Avery West's newfound family can shut down Prada when they want to shop in peace, and can just as easily order a bombing when they want to start a war. Part of a powerful and dangerous secret society called the Circle, they believe Avery is the key to an ancient prophecy. Some want to use her as a pawn. Some want her dead.
To unravel the mystery putting her life in danger, Avery must follow a trail of clues from the monuments of Paris to the back alleys of Istanbul with two boys who work for the Circle—beautiful, volatile Stellan and mysterious, magnetic Jack. But as the clues expose a stunning conspiracy that might plunge the world into World War 3, she discovers that both boys are hiding secrets of their own. Now she will have to choose not only between freedom and family--but between the boy who might help her save the world, and the one she's falling in love with.
|Publisher:||Penguin Young Readers Group|
|Series:||Conspiracy of Us Series , #1|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Lexile:||HL710L (what's this?)|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The piece of paper could have been anything.
The spotlight behind me flashed acid green, then pink, then went dark. The pink still seared my retinas, lending a rosy glow to the folded page clenched in my fist.
I stared at it for a few seconds, then reopened it.
The six-inch square had just dropped out of Jack Bishop’s bag.
Jack Bishop, the new guy, who had transferred to Lakehaven High at the beginning of this week. Who had shown up here at lighting tech rehearsal, even though he was the last person I’d expect to be a theater kid.
He’d glanced at his phone and hurried down from the catwalk, and was now making his way across the stage below, his footsteps echoing through the theater. His white T-shirt went orange with the next floodlight, then blue, a bright spot in the dark.
I made sure no one was watching, then smoothed the paper flat again.
It was a photo. A photo of a girl with long dark hair and matching dark eyes focused just out of the frame.
The girl was me.
I watched Jack until he disappeared.
On the other end of the catwalk, Lara Sanchez, the lighting director for the spring play and the person who forced me to come today, leaned over all the new theater techs to demonstrate how another light operated. It made the whole structure shudder.
I clutched at the wire mesh with white-knuckled fingers and glanced at the photo again. In it, my lips were slightly parted, my head turned, like I was talking to someone. He must have gotten it online. Lara posted a ton of pictures. For Jack Bishop to go to the trouble of searching one out meant . . . Well, there weren’t many reasons a guy would be carrying your picture around.
I suddenly realized how stagnant the air up here was. Hot. Stuffy. I was doing better than I thought I would, but I wouldn’t say no to an excuse to get down.
I scrambled to my feet. “Sorry,” I whispered to Lara as I stepped over legs and backpacks. “Excuse me.” I didn’t stop until I was on solid ground. I brushed off my jeans, shoved the picture into my messenger bag, then pushed open the heavy theater door.
B Hall looked especially drab after the neon stage, but Jack, halfway to the gym and looking at his phone, might as well have had a spotlight on him.
Since he’d started at Lakehaven on Monday, Jack had been invited onto the yearbook committee and half the school’s sports teams, and into EmmaBeth Porter’s pants, and those were just the offers I’d overheard.
Meanwhile, I’d spent the whole week fighting the flutter in my stomach that started when he sat next to me in sociology class. And got worse when he smiled at me in calculus. And then he’d showed up at lighting, which meant I’d been staring at the tattoo on his forearm for the last half hour instead of paying attention.
I wasn’t just fascinated with his forearms, though, or his deep gray eyes, or the dimple in his right cheek. He was ridiculously attractive—not pretty, but good-looking in a chiseled way, his jawline an angle rather than a curve, not a strand of espresso-colored hair out of place—and to a lot of people, that would be enough.
To me, though, there was more. Jack was the new kid, like I was. Like me, he said no to all the invitations. I never saw him talking to anyone for more than a couple of minutes. But he seemed so confident about it. It was like he actually . . . didn’t care.
I pretended I didn’t care. About friends. About boys. About having a life. Sometimes I thought I’d actually gotten the hang of it, but then I’d find myself sneaking out of lighting rehearsal because there was a traitorous part of me that wanted to know if this guy I’d been watching for the past week had been watching me, too.
Jack made an abrupt right out the exit to the courtyard.
I should have stopped following him. What was I planning to do, anyway? But when I got to where he’d turned, I heard a voice echoing back into the hall through the plink of raindrops. “Why would he be coming here?”
I stopped short, confused. Carefully, I peered through the propped-open doors. Maybe it was somebody else.
It wasn’t. All I could see was his left arm, but it was Jack. His compass tattoo was facing me, north pointing to the ground.
“Have you got any idea when?” he said, and I tried to make sense of it. Unless my ears weren’t working, Jack Bishop was speaking with a British accent.
He glanced behind him, and I shrank flat against the lockers.
“No, I haven’t seen him yet. Aren’t there more important things to worry about?” He paused. “What would the Dauphins want with her?”
Her? My hand flew to the front pocket of my bag, where I’d tucked the photo.
“Sir?” Jack’s voice changed from agitated to confused. “Certainly,” he said. “Level one priority. I understand.”
I shook my head. Of course he wasn’t talking about me. But what was he talking about?
“I’ll do it by tonight, then,” Jack said after a pause. “Yes, sir.”
He must have hung up the phone, because he cursed under his breath, and his footsteps squelched away on the rain-soaked sidewalk.
