Excerpt From Just Call Me Ninja

Just Call Me Ninja Cover

Just Call Me Ninja

Chapter 1

Callista would rather be covered in Cheez Whiz and fed to a rabid, hairless rat.

In fact, anything would be preferable to the awkward scrape of desks around her as the other students scooted a few inches to the left or right to show their newly formed alliances.

Or groups for the history project. Same difference.

She kept her eyes on the lined notebook paper in front of her. And her desk firmly stationary. She didn’t do group projects.

If that was going to tank her History grade, it really didn’t matter. She wasn’t going to be at Connersville High School long enough to get a final grade. Her family never stayed in one place very long—her mom was always moving them around. Hopefully, she’d be out of the school before she even had to turn the paper in, so the teacher would be none the wiser.

Something poked her in the shoulder.

She ignored it, but it poked her again.

“Hey, Eastern Bloc. You want to work together?”

“What did you just call me?” Callista glared at the boy holding the mechanical pencil that had jabbed her in the shoulder. She wasn’t sure of his name. Something short with a T. Tim? Tom? But her knowing the first letter of his name didn’t grant him poking rights.

His cheeks flushed, obscuring the freckles that covered his face. “I didn’t mean anything by it. Some of the kids were talking about you this morning. You’re from Russia or something, right?” He pointed to the flag patch on her backpack.

Charming, a nickname. Right on schedule. Day twenty-nine. The day she went from being the new girl to just being a freak.

She didn’t bother to clear up the fact that her father was Kyivstani, not Russian, and that she’d never been there. Well, unless you counted her conception, but that was a moment she preferred not to think about.

Tim/Tom clicked his pencil a few times. “Sorry, I thought that’s why you never talk. The whole language-barrier thing.”

No, he’d never heard her talk because she didn’t have anything to say to anyone here.

Tim/Tom fiddled with the strings on his hoodie. “Well, we’re the only two not in a group, so—”

She tried to be as gentle as she could. She even forced an apologetic smile. “Sorry, I’m moving in couple days.”

The corners of his mouth drooped, and he returned to clicking his pencil. “Sure. No biggie.” He shifted toward the students on his other side.

Callista glanced at the clock. One minute until the bell. She closed her notebook with great precision.

She would not pay attention to the fact that Tim/Tom was scooting closer to the group of girls who applied fruity lotion in class and wrote with purple gel pens. The ones who sat in the back so they could text each other under the desk with lots of LOLs and smiley faces.

The ones who would crush Tim/Tom for daring to suggest he could be in their group. She’d seen one of the girls, Sol Delgada, rip a freshman girl to pieces for blocking her chosen parking spot.

Except Callista did notice him venturing closer.

Sol stopped brushing her thick black hair long enough to turn toward him, a look of annoyance on her face. “What do you want?”

Callista looked at the clock again.

There had to be only seconds left of school. She didn’t have to do anything. Tim/Tom could take care of himself.

But then Tim/Tom said, “Hey, I was wondering if I could be part of your group.”

Sol set down her hairbrush with a thunk. One plucked eyebrow arched and glossy lips curled. “You think we have room for you in our group?”

Tim/Tom started to nod.

It would be like watching someone drop-kick a baby fox.

“Hey, so, I might as well be in a group just in case I’m still here,” Callista called to him.

Sol’s eyes swept over Callista. “He was asking to be part of my group, Eastern Bloc.”

Callista met her gaze. Sol was waiting to devour her on any show of weakness. “As a joke.”

“You think my group’s a joke?”

This was why Callista needed to think more before she spoke, why she rarely spoke in the first place. But luckily, Tim/Tom saved her from having to answer. “I did ask her first.”

Sol’s eyes narrowed, but then she dismissed Callista’s existence with a flick of her shampoo-commercial hair.

Tim/Tom set down his pencil and jerked his desk a foot toward Callista, but the bell rang. Callista was already on her feet. She reached over and wrote her email address on the paper on his desk. “Figure out a topic. I’ll write it. You turn it in.”

There. A group effort.

She slung her backpack over one shoulder and filed out into the hall. The grass was muddy as she crossed the quad, soaking through the canvas of her shoes, but at least she was avoiding the traffic jam on the sidewalk.

She thought about ditching some of her books in her locker but that would mean a few extra minutes at school. So not worth it.

She tucked her thumbs under the straps of her backpack as she walked home—or rather to the apartment in which she currently dwelled. She dodged the orange-striped construction barricades on the sidewalk. In the weeks she’d been here, she’d never actually seen anyone working.

