Rebel Belle

Paperback | March 3, 2015

byRachel Hawkins

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Harper Price, peerless Southern belle, was born ready for a Homecoming tiara. But after a strange run-in at the dance imbues her with incredible abilities, Harper's destiny takes a turn for the seriously weird. She becomes a Paladin, one of an ancient line of guardians with agility, super strength and lethal fighting instincts. Just when life can't get any more disastrously crazy, Harper finds out who she's charged to protect: David Stark, school reporter, subject of a mysterious prophecy and possibly Harper's least favorite person. But things get complicated when Harper starts falling for him--and discovers that David's own fate could very well be to destroy Earth.

With snappy banter, cotillion dresses, non-stop action and a touch of magic, this new young adult series from bestseller Rachel Hawkins is going to make y'all beg for more.

“As surprising as it is delicious.”—BCCB, starred review 
“Fun with a twist of supernatural and Southern charm.” —VOYA

“The romance, coming-of-age aspects, and a well-drawn heroine with a crackling wit will lure in readers.” —Booklist

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From the Publisher

Harper Price, peerless Southern belle, was born ready for a Homecoming tiara. But after a strange run-in at the dance imbues her with incredible abilities, Harper's destiny takes a turn for the seriously weird. She becomes a Paladin, one of an ancient line of guardians with agility, super strength and lethal fighting instincts. Just wh...

Rachel Hawkins is the author of the New York Times bestselling series Hex Hall. She was born in Virginia and raised in Alabama. Rachel taught high school English for 3 years before becoming a full-time writer. Visit her at

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:368 pages, 8.25 × 5.5 × 0.93 inPublished:March 3, 2015Publisher:Penguin Young Readers GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0147514355