I sagged against the lockers. The last few words of the conversation played out in my head. Level one priority. Sir.
An old teacher of his, maybe. A strict British grandfather. It was none of my business, but the uncertainty in Jack’s usually calm voice had unsettled me as much as the accent had.
I tucked a strand of dark hair behind my ear and took out the picture again, studying my face in the dull fluorescent light.
I looked closer. This photo was taken in the front yard at my house. I recognized the spiky pine tree.
I didn’t remember Lara taking pictures there, and I never posted photos online.
And if that was the case, where had Jack gotten it?
Avery June West!” I jumped. I’d spent too much time thinking about the picture, and now I was about to be late for next period. I turned to find Lara bouncing down the hall toward my locker, her blue-tipped hair swinging. “Dude, thanks for running out on me. What is your problem?”
For some reason, I didn’t want to tell her about Jack. “I told you I don’t really like heights,” I said instead.
I spun my lock, jiggled the handle, and smacked the corner of the door with my palm. It sprang open. Being the new kid in the middle of the year means you get a lot of leftovers. Lockers are no exception.
“And we agreed lighting would be good for that, remember?” Lara pulled a pack of Twizzlers from her backpack and offered it to me. I shook my head. “And then you get to hang out with me. If you did set design, you’d have to deal with Amber Leland the rest of the year, and gross.”
I grabbed my Ancient Civilizations book. “I’m not going to ditch you for set design.”
On the way to Ancient Civ, Lara told me about how Amie Simpson had been suspended for smoking cigarettes with the janitor, and how her date had no one to go to prom with now, and their dinner reservation was blown.
“You should just come,” she said, pointing a long red Twizzler rope at the prom committee table. “I know you said you weren’t going, but you could be Amie’s replacement.”
I looked at the prom poster. The theme was A Night in Hollywood. “I don’t think so, but thanks.”
I didn’t do school dances. Just like clubs—and especially like very cute, very intriguing boys—they weren’t part of The Plan. I was determined to stick to The Plan here in Lakehaven, Minnesota.
“Your loss,” Lara said. “The Olive Garden has unlimited breadsticks.”
I tuned out when Molly Mattison came running up to ask if she could borrow Lara’s favorite feather earrings.
Was the whole idea of The Plan cynical of me? Sure. Kind of pathetic? Definitely. But I’d realized I needed to stop caring years ago, in a moving truck between Portland and St. Louis. The Plan worked, just like it was working this time. Lara was nice, but we’d never be all that close. I’d done lighting today to get both her and my mom off my back, but I’d specifically chosen the activity so I had an excuse to fail. Thank you, fear of heights.
The thing is, being lonely is like walking in the cold without a coat. It’s uncomfortable, but eventually you go numb. Once you get used to not being lonely, though, the shock of going back is like having your down comforter yanked off at six o’clock on a Minnesota December morning.
Lara stopped talking and narrowed her eyes.
“What?” I started to say, but then I saw. Jack was walking toward us down the hall. There was no way he’d followed me to my house and taken a picture when I wasn’t looking. Lara must have taken it.
“He is a ridiculous human being,” Lara said.
Unlike every other girl in the school, she had no interest in Jack. She thought he was a snob. “Too J.Crew,” she said, and she wasn’t entirely wrong. He strutted down the hall with his hands in his pockets, wearing a tailored button-down with rolled-up sleeves, like he’d just stepped out of a photo shoot.
“Yeah,” I said. “Ridiculous.” I twisted the gold chain of my locket between my fingers and shot one last glance over my shoulder as the bell rang and we hurried into Ancient Civ. A few seconds later, Jack paused in the doorway. His eyes met mine before he took his seat, and I traced lines on my notebook.
Jack was in this class, calc, and sociology with me. We’d been paired up for a project on “Families in America” the past couple of days in sociology, which meant he now knew everything there was to know about my life, from the constant moving for my mom’s job to my dad leaving us when I was little. I was still surprised I’d told him as much as I had. He wasn’t nearly as forthcoming. I thought he would have at least mentioned posh British relatives who gave him enigmatic assignments over the phone.
“Miss West? Avery?”
I jumped, and my pen slipped off my desk with a clatter. I hadn’t even realized that class started.
“Can you answer the question for us?” Mrs. Lindley asked.
“Um . . .” I glanced at Lara. She pointed to her notes, but I couldn’t read her pink scrawls. On my own notebook, where I should have been taking notes, was a rough sketch of Jack’s compass tattoo. I quickly covered it with my elbow.
“The Diadochi, Miss West, from the reading assigned last night. Can you tell us the role they played in the life of Alexander the Great?”
I’d done the reading. I always did the reading. I might not be good at people, but I was good at school. Right now, though, I was drawing a complete blank.
“Alexander the Great conquered a lot of the ancient world. Um, from Greece all the way to India,” I said, stalling as I flipped pages, hoping the words would jump out at me.
Mrs. Lindley’s lips pursed like she’d bitten into something sour.
“The Diadochi were Alexander’s successors,” a deep voice said, from three rows away. I turned. Jack was staring right at me. His voice was back to normal, with no trace of the British accent.
Mrs. Lindley quirked an eyebrow in my direction.
