Chapter 14: Roberta Hughes Preparatory School

The Roberta Hughes uniform (forgotten at the Friedmans’ dry cleaners) didn’t fit Freddie very well.

Okay, so it didn’t fit her at all. It was intended for a boy, which left it too tight in the hips and boobs, and too loose everywhere else.

But Freddie squeezed it on—and she managed to do so without her mom noticing. Then she snuck out of her house and raced to the bottom of her driveway, ready to meet Kyle and Cat promptly at seven AM.

Well, they were prompt. Freddie was two minutes late because she really could not get this button-up to stay closed. She finally had to use a safety pen.

Before Freddie even got in the car, she could hear the crickets screeching. The volume doubled as soon as she opened the backdoor and clambered in.

“Hey!” Kyle shouted over the whistles. “Looking good!”

This was quite an overstatement, but Freddie blushed anyway. Kyle’s uniform—despite also being the forgotten leftover of a former student—fit his shapely body to a T. And although Cat (seated in shotgun) didn’t look quite as flawless as Kyle, at least her uniform was meant for a girl.

“Here,” Cat said once Freddie was buckled in. She also had to pitch her voice over the cricket choir. “Put this on over your hair!”

The it in question was a plain red baseball cap, under which Freddie did not think her hair would actually fit. But it was better than walking around with her dark locks flying everywhere and making it even more obvious she was not a boy.

She, Cat, and Kyle didn’t have to fit in perfectly on the RH campus—but they did need to fit in well enough to avoid close scrutiny while they dumped crickets.

And while Freddie searched the library.

Laina, Luis, and Divya were not joining for this prank. Mainly because all three of them had perfect attendance records (who were these people?), while Cat, Kyle, and Freddie had nothing to lose.

And Freddie had quite a lot to gain. There were answers to be found, and by golly, she would be the one to find them.

Kyle drove with his usual reckless abandon (that would one day become wreck-ful abandon, if he didn’t slow down) out of Freddie’s neighborhood and toward the lakeshore. The blasting heat, though nice, was also making Freddie mildly nauseated.

“Whoa,” Cat said as they shot past the county park’s trail entrance, now roped off with police tape. “What happened there?”

Freddie chewed her lip and pretended not to hear. The windstorm Saturday night had torn down most of the leaves in the county park, leaving the forest barren and the earth all shades of amber and gold. Freddie’s body gave a little shake as she watched the gray trees streak past—and her gut clenched in time to the cricket’s keen.

Those woods aren’t safe right now, Ibrahim had said. First Mrs. Ferris got mauled, and now we’ve got another body…

But there’d been no mention of a body in today’s paper. Freddie had checked. No mention of feds coming to town either, or any clue as to what Ibrahim might’ve been referring to.

Five minutes later, the stone pillar that marked the entrance to Roberta Hughes Preparatory School came into view, and Kyle finally slowed his Mario Kart worthy speeds (and he even flipped on his blinker, the good boy). He pulled in, tires ka-thumping over a speed bump. Then they crossed a low hill surrounded by trees and soon entered the land of the wealthy.

In the daylight, everything on campus oozed money. The only signs of birdseed and corn syrup damage on the frosty lawns were some patches bare of grass and one bench covered in a blue tarp.

Everyone exchanged glorious grins at the side of that.

“F-U, Roberta Hughes,” Kyle said—followed by a delighted, “Hey, that rhymes! F-U, Roberta Hughes. Say it with me, guys!”

No one said it with him.

Moments later, the monstrosity of gables and steeples and Victorian nonsense that made up the preparatory school appeared. Students shambled through the front door—and a few stragglers jogged from the direction of the dorms.

Cat pointed toward a parking lot tucked behind the school. A sign declared it the student lot, which was also where Freddie was supposed to meet Theo.

Suddenly, her heart was beating very fast. She felt dizzy too, and she greatly regretted skipping breakfast (again). She also wish Kyle would turn down the heat.

“All right,” she told Cat and Kyle, swallowing back her nausea and leaning between the front seats. “You know what to do. Dorms, school, and if you’re still uncaught, call —”

“Cat’s cousin,” Kyle interrupted with a grin. “He’s on bystand right now.”

Cat sighed. “He means standby.”

“Oh yeah.” Kyle laughed. “That too.”

And Freddie couldn’t help but laugh with him, the precious little airhead. “All right. When everything is done, call me.” She waved Sabrina at them. “And also, if there is any trouble at all, call me.”

