The first time Lou meets mysterious Christian, she knows he is The One. But Christian is hiding a terrible secret. Why does he clam up every time Lou asks about his past? Why doesn’t he have any family photos, and why does he dye his blond hair black? When Christian’s house goes up in flames, his tires are slashed, and he flees for his life, Lou insists on going with him. But as Christian’s secret is unveiled in front of the whole world, it seems everything he’s ever told Lou is a lie. Can what the media are saying about him really be true? Should Lou trust him? Or is she in grave danger?
"Gripping whodunit."—Kirkus Reviews
"Spellbinding. . . . The amazingly well-thought-out plot and strong characters make this selection a great addition to any library, from junior high through young adult."—VOYA
"This edge-of-your-seat psychological thriller is painstakingly plotted and well paced, with twists around every corner that keep the reader guessing until the end."--Booklist
"This powerful suspense story succeeds . . . this well-crafted mystery-romance is sure to please the sophisticated young adult crowd."--The Bulletin
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“Run!” I yell over my shoulder as I sprint as fast as I can. “Come on!”
I round a corner and send a flock of flustered pigeons flapping into the trees, my heart pounding as hard as my feet on the concrete path as I glance backwards. But the path behind me is empty. I stop running, gasping for breath as I wait for a moment, but there’s still no sign of my friend. Hastily I retrace my steps, but it’s only when I reach the corner that I see the familiar figure splayed out on the grass.
“I’m dying!” she groans.
“You’re such a drama queen.” I smile as I jog over.
“And you’re a slave driver!” Vix moans.
“It was your idea to come running with me!” I laugh. “Don’t you remember last night?”
“No!” she says, blinking up at me. “I was drunk last night. Or crazy. Or both. I didn’t mean it, obviously.”
“So you don’t want to shape up to snag a cute fresher?”
“Well, yes,” Vix admits grudgingly. “But why do we have to run so early?”
“What time is it?” I ask, gazing out over the beautiful sunlit park. Other joggers are already bouncing round the perimeter, past families making their way to school and a couple of dog walkers.
But there’s still no sign of him.
Vix checks her watch. “Ten past eight.”
I frown. He should be here by now.
“Did you hear me? Ten past eight!” Vix cries. “And I haven’t even had a coffee yet! How am I even functioning?”
“Come on, lazybones.” I take her hand. “Just a few more meters.”
“Can’t,” she says. “I can’t move.”
“There’s a cafe just over there.”
Vix looks up. “With coffee?”
“Yes,” I laugh, helping her up. “There’s coffee, and comfy sofas, a great view and--”
Suddenly my heart jumps. There he is. Quickly, I bend to retie my shoelaces as he crosses our path.
“Aha!” Vix grins. “So that’s the real reason you’ve been running every morning.”
I look up sharply. “What?”
She raises an eyebrow. “The tall, dark, and handsome hotty who nearly gave you a heart attack?”
Shit. Am I that obvious?
“You’re blushing!” she squeals.
“Shh!” I hiss, glancing over to check he didn’t hear. He heads into the cafe, the hood of his red jacket pulled over his mess of black hair despite the warm morning sunshine.
“No wonder the cute freshers are crashing and burning with you--you’re totally smitten with Mr. McHotty over there!” Vix smirks. “Not that I blame you. He’s totally fit. Check out that arse! Now, that’s a view worth exercising for. What’s his name?”
“You haven’t even talked to him?” Vix stares at me. “Come on!”
“No--Vix!” I protest, grabbing her arm as she heads for the cafe. “I can’t just go up and talk to him--I don’t know anything about him!”
“Well, how are you ever going to get to know him if you never even meet?” she argues.
Cold dread trickles down my spine. Do I have the guts to actually meet him?
“Seriously, babe, what’s the worst that could happen?”
I shudder. If only she knew.
“You don’t get on, you say goodbye, you get to lie in in future?” Vix grins. “Anyway, you do know some stuff about him,” she argues. “You know he’s cute, you know he’s athletic. . . .”
“I know you’re shallow!”
“And you’re a chicken!” Vix cries. “Life’s too short--I’m going in!”
“No, Vix!” I grab her arm.
“Then you go!”
“Bye!” She shakes her arm loose.
“Fine.” I hurry past her towards the entrance of the cafe.
“Atta girl!” Vix cries.
Keeping my head down, I walk through the door, make a beeline for the counter, and order two iced coffees before risking a quick glance round the cafe.
I spot him almost immediately. He has his back to me as he takes a seat at a corner table with a bottle of orange juice. I watch as he peels his jacket off and drapes it over the back of his chair, revealing toned, tanned arms.
Sweat beads on my forehead and my own hoodie suddenly feels two sizes too small.
I pay for the coffees, pick up my tray, then take a deep breath.
This is it.
I head towards him, my fingers tightly gripping the tray.
