Perfected Book Blitz


Perfected
Release Date: 07/01/14
Entangled Teen

Summary from Goodreads:
Perfection comes at a price.

As soon as the government passed legislation allowing humans to be genetically engineered and sold as pets, the rich and powerful rushed to own beautiful girls like Ella. Trained from birth to be graceful, demure, and above all, perfect, these "family companions" enter their masters’ homes prepared to live a life of idle luxury.

Ella is happy with her new role as playmate for a congressman’s bubbly young daughter, but she doesn’t expect Penn, the congressman’s handsome and rebellious son. He’s the only person who sees beyond the perfect exterior to the girl within. Falling for him goes against every rule she knows…and the freedom she finds with him is intoxicating.

But when Ella is kidnapped and thrust into the dark underworld lurking beneath her pampered life, she’s faced with an unthinkable choice. Because the only thing more dangerous than staying with Penn’s family is leaving…and if she’s unsuccessful, she’ll face a fate far worse than death.

For fans of Keira Cass’s Selection series and Lauren DeStefano’s Chemical Garden series, Perfected is a chilling look at what it means to be human, and a stunning celebration of the power of love to set us free, wrapped in a glamorous—and dangerous—bow.


Praise for Perfected:
"Compelling, imaginative, and unique. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough!"
— Mary Lindsey, author of Shattered Souls

