackie. My name’s Riley,” she said in a thick Southern accent. “Would you like to join my group?”

“You know my name?” I asked in surprise.

She smiled. “Everyone knows your name. You’re the new girl who sat with Cole Walter on her first day here.” Riley pulled out the chair across from me and sat down. “So how about it? Partners?”

Thank you, Cole Walter! Apparently he was useful for something other than making me feel nervous. “Yes, please. I was thinking I might have to work alone.”

“Oh, don’t be silly. Heather and I never would’ve left you by your lonesome,” Riley said, mentioning a girl I had yet to see. “She’ll be joining us soon. Probably late because she’s flirting in the halls.”

On cue, a girl with long sandy hair twisted up in a bun hurried into the room and headed straight for Riley.

“You will never believe what I just found out,” she exclaimed, pulling out the chair next to her friend. “You know that new girl Jackie who was sitting with Cole the other day? Apparently her dad was some New York businessman worth billions and her mother was a famous fashion designer. Her whole family just died in a car accident—”

“Heather?” Riley hissed, trying to cut her off.

“—and there was a whole article about it on that one gossip website I like. You know, the one that posted nude pictures of that hot British actor I was telling you about? Anyway, can you imagine being that rich?”

“Heather!” Riley said again, this time with more force. She pointed in my direction.

Heather followed Riley’s finger with her eyes. “Holy heck,” she said when she noticed me.

“What she means is, ‘Sorry,’” Riley said, giving her friend a look. When Heather said nothing, Riley elbowed her in the side.

“Oh, right! I’m super sorry. That was so tactless of me. I didn’t realize you were sitting there.” Heather didn’t look the least bit sorry. Her lips twitched as she tried to contain a smile that was threatening to break across her face. Instead of embarrassed, she looked thrilled to see me.

“It’s fine,” I responded, my shoulders stiffening.

A minute of uncomfortable silence passed as Heather danced on the edge of her seat. The girl looked like she was about to explode, and finally she couldn’t contain her questions any longer.

“So how do you know Cole? Are you related or something?” The words burst from her mouth, the last part sounding hopeful.

“No, we just met a few days ago.”

“And he just invited you to sit with him?” Heather’s forehead crinkled in disbelief.


“Ugh, I’m so jealous.”

“Why would you be jealous?”

“Because,” Heather said, rolling her eyes, “Cole doesn’t let just any girl sit with him at lunch. Only girls he’s interested in.”

Cole was the furthest thing from being interested in me. In the parking lot this morning, he’d snatched Olivia by the waist and swirled her around before dipping down into a kiss. Nothing says “I want you” like being romantic with another girl, right? But then Nathan’s words came back to me in a rush, about how Cole liked to bounce from girl to girl. I laughed nervously. “You’re wrong. He’s just being nice.”

“Oh my lord, you are so toast,” Riley said, sounding sympathetic as she shook her head. “Cole Walter doesn’t do nice unless he’s getting something out of it. That’s boy’s gonna eat you alive, and you won’t see it coming.”

“I wouldn’t mind if he ate me alive,” Heather said, her eyebrows waggling.

“Would you keep your dirty thoughts to yourself?” Riley wrinkled her nose in disgust. She turned back to me. “Jackie, you should sit with us at lunch today. We’ll fill you in on everything you need to know ’bout that boy.”

I nodded eagerly. Riley was sweet, and I could use as much education as possible about Cole Water if I was going to figure him out. On top of that, it was the perfect excuse to avoid Erin and her hateful glares. “That sounds great.”

Heather squealed and clapped her hands. As brazen as she was, I decided I liked her. She reminded me a bit of Sammy and somehow that made me relax, even though I wasn’t completely comfortable.

“Perfect,” Riley said, leaning forward on the table. “I can’t wait.”


Just like the day before, Cole walked me to the cafeteria after math class. This time when we reached the front of the lunch line, I grabbed my own tray. After paying for my food, I stood on my tiptoes, scanning the tables for Riley, and finally spotted a flash of bright red hair.

