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LAYLA'S NEW ATTITUDE LEFT a bad taste in my mouth

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LAYLA'S NEW ATTITUDE LEFT a bad taste in my mouth. How could her demeanor change so quickly?

Sighing, I cleared my mind. It was none of my business. I needed to focus on what was important, which was saving Rucker and finding a goddamn blind spot.

But something stalled me once again.

Jookie popped out from around the corner with a big grin.

I flinched at the sudden invasion, flopping backward. My head smashed into the corner of a picture frame on the wall, intense pain scorching my scalp. "Ouch," I whispered, rubbing my head while staring at Jookie.

Today, he looked casual. His black skinny jeans looked pressed, matching his dark floral tank that exposed his full-length tattoos.

"Ello, Ms. Peach," Jookie said, touching the braids in his hair.

"Hello," I said, clicking off my iPad.

He cocked his head to the side, a happy grin on his lips. "Whatcha doin?" he asked, sounding like a chipper little boy. His eyes glazed over my body like he was trying to read me.

"Exploring," I said.

His thin fingers touched his smooth, pink lips. "That's all?"

The way he said that made me think that he didn't believe me. Was I becoming too obvious with my explorations? Did people know I was looking for blind spots?

I shrugged, letting Tini float out. Lying was her forte. "Just trying to know my surroundings. It might be helpful later."

"It would be helpful... yes," he said in a soft tone, still eyeing me.

"Better for me to have one up on my enemies," I said. "In case, they come for me."

Jookie wiggled his eyebrows, eyes sparkling now. "Oooo, so you have an enemy, my precious peach?"

This was reality television. What was the main reason people watched it? Conflict. Drama. Playing up that role, especially for Jookie, might get some suspicion off my back.

"Yes," I said. "One."

"And who is that?" Jookie asked, teeth glinting in the scone lighting.

"Gmie." As far as I knew, I'd never trust her, and she probably had the same idea about me.

"You and Harvard, not getting along? Not surprising." Jookie laughed, deep and loud. "She's all control and bite. A natural leader," he said, gazing into my eyes. "And while you may look like a follower, you're far from one, aren't you?"

My brain searched for something to say, but I wasn't sure on how to answer him. Swift quietness blanketed the air, our eyes staring into one another.

"I see you haven't requested anything," Jookie said, breaking the silence. "You have fans begging to buy you things."

"I'm fine at the moment," I said.

Jookie licked his lips. "You must want something."

Yeah, I did. Hair products, clean clothes, a bed, Cheetos and peanut butter, and a television with cable, so I could binge on some Rick and Morty and forget about my existence for a while.

"I'm really okay," I said.

He shrugged, palms out. "Alright, but those clothes won't last forever. Things have a habit of disappearing around here."

Did he just imply that he'd steal my clothes? To make me request things?

"Requesting things isn't mandatory," I said.

"No. It's not," he agreed. "But it would make your life here much easier."

"Maybe," I said, eyeing him.

Jookie giggled, reminding me of a whistle. "Well, I'll be on my way then. Unless you have something you want to talk about?"

Huh? What was he talking about? I stared at him. He didn't seem angry, actually the opposite. Happy. He must be trying to bait me, to see if I'd reveal anything.

Okay, if he wanted to play that game, I'd do the same.

"No," I said, backing up. "I'm good."

He pouted. "Are you afraid of me?" he asked.

I paused for a moment, deciding to answer honestly. "Wary. I'm wary of you."

"And why is that?" he asked, arching his brows.

"Because I don't know your motives," I said.

Jookie was a hard cookie to read. Everyone knew he got enjoyment out of this but was he simply just a host? Or more? What was his true role here?

"I'm just your everyday reality show host," he said, eyes sparkling with mischief.

"Yeah, but you know everyone's secret," I said, baiting him. "Along with the viewers."

Jookie stared at me, eyes filling with glee. "The viewers don't know, but of course, I do. I wouldn't be able to have any fun if I didn't." He laughed. "But you already knew that. You just wanted me to confirm it, right?"

"Yes." It made sense that the viewers didn't know our secrets. It'd be more fun for them to find out when the contestants did. Plus, it gave viewers a reason to come back and watch us.

As for Jookie, I already knew that he knew our secrets. The way that he looked at us gave it away. I only brought it up to find out about the viewers.

He winked at me. "Are you trying to seduce me, my precious peach? Trying to get me to spill important details?"

"No." I shrugged. "That would be a stupid thing to do because you're too smart for that."

He placed a hand on his hip. "Correct."

"Well, I should get back to my room," I said, walking around him, but he stopped me.

Jookie bent forward, sliding into my personal space. Spicy roses nipped at my senses, wafting off his body in small doses. "Because you're one of my favorites, I'll give you one helpful tip. You have more than one enemy here, my little peach."

♟♙♟

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