Max Winter is a janitor at a ritzy boarding school. He's supposed to keep to himself, mind his business, stay quiet about the things he sees, sweep the floors, and under no circumstances is he to have any contact with the residents. Now, Max will break every last one of those rules when he meets Ace Valentine.
Don't follow your heart…
Ace Sloane finds out she's on the wrong side of a war she no longer believes in fighting. Now, she'll risk everything to get her life back from the people who stole it, including getting too close to exactly the wrong boy.
Don't get caught…
Grey Winter lost both parents in a fire that should've killed her as well. A "miracle baby," Grey is sent to live with her Nana who should have told her the truth about who and what she really is. Now she's at the forefront of a cover-up, all-out manhunt, and the object of one boy's interest she doesn't want or need. It's up to Grey to connect the dots and bring an end to the secrets and lies that have caused so much pain and suffering for so long.
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|Age Range:||12 Years|
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2043 Present Day
Zamir's market sits on the corner of 26th and J in downtown Capital City. It has bars on the windows and needs a paint job to cover the graffiti tagging its walls. The owner, Mr. Zamir, is cool, so I go there all the time. Whenever he sees me, he says, "Here comes trouble." He always asks me how Nana's doing, and most days I tell him, "She's still very much a pain in my ass." Mr. Zamir never asks annoying questions about the weather or school. He treats me like an adult, letting me buy tins of Tobacco Red even though I'm just shy of eighteen. He knows they're not for me.
The bell above the door jingles as I enter. "Here comes trouble."
"Hey, Mr. Zamir."
He reaches for the Tobacco Red before I have a chance to ask.
"That's okay," I say, waving him off. "I don't need those tonight."
He eyes with me a curious expression.
"Just came down for a cup of crappy coffee," I tease. "And the good company, of course."
"How's Rose?" he asks.
"She burned dinner. Again," I tell him. "But you know Nana, she's always good."
"Say hi for me. Tell her I got a new shipment of the tea she likes."
I head into the junk food aisle — my second home — and consider my choices. All the usual options are represented in bags of chips and candy, but nothing appeals to me. Instead, I work my way to aisle three where Mr. Zamir stocks daily tablets. They're sorted by color, blue for local news, green for weather, red for breaking and world news, yellow for sports, and purple for entertainment. As always, I grab a blue tablet. Walking back to the counter, I place my palm to the tablet and, once my print registers, it comes to life. A hologram, six inches in size and dressed impeccably in a blue pinstriped suit, greets me.
"Good afternoon, Grey. Welcome to the Feed." Arthur Richmond — a total blowhole — anchors the Feed with his slick hair and overly-bleached teeth. Nana and I are not fans.
"What's the good word?" Mr. Zamir asks as I approach.
Before I can answer, the bell above the door jingles again as someone enters the store. Flipping the hood on my jacket, I shrink into the background, but not before sneaking a peek. I know him. Julian Richmond, son of the Arthur Richmond, whose hologram is still hovering on the tablet in my hand. He's in my grade at school; he's popular, well dressed, and walks around like he's God's gift.
"Hello, Mr. Zamir," he says.
Mr. Zamir nods. "Good evening, Mr. Richmond."
As Julian heads to aisle two, Mr. Zamir and I make quick eye contact before I weave my way back to the tablet aisle. I shove the blue plastic into the bin. Arthur Richmond's hologram disappears instantly.
The coffee machine at the rear of the store is my next stop. Turning my back to Julian, I listen to his footsteps as he wanders around. Chancing a quick glance at the security mirrors, I see him in the housewares aisle. I can't imagine what he's looking for, or why he's even here. This isn't exactly his side of town.
Before I have time to properly put together a theory, the bell above the door jingles a third time. With three customers now in the store, Zamir's market is practically crowded.
From the coffee machine I select dark roast, no cream, no sugar. After a swipe of my cash card, a paper cup tumbles into position and the machine chugs to work. Within seconds, black coffee spurts into the cup. It looks like sludge, completely undrinkable, just the way I like it. Taking a hesitant first sip, I scan the security mirrors once more. Julian is still occupied in housewares, but the third customer is hovering near the counter, and something about him feels ... off.