“Aye-aye, Captain!” Cat saluted while Kyle slowed them into a parking spot at the edge of the lot.

Kyle cut the ignition; they all piled out. While Kyle opened his trunk and handed out supplies, Freddie tugged her new cap low. A duffle and a backpack for Cat, two massive trash bags for Kyle, and a final duffle (in bright leprechaun green) for Freddie. All of the bags were distinctly cubical thanks to the crates of crickets within, but like the uniforms, the disguises were just good enough to hopefully past muster.

And fortunately, the instant the crickets were jostled by people, they shut up. “See you soon,” Freddie whispered, then she waited until Cat and Kyle were out of sight around the school (she did not want to be caught meeting Theo Porter) before setting off herself.

She could already see a blonde figure lounging like a Gap model against the lamppost. Freddie gulped. And gulped again, telling herself those weren’t butterflies in her stomach—they were just the residual hum of crickets.

Just crickets, just crickets.

For the first ten steps, the freezing morning air was a relief, but before Freddie was halfway across the lot (wow, there were a lot of nice cars here), she was numb to her core. These blazers were not sufficient warmth.

Theo didn’t seem to notice Freddie’s approach. He was staring at his shoes, hands in his pockets. His face looked marginally better than the day before, in that the swelling had reduced. And against Freddie’s greatest desire, she was forced to admit that “beat up” worked unfairly well on Theo Porter. He looked Very Bad and quite worthy of a musical dance break in leather.

It wasn’t until Freddie waltzed right up to him that he finally seem to realize who she was (which spoke well for the disguises). Theo straightened abruptly, expression mildly aghast as he took in her outfit. Then he tipped his head sideways and peered beneath her cap’s bill. “Gellar? Is that you in there?”

“Barely,” she admitted. “This uniform doesn’t fit very well.” She flicked at the safety pin.

And Theo’s cheeks reddened. He cleared his throat, looked away, and finally rolled his shoulders. “Where did you, uh, even find that get up?”

“A magician never tells her secrets.” Freddie hefted the duffle bag higher onto her shoulder. “Now can I get that key card please?”

“About that.” He eased into a saunter up the steps and toward the school’s back entrance. He didn’t wait to see if Freddie followed. (She did.) “I cannot, in good conscience, allow you to run pell-mell through my library.”

“I would never run in a library, Mr. Porter.”

He smiled—just a flicker that he was clearly trying to fight off. “Be that as it may, you can’t get access without me beside you.”

Ah. This would not work well for Mission Release Crickets.

Freddie hopped the steps faster, frowning at Theo. “What would it take to change your mind?”

“Nonnegotiable.”

“Everyone has a price.”

“Not me.” He smiled again, but this one did not reach his eyes. “So do you want in there or don’t you?” He slowed to a stop before a set of ornate double doors. His hand rested on a brass knob, thumb tapping.

“What about class?” Freddie countered. “You would just skip it?”

“You aren’t the only rebel around here.”

This argument made no sense, although Freddie couldn’t pinpoint the exact fallacy at play. “I told you, though, that the library isn’t part of our prank. I’m just doing research in there.”

This was, in fact, completely true. Freddie wasn’t going to release these pesky crickets in the library—just in the hallway outside.

“And why should I trust you?” Theo’s fingers tightened around the doorknob. “I barely know you, Gellar.”

Freddie glared. She and Theo had exchange saliva; this ought to count for something. Yet every second she wasted here was one less second she had in the library before Kyle and Cat finished their own missions.

So after counting out four Justin Timberlakes, Freddie thrust out her hand. “Fine, Mr. Porter. You win.”

“Great.” He shook her hand, his grip firm and fingers cold from the morning air. “In we go, then. But hey, watch your step; there’s a loose brick there.”

#

The Roberta Hughes library looked like every fancy library Freddie had ever seen in photographs. It was such a stereotype, with its gleaming oak shelves and ladders. With its second level of shelves and aisles and polished wood floors. Even the books looked extra fancy, like the school would rebind any text that would dare possess a softcover garish spine.

Freddie was both delighted by it all and also thoroughly intimidated. In her safety-pinned shirt and hip-hugging khakis, she definitely felt like she didn’t belong. Which admittedly, she did not, but at least she wanted to look like she did.

After a single swipe at the library entrance with his key card, Theo led Freddie inside. She hurried after him, wondering how much longer she had until these crickets started singing. As long as Theo was with her, she couldn’t release them.

