Darkest Hour (The Mediator #4) by Meg Cabot

Chapter one

Summer. Season of long, slow days and short, hot nights.

Back in Brooklyn, where I spent my first fifteen of them, summer—when it hadn’t meant camp—had meant hanging out on the stoop with my best friend, Gina, and her brothers, waiting for the ice-cream truck to come by. When it wasn’t too hot, we played a game called War, dividing into teams with the other kids in the neighborhood and shooting each other with imaginary guns.

When we got older, of course, we quit playing War. Gina and I also started laying off the ice cream.

Not that it mattered. None of the neighborhood guys, the ones we used to play with, wanted anything to do with us. Well, with me, anyway. I don’t think they’d have minded renewing acquaintances with Gina, but by the time they finally noticed what a babe she’d grown into, she’d set her sights way higher than guys from the ’hood.

I don’t know what I expected from my sixteenth summer, my first since moving to California to live with my mom and her new husband…and, oh, yeah, his sons. I guess I envisioned the same long, slow days. Only these, in my mind, would be spent at the beach rather than on an apartment building’s front stoop.

And as for those short, hot nights, well, I had plans for those, as well. All I needed was a boyfriend.

But as it happened, neither the beach nor the boyfriend materialized, the latter because the guy I liked? Yeah, he so wasn’t interested. At least, as far as I could tell. And the former because…

Well, because I was forced to get a job.

That’s right: A job.

I was horrified when one night at dinner, around the beginning of May, my stepfather, Andy, asked me if I’d put in any summer employment applications anywhere. I was all, “What are you talking about?”

But it soon became clear that, like the many other sacrifices I’d been asked to make since my mother met, fell in love with, and married Andy Ackerman—host of a popular cable television home improvement program, native Californian, and father of three—my long hot summer lazing at the beach with my friends was not to be.

In the Ackerman household, it soon unfolded, you had two alternatives for how you spent your summer break: a job, or remedial tutoring. Only Doc, my youngest stepbrother—known as David to everyone but me—was exempt from either of these, as he was too young to work, and he had made good enough grades that he’d been accepted into a month-long computer camp, at which he was presumably learning skills that would make him the next Bill Gates—only hopefully without the bad haircut and Wal-Mart-y sweaters.

My second-youngest stepbrother, Dopey (also known as Brad) was not so lucky. Dopey had managed to flunk both English and Spanish—an astounding feat, in my opinion, English being his native language—and so was being forced by his father to attend summer school five days a week…when he wasn’t being used as unpaid slave labor on the project Andy had undertaken while his TV show was on summer hiatus: tearing down a large portion of our house’s backyard deck and installing a hot tub.

Given the alternatives—employment or summer school—I chose to seek employment.

I got a job at the same place my oldest stepbrother, Sleepy, works every summer. He, in fact, recommended me, an act which, at the time, simultaneously stunned and touched me. It wasn’t until later that I found out that he had received a small bonus for every person he recommended who was later hired.

Whatever. What it actually boils down to is this: Sleepy—Jake, as he is known to his friends and the rest of the family—and I are now proud employees of the Pebble Beach Hotel and Golf Resort, Sleepy as a lifeguard at one of the resort’s many pools, and me as…

Well, I signed away my summer to become a hotel staff babysitter.

Okay. You can stop laughing now.

Even I will admit that it’s not the kind of job I ever thought I’d be suited for, since I am not long on patience and am certainly not overly fond of having my hair spat up in. But allow me to point out that it does pay ten dollars an hour, and that that does not include tips.

And let me just say that the people who stay at the Pebble Beach Hotel and Golf Resort? Yeah, they are the kind of people who tend to tip. Generously.

The money, I must say, has gone a long way toward healing my wounded pride. If I have to spend my summer in mindless drudgery, earning a hundred bucks a day—and frequently more—amply compensates for it. Because by the time the summer is over, I should have, without question, the most stunning fall wardrobe of anyone entering the junior class of the Junipero Serra Mission Academy.

So think about that, Kelly Prescott, while you spend your summer lounging by your father’s pool. I’ve already got four pairs of Jimmy Choos, paid for with my own money.

What do you think about that, Little Miss Daddy’s AmEx?

The only real problem with my summer job—besides the whiny children and their equally whiny, but loaded, parents, of course—is the fact that I am expected to report there at 8:00 in the morning every day.

That’s right. 8:00 A.M. No sleeping in for old Suze this summer.

I must say I find this a bit excessive. And believe me, I’ve complained. And yet the management staff at the Pebble Beach Hotel and Golf Resort have remained stubbornly unswayed by my persuasive arguments for refraining from offering babysitting services until nine.

And so it is that every morning (I can’t even sleep in on Sundays, thanks to my stepfather’s insistence that all of us gather around the dining table for the elaborate brunch he prepares; he seems to think we are the Camdens or the Waltons something) I am up before seven….

Which has, I’ve been surprised to learn, its advantages.

Although I would not list seeing Dopey without a shirt, sweating like a pig, and gulping OJ from the carton as one of them.

There are a lot of girls who go to my school who would, I know, pay money to see Dopey—and Sleepy, too, for that matter—without a shirt, sweat or no sweat. Kelly Prescott, for instance. And her best friend, and Dopey’s sometime flame, Debbie Mancuso. I myself do not understand the attraction, but then I can only suppose that these girls have not been around my stepbrothers after a meal in which beans played any sort of role on the menu.

Still, anyone who cared to see Dopey do his calendar pinup imitation could easily do so for free, merely by stopping by our house any week-day morning. For it is in our backyard that Dopey has been, from approximately six in the morning until he has to leave for summer school at ten, stripped to the waist, and performing rigorous manual labor under the eagle eye of his father.

On this particular morning—the one where I caught him, once again, drinking directly from the juice carton, a habit of which my mother and I have been trying, with little success, to cure the entire Ackerman clan—Dopey had apparently been doing some digging, since he left a trail of mud along the kitchen floor, in addition to a dirtencrusted object on what had once been an immaculate counter (I should know: It had been my turn to 409 it the night before).

“Oh,” I said, as I stepped into the kitchen. “Isn’t that a lovely picture.”

Dopey lowered the orange juice container and looked at me.

“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” he asked, wiping his mouth with the back of a wrist.

“Of course,” I said. “But I was hoping that before I left, I could enjoy a nice glass of calcium-fortified juice. I see now that that will not be possible.”

Dopey shook the carton. “There’s still some left,” he said.

“Mixed with your backwash?” I heaved a shudder. “I think not.”

Dopey opened his mouth to say something—presumably his usual suggestion that I chew on some piece of his anatomy—but his father’s voice called from outside the sliding glass doors to the deck.

“Brad,” Andy yelled. “That’s enough of a break. Get back out here and help me lower this.”

Dopey slammed down the carton of OJ. Before he could stalk from the room, however, I stopped him with a polite, “Excuse me?”

Because he wore no shirt, I could see the muscles in Dopey’s neck and shoulders tense as I spoke.

“All right already,” he said, spinning around and heading back toward the juice carton. “I’ll put it away. Jeez, why are you always on me about crap like—”

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