"May I help you?" Mr. Zamir asks the unknown customer.
He doesn't answer. Moving closer, I have a clearer view of him as he wipes his grimy hand across his lips. He's tall, sickly skinny, wearing a dirty jacket and ragged shoes. He rubs his hand over his mouth again and says something I can't hear.
I creep closer, sipping my coffee, pretending to be casual.
The unknown customer raises his right arm and aims a gun at Mr. Zamir.
Everything and everyone freezes. For the first time, Julian and I lock eyes. I shake my head ever so slightly, my way of telling him not to move.
Slowly, moving to the front of the store, I tell myself to breathe. It's just a robbery. It's only a ... Click.
The coffee cup slips from my grasp as I run. Pop! Without thinking, I fling myself over the counter, shielding Mr. Zamir. The bullet hits me between the shoulder blades, and we crash hard into the bottles of liquor stored behind the counter. Mr. Zamir's 6'3" frame is a wrecking ball. Glass shatters all around us as we crumple to the ground.
"Mr. Zamir!" He's out cold.
I hear footsteps and the bell above the door jingling. In the security mirrors I catch a glimpse of the shooter getting away through the front door. Pushing myself up, I slip and fall to my knees. Searing pain slices through my chest.
Julian Richmond kneels next to me. He's breathless and frantic when he says, "I called the Authorities. They're on their way."
"Help me up," I wheeze.
"You're hit. You shouldn't move."
Struggling, I grab the counter to get my legs under me. "I'm fine."
But I'm not fine. Swaying, I lurch forward. Julian catches me, circles his arms around my waist, and props me up against him.
Sirens blare in the distance. They're definitely headed this way.
"I have to ... Please ... Get me out." My head lulls against his shoulder. I don't want to leave Mr. Zamir, but I can't stay here. The Authorities will call Emergency Services, and I'll be taken to the hospital. That cannot happen.
The sirens grow closer; they're only a few blocks away now. With all the strength I have, I look up at Julian. "Please. No hospital. No doctors."
Julian considers my request for longer than I would've liked, and then he drags me out from behind the counter. Every step is an effort. My breath rattles and gurgles in my chest. Breath isn't supposed to be wet. This can't be good. Julian makes for the front door, and I stop him.
"Alley," I say, but just barely.
We change direction. The sirens are louder, and I try to walk faster, telling my muscles to move, but it's like they're on strike.
Tires screech just outside.
The back exit is still at least five yards away.
"Hurry," I say when I hear car doors slam.
Julian shoves the door open with his shoulder. We're out into the night air just as the bell above the door jingles for a fifth time.
The back alley is dark, dirty, and lined with dumpsters from surrounding shops. The smell of rotting food makes my stomach roll. My left foot drags through a puddle, making a faint sloshing sound. I will it to right itself, but it just hangs there, useless. Warm, sticky liquid slithers along my spine to my tailbone. My vision blurs and fades.
"Hey." Julian nudges me. "Stay with me."
Blinking, I readjust myself against him. He drags me through the alley behind Zamir's, and then we hook a sharp right and another quick left before we step onto I Street. A streetlamp above us leaves us too exposed. Searching quickly, I spot a tram depot on the next block.
"Over there." I nod.
"We have to get you to a hospital," Julian objects, his voice clipped.
"No," I say forcefully. "No hospitals."
Julian wipes my chin. He holds his fingers up for me to see. The tips are red from my blood. "You're bleeding internally," Julian says, his tone urgent, insistent. "The bullet could've punctured a lung, shattered bone. You can't just walk this off. You need medical attention."
"I can't go to a hospital!" My voice is as shrill as I can make it in my condition.
When the tram pulls into the station, and the doors open, neither of us move toward it.
"I might have an idea," Julian says. "Somewhere we could go."
"No?" He says it like he knows I have no right to protest.
He has a point. But just because I'm bleeding doesn't mean I'm giving in. "No." I shove away from him and stand, for the first time, on my own two feet.
It does not go well.
