Broken Beautiful Hearts by Kami Garcia

  I curl my fingers around the edge of the bleacher. Owen takes his hand out of his pocket and casually places it next to mine. I love the way it feels when he touches my cheek or his fingers brush mine.

  Secretly, I’d love to hold hands with him whenever I want.

  The girls supporting Grace toss her in the air. I hold my breath and tighten my grip on the bleacher and Owen slides his fingers between mine.

  Grace does a flip and lands perfectly.

  The girls under Grace toss her into the air again, higher this time.

  I squeeze Owen’s fingers between mine, and he rubs his thumb back and forth across the side of my hand.

  Grace does another flip and then a half twist. The girls form a net with their arms and catch her.

  I exhale, but my heart rate doesn’t return to normal. I’m not sure it’s possible with Owen holding my hand.

  The cheerleaders break down the pyramid in reverse order, beginning with Grace. As each tier disassembles, the girls from that tier finish with stunts. When the girls at the bottom do handsprings across the field, the crowd applauds.

  Owen slides his hand off mine so we can clap, too.

  “I don’t know why April is the team captain,” I say. “The whole routine builds up to the pyramid and Grace’s big finish. Without her, they’d just be a bunch of girls doing cool flips and back handsprings.”

  “True,” Owen agrees.

  “That’s why the flier is so important,” Tucker explains.

  If Grace has a key position on the squad, why is she worried about April leaving her out of their routines?

  “What if Grace was sick or something? Could one of the other girls fill in?” I ask.

  Tucker steps on the end of the skateboard at his feet and catches the top with his hand. “Not unless there’s another flier on the squad. Bigger schools usually have at least two. Black Water had two fliers last year, but the other girl graduated.”

  “So without Grace, the squad would be screwed?”

  Tucker nods. “Pretty much. And they’ve won the state finals two years in a row. The group stunt is a big part of that.”

  Grace must know the importance of her position. Why does she put up with April’s crap?

  “Do you have sisters?” I ask Tucker.

  He gives me a weird look as he passes his board back and forth from one hand to the other. “No. Why?”

  I try not to smile. “You know a lot about this stuff for a guy who isn’t on the cheer squad and doesn’t have any sisters—or a crush on a cheerleader.”

  Tucker stifles a smile. “Okay, maybe a little one.”

  “Another takedown by Cameron Carter!” the announcer shouts through the loudspeaker.

  On the field, Cam springs to his feet, freeing the player pinned beneath him. Christian and Titan rush over and take turns shoving Cameron, grabbing the front of his helmet, and shouting at him—universal signs of approval in the language of football. I’m not interested in the sport, but watching my cousins play is impressive.

  “I wonder what it’s like to be that big.” Tucker steps on the end of his skateboard again. When the front flips up he reverses the sequence, doing it over and over, the way some people pace or twirl their hair.

  “Lots of girls don’t like big, overdeveloped guys,” I tell him. “They usually spend more time in the gym than they do with their girlfriends.”

  “Is that so?” Owen asks. He’s almost the same size as the Twins.

  “That’s what I’ve heard.”

  Tucker grins and steps on the board again. “You’re coming to the party after the game, right?”

  Owen waits for my answer.

  “Whose barn are we going to this time?” I ask.

  “This is way cooler,” Tucker explains. “It’s at an abandoned grain mill outside of town. It was shut down two years ago when the new grain processing plant opened in Black Water. A mill isn’t really good for anything else, so the place has been empty since then. It’s the kind of place urban explorers are always trying to find. Half wrecked and full of rusty machinery.”

  “And people throw parties there?” In DC, the police would be all over a spot like that, and the party would last five minutes. “Won’t someone hear the noise and call the cops?”

  “Nobody ever goes back there,” Owen says. “One side of the building is condemned.”

  “Why didn’t you say so? That makes it so much more appealing.”

  Owen leans over and brings his mouth so close to my ear that his breath tickles my neck. “I can think of a way to make it even more appealing. Come with us.”

