Sadie Samson shot past the Douglas firs, navigating mud, rocks, and fallen branches at forty-eight miles per hour. Twice the speed of an average human. It was perfect for outrunning cops and watchdogs. She would have been even faster if she hadn’t been carrying two fifty-pound bags of sugar.
“Next Sunday, these sugar bags will be real people,” she told her pack mate Lindsey, who was running beside her. Not because Lindsey needed reminding. Operation: Cage Rage had been her idea. But rather, because after one month of training and scheming, Sadie couldn’t believe their top-secret mission was only seven days away.
“Unless . . . ,” Lindsey said with a devilish purr.
“Unless we kept on running and go--”
“No!” Sadie interrupted. “We have a plan. Can we please stick to it?”
Lindsey let out a gusty sigh. “Fraidy-cat.”
The accusation made Sadie’s stomach churn. This one sounded serious, unlike the dozens of times they jokingly called each other fraidy-cats.
“I’m not afraid,” Sadie panted. “I just want to do it properly.”
That part was true. Sadie did want to do it properly. Breaking into the Institute of Behavioral Science to rescue the animal-lights from the dreaded thirteenth floor was not to be done on a whim.
Instead, Sadie and Lindsey were going to capitalize on the chaos of thirty-two animal-lights returning to Charm House next Sunday, after Thanksgiving break, and slip out undetected. They’d dart across the back lawn, charge into these woods, and run two miles to Allendale Boys School. Once at ABS, they’d connect with Lindsey’s brother Beak and his sixteen-year-old friend Hunter.
Did Hunter know he had been recruited to drive their getaway car?
He thought he was doing them a Thanksgiving solid by taking them to see their father--a man forced to work at IBS over the holiday. While Hunter waited in his car in the IBS parking lot, Beak, Lindsey, and Sadie would slip inside. They weren’t exactly sure what would happen next. They still had floor plans to memorize. Guard shifts to calculate. Escape routes to map. Outfits to plan. Why couldn’t Lindsey focus on that?
But if Sadie was being honest, she’d admit that she was a bit of a fraidy-cat. And not just because they’d be breaking into IBS--a mysterious institute filled with imprisoned animal-lights and evil research scientists. It was dangerous, sure, but Sadie had faith in her animal powers and knew she could defend herself. Her real fear, the one that kept her from being impulsive, was being caught by Headmistress Flora and getting expelled from Charm House.
Because then what?
Charm House had become Sadie’s home; her friends had become her family. Being released into the wild and sent back to public school, where she’d be picked on and ostracized, was worse than being caged on the thirteenth floor of IBS. And Lindsey didn’t seem to get that. Miss Flora was her grandmother, and Professor Jo was her mother. And Karl Van der Beak, the evilest evil scientist, was her father. So Lindsey could ditch plans, take chances, and seek adventure. Her family wouldn’t kick her out of Charm House, and her father wouldn’t cut her open and analyze her guts. Lindsey could risk everything because she had nothing to lose.
“How are we doing on time?” Sadie asked, trying to redirect Lindsey’s thoughts.
The tiger-light glanced down at her watch. “Besting our record by five seconds.”
“Purrrfect! We should let Beak know.”
Lindsey drew back her head. “Why?”
“Because he’s part of the mission.”
A wry smile spread across Lindsey’s face. “More like he’s part of your mission.”
“What does that mean?” Sadie asked, even though she knew.
“It means Operation: Make Beak Crush on Me Again is in full effect.”
Sadie blushed. Lindsey was right. If she could impress Beak with her coolheaded leadership skills and regain his trust, maybe his heart would speed up when he saw her. Just like it used to.
It didn’t matter how often Sadie apologized for not telling him that Lindsey escaped Charm House. Or how she explained that Lindsey begged her not to tell--and that pack mates placed loyalty above all else. Beak downgraded Sadie’s status from girlfriend to girl friend. He blocked her on TKR, the friend-locator app. He stopped texting. He took back his thumb ring. He broke her heart.
The weight of missing Beak began to slow Sadie’s legs. One hundred pounds of sugar started to feel like one thousand.
She wanted to rest. She couldn’t rest. And then Lindsey dropped her sugar sack onto the dirt trail and took a knee. Not because she was tired. Lindsey stopped because they were on sacred ground.
“What do you miss most about her?” Sadie asked as she lowered herself beside Lindsey. She tried to imagine what it must have been like to be with Kate the day she was abducted by Sheriff Skinner--from this exact spot--and taken to IBS.
“I miss how she made normal things fun,” Lindsey said, her emerald eyes filling with tears. “How she could bite through bones like they were pieces of celery. How she was always watching and waiting and then, BAM! When the time was right, that jaguar would pounce. Oh, and she had the best accessories.” She sighed. “Kate must miss those accessories. I know I do.”
