They were nice.
They were so nice, so disturbingly, sickeningly nice, I wanted to stab them both with forks just to get a reaction. They treated each other the way two strangers treated each other when they reached the supermarket doors at the same time, all smiles and giggles and oh no, you firsts! Ugh! If I had to sit through one more fake family dinner, I might have divorced them.
But in the end, commonsense prevailed and they split. Dad made the big sacrifice and moved out of the house he’d bought before he’d met and married Mom and created me. He stowed himself away in a tiny blink-and-you’d-miss-it flat over a Chinese restaurant that always smelled oddly of Italian food, and started dating a cheerleader named Dallas — the irony was not lost on me. Mom moved on as well and realized, after a stint through several nightclubs with her friends, that she liked women, and brought home Joanne. Small, peppy, very blonde, Joanne. It was like Mom woke up one morning and decided we needed a golden retriever. Truth be told, I liked Joanne. It was like having a big sister around. Being an only child it was actually kind of nice.
Now I was never one to cast judgment, not when both my parents were happy and divorced and moving on, but did they have to wait sixteen years to do it? My therapy bill was probably as long as I was tall and at six feet, I was pretty damn tall. All those repressed emotions couldn’t have been good for any of us.
“Kia!” Joanne poked her head into my bedroom. “Are you up?”
I was standing in the middle of my room, fully dressed in jeans and a bulky sweater. “Nope. Sleepwalking again.”
Joanne giggled. “Mom wants you to hurry up, or you’ll be late.” She paused, her dainty features wrinkling. “You should add some blush. You look pale.”
Then she was gone and I was left staring at my reflection in the oval mirror in the corner of my room. No amount of blush in the world had the power to make me beautiful. I was unfixable, like one of those old grandfather clocks that no longer ticked because someone had lost the winding key, but your mom kept it around because it had sentimental value, when in reality it was ugly as all hell. That was basically the story of my life.
I liked sweaters, big ones. Extra bonus points if it was fluffy. I was also abnormally tall for my age, which dwarfed most boys, making dating a bit awkward … for me. The boys loved it. They got to stand eyelevel with my boobs. Now I wasn’t about to win any wet t-shirt contests, but the girls were pretty nice, if I did say so myself. My winning good looks and dazzling fashion flare, ended there.
At some point during conception, while I battled for the domination of The Egg against a thousand other microscopic brothers and sisters, something happened and I wound up with a bit more than a pinch of my father, a handsome bloke, I’ll confess, but a bloke nevertheless. So my face was on the square side with a jawline that was a bit too sharp. My nose was all right, but then there were my eyes which were brown. Nothing fancy like hazel, or melted honey, or whatever. They were brown. Period. Like mud, or bark, or … well, you got the picture. My hair was auburn, cut short and choppy to my skinny shoulders with wispy bangs. Oh, and I had glasses. All in all, it wasn’t an overly attractive combination by modern standards, but I had no plans of running for Miss. Universe anytime soon. In fact, I liked me the way I was. It worked for me.
Mom was in the kitchen when I ventured downstairs, flipping pancakes while doing a very frightening rendition of Madonna’s Like a Virgin while using a batter spoon as a microphone. Joanne was bouncing around the island, waving her arms and doing this weird thing with her head. I was almost sure she was trying to rock out, but she could have also been having a stroke. I decided to stay close to the phone. Just in case.
“Kia!” Mom screamed, leaving her post at the stove to hurry over to me.
Oh. Dear. Lord. She wasn’t wearing pants. That therapy bill was looking pretty costly right about then let me tell you.
“Mom, where’s your pants?”
She waved away my question while looping an arm around my shoulders. “Sing with me!” she demanded, thrusting the spoon nearly straight up my nostril.
Right, because the world wasn’t suffering enough. Plus, as much as I loved Maddy, I could never take her and virgin in the same sentence seriously.
“I have a better idea.” I ducked out from beneath Mom’s arm. “Why don’t I finish those pancakes and you find your pants.” I swear, you would think she was drunk. But she wasn’t. That was the scary part. The whole prancing around in the kitchen in nothing but a t-shirt and lime green boyshorts … totally normal. Mom pouted, handing over the batter spoon the way a five year old would pass over a chocolate bar they weren’t supposed to have. Then she wiggle-skipped out of the kitchen in a full out cabaret imitation that included arms in the air, hips swaying, legs kicking. People had to go to Vegas to see that stuff. I got a live performance every morning. Joanne followed behind like the caboose on a train. I really hoped that was some new dance move she was doing, because I was beginning to wonder if it was natural for one’s body to convulse like that.