  He must know what he’s doing to me.

  The fact that Owen wants me to go makes me happy and scares me at the same time. I shove him away playfully. “I’ll think about it.”

  Tucker looks at Owen. “That’s girl code for yes.”


  Urban Explorers

  BATTERY-OPERATED LANTERNS ARE scattered throughout the main section of the huge factory. Metal skeletons of abandoned machinery create a dangerous maze, and the place smells like a cross between wet newspaper and a petting zoo.

  “It stinks in here.” I scrunch up my nose.

  The Twins sniff the air like bloodhounds.

  “Smells okay to me,” Christian says.

  Cam shrugs. “Me too.”

  “It’s rot, from the residue in the machines,” Grace explains.

  “Oh, that smell. That’s normal.” Christian surveys the room. “Let’s find the keg.”

  Grace follows him, with Cam glued to her side.

  Owen and I hang back with Tucker, who is watching the door intently.

  “Are you waiting for someone?” I ask.

  Tucker looks behind him, as if he thinks I’m talking to someone else. “Me? No.”

  Owen tries not to laugh and ushers us in the direction where Grace and the Twins went.

  “So what do you think?” Tucker asks. “It’s cool, right?”

  “Yeah. But I see why it’s condemned.” We pass what looks like a rusted printing press. “I should’ve gotten a tetanus shot.”

  “The condemned section is on the other side.” Tucker drops his skateboard and lets it roll ahead of him before he hops on. “It’s not that bad. Just be careful where you walk.”

  The mill has a creepy steampunk vibe. I’ve never been inside any kind of factory before. I don’t put a lot of thought into how things are made, unless it’s soccer gear.

  The truth? I thought mills were obsolete in general. In DC and Maryland, factories are clustered together in industrial parks. People don’t build them in the middle of the woods.

  “Why would someone leave all this machinery behind?” I ask. “Isn’t it worth something?”

  “Most of this equipment is outdated, like this place,” Owen says. “It was probably cheaper to leave it here. A country singer from Nashville was going to buy the place and turn it into a bed and breakfast. Then the northeast section of the building collapsed during a big storm and the singer backed out.”

  I hear laughter and see more lanterns glowing in the next section of the building.

  “Tucker.” Owen waves him over and Tucker hops off the board. “Stick with us or the Twins. And stay away from the condemned side. Okay?” He’s treating Tucker like his kid brother.

  “Got it.”

  Owen touches my waist as we walk through a dimmer section of the mill.

  Grace and the Twins are just ahead of us, and they stop when they hear Tucker’s skateboard.

  “Come on,” Christian calls from where he’s standing near a huge machine. “Everyone is back here playing Bullshit.”

  “No one can come up with a new drinking game?” Grace asks.

  Christian shrugs. “You know what they say: Don’t fix what isn’t broken.”

  Cam watches Grace and his brother without saying a word. It’s not like him, but he’s been preoccupied since we left the game, tracking Grace’s and Christian’s every move.
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  On the other side of the rusty machine, people are sitting on crates around a makeshift table, playing cards. Titan is pouring beers from the keg behind him. April is perched on Dylan’s knee, nuzzling his neck and whispering in his ear, and Madison is hanging out by the keg, flirting with another basketball player.

  The game has already started.

  Tucker rolls in on his skateboard and Titan looks up from his cards. He flashes me a crooked smile that would pass for sexy if I didn’t already know that he was full of himself. He turns his attention back to the game and calls out, “Bullshit.”

  “Your funeral.” Dylan picks up some cards from the discard pile and flips them over so they’re face up. “Like I said, two eights.”

  “You know what that means!” someone shouts.

  “No excuses and no do-overs,” a girl teases.

  “When have I ever asked for a do-over?” Titan hops off the crate.

  “Where is he going?” I ask Grace.

  “He has to go down to the condemned section of the basement and bring something back up with him to prove he didn’t chicken out.”

