The ride from the airport to the little town of Appaloosa Plains is far too long. A red Range Rover picks her up, with APYR in black letters on the front doors. The driver takes her luggage and throws it onto the back seat, introducing himself as Johnny Johnson. Taïga is a little intimidated by his gruff looks. He’s wearing his long greying hair like a native and there are spurs on his cowboy boots. He doesn’t wear a hat though, and she’s a little ashamed of having expected one.
She tries to converse, asking polite questions about the center and the horses, but Johnny Johnson isn’t a man of many words, succeeding in answering only “yes” or “no” to everything she says. Finally she gives up, staring out the window at the passing countryside, her nervousness growing for each mile…
‘Hi there! You must be Taïga? Welcome to Appaloosa Plains Youth Ranch. I’m Charles Hobbles, but you can do as everyone else – just call me Chuck!’ The Juveniles Correction Officer takes Taïga’s hand in a firm grasp.
‘Hello. Pleased to meet you, Sir.’
‘Just call me Chuck. Got it?’ He looks her over. ‘I hope you brought some jeans and boots, I’d hate to see you mucking out the stables nicely dressed like that!’
Taïga grins, smoothing out her new grey mini dress. ‘Whose horse is that over there? Such a strange color…’
‘That’s Shadow. He’s mine.’ Johnny Johnson has finished unloading her luggage. ‘Your rides aren’t here yet.’
‘They’ll be here in time for when the snow melts in the spring.’ Chuck says.
Taïga tries hard not to show how disappointed she is. ‘But that’s in four months!’
‘Yeah, but learning patience is part of the program. As is our working ethic. You’re part of the APYR family now so you’re expected to keep your room clean, do your own laundry and help with the regular chores in the house and with the horses. We also grow our own vegetables, by the way, and have a little greenhouse out back there.’ He gestures at something behind her. ‘Let’s go and meet the other kids.’
Taïga just nods and hurries to keep up with him.
They walk from the parking area across a nice well-kept courtyard towards the large log cabin. A flagpole, with the star striped banner joyously flapping in the breeze, is surrounded by over flowered hydrangea.
‘There are two wings,’ Chuck explains, ‘The left one is for the guys, and you girls are over there.’ He points to his right.
‘Are there many girls?’
‘Nah, at the moment there are only three, counting yourself.’ He pushes open the massive door and stands aside to let her in.
She stops nervously, taking in the vast living room. There’s a large stone fireplace and she can see the rustic dining area from where she’s standing. An open door to what looks like the kitchen, is situated behind three worn leather couches disposed around a low coffee table on an outsized Native American rug. The first impression is quite cozy, if it weren’t for the three lazily lounging boys. They all stop talking when they see her. Suddenly she regrets her choice of clothes. Jeans would definitely have been a better idea than her short grey dress and off-white sweater. She itches to pull up her over the knee-high socks, but instead pushes away a strand of hair from her eyes to have something to do with her hands.
A muscular guy with a Mohawk whistles softly. ‘Who’s Bambi here? Never seen legs like that before.’
‘Elspeth won’t like this…’ A tall, very skinny boy with bad skin looks frowning at her.
‘C’mon guys, this is our new inmate, Taïga Grey. Taïga, meet Thomas, VJ and Lil.’
‘Lil Bling.’ A short guy with sunglasses and a hip hop cap corrects Chuck. His saggy pants almost fall off when he stands up, but he adjusts them quickly with a spread legged stance. Imitating a mike in front of his mouth, he extends his other arm far in front of him, Eminem style.
‘Don’t get too loud, got respect for you honey – To keep it all real, you come second to my money.’ He pushes down his sunglasses, looking intently at her. ‘And can you be my ghetto love prophecy?’*
‘Knock it off, Lil. She’s not into rap.’
‘You cain’t know dat, man. She seems to appreciate the finery in life, like urban street poetry, duh.’
‘Just look at her – she’s listening to Taylor Swift, for f’s sake!’
‘I err… like Eminem. A lot,’ Taïga says, immediately regretting her lame comment.
They all stare silently at her.
A young girl comes sauntering with her hands in her pockets. She stops, looking Taïga over behind oversized pink sunglasses.
‘Who are you – some kind of future Stepford wife? Where the hell are you from? Wisteria Lane?
Chuck gives the young girl a stern look. ‘Enough, Jupiter. This is Taïga, she’s from Fairview Heights and-’ His cell rings. ‘Err… Excuse me…’ He steps away a few paces to take the call.
‘Fairview Heights, huh? Where the hell is that?’ VJ asks.
