Even before I walked outside, I spotted the pair of teenage boys through the glass doors of the jewelry shop. They were standing next to a light pole a few feet away from where my red Jaguar convertible was parked. They didn’t seem to be interested in the admittedly ostentatious car though, and instead appeared to be in a heated debate about something else.
Slinging my backpack onto my shoulders, I reached the shop doors and pushed them open. Warm sunlight spilled onto the sidewalk as I strolled toward the two boys and my car. They looked up as I came toward them, both frowning. The shorter one had dark brown hair and worried dark blue eyes, while the taller one was sandy haired with green-gray eyes. I saw the taller one’s eyes narrow into slits as he took in my appearance, from the pink stripe in my hair to the purple velvet crop top and blue denim shorts to the three inch stilettos on my brown knee-high boots.
Ignoring his glare, I continued forward. “Hey!” the sandy haired boy yelled. His friend grabbed his arm and hissed something at him, looking anxious. Sandy hair pulled out of his grasp and took a step forward, directly into my path. “Who do you think you’re looking at?” he spat, his body language as aggressive as his tone.
I slowed my pace marginally, but didn’t say anything. I found it rather surprising he could tell where my gaze was, considering I was wearing mirrored sunglasses. “Josh!” the other boy said. “Joshua, come on, this is a bad idea. A really bad idea!”
“Oh come on, Aiden,” Josh snapped, still focused on me. “I think I can handle…that.” He curled his lip at me. My hackles rose, but I plastered a blank expression on my face.
“You don’t understand!” Aiden insisted, shooting a panicked look at me. “Dude, trust me, you don’t want to do this!” He tried to drag his friend out of my path, but to no avail.
“Jeez, Aiden, chill.” Josh twisted out of the shorter boy’s grasp. “What’s he gonna do, hit me?” Josh shot me a demonic grin. No, I thought, but I might just claw your eyes out. Be a pity to ruin my nail polish though.
Since Josh clearly had no intention of moving, I started to angle away from him, hoping I could get around him to my car. No such luck. Josh crabbed sideways as he saw me change course, blocking the way to the parking lot. “Hey, didn’t anyone ever teach you to shop for proper clothes?” Josh sneered.
I fixed him with a baleful stare, though he couldn’t see it behind my sunglasses. Aristocrats do not strangle their victims, I reminded myself. We do not get blood on our hands. We hire an executioner to guillotine them. This last thought made my lips curve up in a faint smile, which clearly annoyed Josh.
“Sissy!” Josh yelled at me.
“Josh!” Aiden’s mortified voice shrieked through an octave. He glanced over at me with stricken eyes. I flicked my fingers dismissively, sunlight flashing off my glittering teal nails.
“Someone really ought to teach your friend what manners are,” I said, addressing Aiden but staring haughtily down my nose at Josh. Not waiting for what would undoubtedly be a snide reply from the latter, I turned on my heel and stalked down the sidewalk.
A few doors down from the jewelry shop was a shoe store with big advertisement posters stuck in the windows. I caught a flash of blonde hair around one of the posters, and almost turned into the store as I heard footsteps and a few more insults chasing me. At the last second I changed my mind and kept going, toward the corner of the shopping strip. Behind me, I could hear Aiden arguing with Josh, which was probably why neither of them had caught up to me yet.
Reaching the corner, I turned right into a deserted back lane that looked more like an alleyway. A dumpster crouched halfway down the lane, against the brick wall of the building next to me. As soon as I was a few steps into the alley, I broke into a run, only skidding to a stop once I’d reached the dumpster.
I dumped my backpack on the ground next to me, ripping open the zipper and pulling out a bundle of dark material. The first garment was a pair of black sweatpants a size too big for me with a slick outer shell. I yanked them on, careful not to catch the hems on my stilettos. The baggy fabric covered my feet so that only the generic brown toes of my boots peeked out.
Next was an old reversible hoodie jacket; navy blue on the inside, burgundy on the outside. I’d hacked the sleeves off of it this morning and teased the rough edges with a needle to make them fray, then thrown it down in the backyard and stomped on it to give it a few good stains. Thankfully I’d remembered to do the stomping in bare feet, so I didn’t put a hole through it.