What a conundrum. And honestly, it was a wonder Theo hadn’t already asked her about the distinctly cubic shape of her bag. Then again, he seemed preoccupied. That restless energy from Saturday was back, and he kept touching his face. Scrubbing his hair.

Freddie hardly blamed him. She really wanted to touch his face and scrub his hair too. No human had any right to look that good with a black eye.

A librarian glanced up from a desk at the heart of the room when Theo and Freddie approached. Theo grinned and waved. “Hi, Mr. Kowalski,” he called before strutting by.

Mr. Kowalski nodded back and after sparing a cursory glance for Freddie, he declared, “No hats in the library!”

“Sorry,” Freddie replied in what she hoped was a very gruff and very manly voice.

Judging by Theo’s smirking side eye, it was not. Fortunately, Mr. Kowalski didn’t notice—nor did he watch them cut down an aisle or see how Freddie left her hat exactly where it had been all along.

Nor did he catch sight of Freddie’s oddly shaped bag, which she kept shaking every few steps (just to ensure the crickets stayed quiet).

Theo led Freddie all the way to the back of the library, to a quiet corner with a low desk as shiny and spotless as every other surface in the room. Roberta Hughes Preparatory School must spend a lot of money on wood polish.

“Okay,” Theo said, slouching onto the edge of the desk and crossing his arms. “Tell me why you’re here.”

Freddie hesitated. Last night before bed, she’d worked out an explanation for Theo. Though she didn’t like lying, sometimes a detective really had no choice. After all, Theo was the sheriff’s nephew and Freddie had now been warned by two separate cops not to look into City-on-the-Berm.

Of course, Freddie had also not expected Theo to join her here. Her story from last night wasn’t going to cut it as long as he could simply look over her shoulder and see what she was doing.

“Fine,” she said with her most dramatic sigh. She yanked off her cap; her hair tumbled out.

And Theo stiffened against the table. His thumb started tapping.

“I need access to your newspaper archives. Miss Gupta at the Berm Library said that RH had original copies of all the local papers.”

“They do.” Tap, tap, tap. “Why do you need them?”

“I have an essay due,” she said, falling back on part of her cover story from last night. Then she improvised, “On unsolved murders from the 70s and 80s. The articles I needed weren’t at the Berm Library, so here we are.”

Theo’s eyes narrowed. “Why not get a special research permit, then? Why do you need to break in?”

“It’s not ‘breaking in’”—she made air quotes—“if someone is giving you their key card. And I need it now because my paper is due tomorrow.”

“Hmmm,” Theo replied, and Freddie could tell he didn’t believe her. But he also—to her shock—didn’t argue. He just straightened and said, “Follow me. And hey,” he added over his shoulder, “put your hat back on. You could kill a guy with that hair.”

He disappeared down a nearby row, leaving Freddie mildly stunned. He had, yet again, maybe given her a compliment…? It certainly felt like one in her chest (which had gone all tingly and alive).

NO, she reminded herself as she hastily stuff the cap back over her hair and kicked into a jog. He was a Montague. His compliments were poison; she needed to keep her eye on the prize. Enemy. Enemy. Remember your vow. ENEMY.

A short walk later, Theo paused before an arched doorway that looked Very Gothic. He swiped his card over a blocky reader (that totally ruined the door’s creepy vibe). A lock clicked, Theo swung the door wide, and after holding it open for Freddie, he descended down a brightly lit (though also uncomfortably narrow) stairwell. The stairs doubled back once before opening into a large cement cellar packed with wooden filing cabinets. Row after row spanned for as long as the library above ran.

“Wow,” Freddie breathed. “That’s a lot of newspapers.”

“We have the best high school journalism program in the state,” Theo murmured, almost like a reflex. Then he cocked his chin forward, hair flopping, and said, “Local papers are that way.” With a surety that spoke of frequent time spent here, Theo led Freddie halfway down the cellar.

Then he veered right, into a row of more identical cabinets. A desk was wedged between two cabinets, and above it was a basement-style window. Hazy light streamed in.

He waved to the left. “Berm Sentinel over there.” He pointed toward the window-wall. “The now defunct Grayson Gazette over there. And other nearby periodicals are on the right. It’s all arranged by date, so…” He twirled around to face Freddie—quite graceful. Very worthy of the Backstreet Boys.

And, for the first time since Freddie had arrived, some of his restlessness seemed to have melted away. Like this cellar was a place that made sense to him. Like here he could be at ease.

