Sunday, 7 May 2017

Chapter 1: OR THE GIRL DIES by Rachel Rust #YALit #Thriller #FreeRead

Enjoy this preview of OR THE GIRL DIES by Rachel Rust and don't miss the contest at the end of this post!

© 2017 by Rachel Rust. All rights reserved.

Chapter One

Ten days until graduation. That’s how long I had to survive.
There was no big trick to survival. Breathe in. Breathe out. Don’t get hit by a bus. You know, the basics. Still, it seemed a feat because with each tick of the second hand, high school sucked more and more. Lectures seemed pointless. Assignments taught me nothing. Cafeteria food grew more disgusting—if that was even possible.
At eighteen, I was ready for something bigger and better than high school, but ten days before graduation, my optimism for the future took a big crap. It happened in Mr. Kellen’s government class—the last class period of the day where the clock moved slower than anywhere else in Kennedy High.
Nothing exciting ever happened within the confines of that cement-block classroom.
Until that day.
But exciting wasn’t the right word. It was horrible. Panic-inducing. Vomit-churning. Because with only ten more days left of our high school career, Mr. Kellen decided the best way to reward—or maybe punish—his senior students was to pair us up for a final project. And I hated being paired up for school assignments.
Hated. It. So. Much.
I preferred hiding in my own academic bubble, earning grades based solely on my own efforts. Partner projects were like an inescapable blind date. Like the time in tenth grade where my partner had picked his nose for two straight hours as we studied about Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. I had spent those two hours with my notebook-turned-shield angled just the right way to keep me protected from flying mucus.
That had been the worst study date ever.
My mind flicked away memories of Booger Boy as Mr. Kellen stood in front of the class, dumping small pieces of paper into an upturned ball cap. Each white strip contained the name of one student in the class.
Next to me, a body shifted in its seat—but it wasn’t just any body. It was Brody Zane, the boy with the best body in school. I scanned him head to toe. His light blue eyes and shaggy sandy-colored hair had been keeping my eyes entertained since ninth grade. If only I had the guts to talk to him, like a normal person. Not that I considered myself abnormal, but in the presence of a cute-face-and-penis combo, my otherwise commanding grip of the English language evaporated. Let’s just say the books in my bedroom saw far more action than my mattress.
Mr. Kellen cleared his throat, regaining the class’s drifting attention. He plunged a hand into the hat of names. Pulling one slip of paper at a time, he began pairing us off into random duos, irrespective of high school social statuses. The pairings produced a few groans and a couple of high-fives. And one high-pitched squeal—my best friend Sophia, after being paired up with her boyfriend, Kyle Fitzpatrick. Kyle didn’t squeal back, but he did give her a curl of his lip while running his hands over his white-blond hair. In response, Sophia twirled her tight black curls around an index finger. A sure come-hither sign if I ever saw one.
My eyes twitched back over to Brody. I wondered what it would be like to hear my name paired with his, even if only for a class assignment. Natalie Mancini and Brody Zane. Brody and Natalie. Natalie and Brody.
“Natalie and…” Mr. Kellen said.
My heart thumped. I sat forward in my chair. My nails picked like crazy as he picked the next slip of paper. Brody. Brody. Brody. Say Brody.
My jaw fell open. I laughed inside. Oops. No, I laughed out loud. The eyes on me confirmed this.
“Is there a problem, Miss Mancini?” Mr. Kellen asked.
I shook my head. “Not at all.”
Hell yes there was a problem. Brody smiled at me and I nearly melted—I nearly raised my hand and demanded Mr. Kellen re-draw a name for me. I was his most devoted, hard-working student. I should’ve had a say in who I had to work with. And I wanted to work with Brody, dammit.
But Victor Greer? I couldn’t work with Victor Greer. I was supposed to glide through the final ten days of high school with ease, not be tripped up by some idiot classmate for a waste-of-time assignment.
Across the room, Victor—with his unwashed dark brown hair—didn’t seem to mind being paired with me, because he was asleep. Head down on crossed arms. He didn’t care because he probably hadn’t heard our names together. He didn’t care because, from everything I had heard about Victor, he didn’t care about anything other than his little baggies of pills and stacks of money.
