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No Words: Chapter 7


LITTLE BRIDGE BOOK FESTIVAL ITINERARY FOR: JO WRIGHT

Friday, January 3, 6:00 p.m.–9:00 p.m.

– Welcome Cocktail Meet-and-Greet and Dinner –

The board of the Little Bridge Book Festival welcomes you to Little Bridge in the home of one of our most prestigious donors.

What?

“Wait,” I said. “Where are we?”

“Will Price’s house.” Garrett gathered up his tote bag and began to scramble from his seat, eager as the teacher’s pet on the first day of school. “You didn’t know that’s where we were going for dinner tonight?”

“No.” I tried to tamp down the panic I felt rising. “I thought we were going to a donor’s house.”

“We are. You didn’t know the largest donor to the Little Bridge Book Festival is Will Price?”

“But—but . . .” I was confused. “I read that Will lives on an island.”

Garrett smiled at me condescendingly. “This is an island, Jo.”

“Not Little Bridge Island. A different island.” All I could see through the bus windows was a high stucco wall, presumably surrounding a house, but I was certain the bus hadn’t boarded a ferry. “This looks like the exact same island we were just on.”

“We crossed a bridge,” Garrett informed me, as patiently as if he were speaking to a very small child. “Will’s island is only accessible via boat or a bridge with a private gate. Did you not notice us going across the long bridge with the private security?”

“Um.” I threw a panicky glance at Bernadette, who was staring, goggle-eyed, out the window, exactly as I was doing. She obviously had no idea what was going on, either. “No.”

“Saul!” Frannie had realized that her husband had fallen asleep. She began to shake him. “Saul. Wake up! We’re here.”

“Wha—? What? Oh.” Saul roused himself. “Well, what do you expect? You made me get up at five this morning to get to the airport—”

“Sure. It’s all my fault.” Frannie rolled her eyes at us. “It’s always my fault. Come on, lover boy, it’s showtime.”

Saul rose and followed his wife from the bus. “I wasn’t really asleep,” he assured me and Bernadette as he passed our row. “I was only resting my eyes.”

“Crap,” Bernadette said, when we were alone on the bus. “I’m so sorry about this, Jo. I had no idea. What do you want to do?”

“What can we do?” A glance at the driver’s seat revealed that the sheriff had already disembarked along with the others, and disappeared with them through a wooden gate in the stucco wall. “I’m pretty sure the sheriff’s not going to drive us back to the hotel.”

Bernadette, ever a good friend, leaned over and placed a hand on my bare arm. “Do you want to walk back?” she asked. “I don’t think it’s really that far. Or we could call an Uber or a taxi—if they’ll let one past the private gate.”

“Don’t be silly.” I gave her a dazzling—and completely fake—smile. “We’re here. Might as well go in and make Will Price regret his life choices, right?”

“I guess so.” Bernadette chewed her lower lip uncertainly. “If you really think—”

“It’ll be fine.”

I had no confidence whatsoever that it was going to be fine, but what choice did I have?

Besides, Kitty Katz would never have let a thing like this bother her. She’d comb her whiskers and strut straight ahead, tail held high.

So I followed Bernadette through the tall, Spanish-style wooden gate into . . .

Jurassic Park.

That’s what it looked like at first glance, anyway. Flaming tiki torches lit a flagstone path through towering lush tropical trees and plants.

Only instead of alarms going off to warn us of our impending doom at the mouth of a Tyrannosaurus rex, I could hear what sounded like a small live band—including a female singer—playing jazz vocal standards.

And instead of velociraptors, there were young women standing along the path every few feet in red-and-white cheerleading uniforms with the letter S emblazoned on the chest, holding trays of canapés.

“Hi,” said the first cheerleader I encountered. “Welcome to Little Bridge Island. Would you like some fish dip?”

“Uh, no,” I said. What in the whiskers? Then I added, “Thank you,” so I wouldn’t seem rude.

“Oh, no problem,” the perky brunette said, still smiling. “Just so you know, though, the dip is made from completely organic, locally sourced ingredients, and the crackers are gluten-free.”