Freddie understood that. She’d felt that, sitting in Bowman’s car or exploring her way through the tiny police office—or just scouring security footage while hunting for a shoplifter. It was in those moments that Freddie had really felt like, Yeah. This is where I’m supposed to be.

“I’m impressed, Mr. Porter.” Freddie set down the bag of crickets at the end of the aisle (giving them a solid kick for good measure). “You know your way around this place.”

He bounced a single shoulder. “I was in the journalism program.”

“Was?”

A beat passed. Then he amended, “Am in the journalism program.”

Freddie didn’t buy that cover, but she also didn’t press him on it. Bad Boys were entitled to their secrets, after all. Plus, she didn’t know how much pestering she could get away with before he either revoked her access to the archives or paid a little too much attention to her duffle bag.

So with only a soft, “Mm-hmm,” as her reply, she strode to the cabinets for the Berm Sentinel. Sure enough, tiny labels declared the years and months, and after quickly finding 1978, Freddie yanked out the drawer.

And there it was. Her own sense of calm. That hunger in her belly that told her she was doing what she was meant to do. It felt good—so good, she scarcely noticed Theo shuffling closer or peeking over her shoulder while she flipped through fat, green folders.

More labels winked up at her, organized by month. “October,” she mumbled to herself. Flip, flip, flip. “October, October…here.” She grinned and eased the enormous file from the cabinet. Without any concern for Theo, she hurried to the dimly lit desk.

Inside were all the papers she had combed only yesterday on the microfiche machine. She thumbed through them, untroubled by the black ink left on her fingertips, until finally she reached…

October 21st.

And then October 23rd.

She checked again. “Twenty-one.” Flip. “Twenty-three. What the hell?” She frowned at Theo. Her gut was tickling. “The twenty-second isn’t in here. Just like at the library.”

Now it was his turn to frown. “That’s weird. You’re not allowed to take papers out of the cellar.” He pulled the folder in front of him and counted, just under his breath, through every issue. All the way up to Halloween of 1978.

But there was still no October 22nd. He shook his head. “Maybe someone left it on the copier?”

“The exact date I need?” Freddie’s eyebrows lifted incredulously.

“I don’t know.” He backed away from the desk. “I’ll go look. Stay here.” In a swirl of detergent-scented air, he spun away.

And for several seconds, Freddie just stood there—completely and totally trapped within a Grave Moral Problem. Quite worthy of the philosophical greats. For if ever there was a moment for Freddie to release crickets, then now was it. Theo was away, and while no, this wasn’t where she was supposed to free the Willies, it might be her only chance to do so.

She crept toward the duffle bag. So innocent. So green. Then she bent around the edge of the rows and squinted to the far end of the cellar. Theo had his back to her.

Now was her moment.

Yet for some stupid, stupid reason, she wasn’t taking it. She was just watching him and chewing her lip.

The copier machine banged shut; Theo turned.

And Freddie kicked the duffle. “Stay quiet,” she hissed for good measure before scooting right back to the desk. She would just have to find another opportunity later. Besides, she told herself, the cellar isn’t a good landing zone for crickets anyway. She needed a spot with more traffic.

Freddie next turned her attention to the Grayson Gazette, not even bothering to remove its October file from the drawer. She searched it right there, and by the time Theo came jogging back (his cheeks deliciously pink) she had already confirmed, “It’s missing here too.”

“It wasn’t on the copier either.” He came to a stop beside her, head shaking. “Check the County Weekly, and I’ll look at the Berm Observer.”

They each did exactly that, moving on to every paper or magazine in print during 1978. And for every single one, the date of October 22nd have been removed.

“Someone took them,” Theo declared from his spot beside a floor level drawer. His thumb toyed with the stitches over his eye. “It’s the only possible explanation—except why does someone want them, Gellar? What happened on that day?”

“It’s not what happened on the twenty-second,” Freddie explained. “It’s what happened on the twenty-first.” She slid her attention to a green folder before her—November 1978. It would seem several dates from this month were missing too.

Meaning those issues must also have had information on the mysterious affair at City-on-the-Berm County Park.

“So what happened on the twenty-first, then?” Fabric scraped, as if Theo were rising.

“It’s what I told you Mr. Porter there was an unsolved mystery.” That wasn’t a total lie.

“What kind of murder?” He moved to the desk and leaned against it. A split second later, his arms folded over his chest… And a split second after that his thumb started tapping.

So predictable.

“Why do you care?” Freddie picked through the November issues, counting how many were gone. Six in total.