“Alexander didn’t have a blood heir, so he left his kingdom to his twelve generals,” Jack continued. Mrs. Lindley sighed and turned her attention to him.
“Thank you, Mr. Bishop, for demonstrating what happens when we do our homework. This time, I’ll forget that you didn’t raise your hand. Can you tell us what year Alexander the Great died?”
When Jack had answered all her questions, he glanced back my way.
I turned quickly back to my notes. I wished he hadn’t done that. The last thing I needed was another reason to like him. I ripped out the drawing of his tattoo, crumpled it, and shoved it into my bag.
After class, I waited while Lara put her books away. I made a point to not look at Jack, but when I heard footsteps heading toward us as the rest of the class filed out, I knew exactly who it was.
Jack’s dark hair had gone a bit wavy from the humidity, and he had his canvas messenger bag slung casually over one shoulder. I fiddled with the lace at the hem of my tank top.
“Hey! You left me high and dry at lighting, too,” Lara said, poking her index finger in the middle of Jack’s chest. “Rude. Both of you are rude.”
“I’m sorry about that.” Jack’s voice was low and rough around the edges, like it was scraping over gravel. “I had to take a call. My grandfather’s sick.”
Oh. The tension I didn’t realize had been building in my chest relaxed. I resisted the urge to ask where in England his grandfather lived—then reminded myself once more that I shouldn’t care. Not about Jack’s personal life, and not about the fact that even when he was talking to Lara, he was looking at me.
Lara wrinkled her nose in a way that could mean either I’m sorry or eww, old people. “That sucks,” she said. She turned back to me as I hitched my bag up on my shoulder. And then she turned back to Jack when he didn’t leave. And to me again. She gave me the most unsubtle eyebrow raise ever. “Oh. Okay. I just remembered I gotta go. Do . . . things. Ave, come over after school if you want, even if you aren’t coming to prom. We’re doing our nails.”
I could have killed her, but I just pulled my hair out from under the strap of my bag and smiled through clenched teeth.
“I think you lost this.” Jack handed me my pen as Lara walked away. “It rolled under my desk.”
He walked beside me out of class, slowing his long strides to match mine. He was probably just a little taller than average, but I still had to crane my neck to look up at him. He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye at the same time.
“And thanks for earlier,” I said quickly, “but I did do the reading. I would have remembered the answer eventually.”
“Oh.” The space between his brows knitted together. Jack’s brows were heavy and dark, and were as expressive as the rest of him was stoic. “I’m sorry. I thought—”
“No, it’s okay.” I went through the motions of opening my locker again. “I’m just saying I didn’t actually need to be rescued. But I appreciate it.”
He gave me a tiny smile, and it was like sun shining through armor. I busied myself putting my books in my bag.
“Actually, Avery,” Jack said, “I need to talk to you.”
My calculus book fell the rest of the way into my bag with a thump.
“Can we go somewhere—” His phone buzzed. He let out a frustrated breath. “One second.”
While he checked a text, I zipped my bag shut. I didn’t care what he had to say, I told myself. I didn’t. I didn’t. My black ankle boots squeaked on the damp tile, and the hall echoed with last-minute prom plans and the finality of lockers slamming one last time before the weekend.
Maybe he was going to ask about homework. Or maybe he’d say something horribly arrogant, Lara could be proven right, and I could truly forget about him.
I hazarded a glance up, and Jack’s brows quirked down dangerously as he typed a text. It was the same look he’d had on his face when he’d left lighting earlier.
“Is your grandfather okay?” I asked.
“My—” His eyes narrowed for second, then he nodded. “He’ll be fine. But, I was . . . um. Tonight.” He shifted, running a hand through his hair. “Lara mentioned you’re not going to prom?”
I clenched my fist around the strap of my bag.
“I don’t really go to school dances,” I said. My voice was an octave higher than usual.
“Oh.” Jack and I were mirror images of each other, two islands in a swirling river of people. “I get it,” he said. “You move all the time. If it’s not going to last, is it even worth the effort, right?”
I looked up sharply. There was no way perfectly put-together Jack Bishop could understand The Plan.
“It’s just that—I was wondering—” Jack rubbed the compass tattoo on his forearm with his opposite thumb, like a nervous habit. Then he looked up at me from under his lashes, his gray eyes unbearably hopeful, and I melted into a puddle on the dirty hallway floor. “I wanted to see if you’d like to go. With me.”
The rest of the school year flew by in fast-forward. We’d go to prom. Maybe kiss good night. Sit next to each other in class, walk hand in hand down the hall. Have someone who got what it was like to be new when everyone else had known each other since they were in diapers. And eventually, as much as I tried not to, I’d let him in.
I fast-forwarded more. It might be a month, it might be a year, but inevitably, we’d move, and this time I wouldn’t be the only one losing somebody.
I closed my eyes. It’d be better for him to ask someone else to prom—a cheerleader, or a choir member, or anybody who wasn’t as screwed up as I was. And better for me to forget he existed.
When my eyes fluttered open, I couldn’t look at him. “Thanks,” I said to his feet. “But I don’t think so.” I turned and stalked off before he could see the carefully patched-up hole in my heart tearing wide open.
