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Authors: Anna Humphrey

Rhymes with cupid

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Rhymes with Cupid

ANNA HUMPHREY

For Brent, my number-one valentine

Contents

Cover

Title Page

 

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Epilogue

 

Copyright

About the Publisher

 

I’d been wrong about him. He wasn’t a player. He was sweet, caring, and genuine. So different from Matt that the two barely belonged in the same category of humankind. But then again, Patrick could have been a full-fledged saint and it wouldn’t have mattered. I’d already told him I didn’t date. Also, he’d made it crystal clear that his crush on me was history.

Which just brought me right back to my original question: Why was he being so nice to me? I needed to find out what was up, and I couldn’t wait until Valentine’s Day to do it, either.

Chapter 1

According toThe Itty Bitty Pocket Guide(Secrets of the Heartedition), Cupid is the god of erotic love. He’s the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, and Ares, the god of war. He’s beautiful and mischievous and winged like an angel.

But at the SouthSide Mall in Middleford, Maine, Cupid was a far, far cry from the golden-haired god that the pocket guide (aisle four, right across from the ceramic clowns) described. He stood on the counter of Goodman’s Gifts & Stationery near the cash register—an overweight battery-powered baby doll with shiny red hearts on his diaper. When you pushed his belly button, he winked a creepy mechanical eye at you and started to sing along to music that came out of a speaker in his butt—the chorus of the classic 1960s Motown hit, “Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance).” And the dollcoulddance, in a way. You had to give him that.

Cupid shook his diapered hips indecently, his plastic joints making a faint clicking noise as he swayed from side to side waving a plush bow and arrow in one hand while the music built in intensity. Finally, he closed the routine with another skeevy wink.

If Ares and Aphrodite could see what had become of their golden-haired son, they’d probably feel like throwing down a thunderbolt or two—unlike the masses at the mall who thought creepy mechanical dolls were adorable. Several dozen people had already bought enough greeting cards to earn their very own stupid singing Cupid through the customer loyalty program at the gift shop where I worked after school. We’d already placed our third order from the supplier.

“Oh. My. God.” A woman approached the counter twirling a lock of her hair, which was severely teased and held back by a headband that was half zebra-, half leopard-print—what would you even call that animal? I wondered idly. A zepard? “Well, isn’t that the cutest thing you’ve ever seen? Don’t you just want to pinch him?”

I gave her my best neutral smile. Pinching Cupid wasn’t exactly on my list of things to do. Nowpitchinghim, I could handle. Right across the hall into the Gap, maybe. Or into one of the boat-sized garbage bins the janitorial staff pushed around at closing time.

She picked up the doll and hugged him to her chest before flipping him over to get a look at his unmentionables. “Does he take AAs?” she asked.

“Four Ds,” I answered. Besides being annoying, the doll cost about twenty dollars in batteries to run. Money that could besomuch better spent putting gas in her car, or groceries on her table, or even buying herself some stylish new animal-print headbands—giraffodile, maybe, or snakeetah?

“Oh, well now. Look here.” She held the doll’s butt up to my face. “You’ve got the switch flipped to the quiet setting. We can hardly hear his cute little song.” Using a long, pink fingernail, she remedied the situation before setting Cupid back on the counter and pressing his tummy. He winked and started to sing again—five times louder. “You have a nice day now, you hear,” the woman said.

“You too.” I smiled as sincerely as I could manage. “Thanks for shopping at Goodman’s.” As soon as she’d turned her back and walked away into the brightly lit, overloud mall plaza, I let the smile drop from my face. Unfortunately, Cupid kept right on singing. “That’s it,” I shouted to my coworker Dina a few seconds later when she came out of the back room carrying a cardboard box. “We definitely need to kill this thing.” I reached into the drawer for the scissors.

“Are you serious, Elyse?” she shouted back, her eyes growing wide. “You’re going to stab Cupid?”

The doll winked again and finally fell silent. I laughed. “Actually, these are for the box.” I held them up. “But, now that you mention it . . .”

