chapter 14 - well, that went...well

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ELLE

I cautiously inch towards Ace, my gaze tethered to Cassie like a magnet. I can't pinpoint why I moved, but a fragment of Jade's words echoes in the back of my mind—that Cassie wouldn't dare do a thing with Ace around. My heart pounds in my chest like a frantic drum, its rhythm urging me to flee, but my legs remain stubbornly planted, refusing to move an inch. Ace's intense gaze remains fixed on me, and I wonder if he can see how nervous I am—nervous about her reaction and swaying the crowd against me.

Ace glances over his shoulder, his frown furrowing even deeper. Tension fills the air as Cassie approaches, her heels clicking loudly in the sudden hush that falls over the party. Based on Cassie's set jaw, it's clear she's not here to make friends; making nice has never been her style. She's the queen of this social jungle, the one who sets the trends and craves the best, convinced that everything, including Ace, rightfully belongs to her. I don't want to give her the impression that I'm like a spotlight-stealing interloper—she can have the whole red carpet.

There's always been mixed rumors about them. I believed the whispers of "they are such a good-looking couple" at face value until Jade insisted that they were never a thing. I've chosen to believe her, but that doesn't mean they don't have history. For all I know, they could've slept together multiple times and are supposed to have a no-strings-attached relationship that Ace is trying to get away from.

"What are you doing here?" Ace's voice is clipped as he turns to face Cassie, his broad shoulder brushing against mine in a gesture that feels more protective than accidental. Maybe it's just wishful thinking, a part of me hoping for him to back me up even though we don't owe each other anything.

"I invited her, bro. We're all friends here." The blonde friend smugly shouts from his spot, casually leaning against the patio table next to a group of people and soaking up the attention. I notice a muscle twitch on Ace's jaw at his friend's words. I don't recall his name, but I recognize him from the soccer team. He's the resident class clown, a drama magnet who thrives on chaos and relishes getting a rise out of people. At school, I've seen him knock a friend's hat off their head for a cheap laugh, then sprint away.

"Girlfriend? Since when?" Cassie gives me a once-over, her look oozing with disdain, like I'm some bug she's ready to squash. "This little nobody isn't your type. It's a joke." Her arms are now crossed with her mini designer bag clutched in her hand.

The murmurs suddenly sound louder than before. People don't hold back about what they say, openly gawking at the unfolding drama.

"Why is he dating her?" someone scoffs.

"Seriously," another voice chimes in, "she's got no status."

Status? Here we are, surrounded by the trappings of wealth and privilege, and their only measure of a person's worth is a gaudy, outward display? Now two people need a status to date? It all sounds so shallow, so pointless—judging each other based on luxury labels and follower counts, like some messed-up social currency game.

Justin steps up next to Ace, trying to be the mediator and raising his hands placatingly. "Whoa," he interjects, plastering a charming grin on his face. "Let's just all chill, okay? It's a party, right? No need for drama."

"Drama?" She rolls her eyes at him. "This isn't drama, Justin. This is..." she trails off, her eyes raking over me dismissively. "Pathetic. Enjoy your fifteen minutes, Elle. Remember, trends fade, and you don't belong here."

Shame burns hot on my cheeks, and the sting of her words is sharper than her pulling my hair. I open my mouth to respond, but no words come out.

"That's enough, Cassie." Ace's voice holds an unfriendly edge, a warning note that, for a moment, stirs a hint of hurt in her features. But it's gone as quickly as it appeared. With a dramatic swish of her hair, Cassie sashays away, leaving behind silence.

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