Today we're excited to spotlight By The Book (Amanda Sellet).
Read on for more about Amanda, plus a excerpt & a giveaway!
Meet Amanda Sellet!
Debut author Amanda Sellet had a previous career in journalism, during which she wrote book reviews for The Washington Post, personal essays for NPR, and music and movie coverage for VH1. These days she lives in Kansas with her archaeologist husband and their daughter.
Meet By The Book!
As a devotee of classic novels, Mary Porter-Malcolm knows all about Mistakes That Have Been Made, especially by impressionable young women. So when a girl at her new high school nearly succumbs to the wiles of a notorious cad, Mary starts compiling the Scoundrel Survival Guide, a rundown of literary types to be avoided at all costs.
Unfortunately, Mary is better at dishing out advice than taking it—and the number one bad boy on her list is terribly debonair. As her best intentions go up in flames, Mary discovers life doesn’t follow the same rules as fiction. If she wants a happy ending IRL, she’ll have to write it herself.
~ Excerpt ~
by Amanda Sellet
“The beauty of street urchins is that they go anywhere and do whatever they want. Total freedom.” I sketched rainbows in the air with my fingerless gloves, releasing a dusting of ash. On my way out the door I’d had the brilliant idea of wiping my hands in the fireplace for that authentic chimney sweep feeling.
Bo looked unimpressed. My best friend had declined to soot up for the occasion. He wasn’t totally sold on my idea – yet. At least not the costume part. He was for sure down with Twelfth Night, the annual end-of-season holiday extravaganza that brought droves of people to town twelve days after Christmas to pig out on festive treats before they had to go back to school (or work, if you were an old). There was also Shakespeare, for those who wanted to spoil a perfectly good outing with iambic pentameter.
Like most aspects of life in Millville, Twelfth Night was borderline dorky, a bit too literary, and overrun with members of my immediate family – but still fun if you played your cards right. Bo and I had been going since we were kids, but this was the first year I’d been inspired to dress up as one of the olden times characters who wandered around downtown. You had to have a vision for these things, or why bother?
“We’ll disappear into the shadows,” I told my skeptical sidekick. “Forgotten and ignored, the dregs of society. Then no one can be like, ‘Don’t eat all the scones, Jasper.’ ‘Come do this super boring thing for me, Jasper.’ ‘Why are you such a nightmare, Jasper?’”
My best friend frowned at his grubby sweatshirt. “You are kind of a nightmare.”
“A nightmare with a plan. Check this out.” Cupping my hands like a bowl, I gave him my saddest, hungriest look. “Please sir, I want some more.”
“So that’s our end game – free food?”
Now he was catching on. “Make it rain, merchants of Millville. We get in, eat as much as we can, and get out before my family can suck us into their plans.” I pictured it like a video game. Between my parents and four older sisters, someone was always waiting to pounce and start spouting off instructions. We needed to power up and keep moving.
Bo sighed, but I could tell I had his attention. We were close enough to Main Street that the spiced sugar smells were sailing toward us on the unseasonably warm January wind.
“And then we go to the play.” He wanted me to confirm the basic outline of the day in case I had something else up my sleeve. Sometimes I couldn’t tell whether he gave me too much credit or not enough.
“Eh. Who knows? Urchins don’t do schedules.” Translation: I’d rather be boiled in oil. Like the sticky toffee donuts we would soon be eating by the dozen.
“Well I’m not going to disappoint your sisters. Anyway, it’s Twelfth Night. Why wouldn’t you see Twelfth Night on Twelfth Night?”
“Maybe because you’re tired of hearing people say the words Twelfth Night?” The more people told me I had to go to the play, the less I felt like saying yes. It was like they’d never heard of reverse psychology. “My sisters are not the boss of me.”
Bo made a noise in his throat that probably meant whatever lets you sleep at night.
“Can we just urchin it up and forget about Shakespeare?”
“About that. I’d like to point out a small flaw in your master plan.”