“Elyse,” Dina said softly, blinking her big brown eyes at me. “We probably shouldn’t joke about damaging merchandise. Mr. Goodman would be really upset.”

I should have known better than to kid about a thing like that with Dina. She was quite possibly the sweetest girl I’d ever met. So sweet that, sometimes, she was a bit nauseating—at least to someone as cynical as I’d been feeling lately. In the three months we’d been working together I’d lost count of how many times I’d caught her going all teary eyed over a clichéd love poem while shelving wedding cards.

“I’m kidding, Dina. Of course.” I gave her an earnest look. “I would never do a thing like that to Cupid here.” I patted his head to show I was sincere. “Or to anything else in the store.” I motioned for her to pass me the box.

“Oh, obviously.” She slid it down the counter. “I knew you were kidding. You’re such a bighearted person, Elyse. Actually, that’s partly why I’ve been meaning to ask you a favor.” She leaned down and took a folder out of her backpack, which was stashed behind the cash. I caught a glimpse of a sad-looking baby panda on its cover. I could pretty much guess what was coming.

“I don’t know if you knew this . . . but the giant panda is one of the world’s most endangered species,” Dina began, her voice cracking a little out of sympathy for all the threatened forest-dwelling bears of China. “Scientists think there are less than fifteen hundred of them left in the wild.” She must have noticed that I was avoiding eye contact because she quickly added, “Just so you know, I’m not going to ask you for money.”

I breathed a small sigh of relief. It wasn’t that I had anything against pandas (although, now that I thought of it, if you wanted to make areallyfancyheadband, you could combine a panda with a bald eagle . . . just kidding). The thing was, since my mom had lost her job six months earlier, part of my salary had been going to help with household expenses. Even now that she’d found a new job (which she was starting that afternoon), there wouldn’t be a ton to spare. Plus, I’d sponsored Dina in a knit-a-thon to help stop the slaughter of sheep just a month before. Since then, I’d had to avoid getting the curried lamb special at India House in the food court, and it was my favorite.

“I’m organizing a panda party,” she explained, “for Valentine’s Day. We’ll all wear black and white, and each guest will make a donation to Panda Rescue. I’m hoping we can raise five hundred dollars to cosponsor a panda for the year. This one is Oreo.” She pulled a picture out of her folder. I tried to avert my gaze—no need to get swept away by the panda’s inevitable cuteness. “I know you’re good at baking, Elyse. My family practically inhaled those cookies you gave us at Christmas. So, I was wondering, would you make black-and-white snacks for the party?”

I hesitated. After all, making food for a panda party would put a crimp in my big plans for February 14. I was going to buy five boxes of heart-shaped chocolates using my employee discount and eat them all in one sitting to drown my sorrows.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ll probably be busy that night.”

“With a guy?” Dina asked eagerly.

“No. Just, you know, with my mom. I don’t want her to be all alone on Valentine’s Day.” That much was true. Well, partly true, anyway.

The whole truth was this: I’d been betrayed last Valentine’s Day by the former two-most-important people in my life. So it was no surprise I’d been looking forward to the love fest with the kind of dread I usually reserved for dental fillings and driving lessons. All I wanted to do was hide in my house and wait for all the happy togetherness of the holiday to be over with—not to mention for all the singing Cupids to be silenced.

And working at Goodman’s wasn’t helping matters. Every time I picked up a tacky pink teddy bear or shelved a heart-shaped card, my mind drifted back to where I’d been this time last year—so happy, and so much in love—then compared it to where I was this year—alone, and still more than a little brokenhearted.

See, exactly one year ago, I had a boyfriend. His name—ironically enough—was Matt Love. We’d met in chemistry class in September of tenth grade while doing a lab. We had to calculate the moles of water we’d just removed and the moles of magnesium sulfate left in our solution. He had no idea what he was doing.

“There are moles in that beaker?” he’d said. “So what did they do? Dig them out of their mole holes and liquefy them? Nasty.” At first I thought he was kidding, so I laughed, but then I saw that he was actually serious.