“I care because I’m helping you, and you owe me a full explanation.”

Freddie supposed this was fair. “Okay,” she said flatly. “On October 21st, 1978, someone got decapitated in City-on-the-Berm County Park, and as messed up as that was, what makes it extra weird is…Wait a minute.” Freddie frowned Theo’s way. “Why did you just gasp like that?”

He didn’t answer. His whole face had gone white. Even his busted lips had paled, and his black eye looked a sickly green.

Which was not the reaction Freddie had expected. Mild horror, sure. Disgust, fine. Casual disinterest, okay. But instead Theo looked like he might vomit. He was even pressing the back of his hand to his lips.

“What…makes it extra weird?” he squeezed out.

“That the same thing happened again in 1987.” Freddie spoke these words with total detachment, gaze rooted on Theo. “Another beheading.”

Yeah, he really looked like he might vomit. “1987?” he said, mouth still covered with his fingers. “Let’s look.” He shoved off the table, a jerky movement. None of his earlier grace.

“It was during October,” Freddie offered.

Theo grunted an acknowledgment. Then, in a flurry of speed, he found the 1987 files for the Berm Sentinel. He didn’t bother closing the drawer before striding back to the desk and tearing it wide. Seconds later, he had found the same article Frank Carter had cut out only a few weeks before his heart attack.

Freddie watched as Theo’s eyes raced over the headline—Headless Body Found in County Park—and then over the entirety of the article.

Somehow, his face went paler.

And Freddie could tell, deep in her gut, that Theo Porter knew something. “What is it?” she asked. “This means something to you, doesn’t it?”

He didn’t try to deny it. He just nodded, a ragged movement. “This.” He poked at the headline. “It just happened again.”

Freddie gasped—because suddenly she understood. Theo was talking about the second body. The one Ibrahim had accidentally mentioned. It must’ve been a decapitation too… “But how do you know that, Theo?”

He swallowed. “My aunt slipped up and said something she shouldn’t have.”

“Well, what did she say?” Freddie canted toward him. “Do you know what they found?”

“Just another body. No head. By the beach.” Theo’s face tightened, like he was remembering something he very much didn’t want to remember.

But before Freddie could press him with any more questions, he suddenly straightened. And just like that, his pallor was gone; the steady, determined Theo had returned. “You said the same thing happened in 1978? A decapitation on October 21st?”

A nod from Freddie.

“But if all the articles are missing, then how do you know?”

“Because,” Freddie said, and in quick terms, she described the article she’d found about why the Lumberjack Pageant had been moved. About a beheaded body and the traumatized, drunk guy who’d been with the victim. “That was all the article described, though. No details about who those people were or what the police had found.”

“Okay,” Theo said slowly. He ran a hand through his hair, gaze skating up and down the cabinets. “So let’s say someone came in here and removed all those articles from 1978. Why not take the ones from 1987 too?”

“I…don’t know.” And Freddie didn’t know. She had come here hoping for answers, and now all she had were more questions.

“Then let’s check the Chicago papers.” Theo motioned to an aisle across the room. “If there was something that fucked up happening, then it would have reached the cities.” Without waiting to see if Freddie followed, he loped away.

And Freddie scampered after him. Now her gut was really singing. “So you think someone went into the local libraries and removed all the articles about October 21st, 1978—and no one noticed?”

“What other explanation could there be?” Theo slung into an identical row of cabinets with an identical desk and window. “You know it’s not just a coincidence, Gellar.”

No. It wasn’t. And as much as Freddie appreciated Theo helping her on this…

She grabbed his arm and tugged him to a stop. “Why do you care?”

He paused mid stride. Then he turned to face her, beat-up and gorgeous. “Why do you care?”

“I told you—”

“A paper on unsolved mysteries? Bull shit.” He sniffed. “I think you’re investigating the weird shit happening at City-on-the-Berm exactly like my aunt told you not to do.”

Freddie’s lips compressed. She couldn’t argue with him on that. Anything she might say, he would see right through. She just wasn’t a very good liar.

“I think you think something is going on,” Theo continued. “Something that connects a suicide to a water bottle… And something that got my grandmother put in the hospital.”

“So because of your grandmother, you also want answers?” Freddie’s eyes narrowed skeptically. “Something doesn’t add up here, Mr. Porter.”

“Oh, because it all adds up for you? What’s your stake in this? As far as I can tell, you have none.”

Freddie’s lips parted, lungs readying to retort that this was what she did. That she was the answer-finder, and as long as there were answers to be found, she would sniff them out.

