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First pages



Blue stood in the center of the street and took in the quiet houses, the stillness of the cool air, the way the changing leaves barely clung to the trees as though waiting for his permission to drop. Not a single window glowed in this cookie-cutter section of suburbia. Even the arc from the closest streetlight barely touched his path.

The rightness of it all sent a thrill through every bone.

The hours just before dawn were, by far, the best. Darkness offered opportunity, power over the unaware. A chance to get close to Cassie without stares or questions or rumors.

He eased across her lawn, his body brimming with desire. The whispers came to life in his head. Wants you, needs you, wants you, needs you…

The tread on his shoes gripped the worn steps, then the wooden planks of her porch. The way she’d held his love notes against her breasts—smiling, chewing her lower lip—had left no doubt she wanted more.

She wanted him.

Blue skimmed his fingers along the porch’s outer rail, followed its smooth line to the end and back. How many times had Cassie done the same while thinking about him?

Soon they’d escape to their own house, their own porch. A place where he could explore her body without restraint. But first, he had to help Cassie break free from her mother’s claws. The bitch had them in deep, like every other mother in this boring neighborhood.

Wants you, needs you, wants you, needs you…

Blue brought the next envelope to his lips, delicately touched his tongue to the wax seal.

Old school letters. Private, personal. Sexy as hell.

The messages themselves said everything. They symbolized his love.

True and blue.



I cringed at the number on the caller ID. Mountainside Middle School. If I had to guess, Principal Hubbers was on the line, letting me know my fourteen-year-old daughter had found a new crime to commit.

I answered with a tentative “Hello?”

“Mrs. Swann? Ken Hubbers over at Mountainside.”

I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose. “You’re not calling with good news, are you?”

“Uh, no,” he said. “I’m in the clinic with Cassie.”

My stomach knotted and scary images filled my head—CPR, blood, broken bones, ambulances—things that would prevent the school nurse from placing the call.

“Is Cassie okay?” I asked.

“She’s fine. Just a small bump to the head. You still need to pick her up, though. We’re suspending her for the rest of the day.”

Cassie piped up in the background. “But this time it wasn’t my fault.”

I took a deep breath and reached for the ibuprofen, hoping to stave off imminent pain. “What happened?”

“Depends on who you ask,” he said. “From what I can gather, Cassie stole a rolling TV cart from the media center.”

Borrowed,” Cassie countered. “I was gonna put it back.”

Mr. Hubbers paused. “Anyhow, she used it to write messages on the boys’ bathroom wall with a Sharpie.”

“Two little messages,” Cassie’s distant voice said. “Actually, one and a half.”

“Bad messages?” I asked. “Like, hateful ones?”

“No,” he said. “They were about Jake Smith being, er, hot.”

Ugh. Jake. The punk of her dreams.

I swallowed the tablets dry. “Go on.”

“Her friend, Lisa Jordan, held the cart steady until Marcus Stein distracted her. Please don’t ask me how because they aren’t saying, and frankly, I don’t want to know. Somehow, the cart rolled, and Cassie fell into one of the urinals.”

“And I got injured,” Cassie added. “Can I talk to my mom? You’re skipping the important parts.”

Mr. Hubbers remained silent on the other end of the line.

“What?” Cassie finally said. “Why are you looking at me like that? I’m just saying, there’s more to the story here. Jeez. Sorry.”

The principal cleared his throat. “I would suggest we have our usual conference in my office, but I need to be at an off-site meeting in twenty minutes.”

Cassie raised her voice. “Mom, don’t hang up! I need to talk to you!”

“I’m sorry,” I said to Mr. Hubbers. “Honestly, I’m at a loss. This crush of hers has gotten completely out of control.”

“Let’s touch base later this week,” he said. “See if we can’t get things turned around.”

“Get what turned around?” Cassie asked. “You’re not talking about me, are you?”

Oblivious… The girl was utterly oblivious. I dreaded the mere thought of trying to reason with her.

“I’ll hand you over to Cassie,” he said.

A moment of rustling ensued, and Cassie came on the line. “Mom, you are so not going to believe this. I’m the only one who got suspended, and it wasn’t even my fault.”