“Moles are a unit of measurement in chemistry,” I explained, fixing him with a steady stare.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Huh. Who knew? You’re smart, aren’t you? Pretty, too.”

I’d always considered myself average. I was thin in a tomboyish way, with straight brown hair and brown eyes with tiny blue flecks in them. I wore glasses. I wasn’t the kind of girl guys flirted with, unless they wanted someone to review their English essay or help them with calculus. I’d had no idea how to respond to Matt’s comment, but it didn’t seem to matter. He’d already decided that he liked me, and he was determined to keep pursuing me with puppy-dog-like enthusiasm until I started liking him back.

“You’re insane, you know that, right?” my then-best-friend Tabby told me the third time I turned down Matt Love’s invitation to see a movie over the weekend. “He’s gorgeous. And popular. Funny, too. Plus, he has his own car. I’m just saying. . . .”

If I could travel back in time, I’d tell Tabby that if she thought he was so great, she should have gone out with him. It would have saved us all a lot of trouble, and me a lot of heartache. But, instead, the short version of what happened is that, eventually, Matt Love wore me down.

I started noticing the cuteness of his slapstick brand of humor, and the hotness of his smile, instead of the lowness of his IQ. Ididgo out with him. And he was gorgeous, and popular just like Tabby said. We were a weird match—the cautious, brainy girl and the total goofball popular guy—but we worked. He introduced me to Jackie Chan movies and taught me how to spit watermelon seeds really far. He gave me my first real kiss, and then my second, and my third. He even let me drive his car once (which, trust me, was a very bad idea). And, meanwhile, I helped him bring his chemistry grade up from a D to a solid B-minus.

But it all ended on Valentine’s Day when I walked into my room, expecting to find Tabby there. Matt and I had a date (the new Jackie Chan movie followed by dinner at Flapjack’s—his favorite pancake restaurant), and Tabby, who was good at that kind of thing, was going to go to my place right after school and pick out an outfit for me while I finished my tutoring session. And, in some ways, she didn’t let me down.

When I got home, Tabby was in my room, like she said she’d be. And she’d picked out an outfit and laid it on the bed, like she’d promised she would. It’s just that she happened to be lying on top of the outfit, and Matt Love—who had obviously arrived early to pick me up—happened to be lying on top of her. And as for how the rest of my Valentine’s Day went, you can pretty much guess.

Dina carefully moved aside Styrofoam packing in the box I’d just opened and lifted out a picture frame. “Awwww. Look.” She showed me. It was pink and had pictures of daisies and sunflowers running up the sides. Across the top it read in swirly script:Like a well-tended garden . . .Then it continued on the bottom: . . .our love grows stronger every day.I tried not to gag.

Suddenly the look on Dina’s face went from gushy to sad. I braced myself. “You know what this would have been perfect for?” she asked, then answered her own question. “This photo of me and Damien I have.”

I nodded in what I hoped seemed like a comforting way but, secretly, I was glancing at the clock. There were two more hours left before the store closed. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to stand that much Damien talk.

“We asked this homeless man at the botanical gardens to take it for us last summer,” Dina explained. “Damien thought he was going to run off with our camera, but I said, ‘Just because he doesn’t have a place to live, doesn’t mean he’s not a good person.’ And I’m so glad we asked. That photo’s one of my favorites. I’ll bring it tomorrow to show you.”

“Great,” I said. “That would be great.” I’d already seen pictures of Damien standing on the sidewalk. Pictures of Damien eating hamburgers. Pictures of Damien taking pictures of Dina, who was taking pictures of him. It was pretty amazing how many pictures of Damien Dina had, especially when you considered she’d only dated him for three weeks last summer before he’d dumped her and gone off to college. “I’d love to see that photo. But, Dina . . .” I chose my next words carefully. “Do you think it’s maybe time you started seeing other people? Or, at least, thinking about seeing other people?” She clutched the picture frame against her chest. “I mean, Damien’s dating someone else.”

The mere mention of the other girl made Dina’s eyes glaze over with tears, and I felt horrible for bringing it up. If anyone knew what it was like to have your heart broken by a guy, it was me.

