Authors: Karen Akins
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To my parents, Carl and Connie Hoffman, for letting me read books instead of making me play sportsâgood call
FIRST, I WANT TO SAY
a HUGE thanks to all of my readers. I have been blown away by your response to this twisty story that popped into my head. If I could give every one of you a pegamoo, I would.
There's no way to adequately thank everyone at St. Martin's Press for their support of
. I've had the most wonderful, enthusiastic team behind me: Holly Ingraham, Jeanne-Marie Hudson, Marie Estrada, Karen Masnica, Kerry McMahon, Michelle Cashman, Susan Andrews, Elizabeth Curione, and everyone else on the SMP team. You're all blarking fabulous. And thank you to Lisa Marie Pompilio and Shane Rebenschield for gorgeous covers.
I'm so grateful for my agent Victoria Marini's guidance and encouragement along the wayâthank you.
My circle of writing friends keeps growing and growing, and I'm so blessed by all of you. Elizabeth Briggs, Kristin Gray, I.W. Gregorio, Andrea Hannah, Kate Hart, Stacey Lee, Kim Loth, Cortney Pearson, Rachel Searles, Morgan Shamy, Mandy Silberstein, Evelyn Skye, you are the best!
Big, huge tackle hugs to: Authoress and the MSFV Sort-of-Secret Society, The Lucky 13s (especially to Kelly Fiore, a.k.a. my little gif Padawan, and Justina Ireland for all the fun gif wars), Arkansas SCBWIers, the YA Binders, and Bill and Becky Babler at the White River Lodge for putting up with some serious writing retreat shenanigans year after year.
I have been bowled over by the support from librarians, teachers, and bookstore owners near and far. Thank you so much for introducing
to your readers!
This is the part I dread, where I know I'm going to have forgotten a sweet friend who has been an amazing supporter and cheerleader for me. So rather than name everyone, I will just say, “You know who you are. And you know that I love you.
Thank you again to my family! Carl and Connie Hoffman, Bill and Betty Akins, Carolyn Wagnon, Ellen Matkowski, Sara Hoffman, Mark and Julie King, Anna and Noah, Owen and Myles, and all the Hoffmans and Wings.
Henry and Oliver, you are my funny little muses, and I couldn't love you more.
Finally, Bill, thank you for being there every step of the way on this wild journey. You've waited a really long time for this (-dary).
Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of geniusâand a lot of courageâto move in the opposite direction.
Â âALBERT EINSTEIN
THERE ARE FORTY-SEVEN RULES
every Shifter must obey. I'd broken all but two of them. And I didn't know it yet, but I'd end up blowing one that hadn't even been created to bits.
My feet sank to the ankle in mud. Eau de manure mixed with the smell of meat roasting on a spit. My stomach simultaneously turned in revulsion and grumbled with hunger. I really needed to remember to keep energy bars in my pocket. Oh, well. Nothing I could do about it inÂ â¦ I glanced down at my QuantComÂ â¦ ahh, September 3rd, 1666. That date rang a bell.
I hate bell-ringing dates.
A haze of smoke haloed the thatched roofs like a blanket. Angry voices erupted out of a tavern up the street when the keep kicked some drunkards from his establishment. They joined a throng of people pushing carts and carrying sacks, all headed the same direction. As the drunkards passed, their slurred Cockney tones were unmistakable.
I was somewhere in England. That matched the bells for some reason. But didn't make me feel better. I tinkered with my Com. It was practically useless since it didn't control or manipulate my Shifts through my microchip anymore, not that I missed being controlled or manipulated. At all. My Com pretty much acted as the world's fanciest pocketwatch now, telling me the date and location of where I landed when I naturally Shifted. Well, and it had a nifty stunner feature. But sometimes the Com took a while to pull info up. I was flicking the edge of the Com when a set of feet clomped down beside me on a wooden board.
“Ugh. That was close. Almost landed in theâ” That's when the person who had landed next to me noticed my presence. Finn stifled a laugh at my muddy predicament. “Here.”
He lent me an elbow to pull myself out of the muck.
“Fancy meeting you here, gov'nuh.” I wiped a patch of mud off my hands so I could reach up and give him a smooch without mussing up his wavy auburn hair.
“1666. Somewhere in London, I think.”
“Yep. Aldersgate District.” Finn pointed at a sign for an apothecary across the road, barely visible through the smoky haze.
“You're like a walking QuantCom,” I said.