I started off in her direction, but Cole reached out and grabbed my shoulder. “Hey, where you going, Jackie? The table is this way.” He pointed to where we sat yesterday, and I noticed Erin watching me.

“Sorry, Cole. I promised my new friend Riley that I would sit with her.” Cole hesitated, almost as if he was surprised. “Okay then, Miss Popular,

but you have to promise you’ll join me tomorrow.” “Maybe I can pencil you in,” I joked.

“Fine,” he said, laughing. “At least let me walk you to your table.” “Sure.”

I led the way through the crowded room, Cole following me. The rows between the tables were so congested that sometimes Cole’s elbow bumped into mine as people shoved by us, sending goose bumps up my arm.

“Hey, girls,” I said and set down my tray. Riley and Heather both stared up at Cole without responding.

“See you after school, New York,” Cole told me. He nodded in Riley and Heather’s direction. “Ladies.” He flashed them a grin before walking away.

As soon as he was out of earshot, Riley began to babble. “Oh, my word!

That boy just walked you to lunch. I can’t believe it.” “Can’t believe what?” I asked.

The two girls looked at me like I was clueless, which I probably was, but it was only my second day. They needed to give me a break.

“The god of all guys is flirting with you,” interjected a boy who appeared out of nowhere and dropped his tray on the table. “And not just casual flirting. More like I want you in my pants flirting.”

The new boy was wearing a crisp blue shirt with a red bow tie. His flawless blond hair was combed to the side, and by flawless I mean like Fabio, Baywatch, or Ford models. “You must be Jackie,” he said. “I’m Skylar, Valley View High’s fashion expert. I run the style blog for the school newspaper. If you’re interested in an editing position, I’d love to work with you. Your East Coast look is so chic.”

“What? No business card?” Riley said, laughing.

Skylar rolled his eyes and turned to me. “She loves making fun of me, but at least I don’t look like a hick,” he mocked in a terrible Southern accent.

“Would you two stop?” Heather said as she flipped the page of the

People magazine in front of her. “I wanna hear juicy details about Cole.” Everyone turned to me.

“What?” I asked, looking back at them. I hadn’t realized they were expecting something from me. I barely knew the guy.

“So?” asked Skylar. “What happened?”

Why did everyone care so much about Cole? He was just one guy.

“He’s in my class before lunch, so he walked me to the cafeteria,” I responded, not knowing what else to tell them. I wasn’t good with all this boy gossip, and I could tell right away that Heather wasn’t happy with my answer.

“But what did you guys talk about?” she demanded. To show she was dedicated to the conversation, she pushed her magazine off to the side. “Did he compliment you? Maybe he touched your arm?”

“Are you talking about Walter again?” asked another girl who plopped down onto the bench next to Skylar. “Sorry I’m late. I got caught up in the computer lab.”

“This is our pet nerd, Kim,” Riley said, introducing her to me. Kim was a slender girl whose long, flowing hair and flawless skin reminded me of an

elf. “As long as you don’t make fun of her little computer game or whatnot where she battles mythical creatures, she won’t bite.”

“It’s called a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, Riley.” Kim flipped her hair over her shoulder. “Besides, I don’t battle mythical creatures. I am a mythical creature. My avatar is a dwarf.”

“Avatar?” I couldn’t follow anything Kim was saying.

“It’s a graphic representation of my character, a reflection of my personal self,” she explained for me, even though I didn’t understand a word. I wasn’t quite sure how a three-foot-tall creature could symbolize her tall, willowy frame, but I nodded my head like it made sense.

“Hi, you must be Jackie.” Kim extended a hand to me across the table. “Wow, does everyone already know my name just because of Cole?” I


She shook her head. “Actually, I’m a friend of Alex Walter. He mentioned you just moved in.”

Heather’s spoon fell from her hand. “What did you just say?”

“That Alex and I are friends? You already knew that,” Kim said, frowning at Heather.

“No, the other part,” Heather said. Her spoon was back in her hand, and she was waving it wildly. “About moving in.”

