Valkyrie Rising, page 1
To my grandparents, who encouraged me to dream,
and to Alex, who helped those dreams come true
About the Author
About the Publisher
Half the school came to Graham’s eighteenth birthday party. People were everywhere—crowded around the pool, crawling all over the patio, and crammed onto the sofa in the family room. Even though they were within plain sight of my mother, almost everyone had added a little something to their Coke—or replaced the contents of the can altogether.
That afternoon I was watching from a safe distance at the kitchen window, a whole story above the fray. I told myself I was up there to help keep the refreshments flowing, but truth be told, no one would note my absence. Even my friends were so focused on blending into Graham’s crowd, they’d probably forgotten I existed. After all, I wasn’t memorable in my own right. I was just Graham Overholt’s little sister—no different from his many other accessories. Something halfway between a lacrosse stick and a football helmet.
I opened the sliding glass door and leaned on the deck railing outside the kitchen—one of the few places where I could watch my brother holding court without being seen. His height and shock of messy gold hair made him easy to spot. The group around him was laughing hard at something he’d said.
At moments like that, it blew my mind that we were related. But maybe he’d have felt the same way if he had looked up just then, to see me peering out at the party from behind Mom’s potted geraniums like some senile old hermit. It was ironic that I got nervous at parties, given that I shared a gene pool with the most popular person on the planet. Then again, trying to live up to Graham’s legacy was what usually triggered the diamond-crushing pressure behind my eyes.
It was pretty much impossible to say or do anything that wasn’t somehow eclipsed by or attributed to Graham. By the time I’d hit high school, I had gotten tired of trying.
While I stood there playing Peeping Tom, Graham’s best friend, Tucker Halloway, snuck up behind me and pinched my arm. Hard. Then he took a long step forward and leaned on the railing right at my side. I turned my head, just enough that I could smell his breath.
“What if my mom catches you?” I wrinkled my nose and glanced down at the silver flask dangling loosely in his grasp. “You’re screwed. She’ll absolutely call Colette.”
“Can’t.” Tuck gave me a smug smile. “Colette has a migraine. She’s at the spa.”
I raised an eyebrow at that. “Again? What’s this—her third time this week?”
“Fifth,” Tuck said.
Colette, Tucker’s mom, was from another planet. France, specifically. She was exotic, glamorous, and the only person I knew whose parties required cocktail attire. Or were catered, for that matter.
Tuck never had food in the fridge, but he always had designer clothes on his back—his appearance was the one thing about him that held Colette’s interest. But that was no surprise. Tuck made pretty much every female pause and smooth down her hair.
I had to resist the urge to do it myself as I turned to look him straight in those impassive gray eyes. I never could tell what he was thinking, even after knowing him my entire life. “Still, though, my mom will totally tell Colette,” I repeated lamely.
Tuck grinned. That famous wicked smile. “Is that really supposed to scare me?” He put his arm around my shoulders and leaned in. I staggered a step to keep my balance. “Where do you think we got this in the first place? Colette sent me over here with a bottle of thirty-year-old scotch for Graham with, I quote, her compliments.”
I had to admit that was a bit shocking, even for Colette. “Her compliments on what, exactly? Your ability to talk your way out of anything? My mom won’t let it slide this time. And don’t pretend her opinion doesn’t matter to you.”
“True,” he conceded, sliding the flask into his back pocket. “But your opinion matters to me even more.” His tone was as silky smooth as his words, but I wasn’t taken in for a second. Well, maybe for a second—the exact second he turned to meet my gaze, a mere six inches from my face. When I looked at him that closely, at those white teeth framed by that deceptively innocent smile, I knew why Tucker Halloway excelled at getting whatever he wanted—especially from girls.
And I couldn’t fathom why he was wasting that particular talent on me when bullying and mockery had always been the accepted currency between the two of us.
“What do you want?” I asked, instantly wary. “Shouldn’t you be enjoying the party?”
His smile curled up at one corner, proof positive he was up to no good.
But then he did something weird. He just shrugged and stood there, looking back down at the party without saying anything at all. After a minute like that, his silence was more unnerving than his usual fast talk. Anyone who looked up at us then could definitely get the wrong idea.
I glanced down toward the pool, half expecting to see an army of girls watching me, planning their revenge.
“Are you leaning on me because you’re drunk?” I choked out, once the silence had stretched itself so far and thin it was fine dust coating my throat. Then I grasped for the only logical explanation. “If you’re trying to make some girl down there jealous, you should cozy up to someone else. No one would ever see me as a threat.”
“Why do you say that?” His grin reappeared, settling in and preparing to stay for a while. And marking the return to familiar footing. The muscles in my shoulder started to uncoil.
“Because of who I am.” Freshman year, Graham had thrown a boy out of a party for ignoring my polite hints. And he had interpreted my one-time plea for help as an open-door invitation into my love life. Or lack thereof, thanks to his constant interference. I wasn’t supposed to know that my touch carried a social stigma second only to leprosy, but word gets back to you eventually.