Available from:
Amazon * Barnes & Noble * Kobo Books



1 (first chapter) “Remember… You’ll never be one of them,” Miss Gellner said, repositioning each of us on our divans in the sitting room so our gowns draped elegantly around our crossed ankles. She stepped back and gazed at the group of us, her face pinched and stern like always, but I spotted a tiny glimmer of pride behind her rheumy eyes. Twenty girls: lovely, demure, quiet. She was pleased with us, even if she wouldn’t say it out loud. Miss Gellner blinked, as if bringing herself back to the moment. “Things won’t change once you leave here,” she went on. “Simply because you’ll be pampered and spoiled, your life’s mission won’t suddenly be any different. Remember that. Your sole purpose is to enrich the lives of your new owners.” As she said this, she lightly tapped her bamboo training stick against my back, not a hard whack the way she had done relentlessly when we first transferred from the Greenwich Kennel to the training center, where she and her staff could cultivate us into the sort of girls we were bred to be. This was just a warning tap, reminding me to sit so that my spine was a stem, and I was the flower resting atop it. It was a pose we’d practiced daily for the past four years; during music and etiquette and dining, even during our nightly baths. But the fluttering in my stomach distracted me, drawing me down into myself. My whole body felt fluttery: my hands, my feet, even my eyes. I worried that the moment the two grand doors leading to the reception room swung open, I might flap away; a feather caught on the wind. Next to me, Seven bit nervously at her bottom lip. It was weird to think that by tonight she’d have a new name, a real one. The breeders at Greenwich assigned us numbers as names at conception: One through Twenty, since twenty was the maximum number of girls they were allowed to have each year. I was Eight, but not for much longer. By tonight, I could be anything. Across the room, Miss Gellner took a few steps towards the grand wooden doors, resting her hand lightly on the knob before she turned to face us one last time. "I want you to keep your composure when they come in. I've spent four years preparing you for this moment.” She thumped her training stick on the ground for emphasis. “Four years. Don’t waste them. Each move that you make, every turn of your head and pout of your lip speaks to my effectiveness as a trainer and I won’t have that work tarnished. When I open these doors, I expect you to remember all the things I've taught you.” The stiff lining of my dress rubbed against my rib cage and I ached to shift to a more comfortable position, but I held still, staring straight ahead at Miss Gellner with a soft smile placed carefully on my lips. “Be sure to hold your tongues,” she went on. “You are not doing the selecting. Do not ask questions. Speak if spoken to, but keep your answers brief. We don't want to scare away a potential buyer with a girl who has too forward a notion of who’s in charge." Beside me, the other girls were sitting silently. We were perfectly trained, all of us. And lovely, too. In our new dresses, we looked like royalty. Miss Gellner had picked out a different shade of gown for each of us, our first piece of clothing that was distinctly ours. She’d deliberated long and hard on the color choices. She wanted us each to look different. It wouldn't do for the customers to think they were getting cloned girls even though there were plenty of differences between us to set us apart. Yes, we all had large eyes, spaced perfectly on our heart shaped faces. We all had small noses, long, thin necks, and rose petal lips. But we each had distinct coloring. Seven’s hair was nearly black. Sixteen’s eyes were green, the color of fresh summer grass, and Twenty’s skin was the same warm brown of the toasted bread that we were rewarded with on Sunday mornings. We were unique. One of a kind. I was happy with the dress Miss Gellner had chosen for me. It was the palest shade of blue, hardly a color at all. These dresses would be the only item that would accompany us to our new homes. Our new owners would provide everything else. "We’re lucky to have a number of congressmen and senators here today," Miss Gellner went on. "Power, prestige, wealth, you'll be surrounded by the best, which is why it is important that you be the best." Miss Gellner sighed, nodding her head once. “All right girls. It’s time.” She turned and threw open the doors. “Ladies… Gentlemen…” her voice boomed as she glided into the next room. “If you’ll kindly follow me, I’ll show you to the sitting room. You’ll have a chance to look over each of the girls before you make your decision. As I told each of you over the phone, the number on your tag will determine the order of selection.” A moment later a stream of bodies and voices flowed into the room. I drew a breath and held it, trying to compose myself, but the fluttering inside me only grew worse. My vision blurred as the men and women pressed closer, talking loudly to one another. “Oh my! They’re so little,” a woman cooed “They look like twelve-year-olds.” “I can assure you, they’re sixteen,” Miss Gellner said. “They’re fully grown; all measuring in at exactly five feet.” An older man grabbed a lock of my hair and rubbed it between his fingers. “Like corn silk,” he said to the woman next to him. “Did you say you were hoping for a blond or a red head? This one almost seems like a mix of the two.” “And it does have beautiful eyes. Look, they’re practically turquoise,” she crooned. “But, I was hoping for a real red head. There’s an auburn one over there we should look at.” I didn’t dare turn my head to watch them walk across the room to look at Ten. A middle-aged couple finished looking at Seven and circled around me. I blinked a few times, finally bringing my eyes back into focus as the man’s dark eyes skated over me. He was obviously quite a bit older than me, but his jaw was much stronger than the other men I’d seen so far and his eyes were bright. A sprinkling of gray hairs dusted the dark hair at his temples. The woman beside him had probably been a beauty when she was younger, but now she was a different sort of beautiful: regal and refined. She was tall, even taller than Miss Gellner, with high cheekbones, a strong jaw, and long arched brows perched overtop piercing blue eyes. Even though she had lines around her eyes and mouth, her hair was almost as dark as Seven’s, without a hint of gray. Everything about her intimidated me. “Now this has some promise,” the man said, looking into my eyes. “Do you like this one?” “Oh, John, do we really need to do this?” The woman sighed, her eyes