“Cassie, you wrote on the bathroom wall. With permanent marker.”

“Yeah, but Marcus almost killed me. He snuck up behind Lisa and grabbed her…body parts, and she banged into the cart, which made me fall into one of those stupid wall-toilet-thingies.”

I wanted to join Mr. Hubbers at his off-site meeting. “You realize none of that would’ve happened if you’d stayed out of the boys’ bathroom.”

“I hit my head and almost died, and all you care about is the stupid bathroom?”


“Honestly, Mom, if this had happened to Mandy, you would’ve called an ambulance.”

The thought of my four-year-old morphing into her big sister made me long for stronger pain relievers.

Cassie continued her rant. “No ambulance for me. Nope. All I got was a puny ice pack.”

If Mandy followed in her footsteps, I’d have to invest in pharmaceutical stock. Possibly blow out my liver.



“Are you almost here?”

“I can’t leave the house until you’re done whining. Mr. Hubbers called the home line.”

“Whatever, bye.”

A sharp click followed, which only heightened my dismay. Cassie clearly had no intention of taking responsibility for her behavior. And this was her third Jake-related suspension in a month. The first time, she’d blown an air horn outside his classroom. The second, she’d used a can of spray-paint from the Tech Arts room to decorate the school sidewalk with hearts. And now, we had the marker on the bathroom wall.

I’d never seen this Jake kid, but I seriously doubted he was worthy of suspensions. Unless you counted his own. Rumor had it, he’d been suspended for posting the gym teacher’s car on Craigslist, and he and his buddies had nearly been expelled for saran-wrapping a sixth-grader to the flagpole.

Cassie seemed to have picked up the delinquent baton in a race to the finish line. Granted, she’d always been difficult. Her twin brother, Cameron, came out of the womb sweet and cooperative—never complained, never gave me an ounce of trouble, potty-trained himself... Darling Cassie, on the other hand, refused to sleep through the night until kindergarten, used humans as teething toys, and manipulated everyone in sight as soon as she learned how to speak.

Still, I would’ve never pegged her for vandalism. Why not just write Jake’s name all over her folders? Post sweet nothings online?

If I didn’t strangle her the moment I saw her, I’d have to ask.

I kneeled in front of Mandy and attempted to wrestle pink glittery tennis shoes over her equally pink socks.

She hypnotically watched Big Bird over my shoulder, her jaw slack, her blue eyes glazed. Her limp feet rolled around her ankles, making the shoe process ten times harder.

I tapped her knee. “Push your foot in, pumpkin.”

“Why?” she said, straightening her leg. “Where are we going?”

“To get your sister from school.”


“Unfortunately,” I said. “Let’s go.”

She snagged Batman and Beachfront Barbie from the couch cushion. The Dark Knight and the plastic bombshell were recently married in a divine living-room ceremony that was simply to die for, so now they had to travel together.

I slid on my Ray-Bans, threw my purse over my shoulder, and we hustled through the door. The thermometer on the porch read seventy-six, delightfully above average for October in Colorado. A fine day for flogging one’s ill-behaved daughter.

“Look, Mommy,” Mandy said. She retrieved a rectangular midnight-blue envelope from the doormat. “A special letter.”

I ushered her to the van. “Salespeople leave us special letters all the time.”

“But this one has a fancy kingdom seal, so it’s really special.”

“Uh-huh.” I helped her into her booster seat. “I’m sure it is.”

She flipped over the envelope. “Ooooo, and look at this. So pretty.”

The front had a silvery hand-drawn picture of a butterfly busting out of a hand-grenade cocoon. Miniature skulls dotted the edge of the butterfly’s wing. The light ink looked sharp against the dark-blue background, but I wouldn’t have called it pretty.

“Who’s it from?” Mandy asked.

A concert promoter? A local artist? “I don’t know.” I closed her door and slid into the driver’s seat. “Open it and see.”

The sound of heavy metal guitars erupted from my cellphone as I left the driveway.

“Daddy!” Mandy cheered.

My husband, Hugh, had programmed my cell to blast his favorite song when he called. Personally, I would’ve chosen something other than Iron Maiden—maybe even something from this decade—but the riff had grown on me over time, and ironically, made me feel loved.

