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The Afterward
Excerpt

After

 

As a rule, Olsa Rhetsdaughter avoided breaking into a house through the nursery. More generally, she avoided housebreaking, especially now that she operated without protection, but as the rain poured down on the city of Cadria, she was almost grateful to escape the soaking cold. She was used to sleeping rough—had slept rougher, as a point of fact, than she would tonight. But she hated the wet—how it permeated everything from her clothes to her hair to the slick stone of the wall she was scaling—and hated it all the more now that she didn’t have reliable access to a good fire. There would probably be several of those inside the house, as the wealthy owners warded off the damp.

Once she reached her destination, she paused halfway over the sill and surveyed the layout of the room as best she could in the dark. Her preference for a job of this sort was a musty attic or, in a pinch, an unoccupied guest room. There were just so many obstacles in a nursery: toys strewn on the floor; more than the usual number of beds; the family cat; and, of course, the children themselves. Children were restless sleepers. Children required lamps left lit in case they woke up in the dark. Children asked questions.

“Are you Olsa-thief-of-the-realm?” The voice was high enough and young enough that she couldn’t tell whether it was a lad or lass who spoke, but the question froze Olsa in her tracks halfway across the room. Dammit, she’d done such a good job of opening and shutting the window too.

“No,” she hissed. “I’m a demon that preys upon waking children in the dark. Go back to sleep.”

“I think a demon would be taller,” said a second voice. This one was almost certainly a girl. “Also, demons are usually on fire.”

Olsa sighed. All she wanted was a quick, easy job, and those were increasingly hard for her to come by. She’d taken this one because it had been a slow week, because her percentage of the take was high, and because the family she’d be stealing from employed one of the best cooks in the city. She’d been planning her detour through the kitchen on her way out in almost as much detail as she’d been planning the actual heist.

“Yes,” she said, flopping gracelessly into the chair by the fire. She was probably destroying the fine upholstery with her soaked tunic and hose, but the fire was warm enough that she couldn’t bring herself to care. “I’m Olsa.”

“Oh, tell us about the godsgem!” said the little one, a girl after all, bouncing across the room to sit in front of her, as though Olsa were her nurse. “Papa is a gem merchant, so I’ve seen lots of pretty stones, but they say the godsgem is the prettiest.”

“She knows Papa is a gem merchant, Ildy,” said the older girl. She was at the age where she felt it imperative to remain dignified at all times, so she didn’t bounce, but she did come closer and take a seat. “Why do you think she’s here?”

“Be quiet, Mina,” the little one, Ildy, said. “I want a story.”

“If you’ll both be quiet, I’ll tell you,” Olsa said.

It wasn’t the best plan she’d ever had, but short of diving out the window right now and making a run for it, she couldn’t think of anything else. She was caught, but it was better to be caught by these two than by their parents or whatever burly servants they had kicking about the house. Also, it was a very good fire. Olsa decided it was worth the risk.

The girls settled in front her, their white nightgowns tucked neatly under their legs. Soon, they would be too old to sit on the floor. Their skirts and stays would require chairs. Olsa wondered if either of them had ever sat cross-legged in their lives. She’d had to teach Kalanthe how to do it, and Kalanthe wore trousers half the time anyway. Money made a person very strange, and Olsa was more aware of it now than she had ever been.

“The first time I saw it,” she began, “I thought to myself ‘I could see a roomful of gems, all piled up on top of one another, and be able to recognize this one immediately.’”

“What does it look like?” asked Ildy.

“Hush,” said her sister.

“It’s not large and it’s not cut very well,” Olsa said. “From the stories, you’d imagine an emerald the size of my fist, cut with so many facets that the reflected light goes off in all directions at once. The truth is that the godsgem is much smaller, and almost raw.”

“That doesn’t sound very special at all,” said Mina.

“You hush,” said her sister.

In spite of herself, Olsa smiled.

“It doesn’t look like much,” she continued. “It doesn’t have to. As soon as you see it, you know it’s special. It sings, you see. Imagine the most beautiful hymn you’ve ever heard at the temple. The kind they sing on festival days, where the different sections of the choir layer their voices over each other’s in more than four parts. Now, imagine that, but a hundredfold. The most complicated and the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard, so much so that you can barely stand to listen to it, because you know that once you start, you’ll never want to stop.”

“That sounds dangerous,” said Mina.

“Of course it was dangerous,” said Olsa. She shook herself a bit to try forgetting what the godsgem had sounded like. Of course it didn’t work. It never would. The song would haunt her for the rest of her life. “That’s why they sent all those knights to find it.”

“Quicksword and Stonehand and Fire-Eyes and Silverspoke,” said Ildy, rhyming them off like a psalm. Olsa had seen them all naked, so she was somewhat less impressed by them. “And the Mage, of course.”

“And Ironheart,” said Mina. “And you.”

“Why did they send you?” Ildy asked.

“I asked myself that question a lot,” Olsa said. “The truth is that I’d done Sir Erris Quicksword a couple of favours. She needed a spy, and I was available. Only the men I was spying on got wind of it, somehow, and sent some footpads to cut my throat. I escaped them, but I knew I needed better sanctuary. I didn’t much fancy shutting myself up in the temple, so I went to Quicksword herself and she took me with her. Then I stayed because I didn’t have anywhere else to go, and because the gods like it when the people on a Quest stay the same.”

“They say the king picked those knights and you because you each matched a facet of the new gods,” Ildy said.

“Don’t be foolish, Ildy,” Mina said. “Everyone knows that the king had given instruction to let Sir Erris make her own decisions, and that meant picking her companions, and she picked the ones she thought it would the hardest for the Old God to tempt.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Olsa said. It wasn’t Kalanthe’s soul she was thinking of. “But, yes, Erris picked who went.”

There was a creak in the hallway, and Olsa tensed. Neither of the girls reacted, and presumably they weren’t supposed to be out of bed at this hour. They wouldn’t get in nearly as much trouble as Olsa would, but no one likes to be punished. Perhaps it was the cat. Olsa knew from casing the house that the family cat was enormous, and it wasn’t in the room with them.

“Tell us about Kalanthe Ironheart,” said Ildy. It was more a plea than a demand. She wasn’t old enough that she was used to being obeyed without question yet.