The pancakes were finished and steaming on a plate by the time they made their way downstairs again. I pretended not to notice the happy flush on both their faces, because whether your mom was with a guy or a girl, some things were just better left unnoticed.
She kissed my cheek on her way to grab a plate. “How did you sleep, sweetheart?”
“In my bed with my eyes closed,” I replied smartly, earning an eye roll. “What? You asked.”
“Always so literal,” Mom muttered, tossing a stack of pancakes onto her plate. “Do you have work after school?”
“Yeah, I’m helping close.” I checked my watch. “I better go, or I’ll miss my bus.”
“But you haven’t eaten!” Mom called after me as I hurried to the designated bag area in the corner of the hallway. It was basically a chair where everyone dumped their bags. Joanne, who was a bag nut, ruled the chair with an iron fist. My defenseless backpack was shunned and sent to the floor underneath. Apparently the red and black didn’t match her system. Yeah, I don’t know what that means either.
“I’ll grab something from the machines,” I shouted over my shoulder as I snatched my jacket off the peg by the door. “Love you! Bye!”
I was out the door with the sounds of love ya ringing after me. My feet crunched on gravel as I sprinted for the bus stop at the end of the dirt road. Mayferd wasn’t an overly large town, population a little over five thousand, but almost everyone lived on the outskirts. We were a town of farmers. Except me. I didn’t farm. Thankfully, neither didn’t Mom. We were two people you did not want around sharp objects. She was an insurance saleswoman. I was a cashier at Taco-Taco. You guessed it, a taco stand, the only taco stand in Mayferd, which you would think should have made me a celebrity considering that every kid at Margaretson High ate there during lunch. But my uniform, a purple t-shirt and black pants, somehow managed to mysteriously conceal my identity from the world. It was like how Serena had nothing but a tiara to confuse the bad guys when she became Sailor Moon. As soon as I donned the snazzy Taco-Taco¬ hat … poof! I became Server Chick! So either I was really good at being invisible or our tax dollars were seriously going to waste paying teachers to teach.
John, our bus driver, smacked his toothless gums and pushed the doors open for me. I hurried inside.
“Yup,” he grumbled, already pulling away while steering with one hand and closing the door behind me with the other.
“Kia!” My friend of a full month, Vanessa Chaves waved at me from the far back before I could even scan for an empty seat.
I grinned, hoisting my backpack higher and making my way to her. “Hey!”
She shifted over on the leather bench, her waterfall of dark hair shimmering in the sunlight as it floated around her slender shoulders. Vanessa was one of those girls that every boy wanted, but somehow, inexplicably, wanted to be my friend. The mysteries of this had not gone unnoticed by me. She was gorgeous. I mean, someone took a great deal of time and effort tossing her down the pretty tree, making sure she hit every branch to the bottom. She had skin that was naturally flawless and kissed with just the right amount of sun. Her eyes were almond shaped and a startling shade of tropical blue and she had a smile that probably cost more than my house. But since her parents were the only dentists in town, they could probably afford it.
“So, did you do that English paper?” she asked, stuffing her bag between her feet on the floor.
My lips twitched. “You didn’t.” It wasn’t a question. Nessie was notorious for never completing assignments. In Math, she swore it was against her religion to do homework. The teacher may have believed it if they didn’t go to the same church every Sunday.
Nessie winced. “I started to, but The Next Top Model came on and it was a two hour long episode … I couldn’t miss it.”
Nessie had moved to Mayferd eight years ago with her family after an uncle died and left them his incredibly wicked house. She used to attend the only private school in town. Then she got kicked out for things she refused to tell me about and transferred to Margaretson High. I think she was the only person at school whom I actually liked. I never really understood kids my age. But Nessie, she kind of just appeared one day and never left. I didn’t mind. She was a bit scatterbrained and disorganized, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.
“You can borrow my notes.” My spare notes, I added silently. I’d learned quickly that it was always best to make copies where Nessie was concerned.
