Very special sneak peek of “Under Review”!

Happy May Day!

I hope you’re doing well, and if you live in the regions currently experiencing our annual Pollenocalypse, it’s not bothering you too much. All part of the beauty of spring in the South…

My BIG news is that I have, finally, started on Under Review, the working title for the next Rowena book. If you recall, the last book, Total Immersion, ended on rather a downbeat note, and now I need to start the long climb back up to some kind of semi-happy ending to the series story arc. But, I have to be honest, the path does not look like it will be smooth 🙂

And so, for your reading pleasure, I’m including the first draft of Under Review in this email. But first, a quick reminder that the audiobook of the first four books (with three bonus novellas!) is currently on deep discount. For a limited time, it’s $1.99 on Apple, and 99c on B&NChirp, and Google Play

If you’ve already read or listened to the collection and you feel moved to leave a review, that would be very much appreciated! The universal link is here.And now, with a long drumroll, we have, hot off the presses, the world premiere of the first chapter of Under Review
Just when I thought my life couldn’t get any worse, Madison came back into it.

I was coming back from a physical therapy session for my busted-up left knee when I spotted someone sitting on the stairs leading up to my apartment entrance.

Jeez, she looks familiar, I thought. And then: Nah, it can’t be. It’s gotta be someone else who looks kind of like her.

I should have known better. On the radio, Bruce Springsteen was belting his heart out about feeling like being on a downbound train as I pulled into the closest parking spot I could find, which should have been a warning. But, like a moron, I ignored it, got blithely—as blithely as a woman with a brace and crutches can get—out of the car, and started hobbling towards the two long flights of stairs currently looming like Everest between me and my apartment.

“Hey, Professor H! Whoa! What happened to you? Were you, like, in an accident or something?”

“Madison! What the f—what are you doing here?”

She unfolded herself from her seat on the stairs and came over to me in the coltish lope I remembered from when she’d been my student two years ago. Her straight brown hair was just as lank as it had been when she’d been sleeping her way through Intermediate Russian. As she came up to me, she wiped her nose on a raggedy sleeve. So maybe she was still doing coke like she’d been then too. You’d think nearly dying from an overdose while being chased by angry mobsters would be sufficient reason to stay clean, especially when your dad was paying for the best rehab money could buy. But Madison, I suspected, had gotten bored, the way people like Madison always would, and drugs were the only way she had to bring a little excitement into her carefully curated, lovingly organized, unspeakably dull and meaningless life.

“I got into a big fight with my dad—big surprise, right?” She rolled her eyes. “But this time my mom turned on me too.” She swiped at her nose again. Her wrists were much too bony and frail where they poked out from the sleeves of her ratty hoodie. She hugged herself as if cold, despite being wildly overdressed for the heat radiating off the blacktop at 2:15 in an August afternoon. In Georgia.

“Here.” I fished a tissue out of my purse and handed it to her, unable to stand the sight of her wiping her nose with her filthy sleeve any longer. “Was it about drugs?” I asked. “Are you doing coke again?”

“Jeez, Professor H!” The outrage in her voice seemed unfeigned. “I thought you’d trust me, at least, even though my dumbass parents don’t. I said I’d go clean, and I did!”

“Then why is your nose running like a leaky faucet?”

She shrugged. “Allergies, I guess. It started as soon as I got on the bus, it got even worse once I got off the bus, and it’s been going non-stop ever since.”

“Okay,” I said. Georgia was notoriously bad for allergies, that was true. “But you look awful, Madison. You must be twenty pounds underweight. Drugs seem like the best explanation.”

“Hey!” She stopped wiping her nose to give me a bright smile. “Can’t a girl have an eating disorder without getting sh—without getting a bunch of hassle over it?”

“No,” I said.

“Anyway,” she said, giving me another bright smile. “You’re one to talk, Professor H. You used to be super skinny back at TLASC, like you had an eating disorder or something too. And now you’re on crutches. Looks like you’re the one who needs to, like, practice some self-care or something.”