My attention was ripped away from Victor at the sound of Brody’s name being paired with another girl. Jenna DeBoer. The worst of the worst—a cheerleader with way bigger boobs than me. Her strawberry-blonde hair had the perfect curl right at the end, always bouncing—along with her boobs—as she sashayed down the school hallways.
My boobs hardly bounced. My near-black hair didn’t reflect the light and didn’t curl in any of the right places. It didn’t curl at all. Flat. Like my chest. All the Italian women in movies had big, voluptuous hair and curves. That gene had skipped me.
I stared at Brody again and he glanced over, as if sensing my desperation. As soon as our eyes connected, I looked away. Over his shoulder sat the image of my despair—Victor, still asleep.
Victor, my new hurdle—a speed bump between me and finishing the class. Between me and graduation, not to mention freedom and college—Columbia University to be exact. I had a full academic scholarship just waiting to whisk me away to New York in the fall. I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of Rapid City. A dull town where nothing interesting ever happened.
My perfect GPA was holding strong, but according to the syllabus, this final project was going to account for one-half of our government grade. If I blew it, I’d get a C for the class.
Natalie Mancini with a C? No way. That’d be like, Goodbye GPA. Goodbye Columbia. And definitely goodbye happy relationship with my dad, a Columbia grad himself—a Columbia grad-turned-surgeon who had a house too large for our small family and three divorces under his belt. But his toothy grin and jet black hair sprinkled with gray gave the air of a man happy with his lot in life. A man who wanted—correction: needed—to see the Mancini greatness continue with at least one of his kids.
And if I was a basket, all my dad’s eggs were in it. I had a twin brother, Josh, but he wasn’t Columbia material. He hadn’t made up his mind about college yet. Mostly, he liked to smoke pot, sneak girls in and out of his bedroom, and drive aimlessly in his baby—a purple ’70 Barracuda. Ugliest car I had ever seen.
The only good part about being Josh’s sister was that he had hot friends—including Brody Zane. Although whenever Brody was at our house, I hid in my room, pacing and cursing my spinelessness.
Mr. Kellen finished pairing up the rest of the class and then explained the project—each pairing was assigned a specific decade. Victor and I were given the 1980s. We were to create a research paper on any relevant political and social issues of that time. This would include interviewing people who had been alive to see these issues firsthand.
My spirits lifted. I could interview people. I could write a paper—with or without Victor. Preferably without. I didn’t mind him riding my coattails and getting a decent grade based off my hard work, so long as I got an A.
“Each person in each group,” Mr. Kellen explained, “will be responsible for interviewing someone from their own lives. That way it’s truly a partner project. I do not want to see one person doing the work for two. Everyone must participate equally.”
“Part of this assignment is learning to work as a team. If I find out only one person in each pairing is doing all the work, you will both get zeroes.”
Double crap.
“It’s due next Thursday,” Mr. Kellen shouted over the sound of the bell that ended the school day. “So get started immediately.”
Commotion arose around me as everyone got up to leave the room. I stood and slung my backpack over my shoulder. Victor’s desk was empty. He had moved quickly for a lethargic junkie. Unless he hadn’t been asleep. Maybe he had heard our names paired together. Did he even know who I was? It’s not like I had much name recognition—except as Josh’s sister, which could be good or bad. I wasn’t involved in any well-known school activities, just the Library Council. And one best-to-be-forgotten semester of drama club in eleventh grade. A thespian I was not.
My participation in school activities had dwindled throughout twelfth grade. Most of my senior year had been spent buckling down extra hard to maintain my GPA and Columbia scholarship. Columbia stressed the importance of community service and volunteerism, so thanks to my dad’s insistence that I not piss off his alma mater, I had been spending my weekends walking dogs at the local shelter and entertaining old people at a nursing home near our house. Yahtzee and dog shit had become my life.
I shuffled to my locker, located right outside Mr. Kellen’s classroom door. Before I could even finish my combination, my brother was at my side.
“Tell Dad I’m gonna be at work tonight,” Josh said, running a hand through his dark hair.