drifting around the room. “Do what, Darling?” “You can cut it with the ‘Darling’, too. It’s not like anyone’s listening. They’re busy choosing their own pets,” she said, gesturing towards the rest of the people in the room with an elegant sweep of her arm. “And you can stop pretending I have any say in your precious little project. You know I couldn’t care less about getting her.” Her husband stepped forward, so close their bodies almost touched. “You know how it looks for us not to have one, don’t you? After all the time I spent getting this bill to pass. People are saying things. You don’t want them to think—” She took a step away from him, eyeing an old man who had turned his attention to their conversation. “Whatever you say, Dear,” she interrupted. “I’m merely along for the ride.” “You can’t argue that Ruby needs this,” the man said. “We agreed.” Her face softened. “I know.” He took a deep breath, and when he turned back to me, it was as if he’d flipped a switch, changing his face back to the same well-groomed look of prominence and stature I’d seen on it to begin with. “Stand up and give us a little whirl, Love,” he said to me. I hadn’t anticipated the weakness in my legs, but I stood and turned slowly, the way I learned in my Poise lessons. I kept my chin up, neck elongated, my arms held out ever so slightly from my sides as if my hands were brushing the skirt of a tutu. The man smiled once I faced him again. “And what are your talents? The Kennel Trainer said that you each specialized in two.” “My talents are piano, dance, and singing. Although my vocal range is not as diverse as some.” His forehead creased, his eyes narrowing, and my stomach flipped. If Miss Gellner had been standing next to me, she would have lashed me with her stick. We’d practiced our lines over and over and still I said it wrong. There hadn’t been any need for me to point out my faults so blatantly. I should have only mentioned the piano and dance and not said anything about the singing. I was trying too hard to impress. “Three talents?” he asked. “Marvelous. I suppose We’d be getting a little bit more bang for the buck if we go with you then, isn’t that right?” The man’s phrasing confused me and I lowered my eyes to the ground and smiled softly the way we’d been taught to do if we ever didn’t know how to answer a question. “So which is your favorite?” “Favorite?” I asked. “Which one do you like the most?” “I’m quite good at all three as long as the song I’m singing is written for a mezzo soprano.” “But certainly you have a favorite?” My mind raced, trying to think over all the scenarios we’d spoken about like this one in our Conversation class, but I drew a blank. Those classes were meant to help us understand our new owner better, not to help them understand us. I couldn’t come right out and tell him that I had a favorite. Miss Gellner would be outraged. Maybe I could try to change the subject? But then he might realize I was doing it to avoid his question, and he would know that I really did have a favorite. It was too complicated an interaction. The woman smiled slyly. “Maybe she doesn’t understand your question John. Sure, she’s pretty, but they weren’t bred for brains.” “I thought you said you wanted to stay out of this.” She raised her hands and took a step back without saying another word. The man tried again. “What I mean to say is: which one of your talents do you prefer? Is there one that makes you particularly happy?” I swallowed, hoping to push down the rock that had lodged itself in my throat. “Well sir, if there’s one that you prefer, I’m sure I’d be delighted to perform for you.” The man sighed and shook his head. “Never mind. Why don’t you sit back down?” I smiled once more and sank back onto the divan, trying to hold my head high even though my eyes burned. For the next hour, the groups of men and women circled around the room. They were all so much bigger than I’d imagined they’d be, not only in their physical stature, but their presence, as if the room couldn’t contain them. They gobbled up the air. Finally Miss Gellner moved us into the concert room. We’d each been assigned one talent to demonstrate to give the clients a better taste of what they’d be buying. Four and Five would each be performing an adagio en pointe, a few girls were playing the flute and the cello, but the majority of us would be playing the piano or singing. Maybe it should have bothered me that I wouldn’t stand out, but all I could think about as we sat down in the velvet seats arranged along the edges of the room was Debussy’s First Arabesque in E major, the song Miss Gellner had chosen for me to play. It wasn’t an elaborate song. I could play solos that were so much more difficult like the piece by Prokofiev that I learned last year, but I was glad she hadn’t chosen that one. Sure, I wouldn’t be able to show off my finger work playing the First Arabesque, but that didn’t matter. I could already feel the notes of the song moving up through my fingers and arms, a soft vibration that settled somewhere at the base of my neck like the warm hand of a friend. We moved in order: One, Two, Three, Four, on and on until finally it was my turn. As I climbed the stairs to the small stage at the front of the room and sat on the tufted cushion of the piano bench, it was as if a white curtain had been drawn down between the crowd and me. I took a deep breath, savoring the moment before I placed my hands on the keys and started to play. My fingers floated over the ivories for only a short four minutes, but my heart and mind quieted. I didn’t know if the other girls felt this way when they were playing, as if they were all alone and the rest of the world melted away leaving the air awash in soft color. I’d always been too embarrassed to ask. What if it meant that I had something wrong with me? Those four minutes didn’t last long enough and before I knew it my fingers had stopped, hovering over the keys as the last notes died away. A polite spattering of applause brought me back to the room full of strangers. As I stood, I glanced out into the audience, allowing myself to imagine which of these people might be my future owner. Toward the back of the room I spotted the man with the salt and pepper hair and his wife. Neither of them was clapping, but for just a second he held my gaze and nodded ever so slightly. That small gesture made my face burn with shame. He knew that I lied to him before when he’d asked me which one of my talents was my favorite. Of course it was piano, but I could never say it out loud. I was supposed to bring pleasure to my new masters, not to find pleasure for myself. A cold sweat broke out across my back and I shivered, sitting