I fished the noisy thing from my purse as the guitars gave way to speed-drums.

“D is the letter of the day,” Mandy said, “and da-da-Daddy starts with D.”

“You’re right, sweetie.” I hit the on-button. “Hello?”

“Hey, hot mama, how’s your day?”

“I would say fine, except I’m on my way to pick up Cassie.”


Mandy pushed her feet against my seat. “No pretty pictures on the inside. Just letters. You have to read it.”

“In a minute.” I relayed my conversation with Mr. Hubbers to Hugh. He burst into hysterical laughter—the downside of marrying a reformed troublemaker.

“It’s not funny,” I said. “Cassie’s spiraling out of control.”

“If she injured someone with a Sharpie while high on meth, I’d say we had a problem. The kid’s got a crush, that’s all.”

“Hugh, this is her third suspension.”

“Yeah,” he said, “and she should be punished. Writing on the wall was a dumbass thing to do. But it’s the age, Winnie. Nothing else. Did I ever tell you about the time I threw a donut at the vice principal’s head to impress a girl?”

I didn’t respond. For fear I’d be the one to spiral.

“Powdered sugar,” he said. “Nailed him right in the bald spot. Got suspended for two days. Mom was beside herself. She made me clean the whole house and paint the shed. Twice.”

“And did you straighten up?”

“Of course not. I kept at it, all through high school. I must say, though, I never fell into a urinal.” He chuckled. “Think anyone YouTubed it?”

A fresh headache sprouted behind my left eye. “Not helping.”

“Tell you what,” he said, his voice cheery, “the garage could use a good cleaning. I’ll drag her out there tonight, and we’ll have a nice, long talk about her actions while we work.”

It sounded like the perfect punishment to me. “She gets a lecture, and I get my sheltered parking spot back? Sold.”

“Oh, hey,” he said. “Teddy and I are ditching work tomorrow to go dirt-biking down at Rampart. My gear is in the washer. I was hoping you’d move it to the dryer.”

“You sure you should be riding again so soon?” I said. “Your ankle can’t be fully healed from the last time.”

“Healed-shmealed. It’s been almost three weeks. It barely hurts anymore.”

I sighed. “Maybe you should consider keeping both tires on the ground this time.”

“What fun is that? Besides, the jumping isn’t painful. It’s the landing that hurts.”

Trying to protect Hugh from injury was an exercise in futility. Neither broken bones nor nagging wives could dissuade him from flying through the air at Mach IV. He had the body of an athlete and the energy of a caffeinated nine-year-old.

“You should try jumping.” His voice dropped an octave. “On me.”

I smiled at the windshield. “You get Princess Dumbass to clean the garage, and I’m all yours.”


I parked at the curb in front of Mountainside Middle School. Three stories of brick and tinted windows stared back at me. The building housed three of my four children—the twins on the third floor with the rest of the eighth-graders, and my eleven-year-old stepson, Zane, on the main level.

The janitor stood atop a ladder near the entrance, straightening and re-securing the black metal L in the word MIDDLE. The letters and surrounding brick were dotted with multicolored paintball splotches. A power-washer sat at the base of the ladder, tethered to the building’s spigot by a garden hose.

The janitor glanced over his shoulder, frowned hard in my direction, and went back to his task. I couldn’t blame him. Over the last month, I’d become one of those parents—the ones whose children made his job ten times harder.

Mandy leaped from the van, her curly blonde hair bouncing around her cherub face. She had Batman and Barbie clutched in one hand and a midnight-blue piece of paper clutched in the other. “Read me the kingdom letter, Mommy. It’s from the Queen of Wonderland.”

The odds of a fairy-tale ruler having a hand-grenade letter couriered to our porch seemed slim. Still, I plucked it from her sausage fingers and gave it the once-over. Two neatly printed silver lines of text were centered on the page. We are pawns of destiny and Love Me True Blue. The back of the page sat blank. Weird.

“Is the Queen having a royal ball?” Mandy asked.

“No, it’s not an invitation.” I put it back in the envelope on the seat, confused. “I’m not sure what it is or who it’s from.”