‘Never heard of it before…’ Thomas adds.
‘Hicktown like this probably,’ Jupiter says, looking her over again.
Taïga swallows. She’s definitely out of her league here.
A heavyset guy with reddish blond locks escaping from under a pushed back beanie, peeks out from the kitchen. ‘It’s a suburb to Falls Harbor, guys. She’s from a bigger town than you all!’
‘Not me, Bridgeport is the city!’ Jupiter says, getting nodding approval from Lil Bling. The guy in the kitchen has done a double take and is now staring at Taïga.
‘Wait a minute. What did you say? Taïga? Taïga Grey?’
*Ma$e f/ Total “What You Want”
‘Err… yes…’ Taïga frowns as the guy comes towards her with a goofy smile on his freckled face. Who the heck is this?
‘It’s been ages! I’m so happy to see you! Just wait till I tell Derek!’ A second later she is crushed in a bear hug.
‘Oh. My. God. Teddy? Is that you?’
‘Yep!’ He holds her at arm’s length and looks her over. ‘Gosh you’ve become a beauty! I mean, you’ve always been prettyful, even as a kid, but now…’ He whistles. ‘You’re even-’
He’s interrupted by Jupiter strutting off. ‘Yeah, one more on the “to-do-list” for D!’
‘Knock it off Jupe!’ The guys on the couch laughs. ‘You’re just jealous of the competition, huh!?!’
‘Yeah, keep running – he’s definitely not into pretty boys like you! Boom!’ Lil Bling gestures, fingers spread in some complicated hip-hop gesture.
Jupiter is a boy? Taïga looks after the slim silhouette, his jet-black hair cut in a bob with a perfect blue-violet edge. He flips them a finger behind Chuck’s back, pushing out the door.
‘I’ll put her on my list – anytime!’ Lil pucks his lips.
‘You’re bear jarring me, man. Take a ticket and wait for your turn!’ VJ leers at him.
Taïga can feel herself go crimson, which triggers more nudging and ogling. She searches Teddy’s face for help.
Chuck breaks in. ‘Corey, why don’t you show Taïga around? And you two – in my office. Now.’
Taïga follows Teddy outside. ‘Corey?’
‘Yeah. That’s my birth name. Derek called me Teddy because I refused to sleep without my Teddy bear and it kinda stuck.’
‘How come you never told me that? Even the teachers called you Teddy.’
‘Yeah, told you it stuck.’
‘To me you’ll always be Teddy! But… Do you prefer Corey or Teddy?’
Teddy smiles. ‘I like it when you call me Teddy, everyone does, but the other kids would make me their laughing stock if they found out why! So… What did you do to end up here?’
‘Actually I didn’t do anything!’ Taïga sighs. ‘But it’s a long story… What about you? I hope you haven’t killed anyone! Or been doing drugs or something?’
‘Nah… Mom’s abroad again, doing some humanitarian work and research, and we didn’t count on dad going to hospital. The two of us got along just fine until Derek got a speeding ticket with his motorcycle and the social services were alerted-’
‘Social services for a speeding ticket?’
‘He was driving really fast.’
Taïga doesn’t look convinced.
‘OK. He was under the influence. For the third time.’ He hurries on before she can say anything else, ‘-and, well, Johnny’s some kind of distant relative, so there was no trouble being placed here for a couple of months. I’m helping out, you know, earning some money to pay for dad’s bills.’
‘Oh… I hope he’ll be all right! Is it serious?’
‘He got some sort of stomach pain, and we took him to the emergencies thinking it was appendicitis, you see. But it wasn’t. They decided to keep him for observation and he’s still there. They can’t find what’s wrong with him- Ah, there they are!’
Taïga was just going to ask about Derek but her mouth goes slack when she follows Teddy’s gaze. A small cluster of people are standing a few yards away, looking at Johnny’s horse. She recognizes Jupiter sitting perched on the high fence, animatedly talking to a tall, gangly girl with mouse colored hair in a ponytail and a Goth girl in shorts and lacy tights. But her attention.is monopolized by the tall dark figure leaning against the high fence of the paddock with his back to her.
Oh, no. It can’t be…? Ohmygod.
Suddenly her legs go all wobbly and her stomach is overrun by butterflies. She wants to turn around and run in the other direction, not stopping until she is back in the safety of her room in Bayou Oaks Mansion again.
Instead she follows Teddy towards the little group on shaky legs, a nervous smile plastered on her face.
‘Look who I brought!’ Teddy hollers to the little group.