Olsa paused. Both Mina and Ildy were leaning towards her now, eager to hear a story about the Apprentice Knight. Kalanthe, like herself, had only been on the Quest because of circumstance. Young though she was, she was the same size as Sir Erris and could wear her armour. It was decided that if she came along, she could be used as Erris’s double if the occasion called for it. Since the older knights were much older and the Mage was mostly unapproachable, Kalanthe and Olsa had spent a lot of time together. It hadn’t been very much fun at the start, but, well, it didn’t much bear thinking of, to be honest.

“Ironheart will be the perfect knight someday,” Olsa said. She was plagiarizing a little bit, but maybe these girls hadn’t heard that particular ballad yet. It was easier to think about Kalanthe if she didn’t have to use her own memories to do it. “Tall and strong and dedicated. Pure of heart and sure of arm.”

Less pure and less sure when it came to other areas of expertise, but that was hardly fit for young children. Also, it was exactly the sort of memories Olsa did her very best to avoid thinking about.

“At the very moment when Sir Erris Quicksword needed her, Ironheart was there,” Olsa continued. She could see the scene in her head, replaying as it always did when she thought about Kalanthe and tried not to think about Kalanthe at the same time. Which happened fairly regularly. “In an act of sheer defiance and bravery, she threw her axe at the Old God’s altar.”

Both girls gasped, their faces lit with glee. They knew the story after all, it seemed, though they hadn’t heard it from someone who had been in the room where it happened.

“You know the Old God’s power,” Olsa went on. “Dark and cruel, it could not be broken by so simple a thing as a knight’s axe, even when the knight was good and righteous as Kalanthe Ironheart.”

She was very proud of herself for saying that last part with a straight face.

“But it was enough to split the Old God’s attention,” she said. “For a fraction of a second, He turned his awful face to Ironheart.”

It had been a terrible moment. Olsa had been certain that Kalanthe was going to die for her bravery.

“And in that moment, Erris Quicksword struck,” Olsa said. “Like her name says, she moved so quickly I could barely see her arm. Instead, it was a blur of motion as her blessèd sword came down on the altar and, with the power of godsgem, smashed it to pieces.”

“And that was the end of the Old God,” Mina said. “And the start of the new age with our King restored.”

“Something like that,” Olsa said. She wasn’t particularly fond of the new age. She was a lot hungrier in it.

There was another creak from the hallway. This time, Olsa was sure it wasn’t the cat. She hated leaving a job undone, but there was no way she’d be able to ditch the children and complete her thievery now. That chance had been lost as soon as Ildy woke up, and now it was time to abandon the house completely. Another failure and another night as the most famous person in the realm who wasn’t going to get any supper. At least she was warm and her tunic had dried out. She looked back towards the window, her escape, and counted out how many breaths it would take her to cross the room to it and jump.

Without warning, the door to the nursery slammed open. Though she was prepared for it, Ildy and Mina were not. Both girls screamed at the noise and kept screaming when, instead of the familiar faces of their parents, the nursery filled with soldiers-at-arms in the uniforms of the city watch.

Olsa dove for the window, but as soon as she had it up, she saw the torches below and knew there was no escape that way either. She looked about for another rooftop, but found nothing. That was why she’d had to scale the wall to the nursery window in the first place. The chief gem merchant of Cadria took few chances when it came to home security.

She turned around to face the watch. The girls’ mother had come in and was soothing them. Mina looked calm, but Ildy was furious. Olsa did her best to swallow a smile. It appeared she had made another noble friend, for all the good it was about to do her.

“Olsa Rhetsdaughter,” said the leader of the watch, her tone more resigned than anything else. “You are under arrest.”

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Exit, Pursued by a Bear
Excerpt

Prologue

 

I start running after school. Usually I get enough of a workout between practice and gym class that I don’t do extra, but this week I feel like I might explode if I stop moving. So I run. I run up and down the streets of Palermo, looking at the houses and coloured leaves on the trees and trying to hold on to the feeling that my body is my own and limitless. I run on the country roads, the gravel crunching under my feet—until the smell of pine makes me feel sick and I fly back to the safety of concrete sidewalks. I run and run, and when I finally fall asleep at night, I am tired enough that I don’t remember my dreams.

One night, I pass the church my father and I attend whenever we’re both home on Sunday morning (so . . . about once a month, in a good month). I’ve passed the church every other night this week, but tonight the light in the office is on. Once upon a time, churches were always open, a sanctuary if you needed them. But the world changes, I guess. I haven’t given a single thought to the church since it happened, but when I see the light on, my feet slow down of their own accord, and I am knocking on the door before I know it. My fist sounds heavy against the wood. I am already having second thoughts, but it would be rude to run away. Just when I think maybe the light was left on accidentally, the door opens, and there is the minister, dressed in normal clothes, and looking a bit confused. When he sees me, his eyes widen for a moment before he makes his face neutral.

“Hello, Hermione,” he says. I wonder if he remembers my name because he’s good at his job or because I’ve been on the news. He doesn’t ask me if I’m okay. Instead he waves me in, and shuts the door. Maybe it’s because I’m in a church. Maybe it’s because this is the man who baptized me. But I’m not afraid.

“Hello, Reverend Rob,” I say, and the door latch echoes in the hallway. “I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”

“No, no.  Just practicing for Sunday. All this time, and I still get a bit of stage fright leading up to a sermon.”

I follow Rob back into his office, which is warmly lit and full of old books. He waves me into one of the seats. I have just realized what it is I want to say, what I want to ask him.

“Would you like water or tea?” he asks. “That’s all I have on hand.”

“I’m fine, thank you,” I say, feeling profoundly awkward. I keep finding new ways to do that. “I don’t come here very often.”

“That’s okay.” He’s sitting comfortably in his chair. People are never comfortable around me anymore. “I know how life goes. Schedules and the Church don’t always get along, so I do my best to operate an open door policy.”

“Right,” I say. “I have two favours to ask. One’s a bit presumptuous. The other is . . . also presumptuous.”

“Please. Feel free to ask.”

“Thank you.” I pause for a moment to gather my thoughts.  I think of the looks I’ve been getting at the grocery store, and take a deep breath. “Please don’t ask people to pray for me.”