ISBN - 13:9780147514356


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NOW, THIS IS WHEN IT REALLY GETS WEIRD. I know, I know, dead janitor in disguise, killer history teacher, how much weirder could it get? Lots. Trust me. When Dr. DuPont put that sword—well, scimitar—on my neck, I didn’t feel scared, like, at all. Instead, I felt that tingle in my chest again, only this time, it was more like this . . . energy. I reached out, almost like my hands didn’t belong to me, and grabbed the hilt of the sword, just above Dr. DuPont’s hands on the handle, and yanked, sliding that lethal blade in the space between my arm and my body. Dr. DuPont was so surprised he didn’t even let go of the sword, which was exactly what I had planned, although where that plan came from, I had no idea. Certainly not from that lame self-defense class, where the only thing I’d learned was how to knee a guy in the groin, and trust me, teenage girls already know how to do that. No, this was a different kind of fighting, one so smooth and powerful that I felt like I was standing outside my body, watching myself pull Dr. DuPont right up to me. I didn’t knee him in the groin, although I didn’t rule that move out. Instead I . . . ugh, this is so embarrassing. I head-butted him. I know, like a soccer hooligan or something. But it worked. He let go of the sword with one hand and reached up to clutch his probably broken nose. I’d kept my hand on the hilt, and I used it to pull him past me and slam him headfirst into the wall. Now I had a clear shot for the door, but for some reason, I didn’t take it. For one thing, all this ninja-style fighting was . . . well, kind of cool. I had no idea how I was doing it, and I wondered if it was another adrenaline thing, like when I was able to push Mr. Hall off me. But it wasn’t just that I was having fun. It was almost like I couldn’t leave; like I had to finish the fight until one of us was dead. See? I told you it got weirder. Anna and the French Kiss Stephanie Perkins Bitterblue Kristin Cashore Champion Marie Lu The 5th Wave Rick Yancey Fire Kristin Cashore The Infinite Sea Rick Yancey Legend Marie Lu The Madness Underneath Maureen Johnson Miss Mayhem Rachel Hawkins The Name of the Star Maureen Johnson Prodigy Marie Lu Prom Laurie Halse Anderson The Shadow Cabinet Maureen Johnson Chapter 1 LOOKING BACK, none of this would have happened if I’d brought lip gloss the night of the Homecoming Dance. Bee Franklin was the first person to notice that my lips were all naked and indecent. We were standing outside of our school, Grove Academy. It was late October, and the night was surprisingly cool; in Pine Grove, Alabama, where I live, it’s not unheard of to have a hot Halloween. But that night felt like fall, complete with that nice smoky smell in the air. I was super relieved that it was cold, because my jacket was wool, and there was nothing more tragic than a girl sweating in wool. I was wearing the jacket over a knee-length pink sheath dress. If I was going to be crowned Homecoming Queen tonight—and that seemed like a lock—I was going to do it looking as classy as possible in my demure pink dress and pearls. “Are you nervous?” Bee asked as I rubbed my hands up and down my arms. Like me, Bee was in pink, but her dress was closer to magenta and the bodice was covered in tiny sequins that winked and shivered in the parking lot lights. Or maybe that was just Bee. Un like me, she hadn’t worn a jacket. Our dates, Brandon and Ryan, were off searching for a parking place. They had been annoyed that Bee and I had insisted on not showing up until the thirty minutes before the crowning, but there was no way I was going to risk getting punch spilled on me or my makeup sliding off my face (not to mention the sweatiness! See above, re: wool jacket) before I had that sparkly tiara on my head. I planned on looking fierce in the yearbook pictures. “Of course I’m not nervous,” I told Bee. And it was true, I wasn’t. Okay, maybe I was a little bit anxious  . . . Bee gave an exaggerated eye roll. “Seriously? Harper Jane Price, you have not been able to successfully lie to me since the Second-Grade Barbie Incident. Admit that you’re freaking out.” She held up one hand, pinching her thumb and forefinger together. “Maybe a leeeeeetle bit?” Laughing, I caught her hand and pulled it down. “Not even a ‘leeeeeetle bit.’ It’s just Homecoming.” “Yeah, but you’re going to get all queenly tonight. I think that warrants some nerves. Or are you saving them for Cotillion?” Just the word sent all the nerves Bee could have wanted jittering through my system, but before I could admit that, her dark eyes suddenly went wide. “Omigod! Harper! Your lips!” “What?” I asked, raising a hand to them. “They’re nekkid,” she said. “You are totally gloss-less!” “Who’s ‘nekkid’?” I looked up to see the boys walking toward us. The orange lights played up the red in Ryan’s hair, and he was grinning, his hands in his pockets. I felt that same little flutter in my stomach that I’d been feeling since the first day I saw Ryan Bradshaw, way back in the third grade. It had taken me six years from that day to make him my boyfriend, but looking at him now, I had to admit, it had been worth the wait. “My lips,” I said. “I must’ve wiped off all my gloss at the restaurant.” “Well, damn,” he said, throwing his arm around my shoulders. “I’d hoped for something a little more exciting. Of course, no lip gloss means I can safely do this.” He lowered his head and kissed me, albeit pretty chastely. PDA is vile, and Ryan, being my Perfect Boyfriend, knows how I feel about it. “Hope you girls are happy,” Brandon said when we broke apart. He had both of his arms wrapped around Bee from behind, his hands clasped right under her . . . um, abundant assets. Bee was so tall that Brandon’s chin barely cleared her shoulder. “We had to park way down the effing road.” Okay, I should probably mention right here that Brandon used the real word, but this is my story, so I’m cleaning it up a little. Besides, if I honestly quoted Brandon, this thing would look like a Cops transcript. “Don’t say that word!” I snapped. Brandon rolled his eyes. “What the hell, Harper, are you, like, the language police?” I pressed my lips together. “I just think that the F-word should be saved for dire occasions. And having to park a hundred yards from the gym is not a dire occasion.” “So sorry, Your Highness,” Brandon said, scowling as Bee elbowed him in the ribs. “Easy, dude,” Ryan said, shooting Brandon a warning look. Ignoring Brandon, I turned to Bee. “Do you have any lip gloss? I completely spaced on bringing any.” “My girl forgot makeup?” Ryan asked, quirking an eyebrow. “Man, you are stressed about this Queen thing.” “No, I’m not,” I said immediately, even though, hello, I clearly was. But I didn’t like when people used the “S-word” around me. After all, a big part of my reputation at