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an SAT/ACT vocabulary novel

Chapter Three

Part 2

“Yeah, Cheryl pretty much detests me,” Danielle said over lunch that afternoon.

I placed my tray of food at a table near the wall and dropped my books on an empty chair. The aroma coming from the kitchen caused my stomach to grumble inaudibly. I was still in shock over the fact that the lunch lady had grilled my hamburger right in front of me, making sure it was medium rare the way I’d ordered it. This wasn’t a school lunch. It was fine American cuisine.

“Why?” I asked, dumbfounded. Who could hate a sweet, innocuous person like Danielle? I mean, the girl had given up half of her closet for my clothing overflow. She was a saint.

“Cheryl was biased before she ever even met Danielle,” David explained, shoveling French fries into his mouth. “All she had to hear was that we had a new genius on our hands and she was ready to hate whoever it was.”

“Oh, so you’re a genius?” I teased.

Danielle flushed and looked down at her hands. “I’m probably going to be valedictorian,” she said, her smile abject. “Apparently Cheryl was the forerunner and then I got here . . . .”

“So you surpassed the princess and she couldn’t handle it,” I said, glancing across the room at Marshall and his raucous friends. Cheryl was gabbing with a bevy of impeccably dressed girls, casting scathing looks in my direction every few seconds. They were probably making some obnoxious assessments about me and my wardrobe. “You gotta love it when people are that predictable.”

“Amen,” David said with a laugh. “I think surprises are highly overestimated.”

At first this statement caught me off guard. David seemed to have exactly the kind of fun-loving personality that would thrive on surprises. But then I remembered his file and it actually made sense. A guy who broke into houses to see if he could bilk the alarm system? Someone who hacked into the school’s computers to keep watch over his classmates? That, my friends, is a control freak.

“Well, it’s not my fault I’m here. I didn’t even want to come. My parents only sent me because they thought I would have a better chance of getting into Harvard if I had a Hereford diploma,” Danielle said. She glanced across the room at Cheryl. “I wish they would move on already and stop directing their animosity at me.”

“They?” I asked.

“It’s not just Cheryl, it’s her friends,” David explained, rolling his eyes. “That whole crowd. They’re total lemmings. Going against Cheryl and Marshall is like . . . blasphemy around here.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Well, then, no offense, Danielle, but David, why did you rise above the crowd?”

They both laughed and I was glad Danielle didn’t seem to take umbrage to my question. David shrugged, smiling across the table at her.

“What can I say? I took the time to actually know the girl and I like her,” he said. “Except she has this nasty tooth-picking habit.”

“David! I do not!” Danielle said, tossing a crumpled napkin at him.

I smiled and dug into my lunch. If I had been at Hereford to make friends for life, I had definitely landed the right roommate. Danielle and David were clearly two of the more congenial people at this school.

Except he’s still a suspect, Kim. It could just be a façade, I told myself. You can’t get sucked in.

Unfortunately, it sounded like being friends with them was going to hinder any strides I might otherwise make with the cream of the crop, so to speak. If Marshall and Cheryl really hated Danielle, then the more I hung out with Danielle and David, the slimmer my chances of being accepted into Marshall’s crowd. And I had to be accepted. The investigation depended on it.

“So why were you talking to Marshall Cone anyway?” David asked.

“Oh, I want to join the karate team,” I replied, eyeing Marshall as he wolfed down his second burger.

“Really? You do karate? That’s astonishing,” Danielle said, her eyes wide. “Are you any good?”

“Hey, you’re talking to the girl who won the Connecticut State Tournament last year,” I replied.

The second the words had left my mouth, my stomach was in upheaval. Kim Sharpe was supposed to be from California, not Connecticut.

“I thought you just moved here,” Danielle said, not missing a beat.

Oh, God. They knew I was a fraud! I hadn’t even lasted a full day before blowing my cover. Why couldn’t I refrain from listing my many accomplishments? Was my ego that inflated?

“Oh, I meant the California State Tournament,” I said with an embarrassed laugh. “Connecticut . . . California . . . . I guess I just have Connecticut on the brain.”

“California, huh? You don’t seem like a California girl,” David said. I was so happy that he’d moved on I could have screamed.

“That’s why they ostracized me,” I replied lightly, even though my heart was still pounding. “I think it was the brown hair that pushed them over the edge.”

Danielle and David laughed, easing my nerves even further. “Where did you go to school?” Danielle asked.

“Stanford Prep,” I said. My mother had decided it would behoove all of us if we set Kim Sharpe’s past in a place I was familiar with so that I could talk freely. So Northern California and the Stanford area it was. If only I could remember that in casual conversation!

“Why did you transfer?” David asked. “I mean, you could have stayed even if your parents moved, right?”

“Yeah, but my mom didn’t like the idea of being so far away from me, so . . . .”

Overbearing parents,” Danielle said. “I can relate.”

“Well, good luck with Marshall,” David told me. “He’s a little intense.”

Oooh. I could tell a spillage of inside info was imminent. Maybe I could make up for my earlier flub. “How so?” I asked. Leading questions . . . .

David smiled conspiratorially. “Little known fact about Marshall?” he said, leaning across the table. I leaned in as well. “He’s here on scholarship.”

I made my mouth drop open. “Really?” I said. Like I didn’t already know this. I was so duplicitous.

“Yep. For sports,” David told me, nodding. “He’s gotta produce on the field and keep his GPA up or he’s outta here.”

“He didn’t seem too intense in history today,” I pointed out.

“It’s a ruse,” David told me. “He does that for his groupies, but he’ll probably write an extra few pages on the paper to make up for it. Does it all the time.”

“How do you know all this?” I asked. “Are you clairvoyant or something?”

Danielle and David exchanged a knowing look. “I have my ways,” David said.

Yeah. You hacked into the school’s central computer, I thought, resisting the urge to call him out. My brain was dancing around to the tune of “I know something you don’t know! Na-na-na-na-na.”

Sometimes my brain can be so callow.

I was about to ask him to elaborate when I saw someone emerge from the lunch line out of the corner of my eye. It struck me as incongruous because most of the students had gotten their food and sat down by now. I felt all the blood rush to my head as I realized I was looking at my third suspect.

Jon Wisnewski was slouching his way across the cafeteria with a heaping tray of food. He kept his eyes trained straight ahead and down toward the floor. His jacket was so big for his thin frame that it billowed out behind him as he walked. He shoved through the metal door at the top of the room and trudged outside where he took a seat at one of the picnic tables in the quad.

Even though it was about ten degrees outside, he proceeded to sit there and eat his lunch, his breath making mist clouds in the frigid air. He was even hotter in person—in that moody, scowling way.

“Kim? What’re you staring at?” Danielle asked.

“Sorry,” I said. “Guess I zoned out for a second there. See? I am a California girl.”

My joke earned a couple of smiles and then they thankfully moved on to the subject of Nitkin’s assignment, leaving me free to watch Jon for a few more minutes. Anyone who would choose to sit outside alone in the freezing cold rather that eat lunch among his classmates was either a total outcast or an avowed introvert. There was something about Jon that made me think it was the latter—he was solo by choice. I had a feeling Jon Wisnewski was going to be a tough nut to crack.

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