I was so lost in my thoughts, I almost blew through the one red light in Lakehaven on the drive home from school. I slammed on the brakes and came to a stop in front of Frannie’s Frozen Yogurt as pedestrians poured into the crosswalk.
I let my head flop back against the headrest. It was fine. I’d be fine.
Saying no was the right thing to do, even though nobody had ever asked me to a dance before. Even though it was Jack Bishop asking me. But it was fine.
I rested my forehead against the steering wheel. I wished the light would hurry up and turn so I could get home and this day could be over.
The crosswalk finally cleared, but as I sat up with a sigh and eased my foot onto the gas, one more person stepped out.
I stomped on the brake again, but the guy kept walking, like he didn’t care that I’d almost hit him. He was tall, with straight dirty-blond hair a few weeks past a haircut, and so slim I would have called him skinny if not for the tightly muscled arms peeking out from under his T-shirt. He wasn’t from here—that much I was sure of. His gray skinny jeans tucked into half-tied boots, and the bag slung across his chest—that was hard for a guy to pull off unironically unless he was a big-city hipster, and Lakehaven didn’t have any of those. And even though I might not know everyone’s names yet, I knew every face at school. I was sure I’d recognize one that looked like this.
The guy’s eyes swept from side to side, unhurried. They lit on three freshmen coming out of the frozen yogurt place, on a group of cheerleaders holding dry-cleaning bags, on a girl on a bike—and then, on me.
He stood there, right in the middle of the street, a smile stretched across his face. It wasn’t a friendly smile. It was a smile like a lion about to pounce on prey, like blood, and hunger, and it tingled low in my stomach and made me push the lock button.
The car behind me honked.
The guy adjusted his bag and strolled the rest of the way across the street, turning to watch me drive away.
• • •
When I got home, I pushed the front door closed and snapped the deadbolt shut. The sound echoed in the quiet house.
I wished I had gone to Lara’s. She had three sisters, and her aunt and uncle and cousins lived next door. Between the shrieks and giggles of the little kids and the adults in the kitchen drinking wine and teasing us about school and boys and college, her house exploded with life.
“Mom?” I called. The only answer was the washing machine’s irregular clunk and a low murmur of voices from the TV.
I tossed my bag on the kitchen table and shrugged out of my denim jacket. The story that had broken the night before was still on the news: a car bomb in Dubai had killed nine people, including a Saudi prince.
I clicked the TV off. The news was depressing. My mom was obsessed, which seemed like a waste of time since we couldn’t do anything to change what happened.
I wandered the kitchen, opening cabinets, the fridge, and finally pulling pistachio ice cream and frozen Thin Mints from the freezer.
The guy in the crosswalk could have been another transfer student, but I’d think I would have heard about him. Maybe he was somebody’s out-of-town cousin. Or prom date.
I set my ice cream on the table and flipped through the pile of mail. I dropped it all when I got to a postcard. Istanbul—a picture of a mosque with soaring turrets. That was new.
I flipped it over and smiled at the familiar precise cursive.
Hope this finds you and your mother well. Istanbul is beautiful. You’d love all the color in the markets, the textiles, the lights on the river. Remember the gyro stand you liked near Copley Square in Boston? There’s one on every street corner here. The whole city smells delicious.
Charlie says hello.
Mr. Emerson had been our next-door neighbor in Boston when I was eight. It was right after our first move, and the longest we’d stayed in one place since. Mr. Emerson was all gray hair and round glasses, with a big booming laugh and a bowl of jelly beans—the classic grandpa I never had.
I’d always thought life would be easier if we had some family. Brothers and sisters as built-in friends, or cousins to write e-mails to, or an aunt to spend summers with—somebody besides my mom and me. Mr. Emerson wasn’t actually related to us, but he was the closest thing we had.
I ran a finger over the Turkish postcard stamp and read the message again. Charlie was Mr. Emerson’s grandson, and I swear, Mr. Emerson had been trying to set us up since I was a kid. I’d never seen so much as a picture of Charlie Emerson, but every time he wrote, Mr. Emerson told me about his adventures, and said he talked to Charlie about me.
I flipped the postcard over and looked at the picture. The Hagia Sophia. I remembered Mr. Emerson teaching me about it when I was little. About how “Hagia” was actually pronounced “Aya,” and its name meant “Holy Wisdom.”
I was glad he got to travel now that he was retired from teaching. And I was glad he still cared enough to send postcards. He was the only person over twelve moves who had stayed in touch for more than a couple months.
The laundry room door squeaked open and my mom poked her head out, a frown on her face. “Hi, Junebug. Have you seen my green pen? I swear, I was just holding it.”
I pointed to the top of her head, where the pen stuck out of a messy bun. She felt around, sighed, and pulled it out, letting smooth blond waves fall around her shoulders. “You’d think I’d learn, wouldn’t you?”
“You’d think.” I dipped a cookie in my ice cream and took a bite. My mom wasn’t actually the flighty, flustered type. It was more like keeping our lives together crowded out unimportant stuff like keeping track of writing implements. “Oh, you were out of fizzy water,” I said. “I got you a case. On the counter.”
My mom came over and kissed me on top of my head. “What would I do without you, daughter?”
“Be thirsty and unable to take notes,” I replied. I hugged her hard around the waist.
