But first, the Pitch:
Maggie learns the true story of The Princess and the Pea when a 400-year-old curse claims her friend. To save her, Maggie must: Research lock-picking techniques; Steal life-sucking emerald; Avoid becoming the Pea’s next victim.
Or, if you want to be more concise:
A semi-reformed stalker and a down-and-out princess team up to stop an enchanted, power-hungry emerald.
A part of me died long ago.
It was the part of me that feels, and it was Calista’s fault.
What happened tonight was nothing new—innocent victims welcomed into our home, not knowing they would never leave. I learned long ago I could not help them, so I stopped trying.
But this time something was different. This time I was awake, burning with a gut-wrenching guilt, as the next victims slept downstairs. This time I knew the victims. And they didn’t deserve what was coming.
It had always been hard for me to make friends. I’d been called loner, loser, outcast, and freak. Even still, I remembered Maggie offering to show me around when I first transferred to their school. Through her, I met Kate and Piper. The three of them were always nice to me, while other kids kept their distance and spread rumors behind my back. I told myself I didn’t care—I wasn’t like them.
But being a loner was lonely.
So tonight when I saw Maggie and her friends here, something inside me snapped. Or, perhaps it was the dead piece of me coming back to life. Now I cared desperately about what was happening in the room below mine.
But there was still nothing I could do.
Calista usually lured in victims from out of town to avoid arousing suspicion. Pregnant ones were a particular favorite—easy prey, she called them. But Maggie and her friends came here all on their own. The opportunity was too good for Calista to pass up.
Everyone thought Calista was my mother, but she wasn’t.
Back in my day, almost four centuries ago, Calista had an alternate method of luring in victims. She and her husband, Theodore, advertised for hired help with their inn. The number of parents willing to sell their daughters into a life of servitude in exchange for a forgiven debt or a clean slate was staggering.
My father was one of them.
By the time my mother found out what he’d done, it was too late. There was no escape. I was bound.
My story was well known in this land, whispered as a bedtime tale to ease children into sleep. But, just like any other story passed down through time by rumors and idle gossip, the fragment that survived was woefully incomplete. It began something like this:
There is rumored to have been (once upon a time, of course) a princess, a pea, and a tower of mattresses.
That much was true, though in actuality it was only one mattress, not twenty. The pea was also real, though most would call it a precious stone—an emerald, to be precise.
The gem that sealed my fate was now in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. Calista was furious when she found it missing. She thought I’d stolen it until she remembered my limits. The identity of the true thief remains unknown.
Even though the emerald is no longer in our possession, we are still bound to it, as it is bound to us. Admirers of the opulent necklace where it rests don’t understand it. Like me, the gem is a prisoner, struggling against its fate.
Even now, centuries later, I don’t understand all the details of what happened to me that night. But it began with a troubled slumber on a bed of enchanted emeralds.
It began like any other stakeout, or spy-by, as we used to call our combination drive-by and spying sessions: with Red Vines, Dr. Pepper, and my two best friends—and, of course, a little game of Truth or Dare.
We shouldn’t have been playing at all because, one, we were way too old and two, we were supposed to be studying for the SATs. But the word shouldn’t has a way of losing relevance when it’s after midnight and your head is spinning with words that serve no purpose other than to torment you on a test.
It was the perfect storm, really; stress, mind-numbing exhaustion, and a massive caffeine high. That perfect storm led to the game of Truth or Dare, which led to us standing on my front lawn, arguing over what to do next.
“Guys, this is stupid,” Kate complained, her breath puffing around her in the night air. Barns, dotting the Virginia hills, winked in and out of view as clouds scattered the moonlight. “Let’s go back inside.”
“No way. Maggie chose Dare and now she has to do it.” Piper’s silver nose ring and dyed-red hair didn’t match the giddiness in her voice. She stood in the driveway next to my crappy beater car with one hand on her hip, waiting for us to catch up.
Kate raised an eyebrow. “Seriously? You sound like you’re ten right now.” The hint of a grin cracked through on the last word. “Let’s go inside. We can binge-watch Alias.”
My gaze shifted between the two of them. I had a dare to do, courtesy of Piper, and at this point, anything was better than studying. No one would notice us gone—my brother was away at a two-day swim meet and my dad was working the graveyard shift.
But it was cold outside. And Alias was the best discovery we’d made on Netflix, ever. I’d be perfectly happy going back inside as well.
Piper hadn’t said yet who I’d be spying on. Our last spy-by was on Wyn Tucker, almost five years ago, at the end of sixth grade. That spy-by ended when Piper fell out of the tree in Wyn’s front yard and broke her leg right before summer vacation. The plastic binoculars we’d used all that year went into hibernation, and by the time Piper was better, spying no longer seemed worth the effort.
Our old binoculars were long gone, so I’d borrowed my brother’s expensive hunting ones for tonight. Illicitly (SAT points!).