I pulled the jacket on, zipping it all the way up to hide the black choker with its pink heart pendant nestled in the hollow of my throat. Then I stripped off the pair of gold bracelets I was wearing and stuffed them into one deep pocket of my pants. My phone went in the other, and I stuck the earpieces in my ears, the cord already connected to my phone. I could easily hear around the earpieces, which was why I’d picked them instead of proper headphones.
Finally I flipped up the hood of my jacket, shadowing my face and masking the tell-tale glitter of gold eyeshadow. Tossing my sunglasses into my backpack, I rezipped it and slung it lazily over my shoulder, then jammed my hands in my jacket pockets and ambled along past the dumpster. With my head bowed and shoulders slumped forward, there was nothing of the ostentatious young aristocrat left when Josh and Aiden came pounding around the corner a few seconds later.
Josh swore, and I heard his footsteps rapidly approaching. “Hey!” he called. “Have you seen anyone come by?”
“Huh?” I grunted, dropping my tenor voice as low as I could.
“Josh,” Aiden broke in, “what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Showing that depraved twit what he gets for prancing about like he owns the place and ogling other boys,” Josh snarled.
“What?” Aiden gasped, clearly scandalized.
I felt the sudden urge to either kick Josh’s feet out from under him or burst out laughing; I wasn’t quite sure which. Instead, I kept plodding down the alley, feigning disinterest in the conversation.
“Well?” Josh snapped at me. “Have you seen anyone?”
I shrugged a shoulder. “Dunno. Don’t think so.”
Josh growled in frustration. “If you hadn’t been arguing with me, I could’ve seen which way he went!” he snapped at Aiden.
“If I hadn’t been arguing, we’d bloody well be in a police station by now for assault and battery!” Aiden yelled back, cheeks flushed with anger.
“Would not,” Josh muttered. He stomped past me, breaking into a run as if he thought his prey might be around the next corner. An indignant Aiden chased after him, not so much as giving me a second glance.
Team Jekyll and Hyde one, Crass Intransigent Brat zero, I thought gleefully as the pair turned the corner and disappeared from sight. I continued to stroll along, not in any hurry to catch up to the two boys. As I ambled around the block, I continued my facade of an oblivious teenage boy with terrible taste in clothing, just in case I ran into Josh again. When I made it back around to the parking lot, the Rolls that had been parked a few spaces away from my Jaguar was gone. Good, Aiden and Josh had finally left.
Leaning against my car was a tall, elegant girl wearing a peacock blue dress, belted at the waist with a black and gold sash. Her waist length blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail that swung as she turned to look at me, a worried frown on her face. Her delicate features and slim build had become known as “the Martins look” at school because both Martins siblings had inherited this physique from our mother.
“Hi, Jenny,” I said cheerfully, flipping back the hood of my jacket and relaxing into my normal posture. Jenny Martins glared at me, bright blue eyes narrowing into slits as I sauntered toward her.
“What were you doing?” Jenny snapped.
“I took a stroll around the block,” I said mildly.
“In that?” Jenny eyed my baggy pants and stained hoodie with disbelief. “Jimmy Martins, if there is one thing I know about you, it’s that you would never wear…that.” Jenny motioned to my clothing with a disgusted look on her face.
“Jeez, sis, I don’t think it’s worth getting all worked up about.”
“Oh, sorry.” Jenny glared as I dumped my backpack in the Jaguar’s backseat and stuffed my phone back inside it. “I haven’t the faintest idea why I might get worried when my little brother disappears out of nowhere, then finally shows up looking like a homeless wreck. I’m sure it doesn’t have anything to do with the fact he has everything short of a neon sign reading ‘effeminate homosexual, come beat me up’ hanging around his neck!”
I peeled my jacket off and threw it in the backseat with an exasperated huff. “Okay, okay, point taken!” I glared back at my sister. “But I’m fine.” I fished the gold bracelets out of my pocket and slid them back on.
Jenny let out an unladylike snort and watched me narrowly as I pulled off the oversized pants and tossed them on top of the jacket. “Who was it?” Jenny asked.
“No one,” I said.
“Huh!” Jenny stalked around to the passenger’s side as I slid into the driver’s seat. After a moment of silence, broken only by the purr of the Jaguar as I twisted the key in the ignition, Jenny spoke again. “Who was it?”
I frowned over at her. “I told you, it was nothing.”