She still wasn’t even sure why her mom had contracted to write a travel article on Connersville, Virginia. The buildings were old, but not in a charming way. More in an I-hope-that-shingle-doesn’t-fall-and-kill-me sort of way. Maybe if someone spent a few million dollars on renovations, the town might be a cute tourist trap for the DC crowd, but no one here had that kind of money.

The mile walk home was blessedly solitary and provided freedom from nicknames and group projects. She wanted nothing more than to get back, shower until her skin got all pruny, then flop down on the couch with a plate of syrup-drowned waffles.

Waffles were perhaps the perfect food. No matter where her family moved, she could find waffles. They were really hard to mess up, and if someone tried to get creative, it affected the toppings rather than the waffle itself.

Callista popped the lock to her apartment, but she’d only opened the door halfway when she heard male laughter coming from inside. Then a woman, as well.

“Callista?”

Her mom sat on the couch next to a spindly man with an enormous forehead and Dumbo ears. Two glasses of wine rested on the table.

Her mom jumped to her feet and kissed Callista on the cheek, graceful even in excitement. “The most fantastic thing happened. The town council wants me to write a book!”

Callista tried to keep smiling, but her mind was racing. “A book?”

A book required a lot more time and research than an article for Condé Nast Traveler. More time researching meant more time in Connersville.

“Yes, a guidebook.” Her mom came over, her flowing lavender shirt skimming her trim waist. She smelled of handcrafted perfume from the Moroccan market and the light golden brown hair her mom claimed they shared was pulled up into a messy, yet somehow elegant bun. “They’re willing to pay a generous advance,” she whispered dramatically in Callista’s ear.

Double crap. Her mom was something of a rock star in the travel-writing world—if there was such a thing. But all that meant was that her mom made just enough to keep them under a roof and eventually pay their bills. After the expense of travel and furnishing a new apartment at every exotic locale, there wasn’t a lot of money left over. They couldn’t turn down up-front payment.

Her mom figured she’d just keep writing and selling articles until she keeled over, but Callista found the financial uncertainty terrifying. What if her mother didn’t get that next assignment? Or one of the magazines she wrote for went belly up? Callista also found it hard to ignore silly things like passports and visas. She’d learned to write cursive by forging her mom’s name on travel documents—real and fake.

The worst part was that her mom wasn’t flighty or forgetful, she just really didn’t think it was worth her time to bother with details. She kept reminding Callista that things had worked out, to which Callista pointed out that things had worked because she’d taken care of the details.

“I’ll just need a couple months. Think how great that will be. You’ll be able to stay at this school until the end of the year and make real friends. Isn’t that fantastic?” The silver bangles on her mom’s wrists jangled.

“Of course, Mom.” And it was. Her mom really was amazingly talented. Having her write short articles was like asking Michelangelo to paint postage stamps. The book she’d written about Kyivstan sixteen years ago was still the best-selling book on the subject.

The main problem with a guidebook was the man standing behind her mom—khaki pants, striped polo shirt, and all.

A book meant more research. A book meant a research partner.

“Callista, this is Alexander. He’s from the town’s historical society.”

“Mom—” But her mom shot her a don’t-start-that-now look.

“Hi.” Alexander shifted from foot to foot in that awkward way guys always did when they realized her beautiful, bohemian mother had a teenage daughter.

All Callista could muster was a nod. She didn’t have anything against Alexander. Or Arthur. Or Claude. Or Ronald. They were all nice guys, not a creep or pervert among them. All experts in their fields—naturalists, curators, historians. But none of them realized that her mom, with her trendy jeans, ethnic blouses, Parisian scarves, and stylish tortoise shell glasses, was way out of his league.

“Alexander was just telling me the most fascinating story about Eugene Conners, the town’s namesake. Do you know he laid out the original town plans in the shape of a W in honor of his sweetheart, Winifred, only to have her marry another man?”

Alexander stared at her mother with that almost-religious zeal that Callista recognized as a sign it was already too late for him. “He quickly switched his affections to a woman named Mary so he could claim the layout was for her,” he added.

“No!” Her mother leaned forward and placed her hand on Alexander’s bicep.

Callista sighed. By the time the book was done, poor besotted Alexander would be sucked dry of all the information he possessed.

“Yes! It was only upon the study of his journals that we discovered this fact.”

“We?” her mother asked.

