Part 3: Surrender

By Camisha and Estee

 

| Authors’ Note | Part 1: Behind Enemy Lines | Part 2: Reconnaissance | Surrender Special Features |


 

 


Rapprochement

 

As he drove to Boston, Hamilton focused on two things: the road and keeping his mouth shut. Neither was easy.

 

As hard as he tried to keep his eyes facing forward, they kept darting over to Jake in the passenger seat. And it seemed like every thought that popped into his head was something he wanted to ask her about. They passed the church ruins, and he wondered how long she stayed there the night before. He saw a sign for Boston, and wondered if she had ever been before. He wondered if she liked New York. And did she have a “spot” there? If so, how often did she go? Was she happier at Rawley than at home?

 

But not a single question escaped his lips. And with his silence, a funny thing happened—Jake started talking:

 

“I think it’s cool that you and your mom had this annual shopping tradition.”

 

“Yeah, she’s actually a really fun co-shopper.” 

 

“I wish my mom and I did something like that.”

 

“She doesn’t take you shopping for new school clothes?” Hamilton permitted himself one question since she had brought it up.

 

“Are you kidding? My mom doesn’t even know when one school year ends and the next begins.”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“Don’t be. I always had the best personal shoppers money could buy to select just the right outfits each fall. And, of course, access to the funds to buy the clothes I’d really wear.”

 

Hamilton laughed. “As long as you were frugal . . . .”

 

“Anyway, last summer I had my mom’s accountant dismiss the shoppers and I gave myself sort of a make over.”

 

No kidding, he thought. “Is that what you meant about ‘finding the right version of yourself?’”

 

“Kind of, but not exactly. I’d just never been able to be myself before the way I am at Rawley. And it’s not about the clothes, you know?”

 

He nodded.

 

“Well, in a way it is . . . but it’s complicated.”

 

Hamilton understood. The clothes didn’t make her personality—maybe they even concealed some parts of it—but they allowed all the important parts to shine through.

 

“Anyway, like I said, it’s also about the people. I mean, I’ve never had friends like Scout or Bella or . . . .”

 

She left it open, but the implication was there, and warmth swelled in Hamilton’s chest as she went on.

 

“I guess I’ve never really tried before, though. I tended to close myself off from people. I had a good teacher, I guess.”

 

“Your mom?”

 

“Yep. She isn’t critical like your dad. She’s just . . . not anything, you know? She cares when it’s convenient . . . or when it looks good.”

 

“Well, I meant what I said the other day. There’s plenty of Kate Fleming to go around.”

 

“Thanks. Oh, speaking of, she wanted me to give you something.”

 

Jake pulled out the list from her pocket. Hamilton glanced over.

 

”It’s a list. Of the stuff you need to make sure to get today.”

 

“God, she’s so embarrassing.” Hamilton was secretly relieved since he had no clue what he needed. “What’s on it?”

 

“Five dress shirts: two white, three colored or striped. One pair of dress pants: black or navy. One navy suit—“

 

“A suit? Oh man.”

 

“One tuxedo with white dinner jacket—“

 

“Jeez. For what?”

 

“I’m guessing Cotillion.”

 

“I’m not going to the Cotillion.” He glanced over at Jake who was staring at the list. “I mean, are you?”

 

“Am I what?”

 

“Going . . . to the Cotillion?”

 

“Oh, probably not.”

 

A few minutes passed in silence.

 

“So, what else is on that list?”

 

She took a deep breath and began reading again, “Athletic shoes, black wing-tips, socks, undershirts, underwear: boxers and briefs. Briefs is underlined—“

 

“Okay, okay,” Hamilton’s cheeks flushed crimson, “I get the idea.”

 

Jake smiled as they pulled into the parking garage and pushed the whole Cotillion thing out of mind to focus on shopping with Hamilton. A friend, a mall and a parent’s credit card—this was going to be fun.

 

First stop: Best Buy. Video games.

 

Hamilton held up a case. “How about snowboarding?”

 

Jake wrinkled her nose. “God, I totally suck at that one.”

 

Hamilton smiled and headed for the cash register. “Perfect.”

 

Next stop: Food court.

 

Jake sat at a table with her Thai curry and watched as Hamilton made his way through the very long line at Sbarro’s. The girl in line behind him started talking to him. Correction: flirting. Jake tensed. No doubt about it. The way she flipped her long blonde hair and laughed at whatever he was saying. The way she touched his arm when he attempted to turn back around. The way she was giving him her number . . . .

 

“Unbelievable,” Jake muttered.

 

Hamilton paid for his food and walked away while the girl was ordering her drink. He headed for Jake, tossing the girl’s number into a trashcan on his way.

 

“Unbelievable,” he muttered as he sat down. “Did you see that girl I was talking to?”

 

“Yeah, she was . . . cute.”

 

“She was weird. I mean, she . . .” he lowered his voice. “She asked me out—in line at Sbarro’s! Come on. I don’t even know her.”

 

Jake had to laugh.

 

“It’s not funny.” Hamilton ducked his head and tried to avoid looking behind him. “She’s not coming over here is she?”

 

Jake looked for him. The girl was walking away with her slice of pizza in a box.

 

“Saved by the to-go box,” Jake said. “Are you usually this afraid of girls?”

 

“I’m not afraid. I’m just not interested.”

 

“In girls?”

 

Hamilton laughed, feeling so much more at ease now that he was sitting there with this girl—with his friend.

 

“Let’s just say . . . she wasn’t my type.”

 

Hunger satisfied, they decided to get down to business. Foot Locker.

 

“What do you think of these?” Hamilton picked up a dark gray New Balance sneaker.

 

“Well, I’m a converse guy myself,” Jake said, kicking one of her black converse low tops against the other. “But those seem right for a guy like you. Especially since you’re wearing a pair exactly like them.”

 

Hamilton looked down at his shoes.

 

“There are plenty of subtle differences. Like, my old ones have orange, but these are trimmed in blue. And these new ones have this weird metallic-looking mesh. Plus, flat laces are being phased out and replaced by these round ones.”

 

Jake rolled her eyes. “Never let it be said that you don’t have an eye for detail.”

 

“Details can make all the difference in seeing . . . the big picture.”

 

“Getting people caught up with the details is called distraction, Hamilton. They distract people like you into paying over a hundred dollars for the exact same shoe.”

 

She knew all about distraction, didn’t she? Hamilton smirked.

 

“So you don’t like the shoes?”

 

Jake sighed and shook her head. “Just buy the damn shoes, Fleming.”

 

One pair of subtly altered sneakers and a few packs of athletic socks later, they moved on to Brooks Brothers where Phil the sales associate assisted them in assembling the essential apparel.

 

“That’s good,” Hamilton told Phil. “I don’t need to try anything on.”

 

“Not even the suit?”

 

Especially not the suit. I hate suits.”

 

Several customers and associates looked over at him.

 

“God, Fleming,” Jake said under her breath, “that’s like going to Best Buy and saying you hate electronics.

 

“Well, electronics are fun. Whereas suits are basically torture devices designed to make guys feel a)stupid and b)hot.”

 

Jake considered that, pictured Hamilton in a suit. Not so stupid. Definitely “hot.”

 

“You know,” Phil said, “I can’t do anything about your feeling stupid, but I can keep you cool. I’ll be right back.”

 

He trotted off to another part of the store.

 

“So you hate suits, huh? Is that why you’re not going to the Cotillion?” Jake hadn’t realized she was going to ask the question until it was out of her mouth.

 

Hamilton shrugged. “Hadn’t really given it any thought before today, I guess. Did you go last year?”

 

“Yeah. I still have my tux.”

 

“And . . .?”

 

“Honestly? Unimpressive.”

 

“Exactly. Lots of chicks in taffeta. What’s the big deal?”

 

Jake laughed. “Come on, though, isn’t there anyone at Rawley Girls’ you’d want to ask?”

 

“Rawley Girls? Definitely no. If mom makes me go, I’ll probably just do a drop-by, solo kind of thing.”

 

“That was me last year. Scout’s been bugging me to go again, so I might tag along with him and Bella, but I kinda hate to be the third wheel.”

 

Hamilton felt bad. Jake was way too cool a girl to go to Cotillion as a tag-along—especially in a tux.

 

“You know, Jake, if neither of us has a date, we could just . . . I mean, why don’t we . . . “

 

“Go solo together?”

 

Hamilton nodded.

 

“Yeah . . . okay.”

 

“Great. It’s a date.” Hamilton blushed at his own phrasing and hurried to change the subject. “So, uh, how’re we doing on that list?”

 

“Well, I guess we have to add a tux now, but once we finish here, you just need jeans, polo shirts, and, oh, underwear. Emphasis on the tighty whiteys.”

 

She nearly embarrassed him . . . until he turned it around on her.

 

“I hate briefs. Mom just doesn’t understand. You get no air circulation; you’re totally restricted. I mean, I need some room, you know what I’m saying?”

 

Jake struggled to nod, her cheeks burning, while Hamilton struggled to hold back a satisfied grin.

 

“Voila!” Phil rejoined them, thrusting a navy suit at Hamilton along with one of the light blue shirts Jake had chosen earlier. “This is from our BrooksCool collection. Try it out. I promise, it’s a whole new world.”

 

A skeptical Hamilton allowed himself to be ushered into a dressing room. As he changed, Jake realized she’d never seen him in anything besides his current cargo short and t-shirt ensemble or some basic variation on that theme. This should be good, she thought.

 

But when he stepped out of the dressing room, she found that “good” didn’t even begin to cover it. The suit and shirt fit him almost perfectly, accentuating rather than muting the hard planes of his body. The color brought out the blue in his eyes, making them even more vibrant than usual. And the way he was fidgeting was just too adorable.

 

“Classy,” Jake said only to stop “wow” from escaping.

 

“You think?”

 

Jake nodded. All of a sudden, her hands itched to straighten the jacket and arrange the collar, to be close and press her hands against his chest. She gripped them into fists at her side.

 

“It’s perfect for you,” Phil chimed in. “We just need to take up the pants about an inch.”

 

“We also need a tuxedo with a white dinner jacket,” Jake told Phil.

 

“No problem. That’ll fit pretty much the same way. You won’t even have to try it on. I’ll have both ready for you in a few hours. You’re welcome to leave your other items here until then.”

 

“Great.” Hamilton unbuttoned the jacket and handed it over.

 

“Too restrictive?” Jake asked.

 

“Exactly.” Hamilton smiled. “Speaking of . . . Phil, do you guys have any boxers and/or briefs?”

 

“Both, actually. Do you prefer cotton, silk, or maybe a nice—”

 

“You know,” Jake interrupted, “there’s a bookstore across the hall that I wanted to check out so why don’t you just come find me when you’re done.”

 

“Sure,” Hamilton said, slightly disappointed that she wasn’t sticking around.

 

“Your friend could use a make-over,” Phil commented after she had gone.

 

Hamilton smirked. “Phil, my friend, you have no idea.”

 

 

Dress, Right, Dress!

 

Jake was about to walk into the bookstore when she noticed a dress shop next door. She had exactly one dress at Rawley . . . in a box at the bottom of Scout’s closet. If only she could go in and try a few things on. She hadn’t been shopping for “girl clothes” in over a year.

 

The dress in the window—burgundy with spaghetti straps and a hem that Jake imagined would fall just at her knee—was amazing. Even if trying it on was impossible, she definitely needed to admire it for a while.

 

With little interest in prolonging his underwear shopping once Jake had gone, Hamilton was out of Brooks Brothers in about five minutes. He spotted the bookstore Jake had mentioned and headed that way.

 

He noticed her standing at the window of the dress shop before she noticed him. The way her reflection fell just in front of the dress she was eyeing made it easy for Hamilton to envision her in it. The deep wine color would bring out her bright green eyes while the cut would reveal both her shoulders and the subtle cleavage he knew she was somehow hiding. He noticed the length of the dress and realized that he’d never seen her legs.

 

He also realized just how intently she was gazing at this article of clothing. The night she spent at Bella’s indicated a healthy appreciation for her feminine side. He wondered if she had anything girl-like stashed around their room until he remembered the box with the Prada shoes. His presence had forced all things girl-related into a box and over to Scout’s.

 

Things like that black bra.

 

Refusing to let his mind wander too far down that path, he decided to make his presence known before she turned around and caught him watching.

 

He eased up behind her. “See anything you like?”

 

With a start, Jake spun around. Busted. But then she realized he was looking not at the display window, but at the group of girls exiting the shop.

 

“Not particularly,” she said.

 

“Yeah . . . me either. Wanna hit the arcade?”

 

“You even have to ask?”

 

Hamilton started off and Jake followed. But she couldn’t resist one last wistful look over her shoulder. Amazing dress.

 

Two hours and fifty dollars later, Jake actually let Hamilton win a few games and suggested they get back to the shopping. For once in her life, she would rather have been in a dress shop than an arcade.

 

Jake consulted the list as they left. “According to this, all we have left are jeans . . .and polo shirts.”

 

“And all the clothes I’m really going to wear,” Hamilton added, giving her a conspiratorial wink.

 

“Riiight.” Jake raised her eyebrows in a way Hamilton couldn’t quite read.

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“No,” he insisted, “what was that look for?”

 

“No look. Jeans, polo shirts and the stuff you’re really going to wear—no problem.” She shrugged. “Shouldn’t take long.”

 

There was something about her tone. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing. Let’s go in here and get the jeans.” Jake pointed to Abercrombie & Fitch.

 

“Buying new jeans that look older than any of the ones I already own? Mom will be thrilled.”

 

“It’s called vintage, Hamilton.”

 

 “If you say so.”

 

Jake performed her patented eye roll and preceded him into the store. Hamilton hurried after her.

 

“I’m just giving you a hard time. I always come here, actually.”

 

“I know,” Jake said, again with the suspicious tone.

 

“What?!”

 

“Okay. Take a second and survey your options,” Jake instructed, waving her hand to indicate the entire men’s section.

 

Hamilton complied. “Okay, done.”

 

“Okay.” Jake started pointing to different items. “That. That. That one in orange. Those in khaki. Those in straight leg. That and that.”

 

Hamilton looked at her, surprised that she’d just pointed out everything he’d been interested in. “Yeah, those are . . .”

 

“The slightly updated versions of everything currently in your closet. So we might as well just grab the right sizes and get out of here.”