“Well, ‘nothing’ hasn’t made you slink around in disguise before,” Jenny shot back.
“Alright,” I held up a hand, “you win.” My sister watched me expectantly. “I’ll show you when we get home, okay?”
Jenny narrowed her eyes again. “Promise?”
* * *
I pulled the Jaguar into the driveway outside our two-story townhouse and cut off the engine. Jenny slid out of the car and waited, clearly not going to let me out of her sight until I explained what had happened earlier. Reaching into the backseat, I stuffed the jacket and pants into my backpack and hauled it out. Then I walked across the street and up the front steps of the Vance family’s house. Jenny shot me a puzzled look as I knocked (the doorbell had been broken for a week, and the repairman wasn’t due till Friday), but didn’t say anything. I only had to wait a few seconds before footsteps sounded inside the house.
“I’m so sorry!” Aiden Vance said the instant the door opened, his dark blue eyes staring at me beseechingly. “I had no idea he’d react that way! I never thought—”
I put my fingers over his lips, effectively stopping the flow of words. “Calm down, Aiden. It’s alright.” I removed my hand from his mouth. “I knew what I was getting into.”
“But—But Jimmy—” My best friend frowned at me, now looking as confused as my sister.
“Have you told him?” I asked.
“No, not yet…”
“Good!” I waved a hand at Aiden. “Let me in.”
Aiden worked his jaw a couple times like he was going to protest, but finally took a step back and let me cross the threshold, Jenny a few paces behind me. “What are you—” Aiden started.
“Just follow the plan,” I said, keeping my voice low so it wouldn’t carry.
“Hey, Aiden, who is it?” a familiar male voice called from the kitchen.
“Um…” Aiden threw me a last questioning look before he rushed to get ahead of me as I walked down the hall, heels clicking on the tile. I paused just behind the doorway to the kitchen as Aiden went inside.
“Ah, Josh,” Aiden cleared his throat, “uh, hey, you remember last month when we were at that society meeting?”
“Yeah…” I could hear the frown in Josh’s voice.
“So, remember how you were bragging you had the best memory for faces, and you bet me 50 dollars I could pick any person at that meeting and you would be able to pick them out no matter what they wore or where they were?”
Josh laughed. “Yeah, course I remember!” I heard him take a swig of some drink. “What, you going to test me? You know, Aiden, I do feel bad taking your money like this—”
“Joshua Piggett,” I said, stepping into the kitchen. “Seventeen years old, second in a short line of millionaires, with whom the Martins family has the grievous misfortune of being acquainted.” I smiled and pulled off my sunglasses, revealing dark brown eyes that were identical to my mother’s. Perhaps because of this similarity, my eyes seemed to be the first feature people noticed about me, at least when I went to society functions.
Josh gagged on his drink, gray eyes widening as he saw me. Aiden stood a few feet away from Josh with his arms crossed, appearing less than thrilled with the situation. “The hell—” Josh spluttered, staring at me in shock. “How do you…” His eyes got even bigger as he looked at me, really looked, for the first time. “Jimmy Martins?”
I smirked. “Still feel bad about taking Aiden’s money?” I quipped.
Josh shook his head, still looking a bit shell shocked. One side of Aiden’s mouth quirked up. “Looks like you owe me 50 bucks, dude,” he said.
“Actually…” I examined my teal nails with feigned absorption. “I believe that’s 100.”
“For what?” Josh demanded.
“Because I fooled you twice.” I grinned smugly.
“Twice?” Aiden echoed.
Still grinning, I dropped my backpack at my feet and unzipped it, extracted the burgundy jacket and oversized black pants and shook them out. Josh blinked at them, uncomprehending. Aiden whistled. “You fox! How the hell did you pull that off?”
Josh frowned. “What…” His eyes widened again. “In the alley—that was you?”
“Yes.” I preened.
“Looks like you do owe me 100.” Aiden grinned.
“Alright! I was fooled.” Josh held up a hand. With a long sigh he reached into his shorts pocket and pulled out a black wallet, then handed a few bills to Aiden.
“And, my share?” I held out a hand.
Josh glared at it, clearly not pleased. “What for?”
“Well, the way I see it, 100 dollars is far less than what you could get sued for.” I arched an eyebrow at him.
“Sued?” Josh glared with all the heat of an aristocrat being fleeced of his money.