I patted him on the back, leaving a dusty handprint it seemed best not to mention, given his fragile mental state. “If it makes you feel better.”
“The streets of Millville aren’t exactly crawling with urchins. It’s not like we’re going to blend in with our gang of pickpockets as we roam the back alleys.”
I knew what this was really about. “I told you, we have to play to our strengths. We’re in eighth grade, bro. Rugged and dangerous is not what people see when they look at us. Also, do you have black riding boots and a horse? Because I don’t. Highwayman was never going to happen.”
“Then I could have been a magician, a great detective, a butler. The stern, silent type.”
“Dude, I get it. You wanted to wear your tux.”
“Why have a tux if you’re going to leave it hanging in the closet?”
It was one of those points you couldn’t really argue. “Pretty sweet hat, though, am I right? Gotta love the tweed.”
“I am vibing the newsboy look.” Bo paused to admire himself in the window of a florist’s shop.
“You’re an icon.” I shoulder-checked him. He shoved me back.
“Watch the hat, yo.” Bo adjusted the brim of his cap to an angle that could only be described as jaunty. Not that I was going to tell him that. “Twelfth Night, here we come!”
I’d heard fiercer battle cries on the playground, but at least he was getting in the spirit. We cut through the alley behind Mung’s, where later tonight there would be a special round of Bleak Midwinter team trivia. It should be almost as fun as it sounded.
For now, the restaurant was closed so everyone could participate in the fleecing of the tourists. Some of us “working” the event (a term I used as lightly as possible) were stuck running booths, while the smart ones got to walk around adding to the ambiance with their retro stylings. Hence the poofy hats, and the lumpy red scarves made for us by my sister’s friend Arden, who had taken up knitting approximately five minutes before cranking out our knotted neckwear. The uneven stitches added a certain something to our appealingly tragic air. The rest was natural magnetism.
“What’s our first stop?” Bo asked as we rounded the corner onto Main Street.
The scene that greeted us wasn’t exactly a time machine to Dickensian London, but there were crowds of people in funny outfits milling about, old-fashioned music, and light-up snowflakes dangling from streetlights. Food and beverage stands outnumbered craft booths five to one, which was my preferred ratio of treats to potpourri and potholders, or whatever people were selling. My stomach rumbled in anticipation.
“Let’s see what Shaggy Doug has going.” Doug’s regular business, Tome Raider, was technically a bookstore, but most people went there for the baked goods. Today he had a table set up on the sidewalk under a banner reading “Old Fuzzywig’s Fine Foods.” His long white wig and matching beard were almost certainly left over from a Santa costume. Props to Doug for creative reuse.
“Hello boys,” he bellowed. “What’ll it be? I have mince pies, maple sugar candies, and King Cake scones.”
“What’s in the King Cake thingies?” Scones were the house specialty, so this was the logical place to start.
“That depends. If you find the bean, you’re King of the Bean.”
Bo snorted. “Sounds like Jasper.”
He wasn’t wrong. We ate a lot of lentils at the Porter-Malcolm house.
“If you get the clove,” Doug continued, refusing to be drawn into our fart repartee, “you’re a villain.”
I stroked my chin. “Also me.”
“There’s the twig, too. That means you’re a fool.”
Bo gave me a significant look. I shrugged. “I can work with that. Assuming it’s not a real stick.”
“Purely chocolate,” Doug assured us.
Okay then. Game on. Hunching my shoulders to make myself appear as small as possible, I drew closer to the table.
“I can only afford one.” My voice trembled as though faint from hunger as I stared longingly at the plates of perfect pastries. Alas, said my sigh. All hope is lost. Would a racking cough be too much? I should have spattered a couple of tissues with ketchup before we left the house.
“Well, now, we can’t have that.” Doug cleared his throat. He sounded a little choked up. “Here you go, my lad. Eat and be merry!” He handed me a plate piled high with scones, candies, and miniature pies with perfectly crimped edges. I was pretty sure I heard a heavenly chorus break into song, but it might have been the carolers.