As in slow motion Derek turns towards them, his eyes widening in surprise. How could she have forgotten how impossibly blue they were? With difficulty she drags her attention to the black-haired girl leaning against him with a hand on his arm.
‘I thought the saying was “look what the cat dragged in”, the girl sneers, looking Taïga over from head to toe.
Teddy ignores her comment, apparently used to her flip attitude. ‘Meet Elspeth-’ he nods towards the dark girl who grimaces back, ‘-and Chase.’ Taïga nods politely to the smiling, homely girl. ‘And I guess you remember Derek.’
How could I forget? Taïga thinks, trying not to gawk over the utterly handsome boy -no, man- standing in front of her with his arms crossed. She’s tall, 5.6, but she has to tilt her head upwards to look him in the eyes and troubled she quickly looks away again. Teddy continues happily explaining how he recognized her, but Taïga can’t concentrate. Never had the presence of somebody unnerved her more. The rest of the world fades away, there’s only Derek, but he doesn’t seem pleased to see her again. Arms crossed, he looks her over, not missing a detail. Nervously she pushes back a strand of hair from her face.
Stop blushing, you idiot! Say something… ‘Err… Hi. I didn’t expect to see you here.’ Lame. Lame. Lame… Taïga does a mental face-palm, biting her lip.
Derek doesn’t say anything. Smirking he just lifts an eyebrow, apparently amused by her discomfort. She raises her chin, trying to keep her cool. Why doesn’t he say anything? It’s so exasperating. She glances at him again, meeting his eyes for a fleeting moment. She would never have thought he’d become so dang attractive. In an irritating way, of course.
‘So what did you do?’ the black-haired girl interrupts Teddy’s steady flow, staring ominously at her with charcoal blackened eyes.
At least it looks like charcoal, but it’s probably some fancy Goth make-up from Hell Taïga has never heard of. She swallows. ‘Nothing.’
‘Nobody’s here for nothing, bitch!’ Elspeth spits.
‘Give her a break, Elspeth.’ Derek says in a low voice.
Elspeth glares at him and lets go of his arm. ‘Gotta bounce anyway. Don’t forget we’re going to town – together,’ she adds, stressing the last word while glaring at Taïga and hissing ‘Bitch’ as she sashays past her on her way to the house.
‘Derek! Teddy! Can you come over here? I need some help with the tractor!’ Johnny is calling from the barn.
‘Comin’!’ Derek fixes her with his blue gaze. ‘I sure didn’t expect to see you here either. But it’s nice to see you again… Taïga.’ He tastes her name, letting it roll off his tongue. Ta-ee-guh. His voice is grown up; silky but yet a little raspy and gruff. ‘You’ve…’ He looks her over again, sending another flock of butterflies doing cartwheels in her stomach. ‘… grown up.’
He winks at her, sauntering after Teddy into the big barn.
Taïga stares after him, trying to calm her racing heart. That’s all? A wink? She had at least expected a hug. But could she have handled one without doing something stupid like declaring her undying love? He’s become way too handsome. And hot. And cocky. And so utterly annoying… They used to laugh about man-candy with Linn – just wait till she sees Derek!
‘Don’t worry, he’s got that effect on us all,’ Chase drawls with a thick southern accent, drawing her out of her thoughts. ‘And don’t mind Elspeth, bless her heart. She’s just moody.’
‘Yeah… A moody evil bitch!’ the petulant boy Jupiter adds from his position on the fence where he has silently taken in the scene. ‘I’d be careful around her if I were you. She doesn’t seem to like you at all.’
Evil bitch – it suits her, Taïga thinks to herself. She can’t be worse than Clotilde de Cosnac. Or can she? But even thoughts about the unpleasant grumpy girl can’t keep a stupid grin from her face. First Teddy and then Derek. Maybe her stay here won’t be so bad after all… If Derek gets off his high horses and becomes the friend he once was.
Jupiter jumps down, brushing off some imaginary dust from his pants, declaring, ‘And as she doesn’t like you, I’ve decided that I do. Welcome to the ass end of nowhere, pretty girl.’
‘Yeah. I bet you’re really excited to get a full tour?’
‘Sure.’ Anything to get her mind off Derek.
Jupiter hooks his arm with hers. ‘But first: What’s the story between Derek and you? There was electricity in the air, and I’m just a tiny bit disappointed that Evil Bitch didn’t get fried…’
Jupiter hangs with the girls, showing Taïga the stables and the different facilities in the basement, but he has to leave them when they get to the girls’ room. It is not very big – four beds with assorted closets and two desks.
