The first week of school was Laura Beth’s favorite time of year. It was when the halls of Excelsior Prep buzzed with anticipation, all the girls swapping summer gossip. Who they were dating. Who’d broken up. If the shopping was better in Paris or Rome. But this year was bound to be the best ever, the one Laura Beth had been dreaming about since she was a freshman.
Senior year. Finally.
Not to mention that her summer news should be the talk of the school. After all, who else was dating a gorgeous college guy? Unless, of course, you counted Jackie and her boyfriend, Andrew Price, who also just happened to be the president’s son.
And that was the problem.
Laura Beth felt her old, familiar jealousy rising at the thought of them. Jackie and Andrew. Andrew and Jackie. Ankie. Not that Laura Beth wanted Andrew anymore. She was so over that crush now that she had Sol. It was just that wherever Ankie went, everyone followed, even though their romance was old news at this point. And who knew if they were still even a couple? Jackie certainly wasn’t acting like it. Not with the way she’d thrown herself at that sleazy congressional aide, Eric Moran.
But even if they broke up, the press would never let it go. It would be all anyone talked about in the news and in the school halls for months. Laura Beth felt a twinge of guilt—it’s not that she wanted Jackie to be unhappy. She just wanted her own turn at center stage.
As Laura Beth strolled down the hallway, students parted to make way. Like royalty. Well, that’s one thing that’s good about today, she thought. Her eyes flicked over the groups of girls pressed against the walls, and she took mental note of who looked thinner and who’d indulged in too many umbrella drinks over the summer.
Halfway down the hall, she stopped next to Lettie’s locker and stuck her hand in her brand-new steel-gray Kooba satchel—the must-have color of the season. Even though she wore Excelsior’s mandatory plaid skirt and collared shirt, Laura Beth knew how to stand out. Her auburn curls had been flattened to a sleek sheen, and one-carat diamond studs dotted each of her ears.
With a tap, the paper she retrieved from her bag disappeared between the vents of the locker. Lettie needs a new cell phone. She shouldn’t be stuck in the stone age. Especially if her family needs her. Ever since Paz’s death, Lettie had been the rock in the Velasquez home. It was obvious the poor girl was stretched thin.
“What’s up, LB?”
Laura Beth’s heart sank at the sound of Whitney’s voice. She turned slowly to face her.
“Planning a party without me?” Whitney smiled maliciously.
And that was the other problem with this school year: She was chained to Whitney.
Laura Beth fought the foul words bubbling inside her and put on a pleasant smile. “Hey, Whitney. Are you finding everything okay?”
Always kill your enemies with kindness. Especially if those enemies know your secrets.
Whitney Remick, the new girl at Excelsior and a constant irritation to Laura Beth and her friends, leaned against the wall of lockers. A hot-pink lacy bra peeked out from beneath her white button-up. Laura Beth envied the way the shirt flattered her caramel-colored skin. Her own complexion was already so pale—especially with everything she’d done trying to get rid of her freckles—that white always washed her out. Even Whitney’s yellow feather earrings seemed to dull the sparkle in Laura Beth’s studs.
Honestly, how has she not been sent home dressed like that?
“Things are good—if you like sterile, boring, and prisonlike.” Whitney’s smile grew. “But I have a solution. I’m going to ditch and you’re going to come with me.”
Stalling for time, Laura Beth dug around in her purse and flipped open a compact mirror to check her reflection. At least she didn’t look as stressed as she felt.
Over the summer, when she and her friends first met Whitney, Laura Beth loved her carefree attitude and knack for fun. It filled the void left by Taylor’s death.
But that was before Laura Beth discovered Whitney’s true motives: spying on them and reporting back to her mother, Gossip Queen Tracey Mills. And before Whitney blackmailed Laura Beth into being friends.
“I can’t.” Laura Beth snapped the compact shut and began walking down the hallway. Like a yappy dog, Whitney trailed at her heel. “I promised Jackie and Lettie I’d meet them. Right now. Before class.”
It was a lie. Kind of. She and Jackie had made plans after first period to meet before third. They wanted to surprise Lettie with a fun lunch off campus—something to cheer her up—and were going to plan it during passing. But Jackie hadn’t shown. And that’s what had Laura Beth so stressed. Jackie would never forget to meet her. She just seemed to have vanished into thin air.
“Maybe I’ll come along.” Whitney didn’t even bother to hide the threat in her voice. “It’ll be a little Capital Girls party.”
For a moment, Laura Beth wavered. She’d have to do one or the other—let Whitney come with them or ditch with her. “If you wait until after lunch, I’ll come.”
Whitney narrowed her eyes. “Fine. But if you back out, I may have to invite Jackie instead. And who knows what might come up then.”
Laura Beth curled her fingers tighter around the handle of her bag and prayed they didn’t shake too badly as she watched Whitney disappear into the crowded hallway.
There’s more than one way to kill a snake, she reminded herself. But sometimes the best way is to just take off the head.
Laura Beth wanted, more than anything, to freeze Whitney out completely. But if Jackie ever learned Laura Beth was the reason Uncle Ham—Senator Hampton Griffin, a longtime family friend—caught her in a compromising position with a staffer, their friendship would be over. And as much as Laura Beth sometimes wished Jackie’s life were her own, she would never intentionally hurt Jackie.
She glanced back at Lettie’s locker and swallowed the lump in her throat. Whitney might own her, but Laura Beth would never be her friend.
* * *
Lettie Velasquez wasn’t a crier. She couldn’t afford to be. Her parents and little sisters relied on her. For the past two weeks, while Mamá wept, Lettie answered the door, accepted condolences and gifts of food from neighbors, and kept the family running.
