A girl who isn’t Katniss or Harry Potter, but a girl who can take on her world and be awesome about it.
The Lost Heir, Chapter One
Fire licked the walls and formed a canopy above her head. Numb. Trapped. Their screaming burned in her ears as the earth shook, and near-death coated her skin. The fire whipped around her, close but not touching, never touching. It was almost as if she wielded some sort of power over the flames, but that couldn’t be. She heard her mother and father’s screams over and over as they were engulfed by the blaze. She was helpless to save them. Suddenly, the screams stopped. Terror climbed into her throat as a shadow moved toward her. She tried to breathe but couldn’t. The room grew darker as her body weakened.
“Come on. I’ve got you,” the man said, as her knees buckled and she grabbed his shirt. “I’ve got you. You’re a light in this darkness. You’re safe.” The trembling in the ground stopped, but the fire continued.
Enveloped in a warmth different from the conflagration, eight-year-old Isabella Foxworthy collapsed. Cradled in the man’s arms, her terror melted into tranquility as she was taken from the house into the cool night. Her eyes opened to an oddly purple sky, and she noticed a light glowing around them, not unlike the vicious flames of the fire. Red deep as blood. An empty blackness filled the room. A foreboding fear encircled her heart. Then, her savior mumbled something, and the light turned to a silvery blue.
“Give her to me,” another man said.
“I can watch over her.”
“Give her to me,” he repeated. “She needs to be at the hotel with her grandmother.”
She felt a gentle caress on her cheek and a rush of coolness shoot through her body. “Then I’ll take her.”
Isabella reached up to touch the second man’s hand, but he was gone. “Where’s my mother?”
“Hush. I’ll take you to your Nano,” said the one who held her, the one who’d saved her.
Then, as the violet sky turned blue again and as the approaching fire engines howled in her ears, the man carried her up the narrow road to the Foxworthy Hotel.
Los Angeles, CA – Present Day
As sunlight and darkness fought for occupation in the sky, nearly-sixteen-year-old Isabella clutched her backpack as she approached Sunset Boulevard en route to the city bus stop a few blocks down the famous street. Classes at St. Agnes High School had gotten out an hour earlier that day, but she’d stayed behind with a couple other girls to work out with their capoeira instructor. She was shocked when she’d learned St. Agnes offered it as an after-school activity. Brazilian martial arts didn’t really go with the strict traditionalism of St. Agnes. Carte Blanche, the school she’d gotten thrown out of last year for something that wasn’t her fault, would have offered capoeira as standard physical education, however, along with extreme dodgeball and competitive hula hooping. Their motto: Unschool the schoolchildren and the world will be in harmony. Honestly, Isabella just wanted to go to a normal school for once, have a normal family. But she didn’t have either. In fact, all she had was her grandmother who, half the time, wanted Isabella out of the way and the other half of the time wanted her locked up in their family hotel and homeschooled until she finished college.
Isabella shifted her eyes down to her smart phone. 3:52. Perfect. Eight minutes until the bus got there. She could make it to the stop in less than five if she walked fast. She loved the stability of the city bus system. Always coming and going on time. Well, at least in theory. Even if the afternoon bus was late, she could always count on it coming eventually. And if she missed it, another one would come along soon. It took care of her and other people, no matter who they were. It, in an odd way, allowed her to wobble on the wings of independence before she was ready to fly off on her own. She was glad her grandmother had let her ride it this year. 3:53. She didn’t want to be late, though. Not today.
Two voices filled her ears as she got closer to her destination. One like the roar of a lion, the other—a baboon, maybe? Against her better judgment, she continued down the street, past a hippie clothing store and Mel’s Drive-In restaurant. 3:54.
“Stop it!” A third voice protruded with sheer fright. It seemed to come from a young boy; his pleas punched fear straight into her chest and invaded her senses.
“Please? Please, leave me alone!” the young boy continued to plead. She could feel his fear.
Her heart squeezed as she heard another shout of, “Stop!”
She had wanted to make it home in time for Betty’s corn ‘n’ crab chowder. The cook was leaving for the Christmas holidays after her shift ended at five, and Isabella wanted one last cup. So hot, so creamy. No, that was selfish, right? Other things were more important than her stomach. It growled. But maybe it didn’t have to be her. Maybe a cop would come by.
