She may have learned the art of politics from her dad, but it's the lessons in survival taught by his security chief that she's taken to heart.
When Riley is caught up in a violent incident, the State Department steps in, offering an all-expense paid senior year at Harrington Academy, one of the most elite boarding schools in Connecticut. The catch: she must use her tactical skills to keep her eye on heiress Hayden Frasier, the daughter of a tech billionaire intent on changing the world.
Immersed in American materialism and social media for the first time, it's culture shock for Riley. Hayden resents her new roommate, and Riley learns nothing is ever private when there's a cellphone around. She discovers allies in Von Alder, the cute class flirt; Sam Hudson, whose status as Hayden's ex-boyfriend puts him on the forbidden list; and Captain Grace Taylor, Harrington's tough new head of security, and the only one who knows Riley's true purpose at Harrington.
Disturbing signs begin to appear that Riley's assignment wasn't the walk in the park she'd been promised. She learns the death of Hayden's former roommate might not have been an accident after all, and she spars with classmate Quinn, whose attempts at social sabotage causes Riley to take drastic measures.
As Riley's relationship with Hayden thaws into her first opportunity at true friendship, the danger around her roommate heats up. Riley must fight for her life and Hayden's - and the security of a nation - as those around her reveal themselves to be true friends, or the ultimate betrayers.
About the Author
As a feature film development executive, she worked on a variety of independent films, from gritty dramas (guns and hotties) to steamy vampire love stories (fangs and hotties) to teens-in-peril genre movies (blood and hotties).
Kes produced a couple of independent films, both award-winners on the festival circuit, before segueing into television commercials. As head of production for a Hollywood-based film company, she supervised the budgeting and production of nationally broadcast commercials (celebrities, aliens, talking animals!) and award-winning music videos for artists such as Radiohead, Coldplay, and OKGO (more celebrities, aliens, and talking animals!).
In an attempt to raise kids who could actually pick their mom out of a line up, Kes turned to writing full-time. Her contemporary novels for young adults are cinematic, fast-paced, and above all, fun. Add an understanding husband and a pack of rescue dogs to the mix, and that's also an apt description of life in the busy Trester household.
Read an Excerpt
BENSON'S RULE #1
LEVEL THE PLAYING FIELD
Please, don't let them take me!"
I knew enough Urdu to understand the girl's desperate plea. The scrawny little thing clutching my arm was like any other twelve-year-old in the crowded Karachi marketplace, her hair covered with the traditional hijab headscarf, and her soft brown eyes wide with fear.
"It's okay," I said, betting she'd understand the tone if not the actual English words. My eyes darted about, attempting to pinpoint who or what was about to destroy the peace of a sweltering September afternoon. I'd heard enough horror stories to know if a young girl turned to an ambassador's daughter for help, it had to be a matter of life or death.
The American embassy was only three blocks away, but we couldn't walk there directly. A labyrinth of tiny stalls offering everything from used books to live chickens hemmed us in. Each booth butted up against the next, forcing shoppers to navigate a jostling gauntlet through a rabbit warren of sights and smells. It was one of my favorite places in the city.
I took her hand as we pressed through the crowd. I too wore a hijab, and though I normally tried to walk respectfully with head bowed, her panic was contagious. For once I didn't care who caught sight of my bright blue eyes, a dead giveaway of my foreignness.
A glance back revealed three bearded men shoving people aside with careless brutality. They were dressed in loose tunics and trousers, but it was the sight of their turbans, a squashed version of what most men wore, that sent my heart racing. Benson once told me the local extremists sported the odd style as a badge of honor and were to be avoided at all costs.
A shout told me we'd been spotted. It also warned the other shoppers there was trouble brewing. As the crowd magically thinned, I knew with absolute certainty we were never going to make it to the embassy before our pursuers closed the gap. The girl's fingernails bit into my skin as she realized it, too.
I searched the stalls as we raced, hunting desperately for something I could use as a weapon. Benson said the local group wasn't well armed, but in his mind, that meant they probably wouldn't have guns. Knives and clubs were another matter.
Inspiration struck when I spied the music man.