“He’s notreallydating her,” Dina corrected. “They’re just seeing each other. Casually.”

“Right,” I said. “That’s what I meant. But you know, Dina,” I went on, “there’s no reason you can’t see someone else casually, too.” I lifted a stack of frames out of the box, counted them, and checked them off against the packing slip. “At least consider it. You never know who you might meet.”

I managed to say the words with authority, but even as I doled out the advice, I knew I was being a hypocrite. Just that morning, over breakfast, my mom had suggested I introduce myself to the guy next door. My reaction was less than positive.

“He’s out there shoveling the driveway for his grandfather right now,” she’d said. “I even saw him put down salt on the icy patches. He seems like a very responsible boy. I’m not saying date him,” my mom added quickly, when I shot her a weary look. She knew all too well how devastated I’d been after the whole Matt Love/Tabby disaster. I’d hardly left the house for weeks, and I’d been entirely too excited about changing high schools and leaving all my classmates behind last September in preparation for our move to a smaller, cheaper house on the other side of town. Anything to get away from the sight of my ex and former best friend holding hands in the hallways, making googly eyes in geography, and kissing in the cafeteria while I sat with some girls from advanced math who I barely knew, pretending to be absorbed in algorithms.

“But at least say hello to him on your way out. You really never know,” my mom added with an encouraging look. Except Ididknow. I didn’t care how much salt the boy next door put on the driveway. I wasn’t interested in meeting him—or any other guy. I had my mom to talk to at home, and Dina to talk to at work. At my new school, I sat with Dina and some of her friends at lunch, and besides that I kept to myself and studied hard. I liked it that way. Plus, if I wanted to go to college, I’d need a full scholarship. I had important goals to focus on and I wasn’t about to let another broken heart slow me down now. There’d be plenty of time for dating when I was older, anyway. Why waste time on high school guys?

But Dina was a different story. She was sulking over Damien like there would never be another guy who could compare. It was sad, to tell the truth. What she needed was a distraction, and fast.

“You’re a great person, Dina. You deserve a guy who’s going to love you back. Someone who’s going to really be there for you.”

Her eyes softened. “Seriously, Elyse? You think that? That’s one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me. But . . .” She paused, resting her elbows against the counter. “Damien is the one for me. Actually, I was thinking about calling him tonight. . . .”

I envisioned our shift the next day. How she’d come in with bags under her eyes after being up all night crying over something Damien had orhadn’tsaid to her. How, while restocking the shelves, she’d want me to help her analyze each and every sentence, looking for hidden meanings and hoping beyond hope that he still cared about her when he so clearly, clearly didn’t.

“No,” I said too forcefully. She looked up. “You can’t call Damien. Dina, you have to let him go.”

And, just like that, the answer to all my problems walked into the store, pausing at the circular rack that held novelty key chains. He was tall and lean, dressed in a soft-looking plaid shirt. He wore a pair of supergiant DJ-style earphones around his neck. His skin was freckled and his dark hair was a mess of curls. He leaned in close and, if I wasn’t mistaken, looked at his reflection in the edge of the metallic shelf divider to check for food between his teeth.

“Oh my God,” I said. “It’s like a sign.” Dina glanced around, confused. “That guy who just walked into the store,” I whispered. “He was checking you out.”

Chapter 2

Really? He was checking me out?” Dina looked over nervously at the guy, who was using his fingernail to dislodge a piece of lettuce, or something, from between his front teeth.

Hewasn’tchecking her out. But then, she didn’t need to know that. Dina was a pretty girl. Not to mention ridiculously nice. Any guy would consider himself lucky to meet her. I was sure of it.

“He totally was. You should go over and talk to him.”

For half a second, Dina looked like she was thinking about it, but then she hesitated. “I can’t. What about Damien?”

“Who cares about Damien?” I said sharply, then reminded myself to be nice. “Anyway, you’d just be doing your job. Helping a customer.”

