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Summer before eleventh grade

Mona closed her eyes against the bright Hamptons sun, wishing for a drink. Beside her, Charlotte Grayson talked – a familiar pattern of boys and lilting voices imbued with a giggle, clothes and a steady voice. It was predictable enough, but she could use the reading-people practice.

Her parents had dragged her here for networking – Dad had recently taken on a consulting job with Conrad Grayson’s company and needed to get to work, and Mom had refused to let her stay in Rosewood. “It’ll be educational for you,” her mom had said. “You could do with some kind of work experience. The Graysons have a daughter your age who is already looking at internships.”

So far she hadn’t taken in much education beyond experimenting with tanning under the Hamptons sun, but no matter. They’d only been there a couple of weeks. Still plenty of time for her to learn something.

Or scheme.

0o0o0o0

Her parents inform her that dinner will be with the Graysons.

Once she’s on her own she rolls her eyes at her mirror reflection and slashes on black nail polish, a subtle rebellion. Mom hates black polish – still, it goes nicely with the black hoodie hidden dead-centre under her bed. She’ll think about that tonight, and maybe it won’t make dinner bearable, but at least it’s interesting.

Daniel brings with him a pretty blonde girl. From the subtle glare Victoria sends her, there’s no love between them; the girl simply smiles sweetly.

“I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Emily,” she introduces, and Mona dutifully shakes her hand. Her fingers are cold and her smile is just a little too perfect.

She observes Emily throughout dinner and becomes convinced that she isn’t quite who she says she is. Maybe she does like Daniel, and she does get on well with Charlotte, but something’s amiss. Halfway through dinner, Emily excuses herself to take a call, and Mona tamps down the temptation to follow and listen.

Daniel seems about ready to go and check on Emily; Mona offers to do it. “I’d like to get some fresh air,” she tells them, and they accept it readily.

Emily is not hard to find – the quiet murmur of her voice is easy to detect in the grounds. “ – it’s working, Nolan; no suspicions –“

She whirls around – “I have to go,” and jabs her phone off.

Mona smiles lightly. “Are you alright? You’ve been out here for a while.”

Emily’s eyes remain cool, steady. “Fine. Just taking care of business. Shall we go back inside?”

“Not yet. I needed air away from everyone else,” Mona declines, fidgeting with her bracelet. A soft laugh comes from her companion, as if to agree with her statement, and she feels a tiny flicker of smugness at chipping at Emily’s perfect façade.

“Even they do sometimes – just look at this balcony,” is her response, and Mona feels Emily’s eyes on her. Her gaze is approving, as if she’s judging Mona and finding her worthy. Worthy of what, Mona does not know. “So, why did you need space from them?”

Mona shrugs. There seems to be a fine line and right now she’s only seeing the polite society version of Emily, the kind that daintily holds a champagne flute and pretends not to loathe people. She’s unsure if she wants to see the other Emily, the one who smashes flutes and has the ability to ruin people with her manicured hands.

“You’re interesting,” she tells Emily, not troubling to answer her question. “I have the sense that you could ruin these people in a day, if you wanted.”

Emily glances at her, disinterested. “Do you practise reading people or something?”

“Yes. Frequently.”

Interested, now. “Why?”

“I have a scheme going – a bit of revenge, if you will. People made my life at school miserable. I want them to pay.”

Emily looks at the girl beside her and feels a pang of something. She knows how it is to have a miserable school life, though for reasons she suspects different. The way Mona carries herself is confident, bold, as if she’s daring anyone to cross her. And yet she looks at herself in the mirror, fragile – as if she can’t quite believe she’s so pretty. Newly pretty, Emily decides, is her game. Nolan had a similar story, so she’s confident in her assessment.

“So what’re you going to do?” If the girl’s plans are interesting she might even help.

“There were five girls in particular – their leader went missing. She’s presumed dead by now. I plan to mimic her, pretend to be her and draw out their secrets. Then I’ll use their secrets against them.”

Creative enough, simple. It’ll require a lot of technology and maybe money. This girl’s story – for what it is – tugs at her sympathy. Emily decides to bring her to Nolan to learn computer basics.

“What’s your story?” Mona asks.

“Justice,” Emily answers slowly. She can’t give too much away, can’t risk this girl connecting the dots too thoroughly, but the short version will do. “An innocent man was framed; he died thinking the world hated him. I plan to change the hated part.”

Mona listens, curious. She can piece together the rest of the story, but doesn’t speak her suspicions. If she wants to form an alliance with Emily she’ll have to practice secrecy – not difficult, since her parents know nothing about her late-night excursions to get in the habit of sneaking out, or her habit of secret workouts in her room to increase her physical fitness. They don’t know how she scrounged together bits and pieces of cash to inconspicuously buy a new cell phone, or about the stash of items hidden under her bed.

“We could help each other,” she offers.

Emily turns a cool gaze on her, and she stiffens her spine, meets her gaze dead-on.

“We’re both working for justice, for fairness. The girl who disappeared tormented everyone, even her friends, and they all just took it. And this framed man deserves to have his name cleared, if nothing else.” She halts, aware that she’s a few words away from rambling. Emily has been more patient with her than she expected, but Mona suspects that Emily has no patience for a lot of things.

“Alright,” Emily declares.

She smiles ever so slightly at the younger girl, reminded oddly of herself at that age – though by then she was in juvie and fighting other girls. This one is a little more special, a lot more determined, and Emily is impressed with her resourcefulness. Mona has already started preparing, whereas she at that age had a phone number.

Emily directs her to stop by her house later for an exchange of information, and they put on their masks to go back inside.

The socialite and the teenager start walking back side by side. Inside, Emily kisses Daniel demurely, and Mona compliments Charlotte’s choice of nail polish.

For now, they’re regular girls.