  “But that part of the building collapsed.” My stomach churns. I don’t like it in here. It feels too cramped.

  “I know. It’s stupid,” she says. “But people never get sick of playing it.”

  “Keep my seat warm,” Titan says, grabbing a can of beer. He jogs to the far corner of the room and ducks through an open doorway.

  He went down there.

  I try not to think about it, but I can’t stop watching the door and imagining this place falling down around us.

  After nine minutes, Titan still hasn’t returned. I seem to be the only person worried about him getting crushed if the building collapses. I can’t stand the guy, but I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.

  A figure bursts through the basement door.

  Thank god.

  Titan holds up a long pipe over his head. “I’ve returned! Don’t try to rush me all at once, ladies.”

  “How do we know that’s really from the basement?” Dylan asks. “You could’ve found it on the stairs.”

  Titan’s lips form a hard line. “Are you saying I’m lying?”

  Dylan doesn’t respond right away. He’s either stupid or looking for a beatdown. “It’s part of the game. You’ve gotta have proof.”

  Titan makes a sweeping motion from one end of the room to the other with his hand. “You see any other pipes lying around here, genius?”

  He’s right.

  “It’s dark,” another guy says. “Who knows?”

  One of the cheerleaders struts over to Titan. “Don’t get worked up, y’all. I’ll settle this.” She examines the pipe like a museum curator and says, “It looks legit,” without providing any explanation.

  Dylan seems satisfied. I hope he realizes that cheerleader just saved his ass.

  April is standing behind Dylan with her arms crossed, and she looks annoyed. But she’s not paying attention to the game—and, for once, she isn’t staring at me. Her attention is focused on Christian and Grace, who are whispering and laughing a few feet away from me.

  Christian leans against the wall, looking down at Grace, who is at least a foot shorter than him. Truthfully, they just look like they’re talking. They’re not hanging all over each other. But I doubt Cameron or April see it that way.

  Cam is sitting on a crate at the makeshift table where everyone is playing Bullshit, and he has an unobstructed view of Christian and Grace. He slams a beer, crumples the plastic cup in his hand, and tosses it onto the floor.

  “Your cousin looks pissed,” Owen says.

  “I know.”

  Cam motions for one of his teammates to hand him another beer, and he slams that one, too.

  “I’m gonna grab a beer,” Owen says. “Can I get you one?”

  “No thanks.” I’m watching people play a drinking game that involves scavenging crap in a condemned building—there’s no way I’m drinking tonight.

  “I’ll be back.” He smiles at me, then heads for the keg.

  I’m so focused on Cam that I don’t notice when Owen sits down on a crate around the table until he calls out to my cousin. “Cameron, are you gonna play with us or what?”

  Cam tears his eyes away from his brother and refocuses on the game.

  “What the hell is Owen doing?” It was rhetorical, but Tucker answers me anyway.

  “He’s trying to keep your cousin from killing someone.” Tucker flips the front of his board back and forth.

  But what if he loses and he has to go into the basement? Did he think about that?

  It’s probably filthy and dusty—the worst possible conditions for someone with asthma. Not to mention the fact that it could collapse at any second.

  Christian puts his hand on the wall and shifts position so he’s standing in front of Grace and her back is against the wall. He has her boxed in with his arms, and it almost looks as if he’s leaning in to kiss her. But I’m standing off to the side, and from my vantage point, I realize he’s just whispering in her ear.

  Unfortunately, Cameron and April don’t have the same angle. Cam stares at them, wide-eyed. Then his face falls, and he pounds another beer. If April wasn’t standing at the table, I’d just go over there and tell Cam that it’s not how it looks.

  The conversation stirs around the card game.

  “Bullshit,” Titan calls out. “Let’s see those cards, Owen.”

  I hold my breath. Owen flips over his cards from the top of the discard pile. “Three sixes.”

  Thank god.