‘This is mine, and that’s Elspeth’s. So, I guess you can pick whichever.’ Chase points to the two free beds.
‘Thanks. This one will do just fine.’ She hauls her things over to the one by the wall, opening her suitcase.
Chase sits cross-legged on her mattress, watching Taïga unpack. She tells her a little about herself and about her boisterous family in Twinbrook but she avoids talking about why she’s at APYR. Taïga takes off her nice dress and changes into shorts and Dr. Martens.
‘I wish I had your legs…’ Chase says wistfully. ‘What sports are you into?’
‘I dance since I was a kid – first it was ballet, but now I mostly do modern jazz. And I ride some.’
Chase looks thoughtful. ‘I’ve heard riding flats out your butt, but your ass is ace.’
Taïga doesn’t know what to answer. She is saved by the door suddenly bursting open and Elspeth stomping in. She takes one look around the room, stating flatly, ‘You can’t take that bed.’
‘Why not? It’s not yours, is it?’
‘You better get this straight, ice princess. I decide here! This is my bed, my things and my friends.’
‘OK.’ Taïga gestures towards the bed in the corner. ‘So this is not your bed, neither is it Chase’s… so I guess it’s mine now.’
Elspeth approaches. ‘You don’t seem to get it?’
‘Oh, I get it.’ Taïga folds her arms on her chest and doesn’t budge. ‘But I can’t see why you should decide where I’m supposed to sleep. Whichever bed I‘d choose, you’d probably order me to move my things to the other. Just to push me around. Well, I don’t like being pushed around. You can keep your bed and your things – I don’t want them. This bed was free so I took it. Oh, and your friends aren’t things, by the way. They are free to choose who they want to talk to!’
‘Boom!’ Chase blurts out before she can stop herself.
Elspeth ignores her, stepping up to Taïga but Chase interferes before the confrontation goes too far, ‘There’s no need to fight girls! I think Taïga understands you’re the boss…’
Elspeth pinches her nose and looks at Chase. ‘It stinks like a whole stable in here! Have you rolled in the muck? Go get a shower!’ With another murderous glance at Taïga she stomps out of the room.
‘Well, shut my mouth! That evil bitch isn’t used to someone standing up to her. You totally owned it, but I really thought she would hit you!’
‘Yeah. I thought so too…’ Taïga says a little shakily.
‘But… Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Elspeth is tough. She’ll come back for you, one way or another. We’ve got a kinda truce. She’s not that bad – if you do as you’re told…’ She grabs some clean clothes and her towel. ‘I’ll go take that shower. I guess she was right about the smell, I’ve had stable duty today.’
Taïga sinks down on her bed with a sigh. This sure won’t be easy, and the day is far from over… But she won’t back down. No way. She has been bullied enough in her life, and she knows from experience that nothing gets better if she gives in. She picks up her cell and logs in to Snapchat. Taking a selfie in her new room, she starts a conversation with her BFF. She hesitates before mentioning Derek, but finally adds a black screen, with ‘Teddy & Derek are here – so sick…’
Lil Bling has followed Chase to the showers, hoping Taïga would show up. He is surprised by Jupiter suddenly walking in on him. He quickly hides his cell, hoping the young boy didn’t see him film the naked girl.
‘And what are you doing here?’ Jupiter is as surprised as Lil Bling.
‘What are you doing here yourself – even if you wish you were a girl, you’re not,’ Lil snickers.
Jupiter blushes, feeling guilty. He just went by to leave some conditioner to Chase, her hair is like straw and he feels sorry for the homely girl. She needs a make-over, and he’s the one who will give it to her. But she’s a little touchy, so he’s taking it slowly, one step at the time… Chase is cool, she helps him out too. Sometimes he prefers having a shower without all the guy talk and meaningful looks at him, and Chase usually keeps Elspeth occupied elsewhere so he can get some alone time. But now Lil is staring at him, waiting for an answer Jupiter doesn’t want to give, so he just snorts and walks away.
Lil Bling follows Jupiter upstairs, checking the quality of his little nude film on the way. Satisfied, he shows it to VJ and Thomas. But if he was expecting some admiration he’s disappointed. VJ watches the whole 30 seconds and then promptly asks him to erase it. And when he shows it to Thomas, he almost thought the geek would hit him. Fuckers don’t understand art, he thinks, promptly uploading it to his Facebook account… and Instagram, Snapchat…
But unfortunately for Lil, Chuck has access to their social media accounts, and he stumbles on the incriminating video when he’s doing his daily checkup just a few minutes after it was published. He’s not happy about the video of Chase circulating on the Internet, and hopes he can stop it before it does any damage. Both to APYR and the poor girl…
The boys are in their room, waiting to have their chores assigned to them, when a furious Chuck strides in, starting to bawl Lil out.