back down on my chair to watch the remainder of the performances. If he could read me so easily, maybe everyone else could, too. 2 (a shortish one) The inside of Penn’s room didn’t look a thing like the rest of the house. Maybe at one point his mother had had a hand in decorating it, but it was hard to tell because of the lengths he must have gone to cover it up. The bones of the room were strong and masculine: solid, wooden furniture stained a dark, deep cherry. But besides the furniture, the rest of the room appeared to be one giant battle against any influence of his mother. The walls, which had once been painted a soft shade of green, were plastered over with posters of people and old, rusty road signs. The far wall above his bed was almost entirely covered with instruments. I didn’t recognize most of them, but there were a few of them that I could name: a couple of guitars, a mandolin. “Do you play those?” I asked, pointing to the wall. “Yeah, most of them… at least a little,” Penn said, glancing up from his speakers. “But I’m only really good at a few. Mostly I play the guitar.” I looked around for a place to sit, but most of the surfaces were covered in discarded clothes and towels. Apparently Rosa didn’t pick up the laundry in his room the way she did for everyone else. I stood awkwardly amidst the mess, glancing at the photographs that covered the mirror above the gigantic set of dresser drawers. There were pictures of Penn at the beach, and of him playing the guitar in front of a roaring bonfire. There were pictures of him clustered amid groups of his friends. I searched their faces, trying to recognize the girl from the swimming pool, but none of them seemed familiar. “Okay,” he finally said, “I’m starting you out with Amos Lee since you liked Ray LaMontagne so much.” He hit a button and music started playing, sounding as if it was coming from all four corners of his room. I closed my eyes to the soft sound of the piano, both familiar yet totally new. It was always enchanting to hear a new composition after hearing the same ones year after year, and this one was no exception. The notes were lonely, full of melancholy that reminded me a bit of one of Beethoven’s sonatas. But I wasn’t prepared for the ache I would feel once the singing started. I took a shuddering breath. “Are you okay?” I nodded, afraid that if I opened my mouth I wouldn’t be able to speak. I closed my eyes again and let myself drift into the music. It wasn’t until the song faded out and I opened my eyes again that I realized Penn was sitting next to me. He was staring at me again, that same puzzled expression on his face. “That was beautiful,” I choked out, before he could ask me again if I was all right. “Yeah.” He smiled. “It’s one of my favorites. Who would have guessed I’d have the same taste in music as a pet from Greenwich Kennels?” It was the first time he’d mentioned my past without sounding angry. “You can play me something else if you want.” Penn put on another song and flopped down on the bed next to me, pushing a notebook and a pair of pants onto the floor. “Sorry about the mess,” he said. “Here, you can scoot over if you want.” I scooted closer to him, settling into the music. Both of us sat perfectly still and listened to the strum of the guitar and the beat of the drums that played underneath like a heartbeat. Next to me, I could feel the heat of Penn’s leg seeping through the fabric of my dress, making my thigh burn. He leaned in. This close I could see the bursts of gold inside his eyes, but all I could think about was that kiss, the way his lips had felt against mine. So soft. So warm. I wanted to feel that again. I closed my eyes. There was a knock at the door and Penn scooted away from me, but not fast enough. His father threw the door open. “Thank God,” he said, striding over to us. “I looked all over the house for you, Ella. Didn’t you hear me calling?” “With the music playing, I must not have heard you,” I said, “I’m terribly sorry, Master.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw Penn cringe. I should have remembered that I wasn’t to use that word, but I was so nervous, and the Congressman’s face was flushed and red, distracting me. I couldn’t think straight. The Congressman turned on Penn. “What were you thinking, taking her up here?” “I was just playing her some music. It’s not like I—” “Your music is the last thing I want you to introduce her to. If I remember correctly, you need to be focusing on catching up on your school work, not wasting time listening to songs.” “Dad, I—” Penn started to say, but the Congressman didn’t seem at all interested. “Not now. I’ve got two campaign donors waiting in the conservatory to meet Ella. I’ve wasted ten minutes looking for her, so I really don’t have time for your excuses right now.” As the Congressman took me by the elbow and led me from the room, I chanced one last glance back at Penn. He had already turned away. 3 (another shortish one) I sat in my room on the couch near the window staring out at the last bit of gold staining the sky. I couldn’t place the feeling growing inside me. It was as if the flavor of Ruby’s butterscotch and Penn’s music still lingered on my tongue, a taste that was both bittersweet and totally divine. This place was more beautiful than I ever could have imagined, but it was more confusing, too. It felt as if a conversation was going on around me, but I could only hear bits and pieces of it, and now I was trying desperately to string those bits together to make a sentence that I could actually understand. The room was growing dark, but I didn’t feel like turning on the bright light of the chandelier that hung at the end of my bed. In the shadows, I almost became a part of the room. Miss Gellner had always admonished us to go to bed by nine o’clock each night. “Sleep feeds beauty,” she always used to say. But I wasn’t at all tired. Just as I was about to get up from the couch to crawl into bed, there was a small tap at the door. Before I had a chance to respond, the door cracked open, letting the yellow light from the hallway spill into the room. The Congressman’s large body stood silhouetted in the doorframe. “Ella?” he called, poking his head into the room. I sat up straighter on the couch and arranged a content expression on my face. “Please, come in,” I said, pressing down the tremble in my voice. The Congressman strode into the room and sat beside me on the couch. The light was nearly gone from the sky and the only bit of illumination in the room was the yellow rectangle of light in the doorway. Sitting in the dark next to him felt too intimate, and I wished I had at least turned on a lamp. “How was your