Twilight (The Mediator #6) by Meg Cabot

Chapter one

I found the stone exactly where Mrs. Gutierrez had said it would be, beneath the drooping branches of the overgrown hibiscus in her backyard. I shut off the flashlight. Even though there was supposed to have been a full moon that night, by midnight a thick layer of clouds had blown in from the sea, and a dank mist had reduced visibility to nil.

But I didn’t need light to see by anymore. I just needed to dig. I sunk my fingers into the wet soft earth and pried the stone from its resting spot. It moved easily and wasn’t heavy. Soon I was feeling beneath it for the tin box Mrs. Gutierrez had assured me would be there….

Except that it wasn’t. There was nothing beneath my fingers except damp soil.

That’s when I heard it—a twig snapping beneath the weight of someone nearby.

I froze. I was trespassing, after all; the last thing I needed was to be dragged home by the Carmel, California, cops.

Again.

Then, with my pulse beating frantically as I tried to figure out how on earth I was going to explain my way out of this one, I recognized the lean shadow—darker than all the others—standing a few feet away. My heart continued to pound in my ears, but now for an entirely different reason.

“You,” I said, climbing slowly, shakily, to my feet.

“Hello, Suze.” His voice, floating toward me through the mist, was deep, and not at all unsteady… unlike my own voice, which had an unnerving tendency to shake when he was around.

It wasn’t the only part of me that shook when he was around, either.

But I was determined not to let him know that.

“Give it back,” I said, holding out my hand.

He threw back his head and laughed.

“Are you nuts?” he wanted to know.

“I mean it, Paul,” I said, my voice steady, but my confidence already beginning to seep away, like sand beneath my feet.

“It’s two thousand dollars, Suze,” he said, as if I might be unaware of that fact. “Two thousand.”

“And it belongs to Julio Gutierrez.” I sounded sure of myself, even if I wasn’t exactly feeling that way. “Not you.”

“Oh, right,” Paul said, his deep voice dripping with sarcasm. “And what’s Gutierrez gonna do, call the cops? He doesn’t know it’s missing, Suze. He never even knew it was there.”

“Because his grandmother died before she had a chance to tell him,” I reminded him.

“Then he won’t notice, will he?” Despite the darkness, I could tell Paul was smiling. I could hear it in his voice. “You can’t miss what you never knew you had.”

“Mrs. Gutierrez knows.” I’d dropped my hand so he wouldn’t see it shaking, but I couldn’t disguise the growing unsteadiness in my voice as easily. “If she finds out you stole it, she’ll come after you.”

“What makes you think she hasn’t already?” he asked, so smoothly that the hairs on my arms stood up… and not because of the brisk autumn weather, either.

I didn’t want to believe him. He had no reason to lie. And obviously, Mrs. Gutierrez had come to him as well as me, anxious for any help she could get. How else could he have known about the money?

Poor Mrs. Gutierrez. She had definitely put her trust the wrong mediator. Because it looked as if Paul hadn’t just robbed her. Oh, no.

But like a fool, I stood there in the middle of her backyard and called her name just in case, as loudly as I dared. I didn’t want to wake the grieving family inside the modest stucco home a few yards away.

“Mrs. Gutierrez?” I craned my neck, hissing the name into the darkness, trying to ignore the chill in the air… and in my heart. “Mrs. Gutierrez? Are you there? It’s me, Suze.…Mrs. Gutierrez?”

I wasn’t all that surprised when she didn’t show. I knew, of course, that he could make the undead disappear. I just never thought he’d be low enough to do it.

I should have known better.

A cold wind kicked up from the sea as I turned to face him. It tossed some of my long dark hair around my face until the strands finally ended up sticking to my lip gloss. But I had more important things to worry about.

“It’s her life savings,” I said to him, not caring if he noticed the throb in my voice. “All she had to leave to her kids.”

Paul shrugged, his hands buried deep in the pockets of his leather jacket.

“She should have put it in the bank, then,” he said.

Maybe if I reason with him, I thought. Maybe if I explain…“A lot of people don’t trust banks with their money—”

But it was no use.

“Not my fault,” he said with another shrug.

“You don’t even need the money,” I cried. “Your parents buy you whatever you want. Two thousand dollars is nothing to you, but to Mrs. Gutierrez’s kids, it’s a fortune!”

“She should have taken better care of it, then,” was all he said.

Then, apparently seeing my expression—though I don’t know how, since the clouds overhead were thicker than ever—he softened his tone.

“Suze, Suze, Suze,” he said, pulling one of his hands from his jacket pocket and moving to drape his arm across my shoulders. “What am I going to do with you?”

I didn’t say anything. I don’t think I could have spoken if I’d tried. It was hard enough just to breathe. All I could think about was Mrs. Gutierrez, and what he’d done to her. How could someone who smelled so good—the sharp clean scent of his cologne filled my senses—or from whom such warmth radiated—especially welcome, given the chill in the air and the relative thinness of my windbreaker—be so…

Well, evil?

“Tell you what,” Paul said. I could feel his deep voice reverberating through him as he spoke, he was holding me that close. “I’ll split it with you. A grand for each of us.”

I had to swallow down something—something that tasted really bad—before I could reply. “You’re sick.”

“Don’t be that way, Suze,” he chided. “You have to admit, it’s fair. You can do whatever you want with your half. Mail it back to the Gutierrezes, for all I care. But if you’re smart, you’ll use it to buy yourself a car now that you finally got your license. You could put a down payment on a decent set of wheels with that kind of change, and not have to worry about sneaking your mom’s car out of the driveway after she’s fallen asleep—”

“I hate you,” I snapped, twisting out from beneath his grip and ignoring the cold air that rushed in to meet the place where his body had been warming mine.

“No, you don’t,” he said. The moon appeared momentarily from behind the blanket of clouds overhead, just long enough for me to see that his lips were twisted into a lopsided grin. “You’re just mad because you know I’m right.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. Was he serious? “Taking money from a dead woman is the right thing to do?”

“Obviously,” he said. The moon had disappeared again, but I could tell from his voice that he was amused. “She doesn’t need it anymore. You and Father Dom. You’re a couple of real pushovers, you know. Now I’ve got a question for you. How’d you know what she was blathering about, anyway? I thought you were taking French, not Spanish.”

I didn’t answer him right away. That’s because I was frantically trying to think of a reply that wouldn’t include the word I least liked uttering in his presence, the word that, every time I heard it or even thought it, seemed to cause my heart to do somersaults over in my chest, and my veins to hum pleasantly.

Unfortunately, it was a word that didn’t exactly engender the same response in Paul.

Before I could think of a lie, however, he figured it out on his own.

“Oh, right,” he said, his voice suddenly toneless. “Him. Stupid of me.”

Then, before I could think of something to say that would lighten the situation—or at least get his mind off Jesse, the last person in the world I wanted Paul Slater to be thinking about—he said in quite a different tone, “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m beat. I’m gonna call it a night. See you around, Simon.”

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