“Hey,” she said, a note of concern creeping into her voice when I didn’t let go immediately. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah,” I said. I hadn’t realized just how much I needed a hug. “Fine.”
I let go, but she slid down and nudged me to the side so she could sit on half my chair. She glanced at Mr. Emerson’s postcard but didn’t pick it up, and I wondered if she thought that was what was bothering me. Not that she’d ever ask about it directly. We used to talk about the moves, about how lonely I was, but it got to where it made it worse. Now we talked about everything else, but with undertones so clear, they may as well have been subtitles.
“Was play rehearsal okay?” She looped her arm through mine. I push you into these things so maybe we can both feel better, the subtitles said.
I put my head on her shoulder. “It was as bad as I told you it would be. Maybe worse.” I know you didn’t actually think I’d stick it out.
“Sweetie, everyone has a hard time with new things.” My mom pushed back the hair that had fallen in my face. “Is something specific bothering you?”
“Um, yes. Falling.” I shivered, thinking of the swaying catwalk. “Falling to my death.” That one was actually kind of true.
“Oh, Junebug.” She sat up and took my face between her hands like she used to when I was little.
Everyone said we looked alike. We had the same thick hair, with just a little wave—though hers was blond—same small frame, same little, round nose. But my eyes were wider, darker—especially with my brown contacts—and my very dark eyes in my very pale face made me look young. Her eyes belonged to someone older than the rest of her, especially with the deep worry lines between them.
“I know you’re afraid of falling, but sometimes, you’ve got to let go.” And I’m not just talking about your fear of heights, the subtitle read.
I know, and I don’t want to talk about it, I sighed.
My mom got up. “Tea?”
I nodded. She filled the kettle with water and set it on the stove. The burner clicked a few times and burst to life.
She took two tea bags from the cabinet and rubbed her forehead with a sigh that echoed in the quiet room.
I stopped scraping the bottom of my ice cream bowl. “Everything okay?”
“Did you see the mysterious new boy again today?” she asked. “Jack, right?”
I winced. She wasn’t the only one who could change the subject. “Mr. Emerson’s in Istanbul. Cool, right?”
The two mugs my mom was holding clattered to the counter. “Yes,” she said, straightening them. “I saw the postcard. Sounds like a fascinating city.”
“Mom. What’s going on?” There was obviously something bothering her, and it wasn’t the postcard.
“Nothing.” Her fake smile was back. “It’s been a long day. And . . . well, Junebug . . .” She looked longingly at the teakettle, like it might save her, then sighed heavily and sat across from me at the table. “We need to talk.”
I knew what she was going to say before she pulled the manila envelope out of her laptop bag.
“A new mandate,” I said flatly. I should have known.
I remembered the first time I’d heard the word. My mom was a military contractor—not in the military, like she didn’t wear a uniform or anything, but she worked for them, doing administrative stuff in cities all over the country. Sometimes she had to scout a location for new offices and the job lasted a few months, and sometimes it would be more of a desk job she’d do from home, and we’d stay longer.
That day, I was nine years old, and we lived in Arizona. I’d cut my hand. When I came inside for a Band-Aid, my mom was on the phone.
“It’s not that I want to leave. I hate doing that to her,” she was saying, and I stopped to listen. “Of course because of the mandate. Why else?”
When she heard the door slam behind me, she hung up the phone.
“What’s a mandate?” I’d asked, and she’d reached in her purse and pulled out a large envelope, exactly like the one she was holding right now. It was her new set of orders, sending us to a new town, a new life. The word mandate had hung over our heads ever since.
I should have been relieved to see the envelope now. Especially in the last week, I’d let myself come dangerously close to liking Lakehaven.
The teakettle sputtered, then whistled, and my mom poured water into two mugs. She set the one with the Eiffel Tower on it in front of me and I wrapped my hands around it, even though it was too hot. “Where?”
“Maine. Our new house will be right by the water, and the summers are supposed to be beautiful!” she said, too brightly.
I dunked the tea bag. “When?”
My mom leaned on the counter. “I reserved the moving truck for Sunday.”
“Sunday?” I let the bag fall, and tea splashed over the side of the mug. Two days? “Mom! I’m not eight years old anymore. There are things I can’t leave that fast. Like . . . getting the records for my AP classes transferred. There’s no way a new school will let me into AP at the end of the year without paperwork. And checking the weather in Maine so I can put the right stuff in the right boxes. And—” I couldn’t stop thinking about that picture in my bag. Jack. “There are things.”
“I’m sorry, sweetheart. Next time I’ll try to give you more warning, but right now, it is what it is.”
I pushed my mug across the table. If we were leaving in two days, maybe seeing Jack wouldn’t be violating The Plan. One night wasn’t getting involved; it was just letting myself live a tiny bit. “I think I’ll go to prom tonight, then.”
I looked up sharply. The only time my mom ever raised her voice was when she burned dinner. Now she was frozen at the counter, eyes wide like I’d suggested skydiving.
“I have to go out of town for a couple of days, starting tonight,” she said quickly. “I’d rather you stayed home.”
She sometimes had to take care of things at the home office before the moves, but she never acted this weird about it. “A month ago you were forcing me to go dress shopping,” I said.