“I meant, why play games? I get by just fine on looks alone.” His smile was blinding, driving his point home.
“Don’t forget your charming personality,” I said, and my stomach flipped when his grin widened at my words. Making Tucker laugh was the best kind of rush. “I hear modesty is quite the aphrodisiac,” I added.
“Listen to you.” He lifted those gray eyes to meet mine. “Graham would die if he heard sweet little Ellie use a word like that. And die all over again if he thought you knew what it meant.”
“Lucky he’s not here,” I said.
“Lucky indeed,” he said slowly. “For more than one reason.”
His smile was so pretty, I almost sighed out loud. Fortunately, that was all it took to remind me of the manifold dangers of dropping my guard around Tuck. Because he was softening me up. It was a dance I knew all too well, even if he usually preferred a more direct assault with me.
“What do you want?” I repeated.
“Time with you,” he said sweetly. “Your undivided attention.”
“Cut the crap, Tuck.”
“Isn’t that the right answer?” he asked, all false innocence. Tipped with sarcasm. “Seems to me that’s what most girls want to hear.”
“For the record, insincere compliments work bet
“Duly noted,” Tuck muttered before rallying and changing tactics. “I came to the right place, since you’re such a wise woman, seeing through all my subterfuge. I know you’ll be my savior.”
Apparently his plan was to exasperate me into submission. “For the third and final time, what do you want, Tucker Halloway?”
“Last name too? Bad sign. But here goes.” He leaned closer, knowing full well how destabilizing his proximity could be. Before I could help it, I was batting my eyelashes right back at him. A reflex as involuntary as the knee-jerk test at the doctor’s office.
“Hypothetically speaking, if a person urgently needed the key to the cabinet in the china hutch, what would that person need to do to acquire it?”
“Mug my mother,” I told him. “Hypothetically speaking, of course.” I held up one hand when he started to object. “You have a flask. That should keep you busy for the afternoon. I’m not helping you steal more alcohol.”
“Not everyone drinks scotch,” he said with a wink. “And Graham put me in charge of fun. Plus, I’ve already taken care of the hard part. We only need to put this back before anyone notices.” He held up a small glass bottle of gin that he pulled right out from the tangled green leaves of the geraniums. So that’s why he was really here, loitering around with me. He’d come to retrieve the bottle and was fortunate enough to find me standing here, a potential minion to do his dirty work. “You’ll be righting a wrong, so to speak,” he added. “Very noble of you, by the way.”
“Impressive,” I said, and I meant it. “It’s not easy to get around my mother’s radar.”
“Thank you, Ells,” he said. “It’s nice to be appreciated. Graham would have flipped. You, on the other hand, always understand.”
“Graham doesn’t know?” As far as I knew, Tuck never kept secrets from Graham. I’d assumed Graham had sent him to me for damage control.
“We don’t want to ruin his birthday with unnecessary stress,” Tuck said. “We owe it to him to handle this ourselves.”
I wasn’t sure how Tuck’s problem had suddenly turned into a “we” situation. But no one was more persuasive than Tuck when he was in the zone like this. His smile. The sweet, beseeching look in his eyes. Like I really was the only girl on the planet who could give him what he needed. I couldn’t believe I was falling for it.
Too many other girls had shown me where this particular road dead-ended.
“Fine. I’ll make sure it’s unlocked tonight,” I heard myself say. “Just put it all back by morning, or we’ll both be screwed.” Then I wiggled free of his arm, ashamed when I immediately missed it. But it was pointless to let myself pretend he was there for any reason other than covering up his typically Tuckish crime.
I expected him to leave now that his mission was a fait accompli. But he stood there a second longer, elbows propped on the railing, like he too needed a moment to catch his breath before plunging back downstairs.
“What are you two doing up here?” Graham asked. We both jumped and turned in unison, a little too fast.
Somehow Graham had extracted himself from his entourage and made his way up the deck stairs without either of us noticing. He looked at me, then at Tuck, and his eyes narrowed in mock suspicion.
I squirmed, uncomfortable he’d found us like that—locked in private conversation when the whole world was downstairs. Especially since Tuck and I now shared a secret.
“I could smell you five feet away,” Graham said, glancing at me, but then dismissing the thought as he zeroed in on Tuck. “Is that why you’re hiding up here? Seriously—lay off the scotch.” He made a grab for the flask, but Tuck was slippery as an eel. “If you’re hung over during practice, I’m not covering for you again—I don’t care if you throw up.” But his smile told a different story.
“Oh, I would never do anything to compromise my athletic career,” Tuck said, parroting the serious, grown-up voice Graham saved for teachers and college interviews. Graham made a valiant effort to stay annoyed, but it was too late. He grinned and ran one hand through his hair. Only Tuck could manage him like that.