I shoved the first scone into my mouth, mmmming through the crumbs as I moved aside to let Bo do his thing. Luckily for me, none of my sisters were around to suggest we share. Their ideas about reasonable portion size were a major buzzkill.
When Bo had his own haul, we doffed our caps to Doug.
“See you at the play!” he called after us as we sauntered down the street.
Don’t hold your breath.
“What was that?” Bo asked.
“What was what?”
“Probably just chewing sounds.” I raised the plate to my mouth so I could bite into a mince pie without getting it dirty.
“You know what we need? Drinks.” Bo pointed at a girl with hair the color of red food dye – the kind we weren’t allowed to eat at my house. (The chemical additive, that is; we didn’t eat any shade of hair.) She was standing behind a table laden with crock pots and paper cups.
Spotting us, Arden waved both hands, increasing her resemblance to a hummingbird. Next to her stood Lydia, a more down-to-earth member of my sister’s posse. She nodded like a cowboy in a high-stakes game of poker. It was an interesting contrast to the ice blue sweater with crystal snowflakes and matching headband.
Arden skipped around the table, latching on to Bo’s face with both hands. “You. Are. So. Cute!” she cooed, tipping his head back and forth in time with the words. I got the double cheek pinch. The trick was not to smile, unless you wanted to bring the pain. “And you wore your scarves!”
Bo side-eyed me. I could hear him thinking, this wouldn’t happen to a highwayman so I sent back a silent, suck it up. Cuteness was a double-edged sword.
Finished mauling us, Arden clapped her hands. “Wassail!”
It didn’t sound like a question, but based on the cidery smell and dripping ladles, it seemed like a safe bet she was offering us a hot drink.
“Yes, please.” I batted my lashes, figuring that plus the politeness would send her into orbit.
To my surprise, her face fell.
“She’s trying to make ‘wassail’ happen,” Lydia reported with the dead-eyed stare of a purse dog who has been squeezed into a sequined flamenco costume. “She wants you to say it back to her.”
“It’s festive,” Arden insisted. She tried out a few different inflections, glancing hopefully at Bo and I after each one. “Was-sail? Wassail. WASsail!”
Our best friend telepathy was in full effect. “Wassail,” we said in unison, holding up our hands for a high five.
Arden bit her bottom lip as she grinned at us, possibly to keep a Wassail of triumph from flying free. She turned to Lydia.
“Wassail,” the smaller girl sighed. It sounded like she was delivering bad medical news, but Arden nodded with satisfaction as she moved back around the table. She and Lydia each filled a cup and slid them in our direction.
When my sister first fell in with this group, I figured there had to be an angle. They seemed like the kind of pretty, normal girls who coast through life with the right clothes, the right connections, the right conversation. Whereas Mary (although okay looking, for a sister) was definitely on the eccentric end of the spectrum. But it turned out they were actually stealth weirdos too. I liked people who were freaky under the surface. It spiced things up – kind of like this baller hot cider.
“Is that fresh ginger?” It wasn’t like I was going to run home and brew up a batch. I just knew people got excited when you asked about their process.
Arden beamed. “Yes! And star anise. Do you like it?”
“Let’s just say my taste buds are wassailed with flavor.” I gave her my patented double eyebrow wag.
“I’m ready to wassail away with ecstasy,” Bo added.
“Oh.” Arden looked uncertain. “I’m not sure it works like that.”
“Wassailed by doubts?” I suggested. Lydia laser beamed me with her eyes. One of the first rules of comedy is knowing when a gag is played out. Raising my cup, I did a quick pivot. “Thanks for the drinks, ladies.”
“Oh, Jasper!” Arden pointed an evergreen fingernail at me. I braced myself. Nothing good ever came of an Oh, Jasper. “I almost forgot. Your parents were looking for you.”