Alexander’s chest inflated to twice its size. “Yes, I was part of the group that retrieved the journal from his great-great-granddaughter.”

Whenever Callista expressed concern over her mother’s men, her mom protested that she never misled them into thinking she was interested in a romantic attachment. She claimed she always made it clear that she only wanted research assistance.

Then why, Callista would ask, were the men her mother found always single and incredibly socially awkward?

Because men like that were attracted to those time-intensive research positions, of course.

Her mother led Alexander back to the delicately filigreed couch. She offered the seat next to her to Callista. “Join us.”

Her stomach clenched at the idea. Her mother could never understand why Callista didn’t take advantage of the amazing information the men provided.

Well, her mom wasn’t the one who had to meet the men at the door and tell them her mother was too busy packing to speak to them. And reassure them and their sad-puppy eyes that her mother would definitely email them a copy of her article or book.

Had her father watched her mother leave with eyes like that?

Callista didn’t usually think about her father. But she couldn’t shake that “Eastern Bloc” nonsense. “Thanks, but no. I was just dropping off my backpack. I’m going to go buy some syrup,” she babbled. And then she found herself back outside their apartment door.

What was she supposed to do for the next two months?

Inside, she could hear her mom laughing at something Alexander had said. Then it grew quiet. Too quiet. The abrupt kind of quiet. Callista knew her mother was leaning in, listening with abject fascination to everything Alexander said, and Alexander, the fool, was drinking it up. Never suspecting he was just a walking pile of research in an easily accessible package.

Callista almost wished she could attribute the silence to her mother making out with the guy.

Okay, no. She wouldn’t go quite that far, but at least it would mean there’d be some biological excuse, that her mother hadn’t set upon another victim like some sort of research vampire.

“How incredible!” her mother said loudly. “Shall I make you some gyozas while we chat?” Not even the solid wood separating them could disguise the bubbles in her tone.

Callista stepped away from the door so she didn’t hear Alexander’s response. She already knew what it would be. She trudged back out into the spring air and up the street. The library was another mile away. It closed at four thirty, but if she walked fast, she’d have almost an hour to load up on books. But then again, she’d left her backpack inside the apartment…

She had to do a weird little hop step to avoid running into an old woman who suddenly shuffled in front of her.

Tears leaked from behind the woman’s thick glasses.

Shoot. Callista took one step past the woman but then turned around with a sigh. So much for her library getaway. “Are you okay?” she asked.

The elderly woman reached into the pocket of her yellow flowered muumuu for a limp, crumpled Kleenex. She scrubbed at her nose as she shook her head. “I’ve looked everywhere. I still can’t find Princess.”

“Princess?”

“My darling cat.” The lady’s spotted fingers latched on to Callista’s arm. “Will you help me look for him?”

“Princess is a him?”

“He makes his own life choices.”

Callista only barely contained her snort. The woman was too earnest for it to be a joke.

As gently as she could, Callista tried to pry herself free. She knew better than to agree to help. Missing cats either turned up in a few days or they’d been run over. Looking wasn’t all that useful.

But for a senior citizen who probably only weighed eighty pounds, the old lady had a serious grip.

“Have you tried putting food by your door? Or calling the humane society?” Callista asked.

The woman’s lower lip quivered. “He always comes home in time for breakfast. But not today.”

Callista stared at the rusty screen door on the row house next to them. Then at a faded Wipe Your Paws doormat. She’d look at anything but those forlorn eyes. “Do you have a picture of her or something?”

“Him. Oh, yes. Better than a photo.” The woman turned and shuffled into the house, the screen door screeching closed behind her.

She returned, jabbing a pillow into Callista’s stomach. “Here he is.”

Callista glanced down at the embroidered throw pillow. A picture of a mangy black-and-gray tabby scowled back at her, ears crooked, eyes— she looked again.

“Oh, yes. He only has one eye. He lost a fight with a parakeet.”

What kind of cat lost to a bird?

A brown paper bag rustled as the woman pulled out a can of tuna. “Princess’s favorite food.” Before Callista could refuse, the woman had popped open the lid and handed over the can. “Try the old pizza place a few blocks down. When it was open, he used to sleep in the rotting anchovies in the alley.”

Callista tried to hand back the pillow, but the woman refused. “You’ll need it so you know if you have the right cat.”

Callista was pretty sure she wouldn’t mistake a lop-eared, one-eyed cat. But she didn’t want to argue, so instead she walked past the storefronts on Main Street with a throw pillow clutched to her chest and an open can of tuna held as far away from her nose as possible.