‘… so there will be no more filming, no more Internet access for the rest of your stay here. You’ve signed a confidentiality contract. Remember? Now take off your sunglasses when I’m talking to you, you might as well be sleeping as far as I’m concerned.’
Lil Bling takes off his glasses and blinks. ‘I didn’t exactly sign it. Tom Wordy did.’
‘Sure, you’re a minor. But you read it, and you said you understood.’
‘Jupe was there too,’ Lil blurts out.
Jupiter almost falls off the armrest he had been lounging on. ‘What?’
‘No! I mean, yes. But I didn’t do anything…’ he lets the sentence trail, realizing he would have trouble explaining what he was doing in the girls shower anyway.
‘I’m disappointed in you, Jupiter. I thought your experience with the Medias would make you think twice!’
Jupiter is holding back his tears. ‘I’m sorry, Chuck. Just don’t tell Lola. Please?’
Chuck stares at them a moment, letting them squirm, before continuing, ‘That’s why I’ll confiscate your cells. Starting now.’ He holds his hand out. ‘Yours too.’
‘You can’t be serious. No more Internet?’ Thomas chirps in. ‘For all of us?’ He glares at Lil and Jupiter. ‘Thank’s for that, guys…’
Reluctantly they all give him their cells.
‘Well. I think I’ve made my point. See you at supper. Lil and Jupiter, swing by my office as soon as you’ve got your assignments, we’ve got some social networking to do – including a public excuse.’ With that Chuck leaves.
Derek fishes out the list of chores from his back pocket. ‘Thomas, you’ll come with me and Elspeth into town and get supplies. VJ and Lil, you were supposed to muck out the stables this morning with Chase. She did it on her own, but Johnny is waiting for you to help him get new hay bales into the barn.’
VJ stands up and flexes his imposing muscles. ‘Oh, c’mon guys… Do I have to? I wanted to spend the afternoon working out…’
‘Tossing bales is working out, man,’ Derek says.
Thomas snickers. ‘Don’t knock Lil over this time!’
‘Can’t help the guy’s too weedy to catch a bale.’ VJ grins.
‘Very funny… I’m not weedy, I’m swaggy. And if you consider yourself so damn hench, do it yourself. I can’t even.’ Lil Bling grimaces. But he grabs his jacket anyway and starts for the door.
Derek continues, ‘Jupiter, you have kitchen duty this evening with…‘ He checks his list. ‘Taïga.’ He frowns. ‘Well, you know what to do.’
Lil Bling leers. ‘Of course he doesn’t. Hey, Jupe – I’ll trade my stable duty and get myself some action in the kitchen with the new girl. She’s a hottie, like, an 11! Can’t wait to get her tagged-’
Lil Bling doesn’t have the time to finish his sentence before Derek is looming over him, pushing him against the wall with an iron grip on his jacket. ‘You touch her, dude, or even talk about her like that again, I’ll beat the crap outta you!’
‘Derek! Calm down.’ Teddy urges, pulling his shoulder.
Reluctantly Derek lets go of Lil Bling and backs away, still staring ominously at him.
‘Chill, bro… I didn’t know she was fam.’ Lil straightens out his jacket and picks up his cap. Smiling nervously he backs away, giving Derek room to exit first. ‘Don’t be such a hater.’
Derek stops on the threshold and without turning around he hisses. ‘And don’t call me bro. Duh.’
When Derek gets back from town he finds his brother in their room with Taïga.
‘No, that’s Derek’s… I sleep up there.’
‘Am I interrupting something?’
Taïga whips around so quick she almost loses her balance. ‘God! You scared me! Don’t you ever knock?’
‘It’s my room.’
They glare at each other.
‘What is she doing here?’ he asks Teddy without looking away from her.
Taïga nervously blurts out, ‘Teddy just wanted to show me Big Daddy’s broken guitar and-’
‘Well… you won’t find it in my bed. It’s on the wall behind you.’
Derek strides into his room with panther like grace and slouches against the wall next to the precious object. While Teddy tells Taïga about the famous guitar, Derek just stands there with his arms folded, observing her. She squirms under his gaze, trying not to look at him.