“Darn. We never get to go to royal balls.” Mandy stepped around me and yelled, “Hi, Mr. Janitor.”

I cringed and closed the van door. Yes, please, let’s engage the angry man.

He turned and gave Mandy one quick wave of the hand, then glared at me as if to say, I get to look forward to another one? Awesome.

I wanted to stroll over and apologize, explain Cassie’s crush on Jake, and give him permission to yell at her, but I was afraid he’d yell at me instead. Or drop a drill on my head.

“Did my sister break your letters?” Mandy shouted.

Oh, crap. “No, sweetie,” I said loud enough for him to hear. “Someone else damaged the letters.”

The janitor kept his disgruntled gaze on me. “You sure about that?”

“Yeah, Mommy,” Mandy said. “You sure? Cassie’s a dumbass.”

“Mandy!” Of all the moments for her to throw out a cussword. “That’s not nice.”

“But you said it in the van.”

A wide smile broke up the storm clouds on the janitor’s face. “You two have a good day.” He turned and went back to work.

Mandy waved at the back of his head. “You have a good day, too, Mr. Janitor.” She skipped across Cassie’s spray-painted hearts as though navigating an overgrown game of hopscotch. The hearts had faded from the cleaning chemicals, but still stood as a testament to her bad behavior. Welcome to Mountainside Middle School, home of hormone-infused vandals. Enroll now, and get two suspensions for the price of one!

I couldn’t help but wonder how far Cassie could push Mr. Hubbers before he gave up and expelled her for good.

Mandy hit the handicap button beside the glass door, then sashayed into the entryway as if she owned the place. The soles of her sparkly tennis shoes flashed red with each step.

I followed, my own sneakers offering far less excitement. A row of classrooms lined the block wall on the right, the windows of the main office took up the space on the left, and a bustling cafeteria lay straight ahead. The ever-familiar smell of pigs-in-a-blanket filled the air.

“Where is she, Mommy?”

“In the clinic, but we need to sign in first.”

We headed for the office. Jeannine, the school secretary, sat behind a large wooden desk, just inside the windowed wall. Tendrils of brown hair had fallen from the bun on the back of her head, framing her tan face. Her shiny green blouse matched the perky plant on the adjacent credenza.

She looked up from the papers stacked in front of her. “Oh, hi, Winnie. Hi, Mandy.” Over a thousand kids in the school, and we were on a first-name basis. Which said a little too much about how many times I’d been in the office.

“Busy day?” I asked while signing the visitor’s log beside the plant.

“Always.” Jeannine wiggled her fingers at Mandy. “You look pretty today.”

“Thanks,” Mandy and I replied in unison.

Mommy.” Mandy tapped my thigh with Batman. “She was talking to me.”

I fluffed my blonde curls. “Are you sure? It’s often hard to tell us apart.”

Jeannine smiled. “Sorry, Winnie. She’s prettier.”

Mandy swiveled her hips. “Told you.”

“And your other beautiful child...” She held up one hand and broke into a fit of giggles.

I frowned. “I’m glad you find it amusing.”

“Oh come on, Winnie. It’s poetic justice. If any of your kids deserves to whack a head on a urinal, it’s Miss Mouth.”

“Let’s hope it knocked some sense into her.”

She grinned. “Hey, if it worked, let me know. I’ll bring my husband in here and ram his head into one.”

I stepped into the hall with Mandy in tow. The bell rang, signaling the end of one lunch period and the beginning of another. A crowd of kids surged around us in a frenetic whirlwind.

I scooped Mandy into my arms and waited for them to pass. Once they’d all disappeared, I checked us over for missing toys, limbs, and purses. Despite an intense amount of static cling, we were relatively unharmed. Amazing.

We made our way next door to the nurse’s office and found Cassie lying on a cot, using an ice pack as a pillow. Had I not known better, I’d swear she was a young faculty member. She had the face and body of a twenty-two-year-old. Her rusty-red hair flowed over her shoulders, her makeup was drawn to perfection around emerald-green eyes, and her jeans and sweater accentuated her curves. The only thing that gave her away was the well-practiced, surly expression on her face.

“It’s about freakin’ time,” she said.

And her mouth.