I did a quick perimeter check. “I guessed we missed them. Bummer.”
“It’s okay. They said they’d see you at the play. Are you so excited for the show?” I was trying to decide how much truth Arden could handle when she went on. “Because I’m totally excited.”
Lydia took a long sip of cider, smacking her lips. “Shocker.”
“Oh, hey!” The words, and the way Arden was looking at us, made me want to take our wassail and run. “Could you do me a huge favor and bring one of these to Terry? I’m afraid she’ll be cold in her costume.”
“Isn’t that the whole point, though?” Lydia looked like she was thinking about grabbing one of my desserts. I eased out of range.
“No spoilers, but definitely bring a hankie.” Arden mimed a tear tracking down the side of her face.
“We’re kind of running out of hands.” Bo hung his head.
I could tell it was killing him to disappoint a pair of glamorous older women, so I shoved my plate at Lydia. “Here. Don’t wassail I never gave you anything.”
“Awwww.” Arden pressed a hand to her heart. I wasn’t sure if she was more dazzled by my generosity or the bonus wassail, but it seemed like a good moment for a saucy wink. Beside me, Bo sketched a bow.
“I can’t believe you gave away food,” he said as we threaded our way through the crowd.
“It was for a good cause.”
“Impressing the ladies?”
“I don’t need scones for that.” Though pastries definitely helped. “When we circle back to Doug’s, you can tell him how I shared with those less fortunate.”
“Nice. Even though you ate like seven-eighths of them yourself.”
I shrugged. “Details schmetails.”
We found Terry huddled on a corner, clutching a box of matches as she shivered. She was dressed in rags, literally: a bunch of washcloths and dish towels had been belted and tied on to her regular clothes.
I held out the cup. “Wassail. Can you take five?”
“Sure.” She straightened, accepting the drink with a smile. “I cycle through the stages of hypothermia, but I can start over.”
“Which one was that?” Bo asked, offering her one of his pastries. He’d obviously learned from the best.
She held up her index finger as she swallowed a mouthful of mince pie. “First the shivering. Next comes clumsiness and disorientation, then all your systems slow down until finally you’re out.” Her head drooped to one side, tongue lolling. “I try to keep it as medically accurate as possible.
It made a lot more sense now why she’d chosen to be The Little Match Girl. Terry looked like she should be singing to a meadow full of woodland creatures, but she had a mind like a scalpel: sharp, and super into nasty medical procedures. I leaned closer to her, beckoning to Bo.
“Hey, bring it in for a sec, would you? I want to send a message to Cousin Jo.”
“The Little Women one?” Bo asked.
“Yes. And she would love that you called her that.” People thought my family was obsessed with books until they heard about our Aunt Abigail, who ran Little Women re-enactments out of her house. My poor sap cousins were stuck in the starring roles, which meant they were pretty much begging to be teased. As Bo squeezed in on Terry’s other side, I angled my phone in front of us. “On the count of three, everyone say, ‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.’ Maximum sad face.”
We watched the playback. Primo material, if I did say so myself. I hit send. It was like poking a sleeping bear. Shots fired. Your move, Cousin Jo.
“Repent!” yelled a voice I knew and hated. “Give up your heathen ways! Reject the corporate industrial holiday complex!”
Bo groaned. “That guy?”
We turned to look at Neill, who despite being on the short side was the biggest windbag ever to grace a literature seminar. My parents had taught a lot of undergrads over the years, but Neill was the most annoying by a significant margin. He was so far up his own behind he thought his brain was the center of the universe.
“He says he’s a moral reformer.” Terry did not sound impressed. “Apparently he thinks the campus library should be open longer hours over winter break.”
That tracked: Neill as a younger, more pretentious Scrooge. “Has he been here all day?”
“Yeah. I think he’s trying to move this way, but he has to stay on that box so he just kind of scoots.” Bending her legs like a downhill skier, she made a minuscule hop.