Why can’t he act like when we were kids? We were such good friends – when we didn’t fight, of course… She smiles to herself at the memory of how he got on her nerves as a kid. He was kind of angry at me when I left, but we talked on the phone sometimes, and by mail… Of course we grew apart. And then he started dating Selena…
She bites her lip, and gazes up, surprising the look on Derek’s face. A look of raw pain, his eyes dark with longing. But it is replaced by a scornful smirk in an instant. Blushing she tries to concentrate on Teddy’s tale about how Johnny got Big Daddy’s broken guitar.
‘Cool story, bro,’ Derek says when Teddy has finished, his voice dripping with irony.
‘Wow. Amazing,’ Taïga gushes.
‘Amazing?’ Derek asks. ‘Since when is it amazing for a roadie to pick up the remains from an empty stage?’
Taïga hasn’t listened to a word Teddy was saying, but she’ll never admit it. ‘The way Teddy told it was amazing,’ she says petulantly.
Derek shakes his head incredulously, looking at her with that irritating expression, raising an eyebrow as if she’s saying something totally absurd.
Taïga continues blabbering, feeling obliged to fill the silence. ‘Because he’s such a talented story teller.’ Derek just smirks, infuriating her further. ‘And err… his voice is fascinating.’
Derek burst out laughing. His laughter is contagious, but she just stares at him, irritated. ‘What?’
‘Yeah,’ Teddy adds, ‘What’s so funny?’
‘Nothing. I’ll leave you two to it.’ He walks towards the door.
Good riddance, he’s just spoiling everything. She thinks it so hard she hopes he can hear it. Her attention is drawn by an object next to the door. Something far more interesting than a broken old guitar. ‘And what about the easel? Do you guys ever use it?’
Teddy laughs. ‘No! I can’t draw a line without a ruler!’
Appalled, Derek looks at Teddy and shakes his head. Too late, Teddy continues. ‘But didn’t you say you went to art school in France?’
‘Just take it.’ Derek says before Taïga has a chance to answer.
She lights up, but then frowns, caressing the worn easel. ‘I don’t think I can. Our room is too small and there’s not enough light, anyway.’
‘Too bad.’ Derek starts away again.
‘You can come here and paint if you want,’ Teddy says kindly. Our room is big enough, and I don’t think Johnny would mind – he just sleeps here anyway and you don’t have to stay when he’s around. You could even leave your stuff.’
‘Do you really mean that?’ Taïga looks from Teddy to Derek.
‘Nope. We don’t.’ Derek looks angrily at his brother who doesn’t seem to notice, too busy gawking at Taïga.
‘Sure. It just stands there collecting dust anyway. And it’ll be great to have some art to hang on these bare walls.’
‘Great!’ Taïga decides to ignore grumpy Derek. ‘I brought my sketch block and colors. I can’t wait to paint again!’
Defeated, Derek checks his watch. ‘You’ll discuss painting another day, it’s time to help Jupiter get the supper ready.’
Dang. She had forgotten all about kitchen duty. ‘I can’t cook.’ Oups! Where did that come from? Taïga doesn’t know why she’s lying about her cooking abilities.
‘You’ll learn,’ Derek answers curtly.
‘What if I don’t want to?’
‘You’ll have to.’ He looks at her dead-pan, getting her even more worked up.
‘Why should I?’
‘Because you’re a girl-’ he says irritably, making Taïga gape at him, thinking that he can’t be serious. ‘-and one day you’ll want to please your husband and your kids with a nice homemade stew, or some-’
‘Misogynist.’ Taïga spits.
‘That sounds tasty. Is it French?’ he asks, lips twitching.
‘Look it up in the dictionary, you un-schooled, ill-educated-’
‘Anti-feminist?’ Derek looks at her with that scornful air of his, holding the door up. It takes him an effort to resist the urge to playfully tap her behind when she with a dirty look squeezes past him.
‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you.’ Teddy must have read his mind. Derek grins at his brother who adds, ‘Just hope she doesn’t spit in you food!’
Jupiter is rather nice, and they chat amiably while they prepare a salad and pasta. He seems to know everything about everyone, and she can’t stop laughing at his bitchy description of the inmates. She can’t help but wonder how he would describe her to someone new. There’s only nine of them; three girls and six guys counting Derek and Teddy. No one is a serious offender, apart from Chase, who’s here waiting for her transfer to a juvenile state prison in Louisiana somewhere. Jupiter didn’t want to say what she had done, avoiding the issue by telling her that he didn’t exactly know. He’s more talkative about VJ.