I put the van in gear, flipped a U-turn, and headed for home. “I hope you feel guilty,” I said, eyeing the janitor in my side-view mirror. “That poor man has a rough job.”

“Who?” Cassie said, craning in her seat. “Mr. Becker? He gets paid to clean. What’s that got to do with me?”

A spark of anger flared deep in my chest. “The marker, the hearts—you should be the one taking care of those messes.”

Her mouth fell open. “You’re still on that? Mom, I just had, like, a near-death experience. In the boys’ bathroom, no less. The grossest place on earth.”

“You do smell icky,” Mandy said from the backseat.

“I know, right?” Cassie said. “This nasty soap-bar-thingy got tangled in my hair, and the nurse had to pull it out with rubber gloves.”

I gritted my teeth. “If you hadn’t gone into that bathroom…”

“And get this—Lisa’s all hacked at me, even though it was her tool-of-a-boyfriend’s fault. Of course, Marcus pretended it was an accident and didn’t even get in trouble, and Lisa only got talked to for, like, five minutes. But me? Mr. Hubbers hates me, so I got suspended. After I totally got injured.”

“Again, if you hadn’t gone in there…”

She waved her hands. “Ohmigod, you’re as bad as Mr. Hubbers. You didn’t even ask if I’m okay. My very own mother. Where’s the sympathy?” She crossed her arms. “Today sucks.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Mandy said. “Look.” She leaned forward and stuck the midnight-blue envelope between the front seats. “We got a fancy letter. Mommy said it’s not from the Queen of Wonderland, but I think it is. See the kingdom seal?”

Cassie glanced at the wax, then did a double-take. “I got another one?”

“Another one?” I couldn’t have been more stunned if she’d slapped me. “This isn’t the first?”

“It’s the third,” Cassie said. “Duh, Mom. Where have you been?” She snatched the parcel from Mandy. “Jake’s the best.”

My anger flared brighter. “They’re from Jake?”


“Are you sure they’re not from the Queen?” Mandy asked.

“I’m sure.” Cassie tapped the butterfly-grenade picture. “Escaping Monarchy is Jake’s favorite band.”

Third letter…third suspension… What kind of sick relationship did they have?

I turned onto our street and took a deep breath. “If this is his way of congratulating you on destroying the school, we have a big problem.”

“Ohmigod,” Cassie huffed. “Jake is not like that, and I did not destroy a thing. Principal Hubbers just has it out for me.”

“Cassie, honey,” I said, forcing my calmest voice, “you earned this suspension, and the others. You owe Mr. Hubbers and Mr. Becker an apology.”

“But, Mom, I’m innocent.”

“No,” I said, “you’re a vandal.”

Mandy kicked my seat. “I thought you said she was a dumbass.”

Cassie gasped and folded in on herself. “You called me a dumbass?”

Fabulous. Another hurdle to leap.

“The janitor thought it was funny,” Mandy said.

“Mom! How could you?”

I pulled into the driveway and turned off the ignition. “Look, Cassie—”

She sprang from the van and ran inside the house.

“Jeez,” Mandy said. “She needs a nap.”

More like a personality transplant.

“A what-kind-of-plant?” Mandy asked.

I glanced at my preschooler in the rearview. “Did I just say that out loud?”

“Yeah.” She unbuckled herself. “Why does Cassie need a plant?”

I stared at Mandy, sure I hadn’t spoken. “Did you just read my mind?”

Mommy,” she said, her tone full of exasperation. “They don’t teach us to read until kindergarten.”

“Did I mumble?”

“Kind of.”

Huh. I’d have to watch myself. Mandy didn’t need anything else to repeat.

She wiggled Batman beside my head and said, “Open the door, ma’am.” The safety locks were set.

I hefted Cassie’s backpack from the floor, grabbed my purse, and let Mandy and her dolls out of the van. Then I lingered in the driveway, not wanting to go inside and deal with Cassie. Outside, the sun was warm and bright. The trees were brilliant colors. The air was fresh and smelled of dried leaves and grass. Inside, I’d have to take a slow crawl through parental quicksand. And try to reason with the most unreasonable child on earth.



I finished folding Hugh’s dirt-biking gear while Mandy napped and Cassie showered. Afterwards, I cornered the freshly suspended one. “I want to see the other grenade letters.”