Images of chowder fled her mind when she saw them in the opening of an alley a few feet from the bus stop. Three boys. The largest was dangling the smallest off the ground. The other stood laughing as he watched—the baboon. He and his bigger friend were dressed like skaters with no skateboards in sight while the boy was in black pants, a white shirt and a vest. Strange outfit for a little kid. The boy shook him again. She told herself that she felt absolutely nothing. She could just walk by or maybe call for help. She could call for help. The connection between her and the younger boy grew stronger.
Fat flying fists seized her heart and squeezed. Her throat narrowed as her eyes centered on the action. 3:56.
“I should help this kid.” Beads of perspiration exploded onto her temples. “I can still make the bus.” When the big boy dumped the little one onto the ground and kicked him, Isabella gave up, threw down her backpack, and marched full-speed over to the scene. With expert ease, she yanked one boy’s already low-hanging pants down. The pudgy rat-faced boy bellowed. His friend, lankier and full of acne, lost his hold on the small boy as he doubled over in fits of laughter. He was met with a swift kick to the shin, making him stumble and fall. “Come on, kid. You gotta get up. You gotta run.”
“I can’t,” the small boy moaned. She could feel him acutely. He was nauseated, worn out, and still afraid.
Isabella snatched him by the collar, forcing the boy into a squat. A large shadow loomed over them. Kicking her foot out behind her and then sweeping it backward, she tripped Lanky-Acne again, but she didn’t think she would be able to get away with her amateur capoeira tactics much longer. From the look in Lanky-Acne’s eyes as he got back to his feet, Isabella knew it was going to be game over soon.
“Run, kid! Run!” She yanked the boy to his feet, hearing the 4:00 bus pull up to the bus stop behind them. “Follow me!” She felt his hopeless fear slide into relief mingled with a sudden burst of adrenaline. The change in him was fast, but it worked for their situation. They needed to outrun these guys. The bloody-nosed boy’s adrenaline charged Isabella forward even faster as they raced down the alley to a small street that ran adjacent to Sunset. They could take that street down to her school and be pretty close to the main gates. She wanted to go back for her backpack, but she’d run away from it. Damn it. She looked behind her. Pudgy Rat-Face fisted it between his thick fingers, slung it over his shoulder, and, with his friend now fully recovered from having his pants around his ankles, chased them down the wide alley.
“Keep up, kid! We have to hurry.”
“Do you know where you’re going?” the boy asked as they ran.
“I always make sure I know where I’m going.”
They turned the corner onto the back street and ran down several short blocks until they came to the narrow road that led to the front gate of her school. White, purple, and green Victorian houses sat on the expansive grounds of a former oil baron’s estate.
The campus guard let her pass, but when the boy followed, the burly man stood. “Whoa. Whoa. Where do you think you’re going, kid?”
Isabella turned back, chest heaving. “Oh, Sam. This is, uh, my little brother.” She felt newfound safety and warmth threading between her and the boy. He wasn’t worried that Sam was going to toss him out. It was odd. He didn’t even know Sam, and those goons were still just outside. She tried to ignore the boy’s reaction as Sam raised his eyebrows and folded his arms. Isabella’s dark, wavy frizz, tan skin, and dull, olive-drab eyes clashed sharply with the pallid, sleek-haired boy with a dust of slant at the corners of his black eyes.
Sam looked skeptical. “I never heard you mention a brother.”
“I…” She’d always wanted a brother. Did that count?
“You know the rules,” the burly guard said, arms across his chest. “No boys on campus.”
“Look! He’s being chased by them.” She pointed at the two boys who were huffing and snarling at the gate. “They were beating him up.” She didn’t mention that the boy standing next to her no longer seemed fazed by this. In fact, he was just picking at his fingernails as if nothing were going on at all. Sam, on the other hand, did not take the invasion of the menacing boys lightly.
He walked toward them, rattling his keys and waving his baton. “Is that right?”
The bullies backed up, shaking their heads.
Isabella approached behind Sam. “Scared now, aren’t you? Cowards! Just give me my backpack and go away.”
“What backpack? This one here? This is mine,” Pudgy-Rat-Face said, clinging Isabella’s black backpack with hot pink flowers to his chest.
“Fancy pants,” said Sam. He took another step toward them. They stepped back in unison. Rat-Face dropped her backpack, and the boys turned and shot off like two arrows released from an archer’s bow. “Good riddance.”