“Thanks, hun!” she said, hugging my arm and assaulting me with her floral scent.
The drive to school ended fifteen minutes later as John pulled into the parking lot and let us out. We pushed our way to the front and climbed out into the cool October air. Nessie hoisted her bag onto her shoulder and squinted over the landscape of shiny metal. I stepped up next to her and looked, too.
“Do you see him?” she asked, going up onto her toes as if that was going to help. She was four foot nothing. She’d need a ladder or one of those bucket things phone companies used to install new wires on the post to see over all the cars.
But I knew who she was looking for and spotted the shiny firebird immediately. Gary Hines stood next to it, chatting with his buddies. Every so often, he’d glance towards the bus loop as if searching for someone. His brown eyes squinted against the early morning sun. The pale light shimmered in his silky blond hair and trickled down the perfectly defined lines of his chiseled face. He certainly wasn’t the hottest guy Nessie had ever chosen, but he was the longest to maintain the boyfriend position which should have earned him a cookie at the very least.
“There!” I said, pointing.
Nessie made a squeaking sound of excitement that I personally never understood why girls made and whirled around to face me. “I’ll get those notes from you in Bio, okay?” Then, in a flurry of motion, she waved and was gone.
I sighed and jostled my bag higher on my back. “See ya.”
Alone, I made my way through the parade of students and cars toward the brown building. I got halfway there when I heard the high pitched squeal. Nessie, I thought, turning and scanning the crowd for my friend’s face. But no.
Three girls exited a beautiful red Ferrari, each wielding a cell phone. Even from a distance, I could see the blur of their thumbs as they flew over the keys. I could never help envying girls that coordinated. I was one of those people who fell apart when I was nervous. I opted long ago never to become a public speaker. Attention made me queasy. But these girls had the whole chew gum, walk, talk and text down to a science. Oh did I mention they were supermodels? Okay, they weren’t really supermodels, but when you looked that good and had money to burn, you could be circus clowns if you wanted and still pull it off.
I began to turn away, already itching with all the tiny blows to my self-esteem, when my inexplicable ADD picked up on another noise coming from the opposite direction. I turned to the growl of machine and the grind of asphalt.
Let me just pause here to say that I was not athletic. In fact, if you saw me running, you had better follow because one of two things were happening, one, the world had ended and there was only one roll of toilet paper left, or two, I was getting chased by zombies. Otherwise, this ass was hustling for nothing! But somehow, my legs were pumping and my lungs were burning as I ran towards danger. Another first for me. I was not a hero.
“Hey!” I shouted, waving my arms to get the girl’s attention.
She looked up. I saw her eyes were brown, wide against her pretty face. Her shiny lips parted, then I was on her like a linebacker, tackling her to the ground as a truck swerved at the last second, narrowly missing us both. The driver yelled something that may have been an apology as they took the next bend at the same reckless speed, leaving tread marks and a chaos of noise in their wake.
My victim and I landed in a tangled heap of limbs and bags. One of us groaned. It might have been her. I may have been crushing her. Nevertheless, I was thankful she was there to cushion my fall. I bruised easily. Maybe it was a bad time to think about that.
“Are you okay?” I heaved myself off her and winced as I realized just how skinny she was. I prayed to God I hadn’t broken her.
You know that feeling you get when you know you just made the biggest mistake of your life? Well, as I stood there, staring down at Claudia’s stunned face, that was exactly how I felt. I’d just shoved the queen of Mayferd to the ground.
“Oh my God! Claudia!” Her friends, two girls I’d seen a million times in the halls but could never tell apart, clattered over to her in their impossibly high pumps. They each hooked bony hands under Claudia’s arms and hoisted her up.
No one helped me up, I’d like to add. I rose on my own, dusted myself off and readjusted my bag, all the while I surveyed the trio in front of me with a sinking sense of dread. No way was this was going to end pretty.
Then, in a move I swear should have been an Olympic sport, Claudia put out a hand and a tube of lip gloss was pushed into her palm. She put out her other hand and a mirror was given. I was tempted to try it and see if I got a sandwich.
Her brown eyes studied me as she reapplied her face, which had nothing wrong with it in the first place. Her friends dusted her off, making cooing noises. What were their names? I really needed to pay more attention to my fellow students.