“I bet Kate and Amy were quite a team,” Sadie said. “You know, with that whole waiting and pouncing thing . . .”
Lindsey’s glossy lips lifted into a wide smile. “They used to love sneaking up and scaring us. Taylor and I hated it at the time, but now . . .” She lowered her gaze.
“Amy still has nightmares about it,” Sadie said. When Sadie arrived at Charm House, Kate was already gone, but she liked being able to add to the conversation. Anything to be part of the Pack’s history. “She still feels bad about it.”
Lindsey’s liquid expression hardened. “I would too if I closed my eyes, coiled into a ball, and froze while my pack mate was being kidnapped.” She shook her head, still finding it hard to believe Amy didn’t do more. “I wish we had been there.”
Sadie stood. “That’s why I think we should let Amy and Taylor be part of the mission. They want to rescue Kate just as much as we do. And Amy would probably love a second chance to prove--”
Lindsey growled. “We’ve been over this, Sadie Lady!”
“I know, but we’re a pack. We’re not supposed to keep secrets,” Sadie pressed. “And we could actually use their help. Amy’s venom can knock out security guards. Taylor can camouflage and--”
“Cats only!” Lindsey insisted.
“Beak isn’t a cat, and he’s going. He doesn’t even have an animal-light.”
“He’s my brother. I trust him.”
It didn’t matter that the Pack painted black stripes on their fingernails to signify their bond. That their pledge spoke of honesty, loyalty, and truth. Or that their tagline was Paws, Claws, and Jaws. Gossip moved through Charm House with cheetah speed, and Lindsey clearly didn’t want to take any chances.
“Amy could freeze again. And Taylor is always stressing about something,” she continued. “But cats are cool . . .” Lindsey fixed her emerald-green eyes on Sadie and flashed her long claws, which she had masterfully filed into the shapes of various skeleton keys. Purrrfect for lock-picking. “We’ve got this.”
Their phones began to vibrate. The new Charm House app--created to eliminate Miss Flora’s loudspeaker announcements, which hurt the animal-lights’ sensitive ears--was delivering a message.
MANDATORY ASSEMBLY IN THE BARN AT 6:15 PM TONIGHT.
DRESS IN CEREMONIAL CAPES.
ATTENDANCE WILL BE TAKEN.
TARDINESS WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.
Yes! They couldn’t go on the mission tonight, even if they wanted to.
“Why are we having an assembly on a Sunday?” Lindsey huffed.
“How are we supposed to get back to school, sneak the sugar bags back into the kitchen, and get dressed in twenty-two minutes?”
“Run like our lives depend on it!” Sadie said.
Because in exactly one week, they would.
“Who died?” Sadie asked when she entered her dorm room. Because when a girl’s pack mates are gathered on a bed, donning black cloaks and hangdog expressions, the funeral vibes are strong.
Amy, Sadie’s roommate, lifted her tear-streaked face and sniffled. “My heart died. That’s who.” The snake-light tucked her chin and coiled into a fetal position as if her bones were made of toffee.
Actually, Mmmmm, anything! If Sadie didn’t get some food soon . . .
“Mia blew Amy off,” Taylor reported. She had that frustrated, I-told-you-so tone. “The hyena went bye-ena. Ah-gain.”
“What was her excuse this time?” Sadie asked as she flopped onto her bed. Next to Amy’s bed--a multiblanketed, heat-lamp-warmed cloud of cozy for cold bloods--Sadie’s single-sheet-covered mattress was cool, but only in a hot-blooded sort of way.
“Get this . . . ,” Taylor said with a quick chameleonesque lick of her lips. “Mia said she couldn’t hang out with Amy because she has to pack for Thanksgiving break.”
“Today? It’s Sunday,” Lindsey said as she entered the dorm room dressed in her cloak. “Break starts Wednesday.”
Unlike Sadie, Lindsey didn’t have the sweaty sheen of a girl cat who just ran as if her life depended on it. There was an effortless quality to her beauty. Meanwhile, Sadie looked deep-fried.
It happened any time someone brought up Thanksgiving.
“Thanksgiving” made her think of secret missions, which made her think of secrets, which reminded her that Amy and Taylor didn’t know anything about Operation: Cage Rage.
If Sadie had been a stronger leader, a stronger lion, could she have persuaded Lindsey to change her mind? It was a valid question, one Sadie tortured herself with constantly. But how much stronger could she get? She had superhuman speed, strength, and hearing. She could climb the twenty-nine-foot spruce tree behind the school in 2.7 seconds and pretend that she didn’t miss Beak ALL THE TIME. How much stronger could she get?