“By next week he could be halfway here.” I pretended to shiver in fear – or the first stage of hypothermia, depending on your perspective.
Terry nodded at a family approaching from the other direction. “I better get back to it.”
Right. Because those kids were the perfect age to be permanently scarred by the story of a little girl freezing to death all alone at Christmas. Maybe they could go home and watch Bambi afterward.
“Save me a seat at the play?” Terry asked through chattering teeth.
“Uh, sure. I mean, we’ll try.” I wasn’t being my usual smooth self, but she’d caught me off guard.
Bo cleared his throat.
“I didn’t want to say no when she’s about to kick it,” I explained as we moved away.
“Pssst! You two. Come over here.” Neill beckoned to us with a handful of pamphlets. Five bucks said he’d printed up one of his term papers and was handing it out to unsuspecting strangers. Happy Twelfth Night; please enjoy these footnotes!
“No thanks. Plenty of reading material at home.” I fluttered my fingers at him.
“I need to talk to you,” he gritted out. “Man to man. Though I suppose man to boy would be more accurate.”
Bo’s fist clenched around his empty cup, crumpling it. “Is he being serious right now?”
“’Fraid so.” That was the problem with Neill. He always took himself seriously, even though he was a joke. I made a mental note to use that line on him later.
We took our time walking over to his stupid wooden crate. Even though he was standing on a box, Neill wasn’t that much taller. I’d picked up another inch or two since Halloween, thanks to my outstanding eating skills.
Neill’s nostrils flared as he looked (very slightly) down on us. “I see you were trying to move in on my territory.”
I shook my head. “Dude.”
“Dude,” Bo echoed. “Territory?”
Leaving aside the missed opportunity for a play on Terry’s name, I was amazed that someone who claimed to be smart could so epically fail to read a room. Her body language screamed not interested. (That and Farewell, cruel world!) She might as well have hired the carolers to serenade him with “Hit the Road Jack.”
Bo had gone through a phase where he was fixated on my sister Mary, but that was different. He’d probably gotten confused because she was so much nicer to him than she was to me. Not that Mary was mean to me exactly. More like on guard, the way you’d treat someone who had occasionally helped himself to your leftover Halloween candy or recited parts of your diary at the dinner table. In my defense: get a better hiding place. Top dresser drawer is just embarrassing yourself.
Since Bo didn’t have any of that baggage, Mary freely offered him snacks, never criticizing him for taking more than his share. She laughed at his jokes. Add to that the very Mary thing she did where you’d be talking and she’d get this dreamy look while staring into the distance, and it was easy to see how my buddy had gotten the wrong idea. He didn’t know she was thinking about books.
Neill had no such excuse.
“I’ve been working this set up all day.” Neill sounded offended, like we were the ones begging for a smackdown. “Later I’ll escort her to the play. Even though Twelfth Night is for lightweights. Needs must and all.”
“You realize you’re monologuing.” Bo’s face was a mask of innocence. “Now we all know your evil plan?”
Neill took a scraping hop with his box, advancing maybe an inch. “Just back off, Oliver Twist. I got here first.”
“Sorry,” I informed him. “No can do. The waifs and urchins of this world stick together.”
“We’re part of an underground network of thieves.” Bo was so into it he added a little rasp to his voice. “Highly trained operatives with a unique set of skills –”
I put a hand on his arm. “What he’s trying to say is that you are getting major cold shoulder out here, bruh. The deep freeze. Little Match Girl style.”
“Also, she’s going to the play with us.” With an in your face finger snap, Bo spun on his heel.
I hurried after him. “Nice one.”
“You know what would have made that exit ten times more amazing?”
“Cape, actually. Swish.”
We fortified ourselves with hot chocolate and frosted sugar cookies before crossing the street to check out the rest of the action. A voice rose above the music:
“Hot nuts! Get roasted!”
“Is that who I think it is?” Bo took a nervous slug of cocoa, as if it was something stronger.