 

Hamilton continued to stare at her.

 

“So you’re saying I’m . . . predictable.”

 

“That’s one way of putting it.”

 

“Okay, hypocrite, I haven’t exactly observed a wide variety of styles in your closet. Could you own one more long-sleeved t-shirt?”

 

“Granted. But I have my reasons. I could easily change my style . . . if I wanted to.”

 

“So could I. If I wanted to.”

 

Jake’s look was skeptical.

 

“What? I could.”

 

“Fine, you’re right. This is America. Freedom of fashion choice. Who am I to dictate?”

 

Hamilton was silent for a moment as he surveyed the store again.

 

“You could,” he said softly. “You know, if you wanted to.”

 

“Could what?”

 

“Dictate.”

 

“Oh yeah?”

 

“Yeah, go for it. I’m a blank slate.”

 

“You’re sure?” Jake asked, surveying his current outfit.

 

“Absolutely. You are here to act as my personal fashion consultant, remember?” Hamilton decided he was more than willing to be her personal Ken doll.

 

“All right. But don’t forget—you asked for it.” She headed for the back of the store. “We start with jeans.”

 

By force of habit, Hamilton reached for the shelf labeled “straight leg.” Jake’s voice stopped him.

 

“Don’t even think about it.” She pulled a pair of jeans from the shelf labeled “Flare” instead and placed them over Hamilton’s arm. At his skeptical look, she added a pair labeled “boot cut.” The look remained.

 

“Fine then, these too,” she said, adding his original “straight leg” pick to the pile. “At least they’ll make your mother happy.”

 

“I also need some new shirts.” Hamilton tugged on the deteriorating hem of his orange t-shirt.

 

“Yes. Which reminds me: No more brown shirts and no more orange, period. You have way too much orange.”

 

Jake started off across the store again. Hamilton caught up with her at a table piled with polo shirts. She held up two options: blue and black.

 

“I don’t know,” Hamilton said eyeing the table, “I kind of like the orange.”

 

“Veto. Pick something else.”

 

Hamilton laughed. Veto? He ought to have known better than to turn all control over to a control freak like Jake . . . .

 

“I only have, like, two orange shirts.”

 

“Two too many. Come on, Fleming, try again,” she said, lifting her arms to display the two options again.

 

“Hmm . . .” Hamilton moved closer and took hold of her right wrist to get a closer look at the blue shirt. He studied it carefully to prolong the contact.

 

Trying to ignore the touching, Jake placed her other wrist on her hip and struck an impatient pose. An impatient and rather feminine pose, Hamilton observed.

 

Jake came to this same realization seconds later and quickly removed her wrist from her hip and sunk into a slouch, reminding herself that no matter how much she wished it could be different, she was Jake today, not Jacqueline.

 

She could never be Jacqueline with Hamilton.

 

Before she could pull out her mental list of reasons why telling Hamilton was a bad idea, a crowd of guys swept in between the table and the wall behind them, pushing Jake’s arm forward into Hamilton’s chest. The crowd lingered, examining the jackets on a nearby rack and tossing an occasional “excuse me” at Jake and Hamilton, whom they were inadvertently pushing closer and closer together.

 

Hamilton was overcome by an intoxicating and vaguely familiar scent. He inhaled deeply. Cucumbers and Ivory soap. Did Jake always smell this good?

 

Jake tried to keep her breathing steady as she recalled the last time she was pressed against him like this. She could feel the heat spreading across her face and down her neck.

 

Their eyes met and, in that moment, Hamilton placed the aroma. She smelled exactly as she had in his dream. His own cheeks burned and he had trouble taking his eyes from hers as hazy images flickered in his head. He was thankful when the group moved on, and he could take a step back.

 

“People are so rude,” Jake said, slipping back into the attitude that Hamilton had come to know and appreciate. “It’s like, we already know you’re part of the herd, you don’t have to travel like one.”

 

He grinned. How many guys were lucky enough to have a friend like Jake? Someone who liked video games, but didn’t mind helping you shop. Someone who could turn you on one second, then crack you up the next.

 

“What?” Jake asked, the corners of her mouth responding to his infectious trademark grin.

 

Hamilton shook his head. “You just trip me out, that’s all . . . . So, seriously, no orange?”

 

Jake refused to even honor the question with a response.

 

After they’d collected an assortment of shirts, pants and shorts—all completely orange-less—Jake stood with Hamilton as he waited on a dressing room. The store was still busy and the line stretched in front of and behind them.

 

“Oh yeah, you know what else I need? A new bathing suit.”

 

“Like some trunks?” Jake asked, looking around the store.

 

“No, a bikini.”

 

An eavesdropping girl behind them laughed. Jake resisted turning around and giving the girl a dirty look, but Hamilton was already facing her and treating her to an easy smile.

 

“Hi,” she said.

 

“Uh, hi.”

 

The obvious interest in Hamilton’s voice compelled Jake to turn and get a look at the girl. To her dismay, eavesdropper girl looked pretty much like she, Jacqueline, had looked a year ago: tall and slender, shoulder length dark hair, minimal makeup (but heavy on the eye-liner), black top, short denim skirt, five or six funky little beaded bracelets and . . .black converse low tops.

 

“This line sucks, huh?” eavesdropper girl asked, looking only at Hamilton.

 

He looked down at the small, black tank top she held in her hands. “You know, you could go before us. I have a lot to try on and . . . you don’t.”

 

“Cool. Thanks.” Eavesdropper girl held the top up in front of her chest. “Think this’ll be cute on me?”

 

“Definitely.” Another dressing room opened up and Hamilton motioned for the girl to take it.

 

When she was out of sight, Jake turned to Hamilton. “Definitely, huh?”

 

“I was just being nice.” It was true, but for some reason, he felt a little . . . guilty.

 

“So I take it that’s why you’re not rushing out to find some Rawley Girl to ask to the Cotillion?”

 

Hamilton’s elevated eyebrows requested clarification.

 

“I mean, you’re not going to find a girl like that at Rawley, are you?”

 

“Well . . .” He looked Jake over, trying to picture her in the black top, the denim skirt, the . . . he almost laughed out loud when his eyes hit her shoes. “There might be one hiding somewhere.”

 

“Of course, I’m just assuming she was your type.” Hamilton’s lack of response prompted her to push a little further. “I mean, you know . . . was she? Your type?”

 

Yes, he realized, if he had a “type” at all, that girl was definitely it. But he hesitated to give Jake an honest answer. Jake. Jacqueline. That dream. What was it that left him feeling so unsettled? He shook the thoughts off and tried for a casual smile.

 

“Let’s just say that if she had given me her number, I wouldn’t have thrown it away.” 

 

“So you’re into girls who like to do their shopping with a five-finger discount, then?”

 

“What?” Hamilton looked up as the girl slipped out of the dressing room, then the store, with nothing in her hands and a tag sticking out of her collar. “No way . . . She didn’t even say goodbye.”

 

Jake smirked, feeling much less threatened as she moved forward to take the dressing room eavesdropper girl had just vacated. Only an empty hanger remained.

 

 

Close Quarters

 

“Anyway,” she said as she took the clothes from Hamilton’s arms and starting hanging them in the room, “you start trying some stuff on, and I’ll see if I can find that, uh, bikini for you.”

 

Hamilton laughed, stepped inside and closed the door behind him. He kicked off his shoes and shorts then tried on the cords, matching them with a striped, burgundy polo shirt she’d picked out for him. He smiled. She was into this color today. The pants were comfortable, which was concern number one. He thought they fit okay. He guessed they looked okay. He liked the shirt a lot. The “muscle” fit definitely showed off the work he’d put in on his arms, pecs and abs. He wanted Jake to see.

 

“Here,” he heard as Jake tossed a pair of swim trunks over the door. They were the same color as the shirt he had on, but Hamilton noticed they had an orange line running down the side.

 

“There’s orange on these,” he said to the door.

 

“They were the only ones left in small.”

 

Hamilton rolled his eyes, but smiled. “Anyway . . . I’ve got those micro-cord things on and that red polo. I think—“


”Come out here so I can see.”

 

Hamilton stepped out and looked around for the three-way mirror, but all space in front of it was occupied. The whole area was swarming with people. The crowd forced Jake up against him once more and he wasn’t exactly complaining, but she certainly wasn’t going to get a good look at his outfit this way.

 

“This is insane,” Jake muttered, trying to find a few inches behind her in which to step back. “Maybe I should just wait for you out in the store.”

 

She had a point, but Hamilton definitely didn’t want her to go. She turned.

 

“Wait.” Hamilton had a much better idea. He stepped back into the doorway of his dressing room. “Why don’t you just . . . come in here instead?”

 

Jake stared at him a moment. She felt fairly certain that guys did not share dressing rooms.

 

“What’s the big deal?” he asked.

 

“Why can’t I just wait out there?”

 

He looked at her, feigning exasperation. “You’re supposed to be my fashion consultant. How will I know what works without your guidance?”

 

Jake glanced around, wondering what all these people would think. Not that they seemed to care about anything except what they were trying on or when the next dressing room would open up. Jake gave Hamilton one more uncertain look.

 

“Come on,” he coaxed with a raise of his eyebrows that Jake doubted she’d ever learn to resist. “Don’t you want to see how this stuff looks on me?”

 

She did. She really did. She slipped in the room with him before she could come to her senses and change her mind.

 

“So . . . what do you think?”

 

She looked him over in what she hoped was a professional manner. “I like the pants. I like the shirt. Not sure about together, though. I think you could probably wear that shirt with some of those khaki pants you got at the other store, or maybe with some jeans.”

 

“Jeans?”

 

Before Jake could say anything, Hamilton was pulling off the cords. He tossed them on the floor then picked up the jeans Jake had selected. He held them up then raised his eyebrows as if to ask for her approval.

 

“Yeah . . . .” She nodded then swallowed.

 

He pulled them on over his boxers, aware of Jake’s intent scrutiny. He zipped up then buttoned the jeans, prolonging every move.

 

“Those jeans are cool. I have good taste.” Jake’s tone stayed far too steady for Hamilton’s taste.

 

“You like them?” he asked checking out the pants in the mirror. He turned to the side to get a different perspective. “You don’t think they’re kind of . . . tight?”

 

She tilted her head, examining the jeans, then looked up at the complete package in the mirror. There was no question about it: he looked hot. Professional. It was a mantra in her head. Professional.

 

“No, they’re good. You should get them.” Professional. Detached. Professional.

 

“I don’t know. I’m usually a straight-leg kind of guy.”

 

“Well, maybe it’s time to take it to the next level.”

 

Their eyes locked for a moment. They both swallowed. 

 

“You know . . . straight leg to sand-blasted boot-cut this year.” Professional. Objective. Professional. “Boot-cut to flare next year. Maybe by the time we graduate, you’ll be ready for the destroyed flare.” 

 

Hamilton could swear he’d disconcerted her for a second there, but she was always so quick to recover. What if he removed his shirt? He attempted to casually pull it over his head, but found out halfway through the process that it didn’t come off nearly as easy at it went on. The collar was stuck at his ears, one of his arms trapped over his head, and he couldn’t see.

 

“Ow.” One of the buttons was pulling his hair.

 

The image of Hamilton battling the shirt, his face engulfed, one arm free, the other caught at the elbow, cracked Jake up.

 

“Shut up.”

 

“What was that, Ham?” Jake asked through her laughter. “It was all muffled.”

 

“You wanna give me a hand?” he snapped, his irritability rising with his embarrassment.

 

“I’d rather just watch, thanks,” she taunted as she stepped closer.

 

“Jake, seriously—”

 

“Be still.” 

 

When he stopped flailing, Jake reached out and straightened his arm to unhook the sleeve from his elbow. She bent it again to pull it out of the sleeve then leaned in closer, examining the collar of the shirt. She attempted to quickly untangle the button, but slowed down when some hairs were pulled out.

 

“Sorry.”

 

“It’s okay.” The shakiness in his voice didn’t surprise him. She was holding his bare shoulder for balance as she stood on her tiptoes to get a better look. Even with the shirt over his face, he could smell the cucumbers and Ivory.

 

“Getting enough oxygen in there?”

 

He wondered. Maybe that was why he was feeling so . . . light-headed.

 

She finally pulled the button free from his locks and easily drew the shirt over his head.

 

“There.” She handed him the polo.

 

“Thanks.” His ears were chafed, and his head felt tingly from where the hairs had been pulled, but it was his face that was really on fire. He managed a sheepish grin before turning back to the clothes he still had to try on. Some were hanging; others were piled on the floor. He’d left the bench free and Jake sat down.

 

“Okay, I know all these shirts and shorts are going to fit,” he said moving a stack of four t-shirts and three pairs of shorts over to the keep pile, stalling to regain his composure. 

 

When it returned, he put on a short-sleeved, button-up, checkered shirt. The buttons were the real appeal and he took his time with each one.

 

“You’re like an old lady, you know that? You’re so damn slow.”

 

He pretended to ignore her as he fastened each button even slower than before.

 

“Just stop there,” she said with half the buttons to go.

 

He paused, glancing up.

 

“Take it off.”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“It sucks; take it off.”

 

He pulled it off over his head without unbuttoning it or getting it stuck in his hair, his arms stretching over his head and pulling his abdominal muscles taut. Jake made what seemed like a forced move to look in the other direction.

 

He looked down at the pile of clothes to hide his satisfied smile, but when he glanced back up, Jake had already composed herself again. That was it? That was the best he could do?

 

Jake pointed to a pair on jeans hidden under other items on the floor. “Maybe you’re not ready for them, but the flare jeans are there, if you want to give them a try. I’d like to see them on you. I mean, I know you think you’re a straight-leg kind of guy, but—”

 

“Yeah, I’ll try them.” 

 

Jake looked everywhere but at Hamilton as he slid off the boot-cut, pulled on the flare and attempted to readjust his boxers, which had slipped up in the process.

 

“All right. How’s this?”

 

“Fine.”

 

“Hey, you’re not even looking,” he complained as he caught her eye in the mirror.

 

“I am looking,” she told his shirtless reflection. “They’re fine. Better than fine.”

 

“You don’t think they make my ass look weird?” He turned to show her.

 

“No.”

 

With his back still to Jake, he slipped the jeans a little further down on his hips.

