“Sure,” Laurel said brightly. Emma rose, too, eager to get away from Grandma. They made their way into the Spanish-tiled kitchen. The dark soapstone countertops gleamed, and pineapple-themed dish towels hung neatly from the oven handle. Emma was just grabbing the water pitcher when she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“Sutton,” Mr. Mercer said in a hushed voice. “Laurel.”
Laurel froze with a tray of ice-filled glasses in her hand.
“I heard Thayer is coming back to school tomorrow,” Mr. Mercer said, shutting the patio door. The sound of Grandma critiquing Mrs. Mercer’s choice of salsa music for the party instantly evaporated. “Just because he’s out of jail doesn’t change anything. I want you two to keep your distance.”
Laurel set her mouth in a line. “But Dad, he’s my best friend. You didn’t have a problem with him before.”
Mr. Mercer’s eyebrows shot up. “That was before he broke into our house, Laurel. People change.”
Laurel lowered her head and shrugged. She didn’t, Emma noticed, make any mention of going on a date with Thayer yesterday.
“Sutton?” Mr. Mercer stared at Emma next.
“Um, I’ll stay away,” Emma mumbled.
“I mean it, girls,” Mr. Mercer said sternly. He stared straight at Emma when he spoke, and once again, Emma wondered what subtext she was missing. “If I find out that you’re hanging out with him, there will be consequences.”
And then he turned on his heel and marched back to the patio.
As soon as he shut the door, Laurel faced Emma. There was a sickly smile on her face. “That was smart to not mention seeing us last night,” she said icily.
Emma made a face. “If Thayer means that much to you, you should have said something. Convinced Dad not to worry.”
Laurel flicked her blond hair off her shoulder and stepped closer. Her breath smelled like spicy barbecue sauce. “We all know Dad can be overprotective. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep your mouth shut. Got it?”
Emma nodded faintly. After Laurel turned toward the patio, Emma crumpled against the island, suddenly exhausted. If you know what’s good for you. Was that…a threat?
I didn’t know either. And I wasn’t eager to find out.
VOLLEYING WITH THE ENEMY
By the time the Mercers finished dinner, the sun had set, the frogs had started croaking, and there was a chill to the air. Emma had a pile of German homework, but being in the same house as Laurel without being able to make any headway on the investigation filled her with restless adrenaline. Though she was still aching from practice, she found herself slipping on gray leggings and taking off for the tennis courts down the block. She didn’t plan on hitting the ball very hard.
The courts were empty. Only a few people were out walking their dogs on the trails, and a couple was talking quietly by a Mini Cooper in the parking lot. Emma selected the far court, which had a solid wall for solo play, and dropped three quarters into the meter that turned on the overhead lights. A pop sounded as she pried open a new container of fuzzy yellow balls. She bounced one on her racket a few times before lobbing it gently into the wall, the previous aches and pains from the grueling practice melting away.
It felt good to hit the ball over and over, losing herself in her thoughts. Could Laurel have killed Sutton? Emma didn’t have any proof, but she also didn’t have proof that Laurel didn’t do it, either. If only she could find something personal of Laurel’s, like a diary—or her cell phone. Laurel guarded the thing with her life, but maybe there was a way to get her hands on it.
Of course there was one other way to figure out if Laurel had an alibi for that night: asking Thayer if she’d stayed with him at the hospital. The idea of talking with Thayer was nerve-racking. Emma had fooled everyone except Ethan into thinking she was Sutton, but Thayer and Sutton had major history; they’d been in love. But the same reason that made it scary made it intriguing—Emma was so curious about Sutton, and Thayer knew her better than anyone.
I’d give anything to see Thayer as much as possible, even if I couldn’t touch him. On the other hand, if Thayer didn’t realize Emma wasn’t me after spending time with her, well, I wasn’t sure I could deal with that.
Suddenly, the overhead lights snapped off, leaving Emma in darkness. She bent over her legs, breathing hard, letting the ball bounce off the wall and roll to the other end of the court. Footsteps rustled in the grass beside the court, and she stood up, tensed.
“Hello?” Emma called. “Ethan?” The tennis courts had been Emma and Ethan’s meeting place since her arrival in Tucson, though they hadn’t planned to get together that night.
There was no answer, but she heard rustling sounds in the underbrush surrounding the courts. Her eyes not yet adjusted to the darkness, Emma inched closer to the backboard and felt her way along the smooth wood. The toe of her sneaker touched the chain-link fence, making a clink sound. She froze, knowing she’d just given away her position. A second later, the electricity powered back on, flooding the court with light and illuminating a figure standing at the edge of the court.
The figure whipped around and screamed, too. But then Emma saw who it was: Nisha Banerjee, Sutton’s rival and tennis cocaptain. Emma collapsed against the fence, pressing her hands to her eyes. “Nisha! You scared the shit out of me!”