Piper’s hands flew up in a gesture of exasperation. “Come on, Kate. Aren’t you tired of it all? Being responsible sucks, let’s be kids again. Anyway, I think we got in enough studying tonight. You’ve made sure we all sound like mobile dictionaries.” Piper straightened her spine and pulled out her British accent. “I adjure you to cease vacillating and embrace this clandestine operation. Forthwith!”
I grinned. “Your accent is crap!”
“It really is,” Kate added, giggling.
Piper huffed, a sound both familiar and aggravating at the same time. “Whatever. Just, are we doing this or not?”
Kate’s lips pressed together and her nose twitched. Her thinking face.
Piper tapped a foot on the ground and crossed her arms, making an exaggerated show of annoyance. Her clunky combat boots made the display a little bit ridiculous, but we got the point.
Kate’s lips turned up at the edges and she broke into a grin. She nodded, her annoyingly perfect blonde curls bouncing across her shoulders. “Fine. Okay, Maggie. Time for some spying.” She raised her hand like she was holding a glass, her fingers curling around what was actually just her cell phone. “In memory of our former selves.”
I let Kate pull me to the car. Once inside, I cranked up the heat and put on some music. Taylor Swift.
“Ugh,” Piper groaned when the opening chords struck. “Really?”
“Come on, it’ll get me in the mood.” I turned it up. “Who am I spying on, anyway?”
In the rearview mirror, I saw Piper’s lips pull into a devilish grin. “Marshall Parker.”
“What?” I screeched. “Lindy’s brother? No way. Someone else.”
“Oooh, yeah.” Kate joined in, her eyes lighting up. “Let’s spy on Marshall.”
I pointed an accusing finger at her. “Oh, so now you’re on board?”
“What better way to forget about the SATs than with a little danger?”
“Try a lot of danger. We’ll totally get caught! Their dad works for the FBI.”
“He does not work for the FBI,” Piper interjected. “That’s just a rumor. Anyway, who cares what their dad does?” Piper rolled up a Red Vine and stuffed it in her mouth. “We aren’t little girls anymore. Drive, Maggie!”
“Yeah, drive, Mags!” Kate was grinning exactly like a little girl. “Marshall’s hot.”
“And stupid, and mean, and full of himself,” I reminded her. “And did I say stupid?”
“So? Since when did any of that matter on a spy-by?”
I tried to come up with a good reason why we should pick someone else, but I couldn’t think anymore. I’d used up my days’ worth of brain power several hours ago. Piper reclined in the back seat of my car, kicking her legs up and resting her feet on the center console. She pulled out another Red Vine and bit off the end.
Kate sat beside me in the passenger seat, her back straight and her legs crossed at the ankles. The perfect posture of a dancer. Her eyes shone with a light that hadn’t been there when she was drilling us on our vocab. In fact, it’d been a while since I’d seen evidence of Kate’s infectious love of life—she’d been so stressed lately.
Maybe she needed this. Maybe we all did.
I sighed and buckled my seatbelt. “I should have picked Truth,” I muttered, putting the car in gear. My clunker lurched into drive and soon we were speeding toward the Parker mansion.
Fifteen minutes later, we sat gawking up at Marshall and Lindy’s house—if you could call the gigantic Victorian structure a house. It was really more of a manor. Or a small castle, minus the moat. Leading up to the house was a long, gated driveway. At the top of the hill, a stone wall stood guard around the house. We parked at the bottom of the driveway and got out.
I kept a firm grip on my brother’s binoculars. If I didn’t have them back on his bookshelf in perfect condition when he got back from his swim meet tomorrow, I would pay. Big time. My nosy older brother could get me grounded for life if he wanted to.
We crept toward the gated driveway and found that the gate did not extend all the way around the property. On either side of the driveway, it was replaced by a row of tall shrubs.
Piper grinned, then pushed her way through the prickly trees clearly meant to keep people out. Kate and I followed. The grass crunched beneath our feet as we emerged on the other side. I made a fist and blew warm air into my hands.
The hill leading up to the house was steep and the wall at the top was going to be a problem. “How am I gonna to get over that?” I said, pointing up at it.
Piper waved a hand, shooing away the question like she would a fly. “We’ll figure it out.”
Kate looped an arm through mine, with an exuberance that left no doubt she was enjoying herself immensely. “Let’s go.”
By the time we reached the top, my thighs were burning, and the stone wall surrounding the house was a lot taller than it had looked from below. We walked around it once and found three iron gates—all locked—and not a single conveniently-located tree we could climb. We retreated to a spot on the darkest side of the house.
“I changed my mind, I pick Truth,” I said.
“Ha! Nice try, but no way,” Piper said. “You are not getting out of this.”
Kate nodded her agreement.
“Piper, I’m never going to be able to get up there. Plus, it’s way too late for a normal spy-by. Everyone’s probably already in bed.”
“Yeah, well, you should have thought of that before you picked Dare. Are you really so worried about telling me your deepest, darkest secrets?”
“Like I have any secrets from you guys. I picked Dare ‘cause Truth would have been boring.”
“Exactly! So get up there, and be not boring. Come on, I’ll give you a boost.” Piper locked her fingers together and held them out for me to step into.