“Oh,” I said. “Great.”

What. Was. Happening?

Further down the flagstone path that twisted through what appeared to be Pleistocene-era-jungle plant growth, it was so tall and dark and primeval, I began to catch glimpses of a sprawling mid-century modern single-level ranch-style house.

Made entirely of glass, steel, and stone—Will Price did not, evidently, ascribe to the Victorian-era aesthetic favored by the rest of Little Bridge Island—every room in the house was warmly lit, and I could see other people moving around inside as well as outside.

So we were not, evidently, about to fall into the mouth of a volcano or be buried beneath a landslide (both fates met by heroes at the ends of Will Price books).

Still, I wasn’t touching any of the food or drink we were being offered. What if we were about to be drugged and offered up as a human sacrifice?

Then, toward the end of the path, I saw the sheriff who’d driven our bus having an in-depth conversation with another one of the cheerleaders, this one holding a tray of what appeared to be grilled shrimp skewers. Both the sheriff and the cheerleader were laughing, perhaps a more disturbing sight than any I’d seen on Little Bridge thus far: this was the first time all night that I’d seen the sheriff smile.

I grabbed Bernadette by the elbow. “What is going on here?” I whispered. “Why does that sheriff look so happy? And what’s with all the cheerleaders?”

Unlike me, Bernadette had said yes to every canapé she’d been offered. Now, her mouth full of mozzarella ball and tomato, she said, “Uh, I don’t know. I think they’re volunteering to raise money for their school. I saw a sign next to a tip jar on a table back there. You didn’t bring any cash with you, did you? I left all mine back at the hotel. We should give them five bucks.”

I shook my head. “No. And what are you doing, eating all that?”

“What do you mean?”

“Didn’t you hear a thing Frannie said?”

Bernadette swallowed and laughed. “Oh, come on. You know Frannie. She’s a worrywart. But this stuff is good. You should have some. And the kid said it was all organic.”

“That’s what they want us to believe! The reality is, we’ve just stepped off the bus into some kind of weird sex cult being run by Will Price on his private island.”

“Um,” Bernadette said, licking her fingers, “I don’t think that’s it. I’m pretty sure that one over there is the sheriff’s daughter.”

“What? Why would you think that?”

“Because I just heard her call him ‘Daddy.’”

“Oh, sweet kittens.” I rolled my eyes at her naïveté. “No wonder Will Price lives here. This place is Hell, and he’s the Devil. Come on, let’s go.” I pulled on her arm, trying to drag her back to the gate.

“Wait, hold on.” Bernadette put on the brakes. “Yes, Will Price is a pretentious jerk. But let’s at least have a couple drinks before we leave, since we came all this way, and he’s paying for them. That’s the best way to get back at the patriarchy—by making them spend their money on us.”

Before I could stop her, she marched straight up to one of the cheerleaders—this one a pretty Black girl holding a tray of champagne flutes—and said, “Hi, I’m Bernadette Zhang. What’s your name?”

“Oh. My. God!” The girl’s eyes widened. “Bernadette Zhang! You write the Crown of Stars and Bone series!”

“Yes, I do.” Bernadette lifted one of the champagne flutes. “Thanks for reading.”

“It’s so cool to meet you! I love your books! I’m Sharmaine.”

“Hi, Sharmaine. Thanks for the champagne. What’s with the cheerleading getups?”

“Oh, we’re not cheerleaders. We’re the Snappettes, the high school dance team. And that’s not—”

Bernadette was already making a face as she tasted the liquid in the glass. “Gah!”

“Sorry, I meant to tell you.” Sharmaine looked apologetic. “That’s not champagne, it’s sparkling apple juice.”

“Ugh.” Bernadette put the glass back on the tray. “That’s what my kids drink. They can’t get enough of the stuff. I personally can’t stand it. Too sweet.”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” Sharmaine said. “We’re not allowed to serve alcohol since we’re under twenty-one. They’ve set up a bar right around the corner there, though, if you—”

“Thank you so much.” I hurried over to once again grab Bernadette by the arm. “It was nice to meet you.”