‘VJ’s a thug… You name it – he’s done it! Racket, vandalism, bullying… This is his last chance – next time he’ll go to state prison as he’ll soon be 18. Irony of sorts – his little bro wants to be a police officer. So I guess it kinda stays in the family. Can you imagine Thanksgiving dinner? Huh? Neither can I… And then we’ve got Thomas Castor, our own computer wizard, geek supreme. Can you hand me the salt, please?’
Taïga looks around her, locating the salt on the counter just next to his elbow, but she picks it up nevertheless and hands it to him.
‘Thanks, love. He’s pretty decent, but you don’t understand the gibberish he speaks most of the time – you’d need one of his dang programs to decipher his l33t. The other day he even tried to shoo away a fly from his screen with the cursor. Geeks… They’re really a breed of their own. I asked if he had a girlfriend, and he said he talked to a couple chicks on the net-’ He looks up from stirring the balsamic vinegar and oil dressing he’s preparing, licking his finger. ‘-I said: computer dating is pretty cool– if you’re a computer!’ He rolls his eyes. ‘No wonder he spent his days, and probably even nights, in his basement, hacking away at one program or another. But hacking into the Twinbrook PD’s database was not a smart move… it got him here. I said to him that hacking is like sex. You get in, you get out, and hope that you didn’t leave something that can be traced back to you. As you can see he did. So maybe it’s for the best he doesn’t go viral on some poor girl.’ He adds the tomatoes Taïga has just sliced.
‘And what about Elspeth?’
‘Evil Bitch Elspeth? Well. We went to the same school, but didn’t hang with the same people. You know how it is. I know her parents from one of our parties – memorable. Her mom is very uptight. And when I say very, I really mean styled-within-an-inch-of-her-life uptight. Her dad, though. Total opposite – a smooth operator, that one. He’s a politician on the rising in Bridgeport, corrupt as few. He was trying to get it on with my mom – Lola – the whole evening and ended up in the Jacuzzi on the roof with Hugh Heffner and some of his ladies. Don’t ask me for details – you’re too young and innocent…’
He raises a hand to stop her, but Taïga asks nevertheless. ‘Lola?’
‘Lola Belle.’ He looks at Taïga with apprehension. What will she do now that she knows who he is, and more important, who his adoptive mother is?
But Taïga just nods, ‘I bet you’ve been to more parties than I have, then.’
‘Probably.’ He sighs with relief. She’s not star struck, thank heavens for that. ‘Anyways. Where were I?’
‘Politicians in the Jacuzzi with buxom blondes.’
‘Right. I can’t help but understand him – I doubt if you can find someone more boring than his perfect politician’s wife, Elspeth’s mother, mind you – groomed-within-an-inch-of-her-life and money-loving. I suppose Evil Bitch had to be sent away during her dad’s campaign, she’s not exactly the kind of daughter you’d present to the voting masses… Anyways, I happen to know she’ absolutely crazy about Matthew Hamming, and she was dating his brother – Michael. I know, I know. You’ve never heard of him. Matthew didn’t want to get near her, sleeping with minors isn’t really a problem, he’s done it before, but she’s a well-known politician’s daughter aka bad for his reputation = career. And Elspeth’s mother was flirting wildly with him, too. I guess it really seemed too complicated… So she went for his kid bro instead, who’s only 24 and doesn’t have a career to worry about-‘
He’s interrupted by Derek and Johnny entering the kitchen, followed by Elspeth.
‘Uh-oh, speak of the d-evil…’ Jupiter says, making Taïga giggle. Evil Elspeth.
Derek puts down a crate with oranges and looks over at Taïga and Jupiter, their heads close together, giggling. Elspeth sneaks up to him, laughing and flirting as usual, but he’s not in the mood to play along. They have slept together a couple of times and he ended it. Period. But ever since Taïga showed up this afternoon, she’d been stuck to him like some effing chewing gum under a shoe.
‘Do you think you could drive me to work after school tomorrow, Derek honey?’
‘Nope. Johnny is taking you and Thomas. As usual.’
‘Yep.’ Johnny nods, grabbing an orange on his way out. ‘3 p.m. sharp, on the parking lot.’
Taïga smiles to herself and tries to discreetly check out what’s up between Derek and Evil Elspeth. She would be really disappointed if Elspeth were his girlfriend. Disappointed in his taste of course…
‘Aren’t you interested in my story,’ Jupiter says, pouting.
‘Oh, of course I am. I just didn’t want to push.’