“Where are you really going to be?”
His only answer was a half-grin. Intellectually, I knew my brother was handsome—shaggy black-brown hair and the same hazel eyes I had been complimented on in the past. It didn’t surprise me there was no shortage of girls on our doorstep. But most days I wanted to punch him in his straight Mancini nose for being so frustratingly immature. It was hard to believe we had shared a womb.
I should’ve eaten him while I had the chance.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll lie for you, but I’m not getting up in the middle of the night to let you in if Dad locks you out. You can sleep in your car.”
“Deal.” He turned and flung an arm over a sophomore girl who giggled as they walked away.
I thought about literally kicking him in the ass as he walked away, knowing damn well our father would never lock him out. Josh and I had two very different bars set for us. There was an unspoken camaraderie between Josh and our dad, and a whole lot of no-questions-asked—boys will be boys, and all that nonsense. For whatever reason, my father believed ovaries required more parental hovering.
And he actually had the nerve to wonder why I hadn’t applied to any colleges within a thousand miles.
I gathered my homework for the evening, then slammed my locker shut. The hallway commotion had died down and there were only a few people left—including Brody, standing at his locker down the hall.
“It sucks,” he said as I walked by.
“What sucks?” I asked in barely a whisper, trying to ignore the wafting scent of him. Cologne. Or some kind of body spray. Whatever it was, it smelled like everything my hormones wanted.
“You getting paired with Victor Greer.”
I answered with a shrug. My eyes scanned Brody—fitted long-sleeve t-shirt, dark jeans, and expensive brown leather shoes. Model perfection.
“Well,” he said with a slight smile, “if you need to vent, just let me know. We’ll get together and swap horrible partner tales.”
My head went woozy and I muttered something like, “okay,” although I couldn’t be sure. It was all a daze. Had Brody Zane actually kind of asked me out? In a roundabout sort of way? I didn’t know. And in this state of love-struck confusion, I brilliantly walked away.
I rushed down the stairs and out the front doors of the school. The early May temps were on the cool side of normal and the air smelled of ponderosa pines. Most days I couldn’t smell them, as if my olfactory system had built up a ponderosa tolerance. But every once in a while, perhaps with the right temperature or direction of the wind, the pine trees of the hills surrounding Rapid City infiltrated my nose and it was like smelling them for the first time.
I fumbled with my car keys in the side pocket of my backpack. Unlike Josh’s ugly, temperamental muscle car, when our dad had given us a car allowance two years ago on our sixteenth birthday, I chose a sensible Honda Accord. Black, four-door. It was perfect and didn’t wake the neighbors or leave dark spots of whatever on the driveway.
Inside the pocket of my backpack, my fingers finally managed to hook around one of the key rings. I yanked on it only to have my keys fly up and through the air, then land with a clank on the parking lot asphalt. A hand grabbed them off the ground before I could even bend down.
Victor Greer stood in front of me, holding out my keys, the multi-colored metals dangling in the air between us. I snatched them and opened my mouth to say thank you, but no sound came out. I remained idle, unsure if I should say anything about our assignment. I had never spoken a word to Victor before. He was a head taller than my five-foot-five frame with tan skin and dark brown hair that was always a mess. A healthy protrusion of pecs and biceps pressed out from under his worn t-shirt. But it was his reputation, not his stature, that silenced me.
Victor had transferred to Kennedy High at the beginning of the school year. He didn’t have any friends, yet he was always busy. Preoccupied. If he wasn’t asleep in class, he was on his phone. Texting, sometimes calling. Someone.
There were a ton of rumors about Victor. People said he had been held back a grade, maybe even two. He had Mexican cartel ties. He was a Russian spy. He had been infused with gamma rays and turned green when angry. Everyone in school had their favorite myth.
But there was one rumor that stuck and stuck hard—Victor Greer was a dealer. And not the car kind. Sophia said he had a brother who was in prison for federal drug distribution charges. And Josh once told me that Victor had taken up his brother’s helm at doing whatever it was that drug dealers do. Sell drugs and stuff, I assumed.