I can do this, I tell myself, forcing my feet to move. One step, then another. Simple.
So why does it suddenly seem like the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life?
Just talk to him--just words.
Through the window, Vix gives me a thumbs-up. Great. An audience.
Another step. Then another.
The coffee shivers and slops over the sides of the cups. I will myself to keep walking, my eyes fixed on the back of his head.
One more step . . .
My tray slips suddenly from my fingers, the crockery crashing to the floor as coffee splashes everywhere--including straight down the back of the guy, who leaps from his chair, his jacket tumbling to the floor.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry!” I cry.
He looks up and I freeze as his pale blue eyes meet mine, goose bumps prickling down my arms as I struggle to breathe. I look away quickly, my cheeks burning.
“Oh no--your jacket!” I pick it up, grab a napkin from the table, and hurriedly dab at the coffee stains.
“It’s fine, really,” he says, smiling down at me.
“No, I’m really sorry. I’ll pay for the dry cleaning,” I offer.
“Forget about it.” He smiles again, taking his jacket and orange juice. “It’s fate’s way of telling me it’s about time I did some laundry.”
“I’m so sorry,” I say yet again, stupidly, as he hurries out of the cafe.
“What was that?” Vix rushes in, her face a mixture of horror and amusement.
“Smooth, huh?” I sigh.
“Now I understand why you didn’t want to introduce yourself,” she laughs. “Lucky it wasn’t hot coffee--he’d be in hospital!”
“What a disaster!” I sink my head into my hands. “Or then again, maybe not . . .”
“Seriously?” Vix smiles. “Exactly which part of the last five minutes wasn’t completely catastrophic?”
I reach down and pick something up off the floor.
“The part where Mr. McHotty dropped his wallet . . .”
“Beautiful!” Vix beams at my reflection. “Ooh, and I’ve got just the right color blush in my room.”
“Vix, I don’t want any--”
“Back in a sec!”
I sigh as she disappears into the corridor; then I turn to the mirror and stare at the unfamiliar girl gazing back at me.
Just months ago my hair hung, lank and mousy-brown, round my shoulders. Now it twists and curls, dyed blond a few weeks ago by me, now pinned and styled by Vix, who has also plastered so much makeup over my face that only my black-rimmed eyes are recognizable. Though there’s something different lingering behind them now too. A flicker of . . . what? Excitement? Fear?
“Here we go . . .” Vix bounds back into my room. “Smile!”
I grimace as she dabs at my cheeks with a soft brush.
“Yikes! I hope you’re gonna do better than that when you see McHotty!” she scolds. “No wonder he ran a mile!”
My heart beats fast at the thought of seeing him again.
“There!” she says finally, stepping back and admiring her handiwork. “What do you think?”
“I don’t recognize myself,” I tell her honestly.
“Well, duh!” She grins. “That’s kind of the point! It’s your second week at university--what better time to reinvent yourself?” She smiles. “You’re gorgeous, Lou. Believe it. Work it. No more klutzy Louise Shepherd, no more being tongue-tied and awkward around guys. Now you are Lou--smart, sophisticated, confident femme fatale.” She giggles. “McHotty doesn’t stand a chance.”
“I hope you’re right.” I lick my strawberry-glossed lips nervously. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Just a sec.” She grabs the curling iron.
“Vix! How much longer?”
“One second! Just the finishing touches . . .”
“You’ve been saying that for hours!” I protest. “We should have returned his wallet straight away.”
“We couldn’t!” Vix protests. “We had lectures to get to.”
“But we walked past his house on the way back from the park this morning,” I remind her. “We could have dropped it off then.”
“But he doesn’t know that.” Vix grins. “Besides, you were not presentable. This way you get to make a great second impression--God knows you need it after the first!”
“Very reassuring,” I groan. “But hurry up--what if Christian’s been freaking out all morning about losing his wallet?”
“Christian now, is it?” Vix says, a smug smile on her lips.
My cheeks burn. “That’s what it says on his driving license, Christian Marcus Webb.” I stare down at the little pink card, usefully printed with his name, date of birth, address, and those piercing eyes that seem to stare straight into my soul.
“Well, Christian will be so knocked out by your appearance he won’t even care about his wallet.” Vix grins, setting down the curling iron. “There. Done. We can go.”
“Finally.” I grab my bag from my bed and usher Vix out of my room, locking the door behind us, then hurry down the two flights of stairs to the bustling reception area of our halls of residence.
“Lou! Vix!” Matt calls over from the group of students hanging out on the sofas. “We’re thinking of hitting that new club on Division Street tonight--Lush. Do you guys fancy it?”
“Sounds like a plan!” Vix beams.
“Excellent!” He smiles.
“What about you, Lou?” his mate Dan asks. “Have you done something different with your hair? It looks great.”