Claudia DeLorenzo, the most popular girl in school, was impossible to miss when she was everywhere, and I mean that literally. It was really hard to forget a girl after you’ve munched on her face. No, that wasn’t literal. I’d bought a cupcake the other day and had her face scowling up at me disapprovingly from the frosting, judging me for my unhealthy choice in snacks. I ate the thing anyway, but there was a moment of shame there.
Face properly back in order from the fall that apparently disrupted the order of her makeup, Claudia confronted me. “Who. Are. You?”
It was such a bad time to laugh, but all I could think was, Alice, Mr. Stoned Centipede. I was following the white rabbit.
“Kia?” I knew my name, but it was hard to think properly when she dared me with her Jedi mind¬¬-melding powers to be wrong. It was the cupcake incident all over again.
“Well, Kia.” Okay, not kidding, she totally did the whole hair flip, hip thrust, head bobbing thing. I swear I thought they only did that on TV. Color me impressed.
“What do you think you were doing?”
I don’t normally respond to intimidation, but a little gratitude would have been nice. “Uh, saving your life?”
The two nameless Barbies behind her gasped—in perfect unison, I might add. I was eager to see if either of them would say something like, oh no she didn’! It didn’t happen.
“Excuse me?” Claudia said in an appalled, I will beat your ass if you don’t change your answer tone.
“I saved your life!” I repeated more firmly. “You were about to become a beauty queen pancake.”
Her clones looked about to faint, but Claudia tipped her face back a notch, narrowed her eyes and studied me down the length of that perfectly proportioned nose.
“Kia, right?” She moved forward with such fluidity, I almost jumped. Her slender arm hooped through mine and I was dragged into her side. “Walk with me.”
Uh, no thanks? But we were moving, walking out of the parking lot and into the packed halls of Margaretson High.
I had never had any aspiration to become a superstar. My fear of people hindered any chance of that. But at that moment I fully understood why. It was messed up.
People actually stopped to stare at you. They pointed and whispered. They tripped over themselves getting out of your way. But worse of all, they weren’t looking at Claudia. Okay, they totally were, but they were looking at me next to Claudia and I knew what they were thinking. It was like one of those pictures you get in elementary school where you’re supposed to find which item did not belong. I was that item.
“Okay!” I slipped free of Claudia. “This is me. My stop.” I started to walk away quickly before I could do something really embarrassing, like pee myself.
“You can’t leave yet.” Wasn’t that line normally used in horror movies just before the idiot victim was sliced open with a butcher knife? I spun around, not really expecting Claudia to be leering with a bloody knife in hand, but something close. She wasn’t leering and there wasn’t a knife, but the trio watched me with an unnerving sort of glint in their eyes. “You have to let me thank you.”
People were still passing around us the way a stream parted around a rock, or Moses. All eyes and ears were trained on our conversation. It was hard not to notice.
“Let’s call it even, ‘k? Bye!”
“Not so fast.” I never heard her coming. Then she was right in front of me. “I don’t like owing people. So why don’t you and I talk?”
This was becoming all too Godfather-ish for my liking.
“Seriously. I’m good. You can send me a Christmas card.”
Her nails were French tipped, glossy and polished and digging into my arm. “I insist. What do you want? Fortune? Fame? A boy? A car maybe?”
“No! I don’t want … wait, you can get me a car?” Whoo! No more buses! I quickly caught myself and shook my head. Focus, Kia! “No. Really. I’m good.”
But Claudia wasn’t finished and I was trapped in a beauty queen triangle. “I’m having a party this weekend.” She fished into her doll-sized purse—seriously, how did one even fit anything in that thing?—and pulled out a card. A real, physical card, like the one lawyers and doctors carried with her name and address engraved flawlessly across the front. She pressed it into my hand. I marveled at the weight and texture and … was that jasmine I smelled? “You’re coming.”
I stiffened, my head darting up. “I am?”
She smiled a suspiciously feline smile. “Yes.” The purr sent a chill down my spine.
“But this weekend is Halloween.”
Claudia evidently practiced the health crap she preached, because her smile was flawless. Straight, white teeth flashed in a brilliant, if not a little creepy, grin. “I know.”
“Of course you do. Well.” I tried passing the card back. “I can’t come.”