I scowled at her, but the effect was lost in the dark. “I’m never playing Truth or Dare with you again.”
I stretched onto my toes and set Tanner’s binoculars on top of the wall, then stepped into Piper’s outstretched hands. She boosted me up too fast and I almost lost my balance. My fingers curled around the top edge of the wall and I attempted to pull myself up. My toes searched for footholds in the smooth stone, while my arms strained against the weight of my body. I’d never had to scale an eight-foot wall before.
When I finally reached the top, my arms were throbbing, my fingers numb, and one of my knees stung where I’d scraped it through my jeans. The space at the top was about two feet wide. It was big enough to balance on but I still felt jittery.
I made the mistake of looking down at my friends. My stomach swooped sickeningly and my arms shot out as I struggled to regain my balance. The ground was very far away. I knelt there for a moment, catching my breath. Then I gazed up at the house.
There were so many windows. How was I going to figure out which one was Marshall’s bedroom? Most of the windows were dark but, to my surprise, a handful were still lit. Through one, I glimpsed a large dining room table and through another, a twisting marble staircase. Maybe rich people left lights on all the time, just to discourage burglars.
My eyes searched the house for signs of movement while I groped around for the binoculars with my cold-stiffened fingers. But instead of grabbing hold of them, I knocked them off the wall. Branches snapped and leaves rustled as Tanner’s binoculars fell into the bushes below.
“Crap!” I said, too loudly.
“Maggie!” Kate’s disembodied voice hissed up at me. “Can you see him?”
I heard Piper hopping around in her combat boots. “Yeah, come on, Mags,” she added. “It’s freezing down here!”
“It’s not any warmer up here, dork.” I gripped the edge of the wall and peeked my head over so they could see me. “I dropped the nocs into the garden—I have to get them or Tanner will kill me. Piper, get up here so you can pull me out.”
I turned away and focused on easing myself into the garden without landing directly on top of a rose bush. My landing was significantly un-graceful—I fell backward onto my butt—but luckily, there were no roses. Or, at least, none that stabbed me. There was just a bush with soft, overgrown leaves. The ground was wet, and smelled of…. well… something blooming. Which was weird. It was mid-March—technically still winter.
I wiped my hands on my jeans and got to work pawing through the bushes where I thought the nocs had fallen. That’s when I heard the low hum.
I froze and cocked my head, listening. The noise was so faint that, in the light of day I probably wouldn’t have noticed anything. But the tinny mechanical buzz was unmistakable now that I’d heard it. And it was all wrong—not a normal night sound.
A decorative garden gnome stood a few feet from the bush I was scrounging around in. Was it buzzing at me?
I stepped toward it.
The gnome’s head was tilted at an unnatural angle. A tiny red light blinked on and off behind his eyes. Then, as I watched, the head swiveled until it faced me. Something focused. I was staring into a camera.
My mouth went dry. The thought of being caught snooping around Marshall Parker’s enormous house was mortifying. Though we weren’t at the top of the school social chain, we’d managed to stay above average so far, and being banished to the bottom so close to senior year was not part of the plan.
Heart thumping, I jumped from the ground and rushed over to the wall, abandoning the binoculars. I’d make it up to Tanner somehow.
“Piper!” I hissed. “Someone knows we’re here, pull me out!” I reached up, waiting for her hands to wrap around my wrists.
They didn’t come.
My skin tingled as I waited. My fingers groped around in the dark, feeling only cold, hard stone.
“Piper? Kate?” I called out. My voice came louder than I’d intended.
The creepy gnome hummed on.
I glanced back at him, my throat threatening to close up. Was it my imagination or were shadows descending on me? I clawed at the wall, searching for a handhold in the smooth stone. My heart pounded so hard I could almost hear it, throbbing angrily in my head.
The top of the wall lay just above my fingertips.
I jumped, grasping for the edge, and came down with two scraped palms. I tried again, this time hanging on to the top while my feet scrambled against the wall, trying to gain traction.
My fingers throbbed. My forearms burned. And my feet slipped.
I let go and thudded to the ground, landing in the same bush I’d been searching in before. I closed my eyes and pressed my stinging hands together. I counted to ten in my mind.
The thumping in my head slowed. This was silly—it was just a stupid statue. With a camera inside, but still. The statue wasn’t going to hurt me. I needed to focus on getting out of the garden before an actual person found me.
I’d have to find one of those gates and let myself out from there. Before standing up, I dug through the bush in a final effort to avoid my brother’s wrath. When my fingers grazed the cold surface of his binoculars, I was so surprised I actually laughed. To find them now, after all that.
My hand closed around them and I rose.
A shadow stood before me.
I jumped, letting out a strangled scream, and dropped the nocs back into the bushes.
“Welcome to our home,” the shadow said in a gravelly male voice—a most-definitely-not-Marshall voice. “Won’t you come in?”
Umm, no thanks. I tensed to run, wondering what my odds were of outrunning the FBI. Since, clearly, the rumors about Marshall’s dad were true.
But then the voice said the only thing that could have stopped me.
“Your friends are inside.”