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Crystal Storm
Excerpt

Chapter 1
JONAS—KRAESHIA
      
Far across the sea in Mytica, there was a golden princess Jonas wanted to save.

And a god of fire he needed to destroy.

However, an obstacle now stood in Jonas’s path on the Kraeshian docks, eating into time he didn’t have to waste.

“I thought you said his sister killed him,” Jonas said to Nic under his breath.

“She did.” Nic’s voice came out as barely more than a rasp as he raked both his hands through his messy, bright red hair. “I saw it with my own eyes.”

“Then how is this possible?”

“I . . . I don’t know.”

Prince Ashur Cortas drew to a stop only a few paces away. He eyed both Jonas and Nic through narrowed, silvery-blue eyes that stood out against his dark tan complexion like the glinting edge of a blade at dusk.

The only sounds to be heard for a few long moments were the squawk of a nearby seabird as it plunged downward to catch a fish and the gentle, steady splash of the water against the waiting Limerian ship with its black and red sails.

“Nicolo,” the raven-haired prince said with a nod. “I know you must be very confused to see me again.”

“I . . . I . . . what . . . “” was Nic’s only reply. The scattering of freckles over his nose and cheeks contrasted boldly with his blanched complexion. He drew in a shaky breath. “This is impossible.”

Ashur raised a dark brow at the boy, hesitating only briefly before he spoke. “In my twenty-one years of life I’ve come to realize that very little in this world is impossible.”

“I watched you die.” The last word sounded as if it had been dragged painfully from Nic’s throat. “What was that? Just another lie? Another scheme? Another plan that you didn’t feel the need to tell me about?”

Jonas was surprised that Nic dared to speak to a member of royalty with such insolence. Not that Jonas himself had much respect for royals, but Nic had spent enough time in the Auranian palace, side by side with its princess, to know it wasn’t wise to be this openly rude.

“It was no lie. What happened at the temple was not a scheme.” Ashur swept his gaze over the Limerian ship, which was ready for imminent departure from the Jewel of the Empire’s crowded, busy docks. “I’ll explain more once we’re at sea.”

Jonas’s brows went up at the prince’s commanding and confident tone. “Once we’re at sea,” he repeated.

“Yes. I’m coming with you.”

“If that’s what you’re planning to do,” Jonas said, crossing his arms. “Then you’ll explain more now.”

Ashur eyed him. “Who are you?”

Jonas eyed him back. “I’m the one who decides who gets on this ship—and who doesn’t.”

“Do you know who I am?” Ashur asked.

“Well aware. You’re the brother of Amara Cortas, who just recently seems to have made herself the bloodthirsty empress of most of the damn world. And according to Nic, you’re supposed to be dead.”

A familiar form appeared behind Ashur, catching Jonas’s eye.

Taran Ranus had left the docks only a few moments ago, so that he might quickly prepare for an unplanned journey to Mytica. But he was already back. As the rebel drew closer, he swiftly pulled out a sword from the sheath at his waist.   

“Well, well,” Taran said as he raised the tip of the sword to Ashur’s throat. “Prince Ashur. What a pleasant surprise to see that you’ve strolled into our midst this morning, just as my friends are working to topple your family’s reign.”

“The general chaos around the Jewel did give that much away,” Ashur said, his tone and demeanor surprisingly serene.

“Why have you come back? Why not stay abroad, chasing after meaningless treasure as everyone says you’re fond of doing?”

Chasing after treasure? Jonas shared an anxious look with Nic. It seemed that very few were aware that the prince had been presumed dead.

“The circumstances of my return are none of your business.”

“Are you in Kraeshia because of . . .” Nic began, then hesitated. “Of . . . what happened to your family? You must know, don’t you?”

“Yes, I know.” Ashur’s expression darkened. “But that’s not why I’m here.”

Taran smirked. “As the true heir to the throne, perhaps you’ll make an excellent tool for negotiations with your grandmother now that your sister’s married the enemy and sailed away.”

Ashur scoffed. “If that’s what you think, then you know nothing about her desire for power—or my sister’s. It’s easy to see that your rebels are vastly outnumbered. This current uprising will be as effective as the chirp of a baby bird in the shadow of a hungry wildcat. What you really need to do is get on this ship and leave while you still have the chance.”

Taran’s smirk disappeared. His brown eyes flashed with outrage. “You don’t get to tell me what to do.”

Jonas felt uneasy about Ashur’s attitude. He seemed to be taking the recent news of most of his family’s massacre in stride. He couldn’t tell if Ashur grieved their loss or celebrated it. Or did he feel nothing at all?

“Lower your weapon, Taran,” Jonas growled, then hissed out a breath. “Why are you back so soon anyway? Didn’t you have belongings to gather?”

Taran didn’t budge. He kept the sharp tip of his sword pressed to Ashur’s throat, his biceps flexing. “The roads are blocked. Granny Cortas has decided that all rebels are to be slain on sight. Since we blew up the city dungeon yesterday, there’s nowhere to put any prisoners.”

“All the more reason for us to go now,” Nic urged.

“I agree with Nicolo,” Ashur said.

The angry squawk of a bird caught Jonas’s attention. He shielded his eyes from the sun and looked up at the golden hawk swooping above the ship.

Olivia was getting impatient. That made two of them.

He willed himself to remain calm. He couldn’t afford to make any rash decisions.

Just then, an image of Lysandra slid into his mind, along with the sound of her laughter. “No rash decisions? Since when?” she would have said.

Since you died and I couldn’t save you.
Pushing his grief away, Jonas forced himself to focus on the prince.

“If you want any chance to board this ship,” he said, “then explain how you’ve managed to rise from the dead only to walk right up to a group of rebels like you’ve only been out for a tankard of ale.”

“Rise from the dead?” Taran repeated, his furious expression giving way to confusion.

Ignoring Taran, Jonas searched for any sign of intimidation in the prince’s demeanor. A signal that he feared for his life, that he was desperate to escape his homeland. But only serenity filled his pale eyes.

It was unsettling, really.

“Have you ever heard of the legend of the phoenix?” Ashur asked smoothly.

“Of course,” Nic replied. “It’s a mythical bird that rose from the ashes of the flames that originally killed it. It’s the symbol for Kraeshia, to show the empire’s strength and ability to defy death itself.”