He always sat perched on a big, colorful pillow as he played one of the many musical instruments filling every square inch of his stall, his dark eyes twinkling as if we shared some secret. I hoped he'd forgive what I was about to do.
Five or six tall wind instruments resembling overgrown rhaitas, the flutes popular with snake charmers, stood in an orderly row at the front of the open-air shop. I grabbed the nearest one, about six feet in length and surprisingly heavy. The mouthpiece and flared opening were both fitted with metal coverings, but the rest was a solid shaft of gleaming wood. It was perfect.
What I was about to do broke every rule, but the men bearing down on us left me no choice. I shoved the girl behind me and stood my ground.
The shoppers cleared a path as our pursuers slowed to a confident pace. A cluster of old men cackled as they placed bets on how long I could fend them off, and how many blows I could land before I succumbed.
The trio came to a halt, kicking up a cloud of dust. The guy in the center regarded me with contempt as I bounced on the balls of my feet, the staff balanced in my hands. He appeared to be in his late twenties, but his two young companions were only a few years older than me.
"Go home ... girl." He spit out the last word as if it were dirt in his mouth. English was the second language of Pakistan, but he spoke it better than I would ever manage Urdu.
"No problem," I said evenly. "I'll just take my friend and go." I didn't dare turn to look, but she still hovered behind me.
"No. She has offended Allah and shamed her family. We will take her." He took a threatening step in my direction, but I held firm.
"What has she done?" The kid looked barely strong enough to walk to the dinner table.
"This." Her high voice piped up as she stepped forward, her stance defiant as she held up the forbidden object causing all the commotion. A book. "I have been going to school." Her English was clear and precise, her words ringing with pride.
Oh, shit. As far as these guys were concerned, she might as well have announced she danced naked with sheep. The traditionalists in this part of the world were hell bent on keeping their girls ignorant and subservient. There would be no walking away from this one gracefully.
The old men holding wagers were getting impatient. One of them called out a taunt, egging the trio on. The leader took the bait, but I was ready for him. A quick flick, and the staff smacked him squarely across the face, shattering his nose. My stomach clenched at the sight of spurting blood.
Benson's voice rang inside my head, directing my movements as I followed with a hard jab to the ribs and an uppercut to the jaw. My shocked opponent sank to his knees before passing out cold on the dusty street.
Cheers and catcalls arose from our audience. They didn't care who won or lost; this was the most fun they'd had all day. It also fueled the righteous anger of the remaining two, one of whom pulled out a gleaming knife. He nodded to the other and they broke apart, intent on circling me. I couldn't let that happen.
"Benson's rule," my dad's security chief would say. "Level the playing field." The knife had to go.
I feinted toward the guy with the weapon, and he fell for it. Off balance, it was a simple matter to sweep the staff behind his knees and whip him off his feet. The other guy attacked. Fortunately, he fought like an untrained schoolboy and clumsily swung a fist in my general direction. I dodged it easily and sank an elbow into his exposed throat. His windpipe was probably fine, but he was suddenly a whole lot more worried about breathing than he was about messing with me.
The guy with the knife lurched back to his feet and came looking for blood. The chatter from the sidelines grew as bets were doubled, maybe tripled. I danced just out of reach, counting on his anger to make him reckless. I was shaming him in front of his people, something my dad would surely ream me for later.
The swiftness of the girl's movements surprised us both. Like a cornered kitten, she launched herself at him with arms raised. She viciously slammed the book down on his knife hand. The weapon skittered away and so did she, beaming as she cleared the field. I immediately swept the staff into the sweet spot between my opponent's legs, and his eyes glazed over as he sank to the ground.
I glanced at the spectators, worried an uncle or cousin of one of the fallen would feel honor-bound to enter the fray, but they were all too busy arguing over their wagers.
"Let's go," I urged the girl, pausing in front of the grinning music man to return the dented instrument and empty my pockets of every last rupee. I hoped it was enough.
"Thanks!" I yelled back as we dashed away.