She picked up a sponge and swiped at the counter. “And you didn’t get one, because you said you didn’t want to go, remember?”
A month ago, I wasn’t about to move. A month ago, Jack didn’t live here. “I have that old lace dress. The purple one. I’ll wear that.”
My mom pursed her lips. “I don’t want to worry about you while I’m gone. There’ll be drunk teenagers on the road. And what if you lock yourself out?”
“I have literally never locked myself out in my life.” I ran both hands through my hair. “And prom’s at school. I can walk there in twenty minutes if you don’t want me to drive.”
She tossed the sponge into the sink. “Avery June West, promise me you’ll stay in tonight.”
I must have looked alarmed, because she took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Pack. Relax. You can go to prom in Maine!” My mom only spoke in exclamation points when there wasn’t actually anything to be excited about. “You’ll be a senior then. Senior prom’s more fun anyway!”
I gathered up my stuff, ignoring her pleading eyes. “Fine.”
“Avery, I’m sorry—”
“No, seriously, it’s fine,” I said through gritted teeth. This was why I never let myself care. It always got ruined, one way or another. I stalked to my bedroom without another word.
I threw myself onto my ruffled comforter. I wouldn’t go to prom in Maine. By next spring, we’d be in the next place. Always in the next place, in the future—that’s when I’d have a life. I rooted around in my bag and found the picture again, and next to it, the crumpled drawing of Jack’s tattoo. I smoothed out the crinkles.
The compass was vaguely familiar, like I’d seen it in a movie or something. Now I’d never know. I finished sketching the south and east points, pushing so hard with the pen, I tore a hole in the paper.
My phone dinged.
If you change your mind, I’m still going to prom. Hope to see you there.
I stared at the message. He wasn’t upset. He cared enough to try again. One night. It was one night. Why was my mom being so unreasonable?
I want to say yes so much it hurts, I typed in, then erased it. I’m going to try not to picture EmmaBeth Porter’s tongue down your throat all night, I typed, then wrinkled my nose. Eww. Already unsuccessful. Kill me now, I typed, then tossed the phone at my headboard and watched it slither down between two pillows.
I flopped onto my back and stared at the mustard-yellow ceiling. The first couple of moves, redecorating is fun. Changing paint colors, unpacking all your knickknacks. By the twelfth, all the breakable stuff is left wrapped, and the puke color stays on the walls.
Who knows. Maybe my mom vetoing prom was a sign. Jack seemed nice, but carrying a vaguely stalkerish photo was weird. And that phone call was weird. The more I thought about it, the more it hadn’t sounded like he was talking to a sick relative at all.
But maybe if I had a family of my own, I’d understand not wanting to tell a virtual stranger all about them.
Maybe if my mom didn’t move us so much, I wouldn’t be such a reclusive weirdo who forced herself to think the worst about everybody.
Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Maybe none of it mattered, since we’d be leaving the day after tomorrow anyway.
I listened to make sure my mom wasn’t coming down the hall, then leaned over the edge of the bed and pulled out a shoe box that I’d hidden behind some winter clothes. I opened it and tossed my sketch of Jack’s tattoo and the photo of me on top.
I was about to slam the box shut, but stopped. I pulled out the top few mementos—invitations to parties I never went to, a picture of me with a neighbor’s family. Rattling around in the bottom of the box was the infinity-sign pinky ring from eighth grade, when I broke The Plan for Missy and Alina and Katy. We called ourselves the Fab Four, and promised to text every single day when I moved. That lasted for about six weeks.
Halfway down the stack, a ripped-out sheet of notebook paper listing everyone I’d ever found on Google named Alexander Mason who could maybe, possibly, be my dad.
He and my mom had dated in college, and when she got pregnant with me, he left. When I was younger, I wondered if one day he would realize he’d made a mistake. That he wanted us after all, and we’d have a normal life, full of smiles and holiday dinners and cheesy, feel-good, cell-phone-commercial family moments. My dad’s parents were dead, and he didn’t have any other family, but I used to think about how there was a possibility of brothers and sisters if he came back into the picture.
I got over that wish a long time ago. I ran a finger over my locket. I’d taken the one picture I had of him out, and now there was only a photo of me and my mom, protected by the worn gold filigree. The picture of my dad stared up at me from the box. It was small, and blurry, but you could tell my dark hair and pale skin came from him, and I knew I had his eyes. You could almost call my natural eye color deep blue, but that wasn’t quite right. Really, my eyes were purple.
When I was younger, kids had teased me that I was wearing contacts to be cool. That normally wouldn’t have been a huge deal, but as weird and friendless as I was already, it killed me. But it did give me and my mom an idea. Since I had horrible vision anyway—and, though she’d never admit it, probably because they reminded her so much of my dad—my mom suggested colored contacts. I’d had dark brown eyes ever since.
I jammed everything in the box and shoved it back under the bed—and then opened it once more and snatched out the compass drawing.
Even if The Plan was the right thing to do in the long run, what was one night? One dance. One date with one guy. Tonight could be one tiny memory that wasn’t a what-if.