 

“You know, maybe you should try them with a shirt.”

 

He shrugged and bent down in front of her in order to search through the t-shirts. He selected a navy shirt adorned with some fake college logo. He pulled it on as he stood up then turned to face her.

 

“Are you sure you got medium in these shirts?” He shifted his shoulders and tugged at the sleeves and hem.

 

“Small.”

 

“I don’t wear small in t-shirts.”

 

“You do now. Fitted is ‘in.’”

 

“Oh really?” He gave her outfit a pointed survey.

 

“We’re giving you a new look, alright? So stop looking at me and look in the mirror. You should like what you see.”

 

He stared at her for a moment, ready to protest, but changed his mind.

 

“You really think I look good?” he asked, looking in the mirror but keeping eye contact with her reflection. She nodded.

 

“Okay. I trust you.” He smiled and began to shed his new clothing.

 

Though he hadn’t intended anything by it, the words pricked Jake’s conscience. She took a deep breath. “Speaking of trust . . .”

 

Hamilton paused, wearing just the t-shirt and his boxers. He looked at her with such intensity, she almost couldn’t continue. She pulled her eyes from his and forced herself to continue. “What Scout said, about me having trust issues . . .”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Well, I do. I know that.”

 

“Okay . . . .”

 

“But, I’m trying hard not to.”

 

He nodded.

 

“And you seem like a really good person to practice with.”

 

He beamed. “Look, Jake—“

 

A tapping on the door interrupted him. 

 

“Excuse me, could you, like, hurry up?” a female voice called.

 

“Two more minutes,” Hamilton promised the stranger.

 

He and Jake glanced around the room. He had tried on everything he needed to except . . .

 

“Oh, the trunks.”

 

Jake watched as he took the blue shirt off then pulled the trunks on over his boxers, letting the waist of the shorts rest well below his own, the waistband of his boxers still visible. Nice Marky Mark imitation, Jake thought. Washboard stomach and all.

 

“Okay, what do you think?”

 

It wasn’t a safe question for Jake to answer honestly.

 

“Are they me?” he persisted.

 

“Uh . . .” Jake pretended to think it over. “They work.”

 

“I like this color.”

 

“Yeah. Me too,” she said a little too longingly, thinking of the dress.

 

“Oh, if you wanted to get them for yourself, that’s totally—“

 

“No! No, I mean . . . I . . . .” She reached out to stop him, but the trunks were already off and being thrust in her direction.

 

“You can try them on if you want,” he offered, knowing she couldn’t. The idea made him even more aware of the fact that he’d never seen her legs.

 

“No, thanks.”

 

“You’re sure?” He glanced up and down the baggy jeans she wore.

 

“Yep.” She’d shaved her legs the night before.

 

Hamilton remained in his boxers as he sorted out the clothes he planned to purchase.

 

“You’re not getting anything today?”

 

“Nah, I’ve got plenty—all I need. Remember, this is your make-over.” She had no desire to expand “Jake’s” wardrobe.

 

“Funny you should say that. Phil totally thought you could use one.”

 

“What? Phil? Phil the sales guy, Phil?”

 

“Yeah. He told me you needed a make-over. Which is ironic considering you’re supposed to be my fashion consultant.”

 

Jake’s eyes narrowed. “Well, I think we picked out some good clothes. I mean, everything looked really good on you, but, hey, if you don’t think my opinion is worth anything maybe you should just let good old Phil help you figure out your ‘new look’—”

 

“Hey, slow down. I was just teasing.” He reached out to touch her arm, but pulled back at the last minute. “Didn’t I just say I trusted you? One hundred percent, okay? Today’s been great. You’ve been great. More than great and . . .”

 

And I think it’s time to be shutting up now. He felt all awkward again. How did she do this to him? She was not only fully clothed, but also excessively clothed. Yet, somehow, he was the one feeling . . . flustered.

 

“And what the hell does Phil know anyway?” he finished.

 

“Whatever, it’s cool. I mean, Phil’s probably right. Jake Pratt is well overdue for a makeover.”

 

“I don’t know, Jake Pratt looks pretty good to me . . . .”

 

His tone was oddly reminiscent of the one he’d used with shoplifter girl. But, he couldn’t be . . .

 

“Hey, uh, after we get my suit and stuff, wanna hit the arcade again?” he asked.

 

“Sure. If you’re up for more humiliation, who am I to refuse?”

 

“Cocky,” he noted, continuing to stand there in his boxers.

 

“Confident and competent,” Jake countered. “So, um . . . pants would be good.”

 

“Huh? Oh. Pants. Right.”

 

Once Hamilton had dressed, they proceeded to a cash register staffed by a cute redheaded sales girl who seemed more interested in Jake than Hamilton or his purchases.

 

“So, like, Rawley Academy, huh?” the girl was asking Jake as she handed Hamilton his credit card receipt to sign.

 

“Yep,” Jake said, her eyes darting around to look at everything but the girl.

 

“My dad wanted me to go to their girls’ school, but I told him I wasn’t interested. Maybe it’s time to reconsider.”

 

“It’s a great school,” Hamilton said.

 

The redhead looked to Jake for confirmation.

 

“It’s okay, I guess.”

 

“You should come by some time for a visit,” Hamilton suggested as he signed the receipt. “Jake gives orientation tours. I’m sure he’d be happy to give you a private one.”

 

Jake kicked him. Hamilton tried to keep a straight face. Though he knew now not to push it too far, he still enjoyed taking just a little of the control away from the control freak.

 

“Yeah,” the girl said, “maybe I will.”

 

Jake slipped the signed receipt from under Hamilton’s fingers and slid it toward the girl.

 

“We, uh, gotta go. It was nice to meet you,” Jake said.

 

“You, too.” The girl smiled and brushed Jake’s hand with her fingertips as she took the receipt. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”

 

Once they made it out of the store, Jake hit Hamilton in the arm.

 

“Dude, what the hell were you doing back there?”

 

“Just trying to help you out. She was cute.”

 

Jake realized he had a point. She shrugged. “I guess.”

 

“Now who’s afraid of girls?”

 

“I’m not afraid,” Jake parroted. “I’m just not interested.”

 

“In girls?”

 

Jake rolled her eyes and started walking. “Let’s just say . . . she wasn’t my type.”

 

 

Espionage

 

When they got back to Brooks Brothers, Jake offered to wait outside.

 

“I really don’t need Phil trying to sell me a new wardrobe,” she said.

 

“I won’t let him give you a hard time.”

 

Hamilton underscored his words with a look so intense that Jake almost forgot her real reason for not wanting to go in. The moment stretched between them.

 

“I . . . I can wait,” she managed at last.

 

“I can’t.”

 

“What?” She tilted her head as if to find the right angle from which to interpret the comment.

 

“I—I’m impatient. Just generally,” Hamilton covered, though even he wasn’t sure what he had actually meant.

 

He started backing away, but stumbled as he stepped on the bottom of one of his Abercrombie & Fitch bags. He recovered before he fell, but had to force himself to meet Jake’s eyes again.

 

“Okay, but it’ll just be a second. I’ll be so quick.”

 

“Great.” Jake forced a smile.

 

Too late, it dawned on Hamilton that she might have wanted time by herself and why. He tried to think of a quick excuse to stay in the store longer, but nothing plausible came to mind so he just went in.

 

Jake sank down onto a nearby bench, trying not to look at the dress store that she wouldn’t have time to go inside. Why torture herself? Her gaze seemed drawn there against her will, however, and soon she was staring openly once again. She could see herself in the dress. She could see Hamilton in that blue suit standing with her in the dress, could hear him saying . . .

 

“I don’t know how girls wear that stuff.”

 

Startled, Jake turned her head from the store and tried to act naturally.

 

“Yeah . . . guess it wouldn’t be too comfortable.” She actually suspected the dress would be a lot more comfortable than the layers plus corset she currently wore.

 

Hamilton set down his ever-increasing load of shopping bags.

 

“Plus, like take that red dress, it’s too revealing. It’s like giving it all away, you know? There’s nothing left to wonder about, nothing to . . . discover.”

 

Jake scoffed, not noticing that Hamilton’s eyes had wandered down to her denim-covered legs.

 

“Right. I’m sure you’re so attracted to girls in excessive clothing. And that dress is burgundy, not red.”

 

“Actually, it’s more of a wine . . . and all I’m saying is that I happen to like a little mystery, a healthy buildup, the joy of . . . anticipation . . . .”

 

“Just because there’s not so much mystery on the outside, doesn’t mean there’s none left on the inside. Anyway, I think a dress like that would for a time when there’s not as much left to discover. And you cannot tell me that if you were out with your girlfriend and she were wearing that dress, you wouldn’t feel any . . . anticipation.”

 

Hamilton thought that one over for a second. “Good point.”

 

“Besides, you weren’t all about the mystery an hour ago when you told the shoplifter how that skimpy tank top would definitely look good on her.”

 

“Didn’t you notice how well she layered it under those other clothes?”

 

“Yeah . . . because she was stealing it.”

 

“Details, details.”

 

Jake smirked. “I thought the details made all the difference.”

 

“I thought details were a matter of distraction.”

 

“Oh, so you’re finally catching on?”

 

“More and more everyday.” His tone prompted an odd look from Jake, so he hurried on. “Anyway, I’m going to put this stuff in the car. Do you want to come or—”

 

“How long is it going to take? I mean, uh, is there time for me to, um . . . .”

 

Hamilton smiled. She was so not subtle.

 

“It’s going to take forever to find the car in that garage unless . . . do you remember what level we parked on?”

 

“Hmm . . .” Jake pretended to think, wondering if she should tell him that they were on level 3, aisle J.

 

“I didn’t think so,” he said collecting his bags then backing away. “Anyway, coming or waiting?”

 

“Um . . .” Just a brief glance at the dress shop, but Hamilton caught it. “I can wait.”

 

Though he managed not to say it this time, he couldn’t wait. To hell with “mystery”—he had to get her in that dress, had to see her in it.

 

“You know, actually, why don’t you go do whatever you need to do then just meet me at the arcade?”

 

“Thirty minutes?”

 

“Yeah, perfect.”

 

He ambled off, feeling her eyes on his back. When it felt safe, he looked over his shoulder. She had disappeared, undoubtedly into the store. He started jogging through the mall, anxious to shove his stuff into the trunk and get back. He entered the third level of the parking garage and found the section labeled “J”—a letter Hamilton had no trouble remembering.

 

He ran back to the store, wondering how he was going to manage a glimpse of Jake and her legs. He actually had no problem with the revealing dress, especially on Jake—a girl he’d been wondering about, a girl he was dying to discover.

 

Still trying to figure out how he could get near enough to the dressing rooms without being detected, he reached the store . . . and froze in his tracks: she wasn’t in the dressing room.

 

She was, however, in the dress.

 

She stood just outside the set of dressing rooms with her back to the store’s entrance. A sales associate stood by her side as they examined her reflection in the wall of mirrors.

 

Hamilton stepped back so that he was only peeking into the window, but did not take his eyes from Jake—from Jacqueline. The dress fit her perfectly, creating an image in the mirror more striking than Hamilton could ever have dreamed up on his own.

 

“Wow,” he whispered. It was the only word in his head and the only volume he could manage.

 

Inside the store, the sales associate excused herself to help another customer. Jake stared wistfully into the mirror. Her thoughts went in a million directions. She loved the dress. She felt sexy. She appreciated the time Hamilton had inadvertently given her to try on the dress, but she resented him both for ruining her chance to buy it and for denying her the opportunity to wear it. Yet, the desire to wear it for him overwhelmed her. Her mind went back to him in the blue suit. She wondered how he would look in the tuxedo, what he’d say if she showed up at the Cotillion in this. She’d certainly stand out in a sea of chicks in white taffeta.

 

She lowered her eyelids and inhaled deeply, unconsciously searching for a hint of peppermints and dryer sheets. She definitely wanted him to be there with her, to see her like this, see her as—

 

“Mary Jane.”

 

Jake looked up to see the sales woman standing next to her.

 

“Huh?” 

 

“Shoes. I have some nice Mary Janes that go perfectly with that dress.” She eyed Jake’s Converse sneakers with disapproval.

 

Before Jake could protest, the woman headed for the back of the store. Jake smoothed the dress over her hips. She knew she shouldn’t feel guilty for finding Hamilton attractive or for wanting him to see her as . . . herself. Except, the whole point of the “Jake” charade was that “herself” had nothing to do with pretty dresses and cute shoes. But then she wasn’t even sure it was the whole Jake masquerade bothering her anyway.

 

Outside, Hamilton watched Jake fidget in front of the mirror. She looked unhappy. He wanted to go in there and tell her he knew and he didn’t care—and that she was beautiful.

 

She was so beautiful.

 

And he was so confused. Just when he’d sorted out his friendship with Jake, Jacqueline came along to confuse him again. Confuse and intrigue him.

 

Maybe he should just forget about Jacqueline. Jake was the important one. Maybe he was physically attracted to the girl in the dress, maybe he wanted her. But he needed the boy in the flannel—the person with whom he played video games and talked about girls. His best friend. Stupid to jeopardize all that just to tell Jacqueline she looked beautiful in a dress. He sighed and closed his eyes, leaning his head against the wall behind him.

 

When he opened them a moment later, Jake had a Mary Jane on one foot and was fastening its mate to the other foot, which she had propped up on a stool. The position revealed even more of her leg.

 

So not helping me to forget Jacqueline,” Hamilton muttered as he took in her ankle, her calf, her knee, and the beginning of her inner thigh. As she brought her foot down again and looked in the mirror, Hamilton had to remind himself to breathe.

 

“So . . . what do you think? Dress and shoes?” the sales woman was asking Jake.

 

She’d had no intention of buying either, but found herself nodding.

 

“Super. Just meet me at the cash register once you change.”

 

Change? Shit. “You know, can I just wear this out?”

 

The woman flashed her a strange look, but agreed.

 

Hamilton watched as she paid then headed for the dressing room. He expected her to change, but she gathered her clothes instead and headed for the door. He panicked. What was she doing? What was he going to do?

 

Before he could react, she walked out. He closed his eyes as if it would keep her from seeing him. He opened them again, expecting to find her in front of him, but she was walking in the opposite direction.

 

He gawked for a moment, then turned and ran toward the arcade.