“Here, kitty,” she called quietly, just on the off chance the universe decided to take pity on her.

A bleached blonde rocking a skintight velvet jogging suit and six-inch heels passed by, then craned her neck around to stare. Yes, because Callista was the odd one on this sidewalk. Callista gritted her teeth and kept going.

The restaurant must have been called Antonio’s, but one of the Os had been ripped off and now the neon sign just read Ant nio’s. Plywood had been hammered over the large plate- glass window and the front door.

Callista tucked the pillow under her arm and grimaced as the wind blew a gust of fishy air in her face. “Here, kitty,” she tried again. “Princess?”

She walked down the shadowed alley next to the building, trying not to look too closely at the murky puddles collecting against the crumbling red brick. Or to think too much about who—or what—could be hiding behind the dumpsters.

“Princess?”

Something rattled in one of the dumpsters.

Tingles crept up her neck and then over her scalp. Ugh. This alley was now creepy. She didn’t do creepy—

A cat meowed from inside the restaurant.

Great. She’d have to go in. And if anyone asked, she hadn’t seen the Do Not Enter signs posted all over the place. She jiggled the handle, and the side door opened.

She glanced back at the mouth of the alley and the sunshine beyond. It was broad daylight. Cars and minivans zipped past on the road a few steps away. A dry cleaner shared a wall with the restaurant, too. It wasn’t like she was walking into a dark basement.

She stepped inside.

“You’d better be in here, cat,” she whispered as sweetly as she could manage.

The light from the alley oozed into the empty dining area, illuminating the holes that marked where booths had once been bolted. A fresco of a bunch of maniacal peasants stomping grapes had been painted on the opposite wall. A few clumps of cat hair drifted over the floor, writhing in the draft from the open door.

A gray tabby peeked out from the kitchen doorway.

“Princess.” Who knew victory could be so ugly? The cat really did look like its embroidered picture. She held out the can of tuna and crept forward.

Twisting its head to peer at her with its one golden eye, the cat sniffed the air, then pivoted and disappeared.

“No, you don’t!” Callista dashed after it but came to a halt in a kitchen that appeared free from feline occupation. Crap. She walked around the center island twice and even crawled on the floor looking for gaps under the cabinets. Nothing.

There was another exit to the alley, but it was locked when she yanked on it.

She checked the room one more time. It wasn’t like there were many places he could have gone.

She eyed another door at the back of the kitchen. It was the only one she hadn’t tried. However, she was pretty sure it had been closed when she’d come in. She was also pretty sure Princess lacked the opposable thumbs necessary to turn the handle.

But she hated losing to a cat that had lost to a parakeet.

Sticking the pillow more securely under her arm, she twisted the knob and walked in. It was probably just a janitorial closet or supply—

The closet was surprisingly bright.

And filled with people. Kids from school. Half a dozen of them.

All staring at her.

Oh crap, this wasn’t a supply closet.

They clustered in groups in a room about as big as the classrooms at school. A crack snaked through the concrete floor and disappeared under a rusty vent low on the opposite wall. Light struggled to get through the dirt blurred windows. In fact, the room was bare except for a few empty crates and a pile of backpacks and a duffel bag thrown against the wall. A few upperclassmen sat around a computer against one wall. A couple of others were stretching out on the floor.

Callista’s stomach flip-flopped as the door swung shut, and she forced a smile while reaching behind her for the doorknob. “I think I went the wrong way. I was just looking for—”

The door swung open again, hitting her shoulder and sending her stumbling a step further into the room. She turned, and a faint rushing sound of dread filled her ears.

Sol Delgada planted a hand on her hip. “What are you doing here? And why do you smell like fish?” She looked Callista up and down. “Oh.” She snorted in disgust.

Could she have picked a worse person to embarrass herself in front of? Callista thought about hiding the tuna, but at this point that would have just made her look more weird and pathetic. So she lifted her chin slightly and met Sol’s eyes with the look of indifference she’d perfected in the twenty-three different schools she’d graced with her presence in the past ten years.

A boy unfolded himself from a stretching pose on the floor and stood. “Shut the door, Sol.”

On second thought, she could have picked someone worse to embarrass herself in front of.

Nick Jameson. He sat two rows over from her in Chemistry. Sort of hot skater boy meets computer hacker.

