Authors: Darynda Jones
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Fantasy & Magic, #Mysteries & Detective Stories
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For my gorgeous nieces and nephews:
Maxwell Scott (Mad Max)
Ashlee Duarte (Ashee Pot Pie)
Sydnee Scott (Master of the Universe)
Mitchell Scott (the Terminator)
Stephen Duarte (Stevie D)
Alex Eakins (Alexander the Great)
ZiZi Eakins (the Zi Guy)
and Rhia Eakins (the Two-Foot Tornado),
whose parents are paying for their raising
with a steep variable interest rate.
First and foremost, I must thank my
agent, Alexandra Machinist, who proves that nuclear powerhouses can come in tiny packages. And to my
editor, Jen Enderlin. Thank you so much for taking a chance on this series!
Thank you to everyone at St. Martin’s Press who helped with this project. And to Eli Torres, copy editor extraordinaire, I hereby promise to curb my use of the word
from this moment forward. And my use of the word
Thank you to Nikki Hyatt for sitting next to me with a cattle prod while I wrote the first version of this book so many years ago. Your skill with torturous objects is awe-inspiring. Thanks for the nudges.
Thank you to my early readers: Nikki, Tammy, Kit, Dan Dan, Kiki, DD, Liz, Sienna, and Ashlee, aka my Ashee Pot Pie.
Thank you to Ashlee and Sydnee, who are nieces, yes, but from two different families, for the use of their names. So, not twins as this book would suggest, but gorgeous girls all the way. And to Lorelei King for letting me steal her name as well. Hope you’re getting along okay without it. Thanks for breathing life into my characters.
Thank you to my family for being so enthusiastic about my writing. You make my world go ’round.
Thank you to my incredible assistant, Danielle “Dan Dan” Swopes. You are the bomb.
much to the fantastic authors who offered their valuable time to read this work and give quotes: P. C. Cast, Roxanne St. Clair, Shea Berkley, Gwen Hayes, Tera Lynn Childs, Inara Scott, Maureen McGowan, Lara Chapman, and Rachel Hawthorne/Lorraine Heath. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Thank you to Liz Bemis and the talented team at Bemis Promotions for all the great work.
And a very special thank-you goes out to Sienna Condy for literally naming this book! I loved the title the moment I heard it. It’s cute, clever, and captivating. Much like you.
A gigantic thank-you to my chapter mates, the LERA-lites, my agency siblings whom I’ve grown up with, my St. Martin’s sisters-in-arms, and the lovely ladies of the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood. Astonishing creatures, one and all.
And last but never ever least, a huge, heartfelt thank-you to you, the reader, without whom none of this would be possible. Thank you for making my dreams come true.
The small town of Riley’s Switch, New Mexico, had only one coffeehouse, so that’s where I sat with my two best friends, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that only two of us would make it out of there alive. Though I did tend to exaggerate.
The fresh scent of pine from the surrounding mountains, which mingled with the rich aroma of coffee, lingered forgotten. In its place was a tense silence. It thickened the air around us. Emotions soared and rage simmered as I glowered at the traitor sitting across from me, waiting for him to flinch, to cower under my scrutiny. I would make his life a living heck if it were the last thing I did. Mostly because I wasn’t allowed to use the word
being the granddaughter of a pastor and all. Otherwise, Casey Niyol Blue-Spider, aka
, would be toast.
“I swear, Lorelei,” he said, caving at last as a telling bead of sweat trickled down his temple, “I didn’t take it.” He shifted nervously in his seat and scanned the Java Loft, most likely to see if anyone was paying attention to the unscrupulous activities going on right under their noses. Since we were the only patrons in the place, probably not. “And even if I did, and I’m not saying I did,” he added, jabbing an index finger toward me, “who the heck cares?”
I lowered my voice, controlled the tone and inflection of every word, every syllable, striving to make myself sound menacing. I took up a mere five feet of vertical air space, so menacing was not always easy for me to accomplish. Slipping into a cryptic grin, I said, “You realize the minute I touch your hand, I’ll know the truth.”
His gaze darted to the hand he’d wrapped around his whipped almond toffee cappuccino with nonfat milk, and he jerked it back out of my reach. His hand. Not the whipped almond toffee cappuccino with nonfat milk.
My best friend Brooklyn leaned in to me and whispered, “You know he accidentally deleted seventeen songs off your classic rock playlist, right? And he used your toothbrush once without asking.” She glared at him, the contempt in her eyes undeniable. “I say make the traitor squirm.”
Glitch’s jaw tightened, and I could sense his inevitable defeat like a dog senses fear.
“Tag-teaming?” he asked, indignant. “Isn’t that a little unsportsmanlike?”
“Not for a couple of heartless dames like us,” Brooklyn said.
I turned to her with a smile. “Oh, my god, I love it when you talk pulp-fiction detective.”
“I know, right?” she said, her dark skin and brown eyes a picture of joy.
Brooke and I met when we threw down in the third grade. By the end of my first and only catfight, I had a few missing hairs, a broken fingernail, and a new best friend. And we were practically twins. If not for the fact that she had long sable hair, chestnut skin, and light brown eyes, and I had curly auburn hair, pasty white skin, and eyes the bizarre color of chimney smoke, people would never be able to tell us apart. Probably because we were both exactly five feet tall. Not a centimeter more. Not a centimeter less. It was eerie.