“Wait.” Sharmaine stared at me—well, at the badge dangling around my neck, the plastic laminate casing around it gleaming in the tiki-torch light. “Are you the Jo Wright, the author of Kitty Katz, Kitten Sitter?”

Naturally, I couldn’t go running back to the bus after that. “Yes,” I said. “It’s nice to meet you, Sharmaine.”

“Oh! My! God!” Sharmaine stooped to place the tray of sparkling apple juice on the side of the path. “I’m so sorry, but would you both mind? I just have to get a selfie with the two of you. You don’t even understand. Kitty Katz was, like, my favorite series of all time when I was a kid. And the Crown of Stars and Bone series is, like, my life now.”

“No problem,” Bernadette said, and wrapped her arm around my waist while Sharmaine swept a cell phone from the waistband of her shorts, held it high, and leaned in for a quick, expert selfie, smiling like the Instagram star she undoubtedly was.

“Seriously,” she said a second later. “My friends are going to die. You don’t even know.” Then, as she tucked her phone away again and stooped to pick up the tray, she whispered furtively, “Only, can you not mention that I got a photo with the two of you? Because they were really firm with us that we aren’t supposed to be doing that. Mr. Price donated like twenty-five grand to the dance team in exchange for us helping out with the festival this weekend, and I really wouldn’t want to let him down.”

Bernadette elbowed me in the ribs before I had a chance to blurt out what I wanted to, which was Wait, Will Price? Will Price donated money to your dance team? Are you sure? Because Will Price is Satan and would never do something nice.

Unless of course it was to somehow take advantage of a nice young girl like Sharmaine. That I would believe.

“Absolutely,” Bernadette said to Sharmaine. “We totally understand. Come on, Jo. Let’s go find that bar.”

Then Bernadette was dragging me down the path toward the house and the sound of the jazz ensemble.

“B-but,” I stammered. “Did you hear her?”

“Yes, I heard her.” The path had widened, and we’d left the jungle overgrowth for a wide-open area, a sort of courtyard leading up to the house, in the middle of which a large group of well-dressed, mostly older white people were gathered, laughing and chattering over the sound of the band, a bassist, drummer, and gorgeously curvaceous Latina female vocalist. “Let it go.”

“I’m not going to let that go. You expect me to believe that Will Price supports female athletes? Or artists? Or whatever high school dance team members are? No way. He just wants teenaged girls in short shorts serving him at the party he’s throwing on his private island.”

“Do you think that maybe you’re letting your antipathy toward him cloud your judgment a little?” Bernadette snagged a cheese tartlet from the tray of a passing Snappette.

“No. I saw who picked him up from the airport. She was age inappropriate.”

“I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m just saying we should gather more information before we make a final decision. And by gather more information, I mean hit the bar for free booze, okay?”

“No. Not okay. Have you even—”

“Have I even what?”

I’d been about to ask her if she’d even read The Moment, then realized what I’d be admitting: that I’d read it (or had started reading it, anyway).

And that was far too humiliating a confession to make out loud. So instead I ground my teeth—something I’d been doing so much lately, my dentist had recommended that I wear a mouth guard at night to combat TMJ—and glared at all the happy partygoers around me. Most of them I didn’t recognize, but I was able to pick out Saul and Frannie exactly where I most expected to find them—standing in line for the bar—and Garrett where I wasn’t surprised to see him—pulling a “guild piece” from the ear of a well-dressed older woman who could only be a donor, and who of course screamed in delighted surprise at the “trick.”

There was Molly consulting with an older man in a white chef’s jacket and black pants—the caterer, since they were both in Will Price’s perfect-looking, chrome-and-stainless-steel-appliance kitchen, which I could easily look into since his house was made almost entirely of sliding glass doors and none of the curtains had been drawn. That’s how I was able to see that each room was exquisitely decorated in masculine tones of beige and taupe and gray, not a thing out of place, even in the bedrooms, where each bed—king-sized, of course—was tightly made, the pillows piled high and all facing a wall on which hung an expertly executed piece of modern art. No flat-screen televisions in Will’s house (I had one in every room, of course, and kept them blaring all day long unless I was working, which lately was never).