Ashur nodded. “Yes.”

Jonas raised his eyebrows. “Really?” he said.

Nic shrugged. “I took a class with Cleo on foreign myths once. I paid more attention than she did.” He flicked a wary look at Ashur. “What about this legend?”

“There is also a legend of a mortal fated to one day do the same—return from death to unite the world. Grandmother always believed that my sister would be this phoenix. When Amara was a baby, she died for a brief moment but came back to life, thanks to a resurrection potion our mother gave her. When I recently learned of this, I had the same potion created for me. I’m not sure I truly believed it would work, but it did. And as I rose at dawn in the temple where I’d died the night before at my sister’s hand, I realized the truth.”

“What truth?” Jonas demanded after Ashur fell silent.

Ashur met his gaze. “That I am the phoenix. And it’s my destiny to save this world from its current fate, beginning with stopping my sister from her dark need to blindly follow in my father’s footsteps.”

The prince fell silent again as his audience of three stared at him. Taran was the first to laugh.

“Royals always think so damn highly of themselves,” he sneered. “Legends of heroes who defy certain death are as old as legends about the Watchers themselves.” Taran glanced at Jonas. “I’m going to cut off his head. If he gets up after that, consider me a believer.”

Jonas didn’t think Taran was being serious, but he didn’t want to take any chances.

“Lower your weapon,” Jonas growled. “I’m not going to tell you again.”

Taran cocked his head. “I don’t take orders from you.”

“Do you want passage on this ship? Then yes, you do take orders from me.”

But still Taran didn’t budge, and his gaze grew only more challenging.

“You giving Jonas a problem, Ranus?” Felix’s voice boomed out, just before he came to stand at Jonas’s side.

Jonas was grateful that Felix Gaebras—with all his height and muscles—was on his side. A former member of the Clan of the Cobra, a group of assassins who worked for King Gaius, Felix’s ability to cast a deadly and intimidating shadow was no accident.

But Taran was just as deadly and just as intimidating.

“You want to know about my problems?” Taran finally lowered his blade to his side, then nodded at the resurrected royal. “This is Prince Ashur Cortas.”

Felix peered skeptically at the prince with his good eye. After spending the last week imprisoned and being mercilessly tortured for poisoning the Kraeshian royal family—a crime Amara had blamed on him—it was his only eye; the other was covered by a black eye patch. “Aren’t you supposed to be dead?”

“He is.” Nic had stayed very quiet, never taking his attention off of the prince, wearing an expression that was equal parts stunned and confused.

“I’m not.” Ashur spoke patiently to Nic.

“It could be a trick.” Nic’s brow furrowed in concentration as he studied the prince carefully. “Perhaps you’re a witch who possesses enough air magic to change your appearance.”

Ashur raised a dark eyebrow, as if amused. “Hardly.”

“Witches are female,” Taran reasoned.

“Not always,” Ashur replied. “There have been a few notable exceptions over the centuries.”

“Are you trying to help your case or not?” Jonas asked sharply.

“He’s Amara’s brother,” Felix growled. “Let’s just go ahead and kill him and be done with it.”

“Yes,” Taran seconded. “On that, we agree.”

Ashur sighed, and for the first time, there was an edge of impatience in the sound. Despite any threats, he kept his attention firmly on Nic. “I understand your hesitation in believing me, Nicolo. It reminds me of your hesitation that night in the City of Gold, when you left the tavern . . . the Beast, I believe it was called. You were drunk, lost, and you looked at me in that alleyway as if I might kill you with the two blades I carried. But I didn’t, did I? Do you remember what I did instead?”

Nic’s pale face flushed in an instant, and he cleared his throat. “It’s him,” he said quickly. “I don’t know how, but . . . it’s him. Let’s go.”

Jonas studied Nic’s face, unsure whether to believe such a promise, even from someone he’d very recently begun to trust. His gut told him Nic wasn’t lying.

And if Ashur wanted to bring a halt to his sister’s evil machinations, believing himself to be this legendary phoenix who’d risen from death, true or not, then he could possibly be an asset to their group.

He wondered what Lys would have to say about this situation.

No, he already knew. She very likely would have put an arrow through the prince the moment he’d appeared.

The glint of Taran’s sword again caught his attention. “If you don’t lower that weapon, I’m going to have Felix chop off your arm.”

Taran laughed, an unpleasant crack of a sound that cut through the cool morning air. “I’d like to see him try.”

“Would you?” Felix asked. “My eyesight’s not as good as it was, but I think—actually, I know—I could do it real fast. It might not even hurt.” He chuckled darkly as he drew his sword. “No, what am I thinking? It’s going to hurt very badly. I’m no ally to any Cortas, but if Jonas wants the prince to keep breathing, he’s going to keep breathing. Got it?”

The two young men glared at each other for several tense moments. Finally Taran sheathed his weapon.

“Fine,” he said through clenched teeth. The tight smile on his face didn’t match the cold fury in his eyes.

Without a word, he shoved past Felix and boarded the ship.

“Thanks,” Jonas said to Felix under his breath.

Felix watched Taran’s departure with a grim look. “You know he’s going to be a problem, right?

“I do.”

“Great.” Felix glanced at the Limerian ship. “By the way, have I mentioned that I get really seasick, especially with the thought of Amara’s undead brother on board? So if our new friend Taran tries to cut my throat while I’m vomiting off the side of the ship, you’re the one I blame.”

“Understood.” Jonas eyed Nic and Ashur warily. “Very well, whatever fate awaits us on the other side, let’s set sail for Mytica. All of us.”

“Thought you didn’t believe in fate?” Nic muttered as they made their way up the gangplank.

“I don’t,” Jonas said.

But, to be honest, only a small part of him believed that anymore.

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Trouble Makes a Comeback
Excerpt

I don’t believe in Happily Ever After. Nobody over the age of thirteen with an Internet connection has any business believing in that noise. But the kind of junior year I’m having is seriously challenging the life-saving cynicism I’ve cultivated for years.

Actually, to be precise, I’m having an epic second semester. My first semester was a series of fiascos, all courtesy of my friendship with Philip Digby. Though, honestly, I’m not even sure Digby ever considered me his friend. Accomplice, sure. But then he kissed me, which made us what? More than friends? Something other than friends? I hate semantics.