“I’m being serious,” Graham said, carefully avoiding the responsible voice. “I’m outta here at the end of the summer. And I’m telling you, senior year is harder—with college applications. You’ve gotta pull yourself together.”
“There’s gratitude for you,” Tuck said, catching my eye. “Without people like me for contrast, no one would recognize how perfect you are.”
Graham shifted impatiently on his feet, but Tuck kept right on talking, paving over his transgressions with a solid foot of bullshit. I tuned out until something caught my ear. “I already talked to Colette,” Tuck was saying. “She got me a ticket to visit for two weeks.”
That was hardly a surprise. “Visit Graham at Stanford?” I confirmed. Graham would be leaving for college at the end of the summer, but Tuck was a year younger than Graham and a year older than me. Which meant Tuck and I would be left behind together. Or, more accurately, Tuck would be left with the half of his friends who were also his age. It wasn’t like Tucker Halloway would hang out in our house every night once Graham was gone.
“Nope.” Tuck grinned first at me, then at Graham. “Norway.” Tuck was aglow with the good news, whereas I felt a bit queasy.
“You’re coming to Norway?” I asked in a very small voice.
That summer our mother was ushering a group of rowdy college students through a summer art history program in Italy, as part of her ongoing battle for tenure at UCLA. And we were being shipped off to Grandmother Hilda’s house in the country—eight full hours from Oslo.
“I thought I was getting away from you. At least for the summer.” It came out louder than I’d planned, like someone had turned on a hidden microphone. “When did this happen?” As much as I wouldn’t admit it, especially not to Tuck, it wasn’t actually unwelcome news. The tiny town we’d be trapped in could get slow after a week, much less two months.
“A couple of weeks ago,” Graham replied, shrugging.
“Fantastic.” I frowned, even though the addition of Tuck would probably be a good thing—no one was more fun than Tuck when he wanted to be. Still, I was annoyed to be finding out like this. It was another example of Graham not telling me things. Like I wasn’t a person who deserved common courtesy, but just one more planet that should slip obediently into orbit around him.
“Tell me what you really think,” Tuck said drily. “Really, don’t spare my feelings. You’re far too sweet.”
“Play nice,” Graham said to us both. “Next year I won’t be around to mediate.”
But the momentary lull in the universal battle for Graham’s attention was over.
A football whizzed through the air toward the side of Graham’s head. Without taking his eyes off me, he caught it in one hand and threw a perfect spiral back in the general direction of his friends, somehow still hitting one of them squarely in the chest. “It’ll be fun,” Graham told me. “You two can use this summer to practice world peace. You know. Get along.”
A deep voice called Graham’s name, and a girl shrieked with laughter so loud it could be heard above the music.
Graham’s attention snapped back to the party. My ten seconds were over. Duty called.
“C’mon. Tuck,” Graham said. “Everyone’s asking for you. And I’m not leaving you alone with Ellie and a flask of mystery liquid.”
“Mystery liquid?” Tuck waved his flask in the air. “This is thirty-year-old scotch!”
“Shh,” Graham and I hissed in unison.
“You realize the scotch is old enough to legally drink? I’m pretty sure that gives me some kind of immunity to local statutes.” He nudged my shoulder. “C’mon, Ells, you’ve got to start somewhere, and I promise it doesn’t get any better than this.”
Graham’s smile faded as Tuck slipped the flask between my fingers.
It didn’t matter that he was right about the first part. It only mattered that once again he was speaking for me. And being a huge hypocrite. Everyone knew that he and Tuck had been up to far worse when they were my age—Tuck was barely eleven months older than me. Plus, it wasn’t like he was legally old enough to drink either.
But before I could object, Graham had already charged forward, disappearing down the stairs. His golden head was a periscope marking his progress as he submerged into the sea of people below.
Tuck slipped the flask into his back pocket and started to follow, but hesitated on the second step.
“You coming?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Maybe that’s for the best,” he said. “If he was actually paying attention, Graham would realize how much he hates that dress.”
“What’s wrong with my dress?” I demanded, flushing pink at the thought that maybe I’d looked ridiculous all day, especially during the two hours I’d greeted pretty much everyone at the door.
“Nothing,” he said, flashing me a grin that I felt ten feet below my toes. “Let’s just say I won’t be the only guy who finds himself stopping to chat longer than he’d expected.”
I had no idea what to say to that.
Fortunately, Tucker never gave anyone the chance to sneak in the last word. He was in motion before the words had even left his lips, slipping down the stairs and into Graham’s wake.
I retreated back through the sliding glass doors and into the cool shadows of the kitchen. From the windows overlooking the pool, I could watch Tuck weave his way through the party. Sure enough, a senior girl latched onto him like a tick. I was disappointed when he leaned in close and whispered something in her ear. Whatever he said made her laugh so hard that her face pinched up until she almost looked less pretty. Almost.
A full ten minutes elapsed, and I was still watching Tuck. I swear he talked to every girl there. Which was no small feat.