I nodded, shooting him a quick look to make sure he was cool with stopping to chat with Mary and Alex. As far as I could tell, Bo seemed to have moved on from what does that guy have that I don’t? to what does that guy have that I can copy because dude has game.
My sister and her semi-notorious boyfriend, Alex Ritter, were selling roasted chestnuts. He was all decked out: long wool coat, vest, leather gloves, even a top hat. Mary was wearing some kind of dress. She’d probably peed herself and had to change when she got a load of the Mr. Darcy lewk Alex was serving up, even though he was really more of a Bingley once you got to know him.
I could feel Bo glaring a hole in the side of my head because Alex got to be dapper while he had been forced to scruff it. The good news was that this meant Bo missed the moment Alex bent toward Mary, pointing at his hat, and she rose onto her tiptoes to kiss him. Then she blushed, I thought about puking, and Alex grinned, looking stupidly pleased with himself even though I knew for a fact he got plenty of kisses from my sister. The two of them had been mooning over each other all yesterday afternoon as they prepped the chestnuts. It was amazing they still had all their fingers.
To be fair, the PDA wasn’t too over the top. Mostly it was little stuff – Alex touching my sister’s hair, or the back of her neck, and her leaning into his hand like a cat. You’d think they would be sick of each other by now. Unless maybe it was like me and cheese puffs. It didn’t matter if you’d already finished the whole bag and people were yelling that it wasn’t supposed to be a single serving. You still wanted more.
“Are you here for chestnuts or do you want Merrily to roast you?” Alex asked.
Mary smacked him in the chest. He held on to her hand, keeping it pressed to the front of his coat. “Okay fine. She only gets salty with me.”
My sister rolled her eyes. “Somebody has to.”
It was a valid point. If you were a curly-haired boy with a sparkle in your eye and a flair for one-liners, most people treated you like a little prince. Bo and I could vouch for that. It was a blessing and a curse, as evidenced by the cheek pinching incident.
Bo stepped behind me to whisper in my ear. “Is that a sprig of mistletoe on his hat?”
Ah. Slick. “Don’t hate the player,” I said under my breath. “It’s a yes for me on chestnuts,” I told Alex, not bothering with the poor starveling orphan performance. I knew Mary had my number. I also knew she wouldn’t deny her baby brother free food. “How’s business?”
“One person thought they lost a filling, but it was just a piece of shell stuck in their molar. Other than that, it’s been great.” If Mary glowed any harder, we could have stuck a wick on her head and watched it burn.
Alex draped an arm over her shoulders. “I’m trying to convince your sister to go skating with me.”
“I bet you have all kinds of moves,” Bo muttered.
“Mostly forward,” Alex said, good-humored as ever. “Sometimes I manage a half-circle if I’m going really slow.”
Mary shook her head at him. “I feel like you’re imagining something really civilized, like ice dancing.”
“Always,” he replied. “In fact, I have a unitard on under this coat.”
I laughed, because unitards. Bo rolled his eyes. The background music faded into light applause. The musicians must have been taking a break, because a new set of sounds filled the silence: smacks, thuds, and scrapes.
A guttural scream made us all flinch. “Foul!”
“Hockey,” Mary answered my unspoken question. “Cam and Jeff are team captains.” There was no need to say more. Our most athletic sister and her significant other were hardcore competitors, whether playing flag football or Bananagrams.
“I’ve lost enough teeth.” I stretched my lips wide to give them the full effect of my dental make-up.
“You look like a piano,” Alex said, in a tone I chose to interpret as admiring.
“Thanks.” Bo had refused to join me in the tooth blackening, but I felt like it brought my urchin-ness to the next level.
Alex bent to murmur something to Mary, so I pulled Bo away before the mistletoe hat came into play.
“See you at the show,” she called after us.
I pretended not to hear.
“You okay?” I would have left it alone, but I knew my best friend. In the battle between dignity and talking about his feelings, blabbing was always going to win.