But, no. Sadie couldn’t have persuaded Lindsey to include Amy and Taylor. Not because Sadie’s lion-light was too weak but because Lindsey’s conviction was too strong. And sometimes admitting defeat is the only way to win. At least that’s what Nova Rizing, aka the Girl Boss Guru, said on TikTok. The success coach explained, “Step away from the conflict so you can come up with a better strategy.” But Sadie didn’t have a better strategy. Stepping away was the best she could do.
“One of the girls in my cheerleading squad heard that Mia is into boys now,” Taylor said as she pinched the short pink hair atop her head into spikes.
Amy sat up. “Who?”
“Who said it, or which boy is Mia into?”
“I meant, who cares,” Amy hissed. “I’m not going to let gossip dictate my relationship with Mia.”
“Nineteen,” Lindsey announced. She shot Sadie and Taylor a knowing look.
“Nineteen what?” Amy asked.
“Nineteen times. You’ve said, ‘my relationship with Mia’ nineteen times since last Sunday.”
Amy’s gray eyes widened. “You’re counting?”
“You say it a lot.”
“Fact,” Taylor said.
“Fiction. I do not say ‘my relationship with Mia’--”
“Twenty!” the girls bellowed.
Amy giggled, revealing her fangs. “I don’t get it. Is talking about . . . it a bad thing?”
“We all know you’re the first one in the Pack to have a serious relationship. You don’t have to flex,” Lindsey said. “I don’t go around telling everyone I kissed Link last month.”
“Yes, you do!” Sadie teased.
“What’s your point?” Amy asked.
“My point is I will slice that hyenerd into deli meat if she keeps messing with you.”
“No slicing.” Amy grinned. “You’re calm and rehabilitated now, remember?” She indicated Lindsey’s basic blond hair. The edgy black tiger stripes were gone. So were her body-con clothes, wedge heels, and clanging bangles. The only edge remained on her gold nail file necklace, which she kept tucked inside her basic white button-downs.
“I’m not rehabilitated!” Lindsey’s emerald-green eyes crackled with indignation. “I only look like this so they think I’m rehabilitated. That way they’ll stop keeping tabs on me.”
She was right. The more Miss Flora and Professor Jo trusted Lindsey, the easier it would be for her to sneak out of Charm House and execute their mission.
“Why do you need them to stop keeping tabs on you?” Taylor asked, eyes darting nervously. The thought of Lindsey sneaking out of school made her wildly uneasy. What if she got captured like Kate? Taylor desperately wanted to believe that Lindsey had outgrown that phase.
If only she knew . . .
“I’m just over being watched, that’s all,” Lindsey said. “If one more professor tells me to ‘tame my instincts’ and ‘act more typical,’ I swear, I’ll . . .” She paused and took a calming breath. “I just want everyone to stop worrying, that’s all.” Switching subjects, she glared at Amy. “If Mia blows you off again, dump her.”
Amy began to scratch her scaly arms. “What if I still like her?”
Sadie wanted to tell Amy it didn’t matter. If a person doesn’t like you back, move on. But who was she to talk? Beak said he just wanted to be friends and Sadie was willing to risk her future on executing Operation: Cage Rage with the hope of Beak changing his mind. She was the last person to give advice.
“I don’t care if you still like Mia,” Lindsey growled. “She’s disrespecting you. And if she’s disrespecting you, she’s disrespecting the Pack.”
“Fact,” Taylor said.
Amy dabbed her eyes with the bottom of her cloak. “It’s all good. Mia and I are good. I was being dramatic.” She slathered her arms in clove and orange oil and began massaging it into her scales. “Why are we even talking about this? We should be focused on the assembly. What do you think it’s about?”
“I bet someone was taken by IBS,” Taylor said.
“Maybe Miss Flora is retiring,” Sadie tried.
“Or she’s giving out an award.” Lindley fluffed her hair. “To me.”
“Why?” Sadie asked. “What did you do?”
Lindsey winked. “What didn’t I do?”
Their phones vibrated with a reminder. It was time to go.
Amy sighed. “I guess we’re about to find out.”
Stomach rumbling and armpits sticky from dried sweat, Sadie slipped on her cloak, lifted her hood, and followed the silent procession of animal-lights down the hallway. Hearts pounding, they exchanged curious glances and beats me shrugs. Whatever or whoever was waiting for the Charm House girls would be revealed soon.
The earth-scented air in the Charm House barn was charged with excitement.
“All rise and remove your hoods for the benediction,” Miss Flora said as the gilded carousel ascended from the ground. Yes, that gilded carousel. The one that Nurse Walker fed Sadie’s clipped fingernail, snipped hair, and pricked blood when she arrived at Charm House. The one that processed her DNA and determined that Sadie was part lion. The one that changed everything.
Copyright © 2023 by Lisi Harrison. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.