But before she could utter a single word, a car alarm blasted outside. A blaring bah-bah-bah.

And Freddie’s lips instantly clamped shut. This was not good timing.

Two whole seconds passed before understanding washed over Theo’s face. “Oh my god.” He laughed, a bitter sound, and swung his attention toward the nearest window. “That’s my car, isn’t it?”

There was nothing Freddie could do but nod. And grimace.

In four long steps, Theo reached the nearest desk. He climbed up and peered out the window. Then he spotted what Freddie already knew would be out there: a locksmith opening his Honda Civic.

God dammit, Gellar.” He dropped back to the ground and advanced on her, arm flinging toward the parking lot. “What happened to ‘the library is for something else?’”

“It is.” She pointed to the filing cabinets. “You know I’m here for these articles.”

“And why should I believe you? Maybe this is just some fucked up prank. Did Davis put you up to this?”

“What?” Freddie reared back. “What does that even mean?”

“Did you come in here earlier and steal all the papers from 1978? Just to distract me while your fuckin’ cronies broke into my car?”

“That,” Freddie declared, “sounds ridiculous. Listen to yourself! How could I have removed those newspapers? I didn’t even know you would come down here with me.”

Theo blinked. Then deflated slightly, as if realizing this was in fact true: Freddie couldn’t have possibly known he would insist on joining her. He scowled toward the parking lot.

“And look.” Freddie marched toward her duffle bag, hands waving. “Do you see that? Do you wanna know what’s inside? It’s a crate filled with a hundred crickets. I was supposed to release them while I was in the building, but you know what? I chose not too, Theo. Surely that counts for something.”

“Crickets?” Theo stared at the duffle bag. “You and your friends came here to release crickets?”

“Yup.”

He ran his tongue over his teeth, the lines of his body deflating even more. “But you’re also here to break into my car.”

“They aren’t breaking into your car. Cat’s cousin is a perfectly legitimate locksmith.”

“That was your idea though, wasn’t it?” He took a step toward Freddie. “No way they came up with that idea.”

“No,” Freddie admitted.

“So what if I told you the prank book isn’t in there? Your plan completely falls apart.”

“Except I wouldn’t believe you.” Freddie puffed out her chest, refusing to be intimidated by his approach. Theo was only three steps away from her now. “You see, if I were you, Mr. Porter, I would have moved the prank book as soon as I realized the other school knew where it was. The most obvious hiding place would be your car. Because it’s locked, of course.”

Was locked.” He eased another step toward her.

“Fair enough.” She shrugged slightly. “It was locked.”

Another step. “And what’s to keep me from running out there right now and stopping them?”

“Go for it,” Freddie said.

“Oh? You mean you wouldn’t interfere?”

She rolled her eyes as hard as she could. “I told you, Mr. Porter, I’m not here to distract you.”

“And what if I said…” He paused, jaw muscle fluttering. Tongue flicking over his lips. Then he closed the final step between them. “And what if I said my life was a fucking mess right now. What if I said that all I wanted was to be distracted?”

It took Freddie two heartbeats to understand what he was telling her. Two heartbeats filled with a car alarm and the burgeoning whistle of impatient crickets.

Then the reality of his words, of what he was implying, careened into her.

Her breath punched out. “I…I’m sure there are lots of people who would willingly distract you.”

“And maybe I don’t want lots of people, Gellar. Remember how I said I’d be impressed if you got the log book? Well, here I am. Impressed.”

“Is…is this a prank?” Freddie croaked. Theo spoke like a teen movie; people didn’t say those sorts of things in Real Life. And they certainly didn’t say them to her.

“No.” He scratched the back of his neck. “If, uh…If anyone from RH found out I was down here with you, telling you what I just told you…Well, it would not be great for me.”

“So why did you tell me that? And why are you still here?”

“I don’t know really,” he admitted. “But you’re still standing here too, so I figure that has to count for something.”

Yes, Freddie was still standing here too—and she supposed he was right: it counted for something.

It also counted that Theo was very close now. Close enough for Freddie to see each of the stitches over his left eye (four of them) and also how bloodshot his black eye really was. And yes, he had been standing close to her all morning, but now it was different.

Now, there was an energy about him that was aching and exposed. That had nothing left to lose and didn’t care about enemies or rivals or Montagues at war.

This was the Theo from the picnic tables.

This was the Theo holding out his stone heart, and suddenly—just like that—Freddie realized she did indeed know what to do.

 

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