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“S-sure,” Aria stammered, her voice cracking.
“I know the perfect place in Hollis,” Jason said. “You can follow me there, okay?”
Aria nodded, grateful he hadn’t suggested the Yee-Haw Saloon down the street. Jason let her go first up the narrow stairs that led to the station. As they walked to their cars, something flickered in Aria’s peripheral vision. The figure she’d seen earlier was standing at the station window, looking out. Whoever it was wore big sunglasses and a puffy coat with the hood pulled tight, obscuring his or her facial features. Even so, Aria had the distinct sense that the person was staring right at her.
Aria followed Jason’s black BMW into Hollis. She made a point to check his back bumper for any big dents, remembering what Emily had said about her and Jason’s altercation the other day. But as far as she could tell, the bumper was flawless and dent-free.
After they both found parking spaces on the street, Jason led her down a narrow alley and up the stairs of an old Victorian house with the word BATES hanging on a sign over the front porch. There was a creaky black rocking chair off to the right, as spindly as a skeleton.
“This is a bar?” Aria looked around. The Hollis bars she knew, like Snooker’s and the Victory Brewery, were dark, foul-smelling places that had no decoration besides a few neon Guinness and Budweiser signs. Bates, on the other hand, had stained-glass windows, a brass knocker on the front door, and a bunch of long-dead hanging plants swinging from the porch ceiling. It reminded Aria of the creaky mansion her Reykjavík piano teacher, Brynja, lived in.
The door swung open, leading to an enormous parquet-floored parlor. Red velvet couches lined the sides of the room, and dramatic curtains billowed over the windows. “Supposedly the place is haunted,” Jason whispered to her. “That’s why they call it Bates, like the Bates Motel from Psycho.” He walked up to the bar and sat on a stool.
Aria looked away. Back before Ali’s body had been found, she’d thought A was Ali—or maybe her ghost. The blond flashes she’d seen had probably been Mona, who’d stalked each of them for their dirtiest secrets. But now that Mona was dead, Aria still sometimes swore she saw someone with blond hair just like Ali’s duck behind trees and appear at windows, watching her from beyond the grave.
A short-haired bartender dressed in black took their orders. Aria asked for pinot noir—she thought it seemed sophisticated—and Jason ordered a gimlet. When he noticed Aria’s confused expression, he said, “It’s vodka and lime juice. A girlfriend at Yale got me into it.”
“Oh.” Aria ducked her head at the word girlfriend.
“She’s not my girlfriend anymore,” Jason added, which made Aria blush more.
They got their drinks, and Jason slid his gimlet over to her. “Try it.” She took a dainty sip. “It’s good,” she said. It tasted like Sprite, except way more fun.
Jason folded his hands, a curious smile on his lips. “You seem awfully comfortable drinking in a bar.” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “You almost have me fooled that you’re twenty-one.”
Aria slid the gimlet back to him. “I spent the last three years in Iceland. They’re not as strict about drinking, and my parents were pretty lenient. Plus, I never had to drive home, either—my house was a couple of blocks away from the main drag. The worst thing that happened was I once tripped over the cobblestones after having too much Brennivín schnapps and skinned my knee.”
“Europe seemed to really change you.” Jason leaned back and appraised her. “I remember you as this awkward kid. Now, you’re…” He trailed off.
Aria’s heart pounded. She was…what? “I fit in better in Iceland,” she admitted when it was clear he wasn’t going to finish his sentence.
“Well…” Aria stared at the oil portraits around the room of old aristocratic women. Underneath each of their portraits were their birth and death dates. “Guys, for one. In Iceland, they didn’t care if I was popular. They cared about what music I listened to or what books I liked to read. In Rosewood, guys only like one kind of girl.”
Jason propped his elbows on the bar. “A girl like my sister, you mean.”
Aria shrugged, looking away. That was what she meant, but she hadn’t wanted to say Ali’s name out loud.
An expression Aria couldn’t parse floated over Jason’s face. She wondered if Jason knew the effect Ali had had on guys—even older ones. Had Jason known about Ali’s secret relationship with Ian at the time, or had that come as a surprise after he was arrested? How did Jason feel about it?
Jason sipped his gimlet, his serious look gone. “So did you fall in love a lot in Iceland?”
Aria shook her head. “I had some boyfriends, but I’ve only been in love once.” She clumsily took another swig of wine. She’d hardly eaten anything today, and the wine was taking hold fast. “It was with my AP English teacher. Maybe you heard about it.”
A crease formed between Jason’s eyes. Maybe he hadn’t.
“It’s over now,” she said. “Honestly, it was a disaster. He was asked to leave his teaching position…because of me. He left town a couple of months ago and said he’d keep in touch, but I haven’t heard from him.”
Jason nodded sympathetically. Aria was surprised how comfortable it felt to tell him this. Something about him made her feel safe, like he wasn’t going to judge her.
“Have you ever been in love?” she asked.