“You’re right,” she said, giving her head a tiny shake. “He’s just a customer.”

“Exactly. Just acutecustomer. Go see what he needs. And why don’t you ask for his phone number while you’re over there?”

“What?!” she exclaimed.

“Just ask him. See what happens. Look, I’ll make you a deal. If you ask him, I’ll bake pinwheel cookies for your panda party.”

She seemed to be weighing her options.

“Anda chocolate and vanilla cheesecake.AndI’ll donate twenty-five dollars at the door. That’s, like, one twentieth of a bear, all in exchange for a measly phone number. Come on,” I teased. “Do it for Oreo. Plus,” I added in a moment of desperation, “Damien will be jealous when he hears you got another guy’s number.”

Before I even finished my plea, my very favorite customer, an older Italian woman named Mrs. Conchetti, walked into the store. She shopped at Goodman’s at least once a week, buying kitschy mini figurines and corny wall plaques that said things like “A mother’s love knows no bounds” and “Home is where the heart is.” Her entire house must have looked like a shrine to tackiness. But she was really sweet, and always laughing. Plus, we shared a love of homemade desserts. Sometimes she brought me fresh panettone bread, just because she knew how much I liked it.

“Oh, he’s so cute I could eat him up,” she squealed as she stepped up to the counter and set down an armload of Valentine’s Day cards. Dina glanced at the tooth-checking guy a second time, not noticing that Mrs. Conchetti was actually grinning at the stupid Cupid.

“I’m doing it,” Dina said bravely. “Heiscute. Plus, if Damien can see somebody else casually, I can flirt with a guy. Why not?” She reached out to press Cupid’s tummy. “Hey,” she added, when I rolled my eyes and picked him up to readjust the volume setting, “a little help from Cupid never hurt anyone, right?”

Dina strode confidently across the shop floor headed directly for the guy, who had wandered over to one of the Valentine’s Day card displays.

As soon as she’d gone, Mrs. Conchetti slid her customer loyalty card across to me. “How many does that make now, Elyse, dear?” she asked as I stamped her purchases.

“We give a stamp for every five. So you’ll need to buy another ten cards to earn the Cupid.” She looked down at her wallet, clearly disappointed. “They don’t have to be valentines though,” I explained. “Birthday cards count, too. Or anniversary cards. Even bereavement cards.” Her face brightened.

“That’s wonderful news,” she said. “I’ll be back next week after I get my check. It never hurts to plan ahead for special occasions.” She counted on her fingers. “If I buy five cards a week I’ll have this doll for my grandson in time for his birth. It’s just perfect. My daughter’s due on Valentine’s Day, you know. She’s having a boy.” Ididknow. Mrs. Conchetti had bought the powder-blue birth announcements almost two months ago, and she’d already picked out three Precious Moments figurines for the baby’s room. To say she was kind of excited about the arrival of her first grandchild would be an understatement—like saying I was a touch irritated by Cupid.

“That’ll be thirty-two dollars and fifty-seven cents.” I tried to see around Mrs. Conchetti as she counted out the money, hoping for a glimpse of Dina and the guy, but they’d disappeared down another aisle.

“Have a wonderful day, Mrs. Conchetti,” I said, handing over her shopping bag full of cards. “I’ll see you soon.”

“You will!” She reached out to tweak Cupid’s plush cheek, then pressed his tummy to start him up one more time.

I opened the drawer to put the scissors away before I could be tempted to hurt the charming little cherub after all, then leaned down to watch Dina and the guy on the security camera behind the desk. They were in the office supply aisle now, where Dina was leaning forward, looking kind and welcoming—genuinely interested in whatever tooth-checking guy was saying. She tucked her hair behind one ear in a flirty way and leaned in to listen again. I had to hand it to her. Even if she was only doing it for the pandas, Dina was braver than I would have given her credit for—much braver than I was, at least, when it came to looking for love. Although, now that I thought about it, maybe that wasn’t saying a whole lot.

“I can’t believe how nice he was,” Dina said for about the third time that afternoon as we slid down the metal grate to lock up the store. “And he’ssocute. How did I never notice him before?”