A fine crease formed between her chocolate brown eyes. Her head tipped ever so slightly to the right and she peered at me in a way I imagined a cat would stare at a mouse if the mouse punched it in the nose. It was a concoction of confusion and surprise and offense. I couldn’t imagine a lot of people refusing one of Claudia DeLorenzo’s invitations.
“If you’re worried about finding a date, don’t. That invitation is for one person only and girls come alone.” Then she smiled as though we were sharing a joke. “I always make sure there are more boys than girls. So you’ll have tons to choose from.”
Why did that only make me queasier?
“Think about it?” She flashed me a brilliant smile. “I won’t take no for an answer.”
“You did what?” Nessie hissed in Bio, after I finished telling her about my adventure.
“I know! Trust me. I’m never saving anyone ever again,” I muttered, face-planting into my open binder. It hurt far more than it should have when my glasses dug into my face.
“Then she just invited you to her party?” There was a twinkle in her eyes that I was beginning to find very irritating.
“Yes, but she’s like blackmailing me into going, using my stupid heroism as leverage.” Short, purple nails gouged into my arm. “Ow!”
She ignored me. “Do you know what this means?”
“Yeah, that you’re trying to amputate my arm!”
She scoffed and let me go. “Not that!” She wiggled closer, as close as she could get while remaining in her stool. “Not just anyone gets invited to Claudia DeLorenzo’s parties, Kia! People would kill to be in your shoes right now!”
I peeked down at my scuffed and filthy high tops. “If they want them that badly, they can have them. I got them for ten bucks at—”
“Ms. Chaves, is there a problem?” Mrs. Pang’s voice carried like a whip across the room.
“No ma’am,” Nessie muttered, turning back to her open textbook. She waited until Mrs. Pang’s back was turned once more before pouncing on me. “You have to go!”
“No I don’t! What’s she going to do? Ignore me for the rest of the year?”
“You don’t understand!” Nessie moaned, practically hanging off my arm. “I’ve heard things! Secret things about the goings-on of her party—”
“Goings-on? Is this a party or a cult meeting?” Then another thought occurred to me. “You’ve been here a month, how do you know about any of this?”
“I hear things. Kia!” She throttled my arm. “Please go. For me? I’m begging you!”
Not understanding her at all, I dug into my back pocket and tossed her the card. “Here. You go.”
She fell on it like a starved bear on a squirrel. Any minute I expected her to moan and stroke it saying, precious! My precious! She didn’t, but she did sniff it, which was equally creepy.
“Oooo!” She moaned, her eyelashes fluttered as her eyeballs rolled back into her skull. She rubbed the card to her cheek. “It smells so pretty!”
I edged away from her, severely disturbed by that side of my friend. “Well, I wish you and the card a happy life together.”
With a final sigh of elation, she let her hands drop into her lap. “I can’t go. Claudia invited you. She won’t let me in.”
“Seriously? How would she know?”
The look on Nessie’s face said very clearly I was stupid. “She knows everything! Even I know that.”
I shrugged. “Well, whatever. I’m not going.”
“You have to!”
Nessie sniffled. “Because! Please! Please! Please! Please!”
But Nessie’s whole focus was now on me, her big, blue eyes bigger and bluer than usual. “Please!”
I nudged her, but she was determined now, going so far as to clasp her hands together under her chin and pucker her lips. “I wuv you, Kiki!”
“Okay! Fine. Stop!”
With a hoot that made several people around us laugh, Nessie turned front to face the wrath of Mrs. Pang. “I’m here!”
Arms folded, Mrs. Pang glowered at her. “Excellent. You can be here after school in detention.”
“Totally worth it,” Nessie hissed from the corner of her mouth once Mrs. Pang’s back turned.
I personally couldn’t justify anything being worth detention, but then I wasn’t Vanessa Chaves, collector of detention slips. I think she secretly had a detention fetish.
After school, I bypassed the bus and hoofed the three blocks to work. Angel Fuller, Mr. Fuller’s nephew, stood at the counter, filling ketchup bottles. Eyes the soft hazel green of a forest splintered by sunlight lifted and met mine.
He grinned. “Hey, K!”
I waved. “Hey, A!”
It was such a stupid joke between us, the whole rhyming first initial thing, and I couldn’t tell you when it started, but it stuck so we went with it.
“How was school?” Angel asked, as he screwed the cap on a bottle.