the Grove was my ability to handle anything and everything. Ryan raised his hands in apology. “Okay, okay, sorry. But, I mean, this is obviously pretty important to you, or you wouldn’t have spent over a grand on that outfit.” He smiled again, shaking his head so his hair fell over his eyes. “I really hope your tastes get cheaper if we get married.” “I hear that, man,” Brandon said, lifting his hand to high-five Ryan. “Chicks gonna break us.” Bee rolled her eyes again, but I didn’t know whether it was at the guys or the fact that my outfit was over a thousand dollars (yes, I know that’s a completely ridiculous amount for a seventeen-year-old girl to spend on a Homecoming dress, but, hey, I can wear it, like, a million times provided I don’t gain five pounds. Or at least that was how I rationalized it to my mom.) “Here.” Bee thrust a tube into my hand. I held it up to read the name on the bottom. “‘Salmon Fantasy’?” “That’s close to the shade you wear.” Bee’s long blond hair was woven into a fishtail braid, and she tossed it over her shoulder as she handed me the lip gloss. “I wear ‘Coral Shimmer.’ That is very different.” Bee made a face that said, “I am only tolerating you because we’ve been best friends since we were five,” but I kept going, drawing myself up to my full height with mock imperiousness, “And Salmon Fantasy has to be the grossest beauty product name ever. Who has fantasies about salmon?” “People who screw fish,” Brandon offered, completely cracking himself up. Ryan didn’t laugh, but I saw the corners of his mouth twitching. “So witty, Bran,” I muttered, and this time, when Bee rolled her eyes, I had no doubt that it was at the guys. “Look,” she said to me, “it’s either Salmon Fantasy or naked lips. Your choice.” I sighed and clutched the tube of lip gloss. “Okay,” I said, “but I’m gonna have to find a bathroom.” If it had been my Coral Shimmer, I could have put it on without a mirror, but there was no way I was slapping on a new shade sight unseen. Ryan pulled open the gym door, and I ducked under his arm to walk into the gym. As soon as I did, I could hear the opening riff of “Sweet Home Alabama.” It’s not a dance until someone plays that song. The gym looked great, and my chest tightened with pride. I know everyone, even Ryan, thinks I’m crazy to do all the stuff I do at school, but I honestly love the place. I love its redbrick buildings, and the chapel bells that ring to signal class changes. I love that both my parents went here, and their parents before them. So yeah, maybe I do stretch myself a little thin, but it’s completely worth it. The Grove is a happy place to go to school, and I liked to think my good example was the reason for that. And it meant that when people thought of the name “Price” at Grove Academy, they’d think of all the good things I’d done for the school, and not . . . other stuff. Instead, I focused on the decorations. I’m SGA president—the first-ever junior to be elected to the position, I should add—so Homecoming activities are technically my responsibility. But tonight, I’d delegated all of the decorating to my protégée, sophomore class president, Lucy McCarroll. My only contribution had been to ban crepe streamers and balloon arches. Can you say tacky? Lucy had done a great job. The walls were covered in a silky, shimmery purple material and there were colored lights pulsating with the music. Looking over at the punch table, I saw that she’d even brought in a little fountain with several bistro tables clustered around it. I scanned the crowd until I saw Lucy, and when I caught her eye, I gave her the thumbs-up, and mouthed, “Nice!” “Harper!” I heard someone cry. I turned around to see Amanda and Abigail Foster headed my way. They were identical twins, but relatively easy to tell apart since Amanda always wore her long brown hair up, and Abigail wore hers down. Tonight, both were wearing green dresses with spaghetti straps, but Amanda’s was hunter green while Abigail’s was closer to seafoam. The twins were on the cheerleading squad with me and Bee, and Abi and I worked together on SGA. Right behind them was Mary Beth Riley, wobbling on her high heels. Next to me, Bee blew out a long breath before muttering, “Maybe no one will notice if she wears tennis shoes under her dress.” Despite Bee’s low tone, Mary Beth heard her. “I’m working on it,” she said, glaring at Bee. “I’ll get better by Cotillion.” Since “Riley” came right after “Price” alphabetically, Mary Beth would be following me down the giant staircase at Magnolia House, the mansion where Cotillion was held every year. So far, we’d only had two practices, but Mary Beth had tripped and nearly fallen directly on top of me both times. Which was why I’d suggested she start wearing the heels every day. “Speaking of that,” Amanda said, laying a hand on my arm. Even under her makeup, I could see the constellation of freckles arcing across her nose. That was another way to tell the twins apart; Abi’s nose was freckle free. “We got an e-mail from Miss Saylor right before we left for the dance. She wants to schedule another practice Monday afternoon.” I bit back a sigh. I had a Future Business Leaders of America meeting Monday after school, so that would have to be moved. Maybe Tuesday? No, Tuesday was cheerleading practice, and Wednesday was SGA. Still, when Saylor Stark told you there was going to be an extra Cotillion practice, you went. All the other stuff could wait. “I’m so sick of practice,” Mary Beth groaned, tipping her head back. As she did, her dark red hair fell back from her ears, revealing silver hoops that were way too big. Ugh. “It’s Cotillion . We wear a white dress. We walk down some stairs, we drink some punch and dance with our dads. And then we all pat ourselves on the back and pretend we did it just to raise money for charity, and that it’s not stupid and old-fashioned and totally self-indulgent.” “Mary Beth!” Amanda gasped, while Abigail glanced around like Miss Saylor was going to swoop out of the rafters. Bee’s huge eyes went even bigger, and her mouth opened and closed several times, but no sounds came out. “It is not!” I heard someone practically shriek. Then I realized it was me. I took a deep breath through my nose and did my best to make my voice calm as I continued. “I just mean . . . Mary Beth, Cotillion is a lot more than wearing a white dress and dancing with your dad. It’s tradition . It’s when we make the transition from girls to women. It’s . . . important.” Mary Beth chewed her lip and studied me for a moment. “Okay, maybe.” Then she shrugged and gave a tiny smile. “But we’ll see how you feel when I’m ‘transitioning’ into a heap at the bottom of those stairs.” “You’ll do fine,” I told her, hoping I sounded more convinced than I felt. I’d spent months preparing for my Homecoming coronation, but Cotillion? I’d been getting ready for that since I was four years old