“Thanks, Sam,” Isabella said, patting his arm.
“Is someone picking you up?” asked Sam.
“I prefer the bus,” she said. The boy stood beside her expressionless as he shifted his eyes between her and Sam as they spoke. He seemed perfectly calm now. It was as if the episode outside the gate hadn’t even happened. Isabella wondered why she was still so connected to him. He wasn’t in danger any longer.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea with those two out there,” said Sam. “You should call your family.”
“I don’t have a family,” she replied.
Sam’s expression was serious when he asked, “What about your grandmother and all those people living under your roof?”
“My grandmother’s all right, I guess, but those people living under our roof need to take a vacation,” said Isabella.
“Isn’t that what they’re doing?” Sam laughed.
“Maybe, but I’m not,” she said, looking down at her phone. It was 4:20. Betty would be leaving soon. “I can take care of myself,” she said as a coolness passed through her body, and her connection to the boy snapped apart as if it was a dried twig. She gasped. That had never felt so abrupt before. Not that it mattered. She had other things to worry about. The kid was fine now, after all. “Well, I guess I wouldn’t mind a ride… this time. My grandmother won’t like that I’m asking for one so last minute, though.”
Sam chuckled. “I’m sure she’ll make an exception. And what about you? Where do you live, kid?” he asked, looking at the small boy.
“I was on my way to see my Uncle Theophilus at the Foxworthy Hotel.”
“What?” Isabella’s mouth fell open. Sam laughed.
The boy continued, “The Foxworthy—”
“I heard you. That’s my hotel. And your uncle hasn’t been around for over a month.” Her old music instructor, a Foxworthy family friend for decades, did have a room at the hotel but not an apartment suite like the rest of the permanent residents. He was always on the go, and he wouldn’t be back for months. That was what her grandmother had told her.
“Oh no, that’s not true,” said the boy. “He’ll be there today to give piano lessons.” This kid really was getting on her nerves.
“Oh, great. I hope they’re for you and not me,” she said with a sigh.
The young boy tilted his head. “And what do you mean it’s your hotel?”
Twenty minutes later, a black town car pulled up in front of the school. A gray-faced driver with gray-blue eyes rolled down the window.
“Hi, Archie. This is my friend,” Isabella said, thrusting her thumb behind her at the boy. She turned to him. “What was your name again?” They’d chatted with Sam for a while about a lot of nonsense while waiting, and he had said it, but she hadn’t paid much attention. She had to stop being so selfish, right? But she wasn’t selfish. She did a lot for a lot of people. So maybe it wasn’t that she was selfish. It was more that she really wanted to be selfish but couldn’t. She really didn’t know.
“Pythian,” the boy said.
She smirked. “No wonder you were being pummeled.”
“Pummeled?” asked Pythian.
“You know… beaten up? Creamed? Turned into rodent bait?” She probably shouldn’t have said that. For a person who sometimes felt other people’s emotions, she certainly was good at whipping them with her tongue at the wrong time.
“How’s it goin’, Isabella?” Archie the driver asked as they got into the back of the hotel’s service car, wrinkles pinching the corners of his smile.
“Winter break starts tomorrow, and I already want it to be over.”
“What kid wants winter break to be over before it starts?”
“It’s pretty much sucked for me the past few years, so, uh, this kid,” she said, leaning back in her seat.
“Rolf told me this was a secret mission and not to tell your grandmother I had to come get you.”
Isabella sighed. “I didn’t want her to worry. There’s too much to do at the hotel.”
Archie looked back at her with a wry smile as if he knew exactly what she meant. The Foxworthy Hotel was crowded over the holidays, and Isabella had more to do than ever, but that wasn’t the real reason she wanted to skip this time of year. It never failed that she got into some sort of disaster because her weird empathic abilities heightened even more than usual during the last two weeks before her birthday, December 31.
Isabella shifted her eyes to the boy beside her. He stared out of the window, wearing that empty expression again. He was beyond strange. But if he was right and Theophilus was at the hotel, it meant even more work to do.
Nope. Isabella was not going to let her grandmother win that little game. She was going to have a normal holiday like a normal kid, even if she didn’t have a normal family anymore.
First, she’d dump the strange boy, go find Betty, and then hide in her room to do whatever she wanted. The perfect plan.