 

After six games of Mortal Kombat, he started to wonder if Jake hadn’t actually ditched him. But she arrived a minute later, in full boy regalia once more. Hamilton’s relief mingled with disappointment.

 

“Hey,” Hamilton greeted her. He kept one hand on the joystick while he offered her quarters from the other.

 

She stared at the coins in Hamilton’s outstretched hand. Ten minutes spent in front of the mirror in the women’s bathroom debating wearing the dress to the arcade. She’d come so close. Hamilton had proven himself a good friend. But he was also a good son and it was still a risk . . .

 

Hamilton shook the quarters without taking his eyes from his game. Jake set down her shopping bag, containing dress and shoes, which lay hidden beneath books purchased as cover, and grabbed a handful, sliding a few into the machine.

 

“Who said I was inviting you to play against me?”

 

She gave him a curious look.

 

“I was doing just fine against the computer,” Hamilton continued with a grin. “Whereas you challenge me.”

 

“Well, aren’t you up for a good challenge?”

 

“I guess you’re not really giving me a choice. But then, you know, I’m starting to think I’ve never stood a chance against you.”

 

A pause.

 

“Not true,” Jake said. “I wouldn’t even bother . . . if I didn’t think you were a formidable opponent.”

 

Hamilton sent his player toward Jake’s with a flying kick. “Funny how video games usually force you to fight against your friends instead of letting you work with them.”

 

Jake shrugged and countered his move. “If you want a partner, you play tennis. If you want an opponent, you play—“

 

“Singles’ tennis?”

 

“No. Violent video games.” Jake invoked a special weapon that neatly finished off Hamilton’s already weak fighter.

 

“Fuck.”

 

“Sorry. I can let you go back to playing against the computer.”

 

“Nah, the computer’s boring.” He handed her some more quarters. “I’m up for the challenge.”

 

They started again, but Hamilton’s game was weaker than usual. Jake was about to step it down a little, when he stopped playing altogether. He turned to her.

 

“What if I want both?” It came out of nowhere but felt like the most important question he’d ever asked.

 

“Both?”

 

“An opponent and a partner.”

 

“Tennis still works. Doubles tennis. Because you’ve got the partner, but you’re also playing against—“

 

“Never mind.”

 

Jake kept staring at him for a second after he turned back to the game, but grabbed her joystick in time to manipulate her player into ducking a kick.

 

“Are you cool?” she asked.

 

“Questionable,” Hamilton answered with a half-smile.

 

“You know what I mean.”

 

He pulled off a whole smile. “Yeah, I’m cool.”

 

“Good, then I won’t feel sorry about whooping your sorry ass.”

 

Hamilton laughed softly. Had he ever been less in control of a relationship? Had he ever been happier? At least after today he knew that their friendship was reciprocal. At the garage, she’d admitted that she needed him just as much as he needed her. And, in the dressing room, she’d said she was trying to trust him.

 

She just didn’t . . . yet.

 

Maybe that was the something he sensed was missing—the trust. But it felt like something else. Something more important. Something Hamilton couldn’t quite put his finger on.

 

Jake continued to win every game—even the ones she tried to throw—so she finally insisted they call it a day, offering Hamilton a rematch when he was more focused. Hamilton wondered if he’d ever feel focused again around Jake, but he accepted and the pair headed to the parking garage where each pretended not to be able to find the car they both knew was parked on level three in section J.

 

Once they “found” the car and got on the road back to New Rawley, Hamilton kept quiet and let Jake talk. He’d grown very fond of hearing Jake talk. And he had a lot left to learn.

 

 

Support from the Homefront

 

Hamilton spent Sunday morning taking pictures around the lake, hoping to clear his head and, well, put things in focus. As he passed the common area on the way back to his room, he overhead Jake and Scout talking about grabbing lunch at Friendly’s. He decided to drop off his camera and then go back to see if they’d invite him along. He liked knowing that they would.

 

When he reached his room, however, he found a note from his mom asking him to stop by the art room. He headed there instead.

 

“Hi, sweetheart.” Kate smiled up at him from her desk.

 

“Hey, Mom. I got your note.”

 

“Oh, good. I was just wondering if you could run an errand for me in Carson?”

 

“Sure.” He hid his disappointment over missing lunch with Jake and Scout. He tried to help his mom out when he could, to not be as useless and distant as his father.

 

She stood up, opened her purse and handed him her credit card, a twenty-dollar bill, a shopping list, and the address of the art store in Carson, but she didn’t dismiss him.

 

“Was there something else?” he prompted, leaning against one of the tables to show her that he wasn’t in a hurry.

 

Kate sat back down and looked at her son.

 

“Not really,” she said slowly. “I just . . . Well, how’s Jake?”

 

“Good, I guess. I haven’t really seen him this morning. I think he and Scout were going to get lunch in town.”

 

Kate thought she detected a note of disappointment, maybe jealousy in his tone.

 

“Oh, did you want to go with them? You don’t have to go to Carson right now . . . .”

 

“It’s fine, mom. I’ll go. I’ll see Jake later this afternoon, anyway.” Hamilton didn’t even realize he was smiling at the thought.

 

“You two have been spending a lot of time together . . . .”

 

“Yeah. He’s so cool to hang out with, Mom. Thanks for making us roommates. That was such a great idea.”

 

Kate’s attempt at a smile came off more like a grimace.

 

“Yes, that was my idea, wasn’t it?”

 

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing’s wrong. It’s just . . . you’ve talked a lot about Jake . . . and Scout and Will, and that’s great, but I was just wondering if you’ve met . . . anyone else?”

 

Hamilton shrugged. “Not really. I mean, none of the other guys are—“

 

“I wasn’t talking about guys, Hamilton.”

 

“Oh . . .” He turned a deep shade of scarlet. “Oh.”

 

Kate closed her eyes for a second, and then pushed on.

 

“I mean, when you were away at school, you were always talking about some girl and asking for advice. I was just wondering if things have . . . changed.”

 

He almost laughed. “Things have changed, Mom . . . but not in that way.”

 

“Not in what way?”

 

“Not in the way you’re trying so hard to ask about without really asking.” Hamilton grinned.

 

Kate couldn’t help grinning back. “Okay, well, just as long as you know that if things had changed . . . in that way, you could talk to me about it.”

 

“I could?”

 

“Of course.”

 

Hamilton smirked. “And would I still get to room with him?”

 

“Well . . . .”

 

Hamilton shook his head and let the irony of the situation wash over him.

 

“Anyway,” he said at last, “there is this girl.”


“A girl.” Kate smiled and waited for him to go on.

 

“Well, sort of a girl.”

 

Kate raised an eyebrow. “Sort of a girl?”

 

If only she knew. “Well, I mean . . . we’re friends.”

 

“Friends?”

 

“Yeah. I mean, she’s definitely the coolest girl I’ve ever met. We like all the same stuff. We’re into the same music. She can totally kick my . . . you-know-what on Playstation and Game Cube. And it’s like we can talk about almost anything.”

 

“Sounds like she makes a great friend. Does this girl have a name?”

 

“Sort of . . . .”

 

“A sort of girl with sort of a name?”

 

Hamilton blushed and looked away. “She has a name. It’s just that, if you don’t mind, I’d kinda like to keep that to myself for right now . . . .”

 

Kate frowned slightly. “Oh, okay . . . .”

 

“I mean, it’s not like I’m talking to you on the phone from a school a hundred miles away anymore, you know?”

 

Kate nodded with a knowing smile. “Fair enough. You’re afraid that if I know who it is, I’ll embarrass you . . . .”

 

“No, Mom, it’s not like that. It’s just . . . I mean . . . It’s not like she’s my girlfriend, anyway.”

 

“But you’d like her to be?”

 

Hamilton sighed. “God, Mom, I don’t know . . . It’s like, we met under kinda . . . freakish circumstances, so things are sorta hard to figure out. I mean, she’s funny and fun and completely intriguing and cool and daring and absolutely brilliant and . . . .”

 

“Maybe not so pretty?” Kate asked, wondering if that could be why the girl was just a “friend.”

 

Hamilton shook his head and smiled. “Oh no, totally pretty. I mean, she kinda tries to . . . downplay it, but God, Mom, she’s beautiful. When I look at her . . . .” He was at a loss for the words to describe how he felt.

 

Kate laughed. “That’s okay. I get the picture. So what is it then? Is it that she can beat you at video games?”

 

Hamilton rolled his eyes. “Please, mom, like I would care about something like that. Give yourself credit for raising a sensitive, modern guy. I love that she would never let me win. And even if she wasn’t, like, totally hot, I’d still be crazy about her.”

 

Kate just looked at him, giving him time to hear what he’d just said. A pause, then he turned to meet her eyes, the epiphany showing on his face.

 

“Oh my god, I’m totally crazy about her . . . .”

 

“Well, Munchie, at the risk of perpetuating very unattractive teen slang, the word that comes to mind is: Duh.”

 

Hamilton laughed, not even noticing the nickname. But his smile quickly faded to a frown.

 

Kate tilted her head and raised her eyebrows in askance.

 

“What if she’s not crazy about me?” Hamilton asked.

 

“How could anyone not be crazy about you?”

 

“Okay, could you not give me the mom answer here?”

 

“Sorry. But what makes you think she isn’t crazy about you?”

 

“Well, there’s something about her that I found out—“

 

“What’s that?”

 

“Nothing big,” he lied. “It’s just the kind of thing that I’d expect her to tell me if she wanted to be more than friends.”

 

“Maybe she’s in the same position you are,” Kate suggested. “She doesn’t know if she should tell you whatever it is because she’s also afraid the feelings aren’t mutual.”

 

Hamilton tilted his head, amazed he had never thought about it like that.

 

“I’m also not exactly sure why I like her . . . .” He paused.

 

“What about fun, funny, daring, brilliant and ‘god, mom, she’s beautiful’?”

 

“Well, yeah, but . . . what if it’s because of this thing she isn’t telling me.”

 

“Whatever it is, Hamilton, does it change all the other stuff?”

 

She had a point.

 

“No,” he said finally, “I guess not.”

 

She gave him time to say more.

 

“It’s just . . . I wanna know what makes her so different. I mean, when she’s not there, she’s all I can think about. And if we’re in the same room, it drives me crazy if she’s not paying attention to me. And I want her to know everything about me, but I kinda think she already does. Most of all, though, I just want her to trust me and open up to me. And I want to know why I want these things so bad.”

 

“Well,” Kate said carefully, “maybe it’s not about you liking her.”

 

Hamilton rolled his eyes at his mother and sighed his exasperation.

 

“Mom! We just covered this. I do like her. Like, so unbelievably much.”

 

Kate just smiled for a moment. She trusted that her son and the girl he was so obviously in love with would work it out in their own time.

 

“In that case,” Kate said at last, “I think that you should tell her how you feel.”

 

“I’m not sure I can.”

 

“Oh, don’t worry. You can and you will . . . when the time is right.”

 

“How will I know when that is?”

 

“When you’re looking at her and open your mouth and those words are the only ones that will come out. Or maybe if you’re lucky, she’ll get to that point first. But in the meantime, why don’t you try something simpler, like asking her to the Cotillion?”

 

“Actually, it’s already taken care of.”

 

“Oh, Munchie, you’re taking her to the Cotillion?”

 

“Mom! Enough with the Munchie. And no, I can’t take her exactly, but I’ve got the next best thing.”

 

All the way to Carson and back, Hamilton thought about his mother’s words. She was probably right. Already it seemed that talking to Jake about anything besides how wonderful she was would be a waste of breath and practically a lie.

 

As he reentered the New Rawley city limits, he noticed that the gaslight was on. He should have filled up before he left Carson, but now he had no other choice: he pulled into the Banks’ garage.

 

He ran over the bell, but was glad when no one came out to assist him. He had managed to avoid Bella in the weeks since their first meeting and was hoping to continue.

 

He got out of the car and opened the gas tank. He picked up the nozzle and stuck it in the tank, but when he squeezed the lever nothing happened. He looked over at the pump and realized that he had no idea how to turn it on. He studied it for another moment. Why the hell hadn’t they modernized their pumps?

 

He would have to go inside. He looked over at the garage and saw Bella leaning in the doorway, watching him, a slight smile revealing her amusement at his predicament. Great. He knew from Scout that she thought he was lame. Now she could add helpless to the list.

 

She pushed off the doorframe and started toward him. “Let me get that for you. It’s kind of tricky.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

A blush crept over his cheeks, growing as he realized he’d seen this girl dance around in her pajamas. That brought to mind a picture of Jake doing the same thing, and it occurred to him that, compared to Jake, this girl was no one to be nervous about at all. Hamilton glanced down at a scratch on his arm from climbing the tree. It had almost finished healing.

 

“Did you have fun last weekend?” Bella asked.

 

Hamilton’s head snapped up. “What?”

 

“Last weekend. You know—detention, Playstation . . . ?”

 

“Oh. You mean with Scout?”

 

“Uh huh.”

 

He ran his thumb down his pocket, avoiding eye contact. He might not have cared that much what she thought of him, but knowing he was a total loser in her eyes still made him self-conscious.

 

Bella watched him closely. Jake was right: adorably fidgety.

 

“Uh, actually, Scout’s pretty cool,” Hamilton said.

 

Bella smiled. “Yeah. I think he’s all right.”

 

Hamilton glanced over at Friendly’s. He wondered if they were still there eating lunch. He could stand to see Jake, to hear her voice. They had probably finished a while ago. He would see Jake later anyway. Alone. He smiled.

 

Bella had followed his gaze to Friendly’s and could guess who he was looking for. She noted the smile. Though she had dismissed the suggestion initially, it seemed Scout might have been right about Hamilton’s crush on Jake.

 

“Something on your mind?” she asked.

 

“Just trying to avoid a repeat performance of our last meeting. How am I doing so far?”

 

“I’d say about the same.” He’d been pretty cute both times.

 

“Oh, great.”

 

“It’s not a bad thing.”

 

Hamilton studied the car’s hubcap. “Scout told me how lame you thought I was.”

 

“Scout doesn’t always know what he’s talking about.” She kept her tone calm, but made a note to have a word with her jealous boyfriend.

 

Hamilton nodded and stopped to consider the context of Scout’s harsh remarks. He looked directly at Bella for the first time in the conversation and her smile put him at ease.

