Isobel’s dad gave a low grunt. Pushing away from where he’d been leaning against the kitchen sink, he swiveled and poured the dregs of his cocoa down the drain. “This Maryland joint’s starting to sound better and better,” he muttered.

Isobel’s mom shot him a glare. Then she turned to Gwen, who now held the handful of M&M’s close to her pursed lips. She sucked the candy into her mouth one piece at a time, with a high-pitched whistling noise that cut off into a quick, loud spurt of crunching.

“Do you know what you want to major in yet, Gwen?” her mom asked.

“Criminal justice. I’m thinking about becoming a lawyer.”

“Ha!” shouted Isobel’s dad. Her mom sent him yet another disapproving scowl.

Gwen chuckled. “Just kidding, Mr. Lanley,” she said as she chewed through a widening smile. “I knew you’d get a kick out of that.” She turned back to Isobel’s mom with a shrug. “I’ll probably go for a double major in business and costume design.”

“Double major. Wow,” her mom said. “Why costumes?”

“I like to design clothes and sew, but I’m not much of a fashion guru.”

“Could have fooled me,” her dad commented.

Gwen went on, pretending like she hadn’t heard. “I like more extravagant things. Stuff you wouldn’t normally wear.”

“Really?” Isobel’s mom said. Smiling now, her attention snagged, she crossed her arms over her spread of coupons and leaned forward.


Isobel thought about the frilly pink dress Gwen had altered for her and made her wear to the Grim Facade. She remembered that Gwen’s reasoning behind the pink had been to make it easier for Varen to spot her in the sea of black-clad bodies. Currently, the tattered garment lay hidden in the bottom drawer of her dresser, bloodstained and covered in ashen grit. Isobel hadn’t had the heart to throw it away. Instead, like Varen’s jacket, she’d entombed it beneath layers of less conspicuous garments. It lay sleeping in its compartment, preserved yet unseen, a constant reminder of where she had been, what she had faced, and who she had left behind.

“What kind of shows do you want to design for?” Isobel heard her mom ask.

“Hopefully I’ll be doing movies one day,” Gwen said. “As far as staged shows go, though, I’d like to do stuff like A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Alice in Wonderland. Plays that leave a lot of room for artistic interpretation.”

“Any musicals?”

“Omigosh. My Fair Lady. The embassy ball is a costume designer’s dream.”

“Oh, that is a good one.”

Until this moment, Isobel had only been half paying attention to the conversation. Now, though, as she looked between Gwen and her mother, Isobel had to marvel at the way Gwen operated, how she could spin any given situation in her favor. How she could play the innocent card right along with that brash attitude and still win every time.

“Actually,” Gwen said, “now that I think about it, the horse-race scene would be even better.”

“Oh! That’s my favorite part!” Isobel’s mom said, giggling out of nowhere. “When she starts yelling at the horse?”

“C’mon, Dover!” Gwen crowed suddenly, adopting a gritted expression and a bad accent that sounded part Australian and part British. She slammed a fist down on the table, causing their cocoa mugs to rattle and Isobel to jump in her seat. “C’mon!”

Grinning, Isobel’s mom pressed her own hands flat to the tabletop. Their eyes met and together they chorused, “Move your bloomin’ arse!”

Isobel’s eyes popped wide as her mom fell back in her chair with a loud peal of laughter.

Her dad turned a baffled look on her, but she could only shrug.

Isobel had to admit that whatever Gwen was trying to accomplish, it was apparently working. Ten minutes ago, the girl had been a banished delinquent, forbidden from coming within twenty yards of her house, much less inviting herself in for cocoa. And now here she was, sitting pretty at her family’s kitchen table, chatting about college and quoting Broadway musicals with her mom.

“Izzy’s not sure what she wants to major in yet,” her mom said, still grinning. “Right now I get the impression she’s more interested in finding the perfect squad.”

“Which is fine, too,” her dad interjected.

Her mom’s smile faltered. “Which is fine, too,” she allowed. Quiet settled over the kitchen as her mother’s focus returned to the stack of coupon pages. Isobel could tell that she wasn’t really reading, though.

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