But where was our host? How was I going to make him regret all of his life choices if I couldn’t even find him?

“Jo! Bernadette!”

We looked over as a lanky Black man detached himself from the crowd by the bar and approached us. It was Jerome Jarvis, this year’s national poet laureate, holding a beer in his hand.

“I was wondering when you two were going to get here,” he said, smiling.

“I could say the same thing about you.” Bernadette stood on tiptoe to give him a quick hello peck on the cheek. “Why weren’t you on the author bus?”

“I walked here from the hotel. It was a long plane ride from Iowa. No direct flights. I needed to stretch my legs a little. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one who had that idea—”

A piercing shriek split the air. “Bern! Jo!”

An attractive blond woman I recognized only too well from previous events separated herself from another crowd of people and lunged toward us. It was Kellyjean Murphy, whose witch-werewolf romance novels (written under the pen name Victoria Maynard) were all the rage.

“Oh my gosh,” Kellyjean cried, stumbling a little—not because she was drunk. Kellyjean, a mother of four and aromapath from Texas, didn’t consume alcohol or any other “unnatural substances.” No, she stumbled because she wasn’t used to the high-heeled gold sandals she had on. “Can you believe this place? Will Price must be making a fortune! I mean, I know his movies make a lot of money, but what kind of advances do you think he’s pulling in? Have you seen his pool? That waterfall? And the beach? All white sand. I hear he has it flown in from the Bahamas. I think I might start killing off some of my characters if this is the kind of money you can make from it. Ha-ha, I’m kidding, of course!”

Jerome looked at Bernadette and me tiredly. “Yeah,” he said. “Kellyjean is here. She walked over with me.” The look of pain on Jerome’s face illustrated what a long journey that must have been.

“Oh my gosh.” Kellyjean, once she got started, was like a faucet that couldn’t be turned off. She just gushed and gushed. Her broad Texas accent made the gushing all the more entertaining—or unbearable, depending on your perspective. “Jerome and I did walk here! And, boy, was that a mistake. I didn’t think it was going to be that far, but golly, halfway across that bridge, my toes started killing me.” She rubbed one of her tired feet. “But the view was spectacular! So, are any of you takin’ Will up on his offer of a boat ride tomorrow? I sure am. The water here is amazing, so crystal clear, you could probably see mermaids through it if you got out far enough from the shore.”

Kellyjean was an adult woman who believed not only in witches and werewolves, but also mermaids. I knew this from having been at previous events with her. There was a Netflix series based on her books that was rumored to be one of the top-rated shows on the streaming service.

Kellyjean wasn’t stupid, though—no one with a career as successful as hers could be. She was simply a wide-eyed believer in all things mystical.

“How unfortunate,” Jerome said, after another quick slug of beer. “I think I have a panel tomorrow afternoon.”

“No, you don’t!” Kellyjean dropped her foot and playfully slapped his shoulder. “None of us have any panels tomorrow afternoon. They’re all in the morning.”

“Oh.” Jerome looked disappointed that his excuse hadn’t worked. This wasn’t his first rodeo with Kellyjean, either.

Kellyjean looked at Bernadette and me expectantly. “What about you two? Although you’re probably going to be sick of Will by tomorrow, Jo, since you’re sitting next to him tonight.”

I stared at her, unsure whether this was another one of Kellyjean’s flights of fancy or an actual fact. With her, it was often hard to tell. “What do you mean?”

“Haven’t you checked out the tables for tonight?” Kellyjean was doing some yoga stretches even though we were at what was essentially a public event and she was wearing a maxi dress. But it was a maxi dress with a floaty skirt, in keeping with her identity as the author of romantic supernatural lore. “They’re over on the beach, behind the pool with the sparkly waterfall. I always check where I’m going to be sitting first thing when I’m going to a dinner to make sure the caterer has me down for a vegetarian plate, and I saw your place card when I was looking for mine. Yours is at the Ernest Hemingway table, place of honor, right next to Will Price.”


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