 

“So, uh . . . how was your Bible study last weekend?”

 

“It was nice,” Bella answered with a laugh. Scout had told her about the Bible study story. Talk about lame. Why hadn’t he just said Jake needed some work done on the motorcycle?

 

“I guess you gotta have faith,” Hamilton observed, concealing a smile.

 

Bella eyed him suspiciously, but immediately dismissed the comment as coincidence.

 

“Hanging out with Jake is always a blast,” she said.

 

“Yeah . . .” Hamilton’s eyes drifted in the direction of the diner again. “I like Jake a lot.”

 

Bella was watching closely. She had been sure Scout was reading too much into Hamilton’s behavior, but now she wondered if he had been reading enough. She decided to test her theory.

 

“You know, I bet she likes you.”

 

Hamilton’s head whipped around. That was no accidental slip-up.

 

“What? Who?”

 

His wide eyes and the nervous tremor in his question confirmed Bella’s suspicion. Her face, however, remained perfectly innocent.

 

“Whoever it is that has you all distracted,” she said.

 

“How—how’d you know? I mean—how do you know there’s someone . . .?”

 

“Girls always know.”

 

“Always?” His mom had noticed, but Jake . . . .

 

“Well, barring any freakish circumstances.”

 

Hamilton laughed. Freakish circumstances. Exactly.

 

The tank was full. Bella turned off the pump and hung up the nozzle. “That’ll be eighteen dollars. You must have been really low.”

 

He pulled out the twenty his mother had given him and handed it to her.

 

“If you let it get below a quarter of a tank, it’s bad for the fuel injector,” she said.

 

She turned toward the office to get his change, but Hamilton stopped her.

 

“It’s okay. Keep the change.”

 

Bella smiled and pocketed the bill. “Thanks. How about I throw in some advice?”

 

Hamilton nodded.

 

“Don’t let it go too far.”

 

He blinked at her. “What?”

 

“Your gas gauge,” she clarified. “No matter what you think you have to gain by waiting, you can only let it go so far before you ruin everything.”

 

Her look was dead serious for a moment before it melted into a smile. She turned away and went back to the truck she had been servicing, leaving a perplexed Hamilton with no choice but to get back in his mother’s car and drive home.

 

Bella chuckled to herself as she stuck her head back under the truck’s hood. All the impossibly awkward situations Jake had been describing suddenly made sense. They weren’t accidents. Hamilton knew Jake’s secret and hoped to seduce, or discomfit, her into coming clean. She admired the unique approach, but knew it would never work. In Jake’s mind, the stakes were too high, and the odds stacked against her.

 

Bella considered enlightening her poor, confused, cross-dressing friend, but there was no way to predict how Jake would react. Better to let Hamilton stumble along on his own for a few more days.

 

 

Backfire

 

As he drove toward Rawley, Hamilton played Bella’s words over in his mind. He couldn’t quite convince himself that her advice referred only to his refueling habits. What if he had already let things go too far? What if Bella was wrong, and Jake had never returned his feelings?

 

By Monday afternoon, Hamilton realized that, even if he wanted to, he wasn’t sure how to end the game. Maybe if he just kept at it, she would finally crack. Maybe if he could just regain his earlier confidence in her physical attraction to him, he’d find the courage to make his move. He took a deep breath and took off his shirt.

 

“God, it’s hot in here,” he said. “Mind if I open the window?”

 

Not again, Jake thought. She’d let him open it, but not until she got out of the way.

 

Except that he didn’t wait for a reply, leaning in at the exact moment that Jake tried to stand up.  Catastrophe ensued.  Jake, only halfway up, lost her balance and instinctively grabbed onto Hamilton to keep from falling. Already off-balance from the attempt to lean past her, he made a poor support.

 

Jake would have ended up back in her seat had she not landed so close to the edge of her chair that it tipped forward, dumping her to the ground. She pulled Hamilton down with her, winding up flat on her back with his body covering hers.

 

“Jesus.” Jake released her grip on Hamilton and struggled to get up—and out from under him. She was thwarted by Hamilton’s own attempt to get off her.

 

The process led to more contact than Hamilton had intended. He wondered if she could hear his heart racing.  From cool and controlled to fumbling fool in one week.  Ladies and gentlemen, the power of Jake.

 

Hamilton sighed and carefully lifted himself off her.

 

“Sorry.” He reached down to offer her a hand up.

 

Their palms burned into each other.

 

“No problem,” she said, fighting to appear unaffected as he pulled her to her feet.

 

Their eyes met and their hands remained clasped for a beat longer than necessary before they both snapped out of it.

 

“I’m just going to . . . .” Hamilton dropped her hand and reached for the window.

 

“Yeah, good idea.” Now she really could use some air.

 

Hamilton silently vowed to avoid any further stunts. 

 

A few days later, Hamilton was in the mood to take more pictures. Creative energy seemed to flow through him constantly lately. He was kneeling behind his bed trying to pull some photography supplies out from underneath it when the door opened. Before he could call out a greeting to Jake, she spoke:

 

“Thank God he’s not here. Close the door, quick.”

 

Figuring it would be too awkward to make his presence known at this point, Hamilton opted to roll under the bed.

 

“It’s so hot today. I have got to get this thing off.”

 

From his new position, Hamilton could see Jake’s legs and a pair of legs he took to be Scout’s. A second later, something white with Velcro straps landed on the floor near his head. He glanced at it.

 

“I am so sick of that damn thing. I never get to take it off anymore. I swear my chest is going to be permanently flattened.”

 

Hamilton studied the item with greater interest. So this was what Jake used to conceal her curves.

 

“Your chest seems to be holding up okay to me,” Scout’s voice piped up to reassure Jake.

 

Hamilton stifled a laugh. He could picture Jake’s wry expression as she answered:

 

“Thanks. My chest and I appreciate your moral support. Still, permanent damage or not, the thing is freakin’ uncomfortable when you have to wear it all the time.”

 

“Well, you know, there’s a simple solution to that problem . . . .”

 

“Don’t start with me, Scout. You know I can’t tell him. I’m not going over all the reasons again.”

 

Hamilton wished she would. He’d like to hear that list.

 

Scout plopped down on Hamilton’s bed, stirring up dust below. Hamilton was working so hard not to sneeze that he almost missed the next comment.

 

“I’m telling you, though, he has a thing for you.”

 

Hamilton’s eyes widened and he forgot all about sneezing.

 

“He does not.”

 

“Jake, he asked you to Cotillion . . . .”

 

“He did not. It wasn’t like that.”

 

“Uh huh . . . .”

 

“God, I shouldn’t have even told you about that. You do realize, Scout, that if you’re right, it probably means he’s gay?”

 

Hamilton almost rolled out from under the bed right then and there to set her straight. This was definitely not part of the strategy. There was a pause as Scout thought that one over.

 

“Possible, but doubtful,” he concluded. “Trust me, Jake, you’re a very confusing ‘boy’ to know.”

 

You can say that again, Hamilton thought.

 

“Oh yeah, I’m sure my baggy jeans and flannel are utterly irresistible. Think about it, Scout. If he thinks he has a thing for me, then he totally digs boys.”

 

“Well, if you don’t tell him the truth soon, he’ll probably start. You’ll turn him, Jake.”

 

“Oh yeah, right.”

 

“Serious. You’ll get him thinking. And then, someday, years from now, you’ll run into him as Jacqueline and you’ll think you’ve finally got your chance, but before you can make your move, he’ll be introducing you to a boyfriend even prettier than he is.”

 

“Shut up. That’s, like, the most ludicrous scenario I’ve ever heard.”

 

“You laugh now, but mark my words . . . .”

 

“Drop it, Scout.”

 

Whether he intended to or not, Scout was forced to do so when his cell phone rang. He hopped up to answer it, causing another stir of dust in Hamilton’s hideaway.

 

“Hello . . . Hey, Will. What’s up? . . . Yeah, of course.  I’ll get there as soon as I can . . . Bye.”

 

A small sneeze Hamilton couldn’t control was covered up as Scout directed a question to Jake.

 

“Hey, a waiter just called in sick at the diner and Will needs help before the dinner rush starts. Do you think you could run me down there on your bike? I’ll buy you dinner.”

 

“Deal. Grab your uniform while I slip back into the Iron Maiden here.”

 

Hamilton heard the door close behind Scout. He desperately needed to sneeze again, but Jake was bending over to pick up the corset just a foot from where he was hidden. He pinched his nose to hold the sneeze back as he peeked out from under the bed to watch Jake actually put the thing on. Fascinating.

 

He made the mistake of releasing his nose. The sneeze was coming now and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Well, he thought, guess this is the moment when I’ll finally have to come clean . . . .

 

He was saved by a knock on the door.

 

“Coming!” Jake called as she grabbed a set of keys off her desk and hurried out the door.

 

As the door closed behind her, Hamilton rolled out from under the bed and fell into a sneezing fit. By the time he had recovered and changed into less dusty clothing, Hamilton had concluded it was time to set the record straight, so to speak. He couldn’t believe Jake actually thought he was into boys. This called for drastic measures.

 

He rummaged through the drawers of his desk, sure that the item he sought was in there somewhere. He would always treasure it as one of his first “clues,” but at the moment, he needed its advice, its insight into the opposite sex.

 

“Bingo.”

 

He pulled the month-old copy of Seventeen from between a folder and photography magazine then slid down to the floor, leaning against his desk as he flipped through the pages.

 

He stopped at the quiz section. “Does your guy friend want more?” He turned the page in search of the “Does-your-guy-friend-who’s-really-a-girl-and-seems-to-think-you’re-gay-want-more?” quiz, but no luck.

 

“Damn.”

 

He had to tell her regardless of whether she “wanted more.” But what would he do if she rejected him? He had a lot more to lose than a potential girlfriend. Maybe she would just laugh at him the way Bella had. Humiliation he could deal with, as long as he kept his best friend.

 

He reached the end of the magazine. Horoscopes. He found his sign and read the prediction: This month you’ll meet a boy who challenges you. You can either play nice or wage war. If you think that fighting equals flirting, you just might get burned when your battle plan backfires.

 

“Sure,” he muttered, “now you tell me.”

 

What if Bella was right? What if he had let things go on too long. Would Jake hate him for lying? Of course, she had been lying too, and he didn’t hate her. But she lied out of necessity and he was lying . . . why? Because it seemed like a good idea at the time?

 

He shut the magazine and set it on the floor beside him. All he really needed was a column on “How to tell your cross-dressing crush that you totally dig girls.”

 

Then it dawned on him. He didn’t have to tell Jake he liked her. He just had to tell her that he liked a girl. He wouldn’t be lying. Come to think of it, he had never actually been lying. He had just been playing it cool while he gathered information. And now he had just a little more information to gather—and impart—before he ended the game.

 

Rationalization complete, he headed for Friendly’s.

 

 

False Intelligence

 

“I need to talk to you,” he announced without preamble as he slipped into the booth across from Jake.

 

“Sure,” Jake set down her milkshake. “What’s up?”

 

He took a deep breath and tried to muster some of the finesse he found so hard to maintain around her these days.

 

“I’m looking for some advice.”

 

“On what topic?”

 

Hamilton feigned embarrassment. “Um, the topic of . . . me . . .liking someone.”

 

“Liking someone?”

 

“A girl.” Mission accomplished. He studied her face for a reaction.

 

“Who?” She tried to sound casual.

 

“Jake,” he said, pausing a beat too long before he added, “that’s kind of personal.”

 

“If you don’t want to talk about it, why’d you bring it up in the first place, Fleming?”

 

She picked up her milkshake again and looked down at her half-eaten burger and fries. Hamilton had to work to hold back a grin. So it was “Fleming” now, was it? Did he detect a hint of jealousy?

 

“Oh, but I do want to talk about it. I need to talk about it.”

 

“Lucky me,” Jake said under her breath.

 

“Unless you don’t want to.” Hamilton pretended to be hurt by her lack of enthusiasm. “I mean, I thought since we were friends and all . . . .”

 

Jake told herself to suck it up. She looked across the table at her roommate and mustered a smile.

 

“No, please, go ahead.”

 

“Okay, so she’s this totally gorgeous brunette.”

 

Jake looked down again, hating herself for hating how happy Hamilton sounded.

 

“Cool,” she managed.

 

“And we’re into the exact same stuff.”

 

“Yeah, I’m sure she’s a wiz on a Playstation.”

 

“Well, she definitely pushes my buttons, if you know what I mean.”

 

“Charming.”

 

“We just totally click.”

 

“Some people do.”

 

“I’ve never met anyone like her.”

 

“Well, like, what makes her so special?” Jake couldn’t keep herself from asking. She finally glanced up at him. “I mean, what about her pushes your proverbial buttons?”

 

Hamilton smiled, looking her over. He was so onto her. He saw how her eyes darted around, never focusing on him, how she kept reaching up to tug on her hair. This was too easy.

 

“When I look into her eyes, everything else disappears.”

 

Jake wanted to vomit. How disgustingly cheesy.

 

“And her lips are entirely kissable.”

 

He couldn’t help glancing down at her lips. Definitely kissable.

 

Jake didn’t even notice as she narrowed her eyes. “You’ve kissed her?”

 

“Only in my dreams.”

 

She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. So this was the girl he had been dreaming about. A chick he hadn’t so much as mentioned to her in his waking hours, but whose eyes were powerful enough to make “everything else” disappear.

 

“So you want to step it up to real life?” she asked.

 

“Well, yeah.” Like, right now.

 

“So is it all about looks and physical stuff, or what?”

 

He paused to consider the question. What was it about?

 

“It’s about attraction,” he said. “I mean, haven’t you ever just been drawn to someone?”

 

“Maybe,” she confessed, not meeting his eyes.

 

Maybe sounded good to him. In fact, it sounded wonderful. She liked him. She had to. He was almost certain . . . Jake’s voice snapped him back to reality.

 

“Okay, so the chick’s fuckable. Does she have a personality?”

 

He choked back a laugh. “Interesting adjective choice. What happened to not objectifying women?”

 

“Well, I’m not the one who hasn’t even mentioned personality.”

 

“Right, personality . . .” he repeated as if it were the first time he’d considered it.

 

”Yeah, it’s what’s left when you take away the makeup and cute dresses. You know, as in who someone really is.”