and Mom had shown me and my older sister, Leigh-Anne, her Cotillion dress. I still remembered the smooth feel of the silk under my hands. It had been her grandmother’s dress, Mom had told us, and one day, Leigh-Anne and I would wear it, too. Two years ago, Leigh-Anne had, but for my Cotillion, I’d be wearing a dress Mom and I had bought last summer in Mobile. “Babe!” I heard Ryan call from behind me. As I turned to smile at him, I heard one of the girls sigh. Probably Mary Beth. And I had to admit, striding toward us, his auburn hair flopping over his forehead, shoulders back, hands in his pockets, Ryan was completely sigh-worthy. I held my hand out to him as he approached, and he slipped it easily into his own. “Ladies,” Ryan said, nodding at Amanda, Abigail, and Mary Beth. “Let me guess. Y’all are . . . plotting world domination?” Mary Beth giggled, which had the unfortunate effect of making her wobble even more. Abigail had to grab her elbow to keep her from falling over. “No,” Amanda told him, deadly serious. “We’re talking about Cotillion.” “Ah, world domination, Cotillion. Same difference,” Ryan replied with an easy grin, and this time, all three girls giggled, even Amanda. Turning his attention to me, Ryan raised his eyebrows. “So are we just going to stand around and listen to this band butcher Lynyrd Skynyrd or are we going to dance?” “Yeah,” Brandon said, coming up next to Ryan and grabbing Bee around the waist. “Let’s go turn this mother out. ” He pulled her out onto the dance floor, where he immediately flopped on his belly and started doing the worm. I watched Bee dance awkwardly around him and wondered for the millionth time why she wasted her time with that goofball. My own much less goofy boyfriend took my hand and started pulling me toward Bee and Brandon, but I pulled it back and held up the lip gloss. “I’ll be right back!” I shouted over the music, and he nodded before heading for the refreshment table. I glanced over my shoulder as I walked into the gym lobby and was treated to the sight of Brandon and one of the other basketball players doing that weird fish-catching dance move. With each other. Since we’d gotten there so late, most everyone who was coming to the dance was already inside the gym, but there were a few stragglers coming in the main gym lobby doors. Two teachers, Mrs. Delacroix and Mr. Schmidt, were also in the lobby, undoubtedly doing “purse and pocket checks.” Grove Academy was really strict about that sort of thing now. Two years ago, a few kids smuggled in a little bottle of liquor at prom and, later that night, got into a car accident. My sister— I cut that thought off. Not tonight. It was strange to be in the school at night. The only light in the lobby came from a display case full of “participation” trophies with Ryan’s name on them. The Grove was excellent in academics, but famously crappy at sports, even against other tiny schools. I know that sounds like sacrilege in the South, but just like any other expensive private school, Grove Academy was way more invested in SAT scores than any scoreboard. We left the football championships to the giant public school across town, Lee High. I’ve been up at school at night a few times, and it’s always creepy. I guess it’s the quiet. I’m used to the halls being deafening, so the sound of my heels clicking on the linoleum seemed freakishly loud. In fact, they almost echoed, making me feel like there was someone behind me. I hurried out of the lobby and turned the corner into the English hall, so I didn’t see the guy in front of me until it was too late. “Oh!” I exclaimed as we bumped shoulders. “Sorry!” Then I realized who I’d bumped into, and immediately regretted my apologetic tone. If I’d known it was David Stark, I would have tried to hit him harder, or maybe stepped on his foot with the spiky heel of my new shoes for good measure. I did my best to smile at him, though, even as I realized my stomach was jumping all over the place. He must have scared me more than I’d thought. David scowled at me over the rims of his ridiculous hipster glasses—the kind with the thick black rims. I hate those. I mean, it’s the twenty-first century. There are fashionable options for eyewear. “Watch where you’re going,” he said. Then his lips twisted in a smirk. “Or could you not see through all that mascara?” I would’ve loved nothing more than to tell him to kiss my ass, but one of the responsibilities of being a student leader at the Grove is being polite to everyone, even if they are a douchebag who wrote not one, but three incredibly unflattering articles in the school paper about what a terrible job you’re doing as SGA president. And you especially needed to be polite to said douchebag when he happened to be the nephew of Saylor Stark, president of the Pine Grove Junior League; head of the Pine Grove Betterment Society; chairwoman of the Grove Academy School Board; and, most importantly, organizer of Pine Grove’s Annual Cotillion. So I forced myself to smile even bigger at David. “Nope, just in a hurry,” I said. “Are you, uh . . . are you here for the dance?” He snorted. “Um, no. I’d rather slam my testicles in a locker door. I have some work to do for the paper.” I tried to keep my expression blank, but I have one of those faces that shows every single thing that goes through my mind. Apparently this time was no exception, because David laughed. “Don’t worry, Pres, nothing about you this time.” If ever there were a time to confront David about the mean things he’s written about me, this was it. Of course, those articles hadn’t exactly mentioned me by name. I seriously doubt Mrs. Laurent, the newspaper advisor, would let him slam me directly. But they’d basically said that the “current administration” is more concerned with dances and parades than the real issues facing the Grove’s students, and that under the “current administration,” the SGA has gotten all cliquey, leaving out the majority of the student body. To which I say, um, hello? Not my fault if people don’t attempt to get involved in their own school. And as for the “real issues” facing the Grove’s students? The kids who go here all come from super nice households that can afford to send their kids here. We’re not exactly plagued with social problems, you know? Which you’d think David would get. He’d lived in Pine Grove practically his whole life, and not only that, he lived with his Aunt Saylor in one of the nicest houses in town. Or maybe David’s issues had nothing to do with “social injustice” at the Grove and everything to do with the fact that he and I had loathed each other since kindergarten. Heck, even before that. Mom says he’s the only baby I ever bit in daycare. But before I could reply, the music stopped in the gym. I checked my watch and saw that it was a quarter till ten. Crap. David gave another one of those mean laughs. “Go ahead, Harper,” he