first full day in your new house?” the Congressman asked. “It was lovely.” My face flushed at the lie, thinking of all the things that had happened during the day that I knew I shouldn’t mention. Had he heard about that woman, Rhonda, and her crazy rant? Or about my swim in the pool? Or the forbidden piece of candy Ruby had given to me? I feared all of my secrets were written on my face as clearly as the words in Ruby’s book of fairytales, but the easy look on his face suggested he couldn’t see them. “I brought you a little something,” the Congressman said. I hadn’t noticed the small box he held until he placed it in my hands. The box was flat and rectangular, covered in soft, white satin. “Go on, open it,” he said. I cracked the lid and stared down at the gold chain that glittered ever so softly in the dim light. On the end of it was a round pendant. I lifted it up and held it towards the light so that I could see that the gold pendant was encircled with a ring of shining diamonds. Inside something was engraved in loopy script. “It’s your name,” he said, reaching out to run his finger over the lettering. “And on the other side it has our address and phone number.” He cupped the side of my face in his hand. “Let me put it on you.” My hands shook and I turned away from him, lifting the hair from off my back. The scooped back of my nightgown left me feeling bare, and without my hair to cover me a chill brought goose bumps to my skin. The Congressman reached his large arms around my body so the cold metal of the pendant rested across my collarbone. “Now you’ll never forget where you belong,” he whispered next to my ear. I reached down and touched the front of the pendant. “It’s beautiful,” I said, “Thank you for thinking of me.” “You’re easy to think about, Ella.” My name sounded peculiar on his lips. His hand still rested against the bare skin of my shoulder, but he didn’t attempt to move it. Leaning forward, he brushed his lips lightly against my cheek. When I raised my eyes, the Congressman’s wife was standing in the doorway. In one fluid motion the Congressman removed his hand from my shoulder and scooted away from me. “Elise, what wonderful timing,” he said, standing. “I just gave Ella her new tag.” He stood and flipped on the light to the chandelier, casting the room with such bright, yellow light that I had to shield my eyes. Even so, I didn’t miss the strange look that passed across the Congressman’s wife’s face. “Wonderful,” she said, walking across the room to where I sat. “Let’s have a look.” She only gave the pendant a passing glance before turning to her husband. “It’s late. Don’t you think we should let Ella get to sleep?” The Congressman nodded, smiling at his wife. “Goodnight, Love,” he called behind him. A moment later the two of them closed the door, leaving me alone under the bright lights of the chandelier. 4 (long) The party had already begun by the time I slipped out my double doors and onto the patio. Rosa had brought my dinner to my room instead of feeding me in the dining room because the congressman’s wife had been worried it would seem peculiar to the guests if I were seen eating one of my meals. But even though I’d just eaten, the smells that drifted over from the long tables by the pool house made my mouth water. What would I give to be able to try just a nibble of all those fancy foods? I’d seen them all pass through the house on their way to the tables: dishes of dainty finger foods arranged like tiny pieces of art on the overflowing trays. The patio was sparkling with the white lights strung from the pool house and along the top of the new tent. In the pool, glowing orbs floated on top of the water. The night was warm, but not hot, and the music drifting out of the tent at the bottom of the hill floated over to me on a light breeze. I stopped to soak it all in. It was hard to imagine there had ever been a more beautiful evening in the history of the world, and here I was, able to enjoy it all. Across the patio I took in the groups of people buzzing around the tables and talking in clumps by the edge of the pool. They all seemed so grand, so important, smiling to one another over fluted glasses full of sparkling drinks. The congressman and his wife stood amidst the clump of guests. They looked striking. His wife was remarkable in her everyday wear, but tonight she seemed like an entirely different person. The soft light illuminated her honey-colored gown, reflecting in the tiny gold beads scattered across the bodice, which slowly disappeared as they neared the ground. It was sleek and elegant, accentuating her broad shoulders and long, slender body. Next to her, the congressman stood with his hand around her waist, staring at her unwaveringly while she spoke. It was so different from the way he looked at me. I hovered at the edge of the party near the pool house and watched as the guests orbited one another. “They really went all out, didn’t they?” Penn walked up next to me wearing a crisp black tuxedo. I stared. He looked handsome in this change of clothes, polished and refined. His father would be happy to see his son blending in so well with his colleagues. But this new version of him made me nervous. It wasn’t until I looked up at his tousled hair and warm eyes that I relaxed, grateful that his new clothes couldn’t hide the real him. In each of his hands he carried a long fluted glass. “I guess they don’t really get the concept of excess,” he said, handing one of the glasses to me. I cradled the glass in my hand and took a tiny sip. The drink was utterly foreign. A million bubbles fizzed in my mouth. “It’s magical,” I said, looking out at the sparkling lights. Penn smiled and stared at me before he turned to look out at the crowds of elegant people. Finally he looked back down into his own drink, where the bubbles climbed up the side of the glass like tiny strands of lights. “Sorry for being so cynical. Sometimes my parents bring out the worst in me.” We stood silent for a minute, listening to the sounds of the other guests. Their voices were a soft hum, punctuated every now and again by the sound of laughter and clinking glasses. After a minute Penn turned back to me. “You look different tonight. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you at first…when I came over. You’re really…beautiful. I guess I’m so used to seeing your hair down, but it’s really nice up like that.” “Thank you,” I said, reaching up to touch the thick braid that wrapped around the top of my head. It was the same way I’d worn my hair for years in the training center, but it did feel different tonight. “Do you want to go see the dance floor?” “I promised your mother that I would stay toward the edge of things. She asked me not to draw too much attention to myself.” Penn shook his head, as if he should have expected this from his mother. “It’s impossible for you not to draw attention.” He grabbed my hand and pulled me onto the grass. In front of us, the tent was alive with light and noise. A wide wooden dance floor had been laid over the grass at the other end of the tent, and past it, the band stood on top of a small stage pouring music out into the night. “I really wanted to dance with you,” Penn said, frowning as he looked out over the crowded floor where his father stood talking with a large group of men. The ceiling inside was covered with large lanterns, which reflected off of the glossy wood, and as much as I wanted to stand beneath them, I didn’t want to disobey the congressman’s wife. I shook my head. “I’m sorry, Penn. I can’t.” Watching the sweet way his face fell in disappointment made me laugh. “Oh, you think hurting my feelings is funny?” he asked. “No.” I smiled, covering my face with my hands. Penn turned his head away from me, but his smile was impossible to disguise. “Good thing I don’t give up easily,” he said. He pulled me around the corner of the tent and down the dark hill into the shadows. “We’ll just have to dance out here.” With a quick flick of the wrist, he grabbed me again by the hand and drew me into his chest. My breath caught in my throat. After all the Dance lessons we’d been given at the training center, this was my first time dancing with a man. A wild tingling spread through my chest, as if all those tiny bubbles in my drink had begun exploding inside me the moment he began to move me across the grass in a slow waltz. He wasn’t a great dancer, but his arms were firm, his hand warm and strong against my back. I leaned my head on his chest, letting myself breathe in the clean smell of his starched shirt and the lingering fragrance of the bubbly drink on his breath. “Ella?” “Yes?” “I…I’m sorry if I’ve been an ass. It’s just… I can’t figure out what to think of you. I didn’t want to like you,” he said, pulling me ever so slightly closer to him. “When my dad said he was getting another pet from Greenwich… God, I was so pissed. Not just because of what happened before, but because I don’t want us to be one of those showpiece families my dad wants us to be. And I guess I thought you’d be another plastic girl, one more plaything for my midlife-crisis dad, or something, and it made me sick. But then I met you…” He paused, looking down at me. “You aren’t anything like that other one. I mean, when I heard you playing the piano the other day… You can’t teach a pet to play that way, you know? With so much heart. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a person play like that.” I wasn’t sure if the heat in my face was the exhilaration of dancing, or modesty from hearing someone compliment my piano playing. But was it really a compliment to tell me that I didn’t play the piano like a pet from Greenwich? Because that’s what I was. And even if he hadn’t liked the other girl, I couldn’t imagine how we could be that different. “Thank you,” I said, trying to keep some decorum in my voice the way Miss Gellner had taught us to do when someone gave us a compliment, even though I still wasn’t sure if it was a compliment, an apology, or a confession. The only thing I did know was how good it felt to be held by his strong arms as we moved in small circles across the grass. “It’s a perfect night,” I finally said. “Yeah.” He grinned. “What did I tell you? My parents don’t really hold anything back.” “I didn’t mean the party,” I said, only realizing the words were too bold once they’d already left my mouth. But it was too late to take them back. I looked back up at the gleaming tent. The congressman and two other men emerged, each holding a drink in their hands. He squinted up toward the house and then out across the lawn, obviously scanning the party for someone. My stomach flipped, knowing that someone was me. Penn followed my gaze and the smile on his face disappeared. He grabbed me by the waist and pulled me farther down the hill where a stand of lilac bushes bordered the grass. My heels sank into the dirt, and branches smacked my arms as he dragged me in behind him. Cool green leaves enveloped us. “Shh,” Penn whispered, pulling me closer to his side. I held completely still. My heart hammered in my throat, drowning out the sound of the music drifting down to us. “He didn’t see us, did he?” I whispered after a minute had passed. Penn pushed aside a few branches and glanced back up to the tent. “I don’t think so,” he said. He stood up and smiled. “What?” He shook his head, laughing. “It’s just funny,” he said. “Hiding like this from my dad. I feel like I’m a little kid or something.” His laughter was contagious, and I covered my face with my hands. Penn cocked his head and studied me. “You know, if you’re really trying to escape the party tonight, I have a much better place for us to hide.” He reached his hand out for mine. “If you haven’t seen a secret garden at night, you’ve never truly lived.” I took a deep breath and grabbed his hand, stepping out of our hiding place. “If you’ll kindly follow me, madam,” he said, plucking a stray twig from my hair before I wrapped my hand around his arm. We wound our way along the back of the yard until we came to a small gravel path that wove its way through the orchard. Overhead, the moon shone on the pale stones making the path seem lit, even in the darkness. We walked in silence for a minute, heading into the fruit grove. I’d never been there, even during the day, but in the moonlight, the garden looked completely foreign, all the colors compacted and condensed into cool silvers and blues. Up the hill, the party was still in full swing. My feet crunched softly on the empty path and I took a deep breath, grateful to be away from it all. “It’s right past the orchard,” Penn said as we traced our way between the trunks of gnarled old trees. They reached out to us with branches like withered, old arms, reminding me of the witches from Ruby’s stories, and I held a little tighter to his arm. Finally we came to a tall hedge running along the back of the orchard. An archway was cut into the center of it with a rusted wrought iron door that stood slightly ajar. “I used to come here all the time when I was a little kid,” Penn said, gently swinging the door inward. “Nobody else comes here because it’s so overgrown. And I guess the gardeners don’t want to bother with it if no one’s going to see it.” We stepped inside the courtyard. On all sides the eight-foot-tall hedges acted as walls, enclosing it perfectly from the rest of the