 

“Well, I’m still trying to figure that out.”

 

Jake nodded, feeling relieved. At least I win that category, she caught herself thinking. And when had it become a competition?

 

“She kind of puts up this façade, you know, but I’m starting to see past it. I mean, I know that she’s bold and I definitely like that about her. She’s a little guarded, but I know she cares about people and she can be really generous . . . like emotionally. Plus, she’s funny . . . and smart. And she isn’t superficial. I mean, that stuff you said about make-up and dresses—that isn’t what she’s about at all. She’s just . . .cool. Like, you’d definitely like her.”

 

Doubtful, she thought. How could he not see that if he wanted all that, he already had it? She was bold, funny, smart . . . guarded. But, of course he wouldn’t see that. When he looked at her all he saw was . . . Jake.

 

“She sounds perfect for you,” Jake conceded.

 

“It took me a little too long to figure it out, but I think so too. She is perfect. And hot,” he added, knowing it would get to her. “Totally hot.”

 

“So if you like this girl so much, why are you going to Cotillion with me on Friday? I thought you said there was no one you wanted to ask?”

 

“There wasn’t. I sorta just started looking at her in a new . . . light.”

 

“So, then, you’re going to ask her?” Jake was shocked by the strength her own disappointment that Hamilton was going to cancel their “date.”

 

“Not exactly, but it is taken care of.”

 

“So you’ll be . . . .”

 

“Making my move. Yeah.”

 

Even worse, Jake thought. Their “date” was on, but she’d have to spend the whole evening watching him chase after another girl. She’d rather have a root canal.

 

She didn’t manage to hide her frown as she went through this thought process. Hamilton laughed at the sheer irony of her obvious jealousy.

 

“What?” she demanded.

 

“Nothing. You just suck at guy talk. I mean, I just told you she’s totally hot. Don’t you want the details?” 

 

“I thought you wanted advice, but, hey, I can do guy talk— So what are we looking at here? Long hair? Big bust? All curves?”

 

“Actually, she’s a little more . . . subtle.”

 

His smile was as contagious as always. She couldn’t resist a small smile of her own. You can do this conversation, she told herself. So what if he’d gone crazy over some girl he barely knew? What did she care? She could be happy for him. Sure, she found Hamilton attractive, but it wasn’t anything more than that. She had no claim on him.

 

“And, I do want advice,” he said, interrupting her thoughts.

 

She could be happy for him and she could help him. “Okay, shoot.”

 

“Well, I’ve known her for less than a month, but I really like her, you know?”

 

Jake rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I picked up on that. So, I don’t get it—what’s the problem?”

 

“I don’t know if she feels the same way.”

 

She sighed. “I hear you on that one.”

 

A wave of relief. Maybe his mother was right and she was just as afraid of rejection as he.

 

“So I actually do know what a personality is, by the way,” he said. “And I’m afraid that mine isn’t all that attractive.”

 

“You’ve got to be kidding. You have a great personality.”

 

“Sure, you like me. You’re my friend. But what would a girl like about me?”

 

She stared at him. Was that a rhetorical question?

 

“Exactly,” he said, taking her silence as an answer. “Nothing.”

 

“Or everything,” she blurted without thinking.

 

He knew he was blushing. Everything? Wow. For a split-second he considered leaning across the table and kissing her right then and there. He forced himself to focus on the mission. This was a time to gather information. And, just as he’d told Jake, Cotillion was the night he’d make his move. It would be perfect.

 

He feigned disbelief. “Yeah, right. Like what? I mean, say you’re a girl . . .what do you like about me?”

 

Jake considered the question. Of course, she was in a position to give an authentic answer. But would it really be safe to play along with this? And even though this mystery chick probably did like Hamilton, did she really want to reassure him on that score? Then she looked across the table. His eyes pleaded for reassurance and she succumbed.

 

“Okay. Well, first of all, you’re obviously good-looking.” She opted not to go into detail about his perfect body, his piercing eyes, or his sexy grin.

 

“You think?”

 

“I . . . A girl would have to be blind not to think so.” 

 

“Okay, maybe. But who cares about looks?”

 

She looked down her nose at him. “Some people,” she noted dryly.

 

He tingled. Even her sarcasm was a turn on.

 

“And like I said before, you have a great personality.”

 

“Care to be more specific?” He was dying to know what she thought.

 

“Um, well, you’re sensitive, I guess. I mean, you care about other people’s feelings.”

 

“Who doesn’t care about other people?”

 

“A lot of guys don’t, or at least they won’t show it. You do. And you’re oddly humble. Like you could be so arrogant, but you don’t even know it. You couldn’t even pull off an arrogant act when you tried. It probably goes along with the whole innocent thing you’ve got going on.”

 

“Innocent?” He stifled a twinge of guilt. If she only knew. He hoped she wouldn’t add honest to the list.

 

“Yeah. Like you see things in the world as new and amazing. And you make other people see them, too. Like with your photography. See, you’re sensitive and artistic. Trust me, chicks totally dig that. At least, according to Seventeen . . . .”

 

“Right. Of course.”

 

“Even your potential stalker qualities are appealing, “ she continued. “I mean, you have this intensity, you know?”

 

“Intensity?” He searched her face for the meaning behind the word. “Isn’t that kind of a bad thing?”

 

“Not necessarily. I mean, if you were focused on a girl the way you’re focused on this conversation right now, she would have to know that you were all about her.”

 

He laughed. “Funny you should say that. Because right now, she seems totally oblivious.”

 

“So she’s an airhead.”

 

“I wouldn’t say that.”

 

Jake rolled her eyes.

 

“But back to me. So you really think a girl would be into the intensity?”

 

“The right girl would. And she’d think it was sweet the way you’re always second-guessing yourself and searching for reassurance when you probably don’t need to. Like right now, for example. She’d even be drawn to your neediness.”

 

“But I thought you hated my neediness . . . .”

 

“I didn’t hate it; it just took some getting used to. Besides, I’m not the one who counts.”

 

He looked straight at her. “You totally count.”

 

Speaking of intensity, Jesus . . .

 

“Okay, then listen to me. Maybe the neediness is good and bad. I mean, it’s human and imperfect and that’s compelling. You know, like when you first got here: the brooding, the thinly veiled cries for help. You were dying to be saved.”

 

“You make me sound like a lost puppy.”

 

“Exactly.” Jake smirked. “You know: you try to pet him, he tries to bite your hand off . . . .”

 

They laughed together.

 

“You know, I’m sor—”

 

Jake held up her hand. “Yeah, I know.”

 

They shared a moment before Jake tried to lighten the mood.

 

“So, in summary, you’re a real catch.”

 

“Oh yeah, because every girl wants an intense, insecure and emotionally needy potential-stalker to save.”

 

Jake laughed for a second before turning serious.

 

“It’s not about every girl. It’s about the right girl.”

 

“The right girl.” 

 

“Yeah.” Jake tried not to sound sad. “And it looks like you’ve found her. So if my counseling services are no longer needed . . . .”

 

“There is one more thing,” he said, though he had no idea what it was. He didn’t want the conversation to end.

 

She waited.

 

“I guess I just wanted to know . . . .”

 

Looking across the table at her, he remembered what his mother had said. She didn’t think it was about him liking his mystery girl . . . .

 

“How can you tell if you’re in love with someone?”

 

“Love? You can’t be in love with someone you’ve known less than a month.”

 

“You don’t think so?” His eyes captured hers.

 

“I . . . I . . . Maybe.”

 

He held the look another long moment before shaking himself out of it. He slid from the booth before he could lose all composure.

 

“Well, Jake, thanks for the advice—and for the guy talk.”

 

“Anytime,” she said with as much sincerity as she could muster, though she already dreaded further conversations about this girl. 

 

“Cool. See you back at the room.”

 

He was walking away, but the question she couldn’t hold in chased after him: “Do you?”

 

He turned. “Do I what?”

 

“Think you . . . love her?”

 

A slow smile spread across his lips. “Maybe.”

 

 

Ambush

 

“Are you sure about this?”

 

“Yes, Jake,” he repeated for at least the fifth time that evening.

 

She followed Hamilton out onto the dock and walked past him to the end. She looked out across the lake and then up at the sky. She turned and walked back toward Hamilton who had offered to help carry the telescope she’d checked out.

 

“Here,” he said holding it out to her.

 

“The rest of my class is on the quad,” Jake said as she took the instrument.

 

Hamilton shot her a look out of the corner of his eye, but said nothing. He walked to the edge of the dock and studied the sky as Jake set up the telescope. True, he brought her out to the dock to be alone with her. He couldn’t get enough of that lately. But he also knew, for a fact, that the viewing conditions were better by the lake than closer to the school.

 

“My teacher said we should—“

 

“Look, it’s darker out here, okay? My dad just installed these prison-like spotlights all over the school. Do you want all that light pollution interfering with your astronomy homework?”

 

“Okay, sorry, you’re right.” He was being awfully touchy.

 

“I mean, God, why can’t you just trust me?”

 

“Hamilton, what are you talking about? I said you were right. I trust you.” 

 

“Whatever.” He shifted his gaze to focus on the telescope. “So what are you supposed to be looking for tonight?”

 

“Alpha Centauri,” Jake said eyeing him suspiciously. She let it go and leaned over to look through the telescope, making some adjustments.

 

“Closest star to our solar system.”

 

“Yup. Complete with a solar system of its own.”

 

“It’s pretty amazing,” Hamilton said looking first at the stars then at Jake who still peered through the telescope.

 

“To say the least.” 

 

“You don’t even know what I’m talking about,” Hamilton teased.

 

“Well,” she began as she looked up at him, “I assume you mean this.”

 

For a split-second she continued looking at him. He took a quick breath, ready to confess everything, but she cast her eyes upward and gestured toward the sky.

 

“The universe,” she clarified. She took his silence for agreement and continued as she moved behind the telescope. “My teacher says the whole thing is a big fluke.”

 

“The universe is?”

 

“The creation of it,” Jake answered absently as she made some adjustments.

 

“Oh, like The Big Bang Theory?” He vaguely recalled a documentary he saw a few years ago. “Everything just exploded into being?”

 

“Something like that.” Jake opted not to go further into it as she finally located the star she was searching for.

 

“No, tell me,” Hamilton insisted. He walked up behind her.

 

She stood up straight, very aware of his presence less than a foot behind her. She didn’t dare turn around. She kept here eyes to the sky and ignored his proximity.

 

“Come on.” Hamilton took another half-step closer. “In the beginning, there was nothing . . . .” 

 

“Well, sort of,” Jake said. “I mean the beginning was about 13.7 billion years ago. And there probably wasn’t nothing, but not exactly something either. Like, we have no way of knowing because the laws of physics and math and chemistry didn’t really apply. Maybe it was positive and negative energy in perfect balance, or a 2-d vibrating string, or a ‘virtual something.’”

 

Virtual something,” Hamilton repeated. “I like that.”

 

“Me too. So anyway, at Max Planck time—“

 

“Whenever that is,” Hamilton teased.

 

“It’s ten to the negative forty-three seconds after everything started. Anyway, there was this eleven-dimensional universe and it was really dense and the temperature rose to about a nonillion degrees Kelvin and then fell to almost absolute zero.”

 

Jake turned to see if Hamilton was following but the way he was watching her made her nervous, so she turned back around and started speaking more quickly.

 

“So then the universe collapsed into the standard four dimensions and the inflationary epoch began with the universe doubling in size every ten to the minus thirty-four seconds. It was expanding at no less than a trillion trillion trillion trillion times the speed of light, so the end of the inflationary epoch was precisely the time when the expansion slowed to the speed of light.”

 

She could still feel him staring. Nervous, she stepped away from the telescope and gestured to it. He dutifully stepped forward for a look and she focused on finishing her explanation.

 

“So at that point, the universe consisted of an imbalance of one part in one hundred thousand parts of matter vs. anti-matter. Matter and anti-matter collided and the temperature rose to twenty-seven nonillion degrees. Then ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent of the universe just disappeared. I mean, it became energy. The End.”

 

“Sounds more like the beginning,” Hamilton pointed out, turning from the telescope to face her. His gaze locked with hers. “But like I said, it’s amazing.”

 

“Yeah, I guess.” She broke away from the intensity of his look and walked over to sit on the edge of the dock. “Kinda hard to imagine, though.”

 

“I don’t know,” he mused, sitting too close beside her.

 

She thought about scooting away, but didn’t.

 

“I think it’s all starting to make sense to me,” he declared.

 

“Oh yeah?”

 

“Yeah. Like, okay, there’s this big emptiness, you know?” Hamilton stared off across the lake. “And who would ever think things would change? But there’s this potential there that no one sees . . . .”

 

He turned to look at Jake. She was nodding, but her eyes focused straight ahead.

 

“Then, one day, the emptiness isn’t just emptiness anymore,” he continued. “There’s this virtual something, like a feeling at the back of your mind that you just can’t put your finger on.”

 

Jake still wouldn’t look at him, but spoke softly. “Like the feeling that you’re no longer alone.”

 

“Exactly. And then everything changes. There’s all this tension . . . and all this heat . . . .”

 

She looked at him then and couldn’t look away.

 

“Then everything goes cold.” He held her gaze. “But it’s not over, it’s only getting started . . . .”

 

“Something new . . .” Jake whispered.

 

“Something incredible . . .”

 

“. . .starts growing.”

 

“Right. But it all happens so quickly that it gets confusing, feels out of balance.” Hamilton moved his face closer to hers. He couldn’t wait for Cotillion the following night to make his move. He had to know what it was like to kiss her . . . now.

 

Jake started to lean into him, then realized what she was doing. She pulled back and scrambled to her feet.

 

“Definitely out of balance,” she muttered. She turned away from the lake and started to leave the dock.

 

“Wait.” Hamilton stood and turned, his words chasing after her. “We haven’t gotten to the best part yet.”

 

She turned back to face him. She couldn’t make herself walk away. She couldn’t even stand still. As she drifted toward him, he spoke:

 

“Because when the matter and the anti-matter . . .”

 

He took several slow steps toward her.

 

“Collide . . .”

 

He was so close she could hear his heart pounding, or was it her own?

 

“Hamilton . . . .”

 

“Shh,” he whispered, trying not to sound as nervous as he felt. “You’re wrecking the story.”

