three

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I told mom that I had to work on a History project with a friend. If I told her where I was really going, she'd ask a hundred questions that I couldn't begin to answer.

"But it's five thirty, Ariana! You haven't had dinner yet."

"I grabbed a snack."

"Can't it wait until tomorrow?"

"No," I told her. "I'm not even hungry."

She paused, my words sinking in. "You have a new friend?"

"Not really. It's just a girl. The teacher put us together."

"Could this person become a friend?"

I groaned, rolling my eyes for emphasis. She backed off. "There's salad in the fridge. Take some," she said.

I shook my head, my ponytail swatting the air like a horse trying to get a fly off its tail. "Okay, fine." I opened the fridge, stuck my hand in, and plucked out a tomato.

"Ariana!"

I looked at her innocently. "I have to go."

She heaved a dramatic mother sigh. "So what's this assignment about, anyway?"

"Um, it's a debate. I'm on the side that thinks Senator McCarthy was an ass."

"Watch that mouth," she warned.

I snatched my coat and was halfway out the door when she called out, "He was, actually."

I looked over my shoulder.

"An ass," she clarified. "Be home by nine."

I gave her a big, rewarding grin and stepped out into the startling cold night.

......

Justin stretched his lanky frame across a king-size bed smack in the center of the studio apartment. "You have no idea how happy I am to see you all."

The other members sat cross-legged on the floor, looking up at him like toddlers on the first day of preschool. The only thing missing were carpet squares. I glanced at the sole chair in the room, stationed by a window. Zoe patted the space next to her and shifted over to make room for me.

"Welcome to the League," Justin said.

Nora gawked at him like he was the Messiah. I couldn't really blame her. I'd found myself staring at him once or twice or twenty times. Justin was good-looking, which was as much of an understatement as saying that Joshua Bell can play violin. His eyes were the same shade of brown as dark chocolate, framed with dark eyebrows that made his gaze seem even more potent.

"This group is a puzzle. If a piece was missing, it wouldn't work." Justin spoke with a confidence that was impossible to ignore. He could probably be friends with anyone he chose, if only he wasn't so ... intense. Yep, that was it, from the statement-making hair to the way he commanded the room without saying a word. I bet some people couldn't deal with his intensity. I liked to think I wasn't one of them.

I stole looks around Justin's tiny apartment whenever I had the chance. There were almost no cabinets. Everything from cooking pans to shampoo was lined up neatly, in plain view. Justin's shower was a part of the kitchen, as visible as the refrigerator. Only a chipped white toilet in the closet-size bathroom offered any privacy.

My eyes stopped at the mahogany desk in the corner. Justin owned every imaginable device known to man. An homage to Apple, I thought, as I took in the MacBook Pro with an enormous monitor, iPad on a stand, and an iPod touch resting in the docking station of a bullet-shaped speaker.

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