“Oh. Thanks.” I smile.
“Lou will have to let you know later.” Vix grins. “She may have a hot date tonight!”
Dan’s face falls. “A date? Who with?”
“No one,” I tell him, hooking my arm through Vix’s. “See you later. Come on, Vix.”
“No fair.” Vix pouts as I drag her towards the exit. “Why do all the decent guys always fancy you?”
“They don’t!” I protest.
“Please. So beautiful. So blind.”
“Matt likes you,” I argue. “And he seems really nice.”
“Yeah, but he’s a computer science geek.” She rolls her eyes. “It doesn’t count. Ooh--post!” She slips from my grip and skips over to the pigeonholes to check her mail.
“Vix!” I protest. “Come on!”
“Chill, hon--Christian’s house is, like, a two-minute drive away!”
“You want to take the car? What happened to getting in shape?”
“I jogged this morning, didn’t I?”
“Barely.” I smile.
“Besides, jogging in trainers round a nice flat park is not the same as trudging up and down Sheffield’s bleeding hills. It’s bad enough trekking halfway across the city to lectures--I so should’ve gone to a campus uni--but there’s no way I’m hiking up hills in heels!” she says vehemently. “Besides, I thought you were in a hurry to return Christian’s wallet. And you don’t want to turn up all puffed and sweaty after spending so long getting beautiful, do you . . . ?”
“All right!” I laugh at her swift change of tactics. “We’ll take my uncle’s car.”
“Sweet.” She smiles, then frowns as she flicks through the collection of envelopes in her hand. “I still haven’t heard from the student loan company, have you? I need to know when my money’s coming in.”
I sigh, then search the pigeonholes for my own mail.
“Uh, Lou, why are you looking in the W box? You’re not Mrs. Webb yet, you know!”
“Oh yeah, right.” My cheeks burn as I move to the S box. I have to stop doing that. Louise Shepherd. My name is Louise Shepherd. I riffle through the letters, then freeze as I spot the familiar postmark.
“Bills, bills, bills!” Vix moans, opening her mail. “You get anything interesting?”
“Same,” I lie quickly, shoving the letter into my bag as she hooks her arm through mine. “I’m gonna have to start looking for a job soon!”
“Seriously!” Vix nods as we head into the car park. “No one ever warns you how expensive uni is! I thought it was all about late nights and lie-ins, booze and bonking, good times and--”
“Good grades?” I raise an eyebrow.
“You sound just like my dad,” Vix groans as we slide into the car. “ ‘University is not about getting drunk all day, Victoria. This is your future on the line.’ He’s still sore that I didn’t get into Cambridge like his beloved Darius.” She pulls a face. “Dads! It must be easier living with your uncle and aunt, huh? Less pressure?”
I falter. I wish. I owe them everything. They had no obligation to adopt me, so when I let them down it’s a hundred times worse.
And boy, have I let them down.
“Not that I’m saying it’s easy losing your mum and dad,” Vix adds quickly. “Just . . . just tell me to shut my big mouth.”
“It’s okay.” I smile as I maneuver the car out of the car park. “I never really knew my parents, but I don’t think my aunt and uncle treat me any differently than my cousins. Except, I guess, my uncle’s a little more protective of them, but that’s probably just because they’re younger than me.”
I smile as I think of fearless little Millie and her comical take on the world. She’d be into everything, given half a chance.
“Tell me about it,” Vix groans. “It’s a nightmare being the youngest. Especially with Darius for an older brother--he’s like another parent!”
“But you and your cousins get on okay?” she asks.
“Like a house on fire.” I smile. “I think of them more like sisters, really. One’s only a year younger than me, so we always did everything together--horse-riding lessons, ballet classes, same piano tutor, same swimming coach, same school . . . till sixth form, anyway.”
“Why, what happened?”
My heart sinks. Then everything changed.
“My uncle always wanted us to go to his old boarding school for our A levels--to make sure we got the best grades. They only take girls in the sixth form, and I was a year older, so . . . it was the first time we’d been separated nearly our whole lives.”
And I wish I’d never gone. Never left her side.
“I wish I had sisters,” Vix sighs. “All I hear is: ‘Victoria, why can’t you be more like your brother?’ My dad doesn’t understand that I don’t want to be a bloodsucking lawyer, and investigative journalism is an equally valid career choice. He thinks it’s all just paparazzi on motorbikes.” She sighs. “You know he gave Darius a Porsche for his twenty-first? A Porsche? And he won’t even let me drive his old Volvo. I can’t believe your uncle loaned you his car. You’re so lucky. And it’s an automatic too. So easy to drive.”
“Yeah, it is--except when you have to go up and down all these hills!”
“So how come you’ve got your uncle’s car anyway?” Vix asks. “Doesn’t he need it?”
I shrug. “Not for a while.” Not where he is.