Normally, I wouldn’t have fallen for Digby’s stray-puppy-in-the-rain act in the first place. But I was new in town, I had no friends, and I was still reeling from my parents’ brutal divorce. And then I found out that Digby’s four-year-old sister, Sally, was abducted from her bed in the middle of the night when he was only seven years old and, to add to the tragedy of losing Sally, the authorities thought either his parents or Digby himself was guilty. Even worse, all of River Heights was convinced they’d done it and had turned against Digby and his parents. The pressure tore that family apart. The stray puppy, it turned out, was also the underdog. I was powerless to resist.

By Thanksgiving, he’d gotten me arrested, then kidnapped, and then blown up in an explosion. On the upside, we’d also dismantled a meth operation and found a missing girl. We didn’t find Digby’s sister, though, so he left town to keep looking for her.

But not before he scrambled my brains with that kiss. And then—nothing. Not a peep from the jerk for the last five months.

Meanwhile, everyone had heard I’d been hanging out with him and that we’d somehow busted up a major drug operation. People in school were curious and I had to act fast if I wanted to convert my infamy into friendships beyond whatever weird crisis-based camaraderie I’d experienced while I was capering around with Digby. I knew I was the flavor of a very short month, so I forced myself past the Digby-sized hole in my soul and Made an Effort.

My first attempts at getting to know new people were disasters. But then I realized that I was boring people with details, and once I basically stopped talking so much and mostly asked leading questions instead, things improved. And then, finally, after a locker room conversation—about the injustice of school going all the way until December 23—with Allie and Charlotte, two of the nicer girls from my PE class, I was in. An invitation to lunch turned into eyeliner tutorials in the good bathrooms and weekends trawling the mall with them. Eventually, I realized that I was enjoying more than just the fact that I was finally feeling included. I was actually having a good time with Charlotte and Allie. They’d been friends since grade school, but I could tell they were trying their best not to make me feel left out. And it worked. Things were looking up.

My luck kept right on improving, in fact, until after winter break, when I got my first official boyfriend: Austin Shaeffer. It happened at the mall. I was with Allie and Charlotte when I saw some guy hauling ass out of the Foot Locker. I didn’t have the time—or maybe I didn’t take the time—to think. Before I knew it, I’d kicked a wheeled holiday sale sign into the guy’s path.

The guy hit the sign with a (surprisingly) satisfying splat. Digby would’ve loved watching the Foot Locker employees swarm the thief and pull all the fitness trackers still in boxes from his pockets. For the first time in a while, I let myself feel how much I missed life with Digby. I was so distracted, I didn’t notice that a Foot Locker employee had started talking to me.

“Sorry, what?” I said. That’s when I realized it was Austin Shaeffer. I didn’t have classes with him, but I’d noticed him around school. It was hard not to notice Austin. He was handsome and athletic and one of the few guys who could be funny without being mean. He reminded me a little of Digby’s friend Henry, although that might be because Austin was Henry’s QB backup on our football team.

“You pushed the sign, right?” Austin said.

By this time, people were clapping. Charlotte pointed at me, yelling, “She’s our friend. Our friend did that.” Allie stooped for a selfie with the injured thief.

“How’d you know he shoplifted?” Austin said.

I almost said something about the weird bulge in the guy’s coat and how his run’s head-down urgency seemed more than a late-for-my-movie hustle, but I looked into Austin’s big blue eyes and checked myself. Be normal, Zoe. Austin Shaeffer doesn’t care what you know about body language.

“Actually . . .” I said. “The truth?”

Austin leaned in, forcing me to notice his aftershave. “Yeah?”

“I tripped. The sign kinda . . . rolled?” I tried not to judge myself for the giggle I burped out to sell my lie.

“Zoe Webster, right?” Austin said.

“Yeah . . . and you’re Austin—” Then suddenly Austin Shaeffer was holding my right hand. I’d forgotten about my latte and in the course of affecting coolness, I’d let my hand relax so much that coffee was pouring out the spout.

“Careful,” Austin said. “So, Zoe Webster, you saved my ass. They would’ve fired me if my section got jacked again.” He pointed at my cup. “You’ve probably had enough coffee today, but how about this weekend?”

Allie and Charlotte cackled while Austin entered my number in his phone.

“So cute . . . Austin Schaeffer’s blushing,” Allie said.

“Watch out, Zoe, Austin is trouble,” Charlotte said.

“I’m not trouble . . . don’t listen to them,” Austin said.

After Austin left, Allie, Charlotte, and I talked about him for hours. They liked him, I liked them, I wanted them to like me, Austin Shaeffer apparently liked me, and by the end of the afternoon, I liked him a lot. After Austin and I had our first coffee date, Allie, Charlotte, and I parsed every moment I’d spent with him. Being inside that giddy echo chamber was at least as much fun as the date itself.

So now I have a boyfriend and I have friends. I got flowers on Valentine’s Day, I’m invited to sleepovers, and I’m doing decently on social media. Sure, there are moments when I feel alien in my own life but mostly, it feels good to fit in. Finally, finally, I’m a normal.

But that’s all falling apart. Digby sauntered back into River Heights nine days ago, and now my happy ending is toast. Right this second, I’m about to make my entrance at the biggest party of the year. My boyfriend’s waiting inside. He’ll likely be the starting quarterback this fall, which means I’m dating the official Prince Charming of River Heights High. I’m wearing clothes way above my pay grade and riding in a fancy car with Sloane Bloom, my former nemesis who’s somehow turned into my perverse version of a fairy godmother. But here, at the brink of my Cinderella moment, all that matters to me is whether Digby will be at the party. See what I mean? Happy Ending ruined.

But as usual, I’m getting ahead of the story. I need to tell you about the last nine days.

 

 

 

ONE

“April is the cruelest month,” Mom said. “Just say it, Zoe. You told me so.”

Because my mother worked from home on Friday afternoons, I’d thought I’d save time and get her to drive me to my job at the mall. Mistake.

