When Leni's family hit the lottery, life got . . . well, strange. Leni's parents built a mansion fit for royalty; they enrolled their daughter in the fanciest, most expensive private school in Florida; and they even bought Leni a dolphin for her 12th birthday (she made them take it back). But all of that extravagant living has caught up with them and the lottery money is about to run out—except for the large trust fund Leni will inherit on her 18th birthday, now only a week away. Leni is prepared to give her parents the money until her sister, Natasha, confesses a shocking secret—one that threatens to destroy their entire family. Leni has been ordered to fix it, but how?
An Excerpt fromSpoils
My parents bought me a dolphin when I was twelve, but I made them take her back.
They led me through the backyard of our huge new house, my mom's hands over my eyes, my dad's hands on my shoulders leading me forward; then they stopped in front of the pool, threw their hands in the air, and yelled, "Surprise! She's yours!" That was during those first few heady years after the win when they were still figuring out what money could buy and what it shouldn't.
My breath caught as I watched the dolphin's sleek steel-gray body fly through the length of our pool. Something awful twisted in the pit of my stomach as I saw this powerful predator trapped in our silly man-made folly. Instead of the giddy, excited birthday girl they were expecting, my parents got a full-blown fit. Livid and horrified, I made them call the marine-animal rescue program to come get her. My parents had to talk fast to explain why they had a dolphin in their backyard pool. But since their call also came with an extremely generous donation for the future care of my dolphin, they never got in trouble, even though it was illegal to keep a dolphin in a home pool.
The rest of the afternoon could best be described as grim. While we waited for the rescue team to arrive, we sat on the patio overlooking the pool with my dolphin swimming in frantic circles like a moth trapped in a glass jar. I couldn't bring myself to eat my cake-shaped like a dolphin, covered in unappetizing bright-blue icing that was rapidly melting in the sun. A few hours later, the rescue team came and loaded the dolphin into a special carrier lined with a foam mattress fitted for the dolphin's body and sprayers to keep her sensitive skin from drying out.
Silently we watched the dolphin get carted away. I could feel my parents' disappointment and disapproval like a heavy weight. Even my brother and sister thought I was being ridiculously self-righteous. But it wasn't that I didn't want my own personal dolphin; I wanted to keep her so badly that I cried myself to sleep after she left.
I had posters of humpback whales and the Greenpeace ships that fought to save them like other girls my age had posters of movie stars. What ocean-crazy girl wouldn't adore swimming with her own pet dolphin? I could see why they had gotten confused.
I was only twelve but I knew she could never be mine. An internal compass triggered an alarm that blared: No! It would be evil to keep her.
Which is how five years later, as soon as my sister bursts through the tea shop's front door, I immediately know something is very wrong. My internal clock is ringing like a bell. As soon as I see her face, the mad and terrified look in her eyes, I shiver and know something very bad has happened. Something that money can't fix.
As it turns out, I'm half-right.
I finish brewing two citrus green teas for an older couple with a baby in one of those strange new strollers, when the door flies open and my sister enters her shop, Steeped. I almost don't recognize her. From my view behind the counter, Natasha's blood-red pashmina flutters behind her like a demon's wings. Natasha's trips to Tennessee to visit her ex-boyfriend, Emmett, never turn out well for any of us, but this expression frozen on her face, this level of anguish, is new.
The door swings shut with a sweet little tinkle as the silver bell dances on its string. So an entrance fit for slamming doors and a gong of doom makes do with the calm, Zen-like atmosphere of the shop. Natasha spares a quick glance around, her pale eyes taking in the merchandise on the shelves, the swept floors, the inviting groupings of chairs and small tables. For all her drama and unpredictability, Natasha is a fine and responsible business owner. But she's off her game. As she comes toward me, she brushes by the couple heading out with their drinks. They give her a funny look and exchange glances the way you do when you pass a crazy person; then they hurry out of the shop as if to get their baby away from danger. I gaze after them, wishing I could follow.
