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“I know what you mean,” Emma said. “That’s why I like Star Trek: The Next Generation. They make space so fantastical that you don’t even realize when you’re learning something.”
Ethan’s light eyes widened. “You’re a Trekkie?”
“Guilty.” Emma ducked her head, immediately cringing that she’d revealed something so dorky.
I quickly glanced around. Thank God no one I knew was in this place to overhear Emma’s shameful admission. The last thing I needed to hit the gossip mill was that Sutton Mercer was into the ultimate nerd TV show.
Ethan just grinned. “Wow. You really are the perfect girl. I started a Next Generation fan club in seventh grade. I thought we could have marathon parties, dress up as our favorite characters, go to the convention, that sort of stuff. Shockingly no one joined.”
Emma rolled her eyes. “I would have. I always had to watch the show alone. I couldn’t tell you how many foster brothers and sisters made fun of me for it.”
“Tell you what,” Ethan said. “How about we have a Trekkie marathon party one of these days? I have DVDs of all the seasons.”
“Deal,” Emma answered, resting her head on his shoulder.
Ethan looked down at her. A slight flush passed over his face. “Any chance this Trekkie has a shot at taking you to the Harvest Dance?”
“I think that could be arranged,” Emma said coyly. A headline flashed through her mind: Foster Girl Gets Asked to Harvest Dance: Miracle! She’d been making up diary headlines for her life ever since she could remember, and this was one for the front page.
There had been posters for the school’s Harvest Dance up for a while now, touting the band they’d hired for the festivities, the float parade, and, of course, the Harvest Dance King and Queen. It was the kind of dance out of a movie, something Emma never thought she’d attend. Her mind played images of Ethan dressed in a dark suit, his arms around her waist as they slow-danced. She pictured the dress she’d wear from Sutton’s closet, a short teal one that looked great against her pale skin and chestnut-brown hair. She’d feel like a princess.
I wanted to shake her. Didn’t she know Sutton Mercer always got new dresses for dances?
A small child darted past Emma and pressed his hands against the glass in front of the comet display, breaking her from her reverie. She focused on the exhibit in front of them, a photograph of a black hole surrounded by a navy sky spotted with blazing stars. A black hole is a region of space in which nothing, not even light, can escape, read a placard next to the photo. Emma shivered, suddenly thinking of Sutton. Was this where she was now? Was this what the afterlife looked like?
Uh, not exactly, I thought.
“You okay?” Ethan asked, his brows knit in concern. “You just got really pale.”
“Um, I need some air,” Emma mumbled, feeling light-headed.
Ethan nodded and led her out the door marked EXIT and into a circular courtyard. Six stone paths were arranged like the spokes of a wheel. In the center was a massive, antique black telescope. Hedges opened up into a small alley, and across the road was a homey restaurant called Pedro’s. Colorful Mexican pots sat in the windows, and chili-pepper lights were strung from the ceiling.
Emma and Ethan sat on a bench. She took several deep breaths as a wave of guilt crashed over her.
“Thinking about Sutton, aren’t you?” Ethan asked, as if reading her mind.
Emma looked up at him. “Maybe I shouldn’t be kissing boys and getting excited about going to dances when my sister’s dead.”
Ethan’s fingers curled around hers. “But don’t you think she’d want you to be happy, too?”
Emma shut her eyes, hoping that was what Sutton wanted. But just thinking of Sutton reminded Emma she was in her own version of a black hole: Sutton’s life. If she tried to escape being Sutton Mercer, she might die. Even if Sutton’s killer was found, Emma would be exposed as a fraud—and then what would happen? She dreamed of the Mercer family taking her in and Sutton’s friends welcoming her with open arms, but everyone might be furious that she duped them.
“I want to be with you,” she said to Ethan after a long beat. “Not as Sutton. As me. I’m afraid that will never happen.”
“Of course it will.” Ethan cupped her chin in his hands. “All this will be over some day. Whatever happens, I’ll be there for you.”
Emma felt such a rush of gratitude that tears came to her eyes. She moved closer to Ethan, her hip pressing against his. She felt fluttery again as she gazed into his lake-blue eyes and smelled his woodsy aftershave. Ethan leaned in until his lips were a breath away from hers. She was about to kiss him when she heard a familiar laugh.
Emma’s head snapped up. “Is that…?” Two figures were being seated on Pedro’s outdoor patio. One had blond hair and wore a pink sweater, and the other had on baggy pants and walked with a limp.
“Laurel and Thayer,” Ethan whispered grimly, then made a face. “Well, there goes my idea for dinner afterward.”
Laurel shook back her golden hair and slipped her arm through Thayer’s. She did it casually, and for a moment, Emma wondered if Laurel didn’t see her. But then Laurel’s eyes cut across the street directly to Emma. A tiny hint of a smile appeared on her face. Not only did she know Emma was there, but she was squeezing Thayer’s arm for Emma’s benefit.
Bitch, I thought. Laurel had resented my secret relationship with Thayer for a long time. I’m sure she’d been waiting for this moment forever.