“Only once.” Jason tipped his head back and swallowed the rest of his drink. The ice rattled against the empty glass. “She broke my heart.”
“Who was it?”
Jason shrugged. “No one important. Not now, at least.”
The bartender brought Jason another gimlet. Then Jason poked Aria’s arm. “You know, I thought you were going to say the person you were in love with was me.”
Aria’s mouth fell open. Jason…knew? “I guess it was really obvious.”
Jason smiled. “Nah. I’m just really perceptive.”
Aria signaled the bartender to refill her wine, too, her cheeks blazing. She’d always taken extra precaution to hide her crush from Jason, certain she’d die if he ever found out. Now she kind of wanted to crawl under the bar.
“I remember this one time when you were waiting outside the journalism barn at Rosewood Day,” Jason explained gently. “I noticed you right away. You were looking around…and when you saw me, your eyes lit up.”
Aria gripped the bulky wooden lip of the bar. For a second, she’d almost thought Jason was going to bring up the time he gave her Ali’s Time Capsule flag. But he was referencing the day she’d waited outside his journalism class, wanting to show him her dad’s signed copy of Slaughterhouse-Five. That had happened the Friday before they all sneaked into Ali’s backyard.
Then again, maybe Jason didn’t want to bring up stealing Ali’s flag. Maybe he felt guilty about it.
“Sure, I remember that day,” Aria mustered. “I really wanted to talk to you. Except the school secretary got to you first. She said you had a phone call from a girl.”
Jason squinted, as if trying to see the memory. “Really?”
Aria nodded. The secretary had taken Jason’s arm and guided him toward the office. And now that Aria thought about it, the secretary had also said, She says she’s your sister. But hadn’t Aria seen Ali earlier that day, heading into the gym locker room? Maybe it was Jason’s secret girlfriend calling, knowing that the only way the Rosewood Day staff would page him was if she said she was a family member. “I figured it was a beautiful and mature girl you actually wanted to speak to, not a crazy sixth grader,” Aria added, blushing.
Jason nodded slowly, recognition flickering over his face. He muttered something under his breath, something that sounded a lot like, Not exactly.
“Pardon?” Aria asked.
“Nothing.” Jason downed the rest of his second gimlet. Then he eyed her coyly. “Well. I’m glad you’re making your crush a little more obvious now.”
A ripple cascaded down Aria’s back. “Maybe it’s more than a crush,” she whispered.
“I hope so,” Jason said. They smiled shyly at each other. Aria’s heart thudded in her ears.
The front door whooshed open, and a bunch of Hollis students paraded in. Someone in the corner lit a cigarette, blowing filmy smoke into the air. Jason checked his watch and reached into his pocket. “I’m really late.” He pulled out his wallet and fished out a twenty, enough to cover both their drinks. Then he looked at Aria. “So,” he started.
“So,” Aria echoed. And then she leaned forward, grabbed his hand, and kissed him the way she’d wanted him to kiss her years ago outside the journalism barn. His lips tasted like lime juice and vodka. Jason pulled her close, kneading his hands in her hair. After a moment, they broke apart, grinning. Aria thought she might faint.
“So I’ll see you later,” Jason said.
“Definitely,” Aria breathed. Jason strode across the room, opened the door, and was gone.
“Oh my God,” Aria whispered, turning back to the bar. A huge part of her wanted to climb up on the bar stool and scream to the whole room what just happened. She had to tell someone. But Ella was busy with Xavier. Mike wouldn’t care. There was Emily, but Emily might be a buzzkill, determined to believe that Ali was truly good at heart and Jason wasn’t.
Her phone began to bleat. Aria jumped and stared at it. One new text message, the little window said. The sender was Caller Unknown.
Aria’s excitement instantly dimmed. She looked around the packed bar. People sat on couches, deep in conversation. A college-age guy with dreadlocks whispered to the bartender, every so often gazing in Aria’s direction. A draft wafted from the back of the room, making the candle flames bow to the right. It was as if an unseen back door had just open and shut.
One new text message. Aria ran her hands through her hair. Slowly, she pressed read.
Enjoy your gimlets? Well, sorry, darling, but the fantasy’s over. Big Brother is hiding something from you. And trust me…you don’t want to know what it is.—A
EN GARDE, KATE
An hour later that same night, Hanna idled outside the Montgomerys’ freaky modernist house, waiting for Mike to emerge. Earlier this afternoon, she’d called her dad at work and asked if she could please go to the library tonight to study for a French test…without Kate. She needed to be alone to sufficiently memorize the long list of irregular verbs, she explained.
“Fine,” her father agreed gruffly. Thankfully, he was loosening up on his go-everywhere-Kate-goes rule—yesterday, he’d let Hanna shop for Meredith’s baby shower present alone too. It appeared that he’d also allowed Kate to do some private baby gift shopping…at the very same store. Immediately after Hanna had received her get-out-of-Kate-jail-free pass from her dad, she’d texted Mike and told him she wanted him to take her on a date…one-on-one. What her dad didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.