If she had been the kind of girl to develop silly crushes…

But she wasn’t. Not even if the boy in question had messy brown ringlets and an angular face. Or wide shoulders, a well-worn black shirt, and intense exotically slanted green eyes.

The warm numbness tingling along her skin was from embarrassment. Nothing more.

Sol shut the door. Then she bowed to him. To smart-mouthed, harmonica-playing Nick.

“You know the rules. If she finds us, she’s in,” he said.

Callista realized she’d been standing there, befuddled, for way longer than was normal. “In what?”

Sol rolled her eyes at Nick, ignoring Callista’s question. “No way destiny brought her here.”

“Then what did?” Nick asked.

“A freakish love for crappy, deserted restaurants?”

Nick’s lips thinned. “Enough.”

Sol glowered but ceased arguing.

Callista blinked. Nick had just stared down Sol Delgada. Callista took a step back toward the door. Whatever they wanted to do in an abandoned restaurant was their own business. She’d only come for a cat.

“So who is she then?” one of the other guys asked. He cocked his head to the side, staring at Callista with disbelief. Aaron Hoffman. Captain of the baseball team. Rumor had it that he was already being scouted by four major league clubs.

At least the flutter in her stomach didn’t intensify. Aaron might resemble a Norse god, but he had a constant succession of female lap ornaments at lunch. Icky. Besides, Sol had just scurried to his side. That instantly lowered his hotness level.

“This is Callista Trent,” Nick said. He said it without the second of hesitation that came when someone wasn’t entirely sure. “Destiny brought her here to train.” His voice was oddly final.

Perhaps World of Warcraft had gone to his head.

Aaron shrugged and returned to the edge of the room with Sol grafted to his hip. Three upperclassmen resumed talking about something on the computer.

“I don’t know anyone named Destiny,” Callista clarified, just in case. “Have you seen a cat?”

Nick shook his head slightly. “Lowercase d. As in fate. The universe.”

“I was afraid that was what you meant,” she muttered. It was a good thing she hadn’t let herself get a crush on him. The guy was destined to commune with padded walls.

Nick’s brows lowered.

And now she might die of curiosity. She had to know. It was an aggravating character trait. “What exactly does destiny want with me?”

He leaned forward, angling toward her. She half expected him to whisper in her ear. Luckily, he didn’t. “It wants you to train to become a shinobi.”

“A what?”

Nick stuck his hand into his pockets. “You might know us better as ninjas.”

She almost dropped the tuna. “Ninjas? As in hi-yah, chop chop? Black masks?”

The corners of Nick’s lips twitched, revealing the dimple in his left cheek. “I like to think of it as a five-hundred-year-old organization of highly trained operatives who have perfected the art of secrecy. And no masks. Kind of went out of style a hundred years ago.”

Callista waited several seconds, leaving time for him to laugh and give away the joke at her expense.

He didn’t.

Still, she wasn’t that gullible. “Do I need to worry about tripping over any mutant teenage turtles?”

He exhaled in a short burst and pulled his hands from his pockets. He flexed them a few times. “Watch.” He turned to the closet person. “Aaron, attack me.”

Aaron straightened, and it was suddenly impossible not to notice he was a good four inches taller and twenty pounds heavier than Nick.

She expected Aaron to stroll over and square off like she’d seen in karate classes. Instead, he leaped at Nick.

“Watch out—” Callista started, but Aaron had already reached him, fists flying.

Suddenly, Nick’s hand shot out, striking and hooking Aaron’s arm. The move twisted Aaron mid-stride. He landed on his back, his knuckles cracking loudly on the concrete, his breath hissing from between his teeth. Nick’s foot was poised a centimeter above Aaron’s throat.

Holy crap. Nick had just—

He could have killed Aaron.

The burning in her chest reminded her to inhale.

Nick pulled back his foot. “Switch to working on falls today.” He sounded like an instructor, older than he usually did. “You need to make sure you slap palms down.”

Aaron was a bit slow to rise. The arm that Nick had hit dangled by Aaron’s side but he nodded at Nick.

Callista stared, feeling like a gawker at a car wreck. Panicked. Horrified. Curious. “His arm—”

“Will regain feeling in a few seconds,” Sol said from across the room, her voice dismissive. “The blow overwhelms the nerves. It’s no big deal.”

Pain still pinched the corners of Aaron’s mouth, and Callista wondered if he agreed that getting slammed was not a big deal. But he didn’t bother to look at Callista. Slowly wriggling his fingers, he bowed and returned to Sol.

