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Meg Cabot



  For Benjamin



  The thing is, my luck’s always been rotten. Just look…


  “But you are not supposed to arrive until tomorrow!” Petra…


  Then one of the strangers, a girl whose jet-black hair…


  Great. Just great.


  “You can’t even see it,” Aunt Evelyn said. “Well, you…


  I blinked at her. Tory looked perfectly serious, leaning against…


  “Outta my way.”


  It was as I was pouring Mouche’s used-up cat litter…


  “What are you doing in my room?”


  “I cannot believe it.” Petra’s hand was shaking as she…


  It actually seemed that way—at least that day. That Tory’s…


  It started the next day.


  And for the rest of the week, things didn’t—get any…


  Well, what else was I supposed to do?


  The chimes over the shop door tinkled as I walked…


  I may have chronically bad luck—possibly brought on by my…


  Willem—Petra’s Willem—arrived that Wednesday, bringing with him gifts—a tiny, playable…


  I have a very special thank-you I’ve been saving up,…


  The doll had Dylan’s eyes.


  But the minute I sat up, she was gone. The…


  “Zach!” Tory cried, scrambling to her feet. “Oh my God!…


  My knee turned out to be deeply bruised, but not…








  The thing is, my luck’s always been rotten. Just look at my name: Jean. Not Jean Marie, or Jeanine, or Jeanette, or even Jeanne. Just Jean. Did you know in France, they name boys Jean? It’s French for John.

  And okay, I don’t live in France. But still. I’m basically a girl named John. If I lived in France, anyway.

  This is the kind of luck I have. The kind of luck I’ve had since before Mom even filled out my birth certificate.

  So it wasn’t any big surprise to me when the cab driver didn’t help me with my suitcase. I’d already had to endure arriving at the airport to find no one there to greet me, and then got no answer to my many phone calls, asking where my aunt and uncle were. Did they not want me after all? Had they changed their minds? Had they heard about my bad luck—all the way from Iowa—and decided they didn’t want any of it to rub off on them?

  But even if that were true—and as I’d told myself a million times since arriving at baggage claim, where they were supposed to have met me, and seeing no one but skycaps and limo drivers with little signs with everyone’s names on them but mine—there was nothing I could do about it. I certainly couldn’t go home. It was New York City—and Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Ted’s house—or bust.

  So when the cab driver, instead of getting out and helping me with my bags, just pushed a little button so that the trunk popped open a few inches, it wasn’t the worst thing that had ever happened to me. It wasn’t even the worst thing that had happened to me that day.

  I pulled out my bags, each of which had to weigh fifty thousand pounds, at least—except my violin case, of course—and then closed the trunk again, all while standing in the middle of East Sixty-ninth Street, with a line of cars behind me, honking impatiently because they couldn’t pass, due to the fact that there was a Stanley Steemer van double-parked across the street from my aunt and uncle’s building.

  Why me? Really. I’d like to know.

  The cab pulled away so fast, I practically had to leap between two parked cars to keep from getting run over. The honking stopped as the line of cars that had been waiting behind the cab started moving again, their drivers all throwing me dirty looks as they went by.

  It was all the dirty looks that did it—made me realize I was really in New York City. At last.

  And yeah, I’d seen the skyline from the cab as it crossed the Triboro Bridge…the island of Manhattan, in all its gritty glory, with the Empire State Building sticking up from the middle of it like a big glittery middle finger.

  But the dirty looks were what really cinched it. No one back in Hancock would ever have been that mean to someone who was clearly from out of town.

  Not that all that many people visit Hancock. But whatever.

  Then there was the street I was standing on. It was one of those streets that look exactly like the ones they always show on TV when they’re trying to let you know something is set in New York. Like on Law and Order. You know, the narrow three- or four-story brownstones with the brightly painted front doors and the stone stoops….

  According to my mom, most brownstones in New York City were originally single-family homes when they were built way back in the 1800s. But now they’ve been divided up into apartments, so that there’s one—or sometimes even two or more families—per floor.

  Not Mom’s sister Evelyn’s brownstone, though. Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Ted Gardiner own all four floors of their brownstone. That’s practically one floor per person, since Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Ted only have three kids, my cousins Tory, Teddy, and Alice.

  Back home, we just have two floors, but there are seven people living on them. And only one bathroom. Not that I’m complaining. Still, ever since my sister Courtney discovered blow-outs, it’s been pretty grim at home.

  But as tall as my aunt and uncle’s house was, it was really narrow—just three windows across. Still, it was a very pretty townhouse, painted gray, with lighter gray trim. The door was a bright, cheerful yellow. There were yellow flower boxes along the base of each window, flower boxes from which bright red—and obviously newly planted, since it was only the middle of April, and not quite warm enough for them—geraniums spilled.