said, sliding his messenger bag from one hip to the other. I know. A messenger bag. And those glasses. And he was wearing a stupid argyle sweater and Converse high-tops. Practically every other boy at the Grove lived in khakis and button-downs. I wasn’t sure David Stark owned any pants other than jeans that were too small. “Only a few more minutes until your coronation,” he said, running a hand through his sandy blond hair, making it stand up even more than usual. “I’m sure you’d hate to miss everyone’s felicitations .” David had beaten me in the final round of our sixth-grade spelling bee with that word and now, all these years later, he still tried to drop it into conversation whenever he could. Counting to ten in my head, I reminded myself of what Mom always said whenever I complained about David Stark: “His parents died when he was just a little bitty thing. Saylor’s done her best with him, but still, something like that is bound to make anyone act ugly.” Since he was a tragic orphan, I made myself say “Have a nice night” through clenched teeth as I turned to head to the nearest bathroom. He just shrugged and started walking backward down the hall, toward the computer lab. “You might wanna put some lipstick on,” he called after me. “Yeah, thanks,” I muttered, but he was already gone. God, what a jerk , I thought, pushing the bathroom door open. If my shoes had sounded loud in the gym lobby, it was nothing compared to how they sounded in the bathroom. Like the dress, they were a little ridiculous, more for their height than their cost. I’m 5'4", but I was tottering around 5'8" on those bad boys. Looking in the mirror, I saw why Bee had been so horrified by my naked lips. My skin is pale, so without lip gloss, my lips had kind of disappeared into my face. But other than that, I looked good. Great, even. The makeup lady at Dillard’s had done a fabulous job of playing up my big green eyes, easily my best feature, and my dark hair was pulled back from my face, tumbling down my back in soft waves and setting off my high cheekbones. Yeah, I know it’s vain. But being pretty is currency, not just at the Grove, but in life. Sure, I wasn’t staggeringly beautiful like my sister, Leigh-Anne, had been, but— No. Not going there. I unscrewed the tube of Salmon Fantasy, shuddered again at the name, and started applying. It wasn’t as pretty as my Coral Shimmer, but it would do. I had just slathered on the second coat when the bathroom door flew open, banging against the tile wall so loudly that I jumped. And scrawled a line of Salmon Fantasy from the corner of my mouth nearly to my ear. “Oh, dammit!” I cried, stamping my foot. “Brandon, what—” I don’t know why I thought it must be Brandon. Probably because it seemed like the sort of moron thing he’d do, trying to scare me. But it wasn’t Brandon. It was Mr. Hall, one of the school janitors. He stood in the doorway for a second, staring at me like he didn’t know who—or what—I was. “Oh my God, Mr. Hall,” I said, pressing a hand to my chest. “You scared me to death!” He just stared at me with this wild look in his eyes before turning around and slamming the bathroom door shut. And then I heard a sound that made my stomach drop. It was the loud click of a dead bolt being thrown. Mr. Hall, the tubby janitor, had just locked us in the bathroom. Chapter 2 OKAY. Okay, I can handle this , I thought, even as panic started clawing through my chest. “Mr. Hall,” I started, my voice high and shaky. He just waved his hand at me and pressed his ear to the door. I don’t know what he heard, but whatever it was made him turn and sag against the wall. And that’s when I noticed the blood dripping on his shoes. “Mr. Hall!” I cried, running toward him. My heels slid on the slick tile floor, so I kicked them off. I got to Mr. Hall just as he slumped to the ground. His face was pale, and it looked all weird and waxy, like he was a dummy instead of a person. I could see beads of sweat on his forehead and under his nose. His breath was coming out in short gasps, and there was a dark red stain spreading across his expansive belly. There was no doubt in my mind that he was dying. I knelt down next to him, my blood rushing loudly in my ears. “It’s gonna be okay, Mr. Hall, I’ll go get someone, everything is gonna be fine.” But just as I reached for the dead bolt, he reached out and grabbed my ankle, pulling me down so hard that I landed on my butt with a shriek. Mr. Hall was shaking his head frantically. “Don’t,” he gurgled. Then he closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose, like he was trying to calm down. “Don’t,” he said again, and this time, his voice was a little stronger. “Don’t open that door, okay. Just . . . just help me get to my feet.” I looked down at him. Mr. Hall was pretty substantial, and I didn’t think there was any way I was lifting him off that floor. But somehow, by slipping my arms under his and bracing myself against the wall, I got him up and propped against the door of one of the bathroom stalls. Once he was up, I said, “Look, Mr. Hall, I really think I should get help. I don’t even have a cell phone with me, and you”—I looked down at the sticky red circle on his stomach—“you look really hurt, and I think we should call 911, and—” But he wasn’t listening to me. Instead, he opened his shirt. I braced myself for a wound on his stomach, but I wasn’t prepared to see what looked like a bloodstained pillow. With a grunt, Mr. Hall tugged at something on his back, and the pillow slid from his stomach to land soundlessly on the floor. Now I could see the gash, and it was just as bad as I’d thought it would be, but my brain was still reeling from the whole “Mr. Hall isn’t fat, he just wears a fake belly” thing. Why would Mr. Hall pretend to be fat? Was it a disguise? Why would a janitor need a disguise? But before I could ask him any of this, Mr. Hall groaned and slid to the floor again, his eyes fluttering closed. I sank with him, my arm still behind his back. “Mr. Hall!” I cried. When he didn’t respond, I reached out with my free hand and slapped his cheek with enough force to make his head rock to the side. He opened his eyes, but it was like he couldn’t see me. “Mr. Hall, what is going on?” I asked, the acoustics of the bathroom turning my question into an echoing shriek. I was shaking, and suddenly realized how cold I was. I remembered from Anatomy and Physiology that this was what going into shock felt like, and I had to fight against the blackness that was creeping over my eyes. I couldn’t faint. I wouldn’t faint. Mr. Hall turned his head and looked at me, then really looked at me. Blood was still pulsing out of the gash that curved from under his khaki slacks around to his navel, but not as much now. Most of it seemed to be in a big puddle under him. “What . . . what’s . . . your name?” he asked in a series of soft gasps. “Harper,” I answered, tears