I could hear my mom in the kitchen, opening the cabinets over the sink. I knew the sound of her bundling the silverware, wrapping it in a dish towel, and putting it in the bowl of the blender, the same way she’d always done it. Next she’d pack up the baking stuff and the cleaning supplies, and I’d pack my room and the bathroom and the laundry room. And then we’d pile those boxes alongside the ones we’d never gotten around to unpacking from last time.
I made a decision.
I fished my phone out from between the pillows, typed out a quick text, then jumped off my bed and went to the kitchen. I grabbed some of the broken-down boxes my mom had brought up from the basement. “You’re probably right,” I said, and her thin shoulders relaxed. “I’ll start folding clothes.”
The rest of the afternoon, I was a model daughter. I packed my room, vacuumed, and even heated up frozen lasagna for dinner. Then I waited until my mom was safely on her way to the airport, slipped my dress on, threw my hair up with bobby pins, and walked out the front door.
The gym reeked of cheap aftershave and a hungry energy fueled by the crush of bodies and the open backs of dresses and the euphoric faces blinking in and out of the dark. Streamers on the walls caught the strobes and exploded with light, like fireworks, spearing the dark corners of the room.
The swirl of bodies in jewel tones and sparkles and pressed black suits parted around me as I stood at the edge of the dance floor, physically present but not actually a part of anything. I wondered sometimes if they all knew how good they had it: girls in circles with their friends, singing at the top of their lungs, or with their arms curled around their boyfriends’ necks. Girls who had gotten their hair done by a big sister, cheesy prom pictures taken by a proud dad.
Across the gym Lara saw me and jumped up and down waving, the spinning lights flashing off the glittery blue tulle of her dress. I waved back, a surprisingly sharp pang running through me at the thought of leaving her, too. I’d tried so hard not to get too close to any of them. I held up a finger to tell her I’d be over in a minute.
I wove my way past the line for the photographer, who was posing a guy’s hand on a girl’s hip, and pulled at the hem of my dress. I’d gotten it in the ninth grade for a neighbor’s wedding. It was pretty, with capped sleeves and scalloped lavender lace, but definitely too casual for prom. I hoped Jack wouldn’t care.
If I ever found him, that is. He hadn’t texted back. It would be just my luck if he’d turned his phone off and didn’t see the message until tomorrow.
Fifteen minutes later, I’d circled the whole gym once, twice. Casually peered onto the dance floor. Walked by the bathrooms and the water fountain. Gotten a cup of punch from the snack table, just in case he was waiting there. Checked my phone five times. Stopped and talked to Lara and her date. Still no Jack.
I traced a pattern on my scuffed leather messenger bag with one fingertip. It was fine. It was probably better this way.
I took one last look at the human-sized papier-mâché Oscar statuettes, felt the bass of the dance track vibrate through my feet, and took a sip of too-sweet red punch. Then I turned to head for the exit—and ran straight into a senior in a yellow dress.
“Sorry . . .” I trailed off when I realized I’d splashed punch all over myself. Perfect.
The girl was staring intently at something I couldn’t see, though, and didn’t even notice me. The friend she was dancing with was looking, too.
I put down my cup and, dabbing at my dress with a napkin, ducked between two guys in tuxedos and too much cologne to see what was going on. I stopped short.
It wasn’t a what that was going on, it was a who.
He leaned against the gym wall, one foot propped casually over the other, his blond hair falling over his eyes. He was a head taller than everyone around him, and had to be at least a year or two older than all of us.
As if to confirm that, he blew a stream of smoke out of the corner of his mouth, then stamped out a cigarette, right there on the gym floor. No wonder everybody was staring. How had he not been caught by a teacher? There didn’t seem to be any around.
The guy’s eyes continued to roam the crowd. And then they got to me. His face broke into that slow, lazy grin again.
I held my breath as he pushed off the wall at half tempo, so the strobe lights seemed to move entirely too fast. Half the dance watched him watch me. Was he mistaking me for someone else?
A slow song started as he stopped in front of me. “Avery West.”
I took a step backward. How did he know my name? He had a light foreign accent—maybe Russian? That would fit with the jaunty blond hair and the high, sharp cheekbones. It made my name sound exotic, like a Bond girl. Ay-veery.
“Lovely to see you, sweetheart,” he continued, plucking the napkin out of my hand with a frown and dropping it to the ground. “A dance?”
He slipped one cool, sure palm into mine before I had a chance to respond.
“Um,” I said. He settled his other hand on my lower back and drew me close. EmmaBeth Porter, dancing nearby, stared from him to me with a look halfway between appalled and so jealous, she could throw up.
I brushed back a strand of dark hair that had escaped its bobby pin and stared up at him. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I know you.”
“You don’t.” He smiled. “And even more interestingly, I do not know you. Why don’t you go ahead and tell me who you are, and we can skip this little charade?”
He squeezed my hand.
EmmaBeth and her date had moved toward the stage, where last year’s prom court was assembling, leaving me and Crosswalk Guy by ourselves on the far edge of the dance floor. Even though all he’d done was say things I didn’t understand, I suddenly did not want to be alone with him.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” I said, pulling at my hand. He held on tighter, and alarms went off in my head. “I’m going to go—”
“Stellan,” came a quiet voice from behind me.
Crosswalk Guy—Stellan—rolled his eyes. “Oh good,” he said. “You’re here.”