“You were the one lurking on the court in the dark!” Nisha cried. For a moment, she looked furious, but then she dissolved into giggles. “God. We both screamed like six-year-olds who just saw their first horror movie.”
“I know.” Emma breathed out, willing her heart to slow down. “We’re pathetic, huh?”
Nisha took a few steps toward her. She was wearing a red Adidas tennis dress and matching wrist sweatbands. Her pristine sneakers were tied with tiny bows and her black hair was tucked behind a violet-colored headband. But even though she looked perfect, her eyes were glassy, and her fingers trembled ever so slightly. Nisha was not someone who liked being even the slightest bit out of control.
“You playing solo?” Nisha asked.
“Oh. I was going to do that, too,” Nisha said. She ducked her head and tucked her racket under her arm. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”
But then she gave Emma a long glance. Her brown eyes looked tired, and there were sloping circles beneath them. Emma softened. She was so used to sparring with Nisha, but right now, the girl looked weary and a little bit shy.
She looked different to me, too. It was strange seeing people from such a removed perspective, like everything I’d once thought to be true about them was nothing more than a carefully constructed facade.
Emma cleared her throat. “Why aren’t you playing at the courts closer to your house?” Nisha lived near Sabino Canyon, and Emma had seen a court at the entrance to her neighborhood.
Nisha shrugged. “It was crowded. And I felt like being alone.”
Emma spun her racket in her hand. “Well, since we’re both here, do you want to volley?”
Nisha’s jaw twitched. Emma could tell by the tiny flutter of her eyelashes that Nisha had wanted her to ask exactly that. “Um, sure,” she said, playing it cool. “If you want.”
“I do,” Emma said, realizing it was true. She had never seen the girl look vulnerable, and something about it struck a chord. But there was something else she’d thought of, too: Nisha had been Laurel’s alibi on August thirty-first, the night Sutton went missing. She’d told Emma that Laurel had been at her house the whole night, when Laurel definitely hadn’t. Had Nisha lied? Or had Laurel snuck out after Nisha had fallen asleep?
They strolled to opposite sides of the court. Nisha adjusted her tennis skirt, and Emma snickered. “I have to say. Only you would dress like Serena Williams on a dark and abandoned court, Nisha,” she teased, tossing the ball high in the air and whacking it hard.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Nisha said as the ball whizzed toward her. She slammed the ball hard. Emma lunged for it, but it flew past her, clanking against the chain-link fence.
“Fair enough.” Emma laughed. “Love-fifteen,” she said, trotting over to retrieve the ball. This time she hit a mild shot over the net, which Nisha easily returned, setting the tone for a friendly volley.
They played a few rounds, both of them remarking how amazing it was that they still had energy after today’s grueling practice. After Emma hit a backhand into the net, Nisha took a break to drink from her water bottle. “I hear you’re dating Ethan Landry.”
“That’s right,” Emma said, blushing a little.
Nisha wiped her mouth. “So he actually talks, then?”
“Sure he talks. A lot.”
“That’s news to me.” Nisha placed her water bottle on the bench. “My mom used to call him Silent E. We took the same bus, and he never said one word to me—or anyone—the entire eighth-grade school year.”
“He’s just shy,” Emma mumbled, having forgotten that Nisha and Ethan were neighbors. It hurt to hear about Ethan’s quiet days. She hated that he hadn’t had many friends.
“Well, shy’s cool.” Nisha swung her legs, then gave Emma a jealous glance. “And he’s certainly gorgeous.”
That was more like it. “I know,” Emma said, shivering with pleasure, thinking about the kisses she’d shared with Ethan at the planetarium last night. “What’s going on with you and Garrett?” Nisha had shown up with Sutton’s ex at the Homecoming Dance a few weeks ago, looking very pleased with herself.
Nisha shrugged. “Nothing really.” Then she took another sip of water and changed the subject. “Remember when we were little, and we used to count how many shots we could get back and forth before one of us messed up?” she asked. “Our own world records,” she went on, deepening her voice to sound like a sports announcer.
Emma smiled to herself. For as many items she’d put on the Ways I’m Not Sutton list, there were so many quirky things they did that were just the same. She’d counted volleys with her Russian foster brother, Stephan, when they’d played endless rounds of ping-pong in the basement. Even now she often found herself counting in practice and matches out of habit.
“That feels like an eternity ago,” Nisha went on. “I always liked it when you and Laurel included me.” Then her lips tightened, like she’d said too much. She took a hard pull from the water bottle. “Anyway,” she said toughly. “Ready for me to whip your ass some more?”
But Emma didn’t move. “It’s lonely to be an only child,” she said softly.
Nisha looked at her sharply. “It’s not like you’d know. You have Laurel.”
Emma bit her lip and looked away. She’d been talking about herself, of course—even with all of her foster brothers and sisters, she still felt adrift and alone. She’d longed for a brother or a sister—family of some kind. It was one of those moments where she wanted to tell Nisha about her experience, but couldn’t.