Bo shrugged. “One day I’ll find someone who looks at me like that. Besides Yarb.”
Our cat did have an unhealthy obsession with Bo. Unfortunately, her love language was murder. “Hopefully whoever it is won’t leave decapitated crickets in your shoes.”
“Spoken like a true romantic.” Bo patted me on the shoulder. It was only partly ironic.
I peeled another chestnut, popping the soft flesh into my mouth. “Where to next? I thought I smelled frying.”
“Jas, no. You’ll throw up.”
“That was one time. And I swear that cheese was bad.”
“Then why did you keep eating it?”
“I thought it was one of those foreign ones.”
Taking off his cap, Bo fluffed his hair. “Let’s go to the play.”
“Nah.” I started to turn. He grabbed the back of my sweatshirt.
“Come on. I want to get a good seat.” Step by step, he was dragging me toward the park.
“We don’t care about Shakespeare. We’re urchins.”
“Jasper, it’s your family.”
“Urchins don’t have families. We find our family on the street.”
He gave me a look.
“Fine.” We’d been circling this drain all day, and in my heart I’d known it would suck us in eventually. There was no escaping “Scenes from Twelfth Night, as Performed by the Baardvaark Players.”
My twin sisters Addie and Van were in college, but they had been running their own Shakespeare-centric theater company since middle school – my age. (I felt tired just thinking about it.) Baardvaark had taken over the park, where they would be using the central fountain as the main set. I knew this because they talked about it endlessly at dinner, and there was only so much you could tune out. It was all going to be very symbolic and full of social commentary about the industrialization of England, blah blah blah, sounds like a party.
“What’s the story of this one?” Bo asked as we ambled along the angled pathway.
“Cross-dressing, practical jokes.” I yawned. “Probably ends in a musical number. The usual.”
“I should hire you to write the program notes,” Van said, coming up behind us as we reached the seating area. She was the director, while Addie had recently transitioned into acting.
“Only if you want them to be awesome.”
Someone snickered. A girl hurried past, chin pointing away like she didn’t want us to know she’d laughed. Van nodded at her.
“Who’s that?” I asked, since they clearly knew each other.
“I don’t know who you’re talking about.” Van enjoyed being difficult.
“The one with the awesome sense of humor.” Hard as it was to believe, not everyone appreciated my wit. “Who’s sitting right over there.”
“Oh, her?” Van looked so pleased with herself I almost regretted asking. “That’s Margot.” Huge, melodramatic pause. “Margot Ritter. As in Phoebe’s little sister. And Alex’s.”
“I know how last names work, Van.”
“Just making sure. I wouldn’t want there to be any confusion about who’s related to whom.”
Phoebe was Van’s girlfriend, and a recent addition to Baardvaark. Since Phoebe was also Alex’s big sister, two of my sisters were dating people from the same family. It was complicated – but not as complicated as when Mary had mistakenly assumed Phoebe was Alex’s girlfriend.
“Are you going to introduce us?” Bo asked.
Van pretended to think it over. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
Somebody was officially full of herself. Jerking my head at Bo, I meandered to where Margot was sitting. Plopping into the row behind her, I tapped her shoulder. “I’m Jasper, that’s Bo.” I stuck out my arm.
She frowned at my hand. It was a little crusty with sugar and smears of ash and flecks of chestnut skin and – it could have been cleaner, basically. I wiped it on my pants. “You a big theater person?”
“Not really. I’m more into movies.” The frown in her voice matched the one on her face. She had the Ritter curls, but her hair was several shades darker and didn’t look like she spent an hour every morning lovingly arranging each ringlet. “What kind of riffraff are you supposed to be?”
“I prefer the term scamp.” I watched her face for another flash of amusement, but something told me Margot wouldn’t go down easy. We must have caught her off guard the first time.