‘No worries.’ He smiles with his perfect, pearly white, capped teeth. ‘I’m just your average celebrity kid – drugged and bored and generally depraved.’ He shrugs, theatrically shredding the last salad leaf. ‘Voilà! It’s ready!’ He adds under his breath, picking up the big bowl, ‘Someone utterly gorgeous is looking over here – wish it was me he’s eyeing…’
Taïga ventures a quick glance at Derek. He’s looking at her like that again, she can’t for the life of her read him. First he looks like he’s angry, then like he’s making fun of her! She can’t stand this… his… Him! Just look at him! Standing there with Elspeth crawling all over him. Evil Bitch!
She empties the water from the pasta, blinking as her eyes burn from the sudden assault of hot steam. She adds some butter and fills a big bowl. Oh, no. She’ll have to walk past them to get into the dining room.
‘Darn it!’ she mutters under her breath. She can do this. No problem.
She straightens her back, blowing away a strand of hair from her face. I’m cool… I’m the ice queen…
She sashays past Derek, trying not to look at him, but she can see how he tries to hide a smile, his eyes twinkling mischievously. Taïga barely resists sticking her tongue out.
Elspeth is fiddling with the zip on Derek’s hoodie. She glares at Taïga over her shoulder. ‘So you can cook too, Miss Perfect? Or is that something you’ve prepared for the horses? It looks disgusting… Yuk! Lucky for us all that Jupiter has made something nice!’
Yeah, hope you choke on it! But she doesn’t say it out loud. Without even a glance at them, she leaves them behind, mumbling her mantra to herself. Don’t let her get to you… You own it, you’re the ice queen.
Derek watches Taïga and Jupiter vanish into the dining room before he turns to Elspeth who’s getting ready to follow them.
‘Can we have a moment, Elspeth? I need to talk to you.’
Elspeth beams at him, but Derek stares her down. ‘OK. I’ve already told you to cut Taïga some slack.’
Her smile vanishes. ‘Why should I? Give me one good reason!’
‘She’s mine. I mean -she’s my friend. Like family? A little sister? Whatever you want. But she’s off limits. Do you understand? OK?’ He looks at her, searching her face to make sure she has got what he just said.
Elspeth nods reluctantly.
‘Good.’ Derek turns to leave.
‘What about us?’
‘Us? There’s no us. We had some good times together, but that’s it.’ He turns on his heels and walks out of the kitchen, leaving Elspeth fuming behind.
She opens and closes her fists. What happened to him? I sure won’t let that little uppity bitch win him over!
‘Aren’t you eating with us tonight, Der?’ she calls after him.
‘No. I’ve got something important to take care of.’
It’s almost midnight when Teddy finds his brother in the barn serving as stable. He’s sitting perched on some hay bales, absentmindedly chewing on a straw and petting Chuck’s Quarter horse, Freebird.
‘Are you sleeping here tonight?’ Teddy asks.
Derek answers with another question, ‘Do you know why she’s here?’
Teddy scratches his belly. ‘Well, she said “nothing”.’
‘Don’t be stupid, Ted. Nobody’s here for nothing!’
‘Where have I already heard that? Oh, yes. Now I remember – Elspeth.’
‘C’mon, don’t drag her into this. You know I’m right.’
‘Well, look at us. We haven’t done anything except being minors with our parents temporarily absent…’
Derek doesn’t answer, just looks attentively at him.
‘OK. You got a speeding ticket and you had had a couple of beers. But you didn’t hurt anyone. Luckily. Ahem.’ Teddy tries to change the subject. ‘You should be careful with the storm lamp, there’s a lot of hay around here…’
But Derek can’t let go.
‘I looked her up.’
‘Vandalism… Destruction of Property… Trespassing… Violation of curfew! God! What happened to her, Ted?’
Teddy sighs. ‘Why don’t you ask her? She said it was a long story, a mistake. And I believe her. You should too.’
Derek doesn’t answer. Since Taïga’s arrival at the ranch this afternoon, his whole world seems to have turned upside down. He’d succeeded in convincing himself that what he felt for her when they were kids were just that – a very childish love… Her being a witch had definitely put an end to the innocent hope he might once have harbored. He had dated girls throughout high school, a lot of girls. But to him they were all the same – faceless bodies with no interest to him…
And now here she is, sweeping in like a spring breeze, just like that… She’s grown even more gorgeous than I’d ever imagined… Dang her! Making me struggle to keep my cool, when all I want to do is drag her into one of the stables and kiss those full lips until she begs me to-
He passes both hands through his hair, burying his head in his arms.
Dude, that girl is not for you…
Part II – End of Chapter 03
A quick introduction to Taïga’s new “friends” at APYR