I made my way around the counter towards the set of swinging doors in the back. “I got invited to a super hot party.”
Angel perked. “No kidding! Good for you.”
I snorted. “It’s only great if I wanted to go.”
He shrugged his narrow shoulders. “Then don’t go.”
“Can’t. My life apparently depends on it.”
I pushed my way through the doors into the sweltering heat that was the kitchen. Jerod Ford, our cook, looked up when I trudged through. He wiped his hands on his apron, adding a smear of grease to the already stained fabric.
“’sup white girl?” Jerod liked to think he was black. He wasn’t. He was as white as freshly fallen snow. But we all had dreams.
“Hey, Jerod,” I called on my way to the staff area.
I dressed quickly into my uniform, stored my bag into my cubby and joined Angel up front.
“Boss wants the shelves scrubbed down,” Angel told me. “Can you do under the register? I’ll get the ones in the back.”
I agreed, and took the rag he offered.
It was reasonably empty considering school just let out, but the evening rush would start soon so we always tried to clean as much as possible before closing. It cut back on us having to stay late. Kneeling, I began pulling everything out from the shelves beneath the register.
“Hello? Excuse me?”
“One sec!” I called and pushed everything to one side, out of the way. I got to my feet and positioned myself in front of the register. “Yes? How can I—”
The words vaporized and became wisps of air escaping my throat. My jaw gaped. I knew it did. I could feel it. My eyes were round, wide with panic. They darted, a quick flicker, for an escape route and realized there was no graceful way of doing that. So I stood there rigid and panicked and totally freaked out on the inside as I stared into eyes the color of Bahamian waters. Coils of glossy, black hair tumbled over a prominent brow. There were hints of blue that kept flittering in and out of the strands, urging me to stare, to touch. My fingers trembled with the reckless desire to comb through all that beautiful mess. Mortified, I tried to focus on something else. I lowered my gaze and found myself tracing his sharp cheekbones, his rugged jaw and square chin. His lips were bowed, a sinful tilt that made me forget to breathe.
I was so screwed.
Okay, three things. One, boys like him never smile at girls like me. Two, boys like him did not reside in Mayferd unless they were kidnapped from Hollywood by one of the potato farmers, and three, of all the taco joints in the world, why did he have to walk into mine while I was wearing a dorky uniform? Life, you are such a bitch. Not that it mattered—observe point one.
Across from me, unfazed, oblivious to the torment he was causing me, the boy I had never met before smiled at me with all the beauty and grace of an angel. Was it too late to duck back under the register?
Crap. How did you do that thing where you opened your mouth and words came out?
“Uh…” Nope. That wasn’t exactly what I meant, but it was a sound so I went with it. “Heeeeyyy, wus up?”
I cringed. God I am such a loser. I dropped my gaze, letting the brim of my hat conceal the flush I could feel boiling beneath the paper thin skin on my face, turning it a very disturbing, and probably frightening, shade of red. I fidgeted with the bill, tucked stray strands of hair back around my ears, touching my tiny ponytail. Anything to keep from looking at him.
I stared down at the neatly labeled keys in front of me. “What do you want?” I winced, squeezing my eyes closed tight. Wow. Way to be a loser, Valentines. “I mean, what can I get you?”
He chuckled, the sound ridiculously sinful. “I’ll take the family package.”
I punched it in quickly, never once looking up at him, hoping that if I worked quickly enough, he’d go away sooner. I gave him his total and turned towards the drink cooler on my left. So determined to be rid of him, I forgot about the mess around my feet. I kicked a steel container of ketchup packets. The thing scattered, knocking over the dispenser of napkins which in turn fell into the carton of straws, upending everything and making a world of noise. Cursing, I swooped down to salvage what I could, all the while relieved to have an excuse to be away from those paralyzing eyes.
“What happened?” Angel ran out from the back, his eyes anxiously taking in the scene. Well, at least he hadn’t brought the baseball bat. That would have been really awkward.
“It’s fine!” I muttered, scooping ketchup packets back into their bowl. “I had an accident. Can you…?” I gestured vaguely to the register, indicating he take over while I cowered like a total, well, coward, beneath the counter.
This was quickly becoming a day I wanted to erase from history.
Title: Finding Kia
Series: The Lost Girl
Book Order 1
Release Date: November 22, 2013
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