  It was nice to know that, even in a sophisticated city like New York, people still realized how homey and welcoming a box of geraniums could be. The sight of those geraniums cheered me up a little.

  Like maybe Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Ted just forgot I was arriving today, and hadn’t deliberately failed to meet me at the airport because they’d changed their minds about letting me come to stay.

  Like everything was going to be all right, after all.

  Yeah. With my luck, probably not.

  I started up the steps to the front door of 326 East Sixty-ninth Street, then realized I couldn’t make it with both bags and my violin. Leaving one bag on the sidewalk, I dragged the other up the steps with me, my violin tucked under one arm. I deposited the first suitcase and my violin case at the top of the steps, then hurried back down for the second suitcase, which I’d left on the sidewalk.

  Only I guess I took the steps a little too fast, since I nearly tripped and fell flat on my face on the sidewalk. I managed to catch myself at the last moment by grabbing some of the wrought-iron fencing the Gardiners had put up around their trash cans. As I hung there, a little stunned from my near catastrophe, a stylishly dressed old lady walking what appeared to be a rat on a leash (only it must have been a dog, since it was wear
ing a tartan coat) passed by and shook her head at me. Like I’d taken a nosedive down the Gardiners’ front steps on purpose to startle her, or something.

  Back in Hancock, if a person had seen someone else almost fall down the stairs—even someone like me, who nearly falls down the stairs every single day—they would have said something like, “Are you all right?”

  In Manhattan, however, things were clearly different.

  It wasn’t until the old lady and her pet rat passed all the way by that I heard a click. Straightening—and finding that my hands were covered in rust from where I’d gripped the fence—I saw that the door to 326 East Sixty-ninth Street had opened, and that a young, pretty, blond girl was peering down at me from the top of the stoop.

  “Hello?” she said curiously.

  I forgot about the old lady and her rat and my near-pavement-dive. I smiled and hurried back up the steps. Even though I couldn’t quite believe how much she’d changed, I was so glad to see her—

  —and was so worried she wasn’t going to feel the same way about seeing me.

  “Hi,” I said. “Hi, Tory.”

  The young woman, very petite and very blond, blinked at me without recognition.

  “No,” she said. “No, I am not Tory. I am Petra.” For the first time, I noticed that the girl had an accent…a European one. “I am the Gardiners’ au pair.”

  “Oh,” I said uncertainly. No one had said anything to me about an au pair. Fortunately, I knew what one was, because of an episode of Law and Order I saw once, where the au pair was suspected of killing the kid she was supposed to be watching.

  I stretched my rust-stained right hand out toward Petra. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Jean Honeychurch. Evelyn Gardiner is my aunt….”

  “Jean?” Petra had reached out and automatically taken my hand. Now her grasp on it tightened. “Oh, you mean Jinx?”

  I winced, and not just at the girl’s hard grip—she was really strong for someone so little.

  No, I winced because my reputation had so clearly preceded me, if the au pair knew me as Jinx instead of Jean.

  “Right,” I said. Because what else could I do? So much for getting a fresh new start in a place where no one knew me by my less-than-flattering nickname. “My family calls me Jinx.”

  And would continue to do so forever, if I couldn’t turn my luck around.


  “But you are not supposed to arrive until tomorrow!” Petra cried.

  The tight ball of worry in my stomach loosened. Just a little.

  I should have known. I should have known Aunt Evelyn wouldn’t have completely forgotten about me.

  “No,” I said. “Today. I’m supposed to arrive today.”

  “Oh, no,” Petra said, still shaking my hand up and down. My fingers were losing all circulation. Also, the places I’d skinned grabbing the wrought-iron fence weren’t feeling too good, either. “I’m sure your aunt and uncle said tomorrow. Oh! They will be so upset! They were going to meet you at the airport. Alice even made a sign…. Did you come all this way by yourself? In a taxi? I am so sorry for you! Oh, my goodness, come in, come in!”

  With a heartiness that belied her delicate frame—but matched her handshake—Petra insisted on grabbing both of my bags, leaving my violin to me, and carrying them inside herself. Their extreme heaviness didn’t seem to bother her at all, and it only took me a couple of minutes to find out why, Petra being almost as big a talker as my best friend, Stacy, back home: Petra had moved from her native Germany to the United States because she’s studying to be a physical therapist.

  In fact, she told me she goes to physical therapy school every morning in Westchester, which is a suburb just outside of New York City, where, when she’s not in class, she has to lift heavy people and help them into spas, then teach them to use their arms and stuff again, after an accident or stroke.

  Which explained why she was so strong. Because of the lifting of heavy patients, and all.

  Petra was living with the Gardiners, paying for her room and board by caring for my younger cousins. Then, while the kids were in school every day, she went to Westchester to learn more physical therapy stuff. In another year, she’ll have her license and can get a job in a rehabilitation center.