Mom stood on the gas pedal, but our car was officially beached. The left-side wheels were on the asphalt, but our right-side wheels were up in the air because of the huge snow boulder Mom had driven over and gotten stuck under the car. I felt queasy from sitting tilted as the engine ground away uselessly beneath me. Plus, the car stank of the cigarettes Mom didn’t think anyone knew she smoked during her solo commute to the community college where she taught English lit.

“Zoe told me not to park on this snowbank,” Mom said to Austin, who was sitting in the backseat. “But it didn’t seem so big last night.”

“I’ll go get your shovel,” Austin said.

“Zoe, put those ridiculous things away,” Mom said. She took a handful of my vocabulary cards and snorted. “What does this have to do with being a competent reader or writer?”

“Yeah, yeah, Mom. I know. Nothing. But it has everything to do with my doing well on the SATs next weekend,” I said. “I am extremely stressed about it . . .”

Austin came back with our shovel and said, “I’m going to start digging, okay, Miss Finn?”

Austin was still in the “Miss Finn” stage with Mom. In turn, Mom still got shy and combed her hair before Austin came over. Actually, even I still did. Sitting in Mom’s car, watching Austin, all muscles and sheer will, digging us out of the snow, I reflected on how it was probably a good thing that I still got nervous before Austin came over.

Austin flung a shovelful of snow over his shoulder, yelled WHOA, fell, and disappeared under the hood of the car. Mom and I jumped out.

It was a total movie shot: Austin on his back, his pretty face inches from the spinning tire. We pulled him out, so horrified we didn’t even remember we’d shut the car doors until we heard the auto locks engage. There was our car, hiked up on a snowbank, doors locked, keys in the ignition, stuck in drive with the wheels spinning.

“No!” Mom belatedly threw herself on the car’s hood. The car rocked under her weight.

“Careful, Miss Finn,” Austin said.

“Get away from the front of the car, Mom.” To Austin, I said, “Quick, put the snow back. But not under the tire!”

“I think there are spare keys in the house,” Mom said.

Go. But if you don’t find them fast, call 911,” I said. “Or a tow truck.”

“Oh, God, my life’s a farce!” Mom ran into the house.

Austin resumed shoveling in the opposite direction while I kicked snow back under the car. Then a tall figure in black flitted across the field of my peripheral vision and disappeared behind an SUV. Something about his syncopated gait reminded me of something that made me super-happy, and then angry, and then confused.

Suddenly, there he was. Digby. Standing beside me. He seemed taller and broader than when he’d left, but that could’ve been because of his thick parka. He looked road-weary and his jaw was stubbled. He dropped his backpack in the snow. Clearly, it was the end of a long journey.

“Hey, Princeton,” Digby said. “Need help?”

Digby held a screwdriver and a long antenna he’d removed from the SUV he’d passed. He pried a gap along the rubber seam between our passenger’s-side door and the roof, fed the antenna through, and pushed the driver’s-side doors open button. He climbed in and killed the engine.

I got in too, realizing only when we were alone in the car that in the five months since he’d disappeared, I’d collected a ton of confrontational things to say without actually deciding on which to say first.

“Are you back?” I said.

Digby made a ta-da gesture. “Guess where I’ve been. Wait, don’t bother. You’ll never guess. Federal prison.” He laughed when my eyebrows shot up. “I went to Fort Dix to talk to Ezekiel.”

Ezekiel. Just hearing that drug dealer’s name made me relive the horror of his stuffing Digby and me in the trunk of his car and our almost getting blown up in his failed attempt to double-cross his boss.

Digby leaned in. “We’ve been looking at this all wrong, Princeton. Sally wasn’t taken by some pervert . . . it’s a whole other thing. When I finally got Ezekiel to put me on his visitors list, he told me about his friend—let’s call him Joe—who ran a crack squat downtown. Apparently, some guys rented Joe’s whole place for a week—exactly when Sally disappeared. Joe saw them carry in a little girl in the middle of the night. But when they left . . . there was a whole lot of stuff like boys’ clothes and video games in the place.” Digby paused dramatically. “Remember Ezekiel said they were supposed to take me?”

“Who’s ‘they’?” I said.

“Exactly,” he said.

“Exactly what?” I said. “Who’s ‘they’?”

“Well, that I haven’t figured out yet,” Digby said.

“Did Ezekiel tell you anything real? Like, what these guys looked like? Or where the crack house is?” I said.

“His friend Joe said the guys were in nice suits and drove brand-new black SUVs. Ezekiel never got the address. Nice suits and black cars sounds like government types, and you know what that probably means . . . my dad,” Digby said. “I bet it had something to do with his old job at Perses Analytics.”

“Where Felix’s dad works?” I said. “I thought you said your dad’s an alcoholic.”

“Being an alcoholic was more Joel Digby’s hobby. Alcoholics have to cover their nut too, Princeton.”

“He was a scientist?”

“Propulsion engineer,” Digby said. “I wonder what he was working on.”

“But maybe you’re just being paranoid. Or maybe your father gambled, and his bookie took Sally to collect on a gambling debt? Or maybe Ezekiel’s evil and he’s screwing with your head because you put him in prison?” I said.

“But those are such boring explanations,” Digby said. “And, you know, Ezekiel and I got to talking and he’s not such a bad guy—”

“He sold meth to kids and pretended to be in a weird cult to do it,” I said.

Digby slapped the wheel. “Ah . . . the ol’ Princeton reality check. I forgot how much fun it is.”

“You forgot? Is that why I haven’t heard jack from you in five months?” I said.

Digby looked genuinely surprised. “I was busy . . .” He pointed out the windshield at Austin, who was still shoveling. “You’ve been busy too. I assume he’s . . . “”

“Yeah. We’re dating . . . we’re together . . . he’s my boyfriend—”

“Got it,” Digby said. “Austin Shaeffer, huh? You teach him the difference between left and right yet?”

Months ago, he’d caught Austin writing an R on his right hand and an L on his left hand before scrimmage.

“That’s a good luck thing he started doing in peewee football,” I said.

“Well, I hate to call him stupid, but he’s still shoveling and the car’s been off . . . what? Two minutes?” Digby tooted the horn, threw up his hands, and yelled, “What’s up, buddy? Yeah. Engine’s off.”

Austin got in the backseat. “Hey . . . you’re Digby, right?”