I ripped my hand out of Stellan’s, turned around, and was hugely relieved to see Jack.
He wore a perfectly fitted black suit over a crisp white shirt and a thin tie. He met my eyes for just a second, then looked past me at Stellan. He scowled. Even that brought out a hint of the deep dimple in his right cheek.
“Stellan, get away from her,” he said. His British accent was back. “Avery, come here.”
I was headed toward him anyway, but stalled at the command. I looked between them. Compared with Jack’s slim but solid frame, Stellan was taller, sharper, almost gaunt in that ethereally beautiful way you see on runway models. And while Jack looked like he might punch someone, Stellan wore the kind of patronizing smile adults get when kids are fighting over a toy.
I wrapped my arms around myself. “What’s going on?”
“So who is she?” Stellan said to Jack. He unbuttoned his gray suit jacket. “If you weren’t here, I’d think I had the wrong girl. She’s so . . . ordinary.”
I looked down at my punch-stained dress and sale-rack strappy sandals.
“Not that you’re not pretty.” Stellan smiled thinly down at me. “You are.” He turned back to Jack. “As I can see you’ve noticed. And such a little thing. I could snap her in half with one finger.”
Jack growled low in his throat, and Stellan laughed. “You make this too easy.”
“Excuse me, I’m right here,” I said. “And this is really . . .” Bizarre? He had to think I was someone else, right? But then how would he know Jack? “Jack, let’s go—”
Stellan stepped between us, loosening his tie. I suddenly realized he wasn’t getting comfortable. He was getting ready for a fight. Sharp slivers of alarm pierced my confusion. Maybe it was time to let go of the idea of Jack as a prom date.
I started to inch away.
“What do you even want with her?” Jack said. His voice was low and dangerous, with no trace of the anxiety I’d heard while he was on the phone earlier. “There’s no reason for you to be here.”
I stopped. The memory of the phone call flooded back. He had asked the caller what they wanted with “her.” And when “he” was coming. And had mentioned “tonight.”
“Jack, seriously, what is going on?” I said, but my words were drowned out by the electronic screech of a microphone.
“And now, it’s time to announce your new prom court!” said a senior cheerleader. On either side of her, last year’s court lined up, holding sashes and crowns.
“If it isn’t obvious,” Stellan said, a lock of blond hair falling in his face, “we want her because you want her. And we’d like to know why.”
Jack stared him down. “Like I said, it’s none of your business.”
“Ah, but it is our business when Alistair Saxon sends a Keeper to attend high school classes halfway across the world while every other family is using their resources on more essential tasks.”
It felt like I was watching TV in a foreign language. I was about to make Jack fill me in when Stellan continued, “So the reason I’m here is to figure out why this girl is more important to the Saxons than the mandate.”
The familiar word struck me like a slap to the face. “Wait,” I said. “Did you say mandate?”
Jack glared at Stellan, and Stellan rolled his eyes. “No one can hear us. Relax. And she must know about it, so it doesn’t matter.”
I knew about the manila envelope on our dining room table, but I highly doubted my mom’s work orders had anything to do with two strangers fighting over me at the Lakehaven High prom.
“This year’s prom queen,” said the cheerleader on stage, “EmmaBeth Porter!” Her friends, lining the stage, squealed prettily. A loud “booooo” sounded from where the stoner kids were gathered at the edge of the bleachers, followed by a chorus of laughter.
Stellan put his hands in his pockets in a way that could have been casual if the rest of him didn’t look like a tightly coiled spring. “So she has information on the search?”
“The what?” I felt very small looking up at the two of them. It didn’t help that they were ignoring me entirely, and that I was at least two steps behind in the conversation. “What’s the mandate?”
“Or she’s a spy?” Stellan said. “Are the Saxons using American teenagers as spies now?”
“A spy?” I looked around. “Is this a hidden camera show?”
“Of course she’s not a spy.” Jack’s mouth tightened in irritation. “She’s got nothing to do with the mandate. I was sent to find her because she’s related to the Saxons.”
I let out a breath. At least that made sense. “Okay, you do have the wrong person,” I said. “I don’t have any family.”
Jack looked down. The grim set of his jaw looked like it belonged to an entirely different person than the guy who saved my grade in history class, but his eyes softened. “Yes, Avery, you do.”
“I think I’d know—” But I stopped, the tiny locket-sized picture in my memory box springing into my mind. I felt my face go slack.
Jack lowered his voice. “In class you told me you didn’t have any family. Maybe your mother doesn’t, but your father did.”
I had to wet my lips to get words out. “Are you kidding?”
“No,” he said quietly.
My vision darkened at the edges, and I went light-headed. I must have looked like it, too, because Jack put a hand on my elbow.
I blinked up at him. Could this be real? My father was looking for me? After sixteen years, my father actually cared?
“Where is he?” I said, whipping around. “Is he here? Who are you?” Was Jack some kind of private investigator?
Stellan looked up from studying his fingernails and heaved a sigh. “As fascinating as this is, I don’t care. My orders are to find the girl and take her, so I’m going to go ahead and do that.” He took my arm in a death grip.
“What? No!” I tried to pull my arm back.
Excerpted from "The Conspiracy of Us"
Copyright © 2016 Maggie Hall.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Young Readers Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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