Thayer turned, too, and lifted his hand in a half-wave. Emma smiled back, but Ethan’s hand tightened on Emma’s protectively.
Emma turned to him. “Look, I know you don’t like him,” she said in a low voice. “But he’s not dangerous. There’s no way he could have killed Sutton. He was in the hospital all night, remember?”
Ethan looked like he had more to say on the topic, but he let out a sigh instead. “Yeah,” he said grudgingly. “I guess. So where does that leave us? Is there anyone we suspect right now?”
Emma’s gaze shifted to Laurel, who was peering at Emma over the menu. “Remember how I thought Laurel was at Nisha’s the night Sutton disappeared?”
“Yeah, for the tennis team sleepover,” Ethan said, nodding.
“Well she wasn’t. At least not for the whole time.”
Ethan’s eyebrows shot up. “Are you sure?”
Emma drummed her fingertips on the bench’s wrought-iron armrest. “Laurel is the one who picked Thayer up the night he was hit with the car. She’s the one who drove him to the hospital. She couldn’t be in two places at once. And if she lied about that…”
Ethan leaned forward, a light coming on in his eyes. “You think she dropped Thayer off at the hospital, then went back to the canyon to kill Sutton?”
“I hope not. But I can’t rule her out if I don’t know where she actually was. I need to find out if she went back to Nisha’s or if she was out all night.” She fidgeted with the hem of Sutton’s black cotton miniskirt. “I’ve spent more time with Laurel than anyone else since I got to Tucson, but I don’t completely understand her. One second, she’s sweet. And the next, she acts like she wants to kill me.”
“You’ve told me yourself that things between Sutton and Laurel seemed…strained.”
Emma nodded. “I know. Mrs. Mercer talked to me about it last week. She said Laurel’s always been jealous of me—I mean, of Sutton.” Emma shook her head slightly. The longer she play-acted her sister, the fuzzier the line became where Sutton ended and she began.
Ethan glanced across to Pedro’s, where Laurel and Thayer were sharing a basket of tortilla chips. “Maybe. But from the outside, at least, it seemed like Sutton might have been jealous of Laurel, too. After all, Laurel is the Mercers’ biological daughter. It always seemed like being adopted made Sutton feel a little…lost. I saw her in the library at school once poring over a book on genealogy. The look on her face…” Ethan hesitated. “Well, I’d never seen Sutton Mercer look sad before.”
A swell of vulnerability hit me like wave. I had no memory of that, but ever since I’d woken up at Emma’s place in Las Vegas, I’d felt a deep, familiar ache that had nothing to do with being dead. I’d always known I was adopted, and my parents had told me over and over that I was special because they’d chosen me to be their daughter. But the thought that my real mom hadn’t wanted me made me feel adrift and empty, like a piece of me was permanently missing.
But how had Ethan, whom I’d barely known, seen through me like that? Was I more transparent than I thought?
“I guess Laurel had what Sutton never could—a biological family,” Emma said softly, knowing exactly how her twin felt. When she was five years old, her and Sutton’s birth mother, Becky, had left her at a friend’s house…and never come back.
Emma sighed deeply. “Laurel just seems so angry. She was able to keep a lid on it until Thayer showed up in Sutton’s room and Mr. Mercer called the cops on him. But now that he’s back, it feels like she’d do anything to keep him away from the girl he thinks is Sutton—the girl Laurel knows he loves.”
“What’s the saying? That people kill for money, love, or revenge?” Ethan asked, rubbing his hands together as a cool breeze blew through the courtyard. “Maybe she wanted to get rid of the competition.”
“Well, she certainly accomplished that. It looks like they’re on a date.” Emma glanced across the courtyard again. Thayer rested a hand on Laurel’s shoulder. She fed him a chip loaded with guacamole, then shot another self-satisfied smirk in Emma’s direction. Emma wondered what happened to Caleb, Laurel’s boyfriend as of yesterday. Laurel probably didn’t even remember his name.
I followed Emma’s gaze back over to my little sister. Thayer was now giving his order to the waitress, his posture easy and natural. Laurel watched him adoringly, hugging the pale pink sweater-wrap that engulfed her tiny frame. I narrowed my eyes. I recognized that sweater. It, like Thayer, was mine.
Maybe my mom and Ethan were right—maybe Laurel wanted everything that was mine. And maybe, just maybe, she had killed me to get it all.
TO GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE WE GO
The following evening, Emma turned into the Mercers’ neighborhood, groaning as her feet pushed the pedal.
“The pain,” she grumbled. They’d just had the worst tennis practice ever—it had involved a five-mile run before a grueling scrimmage and drills—and she could barely move her legs. Why couldn’t Sutton have just been a couch potato?
Laurel sat in the passenger seat, scrolling through her iPhone and ignoring Emma’s comment, even though she had to be in agony, too.
“So did you have a nice date with Thayer last night?” Emma couldn’t help but ask.
Laurel looked up and gave her a saccharine smile. “Yes, as a matter of fact. It was really romantic—I think we might even go to the Harvest Dance together.”