pooling in my eyes, and bile rushing up my throat. “Harper Price.” He nodded and smiled a little. I’d never really looked at Mr. Hall before. He was younger than I’d thought he was, and his eyes were dark brown. They were beautiful, actually. “Harper Price. You . . . run this place. Kids talk. Protect . . .” Mr. Hall trailed off and his eyes closed. I slapped him again, and his eyes sprang open. He smiled that weird little smile again. “You’re a tough one,” he murmured. “Mr. Hall, please,” I said, shifting to get my arm free. “What happened to you? Why can’t we open the door?” “Look after him, okay?” he said, his eyes looking glazed again. “Make sure he’s . . . he’s safe.” “Who?” I asked, but I wasn’t even sure he was actually talking to me. I’ve heard that when people are dying, their brains fire off all sorts of weird things. He could have been talking to his mom, or his wife, if he had one. Suddenly there was a loud rattle at the door. I gave a thin scream, and Mr. Hall grabbed at the stall door like he was trying to pull himself up. “He’s coming,” Mr. Hall gasped. “Who?” I yelled. I felt like I had stepped into a nightmare. Five minutes ago my main concern had been whether Salmon Fantasy would clash with my pink dress. Now I was cradling a dying man on the bathroom floor while some crazy person pounded on the door. Mr. Hall managed to get himself into a sitting position, and for one second, I thought we might actually be okay. Like, maybe the wound that had soaked through that pillow wasn’t so bad. Or maybe this whole thing was an elaborate prank. But Mr. Hall wasn’t going to be okay. There was a white line all around his lips, which were starting to look blue, and his breaths were getting shallower and shorter. He swung his head to look at me, and there was such sadness in his eyes that the tears finally spilled over my cheeks. “I’m so sorry for this, Harper,” he said, his voice the strongest it had sounded since he’d run into the bathroom. I thought he meant he was sorry for dying and leaving me at the mercy of whatever was on the other side of that door. But then he took a really deep breath, lurched forward, grabbed my face, and covered my lips with his. My hands reached up to pry his fingers from my cheeks, but for a guy who had barely been able to talk a few seconds ago, his grip was surprisingly strong. And it hurt . I was making these muffled shrieks because I was afraid to open my mouth to scream. Then I felt something cold—so cold that it brought even more tears to my eyes—flow into my mouth and down my throat, and I went very still. He wasn’t trying to kiss me; it was like he was blowing something into me, this icy air that made my lungs sting like jogging in January. Tears were streaming down my face, and I let go of his hands, my arms falling to my sides. By now, my chest was burning like I’d been underwater for too long, and that gray fog was hovering around the edge of my vision again. As the gray spread, I thought of my sister, Leigh-Anne, and how hard it was going to be on my parents if I died, too. I don’t know if it was that thought, or the fact that being found dead in the bathroom underneath a janitor was not how I wanted people at the Grove to remember me, but suddenly I felt this surge of strength. The gray disappeared as adrenaline shot through my system, and I wrapped my fingers around Mr. Hall’s wrists and yanked with everything I had. And just like that, he was off me. I took a deep breath. Never had I felt so happy to breathe in slightly stinky bathroom air. For a long time, I just sat there against the stall door, shaking and gasping. I could still hear whatever was on the other side rattling, but it seemed far away for some reason, like it wasn’t even connected to me. I guess it only took about thirty seconds for me to catch my breath, but it felt like forever. I looked down at Mr. Hall. Lying on his back, his eyes staring at nothing, it was pretty clear that he was dead. Just as I was taking that in, the rattling at the door stopped. The burn in my chest had faded to a tingle, and there was this jumping feeling inside my stomach, like I’d swallowed a whole bunch of Pop Rocks. My arms and legs felt heavy, and my head was all spinny. Slowly, I stood up, careful to keep my feet out of the puddle of blood that continued to spread under Mr. Hall. I glanced down at my legs and saw that my panty hose were surprisingly run-free, despite everything that had just happened. What had just happened? I forced myself to look at Mr. Hall again. The gash in his stomach was horrible, and big, and sure, it looked like a wound from some sort of medieval sword or something, but that was impossible, right? He probably just hurt himself on some scary janitor equipment. I mean, the floor waxer didn’t look like it could slice somebody open, but it’s not like I’d ever inspected it for danger. The more I thought about it, the more comforting the idea seemed. It was certainly better than thinking there was a sword-wielding maniac on the other side of the door. It had just been a rogue piece of machinery. A blade or a belt or something had snapped and cut Mr. Hall open, and that had been the rattling at the door. He hadn’t had time to unplug it, and it was probably spinning down the hall right now. I’d get out of here, and I’d go find a teacher and tell him or her, and everything would be fine. I looked at myself in the mirror. My skin was almost as white as Mr. Hall’s, making the Salmon Fantasy look cheap and too bright. “It’s going to be fine,” I told my reflection. “Everything is fine .” I walked to the door, and as I did, I had to step over that weird pillow thing Mr. Hall had strapped to his body. Oh, right. That. Why did Mr. Hall have a fake belly? My brain felt like it was in a blender as I tried to think up a plausible explanation, hopefully one that would tie in with my possessed machinery idea. Okay, Mr. Hall was younger than I’d thought. And cuter. Why would he be wearing a disguise? Was he in the witness protection program? A deadbeat dad hiding out from paying child support? And there was something else. Something weird about him. I looked back at his body, bracing myself against throwing up or fainting, but I didn’t feel anything except that tingle in my chest. It was something about his face, something that had just felt odd when he’d . . . kissed me? Blown on me? Whatever. I crept back to him, still careful about the blood, then I reached down and touched his beard. My dad and granddad both have beards, and neither of theirs felt like this one. Sliding my finger around the edge of his beard, just under his left ear, I saw why. It was a fake. It was a pretty good one, and it was glued on super tight, but it was still a fake. Then I glanced up at his balding head and saw a fine stubble covering the bare half-moon of his scalp. So Mr. Hall hadn’t been fat, or bearded, or