“Hey, Austin.” Digby pointed at Austin’s gym bag and football helmet on the backseat. “Got a game later or something?”

“That’s my workout stuff,” Austin said. “Uh . . . we don’t play football in the spring, dude.”

I cringed at Austin’s patronizing tone.

“Way I hear it, you don’t play football in the fall either, dude. Still riding the bench praying Henry gets injured?” Digby said.

“Okay, Digby,” I said, “that’s—”

“I’m the backup QB. I play plenty. You’d know that if you knew anything about football,” Austin said.

“Got me there, sporto,” Digby said. “I’m up nights worrying about everything I don’t know about football.”

“Should I get the hose?” I said. “Digby, can we talk later? Austin and I were about to go to the mall.”

“Afternoon mall date?” Digby said.

“No, we’re going to work,” I said. “I’m going to Spring Fling afterward.”

“Spring Fling? Is that on today? Wait—work?” Digby said. “You mean that stuffed shirt of a father really did cut you off?”

“Dad’s a man of his word,” I said.

“You didn’t use the secret I told you about him?” Digby said. “That information’s good.”

“You mean that stuff you got on him hiding money from Mom? No,” I said. “I’m not a natural-born extortionist like you. I can’t suddenly start blackmailing people.”

“It’s light blackmail,” Digby said.

“I’d rather just work,” I said.

“What’s wrong with working?” Austin said.

“Wait a minute . . . this isn’t your mom’s car.” Digby hooked his fingers on the gunlock bolted onto the dashboard. He found a removable police siren under his seat. “Is this . . . Officer Cooper’s take-home car?” He worked it out. “They’re still together? Your mom and the cop who arrested you are in a serious relationship? Princeton, your life is interesting.”

“He moved in three months ago,” I said.

“Wow . . . monotone. That happy, huh? Liza works fast.” Digby dove across me and fished around under my seat.

“Hey, man. Not a fan of your face in my girlfriend’s lap,” Austin said.

There was a loud rip of Velcro and Digby’s hand came up holding a mag of ammunition Cooper had stashed under the seat. “Whoa, I wonder if the gun’s in here somewhere too.”

“Maybe you should put that back,” I said.

“Babe, I’m going to be late,” Austin said. “We should take the bus.”

“Come to think of it, I have mall stuff to do myself,” Digby said. “I’ll come with.”

“Good,” Austin said.

“Good,” Digby said.

“Great,” Austin said.

“Great,” Digby said. He had that lethal bored expression I wished Austin knew to fear as much as I did.

“Wonderful,” I said. “I better tell Mom we’re not waiting for the tow truck with her.”

 

 

TWO

Longest bus ride of my life. Austin is an old-timey Lady and the Tramp sweet kind of guy and he was being his usual affectionate self, sharing headphones with me and holding my hand. I’d seen Digby actively lash out at this kind of sentimental display before, but this time Digby just smirked at me. I was amazed we made it to the mall without incident.

“See you later, Austin. I’ll walk Zoe to work.” Digby’s tone reminded me of the obnoxious message shirt a friend of ours used to wear: your girlfriend is in good hands.

Austin flinched but said, “That’s cool, dude. I know how it is.”

“Oh?” Digby said.

“Sure,” Austin said. “Zoe told me everything.”

“Really? What did she tell you?” Digby said. “Just so we’re on the same page.”

I’d been dreading this moment. Austin had gotten into the car before I’d had a chance to tell Digby there were things I hadn’t told Austin. Our kiss, for example.

“About what happened last year with the explosion . . . I know you guys were tight,” Austin said. “Like the brother she never had.”

What a great thing to say to a guy with a missing sister.

“That’s right. Brother she never had . . . that’s me,” Digby said. “Exact same page.”

Austin gave me an extra-assertive kiss and left for work.

“Maybe if I hug you later, he won’t have any choice but to whip it out and mark you with his pee,” Digby said. “Better spend some time reassuring him tonight . . . sis.”

“I didn’t know what to tell him. You were gone—”

“Of course. What’s to tell?” But his tone was all accusation.

“It’s so annoying that you make me feel like somehow I’ve done something wrong.” I walked away. He let me get pretty far before running after me.

“Hey, wait up,” he said. “Where are you going?”

“I told you. Work.”

I stopped for coffee. When he added two cookies to my tab, I said, “You still eat like a wolverine?”

Digby gave me his lazy sad-eyed smile. I wondered if, as he’d done before, he was planning on sleeping in his mom’s garage, living on soup crackers and to-go packets of ketchup again.

“Work, huh?” Digby looked me up and down.

“What? You’re freaking me out,” I said.

“Give me a sec, I’m a little rusty. Okay, no makeup, so not any kind of cosmetics gig. Vintage dress, frumpy, dowdy housewife-y flavor . . .”

The barista helping me frowned at Digby. “Excuse you. Rude or anything?” she said.

“. . . so not any kind of trendy retail. The food court’s out. The face you pull whenever I eat . . . you don’t have a future in food service,” Digby said. “Those heels are surprisingly high for you, so you’re not walking across a big department store . . .”

“Come on, let’s speed this up,” I said.

“Okay, fine. I’ll go with either intern at the bank or the Hallmark store,” he said.

Watching him flounder was comical.

“The florist? The crystals place? Not the Lotto shack?” he said.

“Uh-oh, you’re more than rusty, my friend,” I said.

We walked into The Last Bookstand, the used books place where I worked.

“Wait, this is new. It wasn’t here when I left,” Digby said.

“Excuses, excuses. Old Digby would’ve memorized the new mall map at the entrance,” I said.

“Dammit,” he said. “Old Digby would have memorized the map.”

The store was empty, but I heard my manager working in the back. “Fisher! I’m here . . . sorry I’m late. Car trouble.”

Digby sniffed. “Is that patchouli? Incense?”

“Patchouli incense,” I said. “Listen, my manager, Fisher, had a hemp farm in Vermont. When you meet him, you’re going to want to make fun, but you’re not allowed. He’s the nicest man I’ve ever met and he’s had a tough year.”

“Okay. No jokes. Hippie jokes are too easy anyway,” Digby said. “Hey, uh . . . Princeton? I think I missed a birthday somewhere. I got you something.”

The box’s shade of blue was guaranteed to generate excitement from twenty feet away.