“Oh,” Kim said, pulling a soda out of her paper-bag lunch. “Jackie just moved in with the Walters. Right, Jackie?”

Three heads whipped around to look at me.

“Um, yes. I live with them,” I said uneasily, afraid of how the group would react.

“How in heaven’s name did you forget to mention something like that?” Riley gasped, her mouth hanging open in surprise.

“Oh my God!” Heather squealed. “You are like the luckiest girl in this whole school.”

“Debatable,” I mumbled to myself. What was so cool about living with a bunch of wild, crazy, childlike boys? Besides, it’s not like I wanted to be

living in Colorado. Had Heather already forgotten the gossip she told Riley about my family’s accident?

“She did not just say that!” Heather cried, turning to Kim.

“Jackie, Jackie, Jackie,” Riley said, shaking her head. “Haven’t you noticed that the Walter boys are just perfect?”

“No, they’re better than perfect. They’re gods,” Heather said, dreamily staring off into space.

“That did not just come out of your mouth,” Kim scoffed. “That’s so creepy.”

“Is not! It’s the truth. Jackie has crash-landed in boy heaven. I mean, think about it. It doesn’t matter what type of boy she’s into because there’s one of everything. First there’s Danny, who has the whole mysterious brooding thing going on. Isaac is the classic, sexy bad boy. Next is Alex, your typical geeky, shy guy.” Heather was ticking off the boys on her fingers. “Nathan is the laid-back musician. Lee’s the edgy skater, and then there’s Cole—the golden boy.”

Everyone sighed and nodded in agreement when she said his name.

“I don’t get it,” I said, looking across the cafeteria to the table where Cole was eating his lunch. Erin was sitting in his lap and playing with his hair. “There are plenty of guys who are good looking. What makes him so special?”

“If he isn’t so special, then why can’t you take your eyes off him?” Skylar asked, his eyebrow arching up in question.

“I can too,” I said, quickly looking away. “Besides, I’m not looking for a boyfriend. I need to concentrate on my schoolwork.”

The entire table started to laugh at me, and when they finally started to calm down, Skylar said, “Sure, whatever.”

“Look, I’m just trying to understand it,” I said, frustrated. If I could figure out what made Cole so special, then maybe I could eliminate the twisting in my stomach every time I saw him. “I mean, look at her. What makes her do that?” I said and shook my head at Erin. She was diligently hand-feeding Cole grapes.

“There’s just something about him,” Heather said with a shrug, as if that explained everything. “Some extra aspect that no sane girl can ignore.”

“What is it?”

“You can’t define it, Jackie.” She leaned across the table toward me, hair spilling out in front of her as if she were revealing a trade secret. “It’s what I like to call the Cole effect.”

“But if everyone likes him, there has to be some common variable,” I said, trying to think logically.

“That’s my point—there isn’t! The fact that you can’t put your finger on it, whatever it is, is what makes him so swoon-worthy.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“And yet you feel it, don’t you?” Heather said with a knowing smile. “Don’t feel embarrassed, Jackie,” Riley said, and when I glanced at her a

little too sharply, she added, “We’ve all been swept away by a Cole Walter crush.”

“I don’t like him,” I said firmly, as everyone rolled their eyes. “I’ll admit he’s attractive, but that’s it. I hardly know him.”

“Deny it all you want, girl,” Riley said, putting a hand on my shoulder. “But I know a lovesick puppy when I see one.”

I wanted to argue again, to let Riley know that she was wrong. I knew I wasn’t lovesick, and yet I kept my mouth closed. The nausea burning inside my stomach held me back. Heather and Riley made it sound as if no girl had the ability to resist Cole, which made my lack of experience with boys that much more disconcerting.

How would I stand a chance? I couldn’t fall for him. Not after what Nathan told me, and especially not after what had happened to my family. It wouldn’t be right. It was too soon. I needed to do well in school so I could follow in my dad’s footsteps.

I couldn’t do that with a boy like Cole Walter distracting me.

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