balding. “Oh, this is some bullshit ,” I whispered. That’s when I knew I was seriously freaked out. I never curse out loud, not even in private. It’s just not ladylike. There was no theory I could come up with to explain any of that, no matter how CSI: Pine Grove I was trying to be. No, the best thing to do was to get the heck out of the bathroom and find a teacher, or a cop, or an exorcist. I’d take anyone at this point. I hurried to the door before realizing I’d left Bee’s lip gloss in the sink. My brain was still scrambled, and despite the dead body at my feet, all I could think was that Bee loved that ugly stuff, and I had to grab it before it was, like, confiscated for evidence or something. So I ran back to the sink. It’s funny to think about now, because even though that lip gloss had gotten me into this whole mess, that same lip gloss totally saved my life. If I hadn’t gone back for it, I would have been at the door when it exploded into two pieces and slammed into the row of stalls with the force of a small bomb. And if that hadn’t flattened me like a pancake, I still would have been directly in the path of the man who came running in with a long, curved blade—a scimitar, I was pretty sure I remembered from World History II with Dr. DuPont—held out in front of him. So thanks to Bee’s lip gloss, I was standing frozen by the sink when the sword-wielding maniac came in and my life stopped making even the littlest bit of sense. In all the dust from the door flying off, it took the man a minute to realize I was there. He had his back to me as he knelt by Mr. Hall’s body. I watched, still as a statue, as he reached into Mr. Hall’s pockets, but I guess he didn’t find what he was looking for because he stood up really fast and muttered the F-word. I couldn’t hold it against him, though. This did seem like a dire situation. Then he turned around, and I’m sure the look of total confusion on his face was reflected on mine. “Harper?” “ Dr. DuPont? ” I didn’t get much time to wonder why my history teacher had just killed a janitor, even though I had this whole joke forming about how Dr. DuPont must really hate when his trash cans aren’t emptied—you know, to make him see me as a person and not just a potential shish kabob. I learned that in the self-defense class Mom and I went to at the church last spring. But that joke dried right up in my mouth, because Dr. DuPont crossed the bathroom in two strides, and put his sword against my neck. Chapter 3 NOW, this is when it really gets weird. I know, I know, dead janitor in disguise, killer history teacher, how much weirder could it get? Lots. Trust me. When Dr. DuPont put that sword—well, scimitar—on my neck, I didn’t feel scared, like, at all. Instead, I felt that tingle in my chest again, only this time, it was more like this . . . energy. I reached out, almost like my hands didn’t belong to me, and grabbed the hilt of the sword, just above Dr. DuPont’s hands on the handle, and yanked, sliding that lethal blade in the space between my arm and my body. Dr. DuPont was so surprised he didn’t even let go of the sword, which was exactly what I had planned, although where that plan came from, I had no idea. Certainly not from that lame self-defense class, where the only thing I’d learned was how to knee a guy in the groin, and trust me, teenage girls already know how to do that. No, this was a different kind of fighting, one so smooth and powerful that I felt like I was standing outside my body, watching myself pull Dr. DuPont right up to me. I didn’t knee him in the groin, although I didn’t rule that move out. Instead I . . . ugh, this is so embarrassing. I head-butted him. I know, like a soccer hooligan or something. But it worked. He let go of the sword with one hand and reached up to clutch his probably broken nose. I’d kept my hand on the hilt, and I used it to pull him past me and slam him headfirst into the wall. Now I had a clear shot for the door, but for some reason, I didn’t take it. For one thing, all this ninja-style fighting was . . . well, kind of cool. I had no idea how I was doing it, and I wondered if it was another adrenaline thing, like when I was able to push Mr. Hall off me. But it wasn’t just that I was having fun. It was almost like I couldn’t leave; like I had to finish the fight until one of us was dead. See? I told you it got weirder. I stood there, crouched in my pink dress while Dr. DuPont turned around to look at me with an expression I can only call incredulous (that was the word I had beat David Stark with in the fifth -grade spelling bee.) Blood was caked all around the lower half of his face. Panting, he looked down at Mr. Hall’s body, then back at me. He laughed, but it was an ugly, wet sound. “So he passed it on to you,” Dr. DuPont wheezed. Then his bloody lips curved in a nasty smirk. “Well, bless your heart ,” he drawled in a not very nice (if kind of accurate) imitation of my accent. He moved sideways, toward the stalls, the sword still pointed at me. “I really can’t think of a worse choice,” he said, still smiling, “than the bimbo who wrote a paper on the history of shoes for my class.” Okay, that stung. I’d worked hard on that paper. And it hadn’t been on shoes. It had been about how fashion affected politics. And I may like clothes and makeup and shoes, but I am not a bimbo. Dr. DuPont could totally bite me. I almost said that, but then I changed my mind. As crazy as everything had gone, Dr. DuPont might take that as an opening to actually, you know, bite me . “Tell me, Harper, are you going to use your new superpowers to strong-arm some boy into taking you to prom? Or maybe become head cheerleader?” Something in his expression hardened. “Not that you’re going to live that long.” Then he lunged again, sword high, but I was ready for him. I spun around so my back was to him, then dropped so the sword passed right over my head. With my hands on the floor, I kicked out my left heel. “I already am head cheerleader,” I said through clenched teeth as my foot connected with his jaw. Before Dr. DuPont recovered from my kick, I spun in my crouch and used that same leg to knock his legs out from under him. He cracked his head against the sink as he went down, and I figured that was the end of it. I stood up and looked down. There was a ragged tear from the hem of my skirt all the way up to the middle of my thigh. “Oh, shoot ,” I muttered, giving Dr. DuPont’s limp body a dark glare. Then it occurred to me that I should definitely get out of here and find a non-homicidal teacher. Something in me still didn’t want to leave, but I shoved that down. Dr. DuPont had said superpowers , and talked about Mr. Hall “passing something on” to me. That must have been what that weird blowing in my mouth thing had been. But I could figure out exactly what had happened to me later. Right now I needed to get out of here before Dr. DuPont came to. My