She looked at me as though I’d insisted on performing a gynecological exam. “But, Mom, they’re private. You shouldn’t have even read the first one.”

“Honey, you gave up your right to privacy when you got suspended.”

“But Jake didn’t,” she said. “He put his deepest feelings in there.”

Deepest feelings… Gag. “Bring me the letters.”

“But, Mom—”

“Now, Cassie.”

She stomped off to the basement. And didn’t return for twenty minutes. By the time she finally handed over the papers, Mandy was awake and playing hostess to our chocolate labs, Beanie and Luigi, with an afternoon tea party on the living room floor. For various sticky and stain-related reasons, water had been substituted for tea, and the crumpets had been replaced with popcorn.

Cassie glowered at me, arms crossed. The dogs watched Mandy and the popcorn like rigid, drooling sphinxes.

The other two notes were every bit as short as the one Mandy had found. The first read, I own your soul. The second, Do not resist. Both ended with Love Me True Blue.

Unease and annoyance battled for control. Who talked like this? “Jake thinks he owns your soul?”

“He’s being romantic,” Cassie said.

“Sounds possessive and controlling.”

“Ohmigod, Mom. Jake’s not like that.”

“How do you know they’re even from him?” I turned the midnight-blue pages around. “His name’s not anywhere on here.”

She let out a heavy sigh. “Escaping Monarchy? The emblem on the envelopes? His favorite band?”

“I remember,” I said, “but how do you know they’re not from someone else?”

“Because they’re not, Mom.” She took the papers back and glowered some more. “They’re song lyrics, but whatever. It’s not like I’d expect you to understand.”

I didn’t like her snotty tone, but she was right. I didn’t understand. “Then enlighten me. Tell me about Jake.”

“Why?” Cassie said. “So you can hate him even more?”

If the notes were from him, I already did, but I couldn’t let her know. “Cassie, honey, you’re making this way harder than it has to be.”

She stamped a foot. “You’re the one making it hard.”

Luigi echoed her disdain with an indignant woof.

“Oh, my,” Mandy said to the dogs. “You ladies are hungry. Another crumpet?”

Beanie and Luigi snarfed down more popcorn and watched their hostess intently. Cassie hugged the notes to her chest with equal intensity.

“I don’t hate Jake,” I said gently, “but I am concerned about his reputation and your bad behavior, which seem to be linked.”

Her mouth dropped open. “How can you say that? You don’t even know him.”

“Call it a firm grasp on the obvious.”

Cassie’s twin brother, Cameron, lumbered through the front door and tossed his backpack aside. Although my teenagers shared more DNA than anyone in the house, you’d never know they were related. Where Cassie had long red hair, Cam had short blond spikes. She had naturally straight teeth, he wore braces. Her eyes were green, his were blue. She was five-foot-four, he was six-two.

Cameron smiled at Cassie. “Nice going with the urinal. You’re famous.”

Their stepbrother, Zane, bounced through the door, grinning through his freckles. “Yeah, everyone’s talking about it. Here.” He threw a small pink disk to Cassie. “Marcus said to give this to you.”

Cassie caught it and turned it over in her hand. “What is it?”

“Your very own urinal cake.”

“Ohmigod, ew.” She dropped it and rubbed her hands on her jeans.

The boys dissolved into hysterical laughter. I struggled not to join in.

Cassie deserved the ribbing, but Zane didn’t need any encouragement. The little imp was eleven-going-on-six and had far more energy than sense. He also had shaggy brown hair, pecan-brown eyes, and perpetual dirt ground into his clothing. We affectionately referred to him as The Gnat, mainly because he buzzed around our heads, poking and pestering, until we just wanted to swat the hell out of him.

Luigi sniffed at the disk, rolled over on top of it, and squirmed like a fish.

“Awww, that’s so sweet,” The Gnat said. “He wants to smell like Cassie.”

Cassie sneered. “Ha freakin’ ha.”

Mandy held up a handful of popcorn. “Last batch of crumpets, ladies.”

Luigi stopped mid-squirm and scrambled to his feet.