BENSON'S RULE #2
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
The ticking of the antique grandfather clock in the corner, a relic from British colonial days, echoed in the silence of my father's office. He'd been stewing as he worked for twenty minutes, one of his favorite tactics for drawing out a punishment. I stood on the carpet, supposedly to consider the error of my ways, but I had no regrets. The only difference between the girl in the marketplace and me was simple geography.
The room was appropriately grand for the office of a United States ambassador. It could also be shrugged off as impersonal, with very few items belonging to my dad on display. With a new posting every two years or so, he deemed it imperative to travel light.
On his desk sat a beautiful black and white photo of my mother, a smiling Italian woman who was nothing but a hazy collection of stories in my mind. He also had a bronze camel paperweight presented to him by a former prime minister of Madagascar, and a prized chess set he'd won in a heated match with the late South African president, Nelson Mandela.
A detective trying to analyze the personality of Joseph Collins would have little to go on.
"You can't rescue every child in every country," he said, breaking into my thoughts. His pale coloring was no match for the noonday sun, and today's outing to meet with a council of warlords had left him flushed. "Remember what happened in Yemen?" He meant to be stern, but there was a note of compassion in his voice.
"You see a pattern, I see a problem-solver," I replied. "Who knows what would have happened if those camel jackers had gotten hold of her?"
He cast me a scolding glare, but I didn't back down. Those guys deserved to be called every nasty slur in the book.
"You probably saved her life," he admitted. "But you've also just complicated yours. Those men will not forget what you've done. The streets are no longer safe for you, even with Benson and your mandatory security detail."
I plopped down in one of the chairs fronting his desk. "I know, but come on. I've heard what you were doing at seventeen, and you sure weren't walking around with a team of armed guards." He'd grown up wild and undisciplined on the streets of Boston until his parents threw up their hands and sent him to military school.
"That was a lifetime ago," he said, impatience creeping in. "Hell, even Pakistan of ten years ago was a different world. Do you think the new rules don't apply to you simply because you don't like them?"
"Somebody's got to stand up to the religious police who want to take this place back to the Dark Ages," I said. "That girl is somebody's daughter, too."
His expression softened. "Maybe it's time we rethink this life," he said, but that's as far as he got before we both jumped at my name being bellowed from somewhere within the embassy.
"Riley!" We both knew the voice, and worse, that tone.
"Save me," I begged.
He turned back to the computer screen with a sigh. "Nope. I can't keep you in line. Maybe he can do something with you." He glanced at me again over his wire-rimmed glasses. With his wilted white polo shirt and wrinkled khakis, he was more like a forgetful English professor than a player on the international stage. "Go meet your fate."
"Fat lot of good you are," I muttered, rising to my feet.
"Riley!" I was out in the hall when the summons came again, this time echoing up the enormous marble staircase. I could envision the blood vessels popping out on Benson's wide forehead as he hunted me down.
"I'm coming," I called out, defeated.
Benson stood at the bottom of the next flight of steps with arms crossed and lips compressed into a narrow line. The nostrils of his crooked nose, the result of being broken one too many times, flared with anger. The white button-down he wore on duty barely contained his hulking frame, and I paused two steps up so I could meet our resident giant face to face. I'm not short, but he topped out at six-foot-five.
His Australian accent was as thick as the day he and my dad met on a joint military mission decades ago. They'd become close friends, and after my mom's death Benson had signed on permanently as my dad's security chief — and my unofficial jailor.
"Bloody hell! What were you thinking?" He raked a meaty hand across the bristle of his closely cropped hair. It had once been jet black, but now it was liberally sprinkled with gray. "I know you can handle yourself, but what is the first rule of fighting?"
"To avoid a fight. But Benson — "
"And going out without your security detail? After what happened in Yemen? Do I need to put a blasted bell around your neck?"
I opened my mouth to protest, but in all honesty my excuses were totally weak. He was right. Once again I'd been overly confident and foolish, and I really had no defense. But what did he expect? My only friends were guys like Martinez and Brady, who worked under Benson. There were no girls my age to hang out with, most of my shopping was done online, and my entertainment was limited to books or my computer.
