chapter 18 - i like to break rules too

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Elle taps her scuffed Converse sneakers irritably on the ground, making me feel as if she's going to scold me like a real girlfriend would. Maybe she expected me to play her knight in shining armor. She isn't exactly sunshine and rainbows in my book. I still don't want to be a part of their drama. Still, Cassie's quietness feels like a breath of fresh air. No late-night texts, no calls. But is the silence truly a good thing?

I've never thought about dating or being interested enough in someone to ask them to be my girlfriend. I've never felt the spark that my mom always talks about when she first met my dad. It's not that I can't stay in a relationship; it's how everyone seems to want something from me. A trophy boyfriend, a popularity boost, or someone to show off. None of it would feel real. Doesn't mean I don't flirt, though. If a girl catches my eye, it's not hard for me to get her attention with a charming smile.

Everyone has been going on and on about the 3-second PR kiss. Even I surprised myself by kissing Elle—her soft lips parting in surprise under mine. The reporter lady did say a kiss would solidify the story, so I figured, why not shut everyone up? They got more than they bargained for, so why should they still pry?

There've been different headlines:

"Ace Daniels Off the Market."

"Who is Elle Caldwell, Ace Daniels Girlfriend?"

"Love or Publicity Stunt?"

No one at school dares to say a thing. They've believed rumors that Cassie and I have a thing, but never have I been the one to do something that would fuel the rumors. It's not just Cassie, either. Every girl seems to have a story about how I "looked" at them, and then it gets twisted into a telephone game. Maybe I was lost in thought about winning the next upcoming soccer game or what my strategy is for surviving my mom's next awful dinner recipe.

In the end, they don't know what the truth is when it comes to my personal life.

I let Elle pull me along until we're out of everyone's sight. She finally stops on the edge of where the grass meets the nearly empty parking lot under the shade of an autumn cherry tree. Her chest heaves with a ragged and frustrated sigh, and the breeze teases a strand of hair across her cheek. I can't help but watch her—the way she tucks the strand behind her ear or the slight pout that forms on her lips. The same breeze whispers through the leaves, sending delicate white petals to dance around her.

"Don't get excited. I only said that to get out of there." Elle's eyes dart everywhere but at me, something I've noticed she's been doing since I kissed her during that press conference. Every time I spotted her, she'd give me a quick look before disappearing down another hallway.

"You didn't want to put on more of a show for them?" I ask casually. I imagined her holding onto my arm, maybe even slipping her hand into mine, like a picture-perfect couple, ready to throw it in Cassie's face.

Elle mumbles something, almost barely audible. "Show? More like... I don't want things to get out of hand with them." Our eyes meet for a brief second before she looks at the blades of grass at my feet. Her face says it all—a sort of battle is happening in her mind. Am I pushing things too hard?

I step towards her, and Elle takes a hasty step back, her arms falling to her side. Again, her eyes meet mine briefly, but this time they land on my lips before looking at the empty air as if it's more interesting than my face. Is she flustered? Do I make her uncomfortable? Why do I all of a sudden want to see where this goes?

"You have my keychain, don't you?" Elle manages to blurt out a lame attempt to change the subject.

"Yup," I answer, popping the 'p'.

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