Natasha lifts the partition and steps behind the counter, the air around her oddly dark and heavy. Natasha is often intense, charming when it suits her, horrid when it doesn't. But whatever her mood is, it usually makes sense. This doesn't. There's something unreadable in her face. As she steps near me, I wrinkle my nose. Even the way she smells is off.
"Tasha," I say. "You okay?"
She ignores the question.
"Shop's been good?" she asks, her voice oddly raspy and subdued. She's been gone nearly two weeks, the longest she's been away since she opened the store almost five years ago.
"Yeah." I nod cautiously. "Pretty typical." When Natasha makes an impatient little motion for me to go on, I add, "There's a knitting group that wants to host their monthly meetings here. Thursday evenings. I said it was probably fine, but that I'd check with you."
She has a manager for the shop, a creep named John Parker, but she likes me to keep an eye on it while she's gone. I don't let Natasha pay me, though she's offered more than once. I like feeling like the shop is my second home, and you can't clock in and out for pay in your second home. You can, however, help yourself to tea and blueberry scones.
Natasha's annual buying trips usually finish with a visit to her ex in Tennessee, an old high school boyfriend and the only guy she's ever been in love with. After they broke up, she lent him the money to open his tattoo shop. Anyone else and it would be sweet, friendship after romance. Cynically, I saw it as less of a generous gesture than an iron-proof way to force him to answer to her. She wasn't visiting Emmett because her feelings mellowed into friendship. She went there for the same reason she lent him money in the first place, because she's never given up on getting him back.
As she makes her way around the counter, I expect her to brew up a pot of gunpowder tea and then go over the books, or review inventory, see what's running low and needs reordering. After she's gone, foul mood or no, she always wants to know every last detail of what she missed while she was gone.
Instead, she says, "Thanks, Leni," and then keeps going, through the beaded curtain to her small office in the back. Before I can ask how her trip was and figure out what's wrong, she shuts the door behind her with a firm click.
The air-conditioning kicks on and a cool breeze blows across my neck, making me squirm.
Half an hour later the office door's still closed. I press my ear against Natasha's shut door but there's nothing besides the flutes.
"Tasha? What's wrong?" I say to the wood-paneled door.
Silence. No answer.
"Natasha, what happened?" I try the handle but it's locked.
An inexplicable rush of dread comes over me. For a terrible second, when there is nothing, no reply, no sound at all, I think maybe she's dead. Which is ridiculous and I'm not one prone to crazy flights of imagination. But there was something so wrong about her, something broken.
I thump into the door with my shoulder, trying to force it open. It remains solidly closed. I rub my shoulder. There's still no sound coming from inside the room. Nothing. My irrational/rational fear grows, and everything I learned in that survival course from four years ago comes rushing back, along with a welcome shot of adrenaline. As I step into a fighting position, my muscles bunch, ready to explode with a powerful front kick aimed left of the locked handle. But then I hear rustling and stop myself in time, tripping forward a bit to stop the momentum.
"Natasha," I bellow, pounding the door and rattling the handle. "Let me in!"
There's more rustling and eventually the click of the lock. The ceramic handle turns under my hand. And there she is, small and haggard, blotchy skin with, I could swear, a tinge of green to it.
My sister is the beautiful one in the family, creamy white skin, long dark hair with deep glints of burgundy. My hair is lighter, bleached from too much time in the sun, my skin darker, tanned from hours spent kayaking on the bay. We have the same color eyes, greenish, bluish gray. On me they sort of blend in with whatever I'm standing next to, like a chameleon. On Natasha, they glow. After she got the massive tattoo of a Japanese scroll across her back a few years ago, she only wore long, backless dresses, and coming or going she made you catch your breath.
She's taken off her red shawl and is wearing her signature backless dress, water-colored silk in blues and greens, except without her high heels the long skirt puddles around her feet and she looks like a child playing dress-up.
"Natasha," I say, confusion and worry mingling. "What happened?"
Her eyes pool with tears at the soft question. My sister never cries. Curses, screams in rage, laughs out loud, rolls her eyes, and shoots death-ray glares, yes. Pathetic weeping? Not so much. I shake my head as if to clear it.