It seemed the tooth-checking guy (whose name turned out to be Patrick) had been working at the Keyhole—a key-cutting kiosk near the frozen yogurt stand—for the past six months. He went to Collingwood Tech—the high school for students who planned to go into trades like carpentry or auto mechanics—which explained why we didn’t know him from school. “He said we should come by sometime, whenever we’re on break. I totally think I’m going to.” Dina checked her reflection in her compact while I pulled the store keys out of my bag.

Luckily for me, Dina hadn’t managed to work up the nerve to ask the guy for his phone number, saving me from having to make the $25 donation I couldn’t really afford anyway. “I think I might even invite him to the panda party. But I’m not going to tell Damien. I mean, at least not yet. Do you think that’s okay?”

“Of course it’s okay. You just met the guy. All you’re doing is getting to know him. Not that it’s any of Damien’s business anyway. He’s not your boyfriend anymore. You’re a free woman.” She nodded, but didn’t look completely convinced.

We headed for the east doors, waving to the girls who were closing up the Gap. “What was he looking at, anyway?” I asked. “I mean, besides you?” She smacked me lightly, but it was obvious she was enjoying being teased.

“He needed a new pen.”

“But then he never bought one,” I pointed out.

“I think his break was probably ending. Oh no,” she said and clapped a hand over her mouth. “I was talking to him so much that he never got to buy his pen. What if he really needed it?”

“I’m sure he’ll be okay,” I said. “The world is full of pens. And, anyway, it gives him an excuse to come back again tomorrow.”

She smiled. “Are you sure you don’t want a ride home?” Dina asked as we reached the doors. “It’s, like, minus twenty out there. And that’s before the windchill.”

“I’m sure,” I reassured her. “You live in the opposite direction. Anyway, the bus goes right by our new house.”

She nodded. “As long as you’re sure. See you tomorrow, okay? And thanks for encouraging me to talk to that guy. You’re a really good friend, Elyse.”

“So are you,” I said as I waved good-bye, and I meant it. Since I’d changed schools in September, I hadn’t met very many people. In a way, I guess I hadn’t wanted to. Thanks to last year’s aforementioned disastrous February 14, I’d sort of been off close friendships, and boys, and trusting people in general.

“Dammit.” I sighed, stepping off the curb to cross the mall parking lot. The cold air stung my eyes as I watched the number four bus roar past, spraying gray sludgy snow in all directions. I pulled my coat sleeve up to check my watch. The number four ran once every half hour. It was seven fifteen. That meant I wouldn’t get home until after eight, and it was already dark. The security guard locked the mall doors from the outside at seven sharp every weeknight, too, so there was no way to get back inside where it was warm. I should have taken Dina up on her way-too-kind offer of a ride home, after all.

Resigning myself to a long, cold wait, I dug my mittened hands into my coat pockets and crossed the street to the bus shelter where I sank down onto the tiny metal bench. There was a poster enclosed in the glass on one side advertising Mexican vacations, and I stared at it longingly as I waited, hating the happy couple enjoying fruity beverages in their bathing suits. Seriously, whose idea of a cruel joke had it been to put that in a bus shelter in the middle of winter?

“You got a cigarette?” I jumped at the sound of the voice and looked up to see a man in a brown jacket with two rips in the side. Some of the stuffing was falling out, and one of his shoelaces was broken, leaving his boot hanging open. His feet must have been freezing, not to mention wet.

“Sorry,” I said. “I don’t smoke.”

He kind of grunted. “You got any change?”

I shook my head. All I had was my bus fare.

“Come on,” he pressed. “A few quarters at least. I’m hungry.” By this time, he’d come into the bus shelter and was standing over me. He was so close that I could smell the alcohol on his breath.

I tried to seem calm. It wasn’t that I’d never seen a homeless person before—I’d just never seen one this close up. The old downtown area, where my mom and I had lived until a week ago, was quaint and touristy. Panhandlers got shooed away by the shopkeepers and police pretty quickly.