  “The Gardiners have been so kind to me,” Petra said, carrying my suitcases to a third-floor guest room as if they didn’t weigh more than a couple of CDs.

  It didn’t even seem like it was necessary for Petra to take a breath between sentences. Amazingly, English was not even her first language.

  Which meant she could probably speak faster in her native tongue.

  “They even pay me three hundred dollars a week,” Petra went on. “Imagine, living in Manhattan rent-free, with all of your food paid for as well, and someone giving you three hundred dollars a week! My friends back home in Bonn say it is too good to be true. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner are like a mother and father to me now. And I love Teddy and Alice like they are my own children. Well, I am only twenty, and Teddy is ten, so I guess he could not be my son. But my own little brother, maybe. Here, now. Here is your room.”

  My room? I peered around the doorframe. Judging by the glimpses I’d had of the rest of the house on our way up the stairs, I knew I was going to be living in the lap of luxury for the next few months….

  But the room in which Petra set my bags down took my breath away. It was totally beautiful…white-walled with cream-and-gilt furniture, and pink silk drapes. There was a marble fireplace on one side—“It does not work, this one,” Petra informed me sadly, like I had been counting on a working fireplace in my new bedroom, or something—and a private bathroom on the other. Sunlight filtered through the windows, making a dappled pattern on the light pink carpeting.

  Of course, I knew right away something was wrong. This was the nicest bedroom I’d ever seen. It was a hundred times nicer than my bedroom back home. And I’d had to share that bedroom with Courtney and Sarabeth, my two younger sisters. This would, in fact, be my first time sleeping in a room of my own.


  And never in my life had I so much as entertained the idea of having my own bathroom.

  This was just not possible.

  But I could tell from the casual way Petra was going around, flicking imaginary dust off things, that it was possible. Not just possible, but…the way things were.

  “Wow,” was all I could say. It was the first word I’d been able to get in since Petra had begun speaking, down at the front door.

  “Yes,” Petra said. She thought I meant the room. But really, I’d meant…well, everything. “It is very nice, yes? I have my own apartment in this house, with a private entrance—downstairs, you know? The ground floor. You probably did not see it. The door is underneath the stoop to the townhouse. There is also a back door to the garden. It is a little private apartment. I have my own kitchen, too. The children come down at night sometimes, and I help them with their homework, and sometimes we watch the TV together, all snug. It is very nice.”

  “You’re not kidding,” I breathed. Mom had told me that Aunt Evelyn and her family were doing well—her husband, my uncle Ted, had recently gotten a promotion to president of whatever company it was he worked for, while Evelyn, an interior decorator, had added a couple of supermodels to her client list.

  Still, nothing could have prepared me for…this.

  And it was mine. All mine.

  Well, for the time being, anyway. Until I messed it up, somehow.

  And, me being me, I knew that wouldn’t take long. But I could still enjoy it while it lasted.

  “Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner will be so sorry they were not home to greet you,” Petra was saying as she went to the side of the king-sized bed and began fastidiously fluffing the half-dozen pillows beneath the tufted headboard. “And they’ll be even sadder that they got the days mixed up. They are both still at work. Teddy and Alice will be home from school soon, though. They are both very excited their cousin Jinx is coming to stay. Alice h
as made you a sign to welcome you. She was going to hold it at the airport when they greeted you, but now…well, perhaps you could hang it on the wall here in your room? You must pretend to be pleased by it, even if you are not, because she worked very hard on it. Mrs. Gardiner did not put anything on your walls, you see, because she wanted to wait to see what you are like. She says it has been five years since they last saw you!”

  Petra looked at me in wonder. Apparently, families in Germany lived a lot closer and visited one another a lot more often than families in the U.S…. or my family, anyway.

  I nodded. “Yes, that sounds about right. Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Ted last came to visit when I was eleven….” My voice trailed off. That’s because I’d just noticed that in the massive bathroom, the fixtures were all brass and shaped like swan necks, with the water coming out of the bird’s carved beak. Even the towel bar had swan wings on the ends. My mouth was starting to feel a little dry at the sight of all this luxury. I mean, what had I ever done to deserve all this?

  Nothing. Especially lately.

  Which was actually why I was in New York.

  “What about Tory?” I asked, in an effort to change the subject. Better not to think about why it is I’m here in New York and not back in Hancock. Especially since every time I did, that pesky knot in my stomach clenched. “When does she get home from school?”

  “Oh,” Petra said.

  This “Oh,” however, was different from all the others Petra had let out. I noticed right away. Also, whereas before Petra had been speaking with undisguised enthusiasm, now she looked down and said uneasily, with a shrug, “Oh, Tory is home from school already. She is in the back, in the garden, with her friends.”