My left knee buckles. Julian swoops to catch me.
Muttering something unintelligible, he takes us back to the protection of the dark alley. He sets me against a wall then he slips his phone from his pocket. He says his name; his phone must have vocal recognition. Cleared, he swipes the screen and places a call. "I need your help," he says, and then he turns around.
With his back to me, and his voice hushed, I can't make out what he's saying.
His call finished, he spins around to face me. "A car is on the way," he says.
Of course it is. Julian Richmond and all his money to the rescue. I can just imagine how pissed his parents will be if I bleed all over their fancy car. On top of that, I don't really need his entire family involved in this. Arthur Richmond doesn't just anchor the Feed. He's the mayor, so there's no way he's going to sweep this under the rug. Girl With Self-Healing Powers will be the lead story on the Feed for months.
"Bad idea," I tell Julian.
"What's your idea then?" he challenges, his hands falling to hips.
"Home," I say, and then I cough.
Bright red spots fleck Julian's shirt, which was already dotted with enough of my blood. Wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, I swallow hard as what I assume is more blood works its way into my mouth.
Two uniformed officers burst into the alley and Julian is quick to react. He scoops me into his arms and holds me against the wall. His lips are right next to my ear when he says, "Don't move."
"Hey!" one of the officers yells.
Julian, his body covering mine, glances over his left shoulder, and shields his eyes from glare of the flashlight. "Is there a problem, Officer?"
The officers assess us, the way we're pinned together. One of them makes a face, like he disapproves of whatever he thinks we're doing.
"Anyone come running through here?" one of the officers asks.
"Nope." Julian grins. "But it's not like we would've noticed. Sorry."
We're treated to another look of disapproval before they dash off.
"You okay?" Julian asks, readjusting our position. "I tried not to lean on you, but I had to make it look convincing."
A sleek black town car pulls into the alley. The driver pops out and assists Julian in loading me into the backseat. Involuntarily I inhale, sucking in a huge amount of air, but when I try to exhale, I can't. Gasping, I fight to breathe.
Wide-eyed, Julian gapes at me. "Go! Go!" he yells at the driver.
In and out of consciousness I fall as the driver whips through town. I can't follow the streets exactly, but I know we're heading east, away from my apartment. With every passing second, I feel less safe. Julian Richmond isn't exactly someone I would normally trust.
"Almost there," he says, gently shaking my shoulder.
My breathing is reduced to shallow, gagging sounds. Black spots distort my vision, and I want nothing more than to close my eyes and drift.
The car comes to a stop. Julian hoists me off the backseat and into his arms. He carries me like a freaking damsel in distress. Pressed against him — I can't help it — I close my eyes.
"Hang on," Julian whispers.
I blink and blink, trying to stay alert.
Someone opens a side door illuminating a path for us. We follow the light until we're in a kitchen. My vision is still spotty. I can't make out who is standing in front of us, only that she's a girl.
"Use the bathroom off the service entrance," she tells Julian. "My parents never use it."
Following her instruction, Julian takes me to the most lavishly decorated bathroom I've ever seen. There's plush carpeting, gilded mirrors, and it does look unused. The M on the monogrammed towels give me no clue as to whose house I'm in, or why she'd let Julian bring a bleeding girl into her fancy bathroom.
Julian sets me down on the closed toilet. I hunch over and hug my knees. Blood drips from my mouth onto my shoes. Helplessly, I watch the trickle slither along the side of my boot until it plops onto the plush carpeting.
"I'll be right back," Julian says to me. "Don't die while I'm gone."
Wouldn't dream of it.
My eyes close, and a languid warmth spreads throughout my tired body. Sleep. I so desperately want to sleep. But the sound of footsteps nearing, followed by voices, prevents me from slipping away.
Julian and the girl shout in whispers. He explains what happened in the market and shares in her dismay and horror at my unwillingness to go to a hospital. They say things I can't make out; their voices mix together and talk over one another. I'm pretty sure I hear Julian say, "What if," and then there's a long pause.
Seconds later, Julian and the girl return. My only view is from the knee down. She is wearing leggings, fuzzy purple socks, and she stands with one foot over the other.