My heart was pounding in fear, but I tried to remember what Dina had said about her homeless photographer. Just because this guy looked like he didn’t have a place to live, didn’t mean he was a bad person. I took a deep breath, determined to be brave.

“I’m really sorry,” I said again.

“Sure you are,” the man answered. I glanced up and down the deserted street, hoping to see the bus coming in the distance, or at least another person who might hear me if I had to yell for help.

“A bill, then. You got a few dollar bills?” I shook my head again. My heartbeat went up another notch as the man started kicking angrily at the ground, dislodging bits of ice with the toe of his boot and sending them in my direction.

“I’m sorry,” I said again. “If I had extra money, I’d give it to you. I swear.” A chunk of ice hit my shin and I yelped, more in panic than in pain. “Okay, fine. Here.” I pulled my mitten off and slid my hand into my coat pocket, about to take out my bus fare and give it to him. I didn’t know what I’d tell my mom when I had to call her for a ride on her very first day of work, but all I wanted was for the man to leave me alone. I’d worry about that later.

“Jack!” I heard somebody call as my hand closed around the coins. A red car pulled up, slowing at the bus stop, and a guy leaned out the window. “What’s the problem? Are you bothering her?” It wasn’t until the homeless man turned that I got a clear view of the person in the car: Patrick—Dina’s tooth-checking, pen-buying guy—his curls sticking out from under a blue-and-white wool hat.

“I was just asking for a little change,” the man grumbled. “For something to eat. She’s got money. I hear it in her pocket.”

“Come on,” Patrick said. “Leave her alone. Look.” He took out his wallet. “I’ve got a five. I give this to you, you go get a burger, you leave her alone. Deal?”

The homeless guy walked up to the car window, took the bill, and mumbled his thanks before starting off down the street.

“You okay?” Patrick asked, leaning out his window again. The white pom-pom on his hat bobbed when he tilted his head.

“Of course,” I said, trying to keep my voice even. After all, it’s not like anybody ever died from having ice chips kicked at them. I hadn’t been in any danger. “He wasn’t really bothering me.”

“Okay,” he said, but I could tell he didn’t believe me. “You want a ride somewhere? It’s pretty cold to be waiting for the bus. And I’m going your way.”

How did he know which way I was going? I wondered. But then, feeling like an idiot, I realized that I was waiting for the southbound bus. Obviously, I was going south. I shook my head. I knew way better than to get in a car with some strange guy, even if Dina thought he seemed nice, and even if the alternative was waiting in the dark, in an Arctic deep freeze by myself. “Thanks. I’m good though. The bus will be here in twenty minutes.”

“Want me to wait with you?” he offered. “In case Jack comes back. He’s harmless, but sometimes he has a bit of a temper when he’s hungry. You might have noticed.”

“No. Thanks,” I said, wishing he’d just leave. It was embarrassing enough that he’d seen how clearly afraid I’d been. “Honestly, I’m fine.”

“Okay.” He hesitated. “Are you sure?” he asked.

“I already told you,” I said, failing to hide my annoyance now. “I’m sure.”

“Okay then . . . if you’re really sure. I’ll see you around. Maybe at work tomorrow, if you and Dina have a shift.” I was surprised that he’d even recognized me from the store. After all, he’d spent the whole time talking to Dina and hadn’t come up to the cash register.

“Yeah, maybe.” I shrugged before digging my hands back into my pockets. He rolled up his window and pulled away slowly.

Okay, that was weird, I thought. But then again, at least I’d have a few things to tell Dina about her guy at work the next day . . . like that he was nice to the point of annoyingness, and that he had a soft spot for homeless people. Honestly, he and Dina were going to be perfect for each other. I watched as he drove down the street before doing a U-turn and circling back through the parking lot of the mall. He pulled into a space facing the road and turned off his headlights. At first I thought he must have forgotten something at the Keyhole. But Dina said he’d been working there for six months. Didn’t he know the main doors to the mall would be locked? Then five minutes passed. Then ten. Why wasn’t he getting out of the car?

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