yard. If it hadn’t been for the bright moon shining down on us, it would have been completely dark inside. We walked farther in, along the same pale, gravel path that now curved through the courtyard, and the party all but disappeared. Through the wrought iron gate I could only catch a glimpse of the white tent flaming up the hill, and the sounds of the party disappeared, replaced instead by the sound of crickets and the wind blowing through the leaves. “I guess it’s kind of a mess,” Penn said. “Sometimes I wonder who built it. My mom and dad had the rest of the grounds redone when we moved in, but this stuff has to be really old.” He ran his foot along the patio in the center of the garden. “You can tell from how worn the stones are.” Penn kept talking, and I turned in a slow circle, taking it all in. Thick weeds sprouted up through the cracks in the pavers and drowned out the flowerbeds that must have lined the edges of the garden long ago. In the moonlight, a spattering of scraggly weeds with tiny blue flowers surrounded a gigantic overgrown rose bush, which spilled petals across an old stone bench. And next to the bench, water bugs scooted across a long, rectangular pond. The whole garden was a messy tangle of vines and leaves, but there was beauty in the chaos, a wild abandon. “This is my favorite part of the whole garden.” Penn took my hand and led me to the far wall. “You can tell it’s been here for ages. The house was built in the thirties and I’m guessing it’s probably been here since then.” He pushed aside a clump of vines and uncovered a small cavity in the hedge. Standing inside was a stone statue of a woman. Her face was tilted up to the sky, eyes closed, with an almost invisible smile on her lips. “She looks like she’s waiting for something beautiful to happen,” I whispered, reaching out to stroke the rough stone. “I think she looks a little bit like you.” I swallowed, suddenly more aware of my own heartbeat than I’d ever been before. If I raised my hand to my throat I’d be able to feel it there, fluttering like a thing with wings trying to escape. “I found her when I was ten. I lost one of my toy cars back in the shrubs and when I went to look for it, she was just standing there waiting for me. I’ve never shown her to anyone else. I’ve thought about telling my sisters, but I don’t know… I kind of like keeping her a secret. I guess I kind of like being the only one who knows about her.” He smiled. “Well now with you, I guess there are two of us.” “I won’t tell.” We sat down on a small bench near one of the walls. “So, what do you think?” he asked. I breathed in deeply, savoring the dank and woody smell of the garden. It was so different than anywhere else on the property. “It’s so beautiful. It’s like the plants are celebrating.” Penn raised one of his eyebrows. “Celebrating?” “Never mind.” I shrugged, flustered. “It was a silly thing to say.” “No, tell me,” he insisted. I took a deep breath. Maybe here in the dark I could say things that would sound strange anywhere else. “It just seems like they’re happy not to be contained,” I said. “People might try to force them to be something different for a little while, but in the end, their true nature still comes through.” “Yeah.” Penn smiled. “It’s just like that. Sometimes it’s nice to have a little bit of imperfection, isn’t it?” … Outside Penn’s garden, the music and the lights brought me back into the real world. At the top of the hill we both paused and stared at the gleaming tent. Neither of us noticed his mother, but all of a sudden there she was, standing next to us. “I’ve been looking all over for you.” Penn’s reaction was immediate. His hand flew from the spot where it rested at the base of my spine and he stepped away from me. “Oh, hey Mom. How’s the party going?” She dismissed his question with a wave of her hand. “Your father has been looking for both of you and I’m not sure I can hold him off much longer. I told him you were introducing Ella to the Dibellas, but there’s not very much longer—” She stopped talking midsentence and tucked a piece of hair behind her ear, composing herself. “Hello, dear,” she said, smiling as the congressman walked up behind us. He took a long sip from his glass and let his gaze travel over us. “The Dargers and Mortensons are here with their kids. I thought you’d be entertaining them,” he said to Penn. “When I saw them a minute ago, they were actually looking bored.” He stopped talking, his gaze darting between the three of us. “What are you doing out here anyway?” When none of us responded, he nudged Penn in the direction of the tent. “You certainly don’t need to be out here keeping Ella company.” Penn glowered, but he let his mother lead him toward a group of people his age who were sipping drinks and laughing near the buffet table. After they were gone he turned his attention to me. “I hope you’re enjoying yourself,” he said. “I’ve got some friends who are dying to meet you.” He took me by the elbow, leading me in the direction of the tent, but before we entered, he pulled me close, leaning down to speak in my ear. “Try not to distract Penn anymore tonight, all right? There are plenty of other people here who’d enjoy your company.” The congressman’s colleagues were all packed together on the far end of the tent, laughing loudly and puffing on thick brown cigars. The air was thick with smoke, but none of them seemed to mind. “Not to worry. I found her!” he announced, patting a few of the men on the back as we wove through the crowd. There was an empty seat at a table in the corner and the congressman sank down into it, smiling. I stood uncomfortably at his side. “So you weren’t lying,” a tall man with a mustache said. He placed his hand on my shoulder and twisted me around so that he could get a better look. “And this one’s even prettier than the last.” “What did I tell you?” The congressman grinned and took another sip of his drink. “Come on, Charlie,” he called across the table to a man with blond hair. “You’ve got to admit that you’re curious. This doesn’t make you change your mind about the funding?” The man gave a consolatory smile. “You always have to be right, don’t you, John? How do you expect a man to argue with a face like that? It’s unfair.” The congressman threw his head back and laughed, clearly enjoying himself. “Come here, love,” he said, pulling me down onto his lap. His breath was hot against my neck, pungent with the smell of his drink. I wanted to turn my head away, but I couldn’t. I took shallow breaths and forced a serene smile onto my face. They didn’t need to know the level of concentration it took to look this way, to keep myself looking pleasant instead of puckering with