"We have to take off your jacket," Julian says, and it takes me a second to realize he means me.
With great effort, I attempt to shrug out of my hoodie, but I can't make myself bend enough to slide my arms through.
"Here," the girl says as she walks toward me. She carefully slides the sleeve from my left arm. As she pulls the material from my shoulders, it feels like layers of my skin are going with it. When I wince, she whispers, "Sorry," and leaves the hoodie dangling from my right wrist.
"Hand me the alcohol," Julian says.
"Wait," the girl says. "There's too much blood on her shirt. You won't be able to see what you're doing." Once again, she apologizes to me as she works my T-shirt over my head. I try not to think about the fact that Julian Richmond is seeing me in just my bra.
"Ready?" Julian asks.
I cannot respond. My brain is too busy swimming in a pool of pain.
Icy cold liquid splashes against my bare skin. A hiss forces its way past my teeth. The smell of alcohol fills the small room.
"Sorry," Julian says. "I can't ..." He hesitates. "Are you sure you don't want to go to the hospital?"
I shake my head. Not long after, Julian's fingers brush my skin.
"I'm sorry," he says as something sharp, with teeth and edges, digs into my back. A hiccup sob lurches from me, and with it at least a tablespoon of blood that violently splatters along the carpet and part of the baseboard.
A door opens and closes in the distance, and everything stills. Julian and the girl stop moving.
After a second, she says, "I'm on it," and then she hurries from the room.
I need to get out of here fast. "Hurry," I manage to say to Julian.
"Sorry," he says again. "Almost ... Just a sec ... There."
I hear something plink against the sink.
The first gulp of air is surprising and sharp. It's less excruciating than the bullet extraction, but not by much. My lungs inflate, forcing me to sit up and take in all the oxygen that, just moments ago, I'd been begging for. Pain works its way from deep within to just below the surface as my skin and tissues stitch themselves back into place. It's like surgery without the anesthesia. Thankfully, it doesn't last long.
A minute, maybe two, pass before my breathing returns to normal. Soon after, I have enough energy to stand, to flex the parts of me that were damaged, but are now on the mend.
"I can't believe it," Julian says, backing away.
"I can explain," I say, but I really can't. I'm bullet-free and in deep shit.
He shakes his head back and forth.
I stand and step cautiously in his direction, holding my bloodied shirt and hoodie over my exposed bra. "I just need to ..."
The room swirls and then there's nothing.
* * *
I wake up in a bed that's not my own, lying snug beneath the covers, with Julian Richmond lying on top of the covers next to me. My boots are off, my jeans are on, but I'm still only wearing a bra. Being half-naked in bed next to Julian Richmond jolts me into a sitting position. I want my clothes and I want to go home.
Shoving him hard, I say, "Wake up."
He shoots up. "You're not dead."
"I need my clothes."
Groggy, wiping his eyes he says, "Fire pit in the backyard."
"That was my favorite shirt!"
Fully awake and looking at me like I've suddenly grown three heads, Julian says, "Hey. You're the one who asked me to help you flee a crime scene. I just assumed you'd want me to get rid of the evidence tying you to said crime scene."
He has a point. "Well, I need a shirt."
He pulls the one he's wearing over his head and tosses it to me. "Here."
I toss it back. "I'm not wearing that."
"It smells like you."
"And that's offensive to you?"
"Don't you have something else?"
He shrugs, and a smile plays at his lips. "My clothes. My smell."
"Fine." I grab the shirt and slam it down over my exposed frame. "Thanks. I gotta go."
"Wait." He catches hold of my wrist. "You can't go."
I yank my arm away. "Yeah. I can."
"Look," Julian jams the palms of his hands into his eyes, "I am having the weirdest night of my life. Can we just talk for a second?"
"What do you want me to say?"
"I was hoping for the truth."
"This is all a very vivid dream," I say with a straight face.
I search for my boots. When I find them, I shove my feet inside and lace them up. "Just forget it."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Sponsored"
Copyright © 2018 Caroline T. Patti.
Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.