I resisted the urge to argue back that I hadn’t been unhealthily thin back in New Jersey, and that I hadn’t gained any weight since then. Well, not any appreciable weight. But I had the irritating feeling that she was dead right on both counts. I had been flirting with anorexia and overtraining until my knee nightmare had begun and I had had to stop running. Now I was finding myself surreptitiously checking my fly before going out in public to make sure the zipper hadn’t unzipped from the press of my expanding abdominal flesh.If pride and poverty hadn’t been such large stumbling blocks for me, I would have bought a new, larger wardrobe over the summer. But since pride and poverty both featured heavily in my decision-making process, I was still squeezing into the same three outfits I’d been wearing for close to half a decade now, and telling myself that getting serious about that diet would be good for my bottom line in both senses of the word.

“Probably we both need to practice some self-care,” I said, striving for just the right balance of patience, diplomacy, and conspiratorial cheerfulness in my voice.

“Yeah, whatevs,” said Madison. I guessed I had failed to hit that perfect balance I had been striving for. “So, your apartment’s, like, up at the top of the stairs, huh? Want some help getting up there? Can I carry something for you?”

“Um,” I said. “I guess. You still haven’t told me why you’re here.”

“I…” She hugged herself again, now looking distinctly frail and scared and much younger than—I calculated quickly—twenty-one. “I told you. I got into a big fight with my parents. Like, a really big fight. And then”—she looked away and scuffed the toe of her dirty sneaker on the sidewalk—“I, like, left. Like, I, like, I guess I kinda…ran away. Can you run away if you’re no longer a minor?” she asked, looking up again, her usual cockiness returning.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think so. Not exactly. But…your parents are probably looking for you, aren’t they?”

“Nah.” She wrinkled up her nose. “They said they were done with me. ‘Course, they say that kind of sh—stuff all the time. But this time I think they really meant it.”

“In my experience,” I said, “parents say all kinds of sh—stuff all the time without really meaning it. We need to tell them where you are.”

“No!” She actually took a step back at the idea. “No! They really…I really…and I don’t know who they are anymore! They’re not who I thought they are, Professor H, they really aren’t! Turns out they’ve been keeping all kinds of sh—secrets from me all along. ‘Specially my mom. Turns out I never knew who she really was. And, like, I mean that literally. Like, she kept all kinds of sh—stuff about our family secret, and now I don’t know who she is, I don’t know who I am…and, and, what I found out was so bad, I couldn’t, I couldn’t…”

Her skinny shoulders were starting to shake. “Hey,” I said. “Hey, it’s okay. We’ll get it sorted out. Let’s go inside and sit down and get something cold to drink, and we’ll get it sorted out. But first of all, let me just send a quick text to your dad that you’re safe. I’m sure he’s worried sick about you.”

“Hah!” said Madison.

“Well, at least it might keep me from getting sued for kidnapping or something,” I said.

“Yeah.” She was brightening up, recovering her composure. “He’s such a d—such a jerk he’d probably do something like that.”

“Mmm,” I said. I didn’t actually have such a low opinion of Erik Johnson, Madison’s father, but I was already starting to worry about the legal implications of having a former student and known drug user show up unannounced at my apartment, apparently on the run from her parents.

I carefully organized myself and my crutches, and pulled out my phone. Erik Johnson was still in my contacts. I’d just send him a quick text, then get me and Madison out of this sweltering heat and into the blessed AC, and come up with a plan that would solve everything, or at least get Madison off my hands.

A text notification was already up on my screen. I had a flash of paranoia, sure it was Erik Johnson telling me he knew about Madison and demanding to know why I was hiding her from him. But no. The message was in Russian, not English.

Dearest Inna, it read. Mama and I have an appointment with the American embassy for our visas ))))) Normally the wait time is 6-8 months, but because of her health they say they might be able to expedite it. And she has already spoken with a specialist at that clinic in Atlanta. We may be with you very soon )))) Hugs, Dima.
What could possibly happen next? Frankly, I only have the vaguest idea. I guess we’ll find out 🙂

Here are those links again to the discounted audiobook:
Google Play

Happy reading!

Sid Stark

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