“Oh, yes.” I flashed him a wicked grin. “I hear you can do that for things like, oh, disturbing the peace, attempted assault and battery…”
Josh’s face blanched slightly. Aiden stopped in the middle of stuffing his loot in a lockbox he’d pulled from a drawer. “Hey, dude, no hard feelings,” Josh said with a nervous laugh. “I wouldn’t have said any of that if I’d realized it was you.”
“Really?” I kept my voice monotone. Aiden’s worried look reappeared.
Josh rolled his eyes. “I know you. I mean, I know you’re not…one of them.”
“Hey, guys, I was thinking—”
I cut Aiden off. “So, if it hadn’t been me, would you still be retracting those statements?”
Aiden muttered a curse. Josh’s eyes narrowed, catching the icy edge in my voice. “What’s it to you?” He snorted. “Don’t tell me you believe all that agenda crap those creeps push.” Before I could return fire a voice cut into the conversation.
“Now, boys, there are ladies present,” my sister said sweetly. Until that moment I’d forgotten she was still lurking in the hallway. Josh jumped, then blushed as Jenny walked toward him, skirt tails swirling about her ankles. Apparently he still had a crush on her, although he had a girlfriend.
“Hello, Joshua.” Jenny smiled brilliantly at him and offered her hand, the traitor.
Josh took her hand, but couldn’t seem to decide if he should shake it or kiss it, and ended up doing an awkward mix of both. “Ah, hello, Jenny. So glad to see you.”
“I’m glad to see you too.” Jenny purred. “Oh, and Josh,” she took a step forward, so that the two were nose to nose, “if you ever insult, threaten, or otherwise harass my brother again, I. Will. Kill. You.”
Josh went white. “I—I didn’t mean—I mean, I didn’t think—” he stammered to a stop, a look of horrified realization suddenly crossing his face. He dragged his eyes away from Jenny’s burning blue gaze long enough to glance at me. “Oh…” Josh wilted.
Jenny took a step back and crossed her arms. “Now, I believe there was a bet you were paying up?” she said, arching an eyebrow. Pinned under her watchful glare, Josh pulled out a few more bills and dropped them grudgingly into my outstretched palm.
“Thank you,” I said, offering a mostly congenial smile. “Former apologies now accepted.” Josh looked like he wanted to roll his eyes, but didn’t quite dare.
“Much better,” Jenny approved. “We’ll see you later, boys.” She grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the door. Snatching my backpack off the floor, I allowed her to drag me out of the house and down the front steps.
“I guess ladies really can finish fights, huh, Marie?” I said, grinning over at my sister.
Jenny blew out an exasperated breath and rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t have to if you would quit getting yourself in trouble, Toulouse.”
“Hey, I get to be the tiger!”
Jenny snorted. “I was thinking more along the lines of the brown-haired artist who splatters paint on everything, but suit yourself.”
“What, you don’t think I’m fierce?” I gave her a mock injured look.
Jenny turned to walk across the street. “If you were a bit fiercer, maybe I wouldn’t have to protect you from your own idiocy, mon petit frère.”
“I’m not totally defenseless!” I complained.
“Oh?” Jenny paused next to my Jaguar and turned toward me, a skeptical look on her face.
Reaching down, I slipped my fingers into the top of one of my leather boots and pulled something out, then held up the object so Jenny could see it. Sunlight flashed off nine lethal inches of silvery metal, ending in a sharp needle-like tip. I smirked as Jenny’s eyes widened in surprise. “I told you this kitten has claws.”
“What is that?” my sister demanded. “And where did you get it?”
“It’s a stiletto,” I explained, tilting the thin dagger so the crosspiece glittered. “They were created in Italy in the late 15th century and used primarily as a stabbing weapon. Also, Cal gave them to me for Christmas last year.”
“You never told me about getting any deadly weapons as presents,” Jenny admonished.
I grinned, sliding the stiletto back into its sheath inside my boot. “I promise I have never used them. Although I have been tempted a few times.”
Jenny shook her head. “You’re more trouble than you’re worth.”
“But you still fought on my side,” I said.
Her lips tilted up in a smile. “You’re still my brother, no matter how much trouble you are. Just, could you try not to get into messes so much?”
I smiled back. “Okay. I’ll try.”