  Titan looks annoyed. Now that Owen is playing he’s taking the game more seriously.

  “Titan already went down to the basement once,” says a perky cheerleader.

  Owen points at the beer in front of Titan. “Then start drinking.”

  “Drink!” everyone shouts while Titan chugs it.

  Two girls wander over from behind the tanks. I’ve never seen them before, which doesn’t mean much. But they look older, closer to college age than high school. They’re checking out the guys. I’m relieved when they look past Owen and focus on Cameron instead.

  “Do you know those girls?” I ask Tucker.

  “Nope. They’re probably from West Valley, or they graduated from there. It’s a lot bigger than our school.”

  The girls whisper and do a double take when they see Christian. With all the giggling they’re doing, you’d think they had never seen a set of twins before.

  Christian still has one arm up against the wall, but he moved to the side, giving me—and the girls—a clear view of his profile. The two girls stroll in Christian’s direction. He stops talking midsentence and looks over at them. The tall redhead wags her fingers at him in a sexy wave. He tips his chin at her in acknowledgment and smiles.

  Grace’s shoulders sag as she watches the exchange. She turns her back on Christian and walks away. But he catches her arm.

  The redhead and her friend snicker at Grace’s reaction, which is not okay with me. I walk toward them, and just before I pass by, I veer to the left as if I’m going to plow right into them. It startles them both, and the redhead yelps.

  “Oh, sorry. I didn’t see you,” I say in a sickeningly sweet tone.

  The girls back off, but they linger.

  “Come on, Grace. Don’t be mad,” I hear Christian say. He reaches for Grace’s arm, but she snatches it away.

  “If you’re going to flirt with other girls, the least you could do is wait until I’m not standing right in front of you. But that would require you to notice me in the first place.”

  Christian frowns and scratches the back of his head. “What are you talking about? I always notice you.”

  She laughs. “You pay attention to me when you’re in between girlfriends, Christian. Or when there’s no one else around for you to flirt with. I’m tired of being your backup.”

  “You’re not.” Christian looks completely baffled. “I don’t
understand where this is coming from.”

  “That’s the problem. If you paid any attention, you’d know. I’m tired of playing stand-in until you get back together with April or you find a new girlfriend.” Grace storms away and walks right past me.

  April smirks. “Trouble in paradise?”

  Grace stops walking and turns around to face her nemesis. “Do you ever get tired of being such a bitch?”

  Nobody in the room moves.

  I’m not even sure anyone breathes.

  Everyone is in a state of shock—including April. It takes her a moment to recover. Then she turns into a pit viper. “I don’t know, Grace. Do you ever get tired of chasing a guy who has zero interest in you? I mean, if Christian was going to ask you out don’t you think he would’ve done it by now?”

  Christian bristles. “Oh, hell no.”

  He starts toward Grace, but I step in front of him and block his path. “Don’t.”

  “Good luck at the state championships without a flier,” Grace tells April as she walks away.

  “Grace, wait,” Christian calls after her.

  I step in front of him and block his path so he can’t follow her. “Leave her alone. She needs some space.”

  Christian scrubs his hands over his face. “I don’t understand what the hell just happened. Why is she mad at me?”

  “Are you serious right now?”

  “Yeah. Why?” He’s clueless.

  “Maybe you should have listened to what she said.”

  I don’t notice Cameron until he’s only a few feet away.

  “What did you do to Grace?” Cam shoves Christian so hard that he staggers.

  Christian regains his balance and gets in his brother’s face. “What’s your problem? Are you trying to get your ass kicked?”

  Cam laughs. “I don’t know. Do you have someone to help you?”

  The Twins shove each other back and forth.

  Owen drops his cards and jumps over a crate to get to them before they kill each other. Titan and the other guys on the football team rush over just as Cameron throws a punch. Owen catches his arm, and the Twins go ballistic.

  “You think you can take me?” Christian shouts.

  “Any day of the week, and twice on Sunday,” Cam says.

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