Callista swung her gaze back to Nick. She might have noticed that he preferred pens to pencils and did his homework in class. She knew he tapped his foot when he took a quiz. But she’d never noted that he possessed skills like that.

Then the explanation occurred to her. “This is one of those train-to-be-a-ninja-slash-samurai-in-only-six-weeks things.”

Nick’s smile disappeared. “This isn’t some martial arts school.”

Callista nodded at him in what she hoped was a calming manner. “I’m sure it isn’t.”

“Do you think Sol would pay to learn anything from me?”

The words snagged in Callista’s brain, uncomfortably pertinent. She had no smart comeback for that. She glanced over at the other girl, who had returned to stretching her leg higher than what should have been possible for a normal human.

Nick prowled closer, his energy focused on Callista. He was so close she could see brown flecks dotting his green eyes and three light freckles on the bridge of his nose. The intensity in his gaze made her retreat a step, yet he didn’t look crazy. “The universe has a reason for helping the right people find us.”

And they were back to the crazy talk. All she needed was a white rabbit and a Cheshire cat running by to complete the picture. Time to inch her way to the door and bolt through it.

She must not have been subtle because Nick stepped to the right, blocking her escape. He dragged his hand through his hair, but the curls sprang back across his forehead. “The worst that can happen is that you end up learning some cool martial arts moves from a group of people who happen to think they’re shinobi.”

“Or you could kill me in some weird ritualistic ceremony.”

Nick opened his mouth and then shut it, his face halfway between amusement and exasperation. “I’m approaching this all wrong with you, aren’t I?”

“I’m pretty sure there isn’t a right way.” After all, she didn’t do friends. So she definitely didn’t do secret organizations of crazy teenagers.

Amusement won. His eyes crinkled at the corners. “I—”

There was the buzz of a vibrating cell phone.

Callista reached for her pocket, but it wasn’t hers.

Nick, however, pulled his cell out. Movement rippled across the room as the others did the same. His hand tightened on his phone. “We need to go.”

“What? Why?” She wanted to leave, but she didn’t like the sudden seriousness on Nick’s face.

He grabbed Callista’s wrist and pulled her toward the vent low in the wall. “The lookouts have seen something.”

“What?” she asked, hating that it was the only thing she could think of to say.

“Someone’s approaching. Shinobi have dangerous enemies.”

“Like the police? Who might arrest you for trespassing?”

He didn’t even bother to shoot her an annoyed look. He was too focused scanning the room. “No, like bad men with guns.”

She shook off his hand. “Guns! Are you insane—”

She spun toward the others in the room, but they were gone. And she hadn’t heard a thing. A faint buzz hummed in her ears.

“Who is coming?” she asked. Her fingers dug into the pillow.

His eyes still surveyed the room, swinging back and forth between the window and the door. “It’s safer if we don’t find out.” He lifted the grate and pulled it aside.

“I—” She wasn’t even sure what to say. Ninjas. Bad men. With guns. But she knew from her mother’s occasional interactions with law enforcement that it was best to get away first and then sort things out.

She set down the pillow and the tuna. Nick kicked them behind an old crate in the corner.

He motioned to the space he’d uncovered.

The hole was black. The light from the windows illuminated only writhing flecks of dust.

He watched the door over her shoulder. “Go.”

Underground. With a guy she barely knew. Or maybe didn’t know at all, given this ninja business.

Nick grabbed her by the waist and pushed her toward the hole. “Listen. We should be long gone by now. I don’t have time to wait for you.”

He was practically shoving her. She didn’t know what to think. She believed he believed what he was saying—enough to want to get the heck out of here—but she wasn’t going to let him shove her down a vent. She tensed, pressing the soles of her shoes against the cement.

Nick exhaled and released her. With quick grace, he stepped around her and sat on the edge of the darkness. His gaze bored into her. “Go then. Back through the pizza place. If someone approaches you—I don’t care if they look like a mom or your grandpa—run and scream your head off to draw attention. Don’t let them get close to you.”

Nick dropped into the hole. For an instant, only his curls were visible. Then they disappeared.

Callista stared at the empty space, then back at the door to the restaurant.

Clang. Something metal dropped in the kitchen. The sound echoed through her, goose bumps rising along her arms.

Probably just Princess looking for the tuna, but…

She wouldn’t stake her life on probably.

Dropping to the floor by the open grate, she swung her feet into the void.

“Nick, wait!”