 

She knew she shouldn’t let this happen, needed to talk to him first, had a thousand reasons to run away, but she didn’t move, didn’t say a word, didn’t avert her eyes as Hamilton steadily narrowed the distance between them.

 

“When the matter and the anti-matter collide . . .” he repeated as he leaned in and tilted his head. The last thing he saw before his eyelids fluttered shut were Jake’s eyelids doing the same.

 

He couldn’t have said who closed the final minute gap, but suddenly he was kissing her. The feeling was both exactly what each had been expecting and something neither could have imagined. She was kissing him back before he gently pulled away.

 

“Bang,” he finished with a soft smile. “You end up with a whole lot of . . .”

 

“Energy,” she whispered, still in shock. Her hands were resting against his chest. She smiled briefly . . . then came to her senses.

 

“Oh my god!” Without thinking, she pushed hard against his chest, sending an unsuspecting Hamilton reeling backwards and tumbling into the cool waters of the lake.

 

She had run halfway off the dock before she heard the splash. She ran back to the edge and looked down at Hamilton.

 

“You can swim, right?”

 

“Yes,” Hamilton sputtered, treading water.

 

“Good. I . . . I gotta go.”

 

With that, she took off, leaving him to save himself.

 

Hamilton didn’t mind. He didn’t even feel the cold. He just grinned up at the stars before letting himself sink momentarily beneath the moonlit surface.

 

 

Retreat

 

Jake ran straight for her bike. She reached its hiding place in the woods and collapsed against the familiar machine, trying to catch her breath. She couldn’t even process what had just happened, but one thing was certain: she wasn’t going back to the room tonight. She needed a place to sleep and some good advice.

 

Ten minutes later, the bike was parked across the street in front of Friendly’s and Jake stood below Bella’s room tossing pebbles in the direction of the window. Her aim sucked and Bella probably had her stereo on anyway, but it was after 11 o’clock and she knew that if she called and woke Charlie, he’d never agree to let “Jake” spend the night.

 

She picked up another rock and tried to determine if it was too big to throw. A voice from behind made her jump.

 

“You’ll definitely break the window with that . . . if you can even hit it.”

 

Jake spun around.

 

“It’s a lot easier if you just use the back door,” Grace continued. “Dad’s a heavy sleeper.”

 

Still too startled to speak, Jake took in Grace’s appearance. Heavy makeup, low-cut blouse, short skirt, high-heeled sandals. Noting Jake’s perusal, Grace advanced slowly, swinging her hips as she closed the distance between them. Jake took a reflexive step back.

 

“Where on earth are you going dressed like that?” she asked without thinking.

 

“That depends.” Grace offered a flirtatious smile. “Where would you like to take me on that bike of yours?”

 

“I . . . I . . . I’m here to see Bella.”

 

“Bella’s boring.” Grace’s voice was low and pouty as she placed a hand on Jake’s shoulder and leaned even closer. “Trust me, you and I would have a lot more fun together.”

 

A convertible full of Rawley seniors pulled up to the station, saving Jake from answering. Grace glanced over her shoulder at them before turning back to Jake.

 

“That’s my ride.” Grace’s hand slid from Jake’s shoulder across the flattened chest as she placed her lips against Jake’s ear. “Let me know if you ever change your mind.”

 

Jake stood in shock as Grace sidled up to the convertible and was whisked off into the night. After another moment, she shook off the weirdness and hurried into the Banks’ home through the back door.

 

She rapped lightly on Bella’s bedroom door before slipping inside and closing it behind her.

 

“Jake. Oh my god. What are you doing here?” Bella took in the frazzled look on her friend’s face. “What’s wrong?”

 

“I’ve had a hard night.” Jake staggered over to the bed and sat on its edge. “There must be something in the air. I seem to have become irresistible.”

 

“What are you talking about? What happened?”

 

“Well, for starters, I just ran into your sister outside and she made a pass at me.”

 

“Well, I wouldn’t take it personally. Gracie tends to make a pass at anything in pants with a pulse.”

 

“Granted. But then how do you explain Hamilton?”

 

Bella’s eyes widened. By the time Jake finished describing the night’s star-gazing, she was pacing the floor in a borrowed pair of pajamas.

 

“He’s gay, Bella. He has to be. The whole ‘mystery girl’ that he’s supposed to be in love with is just a cover.”

 

Bella refrained from sharing her theory on the identity of Hamilton’s “mystery girl.”

 

“Maybe he’s just confused,” she said.

 

“You sound like Scout.”

 

“Well, hard as it is to believe, I think Captain Oblivious may have been on the right track this time.”

 

Jake shook her head.

 

“Jake,” Bella asked after a long pause, “why haven’t you told him?”

 

“I’ve told you why a thousand times.”

 

“Yeah, but I want you to tell me the truth this time.”

 

“I have been telling you the truth.”

 

Bella sighed. “Okay, let’s look at it this way: When was the last time you had a crush on anyone?”

 

“Do I have to answer that?”

 

“Right. So, no one since Scout?”

 

Jake was too embarrassed to answer. She should have known Bella would have seen it.

 

“And is what you felt for Scout anywhere near what you feel for Hamilton? The correct answer is no, by the way.”

 

Jake smiled. “Not even close.”

 

“But you trusted Scout with your secret. Do you really trust Hamilton less?”

 

Jake considered this. ”I could see myself trusting him . . . more.”

 

“So what are you really afraid of?”

 

“What if he doesn’t feel the same way?”

 

“Can I point out that he just kissed you?”

 

“He kissed Jake. Which is why this is so bad. If I don’t tell him, he’ll either go around thinking he kissed a guy and probably end up very confused or, if he is gay, he’ll just think Jake’s rejecting him. But, if I do tell, he could end up hating me.”

 

“Or . . .he could end up loving you.”

 

“Love? No. He’s in love with someone else.”

 

“I thought you said that was a cover,” Bella reminded her.

 

“Oh god, I don’t know what I’m saying anymore. I just . . .need some rest. I can stay here, right?”

 

“Of course. You can have the bed,” Bella said pulling a sleeping bag from under her bed.

 

Jake was already crawling under Bella’s covers. She turned off the lamp and the two lay in darkness for a few minutes before Bella spoke once more.

 

“Jake, I know you think telling him is risky, but, you’re forgetting one thing . . .you’re good at taking risks.”

 

The next morning, Jake stayed in bed as Bella got dressed for work. In fact, she let herself stay in bed most of the day. With promises from Bella to keep Charlie away from the room, Jake listened to angsty music, thumbed through magazines, ate junkfood that Bella smuggled upstairs, and napped off and on. She had the covers pulled over her head that evening when she heard the door open. She hoped it was Bella entering the room and not Charlie—or worse, Grace.

 

“This is pathetic,” she heard Scout say.

 

She reluctantly lowered the covers, embarrassed to be caught wallowing by Scout.

 

“Nice hair,” he said when she emerged from the blankets burrow.

 

“Don’t even start with me, Calhoun. Did Bella call you?”

 

“Actually, no.”

 

“Then how’d you know I was here?” She sat up in bed and rubbed her face. She noticed then that Scout wore a tuxedo. “Hey, you look nice.”

 

“Thanks. Wish I could return the compliment . . . .”

 

Jake glared at him.

 

“Anyway, Hamilton told me you didn’t come back to the dorms last night. He’s really worried.”

 

“I’ll bet he didn’t mention why.”

 

“He said you guys had ‘a little misunderstanding’ while doing some star-gazing. He returned the telescope you checked out, by the way.”

 

“Whatever. Did Bella tell you that he, uh . . .?”

 

“Kissed you?”

 

She nodded.


”No. She didn’t,” Scout sat down next to her on the bed. “She said I had to talk to you myself if I wanted to know what was going on.”

 

“Then, how’d you—“

 

“He was really worried about you.”

 

“He’s probably just worried about his sexuality.”

 

Scout said nothing, but his exasperated look spoke for itself.

 

“Everything’s so mixed up and complicated,” Jake said.

 

“It doesn’t have to be. Go to Cotillion tonight and tell him the truth.”

 

 “Yeah, right. Who knows how he’d react? We’ve already seen how bipolar he can be.”

 

“Jake, I really don’t think he’ll be mad about this.”

 

“Well, what if he doesn’t like me back?”

 

Scout smiled. “And here I thought we were talking about the fact that you’re a girl.”

 

“Yeah . . .that too.” She pulled the covers back over her head to conceal her embarrassment.

 

“So, when it comes down to it, you’re just afraid that he doesn’t like you as much as you like him?” Scout asked the lump under the blankets.

 

The lump didn’t respond.

 

“You know, for someone who plays such confident guy, your inner chick can be so insecure.”

 

“I’m not being insecure,” came a muffled voice. “I’m being realistic.” 

 

“Hey, you want reality? Get out here.” She pushed the blankets down again, and sat up in bed. “Okay. Now close your eyes.”

 

She gave him a suspicious look, but an exasperated and expectant lift of his eyebrows convinced her. As soon as she closed them, Scout was kissing her. Her first instinct was to pull away, but she’d always been curious, so she kissed him back. When he broke the contact, she realized it had been nothing like what she had always imagined.

 

“How’d that feel?” he asked.

 

“Um . . .it was . . .nice?”

 

“Try again.”

 

She laughed. “Okay, if I had a brother, I’m pretty sure that’s how it would feel to kiss him.”

 

Scout smiled. “How’d it feel when you kissed Hamilton?”

 

“When he kissed me,” she corrected, “it felt . . .it was like . . .”

 

She couldn’t quite put it into words. She finally settled on:

 

“Indescribable.”

 

“Indescribably good?”

 

“Uh, yeah.”

 

“And what do you think the biggest difference was?”

 

“That you practically are my brother and Hamilton’s . . . not.”

 

He gave her an unsatisfied look.

 

“And, I guess because I don’t ‘like’ you.” She felt silly reducing it to such juvenile terms.

 

“And also, because I don’t ‘like’ you either. If I’d had my heart in it, don’t you think it might have felt a little different?”

 

She thought about this. Bella tried to make the same point the night before, but Scout’s demonstration was far more convincing. Even so long after her feelings for him had faded, she never would have imagined kissing Scout would feel so . . .ordinary.

 

“I guess I made my point.” Scout smiled and got up from the bed.

 

He took Jake’s silence as affirmation. He crossed the room, picked up a garment bag hanging from the door of Bella’s closet and tossed it on the bed. Jake knew it was her tux.

 

“Get up now. The coast is clear, so you can take a nice, long shower. Put that on and Bella and I will be waiting for you downstairs.”

 

She nodded, trying to put it all together.

 

He started for the door, but then turned back. “And, for God’s sake, brush your teeth. You taste like Cheetos.”

 

He gave her one last reassuring smile then joined his girlfriend in the hallway.

 

“Is she coming?” Bella asked.

 

“Um . . .I think so. You look gorgeous, by the way.”

 

“Same dress I wore last year.”

 

“You took my breath away then, too. At least this time, it’ll be okay that I can’t take my eyes off you.”

 

“You’d better not,” Bella teased. She leaned in to kiss him and he kissed her back, but was distracted.

 

“You okay?” she asked.

 

Scout shrugged. “I was in there convincing her that it’ll all work out if she tells him, but if he really does freak out and goes to his parents . . . she really could get kicked out.”

 

“She won’t. He wouldn’t.”

 

“Did I mention how calm Hamilton was today? You’d think kissing another guy would . . . but he was more upbeat than usual. The whole thing is very strange.”

 

“Ya think?” Bella asked with the signature sarcasm he loved as much as every other thing about her.

 

“Shut up.” Scout wrapped his arms around her waist and planted another kiss on her lips. “I just want Jake to be as happy as I am.”

 

Bella smiled. “She will be.”

 

“How can you be so sure?”

 

She pulled away from him and held out her hand. “Come downstairs with me; I’ll enlighten you.”

 

While Bella and Scout sat in the kitchen, Jake took her shower. As the hot water poured over her, she tried to plan out what she would say, but nothing really came together. The only thing that became clear was the urgency of the situation. She needed to tell him, needed him to know everything . . .needed to kiss him again.

 

He needed to kiss her again. Hamilton sat on the dock and replayed the kiss in his mind. Less than twenty-four hours had passed and he was already beginning to doubt his own memory. Was it even possible for a kiss to be so . . . right? If he’d known it would feel like that, he’d never have let the game go on so long. But then, in a way, he was glad he had. If not for the game, he and Jake would never had become so close as friends without other stuff getting in the way. And the friendship was incredibly important . . . but it just wasn’t enough anymore.

 

He had to try for more, had to come clean and face the consequences . . . awful or wonderful or both. The point his mother had described had arrived. The next time he stood before her and opened his mouth, he knew he wouldn’t be able to stop his feelings from pouring out. And he was okay with that.

 

The problem was actually seeing her. She’d been MIA all day. What if she got on her motorcycle and just rode away, out of his life forever? He couldn’t face that. He could face her anger. He could face her rejection. But he couldn’t face her absence.

 

Yet he had to believe that she wouldn’t be angry . . . for long. Had to believe that she wouldn’t reject him . . . completely. Had to believe that she wouldn’t just walk away from him, from them, from that kiss . . . ever. Somewhere inside he knew that they were meant to be. They were soulmates. They were every cliché he had ever heard about love and fate. They had a date with destiny . . . .

 

Date. They did have a date. Hamilton looked down at his watch. He was late. The Cotillion was already underway. He jumped up and started in the direction of the room. He needed to get into his tux. A date with destiny definitely called for formal attire.

 

 

Waterloo

 

When she, Bella and Scout arrived on campus, Jake stopped by the room in search of Hamilton, but found it empty. She looked in the mirror, straightened her tie and jacket, took a deep breath and headed to the ballroom.

 

A few minutes later, Hamilton opened the door to the room, hoping, for about the thousandth time that day, that he would find Jake inside. And for the thousandth time, he was disappointed. There was only one place left to look. He went to the closet, pulled out the tux and put on the pants and shirt. Phil was right, they fit perfectly. It took a couple of tries, but he succeeded in tying the tie. Finally, the jacket. He stood in front of the mirror. He looked okay. Maybe after tonight he wouldn’t hate tuxes anymore. He straightened his tie and jacket, took a deep breath and headed to the ballroom.