“Tiffany?” I said.

“Well, Tiffany dot com,” he said. “Open it.”

“You got me a locket?” I was surprised enough when I saw that he’d cut out and mounted photos in the little oval frames, but when I saw he’d chosen decent selfies of us at the winter ball, I was speechless.

“But maybe don’t shower with it on . . .” he said.

“Right. The silver will tarnish . . .” I said.

“Also I hid two micro SD cards in there,” he said.

“Of course you did,” I said, passing the box back to him. “What’s on them?”

“When I got home to Texas, I backed up my dad’s computer onto those SD cards,” he said.

“Backed up? You mean stole his files.”

Digby popped out the pictures and showed me the SD cards walled in behind a clear coating.

“I potted them in resin so they wouldn’t rattle around,” he said.

“So, in sum, you stole top secret government information from Perses Analytics that you think people are kidnapping children to get, you put it in this necklace, and you now want me to hang it around my neck,” I said.

“It’s my backup . . . in case they find the copy I’m working on,” Digby said.

“Why can’t we bury it or something? Or put it behind an air-conditioning vent?” I said.

“You mean with my clove cigarettes and Victoria’s Secret catalogs? Don’t be ridiculous, Princeton,” he said. “This is serious.”

“No.”

“Come on . . . the answer to who took my sister could be in one of those things,” Digby said, pushing the box back across the counter.

“Then you wear it,” I said.

“Are you kidding? They’ll search me first thing,” he said.

“And they’ll search me second. I’m always with you,” I said.

“Always with me?” Digby raised his eyebrows. “And how will Austin like that?”

Austin. Right.

“Hey, Zoe . . .” Fisher walked out of the back holding a vase of hydrangeas Austin had given me a week ago. “Check it out, these are still looking good . . . even though I absolutely loathe hydrangeas.” I slid the box off the counter and into my jacket pocket. I just didn’t feel like Fisher needed to see Digby giving me something in a Tiffany box.

You’re the hippie hemp-head from Vermont?” Digby said.

“I guess so,” Fisher said. “Are you a friend of Zoe’s?”

Kudos to Fisher for not flinching when Digby leaned into him and took a deep sniff.

“I’m so sorry, Fisher,” I said.

“You must be Digby,” Fisher said. “Recognize you from Zoe’s stories, man. I like the suit.”

Digby paced around Fisher. “And you’re Fisher. Allegedly.”

“Allegedly? Yeah, I am. No ‘allegedly,’” Fisher said.

“I’m so sorry, Fisher, he’s . . .”

“Your beard’s new and still itches . . . I smell the alcohol in the anti-itch stuff you put on. Half your hair’s glued-on hairpieces . . . like you had to grow it really fast . . . looks like six months’ worth. Right when you showed up in town, I bet,” Digby said.

“Digby. Hair? Really?” I said.

“But what’s really interesting is the layout of this place.” Digby was excited now. “See how the aisles are arranged so customers have to pass by the front desk to get in or out of the store? It looks like a crazy hippie hoarder maze but really, it’s an Army Ranger ambush . . . the thieves are canalized past this choke point. How d’you know how to do that?”

“How do you know how to do that?” Fisher asked Digby. “Canalized? Wow . . . that’s some word.”

“So sorry, Fisher. Although, now that I’m thinking about the shelves . . . is this a fire hazard?” I said.

“Fire hazard. Wait.” Digby ran out of the store and came back holding a fire extinguisher. “Princeton, did you have to rearrange the shelves? Around . . . December 20?”

“Uh, actually, yeah . . . we put in a rack of fancy booklights before Christmas—”

“But then he had you put the shelves back into this maze shape a couple of days later?” Digby said.

“Well, yeah, the booklights weren’t selling,” I said.

Digby showed me the fire extinguisher’s tag. “The fire inspector checked this mall on the twenty-first of December.” Digby pointed at Fisher. “You made her move the shelves on the twentieth for the fire marshal’s visit and then after you passed inspection, you had her rebuild the ambush.” Digby pumped his fist. “Old Digby. What are you? Cop? Military?” Digby said. “Or . . . worse?”

Fisher looked mostly sad for Digby. “The smell of alcohol’s probably from the mouthwash I used after my breakfast burrito. The store’s laid out like this because the collectibles are in the back and this ain’t my first time at the rodeo,” Fisher said. “And I put in hairpieces because my hair grew out patchy after my chemo last year. Lion needs his mane, man.”

Digby kept going. “Chemo, huh?”

“Digby, if you’re ever going to draw a line . . . ever? Cancer’s got to be over that line,” I said.

“Chemo. That’s a good explanation. Solid.” Digby walked toward Fisher, not stopping even when he got so close that Fisher had to start backing up. “But explain this.”

Digby swatted my coffee cup off the counter. My scream turned into a swallowed gurgle when Fisher caught the cup without spilling a drop.

“Those are great reflexes,” Digby said.

Keeping the rest of his body perfectly still, Fisher swept my vase of hydrangeas off the desk. Digby similarly caught it.

“I could say the same thing about you,” Fisher said.

“Would you two idiots have this stupid argument with some­one else’s stuff?” I snatched the coffee and vase from them. “Digby, stop picking fights. Are you tired or something? Hungry?”

“So hungry,” he said.

“God, you’re a toddler. Why don’t you go eat something?”

“Yeah . . .” Digby said. “See you after you get out of work? We should talk.”

The way he suddenly got intense when he said that made my heart thump. I didn’t know if I was ready to talk.

Just when my awkward unresponsiveness started to get painful, Fisher said, “If you like, it’s pretty slow right now . . . you could go hang out. I can text you if things pick up.”

“That’s the weirdest, most un-manager thing I’ve ever heard,” Digby said.

“Happy workers work happily, man,” Fisher said.

“More like employee turnover makes it hard to maintain a cover identity.” Digby grabbed a book. “How much is this?”

“On the house, kid,” Fisher said. “I’d pay money to get young people to read Pynchon.”

“See what I mean? Weird.” On his way out, Digby said, “Watch him.”

“That’s dark, man,” Fisher said.

“That’s nothing. He carries around a notebook where he keeps a list of suspects and motives so the police will have leads if he ever turns up murdered,” I said.

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