Zane snatched up the cake and grinned at Cassie. “Should we skip the urinal and stick it right in your hair this time?”

Cameron busted out laughing.

Mom,” Cassie whined.

“Okay, guys, that’s enough.” I transferred the offensive orb to the kitchen trash, washed my fingers, and returned to the living room with a wet paper towel for Zane.

Cassie snarled at her brothers. “You wouldn’t be making fun of me if you knew the whole story. I hit my head today. Like, hard. I could’ve been killed.”

“Killed by a urinal,” Cam said, still chuckling. “That’s awesome.”

“Oh, yeah?” She put her hands on her hips. “Is it as awesome as Sophie?”

Cameron’s smile fell away, and his cheeks went red.

Zane elbowed him. “Buuurrrn.”

Cameron glared at his sister. She glared right back.

Cassie’s comment had obviously struck a nerve. I wanted to know more about this Sophie girl, but digging deeper might spark World War III between the twins. And The Gnat would only fuel the flames like a chimpanzee at a gas pump.

A well-placed call to Jeannine was in order. She’d have the nitty gritty. I needed to get the dirt on Jake anyway.

I casually took the mail from Cameron and flipped through the envelopes. “Sophie… Are we talking Tyler Westgate’s sister, or that cute blonde from sixth grade?”

“Neither,” Cassie said. “It’s Sophie—”

“Nobody,” Cam blurted.

“Sophie Nobody,” Cassie said, nodding. “I’ll be sure to tell her you said so.”

Zane leaned in. “You should tell her about it in the boys’ bathroom. Maybe go for a swim.”

She gave him a shove. “Shut up, you little shit.”

“Cassie!” I turned to Mandy. “Do not repeat that.”

Mandy wagged a finger at the dogs. “Don’t ever say shit, ladies, okay? It’s a bad word.”

Ugh. I spun back to Cassie. “You just earned a month’s worth of dog poop duty.”

“Why are you all bent at me?” She pointed at Zane. “He started it.”

The Gnat held up both hands. “I didn’t throw myself into a urinal.”

“That’s enough,” I said. “Both of you.”

Mandy pointed at the stack of mail in my hand. “Cassie, look. Jake sent you another kingdom letter.”

“Seriously?” she said. “Where?”

I pulled another blue envelope from the bottom of the bundle. The same hand-drawn grenade-cocoon decorated the front, and a skull-indented blob of wax sealed the back.

“Was this in the box?” I asked Cam.

He shook his head. “On the mat.”

Odd. I hadn’t noticed anyone on the porch. Neither had the dogs.

“It’s so fancy,” Mandy gushed. She hopped to her feet. “It’s got Escape the Park with Me on it.”

“Escaping Monarchy,” Cassie said. “Jake’s favorite band.”

“And everyone else’s,” Cam added. “My lang arts teacher went to the concert last week with Mr. Hubbers.”

The principal and Jake listened to the same music? Mr. Hubbers was over sixty. He wore pressed suits and drove a Lincoln. I could see him singing along with Neil Diamond or tapping a toe at the symphony, but Escaping Monarchy?

“Have I heard any of their songs?” I asked.

“Probably,” Cam said, glancing at Cassie. “We both have it on our iPods. It’s mostly metal rap. Tomorrow’s Dark Heaven, Be My Nympho…”

Be My Nympho?” I imagined Mr. Hubbers in full leathers, one fist in the air, stomping and banging his salt-and-pepper head. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Cassie rolled her eyes. “Ohmigod, you’re so old.”

“They play their crossover stuff on Mom’s station,” Zane said. He half-hummed, half-sang a familiar riff. “Take us, take you, take me, we are pawns of destiny.

We are pawns of destiny. The third note.

“Told you Jake was leaving me romantic song lyrics.” Cassie gestured toward the mail. “Bet that’s another.”


About me

Mindy Mack thought being a stay-at-home mom was the easiest job in the world, until her kids set her straight. The fire department also chimed in a time or two. Writing became therapy, a way to laugh at herself and life. Now she's a proud member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, moderates a critique group, and does accounting for the family party rental business. She lives in the Midwest with her dogs and adrenaline-junkie husband, near their thundering horde of kids and grandkids.