In choreographed unison, we refocused on the slimeball sitting across from us.
“Spill,” she said.
“Okay, sheesh.” He pushed back his cappuccino and folded his arms over his chest, a defensive gesture that only added fuel to my suspicions. “I admit it. I had a copy of the test beforehand, but I didn’t steal it.”
“I knew you cheated.” I reached across the table and whacked him on the arm. Thankfully, Glitch wasn’t much bigger than either of us, so the punch quite possibly registered somewhere deep in the scary depths of his boy mind. Or that was my hope, anyway. “You blew the curve, Glitch.”
Guilt washed over him. I could tell by the thin line of his lips, the chin tucked in shame.
“You’re such a wiener,” Brooklyn said. “I really needed those extra points.”
“And where on planet Earth did you get a copy of the test?” I had to admit, I was more than a little astonished. And a tad jealous.
He shook his head. “No way. I’m not giving up my source. And besides, you both got B’s. It’s not like you failed the stupid thing.”
Brooklyn reached over, curled a fist into his T-shirt, and pulled him forward until their noses were mere inches apart. “Clearly you do not understand the innate intricacies and often illogical drives of an A freak.” She let go, disgusted. “I hate your guts.”
“No, you don’t.” He took a swig of his cappuccino, unconcerned.
Like Brooklyn, Glitch was a bona fide child of two nations, with dark, coppery skin from his Native American father and hazel green eyes, compliments of his Irish-American mother. And thanks to a compromise between the two, he had the coolest name on earth: Casey Niyol Blue-Spider. The mix of ethnicities gave him a rich, enigmatic attraction. Though he hardly needed to, he kept his short black hair spiked with blond highlights in an attempt to make himself seem wild and unpredictable, which was always good for a laugh. Glitch was about as wild and unpredictable as a carrot stick. Though he did have an unnatural fear of turtles that was interesting.
“You’re just intimidated by my manly physique.”
Brooke snorted. “This coming from a boy who’s barely tall enough to get on the roller coaster at the state fair without a permission slip from his parents.”
His grin took on an evil luster. “Least I get on, short pants.”
“Oh yeah? Well, at least I wasn’t voted most likely to acquire gainful employment as Santa’s elf.”
“Guys, guys,” I said, holding up my hands for a cease-fire. “We can’t fling short jokes at each other when we’re all short. It’s just not effective.”
“That’s true,” Brooklyn said in disappointment.
“No, it’s not. I am three, count them, three”—he held up three fingers for us to count—“inches taller than the likes of you two. I can’t believe I’m willing to be seen in public with either of you.”
“Glitch,” Brooklyn said, a warning edge in her voice, “I will stab you in the face if you ever speak to me again.”
He squinted at her, completely unmoved, then turned to me and asked, “So, did your grandmother get her computer running?”
“No. You’re just going to have to stop by sometime and fix it.”
“Cool.” He smiled in anticipation. “What’s for dinner tonight?”
I knew he’d do that. Brooke had already invited herself over, claiming she needed to upload her assignment because the Internet at her house was down. Glitch would come over, fix my grandmother’s computer in about ten minutes, and then my two best friends would spend the rest of the evening keeping me company.
It was the same every year. For a week before until a week after the anniversary of my parents’ disappearance, they spent almost every waking moment with me, watching over me, seeing to my every need. They were amazing. I’m not sure what they thought I would do if left alone—I’d never been particularly suicidal—but they were the dearest friends a girl could ask for. The air seemed to turn dreary this time of year, thick and heavy, so having them around did help. And I totally loved being waited on hand and foot, so naturally I milked it for all it was worth.
The bell jingled, announcing a new customer before I could answer Glitch, but I was busy prying my fingers apart anyway. I’d spilled mocha cappuccino over them—
mocha cappuccino—when I tried to add a sprinkle of cinnamon earlier, and few things were more disturbing than sticky fingers. Forest fires, perhaps. And people who claimed to have been abducted by aliens.
“I have to wash my hands before we go.”
“Okay.” Brooklyn rummaged through her bag and pulled out her phone for a quick check as I scooted out of the booth, grateful for the excuse. For some reason, the fact that my parents had been gone almost ten years exactly, like some kind of milestone anniversary, had me more melancholy than usual. “I’ll keep an eye on the traitor,” Brooke continued, “until we can decide what to do with him.”
“Do you need ideas?” Glitch asked, turning feisty. “I know lots of things you could do to me.”
“Do any of them involve piano wire and a razor blade?”
I laughed to myself and headed toward the back of our favorite and pretty much only hangout. It sat a mere block from our alma mater, Riley High, and we practically lived in our corner booth. I ducked past the snack counter and into a very dark back hall. Judging by the boxes lining the narrow passage, I’d be taking my life into my hands if I risked a journey to the little
’s room without illumination, so I ran my hand along a paneled wall. Where would I be if I were a light switch? Just as the tips of my fingers found the switch, a silhouette stepped out of the shadows and brushed past me. I startled with a gasp.
“Excuse me,” I said, placing a hand over my heart.
“Sorry.” The guy paused slightly before continuing on his way, and in that instant, I saw the makings of utter perfection: a long arm with shadowy curves that dipped around the fluid lines of muscle; a tall, wide shoulder; dark hair that curled playfully over an ear and led to a strong, masculine jaw. Something inside me lurched, craving a closer look at his face, but he walked by too fast and the hall was too dark for me to catch anything else.