"I'm sorry," I said at last. "It won't happen again." Since I would most likely have a price on my head after today's run in, it was an easy promise to make.
He regarded me suspiciously. "Just like that? The girl who'd rather die than admit she's wrong just apologized?"
I shrugged. "What I did was wrong."
The badass melted. "Oh, darlin' girl, you scared the hell out of me today. What if something had happened? Why do you take such awful risks?"
"It would have been fine if it hadn't been for those jerks," I said, unable to stay repentant for long. "I know this city, Benson, and I know these people."
"No, you don't," he said. "We are divided by much more than a flag and twenty-foot walls."
"Only if we want to be! How will they ever come to know us if all we ever do is drive past them in armored vehicles?"
It was true there was an element of danger on the streets; beneath the mask of a modern city there lived a people in turmoil. But it was also a place where the world's best fried pakoras and spicy chai were as close as the nearest café, the hours of the day could be marked by the melodious cry of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, and holidays found thousands joyously tossing food to the birds and fishes.
He growled in frustration. "How can a girl raised in every hot spot from here to Egypt be so ignorant about the world?"
"Not ignorant," I disagreed, "just not afraid. There is a difference."
"Not if it gets you killed," he said. "You can speak their language, you can dance in their homes, but you will never be one of them."
I had no comeback because he was right. As much as I yearned to belong to the world outside our gates, it was too dangerous, for them and for me. People would notice if I spent too much time with any particular family, and neighbors would talk. Gossip reaching the ears of close-minded men could mean trouble, and I couldn't do that to the kindly people I'd met. It left me in the lonely position of outsider, never allowed any true friends.
Benson gave me a reluctant smile, probably debating whether he was done being angry. "Are you hungry?"
I expelled a breath and nodded. If he was thinking about food, we were good again.
"Then let's go downstairs, and see what Nadira has to eat. Did you really take down three of them?" He hooked an arm around my shoulders, and by the time we'd reached the kitchen, his face was suffused with pride as I regaled him with all the gory details.
The girl's name was Farida, and she was an orphan. Her school had been firebombed last year and though her uncle had forbidden it, she'd been attending classes held in secret in a teahouse basement.
"The uncle has agreed to claim he married her off to some distant cousin," my father said a few days later over lunch in the embassy's communal dining room. No one would question it, I thought with a shiver, because child marriages were not uncommon in this part of the world.
"The rainy day fund sure took a hit, though," Benson grumbled. "That bugger of an uncle bargained like the girl was the bloody Queen of Sheba."
"What happens to her now?" I dug into the vegetable korma before me, one of my favorite dishes. Our chef Nadira had been going out of her way to serve foods I loved ever since the incident in the marketplace. At least someone was happy with me.
"A relief organization out of London picked her up about an hour ago. They'll get her to England and place her with a sympathetic Pakistani family." Benson picked up his iced tea and held it up for a toast. "To new beginnings."
We all clinked our glasses and echoed the sentiment.
"Mr. Ambassador?" Mrs. Parks, my dad's middle-aged executive secretary, approached. "There's a State Department envoy here to see you. I put her in your office." Her eyes cut in my direction. "She said it's about Riley."
Dad and Benson immediately locked gazes. This could only mean trouble.
"Thanks, Carol," my dad said. "We'll be right there."
As the clicks of the secretary's sensible heels retreated, I squirmed under the stares of the two men. "I didn't do anything, I swear. I mean," I said, backtracking, "nothing you don't already know about."
I sat through the rest of lunch with the air of the condemned, barely tasting the food. Whatever punishment there was to be handed down for my lapse in judgment had arrived. Disgraced diplomats were usually transferred to the most miserable outposts, but how much worse could it get than a country on the verge of tearing itself apart? Though I personally loved Pakistan, it sure as hell wasn't Paris.
Benson led the way to the executive wing and surprisingly, into the ambassador's offices. He didn't usually sit in on my dad's meetings, but then I normally was not the topic of discussion.
Excerpted from "A Dangerous Year"
Copyright © 2017 Kes Trester.
Excerpted by permission of Curiosity Quills Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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