disgust. It was a skill to silent my body. If I hadn’t been trained by Miss Gellner, I never could have sat perched on the congressman’s knee without squirming. And oh, how I wanted to. I wanted to peel his hand from my waist. I wanted to scoot forward so I couldn’t feel the way his belly pressed against me with each breath that he took. I’d always been told that a pet was meant to be a showpiece, but this wasn’t what I’d imagined. I always assumed that I’d be admired, displayed even, but not handled like an object, like a toy. By the time the congressman was done showing me off, the dewy turquoise sky had turned black, dotted with an abundance of stars. And still the band played and the people laughed and ate and drank. I watched Penn from where I sat on the low stonewall that ran behind the party tent. He didn’t seem to have any trouble entertaining the large group of friends clustered around him. I would have loved to know what they were talking about, but even though I could see their lips move and their heads tip back with laughter, I couldn’t make out their words. After a while I stood and made my way back up to the lounge chairs by the pool. They were familiar and comfortable, the place I spent so much time lately, and I settled down on one. I wrapped my arms tightly around my body. Already, I missed the heat of Penn’s body so close to mine. “Do you mind if I sit?” I jumped a little, surprised to see one of the young men Penn had been talking to earlier standing next to the foot of my chair. He smiled broadly, bringing two deep dimples to his cheeks. He was dressed in the same sort of black tuxedo Penn was wearing. “Please.” I gestured to the chair next to me. “Thanks.” Ignoring my gesture, he brushed my feet to the side and sat down near my legs. “I’ve been looking at you all night. Have you not noticed?” I shook my head. “I’m Collin,” he said, sticking out his hand for me to shake. I took it lightly, surprised when he brought it up to his lips. “I’m Ella.” I didn’t know how much Penn had told him about me, but I didn’t want to make the congressman’s wife angry by saying too much. “It was kind of rude of Penn not to bring you over to meet us,” he said, resting his hand on the cushion near my leg. I was suddenly very aware of how short this dress was compared to the other gowns I was used to wearing and I tugged at the bottom of it, trying to get it to cover my knees. “But I can see how he’d like to keep you to himself,” Collin went on, scooting a little closer. “So, is it true what they say about pets?” I fumbled to pick up my drink, which still sat on the small table by my chair, and took a small sip, but with the bubbles gone it didn’t taste good at all. I swallowed. “I don’t know what you mean.” “Sure you do,” Collin said, reaching out to put a hand on my thigh. “I’ve always wondered what they taught you at those kennels. It can’t just be how to sit there and look pretty.” “I…well…there’s etiquette…” I stumbled. “Not that I have a problem with you just sitting there looking pretty,” he said. “Has anyone told you how gorgeous you look?” “That’s very kind of you.” I swung my legs over the side of the chaise lounge to give myself some distance. I needed to get out of here, somewhere where I wouldn’t be such a distraction. I was afraid this was exactly what the congressman’s wife had been talking about. “I’m sorry, but if you’ll excuse me.” “Wait,” he said, tightening the grip on my leg. “We were just getting to know each other.” My stomach knotted and I tried to scoot farther away from his grasp. “It really has been a pleasure meeting you, but I think Mrs. Kimball is expecting me.” Collin laughed softly. “No, she’s not. Come on, we both know she’s trying to hide you. I mean, look at this dress.” He rubbed the fabric between his fingers. “When has a pet ever worn anything like this?” I shook my head, trying to find my voice. “I don’t…I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “It’s all right,” he said, stretching his hand more fully across my thigh. I swallowed back the embarrassment that burned the back of my throat. “I…I shouldn’t be talking to you. Mrs. Kimball asked me to keep my distance from the guests.” “How about we keep our distance from the other guests together?” He nodded his head at the dark house. “I bet it’s nice and private in there.” My gaze traveled up the shadowed brick to Penn’s room on the second floor. My heart stuttered, imagining how different it would feel if he had been the one to invite me inside. I remembered the way he’d kissed me. Is that what this boy wanted to do? I didn’t want to kiss him. “That sounds lovely,” I said, pushing down the fear in my voice. “I just need a minute to freshen up. If you want to head inside, I’ll meet you in the conservatory in just a few minutes.” Collin grinned. “Don’t keep me waiting.” He traced a finger along the collar of my dress. “I’ve been imagining what’s under here all night. I don’t know how much longer I can stand it.” “I won’t,” I choked out. As soon as he closed the door behind him, I slid out past the pool house and onto the cool lawn. A swarm of tiny bugs hovered in front of me like a cloud and I batted them away. Never. I would never let him touch me. My legs wobbled as I broke into a run. A dark undercurrent surged beneath the congressman’s picture-perfect world, threatening to pull me down and it frightened me…almost as much as what waited for me at the kennel if I was to make a mistake.
 
 About the Author:
Kate Jarvik Birch is a visual artist, author, playwright, daydreamer, and professional procrastinator. As a child, she wanted to grow up to be either a unicorn or mermaid. Luckily, being a writer turned out to be just as magical. Her essays and short stories have been published in literary journals including Indiana Review and Saint Ann’s Review. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah with her husband and three kids. To learn more visit www.katejarvikbirch.com

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2 comments

  1. I've seen this cover everywhere! It looks REALLY good! I'm so glad that you are posting a giveaway to it, seeing as I really want to read it! And thanks for the little excerpt! I look forward to reading your thoughts on this book if you end up reading it!

    Amanda @ Of Spectacles and Books

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  2. Oh it's interesting, I didn't know this one but I love the cover! thanks for sharing!

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I'd love to hear what you thought of the book or others you think I will like! Please share your thoughts! Thank you for the thought, but I am not participating in awards.