“We’re poor suffering orphans.” Bo clutched his cap in both hands. “Living on the streets. Afflicted with chilblains and pox –”
“It’s a hard knock life,” I cut in, before he could tell her we had lice and scurvy, too.
“Especially the musical routines. You probably have holes in your shoes from all the shuffle-ball-change.”
I gave a brow lift. Point for Margot. It almost made me wish my costume was a smidge more dashing, but the feeling passed.
My phone chirped. I glanced at the screen long enough to see that I had a new message from THE BFC, which stood for Best Freaking Cousin. Jo had edited my Contacts list herself, mostly to troll her sister Amy. While at it, Jo had also changed my ringtone to I Knew You Were Trouble. It worked for my image, so I left it.
“Is that your cousin? What’d she say?” Bo grabbed the phone out of my hand. For someone who was supposedly my ride or die, he took an unhealthy interest in seeing me get owned. Unlocking the screen like he’d done it a thousand times, he cackled at the doctored photo of the two of us with Terry. Jo had replaced my eyes with hearts and added a caption, which Bo helpfully read out loud. “Who’s your girlfriend, Little Lord Fauntleroy?”
Of course that got a laugh from Margot.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” I started to explain as Bo showed her the picture.
Margot gave me a slow-mo brow lift as Terry walked up, holding a large paper bag. I eyed the grease stains with interest.
“Doug gave me all the damaged ones he couldn’t sell,” she reported, claiming the chair next to Bo.
He pumped his fist. “God bless us everyone.”
“Hey,” said Arden, slipping into our row from the other side. Her eyes lit when they landed on Margot, who had turned around to reach into the bag of treats. “Who’s this? A friend of yours?”
Isn’t that cute! her tone said. Mary’s little brother has a little friend! It was like she was pinching my cheeks without actually touching me.
“More of an acquaintance,” I said, playing it cool.
“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” Margot retorted, playing it cooler.
Before we could continue this stimulating conversation, Mary and Alex showed up, grabbing the last two seats in our row. Alex leaned forward to ruffle Margot’s hair. I was surprised he didn’t pull back a bloody stump. I was about to drop a casual inquiry about whether Margot was going to Millville High next year when the music started, and Van came out to do her intro. Everyone turned their attention to the makeshift stage.
Story of my life. Constantly being forced to stop doing something interesting so my family could torture me with their hobbies.
“That’s Duke Orsino,” Mary whispered when Addie made her entrance. “And Phoebe’s playing Viola, who pretends to be Cesario, and Viola’s twin brother Sebastian.”
“Is there going to be a test later?” I was pretty sure that line earned a snort from Margot, though it was possible she was reacting to the performance.
It was pretty funny, all the brothers and sisters and mistaken identity. And it didn’t go on too long, which was a plus. The bag of dessert bits lasted all the way to the end, when the full cast assembled in front of the fountain.
Just as I’d predicted: they were going to sing us out. Huge smiles. Lots of teeth. Awkward eye contact.
“Here we come a-wassailing,” they warbled. “Among the leaves so green.”
I turned to Arden. “You hear that? They’re playing your song.”
“What a magical day,” she gasped, blinking at the sky. “Did it just start snowing?”
“You’re crying,” Lydia informed her.
Arden wiped her eyes, then glanced at her hand. “Still. Sparkly. Oh look!” She pointed at the actors, who had begun pulling people from the audience to join them in a procession through the park. “Can we be in the parade? Please, please, please?”
Lydia stood, popping the collar of her coat. “Wassail.”
With a chorus of wassails, we all joined in – even me and Bo. It was getting cold just sitting there, and besides, as Margot had helpfully pointed out, song-and-dance numbers were a time-honored part of urchin life.
As we made a human choo-choo through the park, those who knew the words added their voices to a Twelfth Night greeting for all of us, near and far:
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too,
And God bless you and send you
A happy New Year,
And God send you,
A happy new year.
By The Book
By: Amanda Sellet
Release Date: May 12th, 2020
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