arms and legs were starting to ache. I’d be black and blue tomorrow, I thought, as I scooted around Dr. DuPont, and I’d probably missed the crowning, thanks to all this craziness. I swear, if— I didn’t get to finish the thought. Instead, there was a sharp pain at the back of my head that brought tears to my eyes and ripped a short scream from my throat. Dr. DuPont had grabbed a big handful of my thick hair. Yanking so hard that I was surprised I wasn’t snatched bald, he used my hair to pull me back and sling me into the sinks. My right elbow hit the edge of the counter and a wave of nausea spilled over me. I was still blinking back stars when Dr. DuPont swung a powerful kick to my stomach. All the air left my lungs, and I crumpled to the ground, gasping and gagging at the same time. My chest was burning again, this time from lack of oxygen. I lay there, staring at Dr. DuPont’s shiny black loafers as he walked over to the corner and picked up the scimitar he’d dropped. I’m going to die here , I thought dimly. I’m going to be stabbed to death by my history teacher with some freaky sword, and no one will ever know what happened to me. And my parents will have two daughters who died at school dances, and my mom’s eyes will get sadder, and Dad’s face will get thinner, and our house will feel even grayer and emptier. Now the pain in my stomach had nothing to do with Dr. DuPont’s kick. I closed my eyes as tears burned. Dr. DuPont was talking, but I couldn’t really hear him. He said something about the wrong place and the wrong time, and then he said this weird word that started with “pal.” Paladin. What was that? He might as well have been speaking Greek. All I could focus on was the burn in my chest and the aching of my midsection. He was right in front of me now. I opened my eyes and saw the sword hanging at his side. The end glittered in the ugly fluorescent light of the bathroom. I turned my head a little so I didn’t have to see him raise the blade. Something pink caught my eye. It was one of my shoes. I remembered taking them off to help Mr. Hall. Apparently, they’d gotten kicked under the sink. Dr. DuPont was still talking, but I was focused on that shiny pink shoe that now looked so silly in the midst of all this death and destruction. I reached out and pulled the shoe to me. Dr. DuPont laughed. “Afraid of dying without the right accessories, Miss Price? Nice to see you’re still a silly bitch, right to the end.” But I didn’t want the shoe because it was pretty, or because it was pink. I rolled onto my back, slowly drawing my knees up. It wasn’t the most ladylike of positions, but I was going to need leverage. I held the shoe against my chest. I ran my thumb over its heel, remembering my desire to stomp on David Stark’s foot in these shoes. It would’ve hurt. I fought to keep a smile off my face as Dr. DuPont raised the sword. In fact, if I had stomped on David’s foot hard enough, the heel would’ve gone right through. It was awfully sharp. If Dr. DuPont hadn’t been a total drama queen and raised the sword with both hands, he might have actually killed me. He certainly wouldn’t have ended up giving me the opening he did. Because while his arms were high over his head, about to bring the sword down, I pushed myself off the floor and into a spin, the high heel clutched in my hands, sharp point out. The sword was still poised in the air when I came to an abrupt stop and sunk the heel into his throat, right under his jaw. I’d learned about the carotid artery in Anatomy and Physiology, which was turning out to be a much more useful class than I’d originally thought, and while I’d definitely been aiming for it, I was still kind of shocked that I managed to hit it. I guess Dr. DuPont was, too, because his eyes got really wide, and the sword clattered to the floor. He stared at me, his lips opening and closing like a fish, my pink shoe stuck in his neck. I guess it would’ve been kind of funny if it hadn’t been, you know, completely gross and horrifying. Dr. DuPont reached up and pulled the heel out of his neck. Blood poured from the hole, pulsing out with his heartbeat. He looked at the shoe for a long time, like he couldn’t figure out what it was. Then he muttered, “Pink.” The shoe fell from his fingers and he dropped back on the floor, his eyes wide and staring. The only sound in the bathroom was my breathing and the steady plink-plink of the dripping sink. Reality took a minute to set in, but when it did, it was bad. I had just killed a teacher. With my shoe. I ran over and picked up that shoe, wincing at the streaks of red on the heel. I grabbed a handful of paper towels and wiped it off, and my breathing got faster and faster. “It’s okay,” I murmured to myself. “It was self-defense. He had a sword.” I scrubbed at the heel, feeling like Lady Macbeth. Self-defense or not, I’d just killed someone. That was bad. That was really bad. I looked in the mirror, and saw that other than flushed cheeks and bright eyes, I looked pretty much the same as I had when I came in the bathroom. Well, except for the line of Salmon Fantasy scrawled across my face. I grabbed a paper towel and began scrubbing at my mouth. Even my hair wasn’t that messed up. I should tell Ms. Brenda that the next time I go in , I thought automatically. Then it occurred to me that there was no way to tell my hairdresser that her ’dos hold up even when you’re kicking the crap out of sword-wielding teachers. After I was done getting the blood off my shoe and ugly lipstick off my face, I tossed the paper towel in the trash and looked around. Mr. Hall’s body was against the stalls, and Dr. DuPont was lying about three feet away. There were big cracks in the tile from where I’d slammed Dr. DuPont’s head into the wall, and the bathroom door lay in pieces on the floor, surrounded by a fine layer of grit and more broken tiles. Without really thinking, I slid my shoe back on and hobbled over to the trash can, where the second high heel lay on its side. I guess this is the part where I should have started screaming and/or vomiting, but I just felt . . . numb. Certainly not as horrified as someone who just watched two men die (and one by her own hand. Well, her own shoe) should feel. That weird feeling, like adrenaline times a thousand, was still flowing over me. That was probably what was keeping the nervous breakdown at bay. As I stepped over the fallen door and out of the bathroom, I wondered why no one had come looking for me yet. I mean, I must have been in there for at least half an hour. Then I glanced at my watch and saw that only eleven minutes had passed since I’d bumped into David Stark.

Editorial Reviews

“As surprising as it is delicious.”—BCCB, starred review 
“Fun with a twist of supernatural and Southern charm.” —VOYA

“The romance, coming-of-age aspects, and a well-drawn heroine with a crackling wit will lure in readers.” —Booklist