“Nah. I've been here around this time with Dad on mercy missions. Bubonic plague. It's one of his hobbies.”
Finn's dad was a surgeon as well as a Shifter. Like Finn and me, he traveled through time and space. It was a hereditary ability. Finn's little sister had also gotten the gene. I'd inherited it from my mom's side.
“Your family is so weird,” I said. Although more normal than my family, I guess, if you could even call us that. But Finn knew I didn't like talking about my father, so he didn't say anything in response. Besides, he was too busy coughing.
“Why does this date seem so familiar?” I asked. Quigley would kill me for not knowing my history.
“Uhh, Great Fire of London,” Finn choked out.
“Blark.” He was right. The fire had consumed most of the city over the course of four days. This was only the second day, though. The flames were still confined to an area closer to the Thames, near the bakery where the fire had started on Pudding Lane. It explained why everyone was rushing out of the city like herded cattle, though.
“Aldersgate.” Finn peered around looking for landmarks. “I remember there's a Haven near here. By Saint Ann's.”
“After you.” I gestured for him to lead the way.
Finn started down an alley then stopped short and spun around.
“Wait.” He stared at me expectantly. “You almost forgot.”
Good grief. “Do we really have to do this?”
It was kind of ridiculous, a plan that Finn had come up with for my benefitâto help me establish whether I was with Past Finn versus Present Finn (Well, not Present Finn. More like, Not-Quite-As-Distant-Past Finn).
Finn. Whatever. I was supposed to ask him a question that only the him that was dating Present Me would know.
Our relationship is going through what you might call a challenging stage right now. And by “right now,” I mean “since the moment I met him.”
“By virtue of the fact that you're asking me to ask, doesn't it establish that you are you?” I pointed out.
“UmmÂ â¦ what song do you sing every time we're in the Institute greenhouse?”
“âIt's Not Easy Beingâ'”
“Sing it.” The right side of my mouth twitched up. If he was going to be a stickler, so was I.
He belted it out, froggy voice and all. I reached up and kissed him on the cheek, but he reeled me in closer. When I pulled away, he'd placed something in my open hand.
A chocolate energy bar.
“You look hungry,” he said.
“What would I do without you?”
“Probably starve.” He tucked the wrapper away in his canvas rucksack. His dad had trained Finn well over the last six months since he'd discovered he was a Shifter. Finn had once likened it to backpackingâwhatever you carry into a time period, you carry out. Turns out most of the Rules of Shifting developed through common sense, long before Shifters came out of hiding.
I straightened Finn's rumpled T-shirt. That was one of the things I had taught him, to wear as plain clothes as possible. Even if he stuck out, he wouldn't be memorable.
Then again, I didn't see how it would be possible to forget someone as gorgeous as Finn.
He pulled a knit cap out of the sack, and I took one out of my pocket. Another little trick of mine. You could pass as a sailor in almost any time period with one. I tucked my long, light-brown ponytail up in the hat. I wished I could say I'd grown my hair out because I liked the way it looked. Nope. I'd just been too busy the last six months to bother with cutting it.
“Now, what do you think we're doing here?” Finn asked as I finished my snack.
“No clue.” It was still hard for me to get used to, this Shifting back without a predetermined goal. As a chipped Shifter, every mission had had a reason behind it. Study something. Deliver something. Test something. Most of my trips as a free Shifter so far had been visiting Finn and his family or tagging along with my mom on art investigations. Finn and I also sometimes turned up at the same place in the past together, like now. But we usually ended up just poking around. Interesting, yes, but purposeless.
Well, that wasn't counting my trips back using the reverter. Ahh, the reverter. I pulled the device out of my front pocket. I never let it out of my sightâeven for a moment.
Such a nightmare I'd gone through for such a small object. It looked a bit like a writing pen from Finn's timeâlong, thin, and cylindrical. Only this was no writing pen. When it went offâglowing green and vibrating like a ticked-off tea kettleâit meant that a nonShifter had made a change to the timeline in my present. Those changes in my time were only detectable by unchipped Shifters like myself. This device was the only thing that would put it back to normal. Unfortunately, the ability to detect those changes had the side effect of making us unchipped Shifters come across as a bit confusedÂ â¦ muddledÂ â¦ fine, catpoop crazy. I didn't care though. I'd rather seem confused to the rest of the world than live a lie.
“This feels different from when we usually meet up,” said Finn. I had to agree. Our typical meet-ups felt like a breath of fresh air. These smoke-filled surroundings were anything but.