Victor took a deep drag off his cigarette and looked past me, over my shoulder. Black lashes fringed his dark brown eyes. On the inside of his wrist was a black tattoo—22. Nothing else, just the number 22. Maybe it was the number of people he had killed. Or the number of cats he had at home.
Smoke exhaled from his nose and Marlboro replaced ponderosa in my lungs. He gave me one last glance before turning to the driver’s door to his black Trans Am. It was smaller than Josh’s car, but just as loud when started up. Victor shut the door and drove away.
“This is so not gonna be fun,” I muttered as the impending dread of having to work with that guy settled into my stomach like a rock. The Trans Am turned out of the parking lot and disappeared into the chaos of the street. My phone buzzed. “Hello?”
“Dude, does Mr. Kellen hate you or something?” Sophia asked.
“He totally sucks. Can you believe the partner I got stuck with?” I ended the call as Sophia’s footsteps approached from behind.
She stepped up beside me. “Whatshisname is so weird.”
“Yeah, Victor. Whatever. You know I heard this is like the sixth high school he’s attended. Keeps getting expelled or something.”
Before I could jump aboard the anti-Victor train, arms wrapped around Sophia’s neck and yanked her back. Kyle appeared, kissing at her cheek, making her giggle. They had been dating for nearly six months, but I barely knew Kyle because he rarely talked to me. In fact, the only thing I really knew about him was that he drove a Lexus and wore expensive clothing brands I didn’t recognize.
“Stop,” Sophia said, pushing his face away.
Kyle stopped, but only because his phone buzzed. He answered with a barely audible grunt, then stared at his feet while listening to the other side of the conversation. “All right. I’ll text you when I get there.” After ending the call, he gave Sophia a limp smile. “I gotta go.”
“Where?” she asked.
“Got stuff to do.”
“Like what?”
Walking away backwards, he winked at her and didn’t answer. His white Lexus was parked a few cars down. He drove away with little regard for the lives of a flock of freshman girls at the end of the aisle.
“I think he’s getting bored with me,” Sophia said.
“Why do you think that?”
She shrugged. “He’s always finding reasons to leave to go do other stuff.”
I adjusted my bag on my shoulder, wondering if stuff had a name.
Sophia sighed. “Let’s go to The Platter for cheesecake and eat away our problems.”
My stomach churned at the thought. Not because I was hungry, but because The Platter was a popular bakery and coffee shop owned by Brody Zane’s family. Sometimes I hesitated at the thought of going there, fearful of running into him and having to think of words to say without sounding like an unsocial freak. But given my new impossible mission of working with Victor Greer, Your-Unfriendly-Neighborhood-Drug-Dealer, the existence of Brody Zane didn’t seem quite so scary anymore.
“I could eat cheesecake,” I said with a nod. “In fact, after what happened in Mr. Kellen’s class, I think I’ll eat an entire cheesecake.”
Sophia laughed. “It’s only one assignment, what’s the worst that could really happen?”
My jaw clenched. The worst that could happen? Was she serious? My mind loved a good old-fashioned anxiety attack and her words were a velvety invitation. Just as soon as my mouth opened, a string of neurotic syllables stumbled out. “Well, let’s see, Victor could be every bit as horrible as he seems, mess everything up, causing me to get an F, dragging down my entire GPA, to which Columbia says ‘see ya,’ and then it’ll be too late to go to a state school and in twenty years I’ll end up as an assistant manager at the Ice Cream Hut at the mall, and die a lonely, miserable person.” I hit the button to unlock my car. “Victor might as well just kill me now.”
Sophia pursed her lips and shrugged, as though her stomach said that working at the Ice Cream Hut didn’t seem like such a bad gig in that moment.
I yanked my car door open and sat down with an audible huff. She climbed into the passenger seat next to me, laughing. I glared at her.

She rolled her eyes. “It’s only a school assignment. You’ll survive.”

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About the author:
Rachel Rust is the author of young adult books. In both reading and writing, she loves all things mysterious, romantic, and thrilling. If it's a whodunit, she's all about it...especially if it ends with a kiss.

When not making up stories, she can usually be found with her husband, two daughters, and their hyper chug (chihuahua/pug).

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