 

The band was playing the final notes of a song when he arrived. He scanned the room as couples broke apart and moved to the edges of the dance floor. No sign of Jake. Panic gripped him. What if she really had gone?

 

He scanned the room again. His gaze almost passed right over Bella, whom he hardly recognized in makeup and an elegant white dress. She caught his attention with a little wave. He met her eyes and she smiled, tilting her head in the direction of the doors to the stone terrace.

 

He turned and there Jake stood, her hand resting lightly on the stone railing, gazing up at the sky. She looked serene. He started toward her as the band struck up the next tune.

 

I never cared much for moonlight skies,

Never winked back at fireflies,

But now that the stars are in your eyes,

I’m beginnin’ to see the light.

 

As he moved closer, Hamilton could see that Jake wasn’t so much serene as nervous and jittery. She had a tight grip on the railing, she rocked back and forth from the heels to the balls of her feet, and she kept reaching up to tug at her hair. She didn’t notice his approach.

 

I used to ramble through the park,

Shadow-boxin’  in the dark,

Then you came and caused the spark,

That’s a four-alarm fire now.

 

He reached out and touched her on the shoulder. She started and whipped around. When she saw him, she took a few awkward steps backward, pressing herself against the railing in an effort to create as much distance between the two of them as possible.

 

“I didn’t mean to startle you.” He smiled softly.

 

“Where have you been?” she blurted, catching him off guard.

“Where have I been?”

 

“Yeah. You’re late.”

 

“Okay, uh, I guess I am. I was down on the dock. I had some things to think about.”

 

Jake started pacing. “You’ve been thinking while I’ve been waiting here to talk to you for, like, an hour?”

 

“You know, I hate to point this out, but you’re the one who took off last night.”

 

“Me? You’re the one who . . . who . . . who . . . .”

 

“Who what?”

 

Just then, a couple walked out onto the terrace for some air. Jake stopped pacing in front of Hamilton and lowered her voice.

 

“God, we can’t talk about this here. Come on.”

 

She led the way to the boys’ bathroom and quickly checked to make sure the stalls were empty before she returned to her pacing.

 

“You know what,” she said.

 

"Kissed you?" he suggested.

 

"Yes!" she said, surprised by the way he just said it.

 

"Well, actually . . . I sorta remember you kissing me back."

 

"I . . . I . . . That’s not the point.”

 

“Well, actually—”

 

"The point is that you like girls. And not just girls in general, a girl, remember? The bold brunette who's not into make-up and dresses? You look into her eyes, everything disappears? Ringing any bells?"

 

"Several, yeah."

 

“And have you kissed her the way you . . . kissed me last night?”

 

“Well, technically, yes.”

 

“And you don’t see a problem with that?”

 

“Well, actually—“

 

“Stop saying that! Listen to me.  If you're in love with some other girl then fine, but there's something you need to know.”

 

“Some other girl?”

 

She continued moving back and forth in front of him. “Oh, God. Okay, Hamilton, I have to . . .  look, I gotta tell you something, all right?  But you have to promise not to be pissed off at me, all right?”

 

He reached out to touch her arm, trying to stop the pacing.

 

“Calm down, Jacqueline. It’s really not going to be a problem.”

 

“Not a problem? You’ve got to be . . .” Jake froze. Her jaw dropped. She turned, slowly lifting her finger to point in his direction. “Wait a minute. You did it again.”

 

“Did what again?”

 

“You know what.”

 

“No, I don’t.” Hamilton couldn’t resist feigning utter confusion. “What are you talking about, Jake?”

 

She almost dropped it, but then she caught a suspicious glint in his eye.

 

“Don’t play dumb with me. It’s cute and all, but I think I’ve had enough. Now why don’t you admit what you just said?”

 

“I said it’s really not a problem.”

 

“Before that,” Jake snapped.

 

“You mean the part where I told you to calm down?”

 

“After that.”

 

“Oh . . .” Hamilton’s eyes widened as if he’d just caught on. “You mean the part where I called you Jacqueline . . . .”

 

“Yeah,” Jake confirmed dryly, “that would be the part. How long have you known?”

 

“Known what?”

 

“Hamilton . . . .”

 

“Well, you just said you thought it was cute when I played dumb . . . .”

 

“Um, yeah, totally rethinking that. I repeat, how long have you known?”

 

Hamilton shrugged. “Awhile.”

 

“Awhile? Awhile? And why exactly didn’t you see fit to enlighten me?”

 

“Um, I was having too much fun watching you check me out every time I came back from the shower?” he quipped, moving closer. “Um, could I kiss you again?”

 

His face was already within inches of hers.

 

“Yes. I mean, no! Wait a minute . . .” Jake’s eyes widened as the truth dawned on her. She took several steps back. “You’ve been doing this on purpose the whole time.” 

 

“What? Showering?” When he caught her glare he decided it was time to cut the act. “Not the whole time exactly.”

 

“I can’t believe you didn’t say anything! I thought we were friends.” She turned and stormed across the room, jerked open the door.

 

“Ditto, Jake.

 

The words followed her out into the hall. She paused for a moment on the other side of the door, then turned around and went back in.

 

“I wanted to tell you, I really did. I was just afraid you’d . . .”

 

“Tell my mom?”

 

“Or your dad, yeah.” She met his eyes. “Why didn’t you? You hated me. You could have had me kicked out.”

 

“I never hated you. And maybe I never wanted you kicked out.” Hamilton offered a small smile.

 

“Why not?”

 

“A lot of reasons.”

 

“Like . . .?”

 

“Like, you’re my best friend, Jake. And from Day One, you were the only person here who seemed to actually get me. You’re the only one who really even tried.”

 

“Is that the only reason?” Jake asked, searching his eyes for something more.

 

“Well . . .” Hamilton shrugged and flashed a playful grin, “a few others may have cropped up along the way.”

 

“Like . . .?”

 

Hamilton smiled mysteriously and turned the tables on her.

 

“Well, why didn’t you tell me to take a hike back when I was auditioning for the role of resident jerk-off?”

 

“A lot of reasons.” 

 

“Like . . .?” Hamilton mimicked.

 

“Like, I totally saw through your act, Hamilton. And since it seemed pretty familiar, I figured if someone gave you the chance, maybe you could be as happy here as I am.”

 

“Couldn’t resist the urge to save me, huh?”

 

“You were so needy.”

 

“But is that the only reason?” Hamilton asked, searching her eyes for something more.

 

“Well . . .” Jake matched his shrug and his playful grin, “a few others may have cropped up along the way.”

 

“Like . . .?”

 

“Like getting to see you strut around the room half naked . . .” Jake suggested as she started to close the distance between them.

 

“So I’m . . . fuckable?”

 

She paused to study him as if making the assessment.

 

“Well, you’ve got a great personality.”

 

“Ouch.”

 

 “I mean, underneath it all, you turned out to be such a sweet guy . . . .”

 

Sweet? You make me sound like your brother or something.” 

 

“Trust me, you didn’t feel like my brother last night on the dock.”

 

“Which reminds me . . . could I kiss you again? Please?”

 

In answer, she moved to close the distance between them, but voices in the hall froze them in place. Thinking quickly, Hamilton pulled Jake into a stall and latched it behind them. Without another word, their lips met in a much-anticipated kiss.

 

A couple of boys entered the restroom, letting in the last strains of the song.

 

Now that your lips are burning mine,

I’m beginnin’ . . .  mmm . . . to see the light.

 

Unable to resume their conversation with others in the restroom, Jake and Hamilton happily continued kissing. When the coast was finally clear, they broke apart and smiled at each other.

 

“So, um, not that this isn’t a romantic location,” Hamilton began, “but maybe we could go back to the room . . .”

 

Jake smiled.

“. . . and you could take off that tux . . .”

 

Jake’s smile turned to a smirk. “Excuse me?”

 

“. . . and put on that dress you bought this weekend . . .”

 

Jake’s smile returned.

 

“. . . and we could dance a little . . . without coming out to the whole school in the process.”

 

“So,” Jake began as they walked to the dorms, “this girl that you were telling me about . . .?”

 

"The bold brunette? Yeah. That would be you."  

 

“And did you figure it out? Do you . . .? I mean do you think that maybe you . . .?”

 

“Love her?” Hamilton asked with a grin. “Love you? Let’s just say . . . there’s a distinct possibly.”

 

Jake grinned back. “Well, then, let’s just say . . . ditto.”

 

When they reached the room, Hamilton kept his back to Jake and busied himself putting music on the stereo while she changed.

 

“Okay, you can look now.” Hamilton turned, and Jake twirled to show off the dress. “So?”

 

Hamilton slowly took her in from head to toe. “I have one word for you.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“No, make that two.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“First word: Wow.”

 

Jake couldn’t stop the silly grin from spreading across her face.

 

“Second word?” she asked.

 

Hamilton held out his hand to her. She took it and he pulled her into his arms and began swaying slowly to the music. He brought his lips to her ear to whisper:

 

“Anticipation.”

 

 

The End

 

 

 

 

Epilogue: Allied Forces

 

“You guys lucked out . . . .”

 

Two teenage boys, unpacking and chatting in their dorm room, fell silent and looked toward the door as a stranger stepped in and looked around.

 

“I’ve always wanted this room,” Hamilton Fleming continued. “It’s perfectly Feng Shui.”

 

They stared at him.

 

“Feng Shui? The Chinese art of placement? Ever heard of it?”

 

Shaking heads.

 

“Doors face east, windows face north. It’s pretty cool, actually. You know, if you’re into that kind of stuff.”

 

Blank looks. Hamilton shook his head in mock disappointment. “This room never gets residents who fully appreciate its finer features.”

 

He laughed, and the new students laughed with him.

 

“And which way does your door face?” one of them asked.

 

Hamilton’s gentle smirk radiated satisfaction. “Let’s just say . . . it’s better than east.”

 

He took a few minutes to introduce himself to the new arrivals as a wise upperclassman with connections.

 

“I’ll see you gentlemen later. And, remember, if you need anything, my door is open . . . unless, of course, it’s closed.”

 

Pleased with a good first impression, he abandoned the joke and the boys and headed . . . east.

 

Halfway down the hall, he found a door bearing what Hamilton guessed were meant to be rowboats, cut from construction paper and laminated, that proudly announced the names of the room’s occupants.

 

Hamilton scowled in mild disgust and entered the room across the hall. He finished unpacking some books and CDs, hooked up his Playstation, and then picked up a handy comic book and stretched out on a mostly empty bed.

 

Jake walked away from Will and Scout’s new “senior suite” smiling. It definitely blew her room out of the water . . . but there were certain advantages to having a single. And when she returned to her room, she found one of those advantages . . . on her bed, reading the latest issue of Gambit.

 

“Hi, boy,” she said. She secured the door and headed toward him.

 

“Hi, boy,” he teased.

 

She unfastened the corset and slipped it out from under her shirt as she reached the side of the bed.

 

“Mmm. Make that ‘Hi, girl,’” Hamilton amended, reaching up to pull her down on top of him. They shared a leisurely kiss.

 

“So,” Jake asked as they came up for air, “how’s the new roommate?”

 

“Don’t worry, baby, you’re still the best I’ve ever had.”

 

Jake pulled her head back a few inches and groaned. “Ew. Thank God you weren’t trying to hit on me when we first met. You never would have gotten anywhere with lines like that.”

 

“Yeah, much better to pursue a strategy of antagonization and intimidation and to generally make your life miserable until you fell for me . . . .”

 

“Well, you know, I’ve never been one for doing things the easy way.”

 

“I’ve noticed.”

 

“But seriously, how come you’re not bonding with the new roomie?”

 

“New roomie?” Hamilton repeated as if the concept was new to him. “Oh, right . . . you mean the guy who put plastic-coated paper boats on my door? I’m pretty sure I’d rather be in here with you.”

 

Jake smiled as they traded a quick kiss.

 

“I don’t see why Mom couldn’t just let me keep rooming with you,” Hamilton pouted.

 

“Just be glad I’m across the hall instead of—”

 

“Across the lake. Yeah, yeah, I know.” 

 

“Besides, didn’t you once say you appreciate a little mystery . . . a healthy build-up . . . the joy of—“

 

“Anticipation?” he asked softly, letting his lips linger less than an inch from hers.

 

She nodded, closing the distance, but Hamilton pulled away.

 

“Whatever. You’re just happy to have your single back.”

 

“Right. My single,” she said, acting as if the aborted kiss weren’t torture. “My single with your music on the shelf, your Playstation on the computer, half of your books on the desk and . . . your pillow on the bed.”

 

“Oh right, didn’t you say something once about needing space?” His face closed in on hers.

 

“Hmm, um, I don’t know. I can’t remember.” She closed her eyes and his lips finally met hers for another long kiss.

 

When they broke apart, Jake slid down next to Hamilton, laying an arm across his chest and her head on his shoulder.

 

“Seriously, though, I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that you’ve unpacked half your belongings in here,” Jake teased. “I mean, are you trying to tell me something?”

 

Something? More like I want to tell you everything. All the time. You know, like, forever.”

 

Now lines like that could get him—had gotten him—everywhere with her. He smiled down at her and placed a soft kiss on her forehead before closing his eyes and pulling her a little closer. She closed her eyes as well and savored the moment. He spoke against her ear.

 

“Of course, if you meant, am I trying to tell you that I want to be with you and that . . . I love you? Well then, that goes without saying.”

 

Yet, he did say it. And often. At first, Jake had trouble believing it, but now, all doubts had vanished. She trusted him. With everything. With all her secrets. With her heart.

 

Funny how, in the beginning, she set out to teach him to open up, to make friends, to find a place he belonged. Because, in the end, she was the one who had learned to lower her defenses, to trust, to risk it all for something new and amazing.

 

Both Jake and Hamilton finally understood the question Hamilton had asked in the arcade that day almost a year ago. They also knew the answer: that you can have one person that both challenges and loves you. An opponent and a partner. Together, they had discovered that true love was as much sweet surrender as glorious victory.

 

“Okay,” Jake sighed as if she were making a great concession, “I guess you do love me . . . some. But the fact is: I love you more.”

 

“Oh, you so do not.”

 

“Do too.”

 

“Prove it.”

 

“Make me.”

 

“Oh, don’t worry, I will . . . .”

 

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