But as she studied the AP literature reading list, the sobs she kept hidden threatened to escape.
Her older brother, Paz, was dead. Dead. First Taylor and now Paz. Two of the people she most loved in the world. She knew it was illogical and futile, but she kept asking herself the same question over and over: What had she done to deserve this?
Tears sat hot in the corners of her eyes. Not here, Lettie. Wait till you’re alone. Focus.
With a long sniff, she turned the combination on her locker and flung the door open. A piece of paper covered in hand-drawn hearts fell to the ground.
Lettie recognized it immediately as Laura Beth’s handiwork and scooped up the paper. Unlike her two best friends—Laura Beth Ballou and Jackie Whitman—Lettie didn’t have a cell phone. At least not anymore. She’d thrown it to take out her anger over Paz’s death and couldn’t afford a new one. Not that she really needed one or the monthly bill. Well, not all the time, anyway—but it would be nice to not always be the last one to hear about things.
Leaning into her locker to hide her watery eyes, Lettie unfolded the note.
Lets! I haven’t seen Jackie since first period and she’s not answering her phone. I’m worried. Have you seen her?
xoxo ~ Laura Beth
Lettie frowned. Jackie hadn’t been in calculus last period, either, but Lettie had assumed she was meeting with her adviser or something. Of course, without a cell Lettie had no way of checking. And Jackie would have at least texted Laura Beth if she’d had to leave, if only to ask her to pick up her homework.
Something wasn’t right. A few weeks ago, Jackie had casually mentioned the threats the White House had been receiving. About her. Jackie and Laura Beth had laughed it off. But President Deborah Price and Jackie’s mother, her chief of staff, hadn’t found it too funny. They had insisted Jackie tell them every place she went—ahead of time.
* * *
“I love my mom and Aunt Deborah,” Jackie said, picking at her sandwich. “I know they want to keep me safe. But threats are common if you’re in the public eye.”
Laura Beth gave one of her typical dramatic sighs. “This year won’t be any fun if you have to clear everything first.”
Jackie was right about threats being common. But this was different. She wasn’t a politician. “I think it’s a good idea. Why risk it? If the White House is worried, you should take it seriously.”
Jackie rolled her eyes and laughed. “Next thing you’ll be suggesting I wear a GPS device.”
“If it kept you safe,” I told her.
Laura Beth snorted sarcastically. “That would be great! We’d really have fun then.”
Jackie pushed her sandwich aside. “Don’t worry about it, Lettie. I’m not in any danger.”
* * *
Lettie’s eyes scanned the now near empty hallway. The bell was going to ring any minute, and if she didn’t hurry, she’d be late.
With a slam of her locker door, Lettie sprinted toward the stairs at the far end of the hall. She climbed them two at a time and reached the classroom door on the second floor just as the bell trilled.
* * *
Hidden just under her desk, Laura Beth’s thumbs flew over her iPhone’s keypad. Technically, she wasn’t supposed to bring it to class, but if the teacher couldn’t see it, then what’s the harm, right?
J—pls, pls, pls text me. I’m worried about u.
She hit send and doubled-checked the screen to make sure it went through.
Mrs. Stepaniak, the government teacher, shuffled a few papers on her desk as students filed in the door.
Where is she? Laura Beth’s stomach roiled. Oh Lord, what if Whitney already told her the truth and Jackie’s avoiding me?
Laura Beth stared at the door, willing Jackie to suddenly appear. Despite everything, she was her best friend. And no matter what Whitney thought, Laura Beth had only wanted to protect Jackie.
Stop lying to yourself. You also hoped she and Andrew would break up.
Lettie skidded into the room just as the bell rang. Her eyes, filled with concern, met Laura Beth’s as she slipped into the empty desk next to her.
“Have you seen Jackie?” Laura Beth asked even though she knew the answer.
Lettie shook her head. “No.”
Mrs. Stepaniak cleared her throat and began calling roll. The desk in front of Laura Beth, the one she had saved for Jackie, sat empty.
“She wasn’t in calculus, either,” Lettie said softly.
As Laura Beth opened her mouth to ask if maybe they should tell someone, the classroom door burst open.
Startled, she dropped the phone onto the floor.
No one noticed. All eyes were on two uniformed men standing in the doorway, their hands on their sidearms.
“Is Jackie Whitman here?” one of the Secret Service agents asked.
“Jackie?” Mrs. Stepaniak called. Every set of eyes turned toward where Lettie and Laura Beth sat. Without Jackie.
Laura Beth’s heart pounded. “I haven’t seen her since this morning. What’s going on? Why do you want Jackie?”
He stomped down the aisle and stopped at Laura Beth’s desk. He kept his gun in its holster, but still, being near it made her skin crawl.
“Are you her friend?” he demanded.
“We’re her best friends,” Lettie said quietly.
The agent pivoted toward Lettie. “Is there anywhere she goes to be alone? Anywhere she may be hiding?”
Bile rose in Laura Beth’s throat. Suddenly, the stalkerish calls they’d laughed about didn’t seem so funny.
“There’s a spot—in the school garden. Sometimes Jackie goes there to clear her mind,” Lettie said.
The agent stormed back up the aisle toward the door. “The school is in lockdown. Everyone must remain in this room until further instructed.”
The door slammed behind them and the room broke into chaos. Students leapt from their seats and ran to the windows to see the action unfolding out on the grounds. Laura Beth turned in the opposite direction: to Lettie. She folded herself into Lettie’s arms and squeezed tightly.
Whitney. The blackmail. Andrew. None of it was important.
Please, Laura Beth prayed. Please don’t let me lose another friend.
Copyright © 2012 by Marilyn Rauber and Amy Reingold