Natasha's ex-boyfriend is a big guy. He's the one who did the tattoo, and he has been the object of her obsessive love since she was fifteen. I quickly scan her bare arms, the deep V of her dress, for bruises or marks. He never struck me as the violent type, but maybe Natasha's nine-year obsessive crush finally drove him over the edge.
"What did Emmett do to you?"
"It wasn't him." Her tears spill over. "He didn't do anything."
The silver bell hanging from the front door tinkles musically.
Steeped is perfectly located on a busy thoroughfare with a beautiful view of the bay, which means there's usually a steady stream of customers. We were lucky to have ten minutes without interruption. I glance over my shoulder through the beaded curtain. There's a guy studying the giant menu over the counter.
"Be right with you," I call. Then I give Natasha a stern look. "Wash your face. Then tell me what the heck happened to you." She flinches at my tone but turns and slowly makes her way to the restrooms.
I hurry to the customer, in his midthirties with funky purple wire glasses and auburn highlights. He asks about our chai; we carry three kinds.
"They're all good." I keep listening for Natasha, expecting her to pop back out, take charge like she always does. "It depends what you're in the mood for." Seeing that this isn't going to speed things along, I interrupt his internal debate. "I prefer the Indian masala chai. We ship it directly from India. We're the first tea shop in America to carry this blend."
That little speech always seals the deal and sure enough, I'm soon brewing an order of Indian masala chai.
Before I can head back to crisis-manage my sister, a couple of girls my age walk in. One looks familiar and when she keeps looking at me, I know with a sinking feeling that we must have gone to school together.
My parents used to send me to the fanciest, most expensive school in St. Petersburg. That was actually how they made their decision. They looked at the tuition of all the private schools in the area and chose the highest one.
I hated St. John's. I hated the brand-new cars in the parking lot, the five-hundred-dollar purses the girls carried, the expensive haircuts. I even hated the teachers, with their eager faces, their anxious desire for their students to succeed and to like them. So after I overheard my parents argue about money, the first such fight in five years, I quietly applied to South St. Pete's Citrus Park High, the science magnet high school, known for its terrific marine-science program and ghetto location. Once I was accepted, I came to my parents and begged to switch.
I should have realized that things were getting bad, and fast, when with very little begging and pleading on my part, my parents let me transfer and attend a school at the edge of one of the worst neighborhoods in the city, where a little girl had died in a drive-by shooting a few months earlier and two policemen were killed in the line of duty a couple of years back.
I don't regret switching schools but it's never fun bumping into former St. John's schoolmates. Somehow, they always manage to convey that by leaving the school to go to a public high school, I was no longer "one of them." These two are no different. After an awkward little visit down not-so-fond memory lane, I take their order, serve them and send them on their way.
The moment they're out the door, I hurry to my sister's office. Her back is to me, head resting on her folded arms at her desk. She's usually very aware of her tattoo, of her body, and like a model she always makes sure she's displayed in the best light, at the best angle. In this position, though, Natasha's curved spine puts the tattoo in stark relief, the Japanese characters stretched out. It's not a good pose for her.
A horrible thought occurs to me.
"Natasha, are you pregnant?"
"What?" Her head snaps back to stare at me. "Don't be an idiot."
I let out a breath I wasn't aware I was holding. Natasha procreating. I shudder. The world is not ready.
"Leni," she says, her voice cracking. "You can't even imagine, you can't . . ." She loses her train of thought and her eyes focus on something over my shoulder. Instinctively, I look behind me, but there is nothing there.
"Your birthday's coming up," she says suddenly.
"Yeah," I say, wary about this change of topic. "The big one-eight."
My birthday is in nine days and Natasha has already offered the shop to host the party. The gala, as my parents keep calling it. It's a joke of epic proportions to think of hosting a gala for my eighteenth birthday. It's only with the free use of space and Natasha's wholesale contacts that it's even conceivable, and even so it seems like a colossal waste of money. I told my parents that I would rather they tally up how much they were planning to spend and make a donation in my name to a couple of organizations that work to protect Tampa Bay, but they laughed me off and said they'd do both.