Chapter 93

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February 2015

"Stop fiddling Ellie, you look gorgeous!" Derrick scolds me for hundredth time tonight as he leads me around the dance floor, but I can't help myself. I feel uncomfortable just being here this evening and know in my gut that it was probably a bad idea. But who am I kidding? I know why I really came and it has nothing to do with my date. My eyes slide past Derrick as I scan the room hoping to spot a glimpse of Jared. It's been too long and I'm starting to feel the loss of him from my life.

I spot Allison Allston across the room dancing with Jared's father, Declan, so I know that he must be here somewhere nearby. Theo is chatting up some of his clients by the bar and in the far corner Max is talking to both Nina and her father, but still no sign of Jared. It makes me nervous that I haven't seen him yet. I know it's going to be horribly awkward and I'd just like to get the whole thing over with.

Derrick holds me tighter against him, bringing me back to the dance floor with him. I glance up at him with apologetic eyes; I've been a rotten date this evening. Caroline has him decked out in a joker's costume; Derrick explained that he was supposed to be a fool for love. I didn't laugh at the irony.

"Sorry," I apologize as he leans his head down and touches it to mine causing the tiny bells on the tips of his joker hat to jingle.

"Don't apologize Ellie; I'll never forget how much you're helping me out here."

I give him a small smile, but really I'm feeling sad. Even though I now know why I'm helping him out, it doesn't make it any easier to accept. I know that I've walked straight into fate's hands again but I also know what would have happened if I'd said no. I pull him closer to me.

"I wish you didn't feel like you had to hide," I whisper into his chest. He sighs deeply into me, resting his chin on top of my head.

"Me too, Ellie; me too." He's quiet for a bit, just swaying with me, both of us wishing we were in someone else's arms. "Listen, I know things aren't going well for you at home right now," he begins. Immediately I start to make excuses for Coco, but he continues, talking over me. "If something were to happen with your mother, you know I'd never let you go back to foster care, right? Caroline and I wouldn't let that happen. You know that, right?"

Derrick remembers. He was there when I lived in that awful house and remembers what it was like for me to endure that excuse for a foster father. He witnessed what it did to me, the shell I turned into. It's only thanks to Caroline and him that I didn't stay that way permanently.

"Just know that would never have to be an option for you again," he promises.

Nodding, I reach up and take his face in my hands, grateful for the offer even though I already knew it was coming. It always does, there's no stopping it. Every lifetime I get called back to that house, the only difference is this time I'm not as afraid.

"Ellie." Derrick lifts his chin over my shoulder, pointing at something behind me.

I turn around without thinking. It's stupid of me. I should've known from his tone that it wasn't something good. My heart skips a beat at seeing Jared standing there off to the side, before I have to remind it not to. I try not to be hurt by the scowl he wears as he swigs from a bottle of beer, staring directly back at me. My hand drops from Derrick's face and I'm sure I go a little pale. Jared covers his eyes with dark sunglasses, as he's distracted by a girl I don't know tugging on his sleeve. I spin back into Derrick, closing my eyes and catching my breath, trying to swallow down my jealousy.

"What was that?" Derrick whispers in a tight voice. I shrug and shake my head.

"I don't know."

"He can't be jealous can he? I mean you guys broke up months ago. He was fine at thanksgiving--"

"I don't know Derrick! Go and ask him if it's so important to you!" I snap. Jared and the girl, who is dressed as some sort of pixie, start dancing together. I feel my own resentment start to spark within me.

Instantly I regret my behavior, but mostly I hate the fact that I'm exposing some of the feelings that I've worked hard to keep hidden from everybody else. Derrick seems thrown by how defensive I've become and stares down at me with questioning eyes.

"I'm sorry," I apologize.

I do my best to finish the dance without sneaking glances over at Jared; it's almost an impossible task. When Derrick suggests swiping a drink from the bar, I'm all for it. Soon the evening begins to fly by. Derrick is in rare form tonight and the life of the party, drinking like a fish. It's exhausting, keeping the charade going, pretending to be in love with him. My cheeks hurt from the phony smile I've had to wear on my face all night.

Finally Caroline, who's been MIA most of the evening, reappears and rescues me from a group of Derrick's friends by dragging me off to the ladies room with her. She seems unusually giddy, even for her.

"Aren't you having the best time ever?" she asks, twirling down the hallway as we make our way to the restrooms. I roll my eyes but unable to help myself from smiling along with her.

"Apparently not as good time as you are! Where've you been? You've ditched me for the like the entire night. The last time I saw you, you were dancing with that guy from the wrestling team."

Caroline grins like she's got a secret and a pit forms in the bottom of my stomach. That's when I know it's happening again. I stop walking and drag her to a standstill beside me.

"Caroline, you were gone forever!" My voice grows serious. She smiles again and then twirls once more, before finally answering my question.

"I was with Margaret Souda and her friends. They had a joint." She shrugs giving me a half smile.

"A joint, huh?" I look over her face. She doesn't really seem stoned, just giddy. I'm not sure if I believe her story.

"Don't be mad," she commands. "I've been really good lately." She's starting to get defensive even though I haven't even opened my mouth. She pulls me behind her, heading to the bathroom again. Once we reach the door, I stop, blocking it, as I turn and face her.

"I'm not mad," I assure her, plucking some pine needles from her tousled hair and hoping that I sound sincere. "It's just the drugs aren't the only thing I'm worried about."

A flash of worry crosses her face. She knows what I'm referring to. For a moment I think that maybe she's going to open up to me, but then the bathroom door swings open, knocking me forward and Caroline bursts out laughing. She grabs my arm before I can open